When did dragon ball come out ? In the 21st century, anime is available pretty much everywhere. We have dedicated streaming services like Crunchyroll, along with offerings on Netflix, Amazon Video, and more. Even obscure series get unofficial releases on YouTube and Dailymotion with fan subtitles. But back in the day, things were a lot more difficult.
A few places sold tapes by mail-order, many of them dubbed over multiple times into near-gibberish. Every once in a while a show like Star Blazers would give you a tantalizing glimpse of what you were missing. Eventually, you could go to the video store and rent from the paltry handful of dubbed OVAs that made it over courtesy of distributors like Harmony Gold, but if you wanted to watch an entire series you were out of luck.
That all changed on Sept. 13, 1996, when a forward-thinking producer and a lucky nephew brought one of the most iconic anime shows of all time to American airwaves.
Strongest Under The Heavens
First a little background on Dragon Ball if you need it. Created by artist Akira Toriyama in 1984 in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, the series follows a martial artist named Son Goku as he battles increasingly absurd threats. Loosely based on the classic Chinese tale Journey To The West in the beginning, Toriyama made up the plot as he went along, setting Goku on a quest to pick up the seven titular balls that would grant him one wish when assembled.
Originally he thought that the series would end after about a year when Goku completed his journey, but the introduction of the Tenkaichi Budōkai martial arts tournament rocketed it to a new level of popularity. Toriyama soon found the rhythm of the story, introducing new foes to challenge Goku as he ages, marries, fathers a son, dies and comes back to life, and assembles a supporting cast of unusual martial artists.
Over 519 chapters in 11 years, Toriyama created a storyline that would become one of the most influential in shonen manga and drove Shonen Jump circulation to over 6 million copies an issue. It wasn’t long after the debut that Toei began its anime adaptation. Dragon Ball covered the first 194 chapters of the manga, with Dragon Ball Z handling the rest, starting up with Son Goku a married adult and father of Gohan and learning about his alien origins as he faced off with Vegeta.
It wasn’t long before Dragon Ball was a multi-billion dollar franchise in Asia, meaning that it was only a matter of time before it came to the United States.
Made in Japan
By 1996, Haim Saban had the world in his hands. After bringing over the Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger series from Japan, dubbing it into English and bookending it with new live-action segments to create Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, he’d kindled a fire among American youth for overseas properties. On the strength of that show and the animated cartoons he’d produced for Marvel, he began pitching a block of programming to air daily in syndication. He just needed something to put in it.
The wheels were already turning for Dragon Ball. Gen Fukunaga, an engineer who was born in Japan but lived in the States most of his life, had an uncle at Toei, the studio that distributed Dragon Ball in Japan. Fukunaga managed to convince his relative that he could do the same for the series in the United States. With a business partner, he opened Funimation in 1994 and financed a translation of the show.
This wasn’t the first time any American audiences had seen the show. Nippon Golden Network showed a subtitled version to Hawaiian stations. Harmony Gold had test-marketed the original Dragon Ball series in 1990, with some very bizarre changes, like making Goku “Zero” and Karin “Whiskers the Wonder Cat.” Yikes. Funimation partnered with distributor Seagull Entertainment to get the show out there in 1995, but it only made it to 13 episodes on a handful of stations before being cancelled. It needed help.
Saban’s distribution network gave Dragonball access to stations around the country as part of a tested, successful block of programming. But they were leery about the previous failures, so instead of once again starting at the beginning, they opted to fast-forward to Goku’s adulthood with Dragon Ball Z.
Going Super Saiyan
Saban had pre-existing agreements with numerous WB and UPN affiliates for a block of programming that included Samurai Pizza Cats and Eagle Riders. Dragon Ball Z fit right in to that lineup when it premiered with the episode “The Arrival of Raditz” on Sept. 13, 1996. The combination of the all-out action of the Saiyan saga and increasing awareness of anime in the West meant it finally found commercial success. Saban greenlit a second season of 26 episodes, which played twice a week, doubled up in an hour-long block of pure martial arts action.
These episodes, which encompass the Vegeta and Frieza sagas, are the show at the peak of its powers. Goku dies and comes back to life, discovers his true alien heritage, battles his eternal rival for the first time, saves the world from certain destruction, and then heads off to outer space to face even more fearsome foes.
Things would not remain so rosy for Goku and his pals, though. As cable programming became more targeted and effective, Saban’s syndication business started to lose steam. It decided to continue the partnership with Fox, providing shows to its successful Fox Kids block on both weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. That drastically reduced the number of programs it could place, though, and Dragon Ball Z was one of the casualties. By June 1998, the show was once more off the air.
A Toonami Rises
It didn’t take long for it to find a new home, though. Funimation now had proof that American audiences would vibe off of Toriyama’s legendary series, so it shopped it to Cartoon Network, the Turner property that was beginning to wean itself off of crusty Hanna-Barbera re-runs. As the anchor for the Toonami block, Dragon Ball Z ran five days a week at 5 p.m., quickly becoming appointment viewing. The network re-ran the two Saban syndicated seasons and then pushed into new material, with Funimation dubbing the episodes with new Texas actors.
Until 2004, the show was a dependable fixture on the network, anchoring the Toonami block and drawing respectable ratings. Funimation also re-dubbed the original 63 episodes of Dragon Ball Z with their Texas cast, licensed sequel Dragon Ball GT in 2003, and Cartoon Network started the whole saga over in 2005.
Back in Japan, Toei was preparing Dragon Ball Kai, a remastered version of the series that took out elements that were not in the original manga and cleaned up damaged frames. Funimation brought that to the States in 2010 (on Nickelodeon this time), followed by Dragon Ball Super in 2016 (back on Cartoon Network, but with the demise of Toonami it moved to the the Adult Swim programming block). It still airs every Saturday night at half past midnight.
It’s pretty staggering that a single anime franchise has stayed on the airwaves in the United States for a quarter of a century, but Dragon Ball Z is something truly special. It essentially laid the groundwork for fight anime that followed, establishing tropes and themes that would be copied and riffed off of endlessly. For all its faults, it remains an engaging, powerful creation that continues to power up anime fans to over 9,000 to this day.
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