DragonBall Z and the Development of My Intellectual Imagination

In my freshman composition course, I have students write about personal interests to discover the “Hidden Intellectualism” in their lives, as Gerald Graff calls it. This process helps them to discover that their own experience is not as far removed from the academic world as they think. To model the process, I wrote this “rough draft” of an essay about my youthful interest in DragonBall Z, along with commentary about the essay’s structure and how I might improve it if I were to revise it.

Growing up, one of my favorite shows was DragonBall Z. Now that I am an English professor, I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I am a fan of the show because I fear people will think my artistic interests are immature. However, as I will discuss, I believe the show actually does have more value than people realize. I use Gerald Graff’s essay, “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” to help clarify my reasons why I believe my interest in DragonBall Z has intellectual and academic interest. I also provide research which shows that DragonBall Z is part of a larger history of literature and art, which most academics would agree are legitimate subjects of investigation. Overall, I believe that DragonBall Z encourages teenagers to grow their imaginations and to use their abilities in a heroic way, and so I will argue that DragonBall Z can be appropriate for consideration in the classroom.

I remember seeing the name DragonBall Z on the TV program when I was in Middle School, and I was immediately interested. I did not know what the show was, but I liked dragons from an early age, and so I was curious to see how dragons played a role in the show. I had just arrived home from school, so when I turned the episode on, it had already been airing for a few minutes. As a result, I had no idea what was happening. The show was following a lost little boy with black hair through the woods, and he stumbled upon a green man in a turban meditating. As the green man meditated, it became clear that his meditation was creating some kind of physical reaction in the environment; he was changing his environment through sheer force of will. I thought that premise was interesting, so I began to follow the show regularly. It turned out that the little boy, Gohan, was the son of the main character, Goku, and the green man was Piccolo, once Goku’s enemy who was becoming Goku’s ally. Goku, I would learn soon, was one of the few remaining members of an alien species called the Saiyan, which explained why he had so much power. Piccolo was also an alien, which explained his green skin and super powers. DragonBall Z, for the most part, follows Goku’s quest to be a mighty warrior and his commitment to defeat evil, and also portrays the lives of his family, friends, and allies.


One of the most inspiring abilities some characters have in the show, including Goku, is the ability to transform their bodies through intense training and meditation.  Goku’s race, the Saiyans, in particular have the ability to become Super Saiyans, a transformation which turns their hair fiery white or blond and their eyes green or blue. When they turn into this state, they emit a golden aura that looks like fire glowing around a candlewick. Something about this theme in the show captivated me, though I could not quite understand why. A large part of it is, I believe, the circumstances under which the characters in the show are able to transform. When they are faced with horrible tragedy, often at the hands of villains, the characters find a way to overcome their own despair and limitations. By becoming something more than they once were, they are able to turn their wills into reality. As someone who grew up poor and who had few friends because I moved so often as a child, the idea of overcoming hard times and changing yourself to meet challenges inspired me. I did not realize that this was what the show was doing to my imagination at the time, but in retrospect, I think DragonBall Z gave me hope.

Some might argue that it is silly to take hope from a show that is so obviously imaginary. In fact, some people I knew did not like DragonBall Z at all, simply because the imagination it required was too ridiculous. My stepfather always made fun of me for watching the show, because he thought it was too immature for someone my age, especially as I entered into my college years. An adult should not watch cartoons, but should find something practical with which to occupy his time. I agree that being practical is important, but to even know what is practical, we need our imaginations to be developed. Furthermore, some things in life that matter the most, like having a puppy, falling in love, having children, or finding art beautiful are important exactly because they are not practical: they are meaningful on their own terms. Furthermore, sometimes the practical application of art and storytelling does not become apparent until years after you encounter it. For these reasons, although I understand where my stepfather was coming from, I still think DragonBall Z is worth my time. And I think it could be worth other people’s time too, for reasons I will discuss shortly.

