‘Dragon Ball Minus’ Is Fan Service With A Smile [Review]
Earlier this month the latest entry into Akira Toriyama's Dragon Ball canon arrived in the April 7th issue of Shonen Jump, officially tying together the creator's most beloved series with his recently completed (and potentially final solo) work Jaco the Galactic Patrolman. Dubbed Dragon Ball Minus, the 16-page tale spells out DB protagonist Goku's alien origins and how his doomed parents sent him to Earth, the planet readers meet him in-progress many years-- and a personality-altering head injury -- later in the pages of the original Dragon Ball manga. The hook here is that the story shows Goku's mother Gine for the first time while cementing that Jaco and Dragon Ball take place in the same universe.
Was this story necessary? Not at all. Will you like it anyway? Totally. It looks great, never takes itself too seriously (or seriously at all!) and feels like Toriyama is merely picking up where he left off.
In the pages of Dragon Ball Goku was introduced as a monkey-tailed boy from the wilderness who just-so-happened to be raised by a martial arts master who owned a magical ball that, when combined it with six others, summoned a wish-granting dragon. He met a girl seeking these Dragon Balls who needed a body guard and they went on adventures that increasingly involved fighting tournaments, evil scientists and demons. Following a hiatus, the series continued as a more battle-centric manga following an adult Goku known as Dragon Ball Z in its anime incarnation (and U.S. localization). This continuation/sequel introduced Goku's evil brother Raditz, who attacked Earth and revealed that he and Goku were aliens called Saiyans who served as footsoldiers for an evil empire. In the original manga, fans are told that the Saiyan homeworld exploded, which is later explained to be the handiwork of the next storyline's villain, Frieza. And that was pretty much that.
But then there was the anime.
The Dragon Ball Z anime was so popular that it's chock full of filler material that wasn't in the manga -- so much filler that now it's being remixed for easily distracted Millenials as Dragon Ball Kai, which more closely mirrors the source material. To extend the comparatively condensed backstory of the manga, the Dragon Ball Z anime included a full-fledged special all about Goku's father, Burdock, which in the U.S. is aptly titled, Dragon Ball Z: Bardock – The Father of Goku. No, that's not a typo, like a lot of DBZ characters, Burdock's name has varied across translations in multimedia.
Dragon Ball Minus can be read as a complete retcon of that movie, and if you're a fan who kind of ragequit the DB/DBZ and *shudder* Dragon Ball GT anime series and the associated tie-in movies due to exploitatively glacial pacing and in some cases outright badness, you'll be pleased to hear it. The Bardock movie established Goku's father -- a low-level soldier who is fine with traveling from planet to planet exterminating natvies so his bosses can sell them to rich newcomers -- as a kind of Really Solid Bro who protects his friends. It even sees him go Super Saiyan (albeit in vain). It's fan service of the dullest variety, diminishing Goku's later achievement in training and subsequent defeat of the worst villain in the series he'd faced up to that point simply to give fans more to buy.
Saiyans are kind of sociopaths who live for combat. Even the pure-hearted Goku, who fights for the "right" reasons and gives even the most evil opponents a second chance routinely ditches his wife and children -- sometimes moments after returning to life/other planets/wherever -- to continue training for ever-escalating battles. It's a character trait that's routinely played for laughs. Dragon Ball Minus, while cute in its way, embraces this theme and puts a suitably Saiyan-y spin on Goku's origins that can almost be read as a parody of Superman's escape from Krypton.
A few months back Toriyama announced that Goku’s mother's name would be Gine, a vegetable pun for the spring onion “Negi," just as Goku's Saiyan name is "Kakarot" (carrot) and so on. Some details about her relationship with Goku's father were revealed -- namely that they were more romantic with each other than the average Saiyan couple and that she worked as a butcher on the Saiayn homeworld, Vegeta. These details, though, are subtle enough in Dragon Ball Minus that readers might miss them unless they're filled in beforehand.
Gine's introduction isn't presented as a big reveal like it was ever meant to be any kind of mystery. Fans meet her matter-of-factly as Burdock, recently summoned to his home planet Vegeta by his boss Frieza, simply walks into the meat shed she's chopping up some ham hock-looking thing. Burdock, who is demonstrated to be a bit smarter than his second-born son, has determined that his summons is a portent of doom. He fills his mate in on his suspicions and they pop their second-born son into a stolen space pod and send him to Earth as an "infiltration baby," telling him simply "You have to stay alive" and "Take care." Oh, and just so you remember it's a Jaco tie-in, "And watch out for the Galactic Patrol!" Goku, previously seen as a naked sleeping baby unceremoniously shipped off to an easy planet for a child to conquer, is now shown to be adorned in Saiyan armor, awake and somewhat aware of his predicament. This new spin on the story makes the scene more tragic, because it suggests that Goku may have been an inherently caring individual no matter where he grew up. In other words, maybe hitting his head on a rock wasn't the only reason he had empathy and a good heart? If nothing else, it's cute and kind of sad and a little more emotionally resonant than the previous version of the story where some people shot their baby into space because that's just the kind of society they lived in.
So why didn't more Saiyans make it off planet Vegeta before it was blown up? Don't worry, some short, simple and plausible-enough explanations are provided. Most main characters known to survive the slaughter also make short appearances without the short tale skipping a beat.
Perhaps most importantly for DBZ fans, the art is a delight as usual. Toriyama's style has shifted a little in recent years. His lines are slightly thicker and more rounded. Jaco and Dragon Ball Minus both incorporate gray tones and screen tones a little more than DBZ did (a likely result of being shorter-form works with a humor emphasis), and feature more detailed backgrounds in many cases. In a sense, Toriyama's coming full circle. His earliest work was bulbous and cartoony. The height of his action-oriented career was more blocky and chock full of speed-lines and fireball effects. At this point the 59-year-old artist seems to have refined aspects of both approaches into something that's still instantly recognizable.
Depending how you feel about the Dragon Ball Z sequel Dragon Ball GT, an anime not based directly on existing manga that had somewhat minimal involvement from Toriyama, you'll be interested to hear that Dragon Ball Minus references only plot points and concepts relating to the original manga series. There is one mild retcon, however, as Freiza mentions not just the Super Saiyans, but also of the new Super Saiyan God mode introduced in last year's Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods animated feature. It's kind of a needless reference that could have been shoehorned in to remind perhaps more recent fans of the movie, but given how involved Toriyama was in the project, it comes off as a proud nod rather than some kind of editorial-mandated addition to help boost Blu-ray sales.
Toriyama's overall disregard for his series' more bloated aspects in multimedia that he couldn't possibly control every aspect of is heartening. Whatever his reason for doing this short story I'd like to think he told it completely his own way. The introductory copy jokes that even he didn't know this story until now and that makes the weird and mildly inconsistent nature of the narrative pure fun instead of some continuity math problem fans have to solve, which feels much more in line with the overall pacing and emotion of his original manga than most any extras from the anime ever did (although that horrible episode where Goku and Piccolo try to get drivers licenses is totally a guilty pleasure).
This isn't the first time Toriyama has had his most popular series cross over, of course. Characters from his Dr. Slump comedy manga about a scientist and his superpowered android daughter appeared in one of the earlier Dragon Ball manga stories, which essentially means Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball and Jaco are now a canonical trinity. If only Arale-chan could've met Jaco... Although, I suppose next year is Dr. Slump's 25th anniversary. Who knows what Toriyama might cook up?
Fans can read the full Dragon Ball Minus story with a Weekly Shonen Jump subscription from Viz Media, buy a back issue form Viz Manga or pick it up in print in early 2015 when Jaco is collected in a trade paperback.