I’m in a Dragon Ball sort of mood lately. I think it has something to do with a recent playthrough of Chrono Trigger, but regardless, I’m in the mood for some sensational shonen escapism. Maybe it has something to do with having a kid or the never-ending stream of nostalgia I feel, but the properties of my youth have all been slowly coming back to me as of late, and I can’t think of many that had a larger effect on me than Akira Toriyama’s omnibus.
Dragon Ball was my life at one point. Every day at 5:00pm, boom, I was in front of the television watching Goku brawl it out with the worst of the worst baddies. And when he wasn’t, I was daydreaming about where the story would go, how I would write my own stories, cruising the net at 56K internet speeds for images and games, and imagining myself fighting alongside him from 1996 until about 2003, when I graduated high school.
And you can imagine the trauma I suffered when Cartoon Network reset the series before Goku finished off Frieza. One of the worst heartbreaks of my life, and I experienced it TWICE!
But that’s how it is. Dragon Ball is just like life. It has its ups, its downs, its inspiration moments, its dull lags, and if you line up the stories in order, they follow the string of growing up just like every child. Granted, it was probably designed like this to appeal to an audience that grew up alongside of it, but its freaky how well this story falls in line with how my life, and maybe yours, played out for thirty years.
Life begins as one grand adventure into the vast unknown. You are born into this world with no social experience, no knowledge of our surroundings, and no contact with other humans besides the heartbeats of our mothers. You are, for all purposes, a force of nature and the consequence of reproduction, a feral being similar to a boy lost in the woods. You gain experience and knowledge with each new person you encounter, and over time, you become more socially aware thank to those who enter your life.
And you have no idea where life will take you at this point. In your early childhood, life always seems to throw conflict or adventure at you, as opposed to seeking it out yourself. A mysterious girl shows up on your doorstep looking for love, and all of sudden, you find yourself whisked on a quest across the planet, never once having left your safety zone or the comfort of your forest. An old geezer shows you a few fighting tricks, rival fighters show up to push your limits, like-minded innocents enter your life and both learn from and teach you.
You grow, adapt, and change to fit the world around you, becoming more confident with each adventure of your place in the world. The people you meet might be scary or treat you poorly at first, but as time goes by, it becomes easier to see which of these people are good-natured and kind-hearted, worthy of putting your differences aside and being called this new idea of “friends.” These people will play with you, adventure with you, grow alongside you, and ultimately, greatly shape the path of your early confusing years as you navigate together.
Likewise, with more experience, the easier it becomes to see those who are beyond redemption. Those not worthy of your friendship, those ones would label “bad.” Hopefully, unlike Goku, you avoid these people and don’t pick fights with them. Remember, you’re just a kid, after all.
On your adventures, you gather a great deal of knowledge about concepts you never once dreamed of in your cozy house in the forest. The idea of the opposite gender is a huge mystery and the curiosity of sex starts to settle in, one of the biggest and most blatant themes of early Dragon Ball.
On an even bigger note, the concept of death also finds its way to you. One day, your grandfather just doesn’t wake up, and you wonder why. A friend, possibly an offensive young native American stereotype, loses a father, and you wonder why he is sad. A person explains death to you, and you wonder where loved ones go after they leave this Earth.
You wonder if there is a way to bring them back. In the rules of Dragon Ball, you can… sometimes. In real life, it’s not so simple, but the hope that you will someday meet again remains. Soon, that hope starts to fade, and you embrace loss just as much as you embrace your gains.
At that point… you’ve grown up just a little.
Once you hit the age of about nine, the world starts to make a little more sense. The adventures come to an end, the mystery of life evaporates, and while still fresh and bright-eyed, you have a firm grasp of your surroundings and, more importantly, your role in these surroundings.
You’ve taken a first step into a larger world.
You start to become more self-aware of your interests, whether they are video games or martial arts, and suddenly, you start to focus more on these core beliefs rather than simply taking what the world throws at you. You examine your past and play up your strengths up until this point.
What is it people like best about you? Are you a funny person? Are you a creative person? Are you a strong person? Did the sales of your manga spike whenever you held a martial arts tournament?
Perhaps you were never meant to be an adventure show at all. Perhaps fart and sex jokes will only get you so far. Perhaps… maybe, just maybe, you were supposed to be an action show all along! Bingo!
Out go the adventures, in comes the action, the pivotal change in Dragon Ball’s life is when it added a “Z” onto the end of it and changed its whole tune.
You start to apply a little logic to your grand story. Questionable logic, but logic nonetheless. Thanks to your newfound awareness, you explain yourself in far more detail than when you were a child, create stories to better justify your background, and really dig into those mysteries you uncovered as a kid. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I like the way I am? Why do I have a tail and nobody else does?
Oh, I’m an alien! I’m so different from everyone else, I must be.
Oh, I have a brother I never knew about? That’s not as farfetched or uncommon as you might think.
Oh, my race of aliens are brutal murderers who blow up entire planets at a time. Well, that’s not so cool, but at least it’s an explanation. Guess I gotta fight them or turn my back on everything I’ve learned in life.
Numbers start to matter more, and people judge you by them. Scores on your tests, power levels on your fighting abilities. It’s like you’ve become defined by digits, but you know your so much more beneath.
