Dragon Ball Z: An Exercise in Extrapolation

Dragon Ball Z is a typical action cartoon. Goku (the protagonist) essentially a humanoid alien with superhuman strength a planet of which he is one of the very few survivors. What Goku does with his abilities, as well as his relationship to them, is key: He shows mercy to his enemies, even when they threaten or kill his friends and family (it should also be noted that he has a wife and a son, two facts which secure his heterosexuality). More importantly, Goku retains a “pure heart” (http://dragonball.wikia.com/wiki/Flying_Nimbus). Therefore, he demonstrates unquestionable strength of character. Dragon Ball Z, then, seems to be about doing the right thing even when it’s hard in actively protecting whatever one deems important.

While I agree with this statement, I feel as if Dragon Ball Z does even more than that. Sean Griffin’s analysis of Davy Crocket in his piece, Davy Crockett and Children’s Space, aptly applies to Dragon Ball Z on what I believe to be a fundamental and potentially frequently overlooked level. He asserts that Davy Crocket is a “preserver of childhood innocence” (Griffin, 112), a label I believe also applies to Dragon Ball Z’s main character. Indeed, Goku retains a childlike demeanor throughout the series. His innocence is further evidenced by his unwavering faith in all people.

From the perspective of a parent, then, while Dragon Ball Z is relatively violent, it nevertheless sends several positive messages: That good wins out over evil, hard work is more important than privilege (Goku works hard for his strength despite not being of a particularly physically powerful lineage), and innocence can be retained even when the world has been completely annihilated by a power-hungry cyborg. Dragon Ball Z is also a reasonable safe show in that it depicts the frontier (in the form of alien planets) as a space that “idealize[s] and romanticize[s] the individual” (Griffin 106) that is nevertheless unreachable. It thus gives children an imaginary space in which to play while keeping them confined to the comforts of their home and glued to their TV sets. The underlying message seems to be that there are literally hundreds of worlds to explore, but almost all of them are dangerous, and all the hero wants to do is go home. These alternate worlds (and even universes) have resonances with the Western frontier of Davy Crockett insofar as each product romanticized the untamed wild at the same time as it ensured that said spaces were only accessible through the television and that the comforts of the home (world) always won out in the end.

When I was a child, I raced to our TV to watch the newest episode of Dragon Ball Z every Wednesday night. My long-lasting relationship was the show was comprised of more than fandom, however. Yes, I did integrate the aforementioned messages into my own set of values. Yet I took those values a step further: I used them as a means of self-regulation. I feared that thinking negatively or acting out would result in an inability to obtain a “pure heart.” For me, then, Dragon Ball Z was not really a way for me to “break out of [my] engendered roles and spaces” (Griffin, 115) (I felt as if my parents created a home in which I could do that with relative safety). Instead, the show took on a more personal meaning. The messaged seemed to be that happiness and friends come from the ability to remain innocent, honest, and generally a good person. On some level, this message is in line with that which is most likely intended by Dragon Ball Z’s producers: I adopted the values of virtuousness and strength just like I was supposed to. On the other hand, my interpretation was extreme and literal. It therefore challenged the traditional, intended reading of the text because children shows are meant to teach a moral, not preach a way of life. I extrapolated from what was in front of me and rewrote the meaning of the show so it suited the context of my personal life. My use of Dragon Ball Z was thus nontraditional and deviated from the original purpose of the media, which is to a large extent entertainment and the communication of a set of morals deemed acceptable by society.

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2 thoughts on “Dragon Ball Z: An Exercise in Extrapolation

  1. LOVE this post, Wendy. I especially love that you did something very different with the text than we usually think of when we think of “poaching” — namely, you were directly influenced by it in a way that most parents (and critical media theorists) would argue doesn’t really happen (kids aren’t violent because of violence on tv, etc.) But what’s fascinating is that you didn’t co-opt the actions so much as the morality — and that, I’d say, is something far more insidiously passed along, for better or for worse. Do you feel like you’re still affected by the adopted moral universe?

  2. To some degree, yes. I feel as if that strong and influential of a belief system stays with someone to some degree and in some form throughout adulthood.

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