Gotta get those dragon’s balls. I mean…no, that’s what I meant.
Dragon Ball is a long-running fighting anime that starts out being a parody of Journey to the West, moves into being Japanese Superman, and then kind of lands in a parody of itself, but in a good way. It’s really good if you like things that are long and full of muscles and masculine grunting.
This review is going to have varying levels of spoilers for the entirety of the Dragon Ball anime, including Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball GT and, to a lesser extent because I haven’t seen all of it yet, Dragon Ball Super. With the exception of Super, most of this content is a minimum of fifteen years old, and is also so culturally pervasive that you’ve probably heard all about it for your whole life anyway, and is also also mostly pretty predictable.
The premise of Dragon Ball is that there are magical Dragon Balls that if you get them all, summon a giant dragon who gives you a wish. Whether or not these are the actual balls of the dragon is never confirmed or denied, but it doesn’t matter because nobody ever uses them for horny purposes anyway, which is unrealistic. Everyone is always using them to take over the world or bring dead people back to life and stuff, instead of wishing for reasonable stuff like the ability to cum without limit or for the whole world to become permanently clothing-optional. To be fair, the very first arc is about Bulma Briefs trying to use the balls to get a boyfriend and then they end up giving an anthropomorphic pig some sexy ladies’ underwear instead, but that’s as horny as it gets. As the story progresses, the quests to get the balls increase in intensity as they’re sought after by evil emperors, evil armies, evil demon kings, evil aliens, evil alien emperors with armies, evil androids, evil alien demons, evil alien demon androids, evil…you get the idea. Son Goku and his friends, who later become known as the Z-Fighters, have to continually fight evil, helped by their martial arts abilities and also, to a lesser extent, their literal superpowers that allow them to do things like explode planets and stuff.
Anyway, Dragon Ball changes genres a little bit over the course of its very long run. At first it’s a comedy-adventure that’s heavily reliant on slapstick and sight gags (there’s one at the end of episode 14 that alludes to Krillin’s bisexuality that’s actually quite funny), but with some martial arts bits in the middle. I find this so cool because it’s a really lighthearted introduction to the world and there’s no real serious stakes because the villains are comedic, and then the entire narrative arc of searching for the Dragon Balls comes to nothing when the wish gets wasted on some underwear and they don’t end up fighting the evil emperor. But then we find out that Goku turns into a giant ape monster at the full moon in this scene that’s legitimately really scary as the other characters are all trapped in a small room with him and the moon hangs ominously over his head while he grins and his tail twitches. They end up having to fight him, though they mostly just run away, and I don’t know, the idea that a perpetually smiling boy who seems happy all the time can be the ultimate threat is really compelling to me. After that, the show gets more focused on the martial arts elements and gets more and more serious as Goku trains with Master Roshi and then several other people to learn how to fight and get more powerful. As he gets more powerful his enemies have to get more and more powerful as well.
Power creep is arguably one of the largest problems in later Dragon Ball, especially the last third of Z and into the sequels (GT is technically noncanonical, but Super isn’t). Goku gets so powerful that he easily eclipses all the other characters, most of whom fall to the wayside and mostly end up just cheering Goku on in his fights. Newer characters get introduced who can match Goku, but they’re never allowed to be stronger than Goku (or taller than him, once he’s an adult. The show has a weird obsession with making sure there’s always at least one male character shorter than Goku; first it’s Oolong the pig (anthropomorphic animal people exist in Dragon Ball because there’s canonically a drug that turns you into a furry that was really popular ten years or so before the series started), then it’s his best friend Krillin, then it’s his rival Vegeta. There’s weird masculinity stuff going on with Goku that I’ll get to in a minute). Because Goku gets so powerful, more and more powerful enemies have to appear for him to fight, and then he also has to get more powerful, and Goku and several other characters end up having multiple “forms” and levels that they can transform into and they just keep unlocking new ones all the time. It’s not really a problem or anything, but it definitely gets a bit ridiculous, which is why I say it’s kind of a parody of itself by the time it gets to Super. Like I said, I haven’t watched all of it yet but I think Goku has already unlocked three or maybe four new forms in like a hundred episodes or so? Super is coming out right now, so it’s very aware of not only the history of Dragon Ball but also of its fanbase, and I feel like its intentionally parodying itself in order to show self-awareness, which honestly I think is a good call.
