3.4.08

Guilty Pleasures - Dragonball Z


I'm what you'd call a casual anime fan. My early experience with the genre was filtered through whatever early American cable TV channels were available in the early 80's. At the time of Robotech and Voltron, Speed Racer and even lesser known shows like Tranzor Z, there was no Cartoon Network. There wasn't the Manga Entertainment distributor and wouldn't be until 1991. (Oddly enough manga is the japanese word for comics. Anime is an adopted term for japanese animation. For a while it was japanime. To this day there's a confusion between magna and anime and having a movie company named thusly is akin to calling an American film company "Reader's Digest.")

Even before mainstream cartoons in the US adopted so many anime shows, we knew what it was. Young writings and discussions debated why these new shows had characters with big eyes and pointy noses and sharp chins. We noticed that all the robots looked like they wore cowboy boots. For us, it was a kung-fu movie. It was foreign and the dialog soundtrack didn't sync. It was fast moving and a little more grown up than we were used to. There was an attention to detail and emotion we hadn't seen in many shows before. When you've grown up on Tom and Jerry, Looney Toons and Smurfs and suddenly you see Robotech and its themes of love and growing up and war, the world changes. I'm sure everyone has their moments when they realize that just because it's four colors, doesn't mean it's just eye candy - that there can be more to what you've assumed as entertainment.

But my guilty pleasure isn't anime. Movies like Akira, Ninja Scroll and Macross Plus do not make me feel bad about watching them. No one gives me a hard time for enjoying those movies. They are skillfully made and hold up very well over time.

No, my guilty pleasure is a sh┼Źnen (teenage boy) show called Dragonball Z.

Dragonball is one of if not the most successful magna (re: comic) in Japan. It's print run was from 1984-1995 and it was later adapted into a long running TV series. Dragonball centers around a young boy named Son Goku who is from world of warriors. He's sent to Earth while an infant to be a sleeper agent. His race conquers planets by sending warriors early to avoid suspicion. At the right age, they turn into giant apelike berserkers with enormous power. They wipe out all life on the planet and then put it up for sale. Goku bumps his head coming to Earth and his amnesia prohibits him from completing his mission.

But that's not the main story. The main bit is there are these mystical artifacts called dragonballs that when all collected call forth a wish granting dragon. Most of the stories involved Goku learning to fight and trying to find all seven dragonballs.

Dragonball Z shifts to Goku as a child-at-heart adult and his continued adventures with his friends. I knew nothing about the original or the magna when I started watching it on Cartoon Network in the late 90's, but I was immediately captured by the idea of a bunch of super powered martial arts experts fighting aliens to save the world.

Unfortunately, it's not even as cool as I try to make it sound. DBZ suffers from a lot of posturing. Each episode is only 20 minutes long and in that 20 minutes there will be MAYBE 90 seconds of actual fighting. I'm not a violence junkie, but I do love me some super fast martial arts and chi powered fireballs. The problem with this show, and the reason I feel guilty about watching it, is that while it was popular in Japan, it's sort of ridiculed in the US as being a pointless, horribly written piece of junk. And it is fairly puerile and shallow, but sometimes you need that. You can't always watch the technical brilliance of Lost or the insightful wonder of Arrested Development. Sometimes you need an escape from your escape.

There was one moment when I knew DBZ and I would have a long and blissfully colored relationship. The story exists in long arcs and round about the third arc (the Frieze Saga) there's a bit where Goku transforms into this ultimate warrior, this Super Sayjin of myth and legend because he let his anger and frustration at the death of his friend push his power beyond the limits he knew. The love for his friend and the rage he felt at his death caused a change in him that was almost cathartic and being someone who suffers from anger, frustration and control issues, I instantly identified and almost idolized this character. He reached a point by letting his anger blossom to where he was stronger but also more confident and in much more control. A mental barrier had been breeched and all it took was an enormous amount of stubbornness to break through to that area of his mind that held his true power.

In the same vein, I also identified a bit with Mister Furious from Mystery Men. "No, anger REALLY rising!"

It's the Dark Side of the Force, really. It's the idea that your anger and hate can make you powerful. But in Goku's case, the anger and hate brought him the power, but also a sense of right and goodness. All he wanted to do was avenge his friend and save Earth, and if that meant getting pissed, then I say more power to him.

If I could find a way to condense all the DBZ episodes down to just the fights, I think I'd be very happy. I don't care about his friend the pig or his wife or the various side story wrestlers and fighters they run into. It's such a dichotomy because I really like half of the show and really detest the other half. But I keep coming back to it like a whipped pup. I don't expect it to be different, I guess I expect me to be different.

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