This Hit Series Wasn’t Created for Black Fans. We Made It Our Own Anyway.

This Hit Series Wasn’t Created for Black Fans. We Made It Our Own Anyway.

Wide Angle

The late Akira Toriyama’s manga and anime hit may not have been created for Black fans, but we made it our own anyway.

A group of young Black men sits watching TV and eating popcorn; in the room with them are several illustrated life-size characters from Dragon Ball.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Toei Animation/FUNimation and Evgeniy Shkolenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On March 8, a few minutes after seeing the news that the titanic anime and manga creator Akira Toriyama had died on March 1 at the age of 68, I, like all Black men in mourning, started drafting a text to my group chat. But before I could fire off my reflexive expression of grief and celebration, my guy Daniel wrote simply: “RIP to our king.” The word “our” leaped out at me, striking in all that it represented. Black people claim Akira Toriyama; he was ours.

He was everyone’s, of course; I don’t mean to hog a man whose work has no borders. It’s difficult to sum up just how influential and universal Toriyama’s work was, but believe me when I say that you can see the impact of his oeuvre—especially Dragon Ball, one of the bestselling manga series of all time, which spawned a colossal anime and media franchise—across nearly every domain of pop culture, from music to sports to video games to comics to TV and film. “After filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, Toriyama is likely the most influential Japanese artist of modern times,” Gene Park wrote for the Washington Post. Toriyama transcended language, race, and ethnicity, too; last year for the Los Angeles Times, JP Brammer penned the definitive essay about witnessing Toriyama’s most iconic character—the pure-hearted, spiky-haired hero Goku, who stars in each iteration of the Dragon Ball franchise—approach the status of secular sainthood in Mexico.

I can only speak as a Black man who gets dapped up every time I hit the gym wearing my tank resembling Vegeta’s Saiyan armor, but I’ve always found Black Americans’ affinity for Toriyama and his works particularly compelling. I remember when my older brother, obsessed with ’70s kung fu flicks and martial arts, put me on to Dragon Ball Z, which had more visceral and artful fight choreography than any Saturday morning cartoon I’d ever seen. Those subtitled episodes planted a seed that blossomed when the English-dubbed version trickled onto basic cable; I soon learned that a handful of my friends were also practicing Kamehameha energy waves in their bathroom mirrors. Countless Black athletes and hip-hop artists have proclaimed their love for Dragon Ball, to the point where the lyrics database Genius compiled an entire video of rap references to the series. (The video is a tight five minutes, but could easily be twice as long.) Likewise, there is no shortage of homebrew Dragon Ball entertainment straddling the intersections of fan fiction, skit, and meme reimagining Toriyama’s set of fictional Japanese aliens as Black people. One of my favorite internet trends replaces Dragon Ball Z characters’ spiky hairstyles with fades, waves, and durags, drips out martial arts clothing and combat armor with ice and thick chains, and uses A.I.-generated audio to make iconic characters shout the N-word at each other before scrapping at barbershops and fast-food joints. (I’d like to tell you I’m above binge-watching “Nigeta” skits, but my TikTok and Instagram algorithms bear witness to the truth.)

What is it about Toriyama and Dragon Ball that inspires such reverence among Black American audiences? For the uninitiated, the series is about a precocious and pure-hearted boy who stumbles upon rumors of a set of seven magical spheres, known as Dragon Balls, that, when united, have the power to summon a wish-granting dragon. With characters and plot arcs loosely inspired by the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, Dragon Ball was fantastical, exciting, serialized storytelling from its inception. But I wouldn’t blame you for wondering just how the franchise made its way to Black viewers, or how Black viewers made their way to it. After all, on its surface, nothing about Dragon Ball strikes me as uniquely resonant to cultures outside its Eastern roots. And anime, if you’re old enough to remember a time before it was deemed cool in the American mainstream—before Megan Thee Stallion launched streetwear lines and presented awards with anime streamer Crunchyroll, before Vince Staples passionately defended English dubs over Japanese subs to Yedoye Travis at Complex, and before Creed III director and star Michael B. Jordan choreographed boxing scenes for one of the world’s longest-running action film franchises with references to My Hero Academia (and, yes, Dragon Ball Z)—was once merely a niche interest enjoyed by Western enthusiasts and obsessives drawn to the unfamiliar.

