Talk about Dragon Ball long enough, and you’re bound to hear a joke about shirtless men screaming at one another while their hair gets inexplicably sharper. In much of the most popular imagination, the franchise evokes thoughts of a children’anime show where animated characters yell and power up and flex for all episodes in a line, an endless prelude to actual fighting. Nevertheless, in 2019—35 years after the first manga, written and drawn by Akira Toriyama, premiered in Japan—Dragon Ball is just a sensation.
The story of Goku, a boy with a trail looking to develop stronger, and Bulma, a master girl seeking wish-granting orbs, has long grown into an international pop cultural juggernaut, but almost 2 decades as a result of its original animated run came to its completion in the United States and Japan, Dragon Ball is having a moment. A year ago, the finale of the most recent Dragon Ball anime, Dragon Ball Super, drew record audiences, filling stadiums in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America drawing thousands of people. dragon ball super, one of the best games of this past year, became the latest new title on the competitive fighting-game circuit. And this week a fresh feature film, Dragon Ball Super: Broly, earned over $7 million dollars on its first day in theaters—an astronomical number for a limited-run anime film.
“It is very surprising if you ask me,” says Chris Sabat, a Texas-based voice actor and producer who has voiced Vegeta, Goku’s rival, in just about every little bit of Dragon Ball media created since the mid-’90s. “I honestly thought this was going to be considered a job that lasted me per year or something like that. I had no clue.” Instead, it’s lasted him about 20, without signs of slowing now. But while Sabat’s benefit a long period was either redubbing remastered versions of the anime or rehashing the same old stories in twelve approximately mid-budget videogames, now he’s taking care of entirely new material, with an increased budget and more attention than ever before.
Why now? How did a niche childhood sensation—Sabat says he used to spell it out it to confused parents as “Pokemon but with fighting”—become a resurgent cultural juggernaut?
Partially, it’s just the right demographic at the best time. “Dragon Ball was initially sold as a kid’s show, because back 1998 the networks still believed that cartoons were for children,” Sabat says. But, he continues, those kids are now actually the same age whilst the franchise’s 1st fans: “The people who loved Dragon Ball in Japan in 1998 and 2000 were people of all ages, particularly people in their twenties who were reading these manga on the subway on the way to work.”
Quite simply, Dragon Ball has managed to keep pace with its audience. Quickly after Akira Toriyama began the manga, that was in the beginning a madcap adaptation of Journey to the West, the narrative began to shift, emphasizing fighting and superhuman strength over hijinks. Following a significant time jump near the center of the manga’s run, hero Son Goku was revealed to be not a monkey boy but in fact a person in a battle of superpowered alien warriors—because sure, you will want to?
From there, the series leaned heavily into melodrama and impossible action, a direction that it’s only doubled down on during its current revival, a renaissance that began with the 2013 movie Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods. From a particular, goofy adventure story, Dragon Ball has grown into something more totemic and straightforward, something almost like professional wrestling: An accumulation stories about larger-than-life heroes and villains brawling, with stakes which can be both impossibly high and completely absent. The nice guys will win and the crooks will bleed; justice meted by cartoon fists and psychic energy beams.
But there’s another basis for the Dragon Ball resurgence, too, and that’s just that it’s been so damn good lately. When the original Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z anime series were created, they were modest operations, with limited budgets, questionable dubbing, and no direct involvement from Akira Toriyama himself, who had been busy writing the manga. Now, the newest movies and the Dragon Ball Super anime (which, while discontinued, is rumored to return) are being created with Toriyama’s direct involvement and an increased concentrate on the worth of good animation. While Super, as any fan will show you, has its rough moments in terms of visual quality, moments late in the series are really visually compelling, and Dragon Ball Super: Broly is the greatest the franchise has ever looked.