Red Ribbon Army arc Part V
Chapters 55 – 112, Episodes 29 – 78
What are the similarities and differences between the anime and manga iterations of Dragon Ball? Renan dives deep to discover which format of Akira Toriyama’s masterpiece reigns supreme in ‘Adaptation Analysis’.
Dragon Ball’s world is one that inherently revolves around the concept of martial arts. Kame Sen’nin is established as a rather famous martial artist in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai; Yamcha’s knowledge of martial arts is meant to demonstrate how ingrained the study is in Dragon Ball’s mythos; and Uranai Baba’s entire tournament is predicated on the idea that a battle between martial artists has the same value as money. To have one’s fortune told by Uranai Baba, one has to either pay a fortune fee or defeat her five warriors in succession. Deciding that Upa should be around when he gets the final Dragon Ball, Goku swoops back to grab him before the gang ever gets to Uranai Baba, ensuring there’s a team of five to take on the fortuneteller’s challenge.
Although Uranai Baba’s tournament isn’t as development driven as the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, in regards to either characterization or the series’ core themes, it does serve the crucial purpose of allowing Goku, Kuririn, Yamcha, Pu’er and Upa to interact with one another in meaningful ways. Character development is important, but it means little if characters lack the chance to show the fruits of their development. Naturally, in an arc all about Son Goku, Goku is the character who comes out on top with the most narrative beats, but the rest of his supporting cast do get their time to shine, albeit unconventionally.
Rather than simply tossing out five gimmick fighters at the main characters, Baba’s warriors are unified by a singular theme: conventional horror. Specifically, conventional horror in a cinematic sense. Her fight opponents consist of a vampire named Dracula Man, the invisible man Suke-san, the appropriately named Mummy-kun, a demon called Akkuman, and a mysterious masked fighter adorned with a halo. Just in terms of character design, Baba’s five warriors demonstrate a clear sense of visual progression.
The first warrior, Dracula Man, is a meek, slim boxer who gives off the immediate impression that he isn’t particularly physically strong; Suke-san, the second warrior, is completely invisible which is a threat in its own right, but his body’s outline along with eyes are rather round in nature, ensuring he doesn’t come off too menacing; Mummy-kun is physically large and rather bulky, showcasing extreme physical prowess; Akkuman has a menacing design meant to evoke demonic imagery, placing him above the other monsters just conceptually; and the final masked fighter is physically similar to Muten Roshi, creating a visual link to the man who defeated Goku in the last tournament he participated in.
Dragon Ball as a whole is home to consistently strong character design, but the sheer size and scope of the Red Ribbon Army arc ends up demonstrating just how much visual identity Toriyama can embed into any given character. The Red Ribbon Army arc likewise shows how Toriyama designs characters in groups. Baba’s five warriors are unified under one the singular visual theme of horror. The Red Ribbon Army’s major antagonists, while all distinct in their own right, were uniquely uniformed so that they could maintain identities of their own while also clearly being identifiable members of the Army they were serving under. Characters naturally play off of one another visually which is a concept Dragon Ball understands well.
This is a concept that is immediately expressed in the first match of Uranai Baba’s tournament: Kuririn versus Dracula Man. Before Kuririn can even get a hit in, Dracula Man lunges into the air, turns into a bat, and bites Kuririn right on the skull. As the only bald character in the current cast of five, Kuririn had to be the first character to fight Dracula Man for the gag to work. The humor is dependent on Kuririn’s character design, directly coming from Dracula Man launching himself at the clear target that is Kuririn’s head, eliminating him before he can properly fight.
It is worth noting that Uranai Baba’s tournament is structurally quite different from the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. Rather than Dracula Man proceeding onto a hypothetical next round after defeating Kuririn, he continues to fight until being defeated. Kuririn, in his elimination, naturally stops fighting and tags out for the next member of his team. The point of Uranai Baba’s challenge is less about finding one singular, strongest martial artist and more centered around how far a single team can go against her five strongest fighters. As a result, Dracula Man stays in the ring and Kuririn is replaced by the next member of Goku’s team.