Over the years, though, whatever boundary once stood between “weebs” and pop entertainment is gone, including among Hollywood’s Black culture makers. Toonami, Cartoon Network’s after-school action programming block known for curating foreign cartoons, began closing the gap between anime fandom and mainstream culture when it launched in 1997.

Featuring a slate of heavily serialized shows like Voltron, Sailor Moon, Gundam Wing, and Tenchi Muyo, and their saucer-eyed heroes, hyperstylized combat, and hair that defied earthly rules of gravity, Toonami was one of the first American homes for these beloved imports. When Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z, which had just finished airing in full in Japan, joined Toonami in 1998, it immediately anchored Cartoon Network’s era-defining collection and hooked the attention of an entire generation of Black kids. A kinship—mediated through Toonami—formed between anime and contemporary rap music, as Peter A. Berry wrote for XXL in 2022. In on-air promotions, the beats and edits for DBZ bumpers evoked the visual and aural language of a hip-hop music video. Dragon Ball Z’s rapid ascent even drew the pearl-clutching of a Wall Street Journal reporter, who in 1999 wrote that a then-record 1 million 6-to-11-year-olds were tuning to the “violent Japanese cartoon show” bringing “impalement [and] strangulation to the after-school crowd.”

Black audiences were perhaps especially primed for Toriyama’s brilliant, innovative rendering of martial arts after decades of watching Bruce Lee films and the movies that they subsequently inspired. (James Schamus, who co-wrote the screenplay for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, argues that the Hong Kong American kung fu expert was “the greatest African-American star of the 70s.”) Hilton George, the founder of Blerdcon, a yearly convention of “Black nerd” culture attracting thousands of Black fans and expositors, told me that a decade before the 1984 debut of Toriyama’s Dragon Ball or his first manga hit, Dr. Slump, martial arts had “penetrated into blaxploitation movies and tropes around black masculinity.” The classic blaxploitation flick Dolemite, for instance, featured martial arts because those films were “ubiquitous amongst Black men of the ’60s and ’70s,” said George.

If Black kids of the ’70s were cutting their teeth on Jim Kelly flicks, George believes that, as they reached parenthood, their children coming of age in the ’90s may have also been exposed to anime like Dragon Ball Z, albeit in a different setting. “A lot of us came across the early works of anime [because] you had a dad or a cousin in the Navy or Army stationed overseas and had access to videos and broadcast television that they could send home for you to watch,” he posited, relaying an anecdote that I’ve heard from multiple people.

But it wasn’t just martial arts films or Black soldiers structurally coerced into the horrors of American militarism that had inadvertently created lanes for an improbable cultural exchange. There was also narrative common ground. In Dragon Ball Z, the source of Goku’s mysterious power is revealed: He’s not just a mystical humanoid, but a Saiyan, a member of the dwindling remains of a proud alien race that was colonized and genocided by Frieza, a villain who uses war to eliminate entire planets of their indigenous populations and sell their land to the highest bidder. After discovering his Saiyan roots, Goku—with the urging of displaced royal/rival extraordinaire Vegeta—eventually obtains an ancestral power, known as becoming a Super Saiyan, to avenge his forebears by defeating their enslaver in combat.

Even if your Frantz Fanon collection is gathering dust, anyone with the most cursory knowledge of Black American or diasporic colonial history, or the lived experiences of contemporary Black life in its shadows, can see the parallels in Goku and Vegeta’s righteous rebellion against a galactic conquistador’s rule. In Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA’s The Tao of Wu, the prolific producer and rapper claims that Dragon Ball Z “represents the journey of the black man in America.” (As usual, Bobby Digital was spitting.)

