Akira Toriyama and the Japanese Superman:

Son Goku and Science Fiction

There is a divergence between Eastern and Western fantasy in the modern age that is nascent but hidden beneath cultural barriers. Americans can watch an episode of Dr. Who and enjoy the languishing British empire assert dominance via moral supremacy in a fantastic counter Earth where shit of the alien variety happens on a weekly basis. Likewise, American theologians in the 19th century busily crafted what would become our present day iterations of conservative dispensational theology. And ever since, faith-and-nationalism synergy has propagated an irksome relationship between the “moral-majority” and politics on capitol hill. Like a city’s favorite sports team, there is uproar when victory is pronounced across the airwaves, and silence when a loss incurs. We all like to be winners, not losers, and the resulting fantasy coalesces from ideal scenarios and national rigor. Orientalism aside, there are stark differences between fantasy in the East and in the West, yet nothing would suggest that their dichotomy is intentional, but the byproduct of history, war, and colonialism.

Super-hero comics in the Bronze Age and early Silver Age demonstrated their infatuation with science, featuring characters of tremendous strength and fortitude who benefitted from the marvels of American ingenuity and progress. Marvel Comics in particular is the culprit, espousing the superiority of gamma radiation, gene therapy, genetic mutagens, and evolution via natural selection (looking at you, Sub-Mariner). Super-hero comics of this variety are morality tales, science fiction with the intent to entertain but also provoke wonder. The X-Men were communists in hiding and Captain America was a man at odds with the ongoing decay of the world around him, a relic of a forgotten age of moral supremacy and solidarity. Their abilities lend to discussions about what it means to be human, the limits of human evolution, and the ethical treatment of minorities and fringe communities in the Cold War, where conformity was subliminally enforced under threat of being “un-American.”

Since WWII, the relationship of science fiction/fantasy has been markedly different. In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, millions were negatively affected by the greatest advancement in human history: the harnessing of the atom. From the ashes of nuclear war rose Godzilla, the poster-monster of Japanese cinema, a pariah and an unstoppable force bent on terrorizing Japan as a result of the radiation that had created him. Unlike the U.S., Japan has no superheroes like the DC and Marvel giants, or a comic book culture espousing their heroics. Rather, Manga (possibly finding origin in Kibyōshi picture books) developed in tandem with post war occupation and rooted in ethnocentric traditions, aside from the occasional moments of syncretism with Western pop-culture. (How much manga, and related entertainment, was influenced by the cultural transmission of Walt Disney media to occupied Japan is another article entirely.) But whereas American comics created Superman, the prime archetype for all superheroes, there was no such unifying figure in Japanese comics until Akira Toriyama conceived of Son Goku (known as “Goku” in the American iteration), the main protagonist of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z.

Goku is very much a Japanese take on Superman, revealing both intriguing parallels and departures. Like Superman, Goku is widely recognized as a pop culture figure in Japan, appearing in commercials and television shows, as well as an influence on artists around the world from music groups to sculptors. Their origin stories are nearly identical. Superman and Goku are both “sole survivors” of their race (that is until they discover antagonists that survived as well), and live among humans on Earth incognito. In the tradition of his conception, Goku pursues zen-like principals of living in relationship to nature. His greatest weapon, the Spirit Bomb, is the combined life force of all things around him. A kind of quantum bomb, the Spirit Bomb seeks out evil and represents the major theme of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z—that virtue trumps evil, always. It also emphasizes the harmony Goku shares with the people of earth, who pursues enlightenment through martial arts. (The “super saiyan” transformation represents the culmination of Goku achieving Nirvana.) Superman’s purpose in DC, on the other hand, is relegated to an archetypical one. He is the moral center of DC. People determine what is right and wrong based on Superman’s character. The cultural difference that manifests in Goku is his child-like playfulness and resolve to always do what is right and ethical. He is forgiving and kind to anyone he meets, but, unlike Superman, will take lives to preserve others. Unlike Superman (in most iterations), Goku is an interstellar migrant who feels at peace with who he is, where he is, and what role he has embraced as a protector of earth. He is even known to use his powers in front of other earthlings, but lives in solitude and contemplation, living off the land like his American counterpart, Superman, a Midwestern farmhand. Goku has no alter ego, no Clark Kent to hide behind. Without a secret identity, Goku has no need to feel separated from his loved ones. So, he guiltlessly raises a family and demonstrates a profound love for his wife and son.

