In the list of best-selling manga, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai sticks out like a sore thumb.
Next to the likes of Devilman and Yu Yu Hakusho, The Adventure of Dai is the only spinoff series to sit at 50 million copies. Go all the way down to the 20-29 million mark and you will find the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime by Taiki Kawakami (both of which are based on pre-existing source material), but Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada’s series is a rare breed indeed.
Originally published as Dai no Daibouken in Japanese, last year marked the 30th anniversary of the series, with a new video game and anime series being announced accordingly. The first few episodes of that anime are also out now, produced over at Toei Animation.
There appears to be no better time, then, to discuss the incredible success of The Adventure of Dai. Far from being a simple video game adaptation, it has gone on to become a juggernaut in its own right – moulding and shaping the upbringings of many Japanese children (and adults!) along the way. And with the help of the new anime, that could become as true today as it was in the 1990s.
But what is the secret behind The Adventure of Dai’s success? Was it just a case of Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada adapting Japan’s favorite video game series in the right place at the right time, or is it something more? What makes it so compelling that it deserves to be revisited, even to this day?
The Adventure of Dai: Adaptation or Original Story?
First of all, we should address the elephant in the room: is The Adventure of Dai an adaptation or an original story?
According to the Dragon Quest wiki, The Adventure of Dai is “based mainly” on Dragon Quest III, Dragon Quest IV, and Dragon Quest V all at once. Coming out in Japan in 1988, 1990, and 1992 respectively, it is hard to pinpoint where and when each game influenced Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada’s series given the length and variety of story elements introduced therein.
Nevertheless, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai is undoubtedly a child of the franchise’s early history. The first six games, further divided into two trilogies, tell stories that continue on from each other, with names that differ depending on the time and region: in Japan, however, they are known as the Roto and the Celestial (Tenkuu) series respectively.
Whereas entries in the mainline Dragon Quest series after VI would tell largely disconnected stories, the stories of the first six games were interconnected. Dragon Quest I through III tells the story of Roto, a legendary hero and his descendants who save the land of Alefgard, and Dragon Quest IV through VI all feature stories involving the floating Celestial Castle, also known as Zenithia in English.
The Adventure of Dai is related to these as it carries on the idea of interconnectivity. Instead of creating for itself a brand new world, it takes place in a world already saved by a legendary Hero, the Demon Lord long since defeated. In this sense, it is very similar to Dragon Quest II.
Yet, in many ways, The Adventure of Dai can be whatever you want it to be. For a seasoned Dragon Quest player, it can be the continuation of what you just finished; for a newcomer, it can be entirely its own thing. The series’ setting, as well as established canon, are loose enough to allow for both of these viewpoints – it’s perfectly accessible.
Of course, that is to say nothing about the inclusion of the series’ iconic bestiary, as well as the idea of a Hero (Yuusha) and his friends teaming up to defeat the Demon Lord. Everything that is great about Dragon Quest is present here, only in an entirely different format – so, in this sense, you could call it a very loose adaptation.
The Golden Age of Weekly Shonen Jump
Speaking of format, it is often forgotten that Dragon Quest has always had a close relationship with Weekly Shonen Jump. As a result, it is not at all surprising that the legendary manga magazine would carry something related to the series, even though it does not do many cross-media promotions today.
Akira Toriyama was recruited to do the character and beast designs for Dragon Quest I because of series creator Yuji Horii’s familiarity with him, as well as his work on Dragon Ball. Horii actually used to work as a freelance journalist covering video games before his time at Chunsoft and Enix, writing mainly in the in-between pages in Weekly Shonen Jump. He made good use of these connections when Dragon Quest I was first coming out, not only recruiting Toriyama but also taking out large advertisements in the magazine to promote the game.
The idea of doing a Dragon Quest manga, then, to fill in the gap between Dragon Quest III in 1988 and IV in 1990 came naturally to Shueisha. The Adventure of Dai was also planned from the start to be part of a multimedia project, with the anime debuting two years later. In order to create the source material, the editorial team hired Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada – two relatively inexperienced creators at the time, but who had proven popular with prior oneshots.
Yet, the success of The Adventure of Dai was not a foregone conclusion. Plenty of Jump series had failed before, and Toei Animation was unlikely to continue funding the anime project without assurance that it would succeed. As a result, several changes were made to the original Dragon Quest format, mainly coming in the form of two one-shots at the beginning.
For now, it is worth asking the question: to what extent did Weekly Shonen Jump’s popularity help The Adventure of Dai succeed at the time? Undoubtedly, Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada’s series came at a fortunate time in the magazine’s history – circulation was rising year after year, buoyed by the popularity of such series as Dragon Ball. It was, for all intents and purposes, Weekly Shonen Jump’s Golden Age.
Even so, that does not explain why it is still loved today. Plenty of series serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump during this time have since been forgotten, and sometimes hindsight can give us a filtered view of the past. Clearly, a more profound reason is needed.
Dragon Quest Fever: Myths and Realities
Of course, aside from Weekly Shonen Jump’s popularity, one thing we have neglected to mention up until this point is the popularity of Dragon Quest itself.
This is probably common knowledge at this point, but each entry in the series was so popular that Enix elected to start releasing them on weekends and holidays for fear of kids and adults alike skipping school and work… No, there was never any law passed, but there was undoubtedly some lobbying behind closed doors from concerned public entities.
To release a Dragon Quest manga – no matter the content or quality – at the height of the series’ popularity in the most popular manga magazine in the world appears to be a recipe for success. But, once again, the continued popularity of The Adventure of Dai fails to account for this fact: if it was merely a product of circumstance, then it would have been forgotten long ago.
