Dragon Ball is one of the most recognizable brands on the planet and has been going strong for nearly three decades. Whether you know it from its humble days as Dragon Ball, its first worldwide boom years as Dragon Ball Z, or in the present era reborn as Dragon Ball Super, the franchise has left a planet-sized crater in pop culture. Its influence can be felt from everything to animation, comics, traditional movies, and even live sports.
Yes, there are huge energy blasts, big hair, and power ups that take three episodes to complete, but what the franchise is really about is conviction, competition, and connection. Being a long-runner since the late-80s leaves plenty of things that need explanation. We’re here to do our best to give you the basics of this prolific shonen franchise before you can fire off a Kamehameha with this Dragon Ball beginner’s guide.
Who Created Dragon Ball?
Akira Toriyama is the mangaka behind the entire Dragon Ball mythos. Taking a break from his breakout action-comedy manga Dr. Slump, Toriyama came up with Dragon Ball as a relatively short endeavor that paid homage to the beloved Chinese fairy tale epic, Journey to the West. When its popularity eclipsed anything he had done previously, Toriyama was convinced to keep it going.
Toriyama’s art style has become iconic enough that some of his previous work can become retroactively recognizable, especially to us in the west. Most notably, he’s the man responsible for the Chrono Trigger art, as well as his entire aesthetic being the bedrock of the legendary Dragon Quest series visuals.
What’s Dragon Ball About?
Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z follows Son Goku, an energetic, powerful, and absent-minded young man as he learns the magic and power of the mystical Dragon Balls – seven mystical orbs that when gathered, will summon Shenron, the Eternal Dragon, to grant any single wish. Many fights and adventures ensue, each one pushing him to his limits as a martial artist, which makes the incredibly competitive Goku happy as can be.
By the time of Dragon Ball Z, Goku is a father and the allure of the Dragon Balls is no longer contained to Earth itself. After Goku’s long-lost brother Raditz visits Earth and lets Goku know that his unnatural power is due to him being from a bloodthirsty alien race called the Saiyans, Goku and an ensemble cast including his son Gohan, rival-turned-coparent Piccolo, and eternal rival Vegeta have to save the galaxy from extraterrestrial, magical, and mechanical threats. This all while having a central theme of always trying to improve as a person and as a fighter, that no power is truly absolute, and that bettering oneself requires the help of other people.
What’s the Difference Between All the Series?
There are three total canonical series that carry the Dragon Ball name based on the manga. There is, however, a fourth anime-only series that is not canon, but is still officially licensed and recognized by the franchise.
The original Dragon Ball covers the first 194 chapters of the manga that covers the much more action-comedy adventures of Goku and his band of friends from youth to adulthood as they gather and protect the Dragon Balls and save the Earth.
From chapter 195 on, we have Dragon Ball Z, which follows Goku, but more closely his son Gohan, as their adventures open up from just the confines of Earth to across space. This series takes on a much darker and serious tone, shedding the comedy for a focus on action and power that has given rise to its iconic status to this day. This also includes Dragon Ball Z Kai, a sort of updated re-release of the series that trimmed down on the filler. In Japan, there is no difference between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, but they’re split into two distinct properties in the west.
Dragon Ball Super takes place just a couple years after the end of Dragon Ball Z, with a focus on Goku and Vegeta. This time, the scope is expanded even further, as space – or at least one version of space – isn’t enough, growing to include multiverses and timelines. The series regains some of the comedy chops from the original Dragon Ball, but also floors the gas pedal on the power and action scaling. While the story for Super is penned by Toriyama, the art is done by Toyotarou.
The fourth and outlier series, Dragon Ball GT, is an anime-only officially licensed offering made with the permission, but not involvement, of Toriyama. It takes place five years after the events of Dragon Ball Z, with Goku, granddaughter Pan, and whiz kid Trunks having to travel all over the universe for a new, more powerful set of Dragon Balls. It fully embraces the sci-fi part of Dragon Ball, but is considered non-canon. However, characters from the show, like Super Saiyan 4 Gogeta, show up in official releases like Dragon Ball FighterZ, keeping it a part of the Dragon Ball universe.
Where to Watch Dragon Ball
Currently, Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu stream Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball Super. Crunchyroll and Hulu also have Dragon Ball GT.
Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball GT have also had multiple physical versions over the years all available at retailers like Amazon.
Viz Media is home to anything and everything Dragon Ball, from manga to artbooks to movies. Full physical collections are also available at retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Digitally, the comics are available through Comixology, Kindle, Viz’s own website.
In total, there are 20 movies across the three major Dragon Ball series. This includes 3 original Dragon Ball movies, 13 Dragon Ball Z movies, and 4 movies under the Dragon Ball Super umbrella.
Of note, none of the Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z movies are considered canon. However, thanks to Dragon Ball Super introducing multiverses and wonky timelines, they can possibly be considered to have happened in alternate universes. The Dragon Ball Super movies (Battle of Gods, Resurrection F, Broly, and the recently released Super Hero) meanwhile are all canonical.
There are several TV specials across all the series as well, but are not labeled as “movies.” They are also considered canon. These include History of Trunks, Bardock: Father of Goku, and Episode of Bardock. They aren’t necessarily required viewing, but help give depth and understanding to the world of Dragon Ball.
Finally, there is the live-action monstrosity that is Dragon Ball: Evolution that was horribly received. But the less said about that crime against humanity, the better.
Anime You Should Try After Dragon Ball
Considering Dragon Ball’s status as the father of the modern shonen, almost anything in the genre can be a solid next step.
If you want something that’s all about a goofy, powerful hero with a band of friends staying together until adulthood in search of an elusive object that will fulfill all their dreams, it doesn’t get any better than One Piece. The series is infamously long, but the now legendary mangaka behind it, Eiichiro Oda, has stated Akira Toriyama and Dragon Ball are his biggest influences.
For a show with an ensemble class of incredibly distinct characters that takes many of the tropes and ideas Dragon Ball made famous and tweaks them to near perfection, there’s My Hero Academia. The show can probably be described as X-Men meets Dragon Ball, with a cast of young characters with superpowers going to school to learn how to better control them and find their place in a world where most of the population also has superpowers.
If you’re into the fighting or interested to see where a more traditional sci-fi atmosphere would treat the high-speed, energy blasting action, there’s Mobile Fighter G Gundam, the first Gundam series to take place in an alternate continuity. In a future where most of humanity lives in space colonies, the way they determine who gets to lead the colonies every few years is that every nation sends a Gundam to Earth to compete in the Gundam Fight Tournament. Unlike most Gundam series, the political drama takes a backseat so the cool pilots, their cooler giant robots, and the ridiculous action can take center stage.
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