I would argue that the point where Dragon Ball stops being a comedy is when Krillin dies the first time. There’s a whole running joke in the fandom about how Krillin always dies, but the first time it happens it’s legitimately really upsetting. About halfway through the series, Goku goes looking for Krillin after having almost won the second of the series’s many martial arts tournaments (around which all of Dragon Ball is structured. Not so much Z, though there are a few. A major arc in Super is oriented around a big tournament, though. I don’t know if Akira Toriyama invented the tournament arc for Dragon Ball, but this is definitely the anime that really popularized that trope in the genre, and now it shows up in everything, for better or worse), and he find Krillin just dead on the ground. It’s legitimately heartbreaking and really shocking and it comes at a time when you’re on an emotional high with Goku, and it transitions into the Demon King Piccolo Saga, which is Dragon Ball’s darkest. There were serious moments and storylines before this, but it’s really at this point that the series starts being an action-drama rather than a comedy.
Not long after this we start to see less of a focus on martial arts as well. The Saiyan Saga, set when Goku is an adult, starts with the arrival of Goku’s alien brother Raditz, who then calls two more Saiyans to come destroy the earth. Martial arts stop being the focus around this point and the superpowered fights start to be more important as all the characters level up their powers, learning to fly, shoot energy beams and transform into crazy shit. The show always and forever pays lip service to the fighting, but by this point in the show it’s pretty much just a blur of arms and legs and we’re supposed to assume they’re doing actual martial arts moves in between energy attacks. The big disappointment here is that by midway through Dragon Ball the animation of the martials arts scenes had gotten pretty good and the fights were really interesting to watch, with a lot of dynamic and fluid movements, and a lot of that went away by early Z in favour of flashing lights and phallic beams. Which is fine, but I did like the martial arts early on is all.
The sheer amount of phallic imagery in the show really does bear mentioning. Goku starts the series as a middle-school aged boy with a tail, a magic pole that extends to whatever length he wants, a magic ball that belonged to his grandfather, and a disinterest in modesty. Now, same on at least two fronts, but if you’ve seen the show it goes without saying that Goku’s tail and his Power Pole are both phallic images that are constantly associated with him (and they’re drawn from the monkey god Son Wukong’s arsenal in Journey to the West). The Power Pole is obvious (even the name), but the tail is kind of complicated. It’s obviously a phallic metaphor (the English dub makes that clear in the second episode when Goku makes a deliberate association between tails and penises), and Goku always has his out. It’s his greatest weakness—if someone grabs his tail he loses all his strength and passes out—but it’s also the thing that gives him the power to transform at the full moon. This is a review of Dragon Ball, not a review of the entire history of lycanthropy in world literature, so please just trust me and Darby when we say that the idea of transforming into a monster at the full moon has literally always been a sexual metaphor. In order to prevent Goku—and other Saiyans later—from accessing this power, their tails are cut off. Goku’s grows back a few times. The first time it gets cut off, it’s in self defence by his older male friend, who is protecting their other friends from Goku’s rampage. The other two times, it’s removed by a male mentor figure who uses it as a way to teach Goku self control. That is to say that at a certain point in Goku’s life, he learns that he has to stop having his dick out all the time, because even if it makes him powerful, it’s also not appropriate or safe.
Goku is naked all the time in early Dragon Ball, which is of course awesome (not that some of us needed that to be horny for him and later his son). Because of I guess censorship laws that came into play later on in Japan, we stop seeing little boy dicks after a certain point in early Dragon Ball Z (we see Goku’s son Gohan naked a bunch of times, but by the time his second son Goten and Vegeta’s son Trunks appear, we only ever see their butts, and they appear to wear underwear at other times. Really notable is that by the time Gohan is eleven or twelve, the age Goku was when Dragon Ball started, the most we ever see of him is his underwear, which is probably due to an evolution of the show’s art style so that teenagers no longer looked like toddlers). The show can’t show adult nudity (at least not full-frontal) so we don’t see much of this lack of modesty as an adult, but there are occasional moments that suggest he still doesn’t quite get why he really needs pants, which fair.
