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Dragon Ball – Adaptation Analysis Part 4: Strongest Under the Heavens

21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc Part II

Chapters 24 – 54, Episodes 14 – 28

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’.

When they initially begin their training with Kame Sen’nin, Goku and Kuririn’s growth is completely internal. There is no overarching plot point driving them. For the beginning of their training, this is more than suitable. After all, when Muten Roshi’s philosophy boils down to “train hard and enjoy life,” it is only natural that both Goku and Kuririn start from an internal position. It is only after their training has started in full that Kame Sen’nin sees the potential for them to participate in the Tenkaichi Budokai, a martial arts tournament used to decide the “strongest under the heavens.”

This in itself, the idea that someone can become the strongest under the heavens, plays a crucial role not only in this story arc, but Goku’s personal arc up through the series’ sixth arc, or the entirety of the first anime adaptation. Where Muten Roshi’s training serves as a transitionary period for the series, moving away from the emphasis on adventure to a more traditional martial arts story, the tournament firmly solidifies Dragon Ball as a martial arts serial in mind, body, and soul. As soon as the preliminaries begin, it is abundantly clear that Dragon Ball has finally found the story it wants to tell.

This is best seen by the introduction of Goku’s signature, series defining gi. While variations would be made to the outfit over the course of Dragon Ball’s run, Goku’s gi would remain relatively the same all the way up to the series’ last two chapters where he would trade his Turtle School uniform for a dogi all of his own. In its first incarnation, Goku’s gi proudly displays the Kame Sen’nin’s kanji (?) over his heart and on his back, recognizing him as a legitimate member of the Turtle School. Kuririn likewise wears the Turtle School uniform, demonstrating a solidarity between Muten Roshi’s two young students.

To go alongside Goku and Kuririn’s desire to become the strongest under the heavens is Muten Roshi’s desire to ensure that neither of his students actually win the Tenkaichi Budokai, fearing that winning so early in their martial arts career will prevent them from striving for more, stunting them. Roshi’s motivation throughout the tournament directly ties into the theme of accepting that there will always be someone better. In beating Goku and Kuririn, regardless if they ever become stronger than Kame Sen’nin, they will always strive for more after witnessing his philosophy in play first hand. Not wanting to give away his identity directly, however, possibly tying into his desire to give his students a conceptual martial artist to strive to beat rather than himself, Muten Roshi disguises himself as “Jackie Chun.”

Muten Roshi disguised as Jackie Chun, Clyde Mandelin translation

Jackie Chun plays a critical role in the arc, not only because he acts as Son Goku’s final challenge during the tournament, but because he acts as a totem pole, demonstrating where Goku, Kuririn, and Yamcha all fall as martial artists. As the three major martial artists in training within the series, it is only natural Toriyama pit them all against Jackie Chun over the course of the tournament as a means of further solidifying both Muten Roshi’s competence as a martial artist and his desire to see the next generation thrive, one of the series’ core themes.

Independently trained, but competent enough to pass the preliminaries, Yamcha does not manage to land a single blow on Jackie Chun during the quarter-finals, establishing just how far out of the average martial artist’s league Muten Roshi is; one of Kame Sen’nin’s students, Kuririn puts up a far better fight than Yamcha in the semi-finals, even managing to nearly ring out Muten Roshi, but he is bested the moment Muten Roshi decides to bring the fight to an end; and the Turtle School’s star pupil, Son Goku gives Jackie Chun a legitimate challenge, fighting on even terms from the start of the fight to the very end, but his lack of form and experience ultimately cost him the match, demonstrating how, even though Goku may already be as strong as Muten Roshi, a martial artist needs to be more than their own strength.

Dragon Ball is consistently at its best when its characters’ arcs and themes influence, and are influenced by, the narrative. Without this clear structure or progression revolving around Jackie Chun, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai would lose a crucial part of its own identity. The slow build to Muten Roshi realizing just how competent the next generation is would lose all its impact, and the seeds necessary for bringing his arc to a close during the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai would never be properly sewn. While the tournament itself is by no means perfect, very few moments in the series come close to matching the level of excellence found within the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai’s structure.

Although the content between both mediums is mostly similar, save for some key pieces of filler in the Tenkaichi Budokai, there is one key difference that divides the anime and the manga’s depiction of the arc: pacing. In the manga, a story beat can be covered in a single chapter without damaging the overall pacing of the narrative. Specifically, in the context of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, entire fights can be over and done with in one chapter and still feel appropriately paced. The anime does not have this luxury. Either it includes multiple matches in a single episode, potentially overshadowing the impact of a certain match, or it extends the fight at the risk of muddying the source material’s content.

The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai’s first two matches, Viz translation

The tournament’s first match between Kuririn and Bacterian clearly shows just how beneficial the manga format can be for a serial. In the manga, Kuririn’s fight with Bacterian is over and done with in a single chapter. There is a clear arc to the match where Kuririn is overwhelmed by Bacterian’s stench, is reminded by Goku that he does not have a nose, and then uses this to his advantage in order to take out Bacterian. It is not a particularly strong fight to start the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai with, but the single chapter tells the match’s entire story in a concise manner with every panel serving a purpose in the context of the fight.

