In the history of manga and anime, few franchises have had the impact of Dragon Ball.
It’s not all that hard to see why. Take a classic Chinese story, Journey to the West. Update it for a modern audience. Add in martial arts action and some comedy.
As the Dragon Ball story progresses, the story arcs get more serious. New villains are introduced. Old bad guys become new friends.
In the Dragon Ball universe, the villain of a previous arc can be the hero of the next one. And of course, stronger villains require stronger heroes, so characters continue to train and grow more powerful.
Throughout it all, there is a core group of friends and allies that the audience has gotten to know over the years. Some are goofy and others are grumpy (we’re looking at you, Vegeta). But they’re all pretty much likable.
It’s no wonder that Dragon Ball and its sequels have lasted for hundreds of episodes. It’s been more than 30 years since the first manga and anime came out.
Lots of Volumes
The original Dragon Ball manga was created by Akira Toriyama. It lasted from 1984 to 1995, and for years the series was one of the stars of the manga magazine, Weekly Shonen Jump.
The Dragon Ball anime had 153 episodes from 1986 to 1989. Dragon Ball Z (1989-1996) added another 291 episodes. Dragon Ball GT (1996-1997) added another 64.
Dragon Ball Z Kai added 159 episodes between 2009 and 2015. And Dragon Ball Super added another 131 episodes between 2015-2018.
Add it all up, and you get 798 episodes. That’s not counting Super Dragon Ball Heroes, which exists in its own trading card video game-influenced continuity.
Any show which has lasted as long as Dragon Ball has can be hard to keep straight. So let’s look at the history.
Early Dragon Ball episodes have a lot of Journey to the West flavor to them.
Goku has the same name as the Monkey King, Son Goku. In Chinese, Son Goku is Sun Wukong, but the meaning is the same.
In Journey to the West, the Monkey King helps a monk find some Buddhist texts. In Dragon Ball, Goku is helping Bulma find the Dragon Balls. Goku’s staff, or Power Pole, is based on the staff used by Sun Wukong.
His Flying Nimbus cloud, or Kinto’un, also has a Monkey King counterpart. As a young boy, he even has a monkey tail.
The shapeshifting pig Oolong is Dragon Ball’s version of Zhu Bajie. The warrior bandit Yamcha is Sha Wujing.
There is also the Ox King, or Ox-Demon-King in the original tale, and his daughter Chi-Chi. Chi-Chi is most likely based on Tie Shan Gongzhu, or Princess Iron Fan, although she is the Ox-Demon-King’s wife, not his daughter.
Dragon Ball Arcs
- Emperor Pilaf — Young Goku, Bulma, and friends search for the Dragon Balls. They must keep them away from Emperor Pilaf and his henchmen. Goku transforms into a monster, although we don’t really know the full story behind that yet. The adventures are goofy and cartoony, but fun. This is where Bulma’s bunny costume comes from. Oolong wishes for panties.
- Tournament — Master Roshi trains Goku and Krillin. The first of many tournaments takes place. These tournaments are good, but they do contribute to Dragon Ball’s reputation as that anime where a five-minute fight can take several episodes.
- Red Ribbon Army — A new group of bad guys searches for the Dragon Balls. This paramilitary force, the Red Ribbon Army, is more dangerous than Pilaf ever was. Goku fights General White. We meet the Frankenstein-like Android 8, the first of several Red Ribbon androids to appear in the series.
- General Blue — Goku’s fight against the Red Ribbon Army continues. General Blue has a hideout on an island. There are underwater adventures. Arale from Dr. Slump shows up in this section of the story.
- Commander Red — The Red Ribbon Army story continues in the Land of Korin. There is a giant tower, and a cat sage.
- Fortuneteller Baba — Goku hopes that Baba can tell him the location of the seventh Dragon Ball. Baba has Goku and his friends battle her minions. One of Baba’s five warriors is Gohan, Goku’s grandfather.
- Tien Shinhan — Three years after the Red Ribbon Army saga, Goku fights in a world tournament. Three-eyed Tien Shinhan is one of the fighters.
- King Piccolo — Krillin dies. (He will come back later.) It seems that King Piccolo is the killer. King Piccolo had been sealed away until he was released by Pilaf. Goku fights various minions before finally getting to King Piccolo. Tien also fights but isn’t strong enough. He vows to get stronger.
- Piccolo Jr. — This is the last Dragon Ball story arc before Dragon Ball Z starts. King Piccolo left behind an egg/ offspring/ reincarnation.
The story then jumps ahead three years to the next martial arts tournament. The new Piccolo wants revenge. When people talk about “Piccolo,” this is the one that they are usually thinking of and not King Piccolo.
Dragon Ball Z
At the end of Dragon Ball, things were starting to get serious. We see more tournaments and the introduction of alien characters.
The story gets even more intense in Dragon Ball Z. We learn about the Saiyans. We learn that Goku is a Saiyan.
We also discover that Goku’s origin story is more similar to Superman than the Monkey King — a powerful alien from another world, raised by humans and loyal to Earth.
We meet Piccolo’s people, the Namekians. New villains arrive; most notably Frieza and Cell.
