hether you’re an anime fan or not, chances are you’ve heard about Dragon Ball Z. Originally broadcast in Japan from 1989 to 1996 before being syndicated in the West just a few years later, the series picked up where its predecessor Dragon Ball (1986) left off, and in doing so left the world with some of the most iconic and compelling anime characters of all time.
Except that they’re not. Okay, iconic maybe. You can’t really argue that DBZ hasn’t made a name for itself as its characters are still some of the most recognizable faces in anime, along with Astro Boy, Sailor Moon and Hello Kitty. But compelling? I beg to differ.
Here’s the context: The original Dragon Ball series was (at least at first) about the journey of two youngsters, martial arts prodigy Goku and scientific whiz kid Bulma, as they sought the seven mystical “dragon balls” from around the world. The dragon balls, when gathered together, would grant one wish to the collector before dispersing in all directions, unable to be used again for one year.
But as Dragon Ball progressed, the show became less and less about the search for the mystical orbs from which the series drew its name, focusing instead on the martial arts matchups between Goku and whatever villain happened to be terrorizing the planet that week. By the time Dragon Ball Z rolled around, even some of the original cast of characters had been shoved to the sidelines while the bros with the big biceps flexed for the enthralled audiences to admire. The characters would argue about who was stronger before eventually settling it with a punch-up. Which, as everyone knows, is absolutely the way to solve every problem ever. The show became a spectacle, a never-ending series of fisticuffs.
As the show went on, a pattern developed: The Z Fighters (our heroes) would train for a determined period of time, only to come up far short of whatever baddie they crossed paths with. The villain would wipe out nearly the whole gallery of good guys, barely lifting a finger. Then Goku, who was usually late for some reason or another, would show up, struggle, but eventually find a way to win the day, often with an unforeseen trump card or help from an unexpected source. Good prevails, though the cost was almost always heavy.
But then, a very special thing would happen, over and over and over, until it happened so often it was no longer special: our dead heroes would get wished back to life with the dragon balls. Remember those things? REMEMBER?!?!?!
Rather than being the driving plot point for the series, the dragon balls had become thedeus ex machina for bringing back any and every character who met his noble and untimely end in battle.
“Oh right! We have those things! Well that solves our problem perfectly.” [Obvious paraphrase]
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Dragon Balls can only bring someone back to life once. Got me there. Unless you forgot about that other set of dragon balls on another planet that can bring people back to life as many times as they’re needed to drag this broken-down-mule of a show to its next melodramatic rest stop. Honestly, in a universe with telepaths, spacecraft, teleportation and two sets of basically all-powerful wish-fulfillment machines, how is anything a problem for these guys?
From reading this, you might get the impression that I don’t really like DBZ, but that’s not totally true. Sure, there are parts of it I don’t like, but for the most part I actually think it’s a lot of fun, in the same way that professional wrestling can be a lot of fun without being realistically compelling. And that’s just fine.
The problem for me lies in just how meaningless death is in a show like DBZ, when resurrection is so cheap. Coming back from the dead shouldn’t be something that happens lightly, or more than once. It might make sense within its own vacuum or universe, but after a while it becomes a tired rehash, and something altogether routine. How significant would it be for you to have someone you know and love come back to life, if achieving it was basically on the same level as applying for a passport? Sure, you kind of dread doing it, and it might get annoying after the second or third time, but hey, could be worse.
I often find myself wondering what would happen if someone else on earth just so happened to need the dragon balls whenever one of these characters bit the dust. Or is that just it? Are these magical orbs solely reserved for the whims of these few elite beings?
At some point, when all of earth’s problems are left in the hands of just a few god-like and other-worldly figures, it’s hard not to feel a little far-removed, helpless, and that maybe this great power isn’t for me to handle.
But isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to acknowledge our own helplessness and wait for God to swoop in and smack the world senseless with piss and vinegar and a big ol’ pair of biceps?
Maybe to some extent, but I wonder if it’s the ordinary nature of someone like Jesus that makes resurrection all the more extraordinary for those who call themselves Christians. It would make a lot of sense for God to send some Adonis riding in with a katana and a chariot pulled by lions to elbow-drop death and evil back to the Stone Age—it’d probably be more entertaining too.
But instead He sent a baby. He took the expectations of the day and turned them ass-over-teakettle because He knew that resurrection wasn’t the sole possession of those who’d trained at 100x gravity for it—it was a gift. For everyone.
That, for me, is why no matter how entertaining DBZ is, I simply cannot find its characters, or its view of life after death to be compelling. When resurrection becomes the personal credit card of the ‘gods’ among us, it’s not something I can feel any personal connection to, no matter how entertaining it might be. ♦