As Toei cannot, in good nature, dedicate an entire episode to a single fifteen page chapter- not that this would stop Dragon Ball Z later in the series’ run- the anime adaptation places Kuririn’s fight with Bacterian at the end of an episode which also covers the combatants drawing lots for the tournament. To pad for time, the anime likewise adds more content to the portion of the match before Kuririn realizes he cannot smell. Unfortunately, this padding leads to a plot inconsistency where the announcer claims that Kuririn only gets his first attack in after realizing he cannot smell. In the anime, Kuririn has already hit Bacterian at this point, but the line remains unchanged.

This is just an example of the type of careless filler the series would rely on more heavily later in its run in order to pad for time. While it is harmless to the overall narrative, such an inconsistency has no place in the story and gives the impression that Dragon Ball’s plot is less consistent than it actually is. Rather than adding to the fight in order to enhance it, the anime holds its source material’s text in little consideration, failing to even cross reference adapted dialogue with anime exclusive content.

The second and third matches fare better, but, as was the case with Kuririn versus Bacterian, the anime version demonstrates a key strength of the manga. Both fights have their own dedicated chapters in the manga, allowing them to stand out on their own, but they are also short enough where the anime needs to place them within the same episode for pacing purposes. Adaptation wise, both fights come out well enough. This is a less a flaw of the anime and more a strength of the manga.

Episode 22’s two adapted fights

The episode adapting both chapters does feel more action packed as a result, with the story moving at a brisk pace, but the manga’s approach ensures that each match thus far is treated with equal regard. This is especially beneficial in regards to Yamcha’s fight with Jackie Chun. As the manga chapter stands alone, it is easier to digest the action and purpose of the match without any extraneous plots surfacing. The anime does not have this luxury, however, and the fight is shared with the significantly less important match between Ranfan and Namu.

Perhaps the biggest change in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, and an example of strong filler, comes from Goku’s match with Giran. Rather than the match proceeding like intended, as was the case in the manga, their fight is postponed by a rainstorm. What seems like a blatant method on the anime’s part to waste time actually serves as a moment for the characters, and the audience, to decompress after three straight fights. This filler section is also used to build up to the fight between Goku and Giran. Giran is depicted as an imposing figure and Goku is not expected to get by as easily as either Kuririn or Jackie Chun.

Although the filler does not actually impact the course of the fight in any way, the associated build up does give the match added weight. In the manga, this is the first fight in the tournament to last longer than a single chapter. Since the adaptable content still would not net the anime with an entire episode, let alone a second, the adaptation chooses to add a sense of building tension in order to convey a similar sense of scale to the manga. Both the anime and manga take different approaches to reach the same goal, but it is clear in both mediums that the stakes of the tournament are rising, with the battles beginning to demand more from the combatants.

While the quarter-finals are structured well, the fights themselves do leave much to be desired. Kuririn versus Bacterian is a gag match through and through; Yamcha’s fight with Jackie Chun serves an important narrative purpose, but does little for Yamcha as a character; Ranfan versus Namu has no narrative or thematic substance; and Goku’s match with Giran, while given the appropriate amount of weight between both mediums, involves Goku breaking the rules of the tournament by summoning Kinto’un and later growing his tail back seemingly out of nowhere, allowing him to defeat Giran, both details significantly lessen the impact of Goku actually winning the match.

Kinto’un saves Goku from elimination, Viz translation

The two semi-final matches are much stronger on the whole, not only due to the characters involved in said fights, but for what they represent for Dragon Ball. In the case of the fifth match, Kuririn versus Jackie Chun, it establishes how superhuman the main characters are. There is a section of the fight dedicated entirely to Kuririn and Jackie Chun reenacting their movements for the audience since they were simply fighting too fast for the naked eye. The sixth fight likewise works to further establish what kind of protagonist Goku is by contrasting him with Namu. Where the latter fights to purchase water for his village, the former fights simply to prove and better himself. With every passing battle in the match, Goku inches closer to fully embodying the idea of self-betterment for self-betterment’s sake.

Son Goku’s motivations are neither complex nor emotionally rooted, but that does not make him any less compelling. If anything, the simplicity that drives Goku is exactly what makes him an enthralling protagonist, especially now that his character has been recontextualized. His simple desire to grow stronger has been given newfound context through his training with Kame Sen’nin, and the tournament’s matches directly influence the man Goku is going to become over the course of the series, showing him that the world is filled with martial artists strong enough to not only challenge him, but potentially defeat him. Both Giran and Namu give Goku a run for his money, furthering his passion for martial arts.

When it comes time for the final match of the tournament, both Goku and Muten Roshi are in fundamentally different positions than they were at the start of the arc. Goku is on the cusp of victory after having defeated two formidable opponents, dangerously close to achieving what Kame Sen’nin desperately does not want him to achieve, and Muten Roshi finds himself struggling far more than anticipated, seeing the sheer potential the next generation holds first hand.

