Normally when you want to make a popular franchise into a movie, you’d do well to listen to the fans. That’s not the case with Dragon Ball Z. Never have more bad ideas come from a fanbase in comic book history: people irrationally attached to spiky blonde hair, tails, and karate outfits.
I accidentally stumbled upon Dragon Ball when I was a kid on a Saturday morning while watching UPN channel 45. I was immediately enthralled by this kid named Goku, his power pole, and the amazing Flying Nimbus.
I was hooked. Only a couple years after that, the same network picked up Dragon Ball Z, and I became a loyal viewer. It became so popular, in fact, that Cartoon network picked up the show and made it a staple among Millennials (age 18-34 in 2015).
If you ask a Gen Xer “Who would win in a fight, Goku or Superman?” they’d probably say, “Who’s Goku?”
Ask that question to a Millennial and they’re going to tell you that Goku would beat the living $#!$ out of Superman, and they’d be wrong. I break ranks with my generational brethren by disagreeing, but it’s quite simple actually. Goku is not intelligent enough to beat Superman, and he’s not strong enough either.
Youtube: Goku vs. Superman DEATH BATTLE
Youtube: Goku vs. Superman 2 DEATH BATTLE
My fascination with Dragonball Z lasted all the way through high school. All the guys I know that are big DBZ fans, are in pretty good shape. The show really encourages you to train. For what, exactly?
We train first, ask questions later.
As an adult, I’ve almost completed my DBZ blu-ray collection. Every time I watch the show, I think about hitting the gym afterwards. No lie.
So in an era of big studios looking for comics and cartoons to turn into live action movies, why haven’t there been any good live action adaptations of DBZ? After all, the kids that grew up watching the show are are now monied adults entering their 30s.
What follows is not a complaint at what has come before, but rather specific instructions on how to make a DBZ Live Action Movie become a blockbuster success, and appeal to people outside the fanbase.
1. Lose the Cartoon!
If you’re a movie director, and you’re trying to figure out how to fit the Saiyans spiky hair into your movie, you’re not qualified to direct a DBZ Live Action Movie (DBZLAM).
Lose the hair. There’s aspects to the art of animation that simply won’t fit into reality. Stand up spiky golden hair is one of them. There’s absolutely no way to make it look realistic, or make it look just right, so just lose it.
Imagine your girlfriend’s hair standing up like Vegeta’s. The only way to make that look remotely cool is if she’s submerged in water. Anything else, and her hair no longer looks like hair. God created hair the way it is for a reason. It just works. Don’t try and re-invent it. Save your CGI and makeup budget for more important things.
Lose the tails. Not only will you save a few bucks on CG, the tail is so completely unnecessary to the story line, that it borders on gimmicky in a live action movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfect for the cartoon, but I can’t see a costume designer having to poke tail holes in the backs of all the immaculately designed outfits (Frieza gets to keep his tail though).
Hmmm, about those outfits…
Lose the outfits. No one in their right mind goes around wearing orange karate uniforms 24/7. That sort of thing is appealing to the mind of a 12-year-old, but not to the wallets of adults who want to give you a billion dollar movie franchise.Change the Namekians. You can’t have green Namekians. It’s the 21st century, and the zeitgeist has moved away from green aliens with antennae. The Namekians should be brown. Its a more organic skin color for a hominid on a planet that orbits a star.
It’s kind of interesting that one of the latest DBZLAMs features a black guy painted green. You’re half way there, guys.
The best example I can think of aliens done right is how JJ Abrams depicted the Klingons in Star Trek: Into the Darkness. They were mysterious, and they were scary. Those Klingons could break your bones just by looking at you.
I’ll just go out there and say it. The actors cast as Namekians need to be black people. No need to paint us green. Just cast us normally, and make us look a little like JJ Abram’s Klingons. Problem solved. Black people are already typecast as spiritual guides in Hollywood. Have you heard of Piccolo, Kami, or Dende? The Namekians are basically African aliens, and I say that as an African, about a cartoon that isn’t afraid to use blackface (more on that later).
Get rid of the wacky Characters. Or at least change them to become more realistic. Master Roshi needs to be a little more Morpheus, and less creepy old man.
Here are a few characters that could either use a reality check, or be erased from the story line entirely:
- Master Roshi
- King Kai
- Mr. Popo
All the talking animals need to go. That means you too “Father of Dinosaurs, Breaker of Bones, finder of lost things, King Furry, first of his name, King of the Earth, and the first dogs.”Part of graduating from a cartoon kids show to a movie for thirty-somethings is losing all the ridiculous characters and villains.