The cultural milieu of Toriyama’s Dragon Ball universe is an allegory to what is known as Pure Land Buddhism, where the chaos of the universe is juxtaposed against the afterlife that Goku so frequently enters upon dying. Like American super-hero comics, Goku never truly “dies,” but enters a new realm where he may attain enlightenment through his martial arts training with the regional deities that oversee his part of the cosmos. Superman’s anchor to life and existence is something that he tenaciously holds on to, but the cosmology of Goku’s world is intriguing in that it offers alternative states of being. Indeed, as an analogue to Superman, Goku is capable of experiencing his cosmology far more intimately. Grant Morrison’s Superman closely resembles Goku as characteristically fatherly and involved with the universe on a physical, intimate level, but he, like other iterations of the Superman character, experiences tension with those he has sworn to protect.

The Sayans, Goku’s race, in Dragon Ball Z represent one of the many fringe species in the galaxy near earth. They are a barbarian race, subjugated, then ultimately destroyed by their cruel master Frieza, a galactic warlord who enslaves mercenary armies to conquer planets and incorporate them into his empire. Goku, who is a representative of a domineering, bloodthirsty race, annihilated by Frieza much like Pharaoh attempted to eliminate the burgeoning jewish nation in the Old Testament (seeing the Jews as a threat to his empire in the Ancient Near East), becomes a token vindicator for the Sayans. In killing Frieza, he recovers the dignity of his people and lays a tyrant to rest. Superman, of whom Goku is derivative, never attains the glamor of Goku in his DC universe. There is an instance in the Justice League television show where Superman emancipates a world from the warlord-dictator Mongul, but these pale in comparison to the grandiose space opera that Goku participates in, in which he encounters his past and exacts judgment upon Frieza. In the wake of super-hero comics, Goku fills the vacuum that Japanese manga has reserved for a Superman-like figure. Even to Goku’s credit, he is rendered an amnesiac, unable to recall his past and the pre-programmed world domination that he must undertake as a pod baby, sent to another world to subjugate it.

The real question that demands answer is, “how is Goku a seminal figure of Japanese science fiction?” While the purpose of science fiction is to pursue the ethics of human advancement, it also contemplates the innate insufficiency to meet such qualifications. Goku’s presence in a universe filled with exponentially greater beings argues proof that an individual can stand before time, space, and creature, and face it boldly despite being insignificant. While the American perception of Dragon Ball Z is primarily associated with absurdity and extravagance, there is truth in Goku’s encounters with beings of great power. Goku, through sheer dominance, faces those challenges with the same cheerfulness that he possesses at the beginning of the manga. Whether or not Superman’s idyllic persona of a mild mannered, honest hero influenced Goku is subject to further inquiry, but for now the comparisons are apparent and telling. That Japan envisions Superman as an otherworldly savior connected with the earth spiritually and honor bound to take life to protect the innocent is a decent evaluation. As a savior, on the other hand, Goku never quite achieves the immortality of Superman. Though Superman has not yet actually “died,” Goku has died multiple times. In this respect Superman still represents something beyond what Goku is. Superman is a god, and Goku an able man with tremendous aspirations. As it stands, Goku may be one of the most widely recognized faces in Japanese science fiction, but he is also an Eastern analogue of Superman, and that alone demands pause.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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  1. Wow: this is a really fascinating article on a few levels.

    I wrote an article on my Mythic Bios Blog at one time about the differences between North American and Japanese comics development: http://matthewkirshenblatt.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/in-a-different-place-a-different-time-revision-and-reconstruction-in-comics-without-superheroes/

    I never actually bothered to consider Son Goku has a superhero in his own right and you definitely create a compelling point. He is certainly not exactly a superhero by classic North American standards, but there are definite similarities and cultural differences that make Goku very compelling. And he was created in 1985. At one point Julian brought up Busiek’s term of “Reconstructionism” with regards to comics. And, unlike Superman — who has arguably been changed by Revisionism and Reconstructionism in North America — Goku could arguably be the child of Reconstructionism outright: along with some cultural appropriation.

    Goku himself is derived from an older myth: that of Monkey in Chinese mythology and, specifically the story, Journey to the West. He is a Saiyan and they are essentially monkeys. He even has a tail on and off, a magical cloud named Nimbus that he used to ride, and a magical staff that can increase and shrink in whatever length he desires. And let’s not even go into the Chinese and Far East Asian mythology that he’s steeped in with regards to the Japanese idea of kami (spirits or ambient energy), King Yama (derived from the Yama Kings of the Afterlife), the dragon, and even the other supernatural creatures. There is even Oolong: a pig character reminiscent of Pig in Journey to the West.

    Journey to the West and the mythology and folklore around it has definitely influenced Toriyama’s Dragon Ball world.

    But what Toriyama does is he takes those elements embedded into the Far East Asian consciousness, one that many people in the idea have grown up with and had saturated into their cultures, and applied it to an almost whimsical science-fictional atmosphere. He takes an archetypal cartoon character, in Goku and the others, and applies it to a natural organically complementary world aesthetic reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. It’s the ancient complementing the futuristic and almost making a parody of it all, while always accentuating Goku’s balance with the world, his life, and his own family and friends.