Goku struggles hard with appropriate gender performance for most of his childhood (there’s a running gag that he can’t visually tell the difference between men and women and needs to grope them to find out. Dragon Ball especially is kind of full of jokes about gender and sex and sexual assault that really didn’t age well) and part of that is that his tail does what it wants. By the time he is an adult, his tail has been permanently removed (except for in a few episodes of GT, where he’s been turned back into a child and has it grown back). It’s sort of like he had to have his symbolic dick cut off so that he could learn to use his real one in the right way. Goku’s lack of social graces is used comedically throughout the series but it also ends up signalling queerness, because he’s really uninterested in women, despite his later heterosexual marriage, and the only people he has genuine intimate relationships with are his male friends.
He also struggles with his other relationships. He’s a terrible father to both his sons (he puts unrealistic goals and expectations on Gohan from the time he’s little, repeatedly participating in traumatizing him before abandoning him at twelve years old, and he doesn’t seem interested in Goten at all). He’s a terrible husband, always abandoning his wife and making no effort to make sure she’s okay on her own, and he’s a terrible friend, never really doing anything to help any of his friends or understanding why they’d want to talk to him about problems. As a child, Goku is this impish Peter Pan sort of character who just has fun with everything and doesn’t take anything seriously in a way that kind of borders on psychopathy, and that’s when I find him at his most interesting, because he could destroy the world and the only thing stopping him seems to be that he doesn’t really feel like it. As he grows up, that goofiness is maintained, but the narrative wants us to take him super seriously, so instead of seeming carefree and jovial, he mostly just seems like an asshole who only puts his serious face on when the world might explode, but isn’t interested in being a good friend, father or husband.
I want to talk about a couple of the other characters and not just Goku, but one last thing about Goku and his tail. There’s a lot of castration anxiety in this show? His and other people’s tails repeatedly getting cut off is obviously a castration metaphor and there are a ton of sight gags throughout the show of swords or other heavy shit fall between people’s legs. If I were a psychologist I could probably go all Freud and talk about how the whole show is a huge expression of the fear of castration, but also a fascination with it as a concept because the symbolic castration of the tail being cut off is necessary to effect natural pubertal growth. But I’m not a psychologist and I just think Akira Toriyama was really worried about getting his dick cut off.
Around the early to middle of Dragon Ball Z, Goku starts to fade into the background and his son Gohan gets positioned to take over as the main character. He’s a prodigy whose natural power is stronger than that of every other character in the series, and he’s also a genius who picks up on advanced math and literature at a really young age. By the time he’s six years old, he’s in the top tier of the Z-fighters and is able to do serious damage to the series’s most intense villains before anyone else, including his dad, is. Goku is largely absent for most of the Frieza Saga and then is again out of commission for a large portion of the Androids Saga, and Gohan is the one who fights the big villain of that arc, Cell. Goku dies in that fight and it seems permanent, with him passing the mantle onto his son. It’s the end of a narrative trajectory that started hundreds of episodes ago, and it’s really narratively satisfying, actually.
But then Goku was too popular to keep dead, so the editors of the manga made Akira Toriyama bring him back to life, and Gohan gets progressively more sidelined for the rest of the series. Fans of his are consistently pissed off that Gohan ends up “wasting” his potential as a fighter by becoming a teacher and scholar instead, but I actually disagree with that because you could equally argue that he’d be “wasting” his potential as an intellectual if he spent his life fighting, which is something he canonically never enjoyed anyway. I get the frustration, because such big hey is made of Gohan’s power and how he’s this hyper-talented fighter and it eventually comes to nothing, but I kind of like the idea that he ends up doing what he wants to do with his life instead of what his shitty dad wants him to do. Goku’s never going to be proud of Gohan unless Gohan is being a carbon copy of him, and I’m glad that after Goku died, Gohan learned not to have to do that for himself. I think there’s some misogyny in the fans’ dislike of this storyline for Gohan, because he’s doing what his mother wanted him to do, but the thing is Chi-Chi didn’t push him any harder than Goku did, and she pushed him towards something he clearly enjoyed in addition to something he was talented at. Gohan is my favourite character, so I understand being upset that he essentially gets demoted to supporting cast as he gets older, but if that’s what he wanted for himself, he earned that right when he was twelve years old. He shouldn’t have to keep proving that he’s the world’s greatest prodigy over and over again for his whole life. He should be allowed to have a life.
