Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dragon Ball Vol. 1: The Monkey King by Toriyama Akira

Every popular story has its origins in something more obscure. This is certainly the case with the ever popular Dragon Ball series. In the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty a Chinese novel called 西遊記 was written. Yeah, I know you can't read that, but it apparently means Journey to the West. Just reading about that book is pretty fascinating and I'd like to read it one day myself, but that isn't the focus of the this entry. 

One of the characters of that old Chinese novel is a character named Sun Wukong. Of course, the Japanese equivalent of that is Son Gokū. In the States we just call him Goku. 

In the old Chinese novel Sun Wukong is called the Monkey King and he wields a staff that can change size. He wears cloud-walking boots, too. This should sound extremely familiar if you know your Dragon Ball. If you don't then consider this a bit of a lesson in both Dragon Ball history and Chinese literature. Rúyì Jīngū Bàng is the Chinese term for the staff, but the name for it in the manga series is Nyoi-Bo. In the Funimation Dub of the anime it's called the Power Pole. In place of the cloud-walking boots of Sun Wukong, Goku gets a flying cloud named Kinto-un from the Turtle Hermit. 

Dragon Ball was originally released in 42 tankōbon. You've probably heard me talk about Dragon Ball Z, but there isn't really a Dragon Ball Z as far as the manga is concerned. Sure, later issues were retitled Dragon Ball Z, but that's because of the popularity of the anime. 

If you are curious then the Dragon Ball Z part of the story doesn't begin until issue 17 of the Dragon Ball manga and continues until the final issue 42. Much like Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, the two anime are an adaptation of the same manga. So don't be thrown off by the different titles. 

I haven't stressed this before, but if you want to watch Dragon Ball Z (or read the retitled manga) then please start with Dragon Ball first. I never did it that way, but I wish I had. It would have made certain events in Dragon Ball Z that much more impactful. 

Anyway, let's get down to the manga. The first volume is comprised of eleven chapters and a lot of familiar faces (to me, anyway) are quickly introduced. The first is Son Goku, our main character. For some odd reason he has a monkey tail, but everything else about him appears to be normal. Except for his inhuman strength. No, Goku isn't anywhere near strong as he later will be, but he can still lift up a car and take a bullet to the face without getting killed. 

Goku lives out in the boonies by himself although there is this odd-looking glowing ball that he calls his "grampa" sharing the house with him. In this volume he's introduced as being 14 years old and that took me by surprise because I could have sworn he was much younger. Perhaps that was the Funimation dub of the anime misleading me again. Still, Goku is the very definition of innocence and naivete. 

The first character Goku meets is the city girl Bulma. Bulma is a feisty sixteen year old girl on the lookout for both love and the infamous dragonballs. With the help of her handy dandy dragon radar, Bulma has made her way out to the middle nowhere in search of the four star dragonball. This just happens to be the very same ball that Goku calls his grampa. 

Unfortunately for Bulma, Goku has never seen a car or a girl before and this leads to a slight skirmish. Perhaps this is a sign of me becoming more mature or less cool, but I was pretty shocked when Bulma came out with a gun and shot Goku in the face. No, it didn't hurt Goku that much, but it made me remember just how violent and mature Dragon Ball is even though it often indulges in a bit of immature humor. Think about it. A sixteen year out girl shooting a fourteen year old boy in the face? It's played off like it isn't a big deal, but that's a pretty fucked up scenario anyway you look at it. 

At this point in the series it's pretty obvious that you shouldn't take anything too seriously. It's just a silly and fun read. That's not too say things aren't going to get serious later on, but Akira has a goofy humor laced throughout this entire series and it's front and center in the first volume. There are plenty of sexual innuendoes that will keep you grinning like an idiot. The second chapter called No Balls had me laughing so hard and I'm sure the title of the chapter should give you an idea of the level of inappropriateness involved. 

After Bulma finally manages to coax Goku into let her have his "grampa," Goku joins up with Bulma to make sure nothing happens to the four star ball. And thus the epic journey begins. What are they searching for? The dragonballs, of course! What are they? Well, when you get all seven of them together you get to have one whole wish. Of course, that requires a lot of journeying to strange lands, but these two are certainly up to it. For the moment, anyway. There's just no telling who else might be on the lookout for the dragonballs, too. 

Later chapters introduce such characters as Oolong the Terrible, Pu'ar, Lord Yamcha, Kame-Sen'nin the Turtle Hermit (Master Roshi or Muten Roshi), Chi-Chi, and the Gyū Ma'ō (Ox King). All of them will become very familiar to you in future volumes. Or if you are reading the manga for the first time after having seen the Funimation dub of the anime then you get the chance to see your favorite characters in a new light and with their original (for the most part) names, too. 

You also get to hear them talk differently. All of these characters seem to have a strong southern twang going on. Some folks might not like it, but it really does make sense considering the setting of the story and who the majority of the characters are. In a way, this first volume could be described as saying it's about Japanese rednecks who live in Chinese houses and go by Chinese-sounding names and just happen to have super powers inspired (to a degree) by an old Chinese legend. 

It really is a goofy story and it's even goofier considering that Oolong the Terrible, Lord Yamcha, and the Ox King have the honor of being the villains of this volume. I don't say that to sound insulting, but Goku's first fight against Yamcha isn't quite in the same league as so many of the later fights in the story. 

But you have to start somewhere and the first volume of Dragon Ball is the perfect building block for a great story. Hard to believe this story is thirty years old. 

P.S. - The first volume equates to about the first six episodes of the anime. Emperor Pilaf and his henchmen don't make an appearance at all during this volume so any appearance by them before episode ten should be considered filler. 

 P.P.S - Akira modeled Goku after Sun Wukong to a degree, but he wasn't the only character to get that treatment. Bulma is from Xuanzang, Oolong is from Zhu Bajie, and Yamcha is from Sha Wuling. If you look that up it actually makes sense what with Zhu Bajie being a pig and Sha Wuling being a guy from a desert and that good stuff. I'm not quite sure how Akira got Bulma from Xuanzang, but I'll take his word for it. 

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