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Martial Arts and a Moral Compass
By John Cappello
Okay, I read Fay Funk's Sailor Moon article, which gave me the idea to write about Dragonball Z here. Her article features several points about how Sailor Moon’s all girls team is a rarity and how progressive the show was, especially in representing ass-kicking yet feminine women to thousands of young girls. Boy, I wish I could make a point like that with Dragonball Z.
I’ll be super serious for a minute here. Krillin isn’t the biggest loser in DBZ. He may get his butt kicked by the most powerful beings in the universe from time to time, but at least he tries. No, Yamcha is actually the fattest turd in Dragonball Z. He was killed by a fucking Saibaman.
I recently re-watched Seasons 1-3 on Blu-ray, which encompasses the Saiyan, Namek, and Frieza sagas. And they look amazing. Buy them. I can’t make money from this endorsement. Of course, if you think about it, they’re all the same saga with the same storyline, but of course Funimation wanted another reason to divide the series into more sets to sell. The fight-to-survive style of the series ensures its immediate appeal. Now, in the year 2014, the series is officially celebrating its 30-year anniversary.
Since its inception, the series has had an unfortunate bad rep of being too long, featuring repetitive fight scenes, and having a simplistic storyline. Many fail to realize that the television series had to keep up with the pace of the manga series, and turn a weekly 12-page chapter into a 22-minute television episode. This meant they had to come up with filler content, as is the standard practice for most serialized anime. Still, its enduring popularity cannot be an accident. It is a damn good show. Perhaps it was never DBZ’s intention to represent something more than it was. I’ll try to explain what this show meant and continues to mean to little boys and childish men like myself.
At its core, DBZ is a show about martial arts and how each character chooses to use their skills. For all its intentions, the show is targeted towards a shonen (young boys) audience. I remember one time on a film shoot where two other male cast members and I were on set with our female director. One of us casually brought up DBZ, and immediately all three of us began gushing over the anime. Our female director could not fathom what it was about the show that we liked. Neither could we exactly. But every DBZ otaku knows there are a ton of female fans of the series. And what the series has to say about morality and violence surpasses most people’s expectations of the show.
What's most interesting to me are the differences between the morals that the show actually embodies, especially those pertaining to masculinity and being an all-around good person, and the way that many fans perceive the show's moral message. The kind-natured and peaceful Goku is more interested in martial arts for the use of physical training than he is in its violent power. It is typical of him to make his enemies into frenemies, and he has been more forgiving of their evil than any other character in the series. Seasons 1-3 are chock full of scenes where Goku’s peaceful nature is put to the test, and more than often he chooses to forgive than to simply kill and be done.
To the me that is me (and awesome) now, and even as a boy, this sort of compassion was supremely endearing to see in a character. It’s a powerful message that I wish many adults would take to heart. To other people, this behavior falls into the same argument held against Superman, and that kind of compassion is viewed as the character’s greatest weakness as opposed to his greatest strength. As a young boy, this was a facet of myself that I was often at odds with, and that teenage angst continued even well into my twenties. But not anymore. No, today I am just awesome and into peaceful ways.
Back in my day, Vegeta was the coolest—the manipulative, power-hungry, and chaotic neutral Vegeta. Even I liked Vegeta the most when I was younger. Now, I see him as an idiot who makes ridiculously stupid decisions that put everyone else at risk just so that he can test his Saiyan might. He paid for it several times throughout the series until he realized where he was at fault. That was the whole point. But I guess that’s the kind of character most young boys would like to see themselves as: an abusive, cruel, and self-serving character who just might become a good guy. To them, he seems to be the guy in charge.
The women of Dragonball Z are far more diverse than the male characters. First there was Bulma, who is the genius inventor daughter of an inventor father. Then came Chi-Chi, the martial artist who fell in love with Goku. Then there is Android 18, the former foe/destroyer of Earth who ended up winding down with Krillin (see: reasons Krillin has it better than the others). Unfortunately, where in the manga these characters settled down like male human cast members because the difference in their physical power became too vast in comparison to the ever-evolving saiyan characters, these characters were instead fitted into more stereotypical gender roles. Bulma became an idiot savant (especially during the Frieza saga). Chi-Chi became a nagging housewife as opposed to a concerned mother. 18 became an obsolete fighter. These characters had great potential.
A former roommate of mine once pointed out the difference between the characters' wishes made in Dragonball Z and those made in Disney's Aladdin. In the Disney classic, Aladdin’s wishes are centered on greed and acquiring possessions, such as wishing to be a prince so that he can impress the princess Jasmine. In Dragonball Z, the protagonists' wishes are to bring recently murdered characters back to life in the hopes of restoring peace in the galaxy. Often it is the villains who are collecting the dragon balls in order to grant themselves immortality. In fact, the very first villain in Dragonball Z, a blue turd demon named Emperor Pilaf, was interested in making himself king of the world.
Dragonball Z is a show that I continue to think about and idolize to this day because it offers lessons about maturity and obligation. It is not as tragically stupid as most of its detractors (and even some of its fans) like to claim that it is. It is a series that unfortunately fell victim to the processes of its creations and the demand of its publishers.