Black Americans could see themselves in Toriyama’s protagonist in other ways, too. As the central hero of the Dragon Ball franchise, Goku may be immensely gifted and supernaturally strong, but his talents are nothing without an insatiable work ethic to master and invent new battle techniques and to overcome insurmountable odds. “Characters like Goku mirrored the experience we were being taught about the world by our parents: The world will underestimate you, but you can overcome anything if you work hard enough … no matter how high the odds are stacked against you,” Jordan Calhoun, Lifehacker editor in chief and author of the memoir Piccolo Is Black, told me, referencing the way many Black kids heard their elders instruct them to work twice as hard as their peers, drawing on lessons from Civil Rights icons.

Calhoun believes those themes made the ground fertile for imputing Blackness into Toriyama’s characters. Case in point: Piccolo, who is a green-skinned, gravelly-voiced alien forced to mentor his slain enemy’s earthling son, and a character popularly considered to be spiritually, if not canonically, one of us. (By functionally fostering Goku’s son Gohan in a moment of crisis, Piccolo also became my favorite archetype of the Dad Who Stepped Up.) “I was pretty young when I realized that recognizing Black-coded characters is a shared cultural experience,” Calhoun told me. “I didn’t have the academic language for it … but me and my friends just knew that Piccolo was Black.”

Yet, as much as Toriyama’s narratives and characters resonated with Black fans, their relationship with the manga creator was complicated by his work’s more literal depictions of Black people. Toriyama’s illustrations are littered with caricatures of our skin tones, noses, lips, and personalities that are so grotesque, they simply could not run on American TV—which has steadily phased out blackface from early-20th-century animated shorts—were they not couched under the abstraction of being foreign. The character Mr. Popo (avert your eyes), for example, is a fat, red-lipped assistant, toothless in appearance and personality, who functions as a butler to the Earth’s godlike guardian. In fairness to Toriyama, he may have derived parts of Mr. Popo’s appearance from the Hindu god Mahakala, who possesses the same traits evocative of Jim Crow minstrelsy. But, in fairness to me, Toriyama wasn’t in my living room helping me defend his Black Sambo doppelgänger to my dad. Even if Mr. Popo’s design were merely lost in translation from religious texts to action anime—almost certainly an inevitable product of a Japanese creator from a more homogenous nation with limited exposure to Black people—Toriyama would have a better shot at beating the allegations were his other characters like Killa, Officer Black (you’ll never guess what race he is), and this tribal African man who took a wrong left turn on his way to Birth of a Nation, depicted without the same crude features. As X user @GoldenPortable suggests via this tweeted compilation of Black people in Toriyama’s work, the manga artist had a sturdy visual idea of how dark-skinned people should appear in his comics and cartoons, and none of it resembles what his most loyal fans see in our mirrors.

While Toriyama’s caricatures are frustrating, there’s truly nothing Blacker than taking something that may not have been created for you and making it your own anyway.

In a reclamation of Dragon Ball Z’s signature transformation of its black-haired heroes into blond-haired, blue-eyed demigods—a standard of perfection just as comfortable in the Eurocentric West as it is on Planet Vegeta—RZA wrote, “When my hair is in an Afro? Word up: I’m Super Saiyan.” That’s my kind of appropriation. Calhoun echoes the sentiment: “We didn’t have much positive representation of fictional Black cartoon characters, so we found them on our own. … It was a shared Black cultural experience because we needed it to be.”

In Toriyama’s death, I find myself cherishing the scale and impact of his work through the interpretive lens of the Spirit Bomb, Goku’s signature slow-building, yet infinitely expanding, energy blast. Unlike every other attack in his arsenal, the Spirit Ball’s power doesn’t come from his own power, but from the collective and concentrated will of nature. Toriyama created his work and wielded it his own way. But it was an entire culture that gave his work its strength—yours, mine, and ours.

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