Despite 21 episodes remaining in "Dragon Ball" (plus a handful of movies), we find ourselves at the end of an era. The child protagonist of Dragon Ball is about to become a man. To us DB fans, this may seem like no big deal - after all, most fans in the english speaking world were first exposed to Son Goku as a grown man. But part of the reason I wanted to do this blog was to give the franchise some proper context; for myself and for its readers. Growing up Goku was most certainly a big deal.
Dragon Ball began its serialization in Weekly Shonen Jump! in (late) 1984. Its following was meager in the beginning, but once the 21st Tenka-ichi Budokai arc kicked off, the series became steadily more and more popular. Flash forward 3 years and some change later, to early 1988, as the Piccolo Daimao arc was coming to a close. Dragon Ball had become a successful manga and anime, running side by side. There were toys, video games, movies, trading cards, and all manner of merchandise and budding fandom. The kids of Japan had embraced Son Goku as their hero. But the author, Akira Toriyama, was potentially beginning to run out of stories to tell about the young hero.
The following is an excerpt from Kanzentai's "Intended Endings" guide. (Check out the whole thing. It should be required reading for DB fans on the internet.)
"Interestingly though, Toriyama actually did threaten to end the series around this point, in private at least, and only provisionally. In Shenlong Times #2, Kazuhiko Torishima, Toriyama's first editor, recounted the following:
This is changing the subject, but the thing I felt was the biggest crisis for serialization was when he told me that Goku would grow up. Toriyama-sensei threatened that if Goku didn't grow up, then he couldn't continue with serialization. (laughs) It was terrible, breaching the subject like that. "You can have the protagonist grow up, just don't scare me like that," I said.
No explanation is given for why Toriyama felt that he couldn't continue the series if Goku didn't grow up, but it's interesting to speculate. Perhaps he had simply run out of story ideas for kid Goku, and felt that making Goku an adult was the only way to keep things interesting. It's notable that once Goku grows up, he gets married almost immediately, and has a son by the very next story arc, so maybe Toriyama was really looking to swap his current child protagonist out for another one."
Part of what makes Dragon Ball great is how the characters age, but it didn't have to be that way. To my knowledge, Dragon Ball was, and remains, fairly unprecedented in its use of time in the story. Over the course of the last six and a half story arcs, we've witnessed our hero go from age 11 to age 15. During that time, he's grown a lot mentally, if not much physically. (15 year old Goku is a bit taller than at 11 and 12, but I know a lot of people can't tell the difference unless you point it out to them.) This in itself if a big deal for a comic book. Captain America has been around since 1941, and his development has been remarkably less robust. But something that happens even less often is a character growing physically older.
I recall once hearing Frank Miller say that becoming the same age as Batman's "canon" age made him want to write an old Batman - hence, Dark Knight Returns.
Taking the creative risk to age Goku beyond his "kid" stage couldn't have been a quick decision. Even the way his editor talks about it implies Toriyama approached the subject anticipating resistance. What interests me, and no doubt interested his publishers at the time, is fan reaction. I can't imagine the transition went over as smoothly as "well, now Goku's an adult." It never does. But it's hard to find any context for it given how these days more people are surprised that Goku was ever a kid, as opposed to being surprised to see him as an adult.
There does seem to be a disconnect in merchandising, at the very least. Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are rarely caught "mingling" in toy sets or video games. Something that has always struck me as odd is how the 23rd Budokai is often caught in the middle of this disconnect. Not part of "Z", because the lack of Gohan or a Saiyan-centered plot, and not truly part of "DB", because Goku is no longer a child. Most video game stories seem to treat Piccolo Daimao as the final boss of Dragon Ball; with Raditz remaining the predictable starting point for the annual DBZ fighter.
With this disconnect in mind, then "Dragon Ball" must be defined by a young Goku, and "Dragon Ball Z" by an adult Goku. I think this is why I prefer the manga simply calling the whole story Dragon Ball; Goku's growth is gradual, not in two parts.
We've seen our Goku grow a lot since we started our journey with him back on episode 1, and he's still got quite a lot left to show us! From his first Kamehameha, to his first serious loss at the hands of Tao Pai Pai, to his meeting God and trying to punch him, here's to you, 'chibi' Goku. Sarabada!