Make no mistake, the Dragon Ball franchise is an institution in Japanese culture. A beloved manga that spawned multiple anime series, an entire generation has grown up with the tales of Goku and his friends. If you’re here, you surely know at least a little bit about it.
But maybe you never took the opportunity to give it a try, and you’re keen to start. If that’s the case, or even if you just need a refresher, you’re in for a real treat. Each of the anime iterations offers something a little different, and though its duration may seem intimidating at first, it’s actually quite accessible and easy to enjoy.
Especially because your friends at AnimeLab have lovingly prepared this primer to help newcomers get an idea of what to expect. Don’t worry, before long you’ll become familiar with the wars of the Saiyans, Namekians and lousy humans.
What is Dragon Ball?
Dragon Ball follows the exploits of Son Goku, a free-spirited warrior with unfathomable power and a mysterious past. Many of the story arcs are centred around the eponymous Dragon Balls — seven orbs that, when collected, can summon a dragon that will grant one wish.
It was initially created as a manga by Akira Toriyama in 1984, and an anime adaptation premiered two years later. An English dub arrived as early as 1989, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that the franchise picked up major traction in the west.
The original series, Dragon Ball, begins with Goku as a child. His quiet, simple life of solitude is upended one day when he first meets Bulma, who enlists him on her mission to collect the Dragon Balls.
Along the way, they meet a fantastic group of friends and foes, and Goku acquires training and techniques that increase his power beyond what he had ever imagined.
This is succeeded, of course, by Dragon Ball Z — the series that truly spawned a global phenomenon.
Now in his adulthood, Goku’s origins are unveiled, and the results of his battles have the entire planet at stake. Its success led to multiple movies, a ton of games and merchandise, alongside more memes than you could shake a power pole at.
The next series created was Dragon Ball GT, which takes place several years after Dragon Ball Z’s conclusion and acts as something of a reset to Goku’s dizzying power.
After a rogue wish turns him back into a child, he teams up with his granddaughter to obtain a new form of Dragon Balls and set things back into place.
The events of this series are not based on Toriyama’s manga, and Toriyama himself had no involvement beyond creating some of the initial designs. He did come up with the snappy title, though!
The most recent iteration, Dragon Ball Super, sits neatly within Dragon Ball Z’s continuity, adding more content right before its epilogue.
It is based on the manga of the same name by Toriyama and Toyotarou, and as such, is considered to be canon to the overarching timeline. We’ll come back to the subject of canon in a bit.
In the interest of readability, we’ll refer to each individual series as DB, Z, GT and Super from here on. To be honest, I really didn’t want to type the words ‘Dragon Ball’ that many times anyway.
Who is this crazy monkey kid?
Right from the get go, Goku is established as the most important character in the adventures to come. Which is handy, because he’s affable, likeable and often hilarious.
He’s based heavily on the legendary Monkey King from the Chinese novel Journey to the West, both possessing incredible strength, a magical staff, the ability to ride clouds, and a monkey tail to boot. The nature of Goku is irrepressible!!
Dragon Ball Super
Clearly, this kodomo has some strange stuff going on, and you’ll discover his secrets as the series progresses. If you’re the impatient sort, many of the questions you may have are answered after DB. You could consider the original series to be the prologue to the eventual legend of Goku.
…Also, kodomo is the Japanese word for child. Don’t worry, it’s not a Dragon Ball phrase you have to memorise.
Dragon Ball GT
Goku isn’t lacking for confidence, but his naivety makes him endearing. He fights only to protect his friends and family, or because it seems like a fun thing to do. While he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, he won’t hesitate to break every mean bone in his opponents if he has to.
Dragon Ball Z
His list of comrades and villains is as diverse as they come, including his hapless rival Krillin, the fearsome Piccolo, the dreaded alien prince Vegeta and the intergalactic tyrant Frieza. Time after time, Goku finds a way to overcome the odds and save the world from disaster, unlocking latent powers hidden deep within.
Dragon Ball Super
Sometimes, he finds a mutual understanding with his enemies, and they become dependable allies. Other times, they end up being obliterated into dust. Clearly, befriending Goku is the preferred route, but not everyone learns that quite in time.
