This month marks the 20th anniversary of “Dragon Ball Z’s” debut on U. S. television, and this year is the 20th anniversary of its final episode airing in Japan, shortly after creator Akira Toriyama brought the manga to an end. While “Dragon Ball Z” continues to live on in streaming episodes, reboots and manga, the history of the franchise’s English translations reflects the changes in American tastes as anime and manga moved from a niche obsession to a wider audience — and U.S. producers stopped trying to change anime into something else.
Let’s start with a quick refresher on the difference between “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z.” The entire manga was known in Japan simply as “Dragon Ball,” but the producers of the anime changed the title after the adaptation of the 16th volume, because the tone had changed: It had gone from a slapstick action comedy featuring an immature-looking teenager, Goku, to a slightly more serious story starring an adult Goku and his son Gohan. Toriyama added the “Z” because he was tired of the series and was hoping to end it soon. That’s not how the manga industry works, though.
In its day, “Dragon Ball” was among the most popular series in Japan, and it helped to propel the circulation of “Shonen Jump” magazine into the healthy 6 million range, so Toriyama soldiered on, prodded by his editors and his readers, until 1995. At that point he finally did bring the series to a close. The anime, based on the manga, came to an end the following year.
When the manga came to the United States, people were more familiar with the “Dragon Ball Z” anime, so licensor Viz Media treated it almost as two different series: The company published the first 16 volumes (plus a few chapters of volume 17) as “Dragon Ball” and the rest as “Dragon Ball Z.” In later editions, Viz reverted to “Dragon Ball” for the entire 42-volume series.
While Toriyama was toiling away, in the 1980s and 1990s, anime was becoming steadily more popular in North America. One of the earliest anime, “Speed Racer,” came to American television in 1967, but it wasn’t promoted as a Japanese cartoon. Quite the contrary, the show was dubbed, the story rewritten and the characters renamed, so that no trace of its Japanese origins remained.
Syndicators began turning more and more to Japanese animation in the years that followed, but it took a while for the source material to get any respect. “Robotech,” which launched in 1985 on American television, was mashed together from three different series, and it wasn’t translated at all. Producer Harmony Gold rewrote the script to match the mouth movements of the characters.
Harmony Gold was also the first licensor to bring “Dragon Ball” to English-speaking audiences, although almost all traces of it are now gone. According to a 2000 article in Viz’s “Animerica” magazine, Harmony Gold dubbed at least five episodes of “Dragon Ball” sometime in the 1980s. The dubs, which were broadcast in some test markets, changed the names of the characters: Goku became “Zero,” Bulma was “Lena,” and Karin was transformed into “Whiskers the Wonder Cat.” The response was “lackluster,” and Harmony Gold dropped it and moved on, leaving behind only rumors of a “lost dub” and a single “Dragon Ball” movie made by welding two other movies together. (A few snippets of audio from the movie can be heard on this Dragon Ball Z fan site.)
Time passed, and the American anime and manga fandom grew slowly. “For all the success of Japan as an exporter of cars and camcorders, its music, movies, television shows and books, with a few exceptions, do not sell well abroad,” New York Times writer Andrew Pollock intoned in 1995 — although he noted that with the success of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” on TV and recent flickers of interest in the work of the talented but then little-known filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, “Japanese animation is starting to sweep through the world, becoming the nation’s first big pop culture export.” In fact, a new TV show had just started that week — something called “Sailor Moon.”
Nonetheless, the American anime scene was just beginning to emerge in 1996. “It was still very niche,” said manga editor and scholar Jason Thompson, who edited part of the “Dragon Ball” manga. “There was almost nothing on TV or in video stores.” High school and college anime clubs gathered to watch videos, some of them completely untranslated, some with amateur subtitles (fansubs). Better-heeled fans might be able to watch raw or subtitled anime on premium cable channels such as Nippon Golden Network, which aired “Dragonball” and “Dragon Ball Z” in the early ’90s.