Majin Buu has got to go.
There needs to be a subtle brutality about Goku. Let it be akin to being friends with a 600 lb Silverback gorilla, or a hungry vampire.
If you’re a DBZ regular, you’ve noticed that Goku can’t hold down a job. He’s not the family breadwinner. All he does is train, fight, and save the world. He’s taken care of by his wife Chi-chi, and his billionaire friend Bulma to a large extent.
He’s never paid taxes, and he doesn’t even know how to drive a car.
Goku couldn’t just get an office job somewhere, and it needs to be understood that part of the mythology of the Saiyan is that he literally can’t have an office job. Not because he’s mentally incapable, but rather because he’s genetically bred to be a soldier. The Saiyans are a warrior alien species, who have experienced biological evolution on a completely different tree from humans.
You could think of Goku as a genetically modified male lion, one that’s modified to have human level intelligence. You could teach that lion to play piano, or program a computer, but at the end of the day it doesn’t want to do any of those things, even though it knows how. All it really wants to do is chase things and kill them.
Goku is an alien, so why should we expect him to do human things? He’s going to have a biological urge to do Saiyan things, like fight, and train.
Goku is an off-the-grid person. He doesn’t have a social security number. He doesn’t go to the doctor, and he’s able to survive because he’s really good friends with one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world: Bulma of Capsule Corp.
2. Pick the right story
The most logical and interesting place for any DBZLAM story to start is the Saiyan Saga. Rather than an origin story, which would take forever, the best place to start is in the middle of all the action, just like Star Wars. You can do a back story that everyone hates after the Saiyan and Frieza sagas are over.
The story should center around Vegeta, Nappa, and Goku. If you remember from the series, Vegeta and Nappa are kind of like the Silver Surfer. They work for a super scary boss, and go around as a two-man planet killing squad. Once they’ve personally killed every living thing on the planet, they turn around and sell the planet to the highest bidder.
Prince Vegeta will really be the last living Saiyan besides Goku.
Bulma is the billionaire heiress of Capsule Corporation, a company founded by world renowned physicist Dr. Brief (change both their names), who found a way to store matter in alternate universes, and recall it into this universe whenever needed. Yes, the DynoCaps are going to be real, and it’s going to make Bulma’s family the richest family on earth.
The events of movie one open up a whole universe of alien civilizations, and sets up movie number two, when you get to meet Frieza, the Galactic Overlord who destroyed planet Vegeta.
Movie 2, which takes us to Namek, could intro with the destruction of Planet Vegeta, and give us a glimpse of the Saiyan race at their height, along with exactly how scary Frieza is. It is then the audience will see that Vegeta isn’t only a prince of a dead world, he’s an indentured servant, who doesn’t exactly have a choice in his profession.
This is a film franchise that has a real possibility of tying various themes together like artificial intelligence, alien life, transhumanism, genetic modification, and mythology.
3. Create the right world
DC Comics has a much different feel than Marvel. Whereas the former is dark, gritty, and realistic, the latter is more lighthearted and free.
The DBZLAM would need to be closer to Marvel than DC, and I mean The Avengers Marvel, not Avengers: Age of Ultron Marvel.
So what is this world centered around?
Capsule Corp. Capsule corp needs to be taken very seriously. It is to Bulma what Wayne Enterprises is to Bruce Wayne, and what Stark Enterprises is to Tony Stark. Capsule Corp is like a cross between Google and Space X.
Bulma as a main character creates the opportunity for a strong female lead. Someone who is witty, brave, adventurous, and a brilliant scientist. She is the CEO of Capsule Corp, a company founded by her father, Dr. Brief, the inventor of the DynoCaps, which effectively teleports matter into an alternate universe, with the DynoCap being the inter-dimensional key to retrieving the “stored” item.
DynoCaps are the ultimate and completely secure storage facility. Obviously you couldn’t store anything inside a DynoCap that you didn’t already have access to in real life, but if you need guns, you can store a locker full of guns. If you need a car, you can store a car. If you need a jet, or a tank, or a house, you can store those too. Dyno-caps should have their own plausibility structure built within the film, which would be an interesting way to put a scientific veneer over Hammerspace using the Multiverse.
DynoCaps could carry some sort of quantum signature to allow inspection of it’s “contents” without having to make them appear.
Technology such as this would create security concerns, so needless to say, DynoCaps aren’t allowed past airport security. A team of writers could have a very fun time fleshing out the details of this world.
And of course, all of this makes Bulma and her family, filthy rich.