In terms of narrative pacing, it is quite important that Uranai Baba’s tournament has its own unique spin compared to the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. Not only because the previous arc was itself a tournament arc, but also because the next arc will see the return of the Tenkaichi Budokai. In keeping Uranai Baba’s tournament a smaller scale affair with a different structure entirely, Dragon Ball is able to build anticipation for another tournament arc without coming off derivative. Likewise, Uranai Baba’s tournament gives characters like Kuririn, Yamcha, Upa, and Pu’er a chance to shine in an arc that was virtually all about Goku. Where the Tenkaichi Budokai is a test of how far one individual martial artist can go, Uranai Baba’s tournament is a group effort through and through.
As its own competition, Uranai Baba’s tournament does not necessarily need to adhere to the same rules as the Tenkaichi Budokai. Ring outs still count as a form of elimination, but matches do not necessarily need to be fought one on one. This is evidenced immediately by Upa and Pu’er getting the all clear to battle Dracula Man together. What differentiates Baba’s tournament from the Tenkaichi Budokai is ultimately that it is not inherently a test of a martial arts proficiency. Neither Upa or Pu’er are traditional martial artists so they need to rely on their own creativity to take out Dracula Man.
Rather than rushing in to throw a punch, Upa uses classically anti-vampire sensibilities to distract Dracula Man. By breathing garlic into his face and posing himself as a cross, Dracula Man tries to flee only to be slapped out of the ring by a now transformed Pu’er. At its core, the battle is a gag fight not too dissimilar to Kuririn’s match against Bacterian in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, but the reason the former works while the latter suffers stems mostly from the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai being built up as the ultimate martial arts test for half an arc whereas Uranai Baba’s tournament was a last minute diversion at the eleventh hour. Tonally, Uranai Baba’s tournament is also far lighter, giving gag fights a more fitting home than in the Tenkaichi Budokai.
If there’s one major issue with Uranai Baba’s tournament, it’s how quickly Goku’s party gets eliminated. Kuririn is immediately knocked out of the ring at the start of his match; Upa and Pu’er forfeit in order to allow Yamcha to step in; and Yamcha only fights two opponents, neither of whom he manages to beat himself, leaving Goku to fight the remaining three combatants. In an arc that has given the majority of its focus to Goku, it does make sense from a narrative perspective to keep him in the focus, especially since Baba’s tournament does culminate in a rather important character beat for Son’s arc, but it is nonetheless disappointing to see the focus of the tournament so quickly fall back on Goku.
That said, it is not as if Kuririn and Yamcha do not contribute with their own impressive feats. Yamcha’s fight against Suke-san has him listening to his invisible opponent’s movements in order to properly land attacks, demonstrating that while Yamcha may not be as strong as Goku or Kuririn, he is a competent martial artist in his own right. Once Baba begins singing to drown out Suke-san’s movements, Kuririn contributes by having Goku bring Bulma and Muten Roshi to the fight, devising a plan where Muten Roshi would coat Suke-san with the blood of his excited nosebleed upon seeing Bulma topless, allowing Yamcha to fight on even ground, solidifying a penchant for adaptability and resourcefulness on Kuririn’s part which will go on to define his character in later arcs.
The biggest change the anime makes in regards to Baba’s tournament is in how Yamcha approaches his fight with Mummy-kun. Both mediums see the setting switch from Baba’s outdoor arena to the Devil’s Toilet, an indoor battlefield positioned above a pool of acid. In the manga, while Yamcha is able to use his speed and cunning to nearly kill Mummy-Kun, he finds himself overpowered and forfeits the match before his opponent can toss him into the acid. Opting for a more dramatic approach, the anime has Yamcha refuse to surrender, giving the former bandit a considerable amount of agency in a fight where he originally had little.
Although the end result is the same, Yamcha pushing himself to fight back recontextualizes the entire fight against Mummy-kun. In the manga, Yamcha understands his limits and gives up before Mummy-kun can potentially kill him. In the anime, Yamcha desperately tries to stay in the fight for as long as possible, ignoring his limits in favor of seeing how far he can go. Considering Yamcha nearly did ring him out, it does make a deal of sense for Yamcha to continue trying in light of his near victory. The concept of limitations is likewise one that Dragon Ball would go on to make extensive thematic use out of, particularly in an all encompassing sense, so both approaches do feel thematically appropriate for the series.
