Akira Toriyama created one of the greatest works of fiction based on The Journey to the West when he began publishing Dragon Ball in 1984. While many franchises from North America and other countries from the West used the Hero’s Journey as the template. However, the Journey to the West was the more common template for stories from China, Japan, and other Eastern countries. This tale famously featured the tales of Sun Wukoung, the Monkey King that inspired Dragon Ball’s main character, Son Goku.
Son Goku was introduced as a young boy that was obsessed with martial arts and becoming stronger. Strangely, he had a monkey tail, but he also lived in a world with talking pigs and cats. So, he did not necessarily stand out at first. However, the scope of his hidden power was revealed under the full moon, when he transformed into a gigantic, destructive great ape. Eventually, his teacher, Master Roshi, decided to end the rampages for good by blowing up the moon.
From 1985 until 1989, the original adventures of Son Goku were published as Dragon Ball. These manga issues cemented the tournament structure that would define the franchise for years to come. Moreover, it introduced some significant villains and groups, like Garlic Jr., the Red Ribbon Army, and King Piccolo. Meanwhile, Goku gained a strong group of friends and allies including Bulma, Krillin, Yamcha, and a pair of former enemies, Tien Shinhan and Chiaotzu. Meanwhile, as Goku faced more powerful foes, he sought out new mentors, starting with Master Roshi, then Korin, and Kami and his attendant Mr. Popo. Most importantly, these years introduced Goku’s future wife: Chi-Chi.
As the manga became a smash hit, Toei Animation stepped up to create the series into an anime. Thus, Goku’s exploits began airing on Japanese television in 1986. Over three years, they produced 153 episodes that detailed the events of the Manga. Moreover, they produced three films for this era. In 1986, Toei released Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies. Then, Dragon Ball: Sleeping Princess in Devil’s Castle came out in 1987. Finally, they produced Dragon: Ball Mystical Adventure in 1989.
Even though Dragon Ball was a hit in Japan, it had yet to make its presence known in America and the rest of the West. So, the only toys for the franchise during this time also came out of Japan and nearby countries. Companies like Bandai produced toys for this early era.
By the 16th volume, readers had seen Goku grow into a man. Thus, when the series launched Dragon Ball Z in May 1989, the story took a much more adult tone. Not only was Goku now an adult, but he also had a young son to help train, Son Gohan.
Along with a new name came a new series of intergalactic threats. First and foremost, Goku faced the truth about his origins, as a Saiyan warrior that his people sent to Earth as an infant to conquer it. Luckily for Earth, a bump on his head led to Goku forgetting about his origins and mission. While he grew up to become the defender of his new home, the surviving Saiyans continued to ruthlessly conquer planets.
When his brother, Raditz, came to Earth, Goku and Piccolo Jr., now known as just Piccolo, fended him off. Unfortunately, Goku lost his life restraining Raditz so that Piccolo could land a killing blow. With two more powerful Saiyans headed to Earth, Goku set off to train in the afterlife with King Kai for a year. Meanwhile, his son, Gohan, trained under Piccolo.
After a year of training, Goku and the Z fighters valiantly fought off two of the most powerful Saiyans, Nappa, and the Prince of the Saiyans, Vegeta. Many of the fighters lost their lives in the struggle, but Goku along with Gohan and Yajirobe managed to defeat Vegeta.
Not long after fending off the Saiyans, Bulma, Gohan, and Krillin set off to explore the homeworld of Kami and Piccolo, Namek. Upon arriving on the planet, they discovered that the powerful Freeza was ransacking the planet to find its dragon balls. Likewise, Vegeta had made his way to the planet to also find the mystical balls that granted wishes. After Goku recovered from his injuries from the prior battle, he also made his way to Namek.
The conflict against Freeza was one of the most taxing battles that Goku and his friends took on. Moreover, the evil emperor had wiped out Planet Vegeta, home of the Saiyans, years ago to prevent the legendary Super Saiyan from ever posing a danger. So, Vegeta and the Z Fighters banded together to take Freeza down. Eventually, Goku powered up into the first Super Saiyan that had been seen in eons.
