From Sun Wukong to Son Goku: Mythology in Graphic Novels

In the age of the incessant reimagining, remake, and reboot it can often be difficult to get excited about new releases in a market cluttered with subpar entries into beloved franchises. The best remakes are the ones we tend to forget were remakes in the first place. One graphic novel series that has never failed to deliver, and which very few people realize is a reimagining itself, is Dragon Ball. In 1986 the first chapters were published in Shonen Jump of Akira Toriyama’s reimagining of one of the four classic novels of Chinese mythology, Journey to the West. Dragon Ball is credited with bringing about the “Golden Age of Jump” a period between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s where manga (Japanese graphic novels) circulation was at its highest. So what made Dragon Ball such a successful reimagining of classic Eastern mythology? A start would be to briefly analyze the protagonists of each story. The original Ming dynasty novel’s protagonist is called Sun Wukong, or the Monkey God, a legendary martial artist who acquires supernatural powers through Taoism. Throughout Journey to the West Sun Wukong goes on an epic journey encountering many obstacles and adversaries. In Dragon Ball the protagonist Son Goku (the Japanese version of the name Sun Wukong) is a young boy with a monkey tail born with incredible strength. Similarly, Goku goes on his own epic journey encountering many enemies and allies. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Both of these tales execute the former with great finesse.


Of course, Dragon Ball’s plot does diverge from its source of inspiration in many ways but the underlying influence of Journey to the West is never absent. Even the way the characters in Dragon Ball gain spiritual power has ties to Eastern mythology. This inner life force or power is literally referred to as ki or ch’i, the same name it is referred to in many ancient Asian cultures. Additionally, while Dragon Ball’s success can in part be traced to its inclusion of themes found in Eastern mythology, it wouldn’t have worked without Toriyama’s unique style and great storytelling ability. However, the similarities between the two classic works will only continue to grow as Goku ascends to godhood in the highly anticipated Dragon Ball Super, joining his Chinese counterpart in the pantheon of Eastern mythology.







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