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Dragon Ball began as a manga written by Akira Toriyama, chronicling the adventures of a cheerful monkey boy named Son Goku, in a story that was originally based off the Chinese tale Journey to the West. The manga was soon adapted into one of the most popular animes ever made.
In Dragon Ball, Goku and a huge cast of friends and enemies search for the magical Dragon Balls that they could use to make a wish come true. Of course, no sooner had someone gathered and used the Dragon Balls that they would have to be sought out again. On top of all this, Goku was training up to fight in the periodic Tenkaichi Budokai martial arts tournament. The series is generally broken down into the following sagas: Emperor Pilaf, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, the Red Ribbon Army, Fortuneteller Baba, the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, King Piccolo and the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai, with some minor filler plots added in the anime. After defeating several major threats to the world, Goku finally won the Tenkaichi Budokai on his third attempt and went off to get married.
After that, the anime (and the American version of the manga from that point) experienced a name change to Dragon Ball Z, while it continued uninterrupted as Dragon Ball in the Japanese manga. The reason was the Dragon Ball Z period had a change in focus from martial arts comedy to more serious, action-packed battles. At the start, it was revealed that Goku was not simply a boy with a tail, but one of the last survivors of an alien warrior race known as the Saiyans, having been sent into space shortly before the Saiyans' home planet was destroyed (shades of Superman). Goku and his friends, reinforced by former enemies (a recurring theme), had to fight off progressively more powerful villains. Although Goku and his martial arts skills (which let him and his friends fly, throw energy blasts and read minds) dominated the battles, the story was mostly about Goku's son Gohan and his journey towards succeeding his father as the protector of Earth. Running seven years and nearly 300 episodes, the series can be broken down into the four primary Big Bads of the series: Prince Vegeta, Frieza, Cell and Majin Buu. Both Dragon Ball the manga and Dragon Ball Z the anime came to a triumphant conclusion after Gohan gets married and his own daughter Pan enters the 28th Tenkaichi Budokai.
Since Dragon Ball Z was a superhit, Dragon Ball GT was created as an anime-only continuation by Toei, with some character designs by Toriyama. GT was not as well-received, lasting only 64 episodes before cancellation (although this was still much longer than originally intended), and its status as part of Dragon Ball canon has since been compromised, because...
...after several years of no new media beyond video games repeating the history, Dragon Ball was brought into a new generation with the announcement of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, simply titled Dragon Ball Online. While it has, as of yet, only been released in Asia, it should be noted for one important reason: Dragon Ball Online takes place on Earth, 216 years after the events at the conclusion of the manga series, and according to Akira Toriyama, who has been one of the hands-on lead designers of the game, is considered canon to the world of Dragon Ball. So far, three playable races have been announced: Human, Namekian and Majin.
The success of Dragon Ball is hard to dispute - it became one of the biggest hits ever in Japan, it was the series that popularized manga and anime the most in Europe, Americans always have an idea of what it is when they hear its title, every single Latino who grew up during the 90's has watched it, it's still running on TV internationally and merchandising is alive and well. It is sometimes derided for being simplistic and for drawn-out multi-episode fights with little story progression. However, one must keep in mind that the show is primarily aimed at kids and teens age 10 to 18, with older adults not really in the picture. Dragon Ball is supposed to be fun and thrilling, and it generally achieves this.
There were many Non-Serial Movies (only a handful can be slotted into the main series' timeline with as little continuity issues as possible) released at least once a year, three set in the Dragon Ball timeline and thirteen for Dragon Ball Z. Two made-for-TV specials were made for Dragon Ball Z which tell the backstories of Goku's father Bardock and Future Trunks. There was also a seventeenth feature film based on the original series produced to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the franchise, as well as an OVA in 2008 produced to commemorating the 40th anniversary of Shonen Jump.
To date, there's been three Live Action Adaptations: The American-made Dragon Ball Evolution, which came out in 2009, the earlier, campier Taiwanese Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins and the Korean Dragon Ball: Fight For Victory, Son Goku!.
In the early 2000s, the manga was re-released in Japan as the "Kanzenban" or "Perfect Edition". with brand-new covers drawn by Toriyama. This condensed the original 42 volumes down to 34, included all of the original color pages, and every other issue included a booklet with a drawing by current, popular Shueisha artists, talking about how much Dragon Ball had influenced them. The final volume in 2004 included a new, adjusted ending written and drawn by Akira Toriyama.
From 2009-2011, Toei aired Dragon Ball Kai (Dragon Ball Z Kai outside of Japan), a "refreshing" of DBZ from the Saiyan to the Cell Games Saga with almost no Filler or Padding. The re-cut of the Majin Buu Saga would air in 2014, though a lot of the original DBZ filler was left in due to budget constraints.
Now also has a Spin-Off manga called Dragon Ball SD in Saikyo Jump by Naho Ooishi which began on December 3, 2010, exactly 26 years after the first chapter of the original series was first published in Shonen Jump. As of June 2011, there's another Spin-Off called Episode of Bardock, a "What If?" scenario where the aforementioned Bardock is flung back in time by Frieza's Supernova attack (don't ask us how that works...) and ends up thousands of years in the past on Planet Vegeta (then called 'Planet Plant'). Later that same year, Episode of Bardock received an Animated Adaptation, and Shueisha started to reprint brand new copies of the original manga, all of it in its original 42 Volumes glory, although with a different stylized logo for "Dragon Ball".
There are a couple of Abridged Series out there, including Alternate Reality DBZ and the enormously popular version by Team Four Star. There's also a weekly Podcast hosted by the Daizenshuu EX crew. Finally, it's worth mentioning Dragon Ball Multiverse, whose drawings are impossible to differentiate from the official material.
Needless to say, its impact on Shonen manga is, well... impressive - to say the very least, its influence now impossible to not see in almost any work in the subgenre. Although not the first employ the vast number of the tropes it's most associated with, it became the de facto face of them. To this day, the Shonen work, and various Anime in general that use elements from, pay homage to, or parody, this series to continue its legacy. For proof, one need only look as far as these three anime - often considered the most current and direct of its spiritual successors: Naruto, One Piece and Bleach.
Unmarked spoilers below.
This show is the Trope Namer for:
- Backup From Otherworld
- From a Single Cell
- Frothy Mugs of Water: Indirectly.
- Fusion Dance
- Kamehame Hadoken: Co-trope namer with Street Fighter.
- Meteor Move
- Power Levels