With a slowly reforming Vegeta, the group returned to Earth to peacefully settle down. However, Vegeta’s future son, Trunks, traveled to their present to warn them of the impending danger of Dr. Gero’s androids. However, he did not know that an even more powerful android had incubated for decades and followed him to the past.
Dr. Gero’s greatest bio-android, Cell, eventually showed himself and ruthlessly drained thousands of their energy to gain power. He eventually hunted down two of the other androids, 17 and 18, to absorb their power and gain his perfect form. Unlike the past battles, Cell proved too powerful for Goku. Instead, Gohan became the first Super Saiyan 2 and defeated Cell by vaporizing him down to the atomic level.
The final threat that the Z Fighters faced in Dragon Ball Z was Buu. The final arc introduced fans to the Super Saiyan 3 form as well as fusion forms. While Goku’s youngest son, Goten, and Trunks fused through the Fusion Dance, Goku, and Vegeta gained a fused form, Vegetto, through the Potara earrings. Once again, Goku and his friends triumphed, but not before the Earth and many other planets were destroyed. Luckily, Buu’s rampage was undone through the power of the Dragon Balls.
Dragon Ball Z was the point that Dragon Ball successfully became a hit in the West. With the episodes airing on Toonami, the call for merchandise grew. Irwin Toy Limited was one of the first Western companies to produce toys. This company created 5” scale action figures in 2001. It lasted for 11 series and luckily covered all of the arcs before Irwin Toys went bankrupt in 2002. After Irwin Toys went under, JAKKS Pacific took over the Dragon Ball license.
After Dragon Ball Z concluded, Torikyama stepped away from the series. However, Toei still had a success on their hands, so they produced a sequel series despite the lack of source material. Dragon Ball GT began airing on Japanese television in 1997. While the story continued to move forward, Toei decided that they needed to return Goku to his most popular form, a child. Thus, Garlic Jr. accidentally de-aged Goku with a misspoken wish. This de-aged Goku then set off on an intergalactic journey with his granddaughter, Pan, and Vegeta’s son, Trunks.
GT presented several threats, starting with a set of Black Star Dragon Balls. The quest to gather this unique set of balls directly led to the first major villain: the last Truffle Baby. To defeat this threat, Goku unlocked the Golden Ape form then Super Saiyan 4. After Baby was eradicated, Goku had to contend against Super 17. The final arc for GT featured the Shadow Dragons, corrupted creatures that formed from the misuse of the dragon balls.
As with Dragon Ball Z, Jakks Pacific produced the American toys for Dragon Ball GT. Meanwhile, Bandai created toys for the series in Japan.
After the conclusion of GT in 1997, Dragon Ball vanished from television for several years. While it had a brief resurgence in 2009 when Toei released Dragon Ball Z Kai, which retold the story from the original series, fans still had to wait years for new adventures.
Finally, a brand-new movie, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods, debuted to great fanfare in 2013. The success of this new movie led to another movie, 2015’s Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’. Soon after, Dragon Ball officially returned to television with Dragon Ball: Super.
These new movies and series ignored the legacy left behind by GT. Instead, Toei presented adventures that were set not long after the Buu saga concluded. It presented a new tier of threat with the first foe being the universe’s God of Destruction, Beerus. Thus, Goku and Vegeta eventually gained Super Saiyan God and Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan forms. Meanwhile, Freeza returned with a new form as well, Golden Freeza.
As the series progressed, multidimensional threats and tournaments came into play. After defeating the crazed gods, Goku Black and Zamasu, Goku, and the Z Fighters entered into the largest tournament to date. The Universal Survival arc forced the most powerful warriors from 8 different universes against each other. During this tournament, Goku unlocked his strongest form to date, Ultra Instinct.
As Super and its movies aired in both Japan and America, Bandai stepped up to produce toys in both territories. For collectors, Bandai’s Tamashii Nations produced multiple action figures for the Figuarts toy line. Meanwhile, they also produced the cheaper Dragon Ball Stars toy line. Both of these lines featured characters from all of Dragon Ball’s history, including Z, GT, and Super.
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