Illustration: Angelica Alzona
My older brother watched Dragon Ball Z every day growing up, and I still hear young black men talking about it all the time. On the train, I hear black teenage boys sharing their takes on Dragon Ball fighting games.
When I meet black men my age, ones who scoff at my love of anime, they still know what I’m talking about if I mention Saiyans. On Chance the Rapper’s 2016 album, Colouring Book, he drops a line about Dragon Ball Z character Krillin amidst sincere proclamations of his faith on the song “Blessings.”
Dragon Ball Z is a revered, classic anime, based on the manga by Akira Toriyama. It’s a show a lot of anime fans of all stripes grew up on. It has resonated in a particular way with black men.
In conversations I’ve had with black male Dragon Ball Z fans, I’ve heard how the show lured them in with over the top fights, and how, as adults, they realise it also helped them mature emotionally.
For Malcolm Jones, an engineer at Adobe who describes himself as a “techie nerd,” he sees similarities between Dragon Ball Z and “hood classics” like Scarface, Set It Off and even Blade.
“The thing that they all had in common is that the main character was always some sort of underdog,” he said. “Something about having an underdog that can, like, raise up and make something happen, I think black men particularly identify themselves with that.”
Dragon Ball Z tells the story of an underdog and outsider. In his book The Tao of Wu, the rapper Rza says the story of Dragon Ball Z, “represents the journey of the black man.”
“You see it more clearly as the story goes on,” he writes. “Son Goku has super powers and doesn’t realise it — a head injury destroyed his memory, robbed his knowledge of self. Then one day, gets stressed beyond his limits and Hulks out into his alter ego, Super Saiyan — a nigga with dreadlocks.”
Some fans of the show relate to a character that doesn’t know their heritage.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about where I come from and who came before me in my family and circling back to Dragon Ball Z, it does resonate with me a lot,” DJ Kirkland, a comics artist working on the miniseries Black Mage, said over Twitter DMs.
“Those of us that are black and born in the U.S., at least some of us to an extent don’t know where we’re from and I feel that is something that a lot of people of colour can identify with.”
Black men don’t just like the show because it reflects the broader narrative of black history. It also helps demonstrate the lives they’re already leading. “I think black men like Dragon Ball Z because the show is so fucking extra,” said Rokashi Edwards, a game dev and freelance tech writer who has contributed Gizmodo.
“I think that over-the-top lifestyle seems to attract black youth.”
There’s no way getting around that Dragon Ball Z is an absurd show. Over the course of the narrative Goku and his friends fight androids, alien and a guy called Mr. Satan. They die and come back to life, and they meet their children from the future.
When I watched the show with my brother, it seemed like characters would spend several episodes just powering up, screaming for minutes at a time as they did so.
The cast of Dragon Ball Z reminds Jones of people he knows. “I think a lot of the characters in Dragon Ball Z are relatable to a black dude’s crew, and they might not even realise it,” he said. He compared Krillin to the dorky kid you hang with anyway, Picollo to the guy who’s real cold but you know still cares about everyone.
“Vegeta, he’s the guy that roasts everybody in the crew,” he said. “He’s got love for everybody, but he sees himself as, a level of different from everyone else.”
The men I interviewed have been watching Dragon Ball Z for nearly their entire lives. Jones discovered the show when he was in seventh or eighth grade, and Edwards can’t remember a time when the show wasn’t in his life. Kirkland started watching when he was around 10. He had never seen anything like it.
“I noticed that the show looked vastly different from other American cartoons,” he said. “I was really captivated by the art and and didn’t know that this was an export from Japan.” After picking up some issues of the now defunct Animerica magazine, he was hooked on all sorts of anime.
He would watch Toonami, a two hour block of anime shows on Cartoon Network, every day. Even when he branched out into other series, Dragon Ball Z was something he stuck with.
“I loved that there was an ongoing narrative. It has story arcs that can be super intense and filled with dope arse fights,” Kirkland said. “Or on the flip side, they can be super introspective, and focus on complicated feelings or situations.”
“Some of the themes are a little more mature,” Jones said. “The sacrifice, the characters throughout the show dying, things like that.”
Dragon Ball Z is a show about fights, super powers and overpowering your enemies through brute force. It’s also a show where you watch Goku fall in love and raise a family, or where friends will fall out with each and have to repair their relationships. Those emotional challenges are in the forefront as much as the punching is.
“Goku loves his son so much,” Kirkland said. “And while he’s kind of an idiot when it comes to ChiChi sometimes, he’s a good dad. … When I was super young, I didn’t really think about it too much, but as I got older, seeing how much Goku cared for [his son] Gohan was something you didn’t really see very often.” Kirkland is now engaged and says he wants to become a father.
Emotional intimacy is something that men struggle with, black men arguably moreso than others. “So many black men live as if our lives are tombs,” Cassius editor at large Darnelle Moore wrote in an article for Ebony.
“Our emotions, aspirations, longings, anxieties, complexities, mistakes, failures and imaginations are buried along with our truest selves. We are denied the ability to heal, to lead healthy relationships, to make amends for our errors, to be intimate, to be fully human, to be alive.”
Although Dragon Ball Z may attract young black boys because of the flashy fights, it can also help them learn more about how to process their feelings.
“Especially as a black queer person, I never knew how to embrace my feelings,” Edwards said. He remembers turning to Dragon Ball Z when he lost a relative at a young age. In the show, characters die all the time, even Goku. They’re grieved by their loved ones, and then usually come back via some convenient plot device.
In a weird way, this helped Edwards cope. He didn’t think that his dead relatives were going to come back, but he understood that death was a part of life and didn’t negate the good memories he had with them while they were alive.
Two years ago, when his father died, Dragon Ball Z and its sequel series Dragon Ball Super helped him to process his grief. “It really helped me better understand how to better deal with those kinds of things. It just helped me become a better person. … Wherever my dad is, he would be proud of me and all of my hard work.”
For Kirkland, Dragon Ball Z helped him reach out to friends for help when he needed it. “I always think of calling on my friends to send good vibes for stuff like that — like a spirit bomb,” he said. Spirit bombs are ultra powerful attacks that need a lot of energy to pull off.
The most advanced version of this move requires the energy of other people giving you their support. It’s a little like clapping for Tinkerbell, if Tinkerbell would then shoot an energy beam out of her hands to kill Captain Hook.
Jones was inspired by the characters’ work ethic. Many black people hear growing up that you must work twice as hard to get half as much. It’s something my parents told me, they told it to my brother, and years later it ended up in an episode of Scandal. Dragon Ball Z characters embody this attitude.
“The first thing that Goku did while he’s dead and in hell was he started this crazy arse journey to go and try to get stronger again,” Jones said. “Even when this fool’s dead he’s like, ‘No days off.'”
Jones was joking and laughing, but he’s kind of serious too. Dragon Ball Z made a mark on fans like him. It helped him and other black boys become men.
“It’s some crazy stuff,” Jones said, “but there’s a life lesson in there too.”