Lessons from Dragon Ball? What can we learn from a nearly forty-year-old anime filled with political incorrectness that was conceived at the peak of Japan’s careening economic boom, before the country’s decades-long economic slump, before the internet, 9/11, 3/11, and before the coronavirus? It turns out quite a bit, if one looks for it. Despite elements of sexism, racism, and homophobia that appear throughout the series, there is still something to be said for the show’s jovial spirit and its pure-hearted hero.
Toriyama Akira wrote the manga Dragon Ball over eleven years from 1984–1995, a follow-up to his successful wacky series Dr. Slump. Alongside the manga’s publication, a popular anime adaptation of the show broadcast from 1986–1996 in Japan and went on to global popularity as Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. Loosely based on the Chinese story Journey to the West (which has also been adapted into Kabuki and live-action television series in Japan), the anime Dragon Ball follows the adventures of the stout-hearted, monkey-tailed Son Goku. The naive Goku teams up with the teenage Capsule Corporation heiress Bulma, and an expanding circle of friends, as they search for seven mythical dragon balls. Gathering the orbs summons a dragon who will grant a single wish.
I began watching the Dragon Ball animated series on Netflix Japan on 27 February 2020, the day Prime Minister Abe declared that the nation’s schools would close to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. A month and a half later (though it seems like a lifetime), on April 10, I watched the final, 153rd episode (don’t worry, no spoilers here). By that time, Tokyo was preparing for some social distancing measures and the United States had surpassed half a million cases, with many of my family and friends there observing lockdown measures. The series was an emotional balm over the weeks while I watched my home country descend into madness. While I had never actually watched Dragon Ball before, the series provides a kind of nostalgic comfort that, according to National Public Radio, many have turned to in the last few months.
Like many who came of age in the USA in the 1990s and early 2000s, my first exposure to Goku and his friends was not Dragon Ball, but rather the subsequent anime, Dragon Ball Z, which aired on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block. While I only saw the show up through the Frieza Saga, I have fond memories of watching it with my friend Rohit. We would sit on his folks’ leather couch, doing our best energy-gathering “grr” impressions, trying to do a handstand push-up, and eating his mom’s delicious Indian cooking—chicken karahi, raita, and gooey gulab jamuns. In my memories, Dragon Ball Z is deeply tied to that sanctuary which provided me with solace during some difficult times in high school. Both Rohit’s home and Goku’s world were an escape.
It was with these warm memories that I turned to Dragon Ball to escape the real world again. This time, instead of a vagrant 17-year-old emancipated youth I was a married, 39-year-old academic living in Japan and expecting my first child in a few months.
Lessons from Dragon Ball
From the approximately 76 hours of anime I binged I learnt a number of lessons from Dragon Ball that helped me understand the world, cope with anxiety and nurture some hope and courage for the future. Many of these are so simple, yet so often forgotten, especially in “advanced countries” like Japan and the United States.
The first of the lessons from Dragon Ball worth emulating is Son Goku’s knack for winning over antagonists. I had no idea that many of Goku’s friends from Dragon Ball Z were all originally opponents: Oolong, Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, Piccolo, and even in a way Krillin, who trains competitively with Goku early on in the series. Goku’s grace and compassion towards those that would trick, betray, and even kill him reveals a kind of strength that is just as important as his later Super Saiyan six-pack abs. Despite disagreements, those in positions of power must rise above squabbles and come together to fight the greater evils threatening the world. That being said, there are some evils that even Son Goku cannot forgive—rampant murder, torturing innocent people, fascist grabs for absolute power. It was a shock the first time I saw Goku kill someone, an action typically omitted in American cartoons. At the same time, Goku draws a line where he gives opponents the benefit of the doubt before he attacks them. He reconciles with many, but Goku also accepts that some evils in this world must not be allowed to persist. This lesson can’t help but resonate with me as I prepare to vote in the USA’s upcoming presidential election. If everything goes back to the way it was before COVID-19, as Julio Gambuto warns, then we have lost. The virus has laid bare evils in societies around the world, many of which were already evident but easy for many to ignore: racism, economic disparity, unequal access to health care, political corruption, voter disenfranchisement and willful ignorance in the face of science. We must not accept these things as normal any longer, and we must remember that there are some things we must not compromise on.
