Millennial Nostalgia: Dragon Ball Z

DBZ is one of the most important TV shows—if not the most important—of my childhood. I hurried to do my homework so I could turn on the TV and what did I switch it to? That’s right. I watched Toonami (Tom!). I also played with action figures and swapped videos and made my friend try to fuse with me. I was terrified of Imperfect Cell and giggled at Trunks and Goten’s antics. I drew fan art in class and wrote and drew fan fiction stories in my down time.

I loved this show. I still love this show.

Good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. Filler vs. plot. Family, friends, the fight. DBZ has it all and then some. And please come explore with me why I consider it to be as relevant and poignant and potent as ever.

*MINOR spoilers ahead*

1. The Characters. Akira Toriyama’s Z Fighters are iconic, from those we know best—Goku, Vegeta, Gohan, Piccolo, Krillin, Future Trunks, Kid Trunks, Goten, Android 18—to those we got a little bit less of over time—Master Roshi, Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, Yajirobe—to the more cerebral characters mixed in with the newer ones—Bulma, Chi-Chi, Hercule, Videl, Dende, Ox King. And of course we have our staple villains: Frieza, Cell and Majin Buu. But what I now find the most interesting about our cast of characters is not their power levels  but rather how far over the course of nine seasons the characters came.

Toriyama, FUNimation and their writing crews should teach classes on character arcs. Look at Android 18 or 16 or, if you want to go all the way back to Dragon Ball, look  a little at Krillin or Tien. Then come back and look at Piccolo. Look at Vegeta. Even Hercule to the smallest degree. All these people’s hearts changed, whether it was a little shift or a ginormous rupture in the darkness within. From jerky little rivalries to best friends. From seeking world domination to calling the world your home and yourself one of its protectors—from trying to kill a father to learning to love and protect his son. From a bionic being programmed to destroy a man to choosing not to.  From bloodthirsty murderer to a co-leader in allied fighting, and from a relentless rival to a fusion partner and friend. From hailing yourself as the greatest champion in all the world to knowing and accepting that you’re not…no matter how much you still get to pretend to be, oh, brother (heh).

These evolutions are staggering, and the events that take place in Dragon Ball Z could not have happened the way they did if the characters hadn’t learned there are other ways to be strong, other ways to come into oneself and other choices to make. Better choices to make. For me most of these choices could not have been made without the protagonist of the Dragon Ball series, Son Goku.

Although Gohan was my favorite growing up (we always seemed to be around the same age/maturity stage), Goku is my favorite character. I adore him even when I don’t entirely understand him. But I love his righteousness,as well as his steadfast mercifulness in battle. The man is so honest and silly and simple, and because he is who he is and does what he does, he leaves a positive effect on the world around him. That’s a beautiful person—one not without complex life events or emotions plaguing him but not one to let them control or degrade him. I’m inspired by that, as a writer and a person. I’m inspired by Gohan, who proves you can’t put a limit or a label on the potency of a kid’s influence. I’m inspired by Krillin, who jumps in to give it his all until the threat is eliminated or his body gives out. I admire Vegeta, who eventually considers what he’s done and is also able to move ahead and commit himself to a better path than the one he went down in the past.

I admire their nonfictional traits and am always eager to celebrate all they stand for in their world and ours. Sure they may be fictional. Doesn’t mean we can’t adopt or find pieces of who they are in ourselves, others and our art!

2. The Story and Cast. How I wish I could write a story as great as this. The nine-season tale of Dragon Ball Z is epic, in every sense of the word. From the group’s adventures on Namek to Gohan’s battle against Cell to the many, many versions of Majin Buu, each saga is funny and frightening, intense and then calming. Real-life scenarios even manage to sneak in every now and again, often making the show as thought-provoking as it  is entertaining. We deal with kidnapping, illness, contests, high-school embarrassments and all the consequences. We witness sacrifices and death and life anew. There are even gems (to me) in the filler (hey, the Garlic Jr. saga had a couple moments and Piccolo and Goku learning to drive is possibly the funniest side-plot in DBZ).

I did try Kai and it’s not for me. I like the American version, the FUNimation dub and the Bruce Faulconer soundtracks. I’m sure most of that’s childhood loyalty and I’m sure some lines have gotten lost in translation, but for once I don’t care. I love the first-time-around strength, sensitivity and nobility Seán Schemmel puts into Goku. I love the gruff, gnarled force Christopher R. Sabat gives Vegeta and the softness to it all that he adds to Piccolo. I enjoy the verve Bulma gets from both Tiffany Vollmer in the series and Monica Rial in the movies. And I love the continuity for father and son we get from having Stephanie Nadolny as the voice of both young Goku and young Gohan. So much innocence yet such mature grit.