Dragon Ball Super
Later on, we’re introduced to powerful alien races like the green-skinned Namekians and the warmongering Saiyans. They won’t really come into play until Z, but keep those terms in mind for down the track!
What makes it so good?
Dragon Ball, in its entirety, is your archetypical shōnen anime.
To explain shōnen properly requires a deep dive into the history of manga (totally worth it if you’ve got a few hours to spare), but to condense it into a few abstract thoughts, it has an emphasis on action, adventure and comedy.
Dragon Ball Z
Are there a number of heart wrenching moments and high drama? Of course! It’s not as cut-and-dry as all octane all the time, but that’s definitely not a point of prominence. Shōnen is something that is meant to be interesting, thrilling and accessible: three adjectives that befit Dragon Ball very well.
Dragon Ball Super
It targets a younger demographic, yet it really appeals to all ages, and that’s one of its biggest strengths. Akira Toriyama has built the lore over a number of decades, and if you’ll pardon the sentimentality, as Goku matured over the years, so too did the stories and its audience.
So where do I begin?
It really depends on what you’re after, and how much time you have!
You can jump into Dragon Ball at any point, but the two most logical starting points are either from the beginning, or from Z onwards.
The main reason for this is that DB is quite unlike everything that came after it. It has a unique tone; playful and mischievous, and perfectly suited to the innocence of the young Goku.
We’re introduced to Toriyama’s strange, wonderful world in a story that plays out more like a martial arts adventure, where Z onwards would skew much more towards exciting, superhero-esque action.
The original DB is very cheeky, and even watching it in Japanese and English gives you two very different experiences. Entire scenes can take on a different context in the translation, and it’s worth watching the comedic moments twice in a row to see this firsthand!
Dragon Ball Z
Z does an excellent job of easing you into its extensive cast, and a lot of the heroes that starred in its predecessor don’t play as big a role here. This does make it easier to follow, but similarly, if you hope to see fighters like Yamcha — who would go onto become the franchise’s punchline — at his best, you’ll want to start right from the top.
It helps you to gain an appreciation for some of the heroes whose star would fade over time, though many fans actually got into DB after watching Z, so that’s a potential option, as well.
Dragon Ball movies
AnimeLab also features the movies The World’s Strongest, The History of Trunks and Broly the Legendary Super Saiyan. All three of these are set in the Z era, however they are not based on Toriyama’s manga. They exist in, as he put it, “a different dimension from the main story of the comic”.
Due to this, they do not have a direct impact on the events of Z, but you can still watch them mid-marathon for a change of pace!
Broadly speaking, a suitable time to watch The World’s Strongest would be at the end of season 1, The History of Trunks after season 5 and Broly the Legendary Super Saiyan following season 6.
These aren’t exact estimates, but you won’t be spoiled by any preceding developments, such as when character X becomes benevolent, character Y assumes a new form, or character Z declares that he is a warrior, not a variety of flower!!
Whether you opt for GT or Super next really comes down to preference. Super takes place within the timeline of Z, but it also premiered almost twenty years after GT hit the screens. Stylistically, a lot has changed in anime over that time, so you may find that the older series flows more naturally after Z’s conclusion.
As we alluded to, Super is the canonical continuation of Toriyama’s original vision, whereas GT is not. GT definitely has a solid fanbase, however, and some of the character designs have even drawn praise from Toriyama for their accuracy.
To quote the big man himself, “Dragon Ball GT is a grand side-story of the original Dragon Ball, and it’ll make me happy for us to watch and enjoy it together.”
That sounds like a pretty solid reason not to miss it, if you ask me!
Anything else I need to know?
There really isn’t a lot more else you need to know about Dragon Ball before jumping in and enjoying this anime tour de force. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s easy to see why it’s amassed such a massive fanbase over the years.
Dragon Ball Z
Akira Toriyama’s long-running escapades defined an anime generation, and will continue to do so for decades to come. But hey, we’ve been Saiyan that a lot so far, why not find out for yourself?
AnimeLab is your home for shōnen classics new and old, as well as an extensive range of shōjo, seinin, josei… and the occasional moe for good measure!