Fight The Dragon: Guilty Pleasures, Dragon Ball, and Rationalization
I wish I could be one of those people who say that they don’t believe in guilty pleasures. We should like what we like without any inherent shame in doing so, that is our right after all. Okay, yes, obviously there are some extreme examples (with appropriate legal ramifications) but as far as things intended for pure entertainment, the idea that others’ ideas of quality should influence our immediate enjoyment of a novel, television show, movie, comic, game, etc. is ridiculous. And yet, here I am; ashamed as the result of my own endearment to a popular international franchise. You see, despite my own critical thought processes, I have tremendous affinity for the ridiculous phenomenon that is…Dragon Ball. Here’s the hook, whatever semblance of objectivity I have when it comes to evaluating work tells me that this franchise is just straight up not very good. Is it still okay to like it? Of course, but I legitimately have no idea why I actually do. Is it important to justify one’s interest in something to others? No. How about to yourself? Maybe? Clearly, it’s a conundrum for me and perhaps it is for you too, but while the idea of mindless entertainment is alright on the surface layer, it’s not an excuse to completely turn off your brain and just let a Kamehameha of nonsense hit you in the face without at least taking into consideration why it is you’re perfectly content to let it do so. I’m not saying, I’m just super saiyan.
I won’t pretend to be an expert of all things Toriyama, or for manga and anime at all for that matter. If anything they’re both huge blind spots for me. Can I get real with you for a second? Like, really real? I haven’t even read or seen universally heralded Akira. My nerd card is fully ready to be revoked, I know. But starting with seeing images of these spiky yellow-haired figures in game magazines and on posters in friends’ rooms, I had always been fascinated by this oddly named Dragon Ball Z. It seemed foreign to the more Western based films and comics I readily consumed for most of my formative years, specifically the sharp angular style and design choices. So there was always that, the idea of a whole realm of something just barely familiar to the superhero aesthetic that I adored presented in a unique (to me) manner. Nothing wrong with that.
By the time I actually got around to seeing the actual show, brought to American shores at some god forsaken early hour of the morning on Saturdays, it instantly grabbed me. There was an established history (what would of course turn out to be, unbeknownst to my nascent awareness, the original Z-less Dragon Ball) rife with colorful characters and now here they are introducing this idea of alien races, which was news to both me and the characters themselves. Boom! I was getting in on the ground floor of awesomeness, I figured. Regardless of the early hours, I watched the show religiously each week and eventually the first order of American episodes was finished and I was heartbroken. What happens next?!?! Where the ever loving fuck is the yellow hair transformations I’ve been anticipating?!?! I felt like I could have gone full Oozaru on my television when my new beloved friends disappeared without warning.
Eventually, it returned to much success on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block and you can surely find online all the details on the behind the scenes gymnastics that Funimation was going through at the time. It eventually concluded its full run about the time I was graduating high school. Okay, so there’s a nostalgic affinity involved in my adoration; the sense of discovering a whole new alien world of characters, powers, locations, themes, etc. vaguely resembling the punch-heavy superhero genre I was already fully on board for. Then of course I was watching it as I entered and progressed through DBZ’s target demographic: adolescent boys. That all explains why I liked it then of course, but here’s what I’m struggling with now: I still fucking love this thing.
I’ve probably re-watched the whole anime run, movies included, several times since I graduated college and thanks to Viz, I’ve read through the entire manga as well. I saw the work with a new perspective as we often do when looking back at our childhood favorites, like watching episodes of G.I. Joe now, where it’s almost comical how atrociously awful that show actually was (come at me!) and I would chuckle, shrug my shoulder’s and say “meh, it was awesome when I was nine.” But with DBZ, I get legitimately excited all over again despite the glaring problems and this is the crux of my inner turmoil. I can’t write it off as something I merely enjoyed as a kid, because it gets me just as pumped now as it did then. I’m not letting that adrenaline blind me to the valid criticisms because they’re my own criticisms. There’s no outside influence on my level of enjoyment or shame here, I feel angry at myself for liking it and that frustration has led to this piece you’re reading now as I go on a journey of discovery as to exactly what the hell is happening inside my brain.
