21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc Part I
Chapters 24 – 54, Episodes 14 – 28
What are the similarities and differences between the anime and manga iterations of Dragon Ball? Renan dives deep to discover which format of Akira Toriyama’s masterpiece reigns supreme in ‘Adaptation Analysis’.
The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai is one of Dragon Ball’s most important story arcs for two key reasons: it establishes a clear-cut motivation for Goku while providing the series with its three core themes. As charming as the Hunt for the Dragon Balls is, it can be argued that the story does not begin in proper until Goku flies off on Kinto’un to train with Muten Roshi. Of course, this is not an attempt to invalidate the first arc as it provides crucial context and characterization for both Bulma and Yamcha along with establishing the Dragon Balls themselves, but it is not until the second arc where the series’ themes are made clear and Son Goku finally begins to show depth as a character.
There are specifically three themes that define Dragon Ball’s narrative, and each one is tied into the Turtle School’s teaching in some regard. These themes are: self-betterment for self-betterment’s sake, acceptance that there will always be someone better, and passing the torch onto the next generation. The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai is as strong an arc as it is in large part due to how it weaves the series’ core themes into the plot, while expanding on each one in a narratively satisfying manner before the arc comes to a close.
Although Akira Toriyama reportedly developed Goku with the idea that his desire to become stronger would be his driving force, this motivation does not appear until Goku finally begins training with Muten Roshi. Self-betterment for self-betterment’s sake is a core tenet of Kame Sen’nin’s training, to the point where he lambastes Kuririn for coming to train with impure intentions. For as perverse as Muten Roshi can be, his philosophy is sincere and it is ultimately this sincerity for martial arts that rubs off on Goku. To overcome one’s natural human limits is what it means to be a student of the Turtle School.
There is not a single quote in the series that captures the essence of Kame Sen’nin’s philosophy as well as “Work well, study well, play well, eat well, and sleep well!” Dragon Ball immediately works to dispel the idea that strength as a martial artist comes from raw power. Goku undergoes studies, he takes breaks from training to relax, and he makes sure to have a hearty meal ready for him at the end of the day. It is important to break past one’s limits, but never at the expense of the body, a concept the series would go on to examine more closely during its last four story arcs.
With the desire to become stronger, however, comes the threat of ego. Rather than allowing Goku to become the strongest, both Akira Toriyama and Muten Roshi actively work against said concept by hammering in the idea that Goku needs to accept that there will always be others stronger than him in the world. It is this reasoning that drives Roshi to enter the Tenkaichi Budokai as Jackie Chun in an attempt to ensure that his students lose, thus sparking a desire to always grow stronger. This is a theme that follows Goku for the rest of the series, tying into almost every major decision he makes starting with this arc.
The idea of passing on the torch does not become specifically intertwined with Goku’s character until the series’ last two arcs, but it nonetheless plays off of Goku in that Kame Sen’nin is looking to hand over to the next generation, allowing Goku and Kuririn to lead the charge in the world of martial arts. While said theme is not resolved in the context of Kame Sen’nin’s arc until later in the series, it is here where the seeds are planted for Dragon Ball to reap the rewards down the line.
For both the anime and manga, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai marks a stark jump in quality for the series. Goku is a better-defined character, Kuririn and Kame Sen’nin round out the cast with more grace than Goku’s previous cohorts, and Toriyama’s focus on theme building leads to a narrative that flows naturally in both mediums, all leading up to one of the most personally charged conclusions to an arc in the series.
Notably, it is with the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai that the anime begins its trend of inter-arc, transitionary filler. Rather than immediately cutting focus away from Goku’s supporting cast the moment the new arc begins, as is the case with the manga, the anime uses its first episode to transition Bulma, Yamcha, Oolong, and Pu’er out while transitioning Kuririn in. There are effectively three plots going on at once in this introductory episode: Goku preparing himself to train with Kame Sen’nin; Bulma and company finding themselves stuck after their vehicle breaks down; and Kuririn, a previously unseen character, mysteriously traveling towards an unspecified location, only to intercept with Goku at the end of the episode.
While relatively harmless when compared to the sheer volume of filler the series would go on to utilize in-between arcs, this first episode does remove one key element of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc’s introduction in the manga: surprise. It is surprising when, after 23 chapters, Goku separates from his entire supporting cast. It is surprising when, upon finally arriving to train with Muten Roshi, a brand new character clearly designed to be Goku’s foil appears seemingly out of nowhere. While there is no build up to said characters being written out and written in, the lack of build up is not inherently bad.
In fact, the element of surprise plays a rather specific role throughout the entirety of the arc. It’s in this story arc where Akira Toriyama begins to play around with his audience’s expectations, a concept the anime is not keen on adhering to save for when the plot absolutely demands it does so. This is best seen in how Yamcha is treated during the first half of this arc. In the manga, there is no inclination that Bulma or Yamcha would ever appear again. Not only did Toriyama complete their character arcs in the Hunt for the Dragon Balls arc, he not once stops to so much as comment on what they are doing while Goku and Kuririn are training with Muten Roshi. For all intents and purposes, these characters have been written out.
This deliberate lack of focus makes it all the more impactful when Goku reunites with Bulma, Yamcha, Oolong, and Pu’er out of the blue once the Tenkaichi Budokai begins in proper. With context that Yamcha is actively training for the tournament, there is no surprise when he reunites with Goku, and the weight of the reunion itself is significantly lessened. This style of filler also began a precedent for the anime where it would attempt to fill in any gaps Toriyama left in the manga, regardless of whether or not it would benefit the story on a narrative level. Although the damage done is comparatively minor in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, later arcs would find themselves creating plot inconsistencies through filler material.