The only issue with the anime approach stems, funnily enough, not from Yamcha continuing to fight Mummy-kun, but from a change made to the resolution of Yamcha’s role in the tournament. Once all is said and done, Yamcha reveals to Goku that Muten Roshi has agreed to take him on as a pupil. The implication is that, in watching Yamcha fight, Kame Sen’nin saw promise in him and decided to take him under his wing. On the flip side, the anime has Yamcha ask Muten Roshi to train him only to be rejected. It takes Bulma convincing Muten Roshi that she’ll naturally spend more time on the island if her boyfriend were a student of the Turtle School, prompting Kame Sen’nin to change his mind.
In theory, the idea of Bulma standing up for Yamcha and actively helping him advance his martial arts career is a relatively good one with a solid foundation, actively showing just how much their relationship has grown since the first arc, but it does diminish Yamcha’s role in becoming a student of the Turtle School. Rather than being accepted thanks to his own skill as is the case in the manga, he is accepted only because Muten Roshi lusts after his girlfriend. Yamcha fighting back against Mummy-kun is a thoughtful change that serves to make his character look better whereas Muten Roshi rejecting Yamcha only serves to undermine both Yamcha’s role in the arc and his revised fight against Mummy-kun.
Of note, while Muten Roshi himself comments on Mummy-kun’s speed, Goku is left rather unimpressed due to his training with Karin. Goku even goes on to defeat Mummy-kun with a single blow, cementing just how far the next generation has come. Thematically, the thread of the next generation is still left unresolved, but it is clear by this point that Dragon Ball is steadily inching closer to the theme’s resolution, at least in regards to Kame Sen’nin’s character. The theme would be later recontextualized following Goku becoming an adult, but its original purpose is nearing its natural conclusion.
Continuing the Red Ribbon Army arc’s desire to flesh out Dragon Ball’s world, Akkuman, Goku’s next opponent, is specified by Muten Roshi as a two time Tenkaichi Budokai winner. Obviously, the fact that the first tournament the series depicts is listed as the “21st” Tenkaichi Budokai is enough to imply the tournament has been a long standing tradition, but Akkuman’s victories add context to the tournament’s history. Goku is not only fighting the strongest martial artist in Uranai Baba’s typical roster, he is fighting someone who was once deemed “Strongest Under the Heavens,” further emphasizing just how strong Goku has become since the start of the arc.
Naturally, Goku does not struggle against Akkuman, defeating him relatively comfortably. Although the battle goes by fast, Muten Roshi’s comment does help flesh out Dragon Ball’s world in a historical sense and Akkuman’s Devilmite Beam does further establish Goku as wholly purehearted. An attack that uses one’s inner evil and expands it until death, the beam fails to damage Goku due to his pure nature. Given how Goku has been depicted up to this point, this is a rather elucidating moment, definitively confirming Goku as pure in every sense. At the very least, Goku’s intentions and thoughts are not impure.
The final match of the tournament sees a reunion between Goku and his grandfather, Son Gohan. Taking into account just how singularly focused the Red Ribbon Army arc has been in regards to Goku, there could not be a better finale to Uranai Baba’s tournament. This is the final wall Goku needs to overcome before finding the seventh Dragon Ball. It it only fitting that, at the end of a personal journey, Goku comes face to face with the man who kickstarted his adventure in the first place.
Where Goku breezed through his fights with Mummy-kun and Akkuman, Son Gohan puts up a formidable fight. His attacks are fast, he can use the Kamehameha, and he uses Goku’s tail against him, scolding the boy for failing to train such an obvious weakness. Considering the direction Goku’s training will go in prior to the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, Son Gohan reprimanding Goku for leaving his tail untrained acts as set up for how Goku will improve himself in-between arcs.
Initially, Goku does not know that the opponent he is fighting is his grandfather. Toriyama does foreshadow this rather early by having Goku comment on how the masked man has a “happy smell” associated with him, but the reveal is saved for when Gohan grabs Goku by the tail. Upon accidentally ripping off Goku’s tail, Gohan forfeits the match and unmasks himself, prompting Goku to cry and rush his grandfather with a hug.
Up to this point, Goku has been depicted as a kindhearted boy, but not a particularly affectionate one. He clearly cares for his friends, but there is a genuine loving warmth between him and Gohan when they reunite. For the first time in the series, Goku cries, showing a much more vulnerable side to him and humanzing him with greater depth than before. Goku crying over his grandfather is a small moment, but it is one that deeply influences his characterization, rounding him out considerably.
