Talk about Dragon Ball long enough, and you’re bound to listen to a joke about shirtless men screaming at each other while their hair gets inexplicably sharper. In much of the most popular imagination, the franchise evokes thoughts of a children’anime show by which animated characters yell and power up and flex for a number of episodes in a line, an endless prelude to actual fighting. Nevertheless, in 2019—35 years after the original manga, written and drawn by Akira Toriyama, premiered in Japan—Dragon Ball is just a sensation.
The story of Goku, a son with a tail looking to develop stronger, and Bulma, a pro girl seeking wish-granting orbs, has long grown into an international pop cultural juggernaut, but almost two decades after its original animated run came to its completion in the United States and Japan, Dragon Ball is having a moment. A year ago, the finale of the modern Dragon Ball anime, Dragon Ball Super, drew record audiences, filling stadiums in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America drawing tens of thousands of people. Dragon Ball FighterZ, one of the best games of a year ago, became the hottest new title on the competitive fighting-game circuit. And this week a brand new feature film, Dragon Ball Super: Broly, earned over $7 million dollars on its first day in theaters—an astronomical number for a limited-run anime film.
“It is very surprising if you ask me,” says Chris Sabat, a Texas-based voice actor and producer who has voiced Vegeta, Goku’s rival, in just about every piece of Dragon Ball media created considering that the mid-’90s. “I honestly thought this would be a job that lasted me a year or something such as that. I’d no clue dragon ball super.” Instead, it’s lasted him about 20, without any signs of reducing now. But while Sabat’s benefit a lengthy period was either redubbing remastered versions of the anime or rehashing the same kind of stories in several approximately mid-budget videogames, now he’s focusing on entirely new material, with an increased budget and more attention than ever before.
Why now? How did a niche childhood sensation—Sabat says he used to describe it to confused parents as “Pokemon but with fighting”—develop into a resurgent cultural juggernaut?
Partially, it’s just the right demographic at the proper time. “Dragon Ball was initially sold as a kid’s show, because in 1998 the networks still believed that cartoons were for kids,” Sabat says. But, he continues, those kids are now actually exactly the same age whilst the franchise’s initial fans: “The people who loved Dragon Ball in Japan in 1998 and 2000 were individuals of all ages, particularly people within their twenties have been reading these manga on the subway on the solution to work.”
Quite simply, Dragon Ball has managed to keep pace with its audience. Quickly after Akira Toriyama began the manga, which was in the beginning a madcap adaptation of Journey to the West, the narrative started initially to shift, emphasizing fighting and superhuman strength over hijinks. Following a significant time jump near the middle of the manga’s run, hero Son Goku was revealed to be not a monkey boy but in fact a member of a battle of superpowered alien warriors—because sure, why not?
From there, the series leaned heavily into melodrama and impossible action, a direction that it’s only doubled down on during its current revival, a renaissance that began with the 2013 movie Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods. From a particular, goofy adventure story, Dragon Ball has grown into something more totemic and straightforward, something almost like professional wrestling: An accumulation of stories about larger-than-life heroes and villains brawling, with stakes which can be both impossibly high and completely absent. The great guys will win and the bad guys will bleed; justice meted by cartoon fists and psychic energy beams.
But there’s another reason for the Dragon Ball resurgence, too, and that’s that it’s been so damn good lately. When the first Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z anime series were created, they were modest operations, with limited budgets, questionable dubbing, and no direct involvement from Akira Toriyama himself, who was busy writing the manga. Now, the new movies and the Dragon Ball Super anime (which, while discontinued, is rumored to return) are being created with Toriyama’s direct involvement and an elevated focus on the value of good animation. While Super, as any fan can tell you, has its rough moments in terms of visual quality, moments late in the series are incredibly visually compelling, and Dragon Ball Super: Broly is the best the franchise has ever looked.