Second, unrelenting evil appears in many guises in Dragon Ball: the small, insecure, and power-hungry forms of Commander Red and Pilaf, the large, intimidating King Piccolo, or the sinister coldness of the mercenary Tao Pai Pai. Moreover, physical appearances can be deceiving; many underestimate Goku, Krillin, and Master Roshi because of their size and age. Ha-chan, Red Ribbon Army’s Frankenstein monster, is revealed to have a heart of gold. Conversely, evil can look attractive, as is the case of Red Ribbon Army’s David- Bowie-esque Blue General. What all the antagonists of Dragon Ball have in common is a lack of compassion. They use friends, servants, and even their offspring in order to acquire power. They are narcissists that rule by fear and torment their underlings and everyday citizens alike. These kinds of people will always exist, but they are neither infallible nor invincible. While sometimes fighting them can feel like a hopeless endeavor, determination, collaboration, and strength in its various forms can collectively conquer evil. Yet, extinguishing evil in the world is a constant cycle. There is always a greater enemy, a greater terror. Some may criticize the repetitive nature of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, with their never-ending line of increasingly stronger villains, but that is the nature of human life and survival. We may conquer one hurdle only to come to another, but, in the era of globalism, we do not have to face these challenges alone.
This leads to the third lesson I learned from Dragon Ball: never give up. For Son Goku and his friends this meant continuing to train, challenging themselves to become better versions of who they are. Even when the world is seemingly safe from evil-doers, and even when it is apparent that Goku surpasses them in physical ability, they never cease to improve themselves. Our efforts to become our best selves in mind, body, and spirit can help bring about and support real change in the world. However, as we train (or deal with a crisis like coronavirus), it is also crucial to keep in mind Master Roshi’s motto: “Play well, eat well, and rest well! Enjoy your lives, merrily and to the fullest!” During the time of coronavirus and the accompanying uncertainty and anxiety, embracing the Turtle Hermit’s way of being may well seem as impossible as doing a handstand push-up. But because of that, it is vital that we follow the motto as much as we train and prepare ourselves for future challenges, to avoid burnout and look after our mental health.
Looking beyond ourselves
As citizens of a shared planet, we must not only look within ourselves but also beyond our families, cities, and nations. We are not islands unto ourselves, though sometimes it may feel that way. If Japan, the United States, and the many other countries and peoples suffering from coronavirus and its resulting tragedies are to recover, we human beings must cultivate empathy and abandon passivity when confronted with wickedness. There is no quick solution, nor will there ever be, but in the meantime we should try to enjoy this crazy adventure called life…
Japan’s count of virus patients continues to climb. Tokyo and (finally) the rest of the nation are under a state of emergency, though we are nowhere near the intense lockdown and social isolation practices of the United States and elsewhere. I worry that Tokyo will become the next New York City, if there will be hospital beds available when my baby arrives in July, if my partner will lose his freelance job, if I will be let go from my teaching position in the States, if he will be allowed to come to the States, or if, in the next year, I will be allowed to return home to a country I miss so much. Thankfully, to help cope with these worries, I still have plenty of Son Goku’s adventures to turn to. In addition to Dragon Ball, Netflix Japan has all 291 episodes of Dragon Ball Z available for streaming. I am set for the social distancing long-haul.
When the citizens of the world emerge from this crisis, lessons from Dragon Ball could benefit us all. I am also getting ready for the long battle ahead – not a struggle against COVID-19 but rather a fight for a better world for my unborn child. I wonder how my partner would feel about naming the baby Goku…