Dragon Ball – Adaptation Analysis Part 5: The Red Ribbon Army

by Renan Fontes
Published: Last Updated on

Red Ribbon Army arc Part I

Chapters 55 – 112, Episodes 29 – 78

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’. 

In a sense, the Red Ribbon Army arc almost reads like a “redo” of the Hunt for the Dragon Balls story arc on Akira Toriyama’s part. Following the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, an important story beat for Dragon Ball which not only firmly established the series’ themes but gave Goku a much needed motivation, the series’ third story yet again focuses on a hunt for the eponymous Dragon Balls. This time, however, Goku leads the charge alone, setting off on his hunt without a single member of the supporting cast.

It is this solitude of Son Goku’s journey which ultimately defines the Red Ribbon Army arc, while also giving the story arc its greatest strength: world building. In abandoning the baggage of the previous two arcs, Akira Toriyama is forced to expand the world of Dragon Ball by introducing new characters, new settings, and new concepts. The Red Ribbon Army arc’s premise is conceptually similar to the original Hunt for the Dragon Balls, but the newfound presence of the series’ core themes go a long way in ensuring the arc carves out an identity of its own.

Although the story arc does abandon the familiarity of the supporting cast, Goku’s motivations throughout the arc are very much rooted in the theme of self-betterment for self-betterment’s sake. At the end of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, upon being informed by Muten Roshi that he has learned everything he could from the Turtle Hermit, Goku sets off on a quest to find his grandfather’s four-starred Dragon Ball, the Suu Shin Chuu. Where his external goal revolves around procuring a lost family memento, his internal goal centers itself on Goku’s desire to fight more opponents and see the world, sparked directly by his training with Kame Sen’nin.

It speaks to the volume of Toriyama’s ability to develop his cast that, in just a year, Goku went from a character who needed to be supported by Bulma and Muten Roshi in the first two story arcs, to a protagonist capable of driving the plot entirely on his own. Not only that, Goku’s motivation has an emotional center, paving the way for the series to tackle genuine drama. While Dragon Ball has played around with more dramatic scenarios by this point, it is not until the Red Ribbon Army arc where the series begins to embrace its more serious moments in earnest.

Son Goku begins the hunt for his grandfather’s Dragon Ball, Viz translation

Of course, the more sincere approach to drama does make the comedy fall flatter than it did before. While Dragon Ball has always been, first and foremost, a martial arts serial, Toriyama’s sense of humor defined a great portion of the first two arcs. Coming into the Red Ribbon Army arc and its emphasis on dramatic, character driven storytelling, jokes that would have been fine before the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai ultimately detract from the overall story arc. There is a legitimate tonal dissonance at times which serves to undermine the series’ progression towards deeper storytelling.

This is an issue that specifically plagues the arc in its first half, only being mitigated by Taopaipai’s introduction. From there, the quality remains consistently high up until the very end, expanding on the series’ arcs, themes, and world as meaningfully as possible. Given how short story arcs in the series have been thus far, it is perhaps natural to assume that a weak first half isn’t all too problematic so long as the arc turns its quality around, but there is one key detail holding that idea back: the Red Ribbon Army arc is extremely long.

Not only is the Red Ribbon Army arc longer than the previous two story arcs combined regardless of medium, it is also the fourth longest arc in the entire series. As a result, its first half takes up a considerable amount of the arc’s time. In the manga, while tone remains an issue until Taopaipai, the actual events surrounding the arc do widen the scope of Dragon Ball’s world while pitting Goku against unique opponents in novel environments. Toriyama never gets as creative with settings again as he does in the Red Ribbon Army arc, and that alone is enough for a reader to overlook the first half’s flaws.

The anime is another story, however. It is with this story arc that the anime adaptation begins to solidify its worst qualities. Filler is frequent, padding out Goku’s already long journey; plot inconsistencies are introduced on a shockingly consistent basis; and the manga’s pacing is all but thrown out the window in favor of saving as much time as possible through padding. The anime’s depiction of the Red Ribbon Army arc does have its high points, especially in regards to its music, but the majority of the arc is unfortunately held back by a painful amount of filler.

On September 3, 1986, Jackie Chun had defeated Goku in the anime’s adaptation of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. That same week, just two days earlier in the manga, Son Goku had begun training with Karin, placing the Red Ribbon Army arc just passed its halfway point. While the anime was not dangerously close to catching up to the manga, it would reach its counterpart sooner or later at the pace it was moving at. As a result, the anime kickstarted the arc with five episodes of transitional filler meant to ease audiences out of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai and into the events of the Red Ribbon Army arc, along with likely allowing the manga to charge ahead.

