Star Wars is now viewed as a story for all ages, something kids and grandparents can watch together and both enjoy on different levels. It has transcended being a mere series of movies and TV shows to become a template and an idea, and in that way, Dragon Ball is my Star Wars. And I'm not alone.
It’s a world that people love diving into over and over again, with a story that is simultaneously exciting and nostalgic. Its characters are strong and lovable and ridiculous, and watching their relationships change over time is fascinating and sometimes divisive and often inspiring. And yet, despite the fact that everything I’ve said so far can apply pretty equally to both franchises, we’re expected to drop Dragon Ball altogether at a certain age. Or, if not drop it, then watch it at arm’s length, and somehow both enjoy it sincerely and ironically, with the default knowledge that there are "better things" out there that we could be doing with our time.
I don’t want to start this article dissing Star Wars for "not being that great." Because Star Wars definitely is THAT great. There were few things more thrilling when I was a kid than the Death Star trench run in A New Hope, or the fight on Jabba’s Sail Barge in Return of the Jedi. And as an adult, watching Luke Skywalker pass away at the end of The Last Jedi was beautiful, not because something from my childhood was ending, but because the story that I’d fallen in love with was evolving into something that I didn’t expect. I was no longer watching a familiar tale. Instead, I was a kid again, traveling into the unknown of a galaxy far, far away.
That’s a nice love letter, I think. But it’s just one of countless love letters that I’ve seen to Star Wars over the years. And while you could argue about the pop culture impact of Star Wars vs. Dragon Ball all day, it still stands that I don’t read that many Dragon Ball tributes, despite the fact that its fan base is enormous and global. I refuse to believe that thousands of people gathering to watch the latest episode of Dragon Ball Super (So many people that the anime streaming website Crunchyroll had to issue a statement that basically said "Yo, don’t do that,") do it with a sense of irony, or because it’s a guilty pleasure.
Why don’t we read these passionate essays about the adventures of Son Goku? Partly because, while anime is definitely more popular in the United States than ever before, it still hasn’t transcended our pop culture in a way that is seen as meaningful. There is no Walt Disney of anime, at least to most Americans. The closest we have is the films of Studio Ghibli, but even those are seen as incredible outliers. They’re "good" anime, while the rest is shirtless men shouting and shooting lasers at each other. Either that, or it’s tentacle porn. That’s a truly bizarre division of genres: good things, childish things, and cartoon sex.
Another thing, I believe, is due to length. Many of these shonen shows consist of hundreds of episodes, and we've been conditioned to think that the longer a show goes, the more it absolutely must be creatively tired or bankrupt. Now, this can be true for some shows. For example, the fresh, documentary style of The Office had devolved into typical sitcom hijinks by the time it entered its final lap. But I believe that a show can remain interesting for... well... as long as it's interesting. There is no 200 episode cut-off limit for quality. Bleach didn't become a bad show because it went on for too long. Bleach became a bad show because it recycled itself.
It’s also because a lot of us are still figuring out where anime fits into our adult lives. I have a lot of friends my age that will post pictures of themselves enjoying classic American cartoons, but even the enthusiasm for them is always painfully self-aware. "I know that, as an old person, I shouldn’t be watching Batman: The Animated Series. I should get be GETTIN’ LAID AND BUYIN’ HOUSES. But here I am, quirkily watching kid shows. Isn’t it funny and awesome how comfortable I am in my own skin?"
When we treat watching America-approved cartoons like that, anime doesn’t stand a chance. Again, it’s more accepted and popular in the U.S. than in the past, but it’s often not even good enough for nostalgia’s sake. You leave it behind after middle school for other pursuits, and it’s truly weird when you decide to hang onto it or revisit it. Because again, how can these shows about shirtless men shouting and shooting lasers at each other be appealing to anyone except pimpled, 12-year-old Mountain Dew enthusiasts?
Is Dragon Ball created with teenage boys in mind? Yes, yes it is. But the line of thought that says that we always MUST completely change how we think about pop culture as we get older is flawed. There are things that I loved as a kid that truly haven’t aged well, and then there are things that I loved as a kid that affect me in the exact same way today. I cried when Butterfree left Ash at the end of the Pokemon episode "Bye Bye Butterfree" when I was young. No, I didn’t just cry. I wept. I bawled into my own hands because it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen at that point, and I’d seen the last act of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.