Narratively, it is important that Toriyama allows Muten Roshi to be challenged in his attempt to teach his pupils a lesson. Not only is there a certain humor to the situation that feels appropriately Dragon Ball, it also works to humanize Roshi. He wants so desperately for his students to keep pursuing martial arts that he will stop at nothing to win. His desire for victory has absolutely nothing to do with his own ego, and it is this attitude he wishes for both Goku and Kuririn to adopt. This, in turn, also divides the audience. It is natural to want Goku to win as this is ultimately his story, but Muten Roshi’s motivation is so compelling, that it is hard not to root for him. There is justifiable cause for either character winning, making for an engrossing, almost unpredictable finale.

Master and student prepare to fire the Kamehameha

On the subject of unpredictability, Goku’s fight with Jackie Chun almost justifies Toriyama writing back Goku’s tail so suddenly during his fight with Giran. In the manga, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai takes place over the course of a single day, with a clear passage of time. By the time Goku and Jackie Chun are a bit of a ways into their fight, the sun has started to set and the moon has risen. In a crucial moment of the tournament, Goku accidentally looks up at the moon, transforming into an Oozaru yet again, requiring Muten Roshi to fire off a Kamehameha in order to subdue him. As the anime had a quick break before Goku’s fight with Giran, the impact of the passage of time is lessened, but it is nonetheless present.

Both the anime and the manga use a fake out approach to the conflict, implying that Jackie Chun killed Goku before he reveals that he actually blew up the moon, but the anime makes more use of the premise, playing up the drama in a rather interesting manner. At the end of every episode, Goku introduces himself and does a voice over for the next episode. As Goku is supposedly dead, however, Bulma does the voice over instead, implying that Goku genuinely is dead. It’s a minor change, but it’s one that makes great use of the anime format, pulling off something that could only be done in the adaptation.

While Goku turning into an Oozaru provides an interesting bit of conflict at the end of the tournament, the heart of the final match is in the hand to hand combat between Goku and Jackie Chun. The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai’s final match is the most choreography intensive match thus far, with Toriyama using every chapter as a means of expanding Goku and Jackie Chun’s repertoire of abilities. As Muten Roshi shows off just how all encompassing his martial arts background is, Goku demonstrates his ability to adapt on the fly, going so far as to emulate his opponent.

It is this very emulation that ends up being Goku’s downfall. Recognizing that Goku is both copying his abilities and of a much smaller frame, Jackie Chun goads Goku into mirroring a jump kick he is about to perform on his opponent. As a result, while Goku’s kick does actually connect, it does not have enough weight to actually knock out Muten Roshi, whereas the Turtle Hermit’s kick ends up striking in full. For as strong as Goku has become, he is still blatantly inexperienced, allowing himself to be tricked at the most important moment of a fight.

Jackie Chun solidifies Goku’s defeat

Rather than losing to Jackie Chun simply because his master was physically stronger, it is important that Goku loses due to a simple lack of both knowledge and skill. While it would have been enough thematically for Kame Sen’nin to win thanks to his sheer strength, Toriyama is able to take the theme of accepting that there will always be someone better. Jackie Chun is not better than Goku in every sense, but he is better where it counts. In defeating Goku, Muten Roshi ensures that his students will always have the conceptual Jackie Chun to drive them to never stagnate or settle.

Outside of the next episode preview featuring Bulma’s preview, there is only one clear difference between the final match in the manga and anime: color. While it is sunset during the fight’s climax in the manga, Dragon Ball is primarily drawn in black and white, with only a few color chapters in the series. The anime, on the other hand, is able to show an explicit passage of time during Goku’s fight with Jackie Chun, culminating in the two fighting under a soft, orange sky.

The fight itself is fundamentally the same in either medium, both in content and context, but the inclusion of color in the anime adds an element of ambiance that the manga simply cannot afford to have at all times. The anime version does suffer from recycled animation, but the atmosphere present is more than enough to make up for it. When it comes down to it, however, while the anime ends on an arguably stronger note than the manga, the journey to the finale was not nearly as smooth.

As a story arc, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai is simply better suited for a manga’s structure. On top of that, the anime’s additions, while mostly strong, do damage the consistency of the arc, with examples of careless unnecessary filler. The adaptation is by no means significantly weaker than its manga counterpart, but the manga version is ultimately the better of the two due to its crisp linework, strong paneling, and overall structure.

When it comes down to it, though, the anime adaptation of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai does everything it needs to. The series’ core themes are established, Son Goku has been given a clear motivation, and Kame Sen’nin’s arc works in benefit to Dragon Ball’s overarching narrative in every regard. Although the manga does offer the better Tenkaichi Budokai, the anime perfectly captures the spirit of the arc, ensuring its audience has the appropriate context to better understand the story of Dragon Ball and Son Goku.

Part One  |  Part Two  |  Part Three |  Part Four  |  Part Five  | Part Six  | Part Seven  |  Part Eight

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