I think I prefer that Z is rough in its animation and writing, flaws and all. Kai, for me, lacks space to breathe between scenes as well as the emotional rawness delivered in the performances in Z. DBZ doesn’t need to be pretty and polished for me to find my joy in it. I think it has the potential to be just as strong in moments that aren’t perfect: in the moments your imagination latches on to a concept or scene or line and builds upon it itself. Without holes in a scene or dips in the dialogue quality, what’s left to interpret?To dream about? And without them, we wouldn’t have all those awesome colloquialisms that take a good-hearted jab at the show. *Gasp* We wouldn’t have Dragon Ball Z Abridged…seriously, if you haven’t checked out TeamFourStar’s online parody, it’s stupendous. It really is. What they do with characters like Nappa and Nail is downright genius.

But to craft a show with such care, to be intimately involved in the evolution of the characters and the upping of the ante, to watch it grow and grow in popularity over the years—this is the discipline I need to pen a successful series. If you’ll pardon my egotism, I believe I have an idea that could perhaps be a bit as grand as something like this and reservations that are even grander still. But I need to commit more to the idea than to my fears. I can’t be afraid of the mistakes I’m going to make in the process or worry so much that you guys won’t like it that I miss out on what it actually means to write and develop something over an indefinite amount of time with first-time love. I can’t waste my energy! It’s a gift, just like the idea itself and Dragon Ball Z too.

3. The Then-and-Now Factor. Back when I first started watching DBZ, I was at the very most eight years old if not younger than that. I could’ve been described as a tomboyish child, and for me then, watching the show was mostly about the action.

Now, it’s about story and character.

Back then I feel like it was about the power in the fight. Expelling anger. Radiating toughness. Destroying the enemy and taking pleasure and comfort in his/her being destroyed.

Now, I like to think it’s more about the power in mercy. Celebrating moments where the ability to make a change is offered. Turning on the miracle vision—trying to see and be positive about others and life circumstances.

Back then most of it was about identifying with a scared kid who often felt helpless.

Now? It’s almost the same thing but on a more enlightened level: part of it is about identifying with a scared kid who often felt helpless but was not.

Gohan, we know, has plenty of power and so do I. So do you. This show has helped illustrate that to me when I was wallowing in self-pity and on the verge of forgetting. It helped me weather my way through depression at college. It helps me combat bipolar II. It is honestly on a spiritual level with me at this point. I take it as a creative polytheistic tale in which I find a number of Christ-like acts and several types of prayers, blessings and messages:

No, you don’t give up.

Yes, there are many ways to be strong, and measuring yourself against others is not particularly one of them.

Children are strong, sometimes stronger than us adults.

Yes, life is going to hurt and people are going to leave, but in some ways, somehow, they can come back and be with you always.

People can change for the better, and if you’re very careful to pay attention, sometimes you may even have a hand in that.

Yes, you matter, in what you do and say and how you live. And yes, miracles are possible.

This show is so beautiful to me, and it doesn’t escape me how awesomely blessed I am to have grown up with it and to have the privilege of still growing with it. You guys remember The NeverEnding Story? (Of course the majority of you do, you’re Millennials.) Well this is one too. A transcendent, transformative tale that can break barriers between cultures and countries and generations of fans. A tale that makes us better fans by virtue of being so good that it can make us want to take a second and third and twentieth look at the series and its defining moments and learn something new about it—something better about it—as well as ourselves. For as long as we hold it in our lives, we can grow with it.

Dragon Ball Z itself is like a Spirit Bomb. It can join us, inside of it and outside of it, with so many figures offering so many types of strengths, fighting back in so many different ways for so many different reasons: in the name of themselves and each other and of pride, protection, peace and goodness. Yet another connector for the kindred hearts of the burdened and broken, and a celebration of the allocation of teachings and talent and the universalism found in excitement and hope. And so we launch this bomb in defense against discouragement and desolation and depression and darkness and all the other d-words with pejorative connotations. Oh, we launch it, all right. We launch it and we do it together. That’s the beauty of it, if you ask me. The togetherness. Oh, the togetherness.

Kinda makes you wanna stroll outside and throw your hands up to the sky and gift your energy to whoever in the universe needs it, doesn’t it?

Well, if not, that’s okay too.

But yeah… I hope I can capture a semblance of this kind of unity and spirit in my work.

We’ll seeeee…

Fellow Millennials, do you still love Dragon Ball Z (or one of its sister series)? Why? Please, if you wish, share your experience of being part of this Spirit Bomb in a comment below. Thanks.

-BP

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