*This essay is strictly about the anime, not the manga. If anyone says, “But in the manga…” I will come to your house and punch you.
As I did a little research for this essay, I searched for science fiction anime recommendations and checked the first five results. There were almost sixty different anime recommended across the lists. The usual suspects were there: Outlaw Star, Ghost in the Shell, Cowbow Bebop, Trigun and the like. There were even some surprising picks, like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Gantz. Yet not a single list included Dragon Ball Z.
According to Google, science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.”
1) Capsule Corporation
2) Goku, Vegeta and Piccolo are aliens
3) The first part of the Frieza arc sees our heroes fighting off multiple alien invasions
4) The second part features the heroes traveling in space to another planet and fighting an alien tyrant
5) The Cell Saga kicks off with the time traveling son of one of the main characters warning about killer Androids
How is this not science fiction? Dragon Ball Z is credited with popularizing both shonen anime and anime more generally in the West, but it’s never really discussed as perhaps the most successful science fiction anime.
One of the reasons that DBZ isn’t talked about as a science fiction anime (despite its obvious sci-fi elements and influences) is because of how fluidly Akira Toriyama made the transition across genres. Dragon Ball went from screwball adventure comedy to action comedy to straight up action without really losing a step. There were purists who complained at the time, but they were easily drowned out by the legions of new fans which joined the franchise each time it shifted genres.
By the time Dragon Ball ended, Goku was the strongest warrior on the planet after years of training and practice. The leap to space as the next threat was kind of the only place that the series could go. Fortunately, Toriyama had already sowed the seeds for this transition by giving Goku a tail. It’s common knowledge that Goku is based on Sun Wukong from the Chinese myth Journey to the West and that his tail is derived from Sun Wukong. Toriyama used that element to seamlessly transition Dragon Ball into science fiction by giving Raditz a tail, and making that the defining physical feature of the Saiyan race. When Raditz arrived and told Goku that he was actually an alien,it was shocking, but also made sense- of course Goku is an alien, that’s why he’s so much stronger than everyone. Taking the series into space was the next logical step. Goku was the strongest on Earth. The only challenge left for him was in the reaches of space.
Lest we forget, Namek has some truly sci-fi elements to it. It was a planet with three suns, populated by a race which didn’t eat or have women. With the exception of Krillin and Bulma, the entire cast of characters on Namek was non-human. Sure, they all fit into a similar humanoid form, but that’s no different than what Star Trek and Star Wars have done for decades.
And then there’s the Cell Saga. The idea of sentient machines and artificial humans have been a staple of science fiction forever; Isaac Asimov was writing about the Three Laws of Robotics back in the 1940’s. Robots have been a fertile source of storytelling, and the shift to robots again made perfect sense for the series. After defeating Frieza, Goku had established himself as the most powerful warrior in the universe. The only challenge left for Goku were machines designed to kill him. In Cell’s case, it had to be an android from the future. Again, Toriyama built on a feature from Dragon Ball to make the story work. When Trunks comes back and mentions the Red Ribbon Army, the audience could recall Android #8, an otherwise minor character which established the entire line of android production that culminated with Cell. Throw in some mumbo jumbo about timelines and fatherhood, and you have one of the clearest examples of science fiction in manga.
The Androids premiered in Dragon Ball Z in 1992, just a year after a movie about another time-traveling hero from the future who came back to save humanity premiered. I’m talking about Terminator 2, of course. Terminator 2 has time travel and killer androids and is clearly understood as science fiction despite its popularity. Dragon Ball Z had these same elements, but is never considered science fiction. That’s a testament to Toriyama’s skill. He completely changed the rules of his series so many times, so effortlessly, that many of his readers never noticed, myself included. This essay was originally going to be about the Cell Saga, and as I was writing I thought, “Huh. Cell is an android from the future. Why don’t we talk about that more?” I hope that we can start looking at Dragon Ball Z for this underappreciated element of its legacy.