The influence of Star Wars is written large on the Dragon Ball franchise, coded into its visual aesthetic and space opera storytelling. For all of the shared tropes and visual cues, it’s the family saga facet that unites these two properties more than any other. Characters grow onscreen, sometimes in real-time during hiatuses between series, coming of age as viewers do.
Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the twentieth entry in the Dragon Ball film franchise, is only the second ever to enjoy a theatrical release here in the UK. According to Manga UK, the film has now taken more than £1 million at the UK box office, making it the second highest grossing anime film of all time just behind Spirited Away. This success is indebted to die-hard fans who, according to Manga UK Marketing Manager Andrew Hewson, “watched it over and over again”.
Anime is more plentiful and accessible now than it’s ever been. So how does a veteran franchise like Dragon Ball stick steadfast to its formula yet continue to grow in popularity? An article over at Vice interviewed superfans and hit upon the key to the franchise’s longevity. It’s multi-generational.
This aspect is, of course, two-fold. As I’ve already mentioned, the Dragon Ball franchise is a family saga. At present there are three generations on screen, Goku having been a grandfather since the late nineties. Over the years, other long-running anime have attempted this to varying degrees of success, but there’s something unique about Dragon Ball and its generations of characters.
Since its original inception by mangaka Akira Toriyama in 1984, Dragon Ball has earned legions of loyal fans. Here in the west it was a gateway for many into anime, acting for kids in the early nineties as Naruto, Bleach and Yu-Gi-Oh! did for an entire generation later. With each new instalment into the Dragon Ball franchise, be that anime, manga, movie or video game, there was a new cohort of fans joining the fold. Fans that have since grown up and now have children of their own. My friends and I were obsessed with everything Dragon Ball, and I still have fond memories of watching the Cell Saga as a kid. Flash forward almost twenty years, and my own kid was born as Super was still airing.
As children discover the franchise for themselves, it not only allows older fans to fall back in love with the quintessential fighting anime but see things in a new light. Already I’ve found myself reacting differently to Goku’s relationship with his son, or the bond between Gohan and Piccolo. As my daughter grows older and I slowly introduce her to anime, no doubt Dragon Ball Z will be one of the first titles that I’ll want to sit down and show her. After the Miyazaki movies, of course.
Though there are plenty of properties that inspired Dragon Ball, and contemporaries it can be likened to, for me the strongest comparison is Star Wars. Both rank among the twenty highest-grossing media franchises of all time, and both are franchises that, although not exclusively, are typically discovered in childhood and carry on into adulthood. It’s inevitable that fans would want to pass on this love to their children, keeping the franchise alive and more popular than ever.