Late to the Party: Dragon Ball (Pre-Z)

Despite being in its prime target demographic, I never got into Dragon Ball. As a young, action-loving, Toonami-watching kid, for whatever reason I never gave much consideration to the adventures of Goku and friends. I dabbled here and there in DBZ, and through cultural osmosis I know the basic progression of the show. However, I know next to nothing about the original series – the earliest adventures of Goku. So I decided that it was time to change that, and read the first few arcs of the Dragon Ball manga.

What I Read: The first 16 volumes of Dragon Ball, comprising all the “pre-Z” stuff. I read the Viz translations available through the Shonen Jump app. This comprises a few arcs: The initial search for the Dragon Balls, the first Tenkaichi Budokai tournament, the Red Ribbon Army arc, the second Tenkaichi Budokai tournament, and the Piccolo arc.

My Thoughts: I was excited to finally dive into the series. Dragon Ball is a legendary series in the anime canon, and although most attention is heaped on the later arcs in the “Z” era, I was curious to learn more about Goku’s initial adventures.

But overall I found… I didn’t have much reaction?

Dragon Ball is largely an adventure series written and drawn by Akira Toriyama, starting in 1984. It begins with a young boy with a monkey tail named Son Goku meeting Bulma, who is searching for seven legendary artifacts called the Dragon Balls. When brought together, they summon the mighty dragon Shenlong who will grant any wish. The first couple of volumes of the story entail the initial search for the Dragon Balls, with Goku and Bulma racing to collect them all before the Emperor Pilaf. Along the way, Goku and Bulma meet a variety of characters – the pig Oolong, the bandit Yamcha, the Ox King and his daughter Chi-Chi. The series is loosely inspired by the classic Chinese story Journey to the West, with Goku in the role of the mighty Monkey King.

Each of these adventures happens very quickly, and the Dragon Balls are brought together by the end of the second volume. Rather than a dramatic climax, the first wish from the legendary Shenlong turns out to be a gag. This was one of the weaknesses for the manga for me, particularly early on: It’s very much a gag series, with much of the gags being sexist jokes about ogling women.

Following this initial arc, Dragon Ball pivots to the Strongest Under the Heavens (Tenkaichi Budokai) tournament. A staple of shonen series, a tournament arc is a chance to have cool fights and unique characters. The series definitely shines when it focuses on the battles. Although the outcome is rarely in doubt, it’s cool to see the ways Goku and his friends come out on top. 

The next arc brings the plot back to the Dragon Balls, as Goku competes with the Red Ribbon Army to collect them again. Embedded in this saga is a training arc where Goku trains with a cat to increase his power even further. This was a step up from the initial Dragon Ball hunt, and the brief period of Goku training under the cat Korin was a highlight of the series for me.

The series concludes with back to back arcs focused on the Strongest Under the Heavens tournament, the Tenkaichi Budokai. In the first, Goku must fight against a member of his master’s rival school. The final arc is about the Demon King Piccolo, culminating in a final tournament for the fate of the world.

The series has a large and colorful cast, but the central character of the series is Son Goku. It’s hard not to like him. Powerful and earnest, he lives for fighting, but ultimately has a pure heart and is capable of treating even his worst foes with compassion. His power makes it so that his victory is rarely in doubt, but the series manages to make his battles nonetheless exciting as you wonder what limits Goku will break next. 

Other characters drift in and out of relevance as the series progresses. Goku’s first ally is Bulma, a confident and brilliant scientist, who is unfortunately all too often objectified by Goku’s lecherous teacher, Master Roshi, and the pig Oolong. Yamcha and Krillin, Goku’s other human allies, also get moments to shine during the tournaments, but ultimately take a backseat to Goku’s spotlight.

The Red Ribbon Army, Tien, and Piccolo make for compelling villains. It was interesting to see Goku take on a paramilitary organization during the Red Ribbon arc, and Piccolo felt like a real and looming threat. Goku’s ultimate triumph over him felt like a truly earned victory with major stakes. 

But ultimately, I never got fully invested in the series. It was interesting to see the groundwork laid, but it’s also striking just how much of this seems to be swept aside once Dragon Ball Z starts. Although I am no expert in that series either, I know that many of these early characters become increasingly sidelined as the focus drifts toward Saiyans. 

The humor felt generally uncomfortable, with much of it being based on Master Roshi’s perverted fantasies and attempts to see women’s underwear. This isn’t exactly unusual for manga, but it’s something I don’t have a ton of tolerance or patience for.

The translation also felt dodgy. I’m not familiar with the translation history behind this series, but it definitely feels like an older localization. Names could also be a bit spotty, with the Romanization of some characters’ names being different from their anime counterparts – Krillin, for example, is localized as Kuririn. I don’t know if either of these are more accurate than the other, but it was something that I just became keenly aware of as I read. I wonder how accurate it was, or if it could benefit from a new translation.

But at its best, the series was an exciting action series with some really interesting, dynamic fights. The art was clean, which made the action easy to follow, and Toriyama did a great job guiding the reader’s eyes through fast-paced and fluid combat sequences.

Will I continue on with Dragon Ball into the Saiyan Saga, Freiza Saga, and beyond? Hard to say. There was definitely stuff to enjoy here, and I know that future sagas put more focus on the parts I had the most fun with. But I can’t say its characters or world stood out to me in a way that made me think I needed to immediately chase more. So I guess we’ll see if the mood strikes me.

Do I recommend it? If you’re into shonen series, it’s interesting to see the origins of such a landmark series that would have a huge impact on shonen – and the world of anime/manga in general. However, I would have to have some heavy asterisks with it. There’s a lot of objectification of women, and characters rarely develop any deeper than surface level. The plot is generally an excuse to see cool fights unfold. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – If you’re craving some fun action that you don’t have to think too hard about, you could do much worse. 

And for those of you who are long-time fans, I’d love to know more about your thoughts on Dragon Ball, particularly these early volumes.