Goten is Goku’s second son, who never knew his father until he was seven years old, and met him for approximately seven minutes before the world started to end. I find Goten really tragic actually; he tends to be a wallflower compared to his friend Trunks and his dad isn’t really interested in him. I feel like the only time when Goten really felt self-actualized was when he was fused with Trunks using a magical ability that let them become the same person for a little while. This is the only time we really see him being confident, and also the only time we see him being helpful to the other characters, and I think he knows that too. He sees himself as useless and as only having value when he’s someone else, and the fact that as he grows older he just seems to be a bit of a directionless loser who gets enjoyment only out of hanging out with Trunks, his literal other half, really drives that home for me. Obviously I think all the characters in Dragon Ball are gay (and you will literally never convince me that Goku didn’t spend a year fucking Gohan in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber; Goku doesn’t have any sense of boundaries and Gohan was the only person there), but Goten especially is pretty clearly in love with Trunks. I hope the writers of Super will let him have that, honestly, because he doesn’t really have anything else (and they’ve been content to queerbait Goku and Vegeta a few times, obviously for the fans’ benefit).
A lot of the characters in Dragon Ball are really cool and a lot of the storylines are quite complex and interesting. Akira Toriyama is a very good writer and though a lot of his storylines are silly, they’re very well structured and often really complicated. He wanted to stop writing Dragon Ball by the time of Z’s Buu Saga, so it’s not quite as good as the others, but even that is really fun for the most part, and the callbacks to the earlier, more comedic moments in the early series were good. I can’t really talk more about any of this because I’ve already talked so long, but a lot of people think that Dragon Ball and its various successors are just dumb mindless fighting anime and they are, but they’re also elaborately written stories with really interesting and complicated characters, and I think that’s the honest to God reason why the series has had such staying power all these decades.
I really recommend Funimation’s dub of Dragon Ball if you’re going to watch it. Not because it’s necessarily good (it’s fine), but because it’s hilarious. They slip a lot of snarky jokes in throughout (including a lot of speculation about whether Goku is an alien in the early series, which I found really funny), but the main point on which I like it is the cast itself. Funimation has a huge pool of talent to pull from and did even at the time when they started dubbing Dragon Ball years ago, but for some reason most of the cast of Dragon Ball is voiced by just random people? It’s mostly really bad. The most iconic actor in the show is Chris Sabat, who voices Yamcha, Vegeta, and Piccolo, but also Turtle, Shenron, Kami, Korin, Officer Black, Bubbles, Jeice, Burter, Recoome, Zarbon, and about a dozen other important named characters, as well as literal hundreds of cameos in one-off parts with one line. I don’t know why Funimation decided that they needed to have this one guy voice the entire show, but they did and it’s hilarious to just sit there and really listen to how often he shows up in uncredited background roles, often doing a racist accent. There are entire conversations that are just him talking to himself, and episodes later in Dragon Ball Z where he is the only actor featured in the episode despite there being several characters present. He’s far from the only actor who gets reused; most of the background cast is just the main cast doing different voices (or not) and since there are so many characters, basically every actor on Funimation’s payroll ends up playing multiple parts.
There are so many other reasons to watch Dragon Ball and if I went into all of them I’d end up with a review longer than Dragon Ball, so I’ll stop there. There are obviously a lot of negatives as well—the aforementioned misogyny, there’s a lot of sight-based racism, it’s really long and there’s a lot of filler in Dragon Ball Z especially (though I personally like the filler; the driving episode is iconic for a reason)—but I still think it’s worth watching if it’s your thing. Even if you don’t watch it, Dragon Ball has a really important place in the history of fighting anime, the history of anime in the West, and the history of anime fandoms online, so if nothing else, I guess you’re more educated about it now. I’m personally still disappointed that there the Dragon Balls aren’t proven to be a dragon’s balls and that the frontal nudity stopped after a while, but that’s what headcanons and fanart are for. It’s one of those series where the cast is mostly male and the main cast is mostly related to each other, and I can say with absolute certainty that it’s the root cause of my incest kink, not to mention the origin of my interest in horny content about underage cartoon characters.
And if that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will.