SAA, NEGAI O IE. DONNA NEGAI MO HITOTSU DAKE KANAETE YAROU.
(COME THEN, STATE YOUR WISH. I SHALL GRANT YOU ANY ONE WISH.)
When Kathleen and I lived in Pittsburgh, I had made the acquaintance of a gentleman named Michael Collins. Mr. Collins was quite an anime enthusiast, and I often referred to him as our anime "pusher", as he had a fairly large collection and was willing to loan tapes to get us hooked into various shows. People can blame him for my having knowledge of quite a number of shows, including Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyo!, and… Dragonball/Dragonball Z (just Dragon Ball as the manga, Dragonball and Dragonball Z in the anime form)
For the probably few readers who don't know what Dragon Ball is, a capsule (that's an advance pun) summary:
Take Journey to the West, add in some juvenile humor, mix in a heavy dose of wuxia films and pieces of every bit of pop culture through the 1980s, and you get… this. Son Goku, a wild-haired tailed boy, is run into (literally) by a blue-haired teenage girl named Bulma, who is searching for the mystical "Dragonballs"; when gathered together, the seven Dragonballs can be used to summon forth the great Dragon, Shen-Long, who will grant the summoner any one wish. Goku has the number four ball, which used to belong to his deceased grandfather, and won't part with it, so Bulma convinces him to come with her.
Thus begins a journey that covers decades of in-universe time and follows Goku from his beginning as an incredibly tough but vulnerable boy (an axe breaks on his head, but it HURTS, and he has to avoid more powerful weapons) to what may be the most powerful warrior being in the history of fiction, capable of shattering planets as side-effects, ripping asunder the fabric of spacetime, or even – literally – teleporting from the other side of death itself.
In some ways, Akira Toriyama's Dragonball/DBZ is the Skylark series of anime and manga. It has much of the same cheerful, full-speed-ahead energy, the same innocence of the protagonists, the same fairly simple, blunt-instrument approach to moral problems… and the same incredibly-escalating powerscale. It may not be the BEST of its kind, and perhaps many of the pieces were there beforehand, but it was the one that put them all together first. This is a series in which the battles start out being fought on a hand-to-hand level that looks like a Jackie Chan film – in other words, just a little beyond what real humans can do – and ends with a fight against a being who destroys solar systems as casually as a human being might step on ants.
The anime, especially sections of Dragonball Z, gained an unfortunately deserved reputation as "Drag-on-Brawl Zzzzzz" by s t r e t c h i n g the plotline out terribly compared to the manga; a sequence that took only a few pages of manga once was stretched out to three episodes, mostly consisting of Goku trying to prepare a particular attack and people trying to keep the enemy distracted long enough to allow Goku to finish. Creation of such "filler" is not uncommon in manga-based anime; the anime can be produced in general much faster than the mangaka can produce the manga, so unless the manga starts with a HUGE head-start, eventually the anime overtakes the manga and either they must create "filler adventures" to give the manga another chance to get ahead, or try to pad out the manga's events enough to fill up the anime. Either approach has its disadvantages.
The manga (and, I understand, the re-cut version called "Dragonball Kai") is much less guilty of this sin. Yes, there are a lot of battles, but in general Toriyama really does understand pacing. More, there is considerably more depth to the characters than most people recognize, especially in the secondary characters such as Vegita, Kuririn, and Piccolo.
Toriyama also understands – none better – how to draw action. He can make a still black-and-white sketch seem to explode on the page, appear to be streaking from one side of the paper to the other even while being nothing more than unmoving ink. His drawing style took me a little while to get used to, but his skill at drawing action makes it work.
Dragonball/DBZ is not, also, an endless sequence of battles. Oh, combat plays a central role, no doubt about it, but especially in the "Dragonball" section – up through the point where Goku's son Gohan is born – it is also to a great extent a wanderjahr, a tour around one of the most bizarre worlds ever designed, with visual and character references to everything from Superman to Clint Eastwood westerns, James Bond, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, mixed in with equally diverse references to myths, manga, and events of Japanese origin. I found it amusing to follow Goku's adventures and recognize the nods and references and see how Toriyama tried to fit them together… or not.
Dragonball managed to keep the escalating power progression going effectively for much longer than I would have thought. Fairly early in the manga, we got a hint of where things would end up, when "Jackie Chun" – actually the ancient and powerful martial arts master Kame-Senin in disguise – found himself facing Goku in the Tenkai-ichi Budoukai tournament, and Goku suddenly transformed into a gargantuan monkey-like monster of vast power (an ability the reader had seen before but Kame-Senin had not). Kame-Senin, being at that point a relatively serious character and not the comedy relief he would later become, recognized that the change was linked to Goku's re-growing his tail, and to the fact that the full moon had just risen.
At which point, Kame-Senin powered up to his full strength and blew up the moon. This did accomplish his objective, but I was left – along with the in-universe audience – with my jaw on the floor, going, "WTF? Wha? You… But… THE MOON??? HOW? OMG!"
Toriyama intended to end the manga at the end of the battle against the alien warlord called Freezer (yes, all of the Dragonball names are jokes, often in more than one language), but was convinced to continue it several more times. In my opinion, Dragonball reached its peak at the end of the Cell Saga, having given us a grand finale combat, a chance for the father to pass the torch on to his son, and the most frightening and capable villain of the series, the genetically engineered artificial lifeform known as Cell. The later manga was weaker in my opinion – partly because Toriyama attempted to go back to the more comedic material of the earlier manga and this, to me, fell flat. It's not all that difficult to slowly go from funny to serious, but it's a lot harder to reverse the process and not just end up being annoying.
Dragonball is not the best of the empowered "shonen fighting" anime/manga. That title goes to Naruto. But it is the central and most inspirational of them (Naruto's creator, Kishimoto, directly and openly acknowledges DBZ's influence on his work), and does have many magnificent sequences and "Crowning Moments of Awesome", perhaps the best of these being the moment when Cell discovers the truth of the ancient saying "be careful what you wish for…", as Son Gohan finally unleashes the full power that Cell had been demanding to see brought forth.
Dragonball remains a remarkable piece of work, even if it has been surpassed by some of its own inspired works (as Skylark was surpassed by Doc's own Lensman series and, later, by the works of many other authors who were inspired by the original work). If you have never seen it, I recommend the manga. Follow a young tailed child on a quest to see the magic of a Dragon, a quest that takes him to the other side of the sky… and beyond.