    So Goku may well be Japan’s answer to the superhero in the form of Superman. Certainly, he lacks that stereotypical Western need to divide the physical from the metaphysical, or the material from the spiritual: embodied perhaps by Superman needing to make the separate identity of Clark Kent to function in his world.

    I have to say, Stuart, that is may be my most favourite article of yours yet. Definitely, keep it up, up, and away: with a kamehameha for good measure.

    Also and in post-script, maybe after his battle with Superman in ScrewAttack’s Death Battle, Son Goku will come back more enlightened and power than ever.


  2. coby criste says:

    i saw many of the parrellels when watching the Man of Steel Blu-Ray: http://cobyscomics.blogspot.com/2013/12/man-of-steel-blu-ray.html

  3. James Kelly says:

    A very brilliant article. I have always loved Dragon Ball Z, and your characterization of Goku rings very true to me.

    One thing that I think is important to note is that in almost all depictions of Son Goku (except DBGT, urgh) he never takes lethal force sadistically or with delight. If anything, more often than not Goku only kills when he has to. This is evident in his sparing Piccolo Jr, Vegeta, and even attempting to spare Freeza. While Goku loves a free contest of fighting he greatly prefers not to take life unless absolutely necessary.

  4. Horaz SC says:

    I’ve read the whole Dragon Ball manga quite a couple of times (never felt compelled to watch an animated version of a sequential work other than publicity, which is how it works in Japan since Tezuka times), and I believe, as a primarily manga reader, that some things should also be considered.

    Where Americans could see Son Gokuh as a Superman analogue, primarily, because it seems everything in the world needs to be compared with an American counterpart, I feel the Journey to the West legend should be taken into account, because it predates Superman (and American heroes culture, and comics in general, for that matter) by many, many centuries.

    When reading the manga instead of taking invented characters and filler episodes into account to make for a personality study, many will clearly attest that:

    1- Gokuh only wants to meet and measure against strong opponents, an inherent part of his Saiyan nature that is reflected on the other Saiyans (except for future Trunks which saw first-hand, the almost-delusional limits Saiyan arrogance had). This is the whole of his existence, far beyond their care for his wife and kids or Earth itself.
    - He doesn’t kill, banish or even punishes Piccolo Daimaoh Jr. because of FINALLY having defeated a powerful rival after two lost finals at the Tenkaichi Budokai.
    - He doesn’t kill Freezer back at Namek after everything he has done, and the sadness he is forced to take with him is not the just death of a tyrant or his impending danger, but the demise of a powerful opponent.
    - He doesn’t take lethal measures against the androids, even though he was told that a whole future timeline will be doomed because of said androids.
    - He gives Cell, the biggest menace out there and the real final boss of Dragon Ball’s run, the chance to fully recover before fighting against his very own son. A son that, having the chance to deliver the final blow to Cell and save Earth, rejoices in the unlimited force of the Super Saiyan and lets arrogance take the best of him (and Gokuh’s life, for that matter).
    - He asks Kami-sama to preserve Boo’s soul and make him reincarnate on a human so he can still have a chance to prove his immense fighting skills against somebody, because he knows he’s stronger than Vegeta and Son Gohan, mostly ignoring Son Goten’s outstanding natural skills.

    2- The downfall of the Super Saiyans is their arrogance, where they lose close contacts with their human limits. Every major villain did whatever he wanted because of this, some kind of “Joker’s immunity”, because they knew Gokuh was gonna test their mettle against them and no one else would have their say.
    Clearly illustrated on Cell, which has Saiyan DNA and lets arrogance take the best of their chances to seize the world, and made “The Cell Game” just to celebrate that purpose.

    3- In Gokuh’s mind, it doesn’t matter who you are and what you want, as long as you’re willing to fight him. Gokuh (and Vegeta, no two doubts about it) would gladly fight Superman if someone would tell about him, and he won’t pull punches just because Superman is a quintaessential Hero in several parts of the world. This more or less checkmates any further assumptions of similarities and/or equivalents, if Journey to the West to be taken into account like Toriyama intended in the first part of Dragon Ball isn’t enough.

    Of course, that is not to say that Gokuh is Japan’s Superman, and that is where the similarities start and end. Doing 19 pages a week almost non-stop from 1986 till 1996 gets you little time to worry about America’s belly.

    Besides, Toriyama’s Superman was already out there before Dragon Ball ever existed, in Dr. Slump’s Penguin Village, and it’s called Suppaman, double identity and all.

    Then again, let’s make a clear distinction between comics and other forms of sequential art Americans are NOT familiar with (Argentinian historieta, to name something other than manga), because scholars should talk about things that scholars know in order to make useful insights about understanding the media.

    This article seems well-intentioned. But it can’t hide away its arrogance.
    Exactly like a Saiyan, unlike Superman.

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