And despite of your harder, edgier approach to things, at this age, you still have the freedom to dip back into those innocent years for some true fun without being judged too harshly. Maybe you watch a cartoon about hunting down some wish balls or catching monsters from time to time. Maybe you play an old video game or board game that made you happy in your youth, your first pings of nostalgia. Maybe you trip off Snake Way and fall into a colorful, playful version of Hell. Maybe you rescue a group of orphans and misfits from bullies like you used to in the olden days.
Maybe you get stuck on a small planet, and your martial arts training involves catching an annoying monkey or smacking a bug on the head with a hammer… while a fat, greasy god laughs at you from the sidelines.
The Saiyan Saga is the peak of all Dragon Ball because it best blends the humor and carefree nature of the past and the gritty, hardcore action of the future far better than any other point in the franchise. Likewise, ages nine through twelve are usually remembered as the happiest for most people.
However, when times get tough, you do rise to the challenge, and those friends you made as kids will stand by you. At this age, you’ve likely kept a solid crew of companions who you haven’t outgrown just yet. Some might have pursued other passions. Some might have fallen behind you in terms of skill, and some might have fallen off the deep end, but each person you’ve met on your journey still plays a vital role, whether it was a friend you might have totally forgotten about, your oldest rival turned into your strongest supporter, or your fat, useless, sword-swinging buddy who end up slicing off the tail of a renegade Saiyan prince.
Friendship is still something you value at this age, and you want to keep the people who matter close to you. You’re not ready to cast off those you’ve outgrown yet, so much so, that you’ll travel to a distant planet to ensure their return.
Your Entry into Puberty
Alas, these happy years don’t last. You must leave this era behind as nature takes its course, pumping hormones into your body, forcing you to grow hair in weird places, to change the shape of your body, and to show the cracks in your personality.
Puberty is promised to you by parents and teachers to be just another fun, exciting new adventure for you to take in your life, and at first, it all falls into place! You are finally starting to grow! You’re going to change! You are finally going to be the adult you always dreamed of becoming! Another new horizon, another new adventure! I mean, you’re going through a growth spurt, you won the fight against the Saiyans, your voice is starting to change (maybe because of a swap in localization companies), and you have a whole new planet to track down the Dragon Balls on!
This is going to be a rip-roaring time, and before you know it, life will be different and better!
WRONG! It is at this age, you start to realize the inescapable repetition of life, the ebbs and flows of a daily routine, the nature of boredom, the never-ending drag towards your goals. This endless, never ceasing cycle produces days that all start to seem the same, one after another, again, again, and again, no differences between the previous and the next, like an alien world where every being is a green twin of one another.
Schoolwork starts to take a toll on your fun, and your adventure starts to feel like a chore. Geez, another flippin’ Dragon Ball? Can’t I just find these things now? Why does this week feel like an eternity? Why do I have to be in front of my television at 5:00pm watching cartoons every day or I feel like I missed out on something? Why do these fights drag on for so long?!
These questions aren’t half as fun as the questions you asked on your youthful adventures. Remember when a shapeshifting pig used to get the better of you? Remember when you used to outsmart dinosaurs and squabble with old perverts who hang out on island beaches? Well, now your life has become one fight after another after another. The fight, the loss, the recovery, the win, the next fight, the next loss, and so on…
The greatest flaw in your character… finally revealed.
Procrastination starts to set in during this time as your experiences teach you that putting off work is the most effective way to avoid doing it. “Five minutes, mom” Five minutes until I start to do my homework! Five minutes until my favorite television show is over!
Five minutes before the whole planet blows up! Geez, can’t you wait!? It’s not going to take that long!”
New colorful characters start to enter your life, and you wonder… would I have found these lunatics funnier when I was a child? The mystery towards death you felt as a child no longer exists, but rather, it is now is fully embraced as loved ones start reaching an age where you might lose one or two. The green men, they are eradicated, blown to pieces, hunted down to extinction. The death of a villain no longer has meaning since it has become commonplace, at least one every episode.
A writer of a television show has a quota of episodes and manga volumes he clearly needs to meet, and he needs fodder to plod it out… gotta fight a new bad guy!
And yet, you’re still not quite there yet. Not quite a teenager. You have hints of your past still intact, you can still be a little fun from time to time, and you keep a few of those closest friends around.
To make that shift into a darker, more cynical age, you need to let go of your innocence and embrace something new… anger. Winning a big basketball game, scoring huge on a science project, defeating the maniacal tyrant of an intergalactic empire. At some point, you’re going to have to just let go of your youth to achieve something great and it’s going to anger and frustrate you immensely. Life isn’t easy anymore, and you’ll have to study, practice, or train hard to get there.
The climax of your childhood, the goal you’ve been building up to for years, possibly 104 long, repetitive, episodes…
And you did it! Congratulations! You conquered and graduated from your youth. Everything you built up towards has been achieved! If you were any old manga series you could happily wrap it all here, and you’re audience would not mind one bit. But you’re not just any manga. Dragon Ball is life, and the show must go on… and manga volumes must sell.
Frustrated as you became, that impact left a huge mark on your soul, and as your youth fizzles away, you are left with something darker on the inside…
…an edgy teenager. What does that mean? Find out next time, on Dragon Ball Z!!!!!!