Gohan’s brief revival serves as yet another piece of worldbuilding. Through Uranai Baba, the dead can revisit Earth for a single day. It is even implied via Gohan’s comments that the concept of money does exist in the afterlife, fleshing out not only Dragon Ball’s world but also establishing a proper cosmology. As Gohan’s day runs out, Goku looks on at his grandfather with a smile. Goku’s adventure began with him wanting to reunite with his grandfather’s prized possession, and ends with him reuniting with the man himself.
Of course, Goku’s journey is not truly over until he finds the seventh Dragon Ball. With the location divined by Uranai Baba, Son Goku rushes out on Kinto’un to intercept Pilaf yet again. In the manga, this is meant to be a surprise. After nearly two arcs of silence, Pilaf and his cohorts return, ready for revenge against Goku. Upon spying on Son during his match with Gohan, they even know his weakness, albeit totally unaware that Gohan had actually ripped off Goku’s tail.
Since the anime brought Pilaf back early through filler, the surprise is significantly lessened. It is narratively fitting that the antagonist who opened the arc also closes the arc, but, in that sense, Pilaf’s early presence almost goes on to overshadow the weight of Goku reuniting with his actual grandfather at journey’s end. Regardless, both the anime and the manga play out their conclusions similarly. Goku runs into Pilaf and company; defeats them rather effortlessly; and rushes back to Upa with the seventh Dragon Ball in hand.
It is worth noting that while Goku is away, Uranai Baba reveals he will go on to save the world someday. Given the natural progression of Goku’s arc up to this point, along with how the series has been gradually escalating with each arc, it is only natural that, sooner or later, Dragon Ball will tackle a plot that sees the world at risk. Interestingly, much of Uranai Baba’s tournament acts as set up for the next two arcs. Gohan’s comment about Goku’s tail has pay off in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, and Baba’s comment about Goku saving the world directly leads into the Piccolo Daimao arc.
Even though Bora’s resurrection plays out the same in both mediums, the anime’s use of The Blue Travelers, an insert song that plays while Goku and Upa fly back to the Holy Land of Karin, acts as a somber build up for the revival, allowing the audience to reflect on the events of the arc while it quickly reaches its conclusion. The use of The Blue Travelers gives Bora’s inevitable revival significantly more weight than in the manga. This is not to say the manga handles the moment poorly by any means, but the anime’s interpretation is inherently more emotional thanks to the insert song, embedding a legitimate sense of finality to the Red Ribbon Army arc’s end.
With Bora revived, Goku returns to Uranai Baba only to be told by Muten Roshi that he will no longer be training under the Turtle School’s tutillage. Rather, Goku is tasked with training on his own, seeing the world, and coming back to the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai more amazing than ever. As Kame Sen’nin also tells Goku to travel without Kinto’un, Goku is more or less brought back full circle to the start of the arc. He has a personal goal in mind, he is ready to see the world, and he has been stripped of his familiar possessions, even having his turtle school dogi burned off while fighting Pilaf. The Red Ribbon Army arc could not ask for a more fitting conclusion.
In both mediums, the Red Ribbon Army arc is a mixed bag. Its strengths include making Goku a stronger character, both physically and narratively; expanding the scope of Dragon Ball’s world, themes, and arcs; and raising the stakes both through tension and emotion. At the same time, the Red Ribbon Army arc is tonally inconsistent, suffers from pacing issues, and utilizes more bad filler than it does good. The manga is definitely better when it comes to the Red Ribbon Army arc. Although some changes are for the better, as seen in Muscle Tower, most changes simply drag out an already massive story arc.
By the time Goku is rushing off to train for the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, however, it’s hard not to appreciate the Red Ribbon Army arc regardless of medium. Its lows may have been lower than anything that came before, but its highs utterly eclipsed the Hunt for the Dragon Balls and the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. From Taopaipai’s introduction to Goku wishing Bora back to life, Toriyama did not miss a single narrative beat, expanding the story for the better with every chapter. The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai established Dragon Ball’s themes, but the Red Ribbon Army arc put them into practice. Through the good and the bad, Dragon Ball is a stronger series because of the Red Ribbon Army.