Transhumanism. For those of you who can’t imagine a DBZLAM without King Furry, there is hope. The DBZ world could be one in which transhumanism has begun to take hold, and could create some plot points pointing towards the creation of Cell as a means to protect humanity against these Saiyan aliens. Moreover, Cell wants to become the “perfect being” which is similar to the goals of transhumanism. A sensible writer wouldn’t take it as far as King Furry, but we could get our feet wet.
Kami’s Lookout. This is to the Z-fighters what the Watchtower is to the Justice League. Kami’s lookout is in geosynchronous orbit around the earth, and physically connected to earth via a large tower/cable that looks sort of like a space elevator.
Kami is technically a god, but Marvel has already shown us how to scientifically explain something on the level of a Greek or Norse god. Kami is also an alien, a Namekian who has been guardian of the Earth for millennia, like a benevolent Vandal Savage in the sky.
Dragon Balls and Shenron. Well, what’s the franchise without it’s namesake? So we need dragon balls, and we need a dragon. But if we Marvel this up a bit, the eternal dragon isn’t an eternal dragon. It’s a benevolent AI created by Kami, and it grants wishes kind of like a cosmic 3d printer, or a molecular assembler.
Why is it a dragon? For the same reason the oracle in The Matrix took the form of an old woman. Every conscious being has a personality, and the Oriental Dragon is the closest analog to the personality of this AI.
4. Cast the right people
Leonardo DiCaprio as Vegeta
Vegeta is the arrogant and narcissistic prince of all Saiyans, the last of a royal line of kings that ruled over planet Vegeta. He’s not one to mess with either, despite his size, he is hiding a very large power level, and unlike Goku quite a bit of cunning.
If it’s not already obvious, let me explicitly state that, yes, Leo will have to hit the gym.
Have you noticed how Sayians look like clones of their fathers? Well, the person who plays Vegeta should be able to pull off both Vegeta and his own father.
Leonardo’s head is also shaped exactly like Vegeta’s. He was made for this role. On top of that, Leonardo is the master of the “freak-out”. As shown in this youtube montage:
Let Leo unleash some of that Saiyan rage in DBZ!
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Nappa
Nappa comes to earth towering over Vegeta, and is unleashed as a destroyer, while Vegeta waits patiently for Goku. Dragon Ball Z makes it clear that Nappa, despite his size, is actually the less dangerous of the two Saiyans. Nappa is actually Vegeta’s henchman, and the distinction between their power levels is astonishing.
So for viewers unfamiliar with the series, it will be quite the surprise to learn the difference between the two, and to find out Nappa’s fate.
And who doesn’t want to see The Rock take on Earth’s military and tear through some F-22s?
And yes, you already have an idea what this would look like. DBZ did it first. Man of Steel did it better. If you want to have an inkling what a DBZLAM fight scene would look like, you must watch Man of Steel.
Djimon Hounsou as Piccolo
Piccolo was a former enemy of Goku, but is now a trusted Z-fighter. He’s the mentor and trainer for Goku’s son Gohan, and might as well be Gohan’s father because he’s spent more time with the kid than Goku has.
Though not the strongest, he’s probably the most serious character in the series and the most dedicated to perfecting his martial art. He’s a natural tactician and the most calculating of all the Z-fighters. Piccolo is even more cunning than Vegeta, if only because Vegeta is blinded by his arrogance, while Piccolo knows when he’s met his match.
Seriously, just give him some goblin ears, sharp teeth, and some Klingon makeup and you’ve got yourself a Piccolo.
Peter Mensah as Kami
I’m proud of my choices for the characters so far, because all these actors seem born to play their roles, none more so than Peter Mensah, who probably bears the closest resemblance to his animated character out of the bunch.
Kami is the immortal guardian of the Earth, a Namekian alien like Piccolo, and the creator of Earth’s Dragon Balls.
Zooey Deschanel as Bulma
Bulma is a motorcycle riding, jet flying, helicopter pilot, gun toting, brilliant scientist, explorer, and businesswoman. She was probably the hardest person to cast because who are you going to find that can pull off a starlet, computer hacker, CEO of a multi-national corporation, but also look like an approachable girl next door?
Cut her hair short and color it green, and you even have a real life Bulma. Another born for the role! Nobody wears bangs like Zooey Deschanel.
5. Don’t mess up Goku
You’ll notice someone’s missing from my cast list. The star himself: Goku. That’s because I have racked my brain for months, I even did some online polls with Facebook friends to get some assistance, and still I’m not satisfied with any answers. I’d have published this article a year ago if I’d figured out who could play Goku.
I’ve heard suggestions like Hugh Jackman, Jason Momoa, Chris Evans, Colin Farrell, and Sean Faris. Those are all great actors that could play great action heroes, but not Goku.
