From the beloved original, to the bombastic “Z”, to even the currently airing “Super”, fans internationally have spent decades falling in love with the world of Akira Toriyama’s “Dragon Ball”. While Akira Toriyama’s work has made such waves in pop culture - really, just think of all the references to dragon balls, super saiyans and “It’s over 9000!!!” that you’ve ever heard - there’s been much discussion over how much Akira Toriyama innovated, and just how much is par for the course of its genre. So let’s break it down here, and talk about how and why “Dragon Ball” so perfectly meets the criteria for Essential Wuxia.
To begin with, what are the most important aspects of a wuxia series? There are, of course, the martial arts, the chi and the existence of the jianghu, or the martial world, but we believe there’s more to it than that. Themes of empowerment are just as important, and they exist in several forms: physical empowerment, spiritual empowerment, and the ability for everyone - no matter who - to be a hero.
Physical empowerment is perhaps the most straightforward one, essentially being the martial arts and chi aspects of wuxia. “Dragon Ball” is at its core the prototypical power-scaling anime. While it begins with more mundane martial arts, it certainly doesn’t take long for characters to start shooting ki blasts and kamehamehas. Every fight is about the next big blow, and the most exciting part becomes finding out what new powers are unveiled next.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, spiritual empowerment is about growing stronger as a person. Perhaps the most clear example of this is in Vegeta, Goku’s ever-scowling rival. When he first appears, Vegeta is the biggest threat Goku has ever faced. He levels a city, ruthlessly kills his own ally, attacks Goku’s son, and is only stopped after an intense battle. Vegeta, like all Saiyans, loved finding the next big opponent but unlike Goku, he didn’t care about how many people he hurt in the process. Over the course of the rest of the series, Vegeta ends up having a son and builds a family. While he never stops being a sourpuss, the experience of having people he actually wants to protect and care for makes him a much better person. His fights become more than just a way to puff up his fragile ego, they become a way to keep what’s precious to him safe.
Now, Goku is infamous for being somewhat stupid, but that doesn’t mean he never grows in other ways. In a way, Goku’s growth is very similar to Vegeta’s. At the beginning of “Dragon Ball”, Goku lived a secluded life in the mountains, completely oblivious to the ways of the world. Over the course of his travels, Goku learns a lot. Some of it is practical, like what ‘money’ is and what a ‘bride’ is, but he also discovers things he values more than his own life, like his friends and family. Inherently, Goku is a good and pure character. He doesn’t chase material wealth, and he isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes - even repeatedly laying down his life - to help his friends, or even the universe at large.
Finally, the ability for everyone to become a hero. This one might sound a bit strange in a series full of super humans and gods, but “Dragon Ball” is really chock full of examples. Take Krillin, or Yamcha, or Mr. Satan. All three of them are simply humans, especially Mr. Satan, but they make major, lasting impacts on the world and the story. Krillin, a pure-blooded human who trained together with Goku under Master Roshi, eventually becomes ‘The Strongest Earthling’ through a few fortunate encounters. Yamcha, while far less powerful than most of the main cast, is undeniably a good-hearted person who always steps up when Goku or any of the more capable characters can’t make it in time. Especially in the earlier episodes, Yamcha shines as a character way out of his depth, but who still tries to help in any way he can. Even Mr. Satan, who’s a braggart and is less powerful than Yamcha, manages to make a difference during the Majin Buu arc. Despite being completely incapable of fighting someone as dangerous as Majin Buu, he still manages to teach Buu morality and the value of life. When push comes to shove, this is enough to physically split Buu in half, forcing his good and evil halves to fight. Although not everyone is a powerful superhuman like Goku, it’s undeniable that anyone can make a difference - even a small one.
So, “Dragon Ball” has a very wuxia setting. It has very wuxia themes. Goku is a wandering martial artist, going wherever the next big fight takes him. What more could make it a wuxia? Well, even beyond everything else here, “Dragon Ball” is heavily inspired by the “Journey to the West”, a classic Chinese story, which tells the tale of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, as he makes his way to the India alongside a monk and several other companions to find Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. Sun Wukong, in Japanese, is ‘Son Goku’, and he fights with a magical pole that he can extend and retract at will, and he rides a cloud. Goku can literally transform into a monkey, has a magical pole that can extend and retract at will, and he rides the Flying Nimbus. There are other examples too, but the most important part is that “Dragon Ball” has very Chinese roots.
If any anime deserves to be called wuxia, it’s “Dragon Ball”.
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