I rewatched it recently as an adult, and holy s***, I still got sad. One of Pokemon’s themes is making friendships that last forever. But, sometimes those friends will depart, leaving you only with the knowledge that the distance will not change your connection despite the fact that you’re no longer a physical part of your friend’s life. I’ve graduated college. I’ve moved. I’ve said goodbye to people that I didn’t want to say goodbye to. And so "Bye Bye Butterfree" remains just as relevant as ever.
Or look at One Piece, one of my favorite shows ever. At one point, Usopp, the loyal, cowardly sharpshooter, threatens to leave his pirate crew as he fears, deep down, that he’s being left behind. He just can’t keep up with his crew members' increasingly enormous powers, and this, in his head, turns him into an outcast. He fears that he’s not good enough, and he lashes out. You don’t have to live in a magical world of pirates and gods and demons to know what that feeling is like. When I was a teen, I was skinny and almost supernaturally ungraceful, only to see all of my peers become good at sports and drawing that S-shaped thing. It made me angry. Why not me? Why can’t I catch a frisbee and draw that S-shaped thing?
And then I began my freelance writing career after college, only to find out that people my age were already working full time at established and well-respected companies. How could I compete? What is my place in the world when I’m already obviously not good enough? This line of thinking is dumb, but I couldn’t escape it for a while and it made me bitter. And sure, I only recognize a lot of these parallels between my feelings as a younger person and my feelings as an adult later in life, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve somehow related to both series for years. My love for One Piece hasn’t changed, nor has the series become something that I look at through the lens of "Well, as A GROWN-UP, I now see…" Because One Piece is my Star Wars.
It’s the grand story that I’ve forever become attached to, in the same way that hardcore Dragon Ball fans have emblazoned that franchise in their hearts and minds. And while it’s easy to read this and still dismiss this grand display of "ANIME! YEAH!" as partly due to nostalgia, let me regale you with a tale of my own personal love for Dragon Ball, something that I only started reading this year.
Dragon Ball seemed impossible to get into as an adult, mainly because it seemed so irreversibly tied to an earlier point in my life. Trapper keepers, hair gel, and Dragon Ball Z were on the Mount Rushmore of my middle school experience, and I just never got around to getting interested in those crazy Saiyans. I knew the names because my friends refused to shut up about it, but other than that, I wasn’t exactly sure of what a "Vegeta" actually did. And so Dragon Ball lay dormant in the recesses of my mind, an interest that I’d passed by, an exit on the pop culture highway that I never took.
And then Dragon Ball FighterZ came out, which aside from being a really smooth fighting game, is also chockful of references to the various Dragon Ball series. And while it’s funny and engaging even if you’re not a dedicated Dragon Ball fan, it made me want to know more. For the first time in over fifteen years, the Dragon Ball franchise was accessible. And so I bought some manga, binged some episodes, and oh my god, it’s so good.
It’s not "still" so good. It’s just so good. The comical adventures of early Dragon Ball stories lead into more intense, structured battle-focused stories. And then, with the change in Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama’s art style, there comes an even heavier focus on characters training and facing doubt and defeat, and only barely scraping by with their victories. And sure, I don’t fight aliens or mutations for a living, but I still try to work hard, and when I accomplish something, it usually feels like a culmination of a long process, and not just a surprise win out of nowhere.
Dragon Ball makes me excited. It makes me pump my fist in the air. It makes me use phrases like "The Cell saga seems underrated" and "My boy Yamcha." In the span of a few months, it’s become something that I hold dear, with characters and stories that I care about. On the cusp of turning 29, Dragon Ball took over my life, and I’m excited to see where my newly acquired love for it goes.
Will it become a "Star Wars" for me? No clue. You can never really tell what will be "your Star Wars" until years go by and you manage to adore something like it just came out yesterday. But I don’t doubt that there are people out there that love Dragon Ball at the exact same level that many others love Star Wars. And I want to hear their stories.