Let’s look at it another way. Imagine we were casting Superman, and you asked your friends who could play the role and they provided you this list: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Steven Yeun, Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho, and Ken Watanabe.
Why couldn’t those guys play Superman?
Superman isn’t white technically; he’s an alien from Krypton.
But still if you’re honest with yourself, you know there’s an internal bias that understands that Superman represents a golden era of American culture, and white anglo saxon protestant values. The “Big blue Boy-scout” raised on a farm in Kansas, who stands for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
You understand that Superman is the creation of Jerry Siegel (Jewish-American) and Joe Shuster (Jewish-Canadian) and sold to Detective Comics, Inc. an American company.
Dragon Ball Z is a Japanese Anime, and there is a hot debate over whether Goku is Asian or White. But why is there no debate over whether or not Superman is White? Well, Goku is an alien, so he’s neither, but Superman is an alien too, so he’s neither, but he’s never been cast as anything other than a dark-haired white male.
Here’s the thing, though, this isn’t The Karate Kid. Goku isn’t some troubled boy from Jersey raised by a single mom. Goku is an alien who landed in China and was raised by a Chinese grandmaster.
Speaking of China, yes Goku’s ship landed in China.In contrast to Superman, Goku was created by Akira Toryama (Japanese) for a Japanese audience, based on the old Chinese legend of Sun Wukong (The Monkey King). The original comic is in Japanese. The original show is in Japanese. Goku wears Japanese clothing, with Japanese writing. Goku eats Japanese food. Goku blends in to Japanese culture just as easily as Clark Kent blends into Kansas culture.
So it’d be reasonable to say that Goku is in fact drawn as a Japanese character. So, just as Superman was created as a role model for young impressionable white American boys, Goku was created as a role model for young impressionable Japanese boys.
Similarly, it would be just as disrespectful to cast Jackie Chan as Superman in a film meant for an international audience, as it would be to cast Hugh Jackman as Goku in a film meant for an international audience.
Dare I say, Japan would like some credit for their world-famous protagonist, just as America would like credit for theirs? And if Leo is going to be Vegeta, and The Rock is going to be Nappa, it’s only fair to get a Japanese, or at the very minimum, a nonspecific-Asian Goku.
You know in your heart I’m right.
The reason Americans (black and white alike) see Goku as “white” is because absent all stereotypical markers for Black, Asian, or other ethnicities, it is assumed a character is white if you live in Europe or America. The blonde haired and green eyed Super Saiyan doesn’t exactly scream “Japanese” either.
Here’s an article that goes a little deeper into the debate: “Why Do Japanese Characters Look White?”
Let’s be honest, Dragon Ball Z, is a little racist. If you’re within a certain demographic, your first reaction is going to be, “Oh no, he said the ‘R’ word. Time to shut down and stop reading.”
You can relax. I’m not trying to take your show away from you. You’re not a bad person for watching it. Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z are still my favorite animes – blackface and all. But at least let’s be adults about this and not ignore the obvious.The Japanese and Chinese are both Asian, but historically speaking, the Japanese and Chinese haven’t gotten get along very well. It’s not all that different from the French and the Germans, the Pakistanis and the Indians, and the Eritreans and Ethiopians.
You’ll notice some stereotyping involved when drawing a Chinese character in the Japanese Dragon Ball franchise. They’re really easy to spot. Both Krillin and Grandpa Gohan are Chinese or “Chinese-ish.”
Krillin is a Shaolin monk, and Grandpa Gohan is a Chinese martial arts grandmaster. They both wear Chinese clothing. And guess what, they’re drawn differently from the other characters too.
They’re unusually short, their eyes are beady, and their scleras aren’t white, they’re the same color as their skin. There are a couple exceptions here and there. For example, Grandpa Gohan has a nose but Krillin doesn’t. Young Krillin has white scleras but old Krillin doesn’t. All together, these are visual puns on Chinese stereotypes.
So yes, the Dragon Ball franchise adds a healthy dose of cultural and racial stereotype to it’s plot. Let’s not forget Mr. Popo (I like to think of him as a genie).
This all leads me to the conclusion that the best bet for international acclaim, respect for the creator of DBZ and its country of origin, and the formula for the most happy fans will be to have an Japanese actor play Goku. This effectively lets the Saiyans in the DBZLAM represent the “human race,” rather than just “white” or “asian.”
Leonardo DiCaprio, Dwayne Johnson and _____________.
Help me fill in the blank. Who should play Goku and why?
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*Some images were modified for the sake of commentary