There’s still room for silliness, such as the over-the-top Ginyu Force.
Story arcs and sagas include: Raditz; Vegeta; Namek; Captain Ginyu; Frieza; Garlic Jr.; Trunks; Androids; Imperfect Cell; Perfect Cell; Cell Games; Other World; Great Saiyaman; World Tournament; Babidi; Majin Buu; Fusion; Kid Buu; Gods of the Universe and Peaceful World.
That Poor Scouter
“Vegeta! What does the scouter say about his power level?” “IT’S OVER 9000!”
You know the lines. They’re from the Vegeta Saga of Dragon Ball Z, before the heroes go off to Namek.
If you’ve only ever seen one piece of Dragon Ball Z, you’ve probably seen this one. In the episode, the Saiyans Nappa and Vegeta have come to Earth. They are searching for Dragon Balls.
They fight a whole bunch of people, including Tien, Piccolo, Krillin, and Gohan. Goku isn’t there, but eventually, he shows up in the episode “The Return of Goku.”
They get into a fight with Goku. Goku seems unusually strong, so they check him with the scouter. And that’s when the fun starts.
Incidentally, the meme-worthy version of that famous line only appears in the Ocean dub. Brian Drummond voiced Vegeta at the time.
Christopher Sabat, the current voice of Vegeta, didn’t say it.
Dragon Ball GT
Dragon Ball Z was followed by Dragon Ball GT. Unlike Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, GT is not based on the manga. Instead, we got original stories set in the Dragon Ball universe.
Goku is turned into a child. A new villain must be defeated.
The Dragon Balls themselves are now a problem, as dragons are sent to punish people for misusing the balls.
Shenron, Goku and the Dragon Balls disappear, seemingly forever.
If we use the traditional definition of filler, Dragon Ball GT is all filler. None of it happened in the manga. People have questioned Dragon Ball GT’s status as canon, especially after the creation of Dragon Ball Super.
Dragon Ball Z Kai
Dragon Ball Z Kai is something unique in the world of anime. It’s not a sequel. It’s not exactly a remake, either.
It’s more like restoring a classic old car with a new paint job and engine repairs. Some scenes were re-animated. They also re-recorded the voice track. Some filler was left out. Some stuff from the manga which had been left out of Dragon Ball Z was added back in.
The series goes through Saiyan, Frieza, Androids, Cell, World Tournament, Majin Buu and Evil Buu sagas.
Dragon Ball Super
Dragon Ball Super takes place after the defeat of Majin Buu. There was a time skip there, and this story fills the gap. There’s a new villain and another tournament. Future Trunks plays a role in this one.
The plot of Dragon Ball Super was written by Akira Toriyama, and a manga was created for it. Theoretically, that makes it more canon than Dragon Ball GT.
Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Several Dragon Ball films have been made. The most recent of these was Dragon Ball Super: Broly in 2018. This is the first “Super” film in Dragon Ball.
We get some history of the Saiyans. Goku and Vegeta, Dragon Ball’s two main Saiyan rivals, meet a dangerous Saiyan named Broly.
It takes a fusion of Goku and Vegeta to defeat Broly.
Dragonball: Evolution was an American-made, live-action Dragon Ball movie. It came out in 2009. The film featured Justin Chatwin as Goku, Chow Yun-fat as Master Roshi, Emmy Rossum as Bulma, Jamie Chung as Chi-Chi, James Marsters as Lord Piccolo and Joon Park as Yamcha.
The film did not get good reviews, with a 15 percent on the Tomatometer. Fans complained about the extremely loose adaptation of the source material. Reviewers called it “a terrible mess” and “my least-favorite film of all time.”
Despite the failure of Dragonball: Evolution, the idea of live-action remains intriguing. It has been reported that Disney may soon have a live-action Dragon Ball Z TV show.
There have been many video games based on Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a role-playing game for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows. It was released in 2015.
Fighters travel to various different battle scenes from the anime. Players can create a customized character, and have them learn special moves from Dragon Ball characters. Players can be Earthlings, Saiyans, Namekians, Majins, and Frieza’s race.
A sequel, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, was made in 2016.
Dragon Ball Fighterz came out in 2018. It is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows.
It is a fighting game. Players can select a team of characters from the anime. You control one character, while the others provide assistance. The game starts out with 21 playable characters, and more are unlockable or downloadable.
Dragon Ball Heroes is a trading card video game. It came out in 2010. It was updated in 2016.
After the update was introduced, a net animation series, Super Dragon Ball Heroes, was released in 2018.
Super Dragon Ball Heroes takes place after Dragon Ball Super. Goku and Vegeta must rescue Future Trunks from the Prison Planet.
There are new villains and time travel stories. The latest story involves the Time Patrol, which includes Goku, Vegeta, Gohan, Goten, Pan, and Future Trunks.
Boxed sets of the Dragon Ball manga are available at Amazon. The Dragon Ball Complete Box Set: Vols. 1-16 currently sells for $87.82. You can also get the Dragon Ball Z Complete Box Set: Vols. 1-26 for $136.14.
Dragon Ball Z: Seasons 1-9 Collection is an Amazon Exclusive Blu-ray collectible. You get 36 discs for $239.63.