When Akira Toriyama created Dragon Ball, the mangaka had no idea how iconic the franchise would become. Today, the series stands as one of the most popular and well-known anime series of all time. With over 500 chapters and even more episodes to its name, Dragon Ball has become the poster child of action-packed shonen goodness.
However, there are some anime enthusiasts who shy away from the franchise. The long-running series can be intimidating for people who don’t know the first thing about Dragon Ball, but don’t worry; ComicBook.com is here to help.
We’ve gone ahead and broken down Dragon Ball into its elements, separating the franchise’s manga from its anime series and feature films. So, if you’ve been curious about Dragon Ball and its record-breaking run, then we’ve got the answers for you.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Before Dragon Ball was adapted into an anime, it was a manga. The story was written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama between November 1984 and May 1995. Titled Dragon Ball, the series was published entirely by Weekly Shōnen Jump before Sheisha bound them into tankōbon trades for readers.
Akira wrote the series shortly after he gained success with the manga Dr. Slump in 1980. The comedy gave him the clout to pursue Dragon Ball, and the artist jumped at the chance to publish his new story. While Dragon Ball is known for its over-the-top action, the series did not always focus on that. The manga was less about Super Saiyans and more about mythical hijinks when it debuted. Loosely inspired by the Chinese tale Journey to the West, Dragon Ball began as a playful mix between comedy and slapstick action before later chapters delved into more intense action sequences.
When Dragon Ball hit shelves, readers ate up the series and critics praised its complex stories. As such, Toei Animation quickly secured animation rights to the series and premiered its anime adaptation in February 1986.
Dragon Ball covers the first 159 chapters of the manga in about 153 episodes. The series ran for more than three years, and it only ended to divide Akira’s story into two distinct eras. The original series followed protagonist Son Goku as a child in search of seven wish-granting items known as Dragon Balls. Trained in martial arts, Goku begins traveling world to acquire the mystical objects and fights with lots of baddies along the way.
Dragon Ball Z
Shortly after Dragon Ball ended, Toei Animation began work on its sequel Dragon Ball Z. The second series debut the same month that predecessor ended and introduced fans to a more serious, action-packed story than they had seen before.
Dragon Ball Z follows an older Goku as he and his comrades known as Z Fighters defend the planet against nefarious, overpowered villains who seek to destroy it. The series also introduces a second generation of characters to fans. For instance, Goku now has kids of his own named Gohan and Goten who he trains.
When it comes to popularity, Dragon Ball Z reigns supreme in the fandom. This show is the one which grabbed the attention of foreign audiences and led ushered in a new era of anime lovers.
Dragon Ball GT
If you talk about Dragon Ball GT with fans, you may want to speak lightly. Opinions about the show are varied to say at the least since its canonicity has been questioned ever since it premiered in 1996.
Dragon Ball GT is a sequel to the Dragon Ball Z series. The show is set five years after the latter ended and sees Goku turned back into a child. The hero then travels across the universe to find the Black Star Dragon Balls which deaged him, and they also run into an adversary who is bent on ending the Saiyan race during their travels.
Most fans tend to frown upon Dragon Ball GT. Unlike its contemporaries, this anime is not based on any manga created by Akira; Instead, it tells an original story conceived by Toei Animation. As such, diehard Dragon Ball lovers argue that show is not considered canon to the overall franchise though Akira has referred to Dragon Ball GT as a “side story” of the original anime.
Dragon Ball Kai
After the dismal reception of Dragon Ball GT, Toei Animation refrained from rolling out any new series. However, they did go ahead and rerelease Dragon Ball Z under the new name Dragon Ball Kai.
Toei Animation created the remake in honor of the franchise's 20th anniversary. And, of course, the overhaul would hopefully make fans forget the bad taste that Dragon Ball GT left in their mouths. The studio took the original Dragon Ball Z series and digitally traced over the animations to make the show look more contemporary. Dragon Ball Kai also removed content from the sequel which wasn't sourced from Akira's manga. The move ultimately cut Dragon Ball Kai down to 167 from 291, and fans were pleased to see much of that filler go.
Dragon Ball Super
Once Dragon Ball Kai ended, fans were left in a perpetual limbo. No one knew whether Toei Animation would produce another series after Dragon Ball GT failed to impress audiences. But, after an 18-year wait, the company finally came through and released a much better series titled Dragon Ball Super.
Dragon Ball Super acts a sequel to Dragon Ball Z and takes place after Goku’s planet is at peace. The hero and his friends have all but returned to their normal way of life when another intergalactic threat comes knocking at their atmosphere. The so-called God of Destruction is eager to take on Goku after hearing about the hero’s strength, and the baddie is willing to end the universe to do so.
While the anime is not based off any of Akira’s manga, he did create the series. The artist also provided character designs for Toei Animation to use as inspiration, and fans have been grateful for Akira’s return. Since the show debuted, more than 60 episodes have aired, and Dragon Ball Super began simulcasting to the U.S. this month so fans can watch the on-going series.
When an anime becomes popular, it is expect that the series will spin-off an film or two to satisfy fans. So, when you consider how popular Dragon Ball has become, then it is not surprising to hear the franchise has spawned 19 films.
The first Dragon Ball movie was released back in December 1986 when The Legend of Shenlong hit Japanese theaters. The most recent film, Resurrection of F, premiered last year. These movies are often collected alongside several feature-length television specials which the franchise has produced. For instance, an hour-long crossover special between Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Toriko aired back in 2013 to the delight of anime fans everywhere.
Video Game Adaptations
If you thought the number of Dragon Ball films was huge, just wait until you hear how many video games belong to the franchise. Since 1986, dozens of console games and arcade titles have been released which feature Goku and his crew of Z Fighters. Now, in 2016, there are well over 80 video games housed under the acclaimed franchise.
For decades, many Dragon Ball video games were kept abroad in Japan due to licensing concerns. The first game was released in September 1986 for the Super Cassette Vision as that was before the time of consoles like PlayStation. The most recent game, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, just debuted in North America for current-gen consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. And, so far, the game's reviews are on the favorable side.