The adapted training stands on far stronger legs than any filler content present within the arc, although it certainly does help that the sheer degree of quality present in Goku’s training with Kame Sen’nin in the manga is far higher than anything previously written for the series. Along with establishing the arc’s, and by extension the series’, core themes, Toriyama also uses the nine months leading up to the Tenkaichi Budokai as a means of recontextualizing Son Goku’s character, while likewise developing a relationship between Son and Kuririn.
As previously mentioned, Kuririn is introduced as a foil to Goku. Where Goku’s intentions are pure, training for the sake of training, Kuririn comes into Kame Sen’nin’s school with the desire to strengthen himself in an attempt to pick up women. Immediately, Goku and Kuririn find themselves in an ideological conflict, but rather than play up said rivalry, Toriyama spins their dynamic so Goku slowly begins to rub off on Kuririn. There is a subtlety to Kuririn’s arc where he sheds both his narcissistic desires to become a martial artist while also allowing himself to defrost. By the time the Tenkaichi Budokai rolls around, Kuririn is a fundamentally different character.
As Goku is a pure-hearted character by principle, Kuririn’s presence is necessary for showing just how all-encompassing Muten Roshi’s school of thought is. The art of the Turtle School is philosophically rooted in bettering all aspects of the self. Martial arts is not inherently about strength, and although Goku and Kuririn do desire to grow stronger, they need to accept this concept before they can truly excel as Muten Roshi’s students. For Goku, this philosophy simply reads like a natural extension of his character thus far, resulting in the need for Kuririn, someone who can be influenced by Kame Sen’nin’s teachings. Kuririn’s pretense not only allows the series to organically convey the poignancy of the Turtle School’s philosophy, but also Son Goku’s infectious nature and Muten Roshi’s competence.
In what would quickly become a trend for the series, Goku’s personality and love for martial arts influences his rivals, recontextualizing for them what it means to be a martial artist. Even though Goku’s growth is minimal in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, the mere fact that he can influence Kuririn allows for their friendship to grow naturally, along with giving Goku added depth. He may not be a particularly complex character at this point in the series, but the sincerity in his pursuit to become stronger is commendable to the point where it can affect the people around him.
In regards to Muten Roshi, Kuririn’s role is equally important as he works to contrast the persona Toriyama crafted for Kame Sen’nin in the first arc. While Roshi was ultimately portrayed positively as a master martial artist, he nonetheless held the stigma of being an oafish pervert first and foremost. In many ways, this is part of his charm, demonstrating his hidden depths, but Kuririn’s contrast allows his better traits to flourish more clearly, transitioning his hidden depth into simply genuine depth. For as lecherous as Kame Sen’nin can be, he does not let his vices interfere with his actual teaching.
Of course, Toriyama does not drop this side of his personality entirely, even going so far as to have Goku and Kuririn find Muten Roshi a female companion before he agrees to train them, but his philosophy remains completely unclouded by the extremities of his pre-established characterization. In a sense, Kame Sen’nin is almost the real main character of this arc in the same way Bulma was more a protagonist than Goku was during the Hunt for the Dragon Balls arc; at least as far as the manga is concerned.
In the manga, Kame Sen’nin’s training is relatively short, with the majority of the focus being on Muten Roshi himself. Toriyama emphasizes not only his background, but another side of his personality. Roshi does not so much grow as he does allow his students to see another side of himself. As a result, Goku and Kuririn change subtly in the background while Muten Roshi takes the foreground. Readers still experience the story through Goku’s eyes, but there is a clear emphasis on who Kame Sen’nin is, directly leading into the tournament portion of the arc, where Muten Roshi’s story shines all the clearer.
Since the anime gives Kame Sen’nin’s training more screen time, the focus is more evenly split between Goku and Roshi. The content itself is near identical to the manga without straying too much, but the mere act of elongating stretches of the training ensures that the spotlight never leaves Goku for too long. The anime also emphasizes Kuririn’s less savory personality early on by specifically having him cheat in a portion of Muten Roshi’s training outside of the rock toss contest.
Narratively, disallowing the focus to stray from Goku does not do much to actually harm the arc, but it does negate some of its charm. Although Dragon Ball is not an ensemble story by any means, given that Goku’s arc is implicitly the driving force for the entire series, it does not shy away from giving the supporting cast their moment to shine. Toriyama placing Kame Sen’nin front and center of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai’s narrative and thematic progression is part of the arc’s charm. Dragon Ball is ultimately the story of Son Goku, but his story is not the only one being told.
It is worth mentioning that Kame Sen’nin’s role is not being diminished in any way, just that Goku’s and Kuririn’s are being expanded. The problem itself comes from the fact that the latter two characters’ roles are not expanded meaningfully. If anything, the manga’s more succinct approach results in a more nuanced arc for Kuririn, where his development is shown to the audience without ever the need of being commented on.
Regardless of the anime stretching out the training, its core principles remain the same. In both mediums: Kame Sen’nin’s training recontextualizes Goku and Muten Roshi’s characters; introduces a literary foil for Goku; and establishes core themes for both Dragon Ball and Son Goku. While the anime perhaps pads out more than it should, it translates the manga’s material well, properly building just how monumental the Tenkaichi Budokai is about to be for the series.