Goku first made it into the mainstream in 1995, when the American licensor Funimation offered a dubbed and edited version for first-run syndication. They canceled it after 13 episodes, due to low ratings.
Funimation had also licensed “Dragon Ball Z,” however, and the first episode was broadcast on American TV on September 13, 1996, again in first-run syndication. Like “Dragon Ball,” it was heavily edited: Funimation cut “Dragon Ball Z” from 67 original episodes to 53 for U.S. consumption. This show did better, however, and it ran for two seasons before being canceled for various reasons, including a lack of interest from syndicators.
“I’m not surprised ‘Dragon Ball’ didn’t do well,” Thompson said. “It’s a hard sell, because it combines a very ‘kiddie’ look and sensibility with the skeevy adult humor of Kame-Sen’nin, etc., which had to be censored in the U.S. editions, leaving some weird gaps in the story. On the other hand, ‘Dragon Ball Z’ is basically an adolescent superhero story with martial arts and science fiction, which were all things that are already popular in the U.S., just not combined together in that way before. Also, ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ like ‘Sailor Moon’ (and ‘Robotech’ for that matter), had an ongoing-story format, which was fairly unusual in children’s/YA television in the U.S. back then. It makes you more invested in the story when there’s an ongoing plot with cliffhangers and buildup, unlike most Western TV shows of the time where every 30-minute episode had to be written to stand on its own.”
Viz began publishing the “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z” manga in 1998, first as individual chapters and then, in 2000, as collected editions. That same year, Cartoon Network began showing reruns of the “Dragon Ball Z” anime as part of its Toonami block, where the series was better received. Funimation resumed production on new episodes, this time with a new voice cast and less censorship, and the new version aired from 1999 to 2003 on Toonami, with reruns continuing until 2008. Currently, both “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z” can be viewed as streaming anime on the Funimation website and on Hulu.
Thompson feels “Dragon Ball Z” broke new ground by bringing a younger audience to anime and manga. “In the early ’90s, anime and manga had this sort of ‘adult male’ feel,” he told us. “The most well-known titles were hard science fiction like ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Akira,’ or worse, ‘Urotsukidoji’-style X-rated stuff. Then ‘Sailor Moon’ and ‘Dragon Ball Z’ came along and introduced the tropes of anime and manga — the character designs, the speedlines, the cliffhanger stories — to a young mainstream audience that was much bigger than anime’s old niche. When the ‘Pokémon’ animated series came along a few years later, there was no turning back.”
And there’s more. “In ‘Dragon Ball Z’s’ case specifically, it pushed the limits of violence that you could show in a ‘kids’ series, and it presented this very visceral, very original superhero power fantasy,” Thompson said. “Firstly, there’s the shonen manga emphasis on physical training and self-improvement — Goku has to work for it! — which you almost never got in Western superhero comics, where if anything, the hero usually wins due to cleverness rather than sheer bravery and effort. Secondly, there’s the whole ‘defeated enemies become good guys’ thing, which was also new. Thirdly, the character designs are muscular, but they’re very cartoony and friendly and young-looking, a real break from the ‘chiseled realism’ macho-man look of, say, ‘Superman’ or ‘Fist of the North Star.’ Fourthly, no Western superhero comic I can think of ever showed characters just pointing at things, or waving their hands at things, and making them blow up. It’s a super-appealing fantasy way for kids to act out their aggression, and despite all the death in the show, parents probably liked it more than having them run around shooting pretend guns, etc.”
“Basically,” he continued, “‘Dragon Ball Z’ introduced shonen manga sensibilities to the U.S., the way ‘Sailor Moon’ introduced shojo manga. While they obviously didn’t overtake superheroes in popularity, they both played big parts in creating a generation of younger comic/manga fans and dispelling the ‘comics are for serious, edgy adults’ thing that had developed in the mid-1990s. Because even if a ‘Dragon Ball Z’ fan insists on how serious and edgy and dramatic ‘Dragon Ball Z’ is (and it is dramatic!), you look at those character designs and you can’t help but smile.”
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