Dragon Ball as Cyborg Monkey Business: Just who is “Son Goku”?

This figure of Android 18 caught my eye a while ago. Not so much because of what it is in itself, but for how it represents the commercial and cultural forces that produced it.

As someone who doesn’t buy merch, I take an interest in products like this because they offer an analytical prism on a wide spectrum of social phenomena – from the historically porous identity of cultural artifacts to the regionalized character of global capitalism.

Designed and produced in China by Lazy Dog and JPS, this unlicensed piece of merchandise is not only a testimony to the state of Chinese industry, but also the internalization and inter-nationalization of East Asian otaku culture.

As an unofficial reimagining, the figure features many small but distinctive changes to the design and overall aesthetic. The intent is obviously to produce an edgier, sexier, more modern look, but it also recontextualizes this cyborg character in a cyberpunk setting.

By combining these themes and motifs, including a direct reference to Cyberpunk 2077, the Chinese designers play on both our popular and critical cultural consciousness – maximizing their investment by self-reflectively integrating the genre’s capitalist-dystopian ethos of brand-IP theft.

This figure is, in that sense, a demonstrative proof of the cyborg character of postmodern society – a digitally interconnected system empowering a truly global consciousness, as internationally shared flows of information enable and are enabled by the technification of every mode of production.

Of course, this unauthorized, decentralized, and collectivized creative process is thematically apt in more ways than one: Dragon Ball has a long history of cultural appropriation and revisionism, with the original manga itself being loosely based on the Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

From the first, “Dragon Ball” has been a cybernetic entertainment product that abstracts from and virtualizes real mythology. Hence its inherently silly, comedic nature; its very conception is one of satire.

This, however, is not a criticism! On the contrary, it illustrates the benefits of cultural modes of production based on freely accessible public goods. Dragon Ball isn’t the best story of all time, or even the best rendition of its source material, but the world is undoubtedly richer for its telling.

That said, the fact that the telling of Dragon Ball is also a re-telling Journey to the West has a greater significance in that it serves to bring into focus a broader issues of cultural “originality” and “identity”.

As silly and inauthentic as Dragon Ball itself is, and as flattening and palimpsestic as popular culture can be, the franchise is in fact an outstanding example of what is called a “modern myth”.

I say this not to mystify or essentialize the cultural traditions of “the Orient”, or indeed to elevate the primacy, immutability or authority of any origin, but rather to give perspective on a present-day global phenomenon.

This is perhaps best embodied by Goku himself, who is likely at once the world’s best known and least recognized rendition of Sun Wukong – the infamous Monkey King of Chinese mythology.

In Japan, “Son Goku” simply is the name of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Thus, the kinship is obvious; Goku is an appropriately parodic – and parasitic – take on this jester character. But what happens when you step outside this “original” sociolinguistic frame?

People from all over the world know Goku, and thus they “know” the Monkey King – but do they know who the Monkey King *is*, and that Goku *is* (a version of) him?

As befits a mythical figure, the “original” meaning of Goku’s existence is entirely contextual: Only the cultural milieu of East Asia makes his double identity an immediate discursive reality. To much of the rest of the world, Goku is the original – first, naked and solitary.

Granted, these onto-epistemological metamorphoses have a constructive side to them – as evidenced by the fact that the western adaption and reception of Dragon Ball is just as mutabilitistic as Toriyama’s own adaptation. Indeed, the infamous liberties taken by US businesses in the early days of anime localization still live on in “Android” 18.

Which naturally brings us back to this neo-Chinese cyber-rendition of the character.

We can now say that this figure represents a melange of criss-crossing inter-national, economic, cultural and historical influences that constitutes our social reality.

As a spruced up piece of otaku bait, it is unabashedly its own kind of reinterpretation, differing from the bungling US bastardizations of yesteryear chiefly because it approaches the subject from a position of “love” (that is, fetishistic idol worship).

The end result is no less commercial or crass, but the creative process and product must in this case be viewed through the lens of internalized otakuism: It was not made by ignorant suits looking to make easy money on pulpy childrens’ cartoons. It was made by fans, for fans.

In fact, the corporate internalization of this creative ethos, the fan culture per se, is strikingly exemplified by the recent addition to the Dragon Ball “cyborg” family, Android 21. Based on a “design by Akira Toriyama” and introduced in super-IP multi-media fashion via a video game, 21, now canonized in the mainline “cinematic universe”, is in fact a “sexy” female rendition of Majin Buu – who like Cell, the “perfect” cyborg, was himself a bio-magical engine of synthesis, subsumption and integration.

This recurrent motif of self-augmenation is no coincidence: The idea of absorbing and “fusing” different things in order to utilize their power has never been far for Toriyama’s mind – a fact that is ultimately reflected in the cyborg nature of Goku himself (the protagonist is both Kakarrot and Son Goku, alien and human, modern and traditional, original and derivative, himself and other).

From this, however, it is clear that “Dragon Ball” as a whole is not one but many things, constituting an entangled web of creative traditions and socio-economic practices that themselves have many roots but do not require any authentic “original”, or indeed any true “originality”.

Granted, Dragon Ball as we know it is a product of capitalism. But the product in question also tells an indelible story concerning the reality of cultural re-production: Actually existing culture is not pure, either commercially or artistically, and yet many of its interesting aspects show just how useless, if not senseless, the capitalist concept of private property is.

“Officially”, “lawfully”, “essentially” Dragon Ball is – what, a Toei IP? Indeed, per its latest movie, Dragon Ball™ has lept of the edge to become an East Asian version of what the Americans officially term “modern mythmaking”, i.e. a superhero product. Drawing, once more, on a pre-existing concept – that of the Great Sayiaman, itself a play on the “secret” identity of a superhero in disguise – the franchise thus takes its place within, and in relation to, the dominant form of contemporary entertainment.

But by reproducing the US comic book industry’s claim to cultural depth and authenticity, Dragon Ball shows the true face of commercial mass culture – presenting itself as a vacuous totem with its edges chiseled off, a watered down, fundamentally blandish product of the “platform economy”.

This balancing act is reflected in the film itself. Tellingly, Super Hero is both a nostalgia trip and 3D film – reflecting the changing nature of contemporary animation production, even as it strives to bring the past into the future. With one foot firmly planted in its own history, the project naturally pursues a 2D-3D aesthetic that is, itself, of a cyborg character.

However, just as Dragon Ball’s legacy extends beyond the control of any company – beyond the oppression of the present – so the blank slate afforded by Toei’s attempts to peddle “Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball” reveals that creative people can do interesting things with “old” ideas.

See e.g. the “experimental” hybrid aberrations of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, or the outstanding 2D-animated intro sequence for Super Hero, or any number of fan animations, or indeed the aforementioned figure.

Which shows that, fortunately, creative people will always pursue things they are passionate about – if only they are allowed to.

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