One thing which my stepfather’s objection to my enjoyment of DragonBall Z introduced me to was what Gerald Graff would call the intellectual desire to argue for something which I found personally valuable, in spite of his disagreement with it. According to Graff in “The University Is Popular Culture, But It Doesn’t Know It Yet,” one of the things which all academic areas hold in common is the need to properly use persuasive argument. He explains that “all academics, despite their many differences, play a version of the same game of persuasive argument” (Graff 21-22). So this means that historians, scientists, philosophers, and film critics, even though they are studying different things and are asking different questions, all need to learn how to argue properly in order to become experts in their fields. As a matter of fact, I would go on to become a professional literary critic, and have written about thirty conference papers, several published articles, a Master’s thesis and dissertation about numerous pieces of literature. Each of my pieces of writing includes an argument about how one can better understand or appreciate one of those pieces of literature.


Although my stepdad did not know it, he was training me in what Graff calls Arguespeak. Graff writes, “Learning Arguespeak means not simply manipulating a set of mechanical skills, but becoming socialized into a way of life that changes who you are” (24). Instead of simply becoming angry when someone disagrees with us, Graff encourages his readers to learn how to investigate why we hold the opinions we do – we can explore our opinions with curiosity the same way we explored the original thing we were interested about. Then we learn to listen to what others have to say about our opinions; if they agree, they can teach us new things about our perspective, and if they disagree, they might actually help us to better articulate why we think our opinion is good. Besides, everyone should be able to admit that they are not always wrong, so learning to listen and participate maturely in debate grows us into better adult citizens of our communities. DragonBall Z is a show about epic battles, but it led me into an even better confrontation: I needed to learn how to deal with disagreement. Graff would say this was an intellectual experience, and as such had academic value. Besides, I also learned how to be a better literary critic, which would one day become my chosen profession. DragonBall Z, definitely popular culture, helped to lead me straight into academia, just as Graff predicted.


Of course, Dragonball Z connects to the academic subject of literary history, and literary history connects to research into real historical events. DragonBall Z was inspired by The Journey to the West one of the four most important pieces of classic Chinese literature (Clements 101-102). This helped me to understand that, even though it is a children’s cartoon, DragonBall Z is part of a profound cultural legacy of storytelling. Because DragonBall Z is about heroes who face evil, this also connects the show to what the scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. Throughout different cultures and modes of storytelling, Campbell argues, “the basic outline of the universal mythological formula of the adventure of the hero is reproduced, to the detail” (16). The hero’s imaginative symbols help us to meditate on our own personal crises and growth: “He is the hero of the way of thought—singlehearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free” (Campbell 18). Although Campbell knew nothing of DragonBall Z, that description of the hero applies precisely to the character of Goku. This led me to research heroes in animation, and one particularly interesting essay I found was called “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters,” which discussed the difference between American comic books and Japanese manga: “From the early 1950s forward, manga clearly played a far more significant role in Japanese society than American comic books… did in the United States” (Szasz 729). Because two major cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were hit by atomic weapons, the Japanese imagination had to contend with the real history of nuclear holocaust in a way that Americans had not: “Unlike their US counterparts, ever since 1945, manga artists have placed the atomic theme at the very heart of Japanese popular culture” (752). This helps to contextualize why Akira Toriyama, born only ten years after the US dropped the atomic bombs on his country, felt compelled to imagine a superhero like Goku, who could easily stop such a weapon.


Because DragonBall Z connects directly to Campbell’s belief that the literary hero helps us to find hope when faced with historical and personal crisis, it also supports Graff’s argument that popular culture is related to important questions academics must ask. After applying the idea of the hero’s journey to Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan, I realized that his ability to overcome his own abyss and become a greater hero was helping both American and Japanese audiences to form a richer, more heroic imagination. Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan in DragonBall Z is an invitation to open our imaginations to the wisdom hidden in the hero’s journey, and with rigorous academic and intellectual thought, maybe we can be transformed too.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Clemens, Jonathan; McCarthy, Helen. The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917 (1st ed). Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press. Web. 13 October 2017.

Graff, Gerald. “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale University Press, 2004. 17-42. Print.

Szasz, Ferenc; Takechi, Issei. “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80.” Historian 69.4 (2007): 728-752. Web. 13 October 2017.

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