DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION: Manga Meets American Movieland
by Dr. Craig Reid
While still recovering from the writer’ss strike and bracing for a SAG strike (over residuals for their work played on youtube and other internet sites), not to mention an uncertain economy, Hollywood continues to draw inspiration from live action versions of hero franchises based on established comic book/cartoon characters. DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION (DBE) is the latest 20th Century Fox entry hoping to tap into the success of IRONMAN and DARK KNIGHT and make the franchise more mainstream and profitable. Yet similar to the latest STREETFIGHTER film, DBE represents a $100 million investment made prior to the economic crisis; and in a bid to save money, advertising for the film has all but disappeared. The studio has further opted to null press screening (never a good idea), leading one to wonder if it will share the same destitute fate of other cartoons made into live action such as AEON FLUX, DUDDLEY DO-RIGHT and UNDERDOG.
But there is a unique tug-of-war on the horizon. Because DBE is produced by Stephen Chow and based on a Japanese manga series created by Akira Toriyama, the film premiered in Asia ? becoming the number one movie in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, with a number two showing in Japan. To make the big guns blast louder, the solid fan base and enormous online fan base of "Dragon Ball" has made it one of the greatest manga franchises ever created, generating more than US $4 billion in merchandising sales. It is now considered the gold standard of anime-based video games, with more than 25 different games and over ten million units sold since May 2002. Furthermore, Toei has adapted over 500 anime TV episodes under three banners ? DRAGON BALL, DRAGON BALL Z and DRAGON BALL GT ? and has developed 17 animated feature films from Toriyama’ss work.
The original manga plot centers around Goku, a monkey-tailed lad adopted as a grandson by Grandpa Gohan after being found on a crashed spaceship. Goku teams up with a girl named Bulma, and they set out on a magical quest to different parts of the world in search of seven mythical objects called Dragon Balls that can be used to summon a dragon who grants any wish. Along their journey they meet friends and martial artists, and end up training physically, mentally and spiritually to fight in the World Martial Arts Tournament. Goku’ss martial arts expands under the mentorship of Master Roshi, a crusty old martial arts master who has a turtle shell on his back, dresses in an aloha shirt and shorts, dons sunglasses and a white beard, fights with a staff and is goofy and a bit of a pervert. But of course, Goku’ss path is often blocked when he must do battle with vapid, vicious villains such as the Red Ribbon Army, Emperor Pilaf and the demon Piccolo, who also seek the balls so they can use their wishes to conquer the world.
The manga is heavily influenced by Toriyama’ss appreciation for Chinese kung fu novels (for instance, Goku is modeled on Swuin Wu-kung, the Monkey King, featured in the Chinese classic novel xi yo ji (JOURNEY TO THE WEST) written by Wu Cheng An). In fact, Swuin’ss first feature-length cinematic appearance was not in a Chinese film but in the 1961 Japanese anime cartoon SAIYUKI, released in the West as ALAKAZAM THE GREAT. Similar to Swuin, Goku zips around on a cloud named Nimbus, and fights with a pole that can grow to differing lengths. Furthermore, the martial arts world that Goku travels through, with everyone vying to be the World Martial Arts Champion, is somewhat based on the World of Jiang Hu that commonly appears in Chinese wu xia novels and films like Chang Cheh’ss THE WATER MARGIN (1972), which was based on a wu xia novel written by Shi Nai-an. Jiang Hu is a parallel world influenced by martial lore surviving by its own laws and code of ethics outside the existing societies where everyone else lives. Plus, when Goku does his special, "Kame ha me ha!" yell and subsequent energy strike, it is right out of the legendary qi (chi) strikes that powerful wu xia heroes would invoke when needed.
One cannot help but think that the overall concept might also be influenced by Kinji Fukasaku’ss MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978), where the fate of a world relies on several heroes finding the legendary magical walnuts.
DBE casts a mix of young and veteran actors who, although not looking like the manga characters, may still appease the masses with a new look for an old vision: Spike-haired Justin Chatwin plays Goku, a powerful warrior who protects Earth from rogues bent on dominating the Universe and controlling the mystical objects from which the film takes its name; Emmy Rossum is Bulma, a beauty intent on retrieving the mystical Dragon Balls for her own reasons; Jamie Chung portrays Chi Chi, a young martial artist who captures Goku’ss eye; Chow Yun-Fat is Master Roshi, who guides Goku on his quest to save Earth from the forces of darkness headed by the flute-ish James Marsters as Lord Piccolo, whose return could signal the Earth’ss destruction; Joon Park is Yamcha, a charismatic "bad boy" whose schemes could thwart the heroes’s journey; and Randall Duk Kim plays Goku’ss grandfather Gohan.
With nothing less than the fate of our world at stake, the movie begins in the backyard of Goku’ss grandfather’ss home. Gohan is training Goku in some exotic martial arts moves. It is Goku’ss 18th birthday (DRAGON BALL Z-ish) and Gohan’ss gift to his grandson is a Dragon Ball, a small, round ball whose surface is smooth and pearl-like, but with a milky translucence that gives it depth. Four stars float inside the ball. There are only six others like it in the world, and it is said the seven Dragon Balls together will grant the holder one perfect wish. Connected to the Dragon Balls’s legend are Goku’ss mysterious past (he never knew his parents) and the coming solar eclipse, which is a sign of a coming apocalypse. Gohan promises to reveal all to Goku at the special birthday dinner Gohan is preparing for his grandson.
But like any bored teen kid, Goku skips out on Gohan’ss feast to attend a party hosted by Chi Chi, a fellow student to whom Goku is drawn. As the two teens get to know one another, a tragedy at home is triggered by the arrival of a dark force, propelling Goku, Roshi, Bulma, Yamcha and Chi Chi into a race to collect all seven Dragon Balls, take on the deadliest enemies on Earth, master a powerful force called Ki (Japanese romanization for the Chinese concept of qi), which marshals the energy of the universe and can help Goku learn the truth of his incredible past ... and potentially his unthinkable future.
Director James Wong describes one of the many challenges of the film ? the action: "How do we make action sequences look and feel different from what audiences have experienced before, and to keep fans happy based on their expectations of DRAGON BALL? We came up with what I called "fist-cams," small cameras that could be attached to an actor’ss fist, allowing a character’ss punch to come right into the audience. It is kind of like a ?fist POV’s shot.
"But the appeal goes beyond its super-cool action," Wong adds. "It is also the richly creative world that Akira Toriyama invented and the complexity and humanity to the superhuman characters who inhabit that world, as well as an overwhelming sense of optimism that Goku embellishes.
"Yes, some things are new, but I think we have also taken an artistic risk because we decided to be very respectful of the source material, and so overall, for those who know the material, they are going to be pleased, and those that do not will also like the film."
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM