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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse


A legendary Japanese anime, Toriyama Akira’s (鳥山明) Dragonball has enchanted fans all over the world for more than three decades. I, for one, have loved it since it gained huge popularity in Asia while I was growing up. It is truly a massively entertaining work of art, and its literary value is also impressive (probably more than most readers assume), since it is not just about fighting and transforming into Super-Saiyan-jin, it also makes deep literary allusions to both Western and Eastern mythologies. The parallels with and derivations from Chinese classical literature are obvious, since the main character Son Goku (孫悟空) is clearly modelled on his namesake, Sun Wukong (孫悟空) in the Chinese epic ‘Journey to the West’ (JTTW) (西遊記). One can also note that Goku wields a stick weapon (如意棒) and flies on a piece of cloud (觔斗雲), both of which are also borrowed from JTTW. Goku’s ethnic origins as a race of monkeyloids (Saiyan-jin) who are born with tails at birth and transform into massive gorillas at full moon are also allusions to JTTW where Sun Wukong is the famed monkey king.

There is a lot more to say about Dragonball (more blogs to come), given that it is a long-running series with countless memorable episodes and storylines. One of my favourite storylines is the Freeza Saga which brings the main characters to another planet (Namek, home planet of Piccolo and Kami) where they confront the tyrannical king of the universe, Freeza. As mentioned above, Goku is not really part of the human race as he was born in another planet inhabited by the Saiyans and was raised on Earth by an old man who discovered and adopted him when he was an infant. Goku never knew about his origins, as he was dispatched at birth to Earth just before the Planet and race of the Saiyans were annihilated by Freeza, leaving Goku and a few others (e.g. Vegeta, prince of the Saiyans and eventual rival/companion of Goku) to continue the Saiyan race, and when Goku meets Freeza for the first time on Planet Namek, he feels his responsibility to defeat Freeza and avenge his own race of people. This he achieves when he transforms through explosive fury into the legendary Super-Saiyan-jin and defeats the strongest tyrant of the universe.

The history of Goku’s birth and life story is mentioned in the main storyline as well as in a special episode (OVA) called Bardock: Father of Goku (1990), and this storyline bears striking similarities and unmistakable allusions to Western Greek tragedy, namely the timeless motif of the fated son (usually a prince, which Goku is not but Vegeta is) who leaves his homeplace at birth and by a twisted stroke of fate unknowingly returns heroically as the champion and saviour of his people and defeats all evil forces and ascends to his long-destined throne. There are many modern adaptations of this essentially Sophoclean (Oedipus) motif (e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for which see my blogs on the Lion King and others), and Dragonball is one of them as we see it in Goku who, despite being born and raised on Earth and completely unaware of his foreign origins, becomes the strongest Saiyan warrior and defeats the nemesis of his race of people. The symbolism of his quasi-Oedipal destiny is strongly suggested by his exact resemblance to his father (see cover photo), the last warrior of the Saiyans who tried to oppose Freeza just before he eliminated them, as he is seen as carrying out his father’s fate and avenging his obsolete race. This is a magnificent storyline beautifully instantiated by Toriyama in Dragonball.

Dragonball is a seminal piece of work that is not only visually and technically groundbreaking (one of the highest achievements in the history of Japanese manga) but also literarily significant as it is a clever and moving synthesis of both Western and Eastern literary traditions. The moment Goku transforms into the legendary Super-Saiyan-jin and defeats Freeza marks the climactic culmination of his fate, as determined by Greek tragic elements. Absolutely breathtaking.

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