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.