Rather than immediately heading off to search for the Suu Shin Chuu and being intercepted by Colonel Silver like in the manga, Goku instead flies off with Namu to visit the latter’s village. As an episode of Dragon Ball, Goku’s adventure with Namu is neither particularly exciting or consequential in any way to the plot, but it does do three things of note: it expands on Namu’s motivation; conceptualizes a rematch between Goku and Giran; and and widens the world of Dragon Ball. While the episode has nothing to do with the Red Ribbon Army arc, the inclusion of Namu’s village does feel perfectly in line with the arc considering how many different settings Goku winds up placed into.

Namu’s Village, Clyde Mandelin translation

As Namu was the only non main character in the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai to be more than just a gag character, it is only natural that Toei choose to follow up with his storyline. Of all the fighters in the tournament, his motivation was the purest, if counterintuitive to the series’ main themes. His desire was not to become the strongest under the heavens, but to win enough money to purchase water for his village. The manga simply has Muten Roshi give Namu a Hoi-Poi Capsule filled with water, but the anime chooses to expand on the plot thread, giving Namu’s motivation added weight in hindsight.

While Goku does not fight Giran in the episode itself, he does fight members of Giran’s race. Given that Goku only won his match against Giran due to dumb luck and cheating, this almost serves as a way to remedy the potential upset of Goku getting so far undeserved. He never gets a proper rematch, but he does defeat several members of Giran’s race rather effortlessly, visually implying that Goku likely would have beaten Giran in a fair fight sooner or later.

Of course, this does bring into question where characters should be in regards to their own strength. If Namu would potentially struggle with the Giras that Goku can effortlessly defeat, but Namu also gave Goku an incredibly even fight during the tournament, where does that place the two characters? It is worth mentioning that while power should not drive the series’ plot in any way, an internal consistency is important. For the most part, the manga understands this and always tries to “justify” why characters do better or worse in certain fights, but the anime’s approach is far more haphazard, creating potential inconsistencies.

As far as filler episodes go, the Red Ribbon Army arc opens with a rather harmless one. There was no real need to decompress after the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, but Goku’s small errand with Namu does make sense within the context of the arc, while providing unique visuals via Namu’s village and the roaming lake. The subsequent filler episodes are not so harmless, however, serving to damage a moment much later in the series while transitioning rather poorly into the events of the arc proper.

What follows after Goku parts ways with Namu is a four episode mini-arc which brings back Chichi, puts Pilaf at the center of the action, and introduces the Red Ribbon Army arc by specifically focusing on Colonel Silver’s hunt for the Dragon Balls before meeting Goku at the start of the actual story arc. Conceptually, the idea of centering a stretch of filler episodes around Chichi and Pilaf while Silver is built up in the background is actually a fine idea. The series had promised a relationship between Goku and Chichi, but had yet to follow up on said thread; Pilaf’s lust for the Dragon Balls would naturally merit him hunting them down again; and making Silver a more imposing villain in turn makes the Red Ribbon Army a larger threat.

Pilaf returns, Clyde Mandelin translation

Problems arise from these three threads failing to comment on Dragon Ball meaningfully. Chichi’s inclusion, while sparking some charming back and forth between her and Son Goku, ultimately cheapens her return during the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai as her reemergence in the plot no longer has the added humor of a character from the series’ first arc coming back to marry Goku based off an agreement he made years prior. The joke no longer lands, and much of the charm of the proposal is lost as a result of the anime bringing her back.

It is worth mentioning that the anime staff would have no way of knowing that Toriyama would have brought her back in the series’ sixth arc, along with Toriyama himself likely not planning to bring her back at this point, but that does not change the fact that Chichi’s appearance in this filler arc does ultimately damage her return during the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai. As was the case with Yamcha’s filler episode during the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, Chichi appearing for a filler arc ruins the surprise of her coming back down the road.

Pilaf’s role in the filler mostly adds an unnecessary layer of complication to Goku and Colonel Silver already hunting for the same Dragon Ball unbeknownst to each others’ presence. Pilaf’s contributions do make sense from a narrative perspective, but bringing him back so soon after the first arc likewise muddies the surprise of him returning at the very end of the Red Ribbon Army arc. The idea of three separate factions hunting for the Dragon Balls at once is a genuinely sound idea, and one the series would go on to use in the eighth story arc, but the dynamics between Goku, Pilaf, and Silver are not nearly defined enough to make adequate use of the premise.

Although Silver’s expanded role does do an admittedly good job at building up just how much of a threat the Red Ribbon Army will become over the course of the arc, his role is nonetheless one built on an inconsistency. Colonel Silver poses a very minimal threat to Son Goku. While he is responsible for destroying Kinto’un, depriving Goku of his main source of transformation, he is undermanned by the Red Ribbon Army and is defeated with relative ease when it comes time for him and Goku to fight, with the battle itself only lasting four pages.

This is not to say that Silver is nonthreatening in the manga, as he is still the character who does deprive Goku of Kinto’un, but he is near the bottom of the Red Ribbon hierarchy. The anime builds up to Goku’s confrontation with