Based on Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama
Story and Art by dragongarrow LEE
Translated by Stephan Koza
It’s easy to assume that That Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha is centered around jokes at the titular Dragon Ball character’s expense. Yamcha has become a meme over the years for all the humiliating losses he endures and is considered the weakest and most pathetic of the Z-Fighters. The iconic image of his death, lying face-down in the dirt at the bottom of a crater after being killed by an exploding Saibaman (known as Cultivars in the Viz translation) has become the defining moment of his character; there’s even been figurines and even t-shirts made featuring it! Whenever Dragon Ball is discussed in other media like Gintama, Yamcha is always mocked disparagingly. Even modern Dragon Ball media like the Dragon Ball Super anime are in on the joke; an entire episode is devoted to making Yamcha the butt of humiliating physical comedy, and a subplot in the Tournament of Power arc depicts Yamcha excitedly waiting for Goku to invite him onto the Universe 7 team, not realizing that everyone’s forgotten about him. Viz’s marketing of the series also plays up the humiliation of someone being reincarnated as Yamcha, with the blurb on the back cover of the volume referring to him as “everyone’s favorite punching bag” and joking “from the crater he rises!” These days Yamcha is treated less as a character and more as a joke by both fans and the people creating Dragon Ball, and at first glance, this one-off manga seems like it’d follow in that trend.
Yet, despite all appearances, That Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha isn’t about the humiliation of being Yamcha. Rather, it’s a love letter to Dragon Ball from the perspective of a megafan, having fun imagining how to take one of its most ill-fated characters and changing his fate. Despite the protagonist’s initial disappointment with becoming Yamcha, lamenting not being reincarnated as someone stronger, he refuses to give up on creating a better life for both himself and the character. The story becomes a fascinating exercise in imagining how to manipulate the series’ lore to maximize Yamcha’s strength before his fateful battle with the Saiyans and Cultivars, brilliantly exploiting the tools that’d be available to him if he had the same knowledge of future events, places, and characters any Dragon Ball fan would. The story is empathetic towards Yamcha, treating him as worthy of respect and happiness, and revels in victoriously changing his fate. It’s an optimistic story, taking a philanthropic philosophy to the Dragon World, as the main character strives to save not just Yamcha but the rest of the Z-Fighters from their deaths, improving the Dragon Ball world for the better. The protagonist’s conflict juggling his personal happiness while preserving what he loves about Dragon Ball is fun to watch, particularly when it comes to the choices he makes involving Bulma and Vegeta, ultimately sacrificing his desires for the characters he loves. This manga is about Dragon Ball fans being able to be a part of the series they love, sharing their experiences and bonding over what the series means to them.
dragongarrow LEE clearly has a lot of love for Dragon Ball, and his enthusiasm at being able to write a story in its world shines through in both his writing and art. Dialogue from scenes in the original manga is replicated word for word, a detail preserved in Viz’s translation. While the story primarily focuses on the Saiyan arc, it references many other parts of Dragon Ball and even takes opportunities to explore fun “what-if” scenarios including how Yamcha got his notoriously terrible haircut in the Cell arc and what a possible fusion between Yamcha and Chaotzu would look like. LEE’s loving attention to the details of Dragon Ball shines through most in his astonishingly nuanced artwork. LEE doesn’t simply recreate Toriyama’s art style, he replicates what his style looked like in every different part of the story. Toriyama didn’t have a consistent style throughout Dragon Ball; it changed over the years he was drawing the story, and LEE’s art reflects that. The portions of the manga set in early Dragon Ball features simpler and rounder character designs, then the portion of the story during the Saiyan arc features dramatically sharper linework and the more detailed muscle-focused designs, and then in the Cell arc the designs become more angular relying on more rectangular shapes and sparser lines, all accurately replicating how the series actually looked in those parts of the story. Even his art style for the sections set in the real world references Toriyama, replicating the aesthetics and design sensibilities of Masakazu Katsura, Toriyama’s friend and artistic collaborator on several manga he’s written. LEE’s artistic fidelity is so impressive that he even adapts settings like Namek that are visited earlier than they would normally appear in the story in the art style appropriate to the timeline. There are some lapses in the illusion; for instance, his depictions of Cell and Buu resemble Toriyama’s modern slender and sleek art style more than how he originally drew them. Still, the consistency in LEE’s art is incredible, and his ability to replicate multiple different art styles accurately and seamlessly switch between them without it feeling jarring establishes him as a phenomenally versatile artist, and an artistic genius much like Toriyama himself.
After so many years of being mocked and ridiculed, It’s refreshing to see a story where Yamcha is the one laughing instead of being laughed at. That Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha is a good, light-hearted comedy about never giving up on living your best life that gleefully indulges in its love of Dragon Ball. Admittedly, the manga isn’t the most accessible to those unfamiliar with the series, since much of Yamcha’s humor and emotional core is predicated on appreciating how LEE subverts the story while honoring its history. That said, fans of the franchise will find a lot to love in its revisionist tale and satisfaction in a self-contained one-volume story that stays true to the spirit of Dragon Ball and does right by its characters. It’s only regrettable that the manga isn’t longer since its premise is brimming with potential that LEE can’t explore to its fullest extent; the entirety of early Dragon Ball, where Yamcha has the most active role, is sadly skipped over in favor of focusing on the Saiyan and Cell arcs. That Time I Got Reincarnated as Yamcha leaves you feeling wanting more manga from LEE and more stories about Yamcha, a good sign of its success in redeeming the character and establishing LEE as one of the most promising new artists in manga. Yamcha might have risen from the crater, but I have a feeling that LEE is going rise to heights even greater in the future, and am looking forward to seeing where his story goes next.