3 Reasons Why Dragon Ball Z Is So Difficult To Translate To Live-Action

As a lifelong Dragon Ball fan, you can imagine how distraught I was when hearing the tragic news of Akira Toriyama’s sudden passing last month. The news struck fans across the globe, with millions taking to comment sections, forums, and anywhere else around the inter-webs to share their personal stories of just how much the legendary mangaka’s work meant to them. As such, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z were trending terms on Google Trends for the entire month of March. I’m sure many fans, just like me, took to Google to go down–not for the first time, no doubt–a digital rabbit hole of the iconic IP; re-watching old episodes and re-reading the Wikipedia pages of the development of these heralded stories. While in this rabbit hole, Google, with its all seeing algorithmic eye, used my search history to suggest other related Dragon Ball posts that it thought I may find interesting. One of which was this fanmade project of a live-action Dragon Ball Z movie.

I’d seen trailers like these many times growing up, with nearly every single one ending up being rather cringe inducing with their subpar CGI and costumes. But this one–produced by a talented group of Argentine filmmakers–was the first to truly impress me with its overall production. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the team have done much in the seven years since they unveiled that trailer, aside from some behind-the-scenes snippets on their channel page in the years following. Nevertheless, what they’d created was quite impressive, and if anything, did well to make us fans giddy at the possibilities of what a true live-action Dragon Ball Z film or television show could look like (and no, I don’t consider Evolution as a real Dragon Ball product). With the recent success of not-so-terrible live-action adaptations of beloved animated IP’s like One Piece and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a slew of other anime properties supposedly also in the works, it may finally be the perfect time to try once again to bring Toriyama sensei’s beloved IP to the big and/or small screens. However, amongst the many challenges that come with adapting a show like Dragon Ball Z to live action, there are three in particular that I personally feel are the biggest hurdles any production company would struggle to overcome. If any of these three aspects aren’t done well, then the entire show may as well fall apart. 


1. The Hair (Yes, really)

Ah, yes, the “no eyebrow” Super Saiyan 3. Image: CBR

Amongst the many incredible talents of the now late Toriyama sensei, one of the more underrated was his ability in creating simple but incredibly memorable character designs. You could show only a silhouette of one of the hundreds of characters within the Dragon Ball universe to a fan, myself included, and we’d be able to tell you who the character was only by their shadowed shape. Much of this is due to Toriyama’s efficiency in character designs, often focusing on one primary physical feature and bending the rules of body proportions. One of the areas in which he will often focus on is a character’s hair, this being particularly evident for the Saiyan race of characters. From Goku’s thick spikes that protrude outward on both sides of his head, Vegeta’s troll-like locks that gather in a reverse stalactite as if to defy gravity, to Trunks’ more simple yet nonetheless iconic purple (blue?) bowl-cut, the hairdos of Saiyans are easily their most recognizable feature. 

Yet, every time I see one of these fanmade projects, even a great one like the one linked above, the hair on the actors playing one of the Saiyans simply look like someone doing a cosplay; a bad one, at that. It’s not about the quality or textures of the wigs, or the way in which they sit on an actor’s head, it’s simply the fact that these hairdos simply don’t fit a “normal” human head with “normal” facial feature proportions. Which, of course, is understandable seeing as these hairdos were created for characters with features that are supposed to be exaggerated to achieve that unique Toriyama aesthetic. Unfortunately, converting that faithfully to live-action is simply difficult to do without it looking like a cheap cosplay. Netflix’ live-action One Piece struggles with this as well, with many of its characters often looking a little jarring and out of place with their costumes, instead of feeling as if they naturally existed within Eiichiro Oda’s world. Netflix have been able to circumvent this somewhat as the series progressed, playing into the whimsical ridiculousness of the source material, but seeing as Dragon Ball–Z in particular–takes itself a tad more seriously with its drama, a live-action adaptation won’t have that aspect to lean on. 

The solution could be to just forgo the hair altogether, but doing so would be stripping such an iconic part of the manga; seeing as even many of the transformations of Saiyans rely on a changing of hairdos and their colours. A middle ground may need to be found, where some of the proportions are toned down to fit a more “grounded” look. Either way, finding a way to translate this admittedly silly but nonetheless important aspect of the anime into something that feels genuine, would be incredibly crucial to get right. 


2. The Action

These guys are friends, I swear. Image: Toei

Possibly the biggest aspect of Dragon Ball Z is its fast-paced, high-flying, and endlessly chaotic action sequences. Filled with bone-breaking punches, characters being thrown into literal mountains, and planet-destroying energy blasts that light up your screen like New Year’s Eve, the fight scenes in Dragon Ball Z are truly a wonder to behold (when they finally get going after characters spend half the episode faffing about). Such action sequences are already costly to animate, so imagine what they would cost for a live-action production. CGI has come very far, and a lot can be done today that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. Nevertheless, even with modern technology, being able to achieve such high levels of action would still be a costly affair. Seeing as how fight scenes are such a frequent occurrence in Dragon Ball Z, with none of them ever being sans destruction and some part of the environment falling prey to a character’s chi blast, executives at any studio would be sweating at seeing the financial documents for a show like this. 

Not to mention so many of these fights see characters moving at superhuman speeds, with their punches and kicks being thrown at such a velocity that they end up as mere blurs on the screen (yes, I know this was a production limitation for the anime, but the point of speed still stands). These punches and kicks are also being thrown while characters are whizzing through the air, dashing from one end of a city to another within seconds, and constantly teleporting. All of this makes for a production nightmare, and would require an immense amount of planning to be able to do without draining the budget. Not saying it isn’t possible under the right leadership, but incredibly difficult. 


3. The Setting(s)

Another financial hurdle a production company would face would be in adequately realizing the many unique environments within Dragon Ball Z. Though the anime mostly takes place on Earth, it’s a fantasy science fiction Earth that, on one hand, sees cities be filled with futuristic high-rise buildings and flying cars, all the while having dinosaurs and monsters roaming around its plains and countryside. Beyond that, the anime often takes us to other planets like Namek, as well as other dimensions like “other world,” which serves as somewhat of an “afterlife” for the characters. Not to mention places like King Kai’s world and the other entire universes that get introduced as the story progresses. To be able to have all these settings come to life via live-action would require an immense amount of capital, especially if any of these sets were made practically and not via CGI. 


What Hollywood Should Adapt Instead

Dragon Ball
Image: Weekly Shonen Jump

All of this makes me believe that if any network were at all interested in turning this beloved IP into a live-action series, and had the willingness to do it faithfully, then doing so not with Z but rather with the original Dragon Ball storyline with Goku as a kid, would be the way to go. The original run of the Dragon Ball manga, before we entered the Saiyan Saga with Z, is a much more simple story. It’s still set in the same sci-fi/fantasy Earth, but has essentially none of the blisteringly fast, world-ending action. There are still fight scenes, but they’re far more grounded. Its story is also more streamlined, light-hearted, and wonderfully comedic. Financially speaking, it’s a far more viable product. Furthermore, seeing as most of the characters are humans, the hairdo issue (aside from Goku) isn’t going to be too much of an issue, especially considering how the Super Saiyan transformations haven’t yet been introduced. 

Dragon Ball started as a satire of the Chinese novel, Journey to the West, and also takes loose inspiration from old Wuxia films. This then transformed into what it is today, however that original premise is a much more feasible live-action adaptation, and one that I would frankly love to see be taken on by a passionate studio.

Shaz Mohsin

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