After close to 20 years since its predecessor concluded, Dragon Ball Super (the official canonical sequel to Dragon Ball Z) has arrived on American shores and given us 20 episodes thus far. While Dragon Ball Z has never truly left fans’ minds, either from nostalgic memory or the fifteen animated films (plus the live action abomination Evolution), many had to assume its time was over. Yet, creator Akira Toriyama decided to return to his beloved creation and so Dragon Ball Super was born…
Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball manga premiered in December 1984 and ran to June 1995. It was a huge hit, and inspired an anime two years later. Pitched as a gag manga, Dragon Ball played more as a comedic fantasy tale starring Son Goku and his friends searching for the mythical Dragon Balls which could grant any wish once all seven were found. While it was a hit in its own right, its sequel series was the one that cemented the characters and their exploits in the 90’s zeitgeist.
Dragon Ball Z, while featuring many of the same characters, focused much more on science fiction and fighting which may be one reason why it proved more popular. What I think is the real reason, and what might explain how the properties have endured for literally decades, is the plot and the characters are always moving forward. Son Goku finds the Dragon Balls, becomes a champion martial artist, then the guardian of Earth, has a wife and son of his own, then goes on to even more legendary adventures.
By the time Super takes place, Goku and his friends are enjoying another period of peace. So much so that the show focuses more on family drama for Goku and Vegeta (his constant rival/friend/former enemy) as they spend time with their sons and try to make their wives happy. Its a drastic turn from the evil villains threatening to destroy the planet or turn everyone into candy. In fact, Super brings back Goku’s former enemy from his childhood, Emperor Pilaf.
Mainly for comedy, as he and his bumbling cohorts try to wish for world domination. Which is another difference between Z and Super, Super feels much more like Dragon Ball the original than Z itself. While fighting remains a huge focus in Super, its presented heavily along with humor and (Goku’s) family drama. Goku’s wife Chi Chi wants him to become a farmer to support her and his second son Goten, while Goku can only wish to begin training for his future battles. Vegeta is slowly acclimating to being a father to his son Trunks, but is determined to catch up to Goku’s skill level. Both of them get the chance to fulfill their goals with the arrival of Beerus the Destroyer.
While many of Toriyama’s villains had nefarious goals or personalities (Frieza, Cell, Doctor Gero, etc), Beerus is relatively benign. Sure he’ll destroy a planet if the mood strikes him, but can also be bribed with tasty food or the most comfortable pillow in the universe. Beerus crosses paths with Goku and Vegeta while searching for a prophetical super sayian god, who is destined to challenge his god-like power. With their families in danger and the fate of Earth in the balance, Goku tries his hardest to defeat Beerus. Even briefly attaining a measure of god-like power himself, Goku still can’t win.
In a rare act of mercy, Beerus spares Goku and Earth from his wraith, albeit by pretending his battle with Goku had exhausted him to sleep. This turn of good fortune is followed by Beerus’ servant and traveling companion, Whis, agreeing to train Goku and Vegeta to become as strong as Beerus himself! Which will come in handy, as one of their deadliest enemies, Freiza, has returned from the dead!!
Super takes an odd path in its plotting, revisiting the past both literally and figuratively, almost bringing the property back to its roots as a comedic fantasy. Its worth mentioning that the anime is based on Toriyama’s notes, rather than an actual manga which Toriyama is developing in tandem with the show. It’s interesting, if only because it shows how expedited the production of Super is: its fourth episode was universally panned for his lackluster animation quality and a marked difference for the episodes before and after it.
Years ago, when Toonami was a juggernaut on Cartoon Network and a gateway to anime to many school age children in America, Dragon Ball Z was the clear favorite against a handful of other anime that lacked its flair. Now, Z has inspired many, many other manga/animes of the Shonen (boy’s genre in Japanese terms) variety that emulated its formula: a goofy protagonist with a good heart who works hard to become a great fighter, along with a wide cast of distinct friends. Naruto, Shaman King, and others could trace their roots to what Akira Toriyama did decades ago. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shows how influential his works are to this day. Amidst everything that has followed his previous works, can Toriyama strike gold again with this followup?
The competition is steeper, and tastes in audience is much sharper too. People have grown up with anime, and sampled many different shows to form their favorites. Indeed, access is much easier to subtitled dubs thanks to the internet, allowing fans across the planet to watch an episode right after it premiers in Japan.
In spite of all that, Dragon Ball Super has impressed so far. It’s pacing is brisk, the threats are striking, and the characters are as engaging as they were in the 90’s. Then again, I was inclined to like the show before I even watched it: I would race home after school in order to catch the latest episode of Dragon Ball Z so I wouldn’t fall behind the story.
It’s unlikely to capture that same fervor that Z did in the 90’s, but then again, it’s a different world now. Standards are higher, and television offers a lot of captivating shows both animated and live-action. I don’t think its beyond the realm of the possible though for Super to carve out its own niche in history for its singular merits, and be instrumental in shaping a new generation’s tastes for anime.