Manga Review: Dragon Ball Vol 1: The Monkey King

Thirty years ago, Akira Toriyama introduced Dragon Ball, best known in America as the prequel to the hit anime Dragon Ball Z.  Does the opening volume deserve to be a nearly forgotten prequel, or is it the Genesis to this story?


amazon-black-iconWhen manga artist Akira Toriyama set out to create an action comedy the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, he could hardly have anticipated being one of the major players introducing anime (and manga) to Western audiences. Yet that’s what he did, by virtue of having one of the most marketable shonen of the time period. Whether it’s because he intentionally made the location of Dragon Ball ambiguous, or simply because it was raw action punctuated by comedy and therefore on par with American television at the time, or whether it was just that good, Dragon Ball Z defined a generation of kids and sparked many of our interest in anime in the first place.

Dragon Ball is where it all got started. A manga from 1980 about a group of teenagers on a treasure hunt. Yet there is no simple way to describe this story. Maybe that’s what proves it’s truly manga. It’s a comedy about the mythical Monkey King. It’s a martial arts advancement story. It’s a book featuring adult comedy that would never be considered for children in much of the English-speaking world with an almost exclusively adolescent cast of protagonists.

Volume 1 focuses on Bulma and Goku meeting and becoming friends. It feels so strange sometimes when you picture how much of a background character Bulma would become years later, but in this first volume, Bulma is essentially the main character. Of course, Toriyama knew off the bat that she wasn’t going to be a very likable, universally relatable character, and as the cast increases in this volume, that only becomes more of the case. Goku is the ultimately likable character, the good guy with no penchant for evil (or for being defeated, at this early stage) in him. Which doesn’t make him very relatable either – if Bulma embodies the most selfish aspects of humanity, Goku is even more of an alien now than he is once we know his origins.

Which means that our relatable character is a shape-shifting pig who pretends to be a demon in order to extort money and perverted pleasures. A character who we originally dislike because of the things he’s done, then feel sorry for because he’s more than met his match in the domineering Bulma, then finally, we want him to stick around, because he’s the only one who’s likely to think the way the audience does. And when he doesn’t? That’s okay. Because when he’s being a coward, it’s only natural that we’re following the heroes.

This is the pilot, which means we spend more time introducing our future cast members than seriously progressing the plot. Every character we meet in this volume, save a handful of villagers and the occasional anthropomorphic animal, is going to be a recurring character for years into this series’ future. For the same reason, it’s almost impossible to go into this as though I were reviewing a story, because I’m not; I’m reviewing a series of introductions that were published in a serial format. I don’t know if there are manga that tell a set story in a volume the way an American trade paperback collection would, but if so, I haven’t experienced one. Still, the story changes from volume to volume, and so does the quality, so I would be remiss to give up on the attempt to review this, volume by volume.

This was the introduction, not only of the characters, but of the universe, and of the story. It’s a blend of action and comedy, following the course of MacGuffin that will become something more in the future. It’s a doorway to a magical journey, and I’ve got to say, I’m as along for the ride as I was the first time I watched the Saiyan Saga on Easter morning in ‘96. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we get there.

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