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Akira Toriyama’s legacy: Dragon Ball’s inspiring yet flawed impact on Black culture

todayMarch 10, 2024

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Akira Toriyama's legacy: Dragon Ball's inspiring yet flawed impact on Black culture

The recent passing of legendary manga artist Akira Toriyama has sparked an outpouring of tributes from fans worldwide. As the creator of the massively influential Dragon Ball series, Toriyama leaves behind a towering legacy in the worlds of anime and manga. But for myself and many other Black fans, Toriyama’s work represents something even more profound and personal – yet also more complex and fraught.

I still vividly remember the day in 1998 when Dragon Ball Z debuted on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. As a young Black man who recently graduated from Howard University, hungry to see myself reflected in the media I consumed, the arrival of Goku, Piccolo, Vegeta, and company felt groundbreaking. Here was an anime that centered on powerful, emotionally expressive male characters who grappled with weighty themes of heritage, loss, and what it means to protect those you love. My friends and I were instantly hooked, drawn into Toriyama’s imaginative universe.

We certainly weren’t alone. Dragon Ball Z ignited an anime explosion in Black culture, its outsized style and layered storytelling striking a deep chord. The series gave us iconic characters and moments that became touchstones, quoted and referenced everywhere from rap lyrics to the basketball court. Goku’s Super Saiyan transformation, Gohan’s electrifying defeat of Cell, Vegeta’s tear-jerking sacrifice against Majin Buu – these scenes are forever etched into countless Black millennial memories.

But Dragon Ball Z offered more than just indelible imagery and dialogue. For many young Black men, the series modeled a revolutionary vision of masculinity. Its heroes were complex, multidimensional men who expressed a full range of emotions, from sorrow to rage to tenderness. They formed deep bonds of friendship, rivalry and found family. In a cultural landscape that so often flattens Black male representation, Toriyama’s nuanced characters felt liberating.

Unlike most American action cartoons, Dragon Ball Z didn’t shy away from showing its tough male heroes cry. When Goku’s ally Krillin is brutally killed, he openly weeps and screams in anguish, then channels that grief into newfound strength. Those cathartic displays of emotion, followed by empowering growth, sent a potent message to Black boys. Here, finally, was an aspirational model of manhood that embraced vulnerability.

Beyond expanding Black emotional paradigms, Dragon Ball also offered a fantastical framework for exploring questions of identity and heritage. Goku’s journey to uncover his alien origins, and later pass on that legacy to his son Gohan, resonated with many Black fans. In a country where so many of us have been disconnected from our own ancestral roots, these sagas of inherited power and pride prompted introspection.

At the same time, it’s crucial to reckon with the more problematic aspects of Toriyama’s influential work. Dragon Ball has long been critiqued for its stereotypical portrayals of non-Asian characters, particularly Black ones. From the egregiously minstrel-like depiction of Mr. Popo to the heavily racialized designs of Demon King Piccolo and Staff Officer Black, many of Toriyama’s early characters embody demeaning tropes.

These troubling representations have cast a pall over Toriyama’s work for some Black fans. Revisiting those character designs today can be a queasy experience – a harsh reminder that even our most formative cultural touchstones are flawed. The glaring stereotypes make it hard not to question what biases or blind spots they might reveal in their creator.

Toriyama’s series emerged from a culturally homogenous society with a different history and understanding of race. But ignorance doesn’t erase impact. For Black fans, grappling with Dragon Ball means holding space for both the empowering inspiration and disheartening caricatures. It’s an internal reconciliation I still contend with to this day. These dualities speak to the knotty realities of media representation. The works that profoundly shape us are rarely perfect. They can validate our potential in one moment and degrade our identities in the next. Consuming them requires developing the critical tools to untangle the affirming from the harmful.

In the world of Dragon Ball, one character resonated with Black audiences. Piccolo, a Dragon Ball character, resonates with Black fans as a representation of Blackness, even though his design was not intentionally created to depict a Black person. This connection speaks to the character’s attributes and the broader themes of his narrative, which resonate with the Black experience in a way that feels authentic and sincere to many fans. His journey from villain to hero mirrors a narrative of redemption and personal growth that many find inspiring. Piccolo’s ability to overcome adversity and his unwavering determination to face challenges reflect the experiences of Black individuals who navigate and surmount systemic obstacles.

Atsuko Jackson from Michiko & Hatchin

I’m heartened that recent anime has made strides in depicting Black characters with more nuance and humanity, from Killer Bee in Naruto to Atsuko Jackson in Michiko & Hatchin. The medium is gradually learning to evolve beyond lazy stereotypes. But that cultural progress is also, in a poignant sense, part of Toriyama’s legacy. By captivating a generation of Black fans, Dragon Ball helped pave the way for this new paradigm, even as it stumbled over old pitfalls.

So while the anime community collectively mourns and celebrates Toriyama, I find myself reflecting on the totality of his impact with bittersweet gratitude. Dragon Ball expanded my emotional vocabulary as a Black man and made me feel powerfully seen. Yet it also forced me to confront the pain of being crudely caricatured by a story I adored. That tension, in all its complexity, is integral to Toriyama’s legacy.

As we bid farewell to one of the most influential manga artists in history, let’s remember Akira Toriyama for his visionary creativity and remarkable contributions to the medium. But let’s also seize this moment of tribute to grapple honestly with his work’s messy cultural imprint. Because that’s the only way to truly honor the man, his creations, and all the fans – Black and otherwise – who will continue finding both inspiration and hard lessons in Dragon Ball for generations to come.


Written by: Tarik Moody

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