The Adventure of Dai is also by far the most popular Dragon Quest manga. As of the time of writing, there are four such series currently in publication: two original works titled Dragon Quest: Souten no Sora in V Jump (Shueisha) and Yuube wa Otanoshimi Deshita ne in Young Gan Gan (Square Enix); as well as two Dai no Daibouken spinoffs titled Yuusha Avan to Gokuen no Maou and Xross Blade, also in V Jump. But while the Dragon Quest games continue to sell gangbusters, these manga haven’t made much of an impact.
Even contemporaries failed to match up The Adventure of Dai’s success. Also released at the height of Dragon Quest’s popularity, The Emblem of Roto (Roto no Monsho) by Chiaki Kawamata, Junji Koyanagi, and Kamui Fujiwara also occupies a place in the list of best-sellers, but 30 million copies behind Dai.
What is the reason behind such a disparity? The Emblem of Roto is, for one, not an original story but a sequel to Dragon Quest III, taking place 100 years after the events of that game (but before the original). This means that, in order to fully enjoy the narrative of The Emblem of Roto, you need to be at least somewhat familiar with Dragon Quest III – something which is not the case for The Adventure of Dai.
Behind The Adventure of Dai’s Incredible Success
Here, we come to the real reasons behind The Adventure of Dai’s incredible success. It was not simply due to the popularity of Dragon Quest, nor Weekly Shonen Jump at the time – the manga has its own strengths and unique features that deserve to be appreciated.
Ironically, The Adventure of Dai probably mirrors Yuji Horii’s original vision for the franchise much better than any other Dragon Quest manga out there by virtue of its setting and canon. Speaking at a CEDEC conference in 2009, he explained that “In an action game, (even if you don’t do anything) the enemies come and attack. But, in an RPG, if you don’t move, nothing happens.” In other words, it was the accessible nature of Dragon Quest owing to its turn-based battle system – something which it has retained up until this day, unlike Final Fantasy – that made it so popular back when it first released.
The Adventure of Dai is also very accessible as it requires almost no prior knowledge, as previously stated. But what about the story itself? Everything set out in this article so far should make it clear that success can’t be put down to simple form or circumstance, but something more profound; at the end of the day, The Adventure of Dai is just a great manga – that’s all there is to it.
In order to write this article, what I intended to do was find blog posts or articles from the time of release and use them to gauge what readers did and didn’t like about the manga. I had no such luck. Perhaps because it was so long ago, I couldn’t find any sources from the time readily available on the internet – let me know if you have any, though, and I will check them out.
Nevertheless, what I did find was arguably even better: a selection of interviews with successful creators that talk about the series’ effects on their childhood, upbringing, and eventual career choices. Harekon creator NON, in particular, credits the series heavily in a 2014 Comic Natalie interview. In her own words:
“When I was in first or second grade of elementary school, I picked up a copy of The Adventure of Dai in the park. That was the start of everything. I liked games as a kid so I liked Dragon Quest – ‘Ah, it’s a Dragon Quest manga!’, I thought and got excited. When I read it, I got hooked. And as the volumes progressed, the human drama also got really interesting – it was quite intense for a kid.”
NON’s experience is interesting as it speaks to the fact that The Adventure of Dai got popular not just because of the popularity of Dragon Quest at the time, but also because it was well written. Familiarity may have provided the trigger, but it was not the reason why readers stuck around. Comedian and actor Akira Kawashima confirms as in another Natalie interview from last year, where he introduced five of his favorite manga. Placing The Adventure of Dai next to the likes of Ashita no Joe and Parasyte, he explains his reasoning as follows:
“I chose this because I really, really like Dragon Quest. But, at the time, there were a lot of Dragon Quest manga, and The Adventure of Dai stood out from all of them because [the character of] Pop was too good. […]
At first, he would run away from anything and everything – he really was a terrible character. (laughs) But since there were nothing but geniuses around him [referring to the rest of the cast], I understood that ‘if I were to go to this world, I’d probably be like him.’ […]
A guy like that, who was such a weakling, was somehow able to get it together and take on the Great Demon Lord, even nearly eclipsing the main character, Dai. There’s not many manga like that. I think that the people who read the series as it was being published were encouraged by Pop’s growth, and that’s sort of similar to Hiroto from Rokudenashi Blues.”
The Adventure of Dai and the Power of Shonen Manga
Kawashima hits upon something special here. It was not merely the fact that The Adventure of Dai was related to Dragon Quest that made it popular, nor the fact that it was published by Weekly Shonen Jump. Arguably, the fact that it was accessible to a wide variety of readers doesn’t even matter. What matters is the fact Riku Sanjo and Koji Inada used the medium of manga to its fullest, creating a series that has stood the test of time as a result.
At its heart, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai is a shonen manga. That might sound obvious given that it was published in Weekly Shonen Jump, but honestly surprised me when I read it for this article: it incorporates everything that makes shonen manga great, alongside everything that makes Dragon Quest great.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read enough in time to finish this article to confirm whether Pop’s character development is as good as Kawashima makes it out to be, but I can certainly imagine so. Part of the reason why I have always been attracted to shonen manga – and serialized media in general – is the feeling of growing up alongside these characters, encouraging their growth and being encouraged by them yourself. The same goes for Dragon Ball back in the day as much as it does for Jujutsu Kaisen and My Hero Academia right now.
Being published over seven years and thirty-seven collected volumes, Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai is certainly a grand adventure befitting of the name. But it is much more than that. It is a shining example of the best of what shonen manga can be, earning its spot next to the likes of Dragon Ball, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and even Video Girl Ai as part of the Golden Age of Weekly Shonen Jump. It deserves to be better appreciated.
You can watch the new Adventure of Dai series as it airs via Crunchyroll.