Exploring the $5 Billion Dragon Ball Franchise: From Conception to Localization
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Exploring the $5 Billion Dragon Ball Franchise: From Conception to Localization

By Sean Robbins (SeanBird) Host / Executive Producer of
The J-Pop Exchange

What was it about the Dragon Ball franchise that made it so popular in Japan?  Further, while the series is very popular in America now, the franchise initially struggled for several years.  What were the key factors that turned things around?  A key difference in the way the music is handled for current Dragon Ball properties versus previous versions reveals a lot more about the current trends in localization then it may seem at first glance.

The Dragon Ball series originally began as a manga or Japanese comic in 1984.  It was published in Shonen Jump, a publication that features 15-20 different manga properties on a monthly basis and is very open to accepting submissions from entry level artists.  Their motto that they have had for 50 years is that "a new artist's work may be really boring or really amazing -- either way it's worth taking a chance."  It's also worth noting that in more recent years, they do accept submissions globally.  It is predominately the popularity of the series with fans that dictates whether a series will remain for months or many years.

Akira Toriyama is the original creator and artist for the Dragon Ball series.  When he created this series, he already had a successful manga under his belt for Shonen Jump titled Dr. Slump, so they were eager to give him the opportunity to create Dragon Ball.

There were arguably 2 main factors that helped Dragon Ball become a widely popular manga.  First, Dragon Ball drew heavy inspiration from the Chinese novel Journey To The West, a novel that was also very popular in Japan.  Second Akira Toriyama was very inspired by Jackie Chan's films.  Mr. Toriyama would fuse the action of a kung-fu movie with the suspense of an episodic serial, leaving the reader wanting to know what would happen next.  As long as people were intrigued, which in this case they were, it served as a great device to ensure continuously successful sales.

The manga was so popular that an animated series followed in 1986 -- also titled Dragon Ball, and largely contained the same story of the original manga.

The series lasted 153 episodes.  It's worth noting, that in Japan new episodes of a series generally aired on a weekly basis all-year long; re-runs of a show, are not very common and are often only reserved for instances in which a series is very popular (and even in an instance like that, it's usually after the original run of the series).  So you could have quite a few cases in which nearly 52 new episodes of a program would air each year.

When Dragon Ball concluded its run in 1989, a new program followed, in Japan, later that year, titled Dragon Ball Z.  While Dragon Ball Z drew upon the same influences as Dragon Ball in terms of its source material, it added a unique blend of supernatural elements and (oddly enough) contemporary elements that made the series very unique its own right.

The Dragon Ball franchise has now become a very popular series in America; but it struggled for years before it gained popularity.  So how did it gain popularity here?

In America, the series manga form is far less popular and remains that way for the most part; it's the TV series and movies that are emphasized here.

In the late 80's, a company known as Harmony Gold, acquired the rights to the original Dragon Ball anime.  It received limited home video release and was televised in a few markets for a brief period of time.  The localization was quickly cancelled due to low-ratings and lack of interest.

A second attempt was made by a company known as Funimation in the mid 1990's; they emphasized the Dragon Ball Z property and it ran for two seasons on syndicated TV.  In Japan, the targeted demographic was late teens to early twenties; whereas in America, the show was predominately marketed for kids.  The original Japanese musical score and songs were completely replaced.  The original Japanese version had orchestral music and was scored more like a drama, whereas the localized version had much more of a rock sound and was scored more like a cartoon.  In other words, unlike the original Japanese version, musical cues were constantly being played with practically no interruption because there was a perception, 20 years ago, that kids would get bored if there was not enough background music playing constantly.

Though faring better then the attempt made in the late 80's, after 2 seasons, and 53 episodes later, the localized version was canceled due to low ratings.  But this was not the end for the series here in America, not by a long shot.

Around 1999, Cartoon Network had great success with their anime block of content known as Toonami; anime such as localized versions of Sailor Moon proved to be very successful for them.  Cartoon Network, eager to acquire more content, purchased the broadcasting rights to Dragon Ball Z.  Cartoon Network, as well as other cable channels, tend to rebroadcast their shows frequently.  This was the spark that made Dragon Ball Z popular in America.  Constant rebroadcast equaled continuous opportunity for people to check out the show.

This series and other series, such as Pokémon, helped a great deal to make the anime genre not only accepted outside of Japan, but popular as well.

Mr. Norihito Sumitomo's score for the Dragon Ball iteration: Dragon Ball Super, is not replaced when the series is localized here, and is the same as the original Japanese version.  Further the opening to the show, titled Chouzetsu Dynamic!, is performed by Kazuya Yoshii for both the original Japanese version and the English language version, in Japanese and English respectively.  It really is wonderful to see that, thanks to the popularity of this genre, and to some extent fan outcry, Japanese anime franchises such as Dragon Ball, remain closer to the original Japanese source material.

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