What pray tell are those aforementioned criticisms? For starters, saying DBZ is formulaic would be akin to saying that that Jack Kirby guy could draw pretty okay. Structurally each of the major arcs is virtually identical, with increasingly threatening foes presenting an nigh insurmountable challenge until a hero finds miraculous inner strength at the last possible moment. Stakes are rarely impactful as the universe is operating on one of contrivances and conveniences; there are orbs that summon a magical wishing dragon that can make consequences disappear. The deus ex machina is in the damn title! The characters are largely one-dimensional with little in the line of sensible motivations. The overall message can essentially be boiled down to “fighting solves all problems” and that is certainly troubling. Then there are the major issues of offensive racial caricatures (I’m looking at you Mr. Popo) and the handling of most female characters throughout. Women are often the butts of jokes (pun intended) and while Bulma may be brilliant, she’s also more often seen being shallow and a liability to the real heroes trying to get their important work of hitting things done. There are exceptions, but it’s hardly a balanced approached in how men and women are portrayed throughout. I don’t speak Japanese so I’m willing to admit there could be some finer nuances lost in translation from the original work to what has reached our screens, but let’s not go nuts and assume that there was some Shakespearean level wordplay at work just before Goku eats a senzu bean and continues glowing and punching. In all, it’s simple structurally and thematically and it is unquestionably a work for Boys that perpetuates a lot of troubling societal norms for how said boys act and interact with the world beyond the work.
And yet…and yet…there’s still something about it. Overriding it all is the undeniable sense of family between this spiky haired hero and his friends. It’s everything we love about the Fantastic Four except it’s a group made up of primarily former adversaries. There’s the constant idea of redemption; that any and all foes no matter how indispensably evil they are, can become an ally. So much of the conflict is surface layer Good vs. Evil schlock, but still Toriyama made a point of ensuring that they are not immutable states. It’s charming in its innocence and desire for hope. Oh, and the pervading role of legacy throughout. DBZ has more legacy in it than a DC fan’s wet dream. Fathers and sons, one generation of defenders to the next, it’s sappy and wonderful all at once even in its simplistic presentation. For a story that started out as a spin off the classic Chinese myth Journey to the West, it certainly prided itself in upping the grandeur with each installment: fights traverse not just worlds, but the afterlife itself. The cast grew by dozens, even if diversity amongst them wasn’t particularly well handled, to a degree that strengthen the familial bonds and added a multitude of whatever fodder was needed for a given arc. But fodder or not, they always did it together even when the odds were literally impossible. Jesus, look at me, I’m already waxing poetic about this thing. Don’t you dare get me started on Vegeta because he is the literally the greatest and when he finally has his major dramatic reversal of realizing he cares for others, son, I don’t even care how horrible a message that really is, that shit was gospel.
I appreciate your patience of reading this far and seeing this tumultuous attempt at rationalization. The troubling aspects of this mega-franchise are impossible for me to ignore and my adoration for it isn’t something I can casually toss aside as nostalgia driven, even if it does admittedly play a small part. While this is a far cry for a detailed analysis of all the aspects that comprise this immensely popular franchise, it’s what immediately springs to mind as I grasp for some semblance of self-acceptance. This is a guilty pleasure of mine no matter how much I wish I didn’t believe in that concept. It’s okay to like something that isn’t remotely near what your own standards of quality are. It’s even okay to like something that has problematic qualities, so long as you put in some time to acknowledge that they’re there and they can’t be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Mindless entertainment serves a purpose even if it may not exactly help ourselves grow, but it’s important to recognize that this is what’s happening. The world changes and with it, its context, and in turn so do our tastes and our perspective. If something still speaks to you even after all that change, you owe it to yourself to explore why that is. Our guilty pleasures should never be about liking something that you feel others are judging you for liking, but rather reserved for things that we find discordant with our own judgment. Fuck what other people think about it, what do you think about it? Then feel free to drop a Spirit Bomb of truth on yourself before proceeding to absolutely revel in the ridiculous over-the-top glory that is your own version of Dragon Ball Z affection. Before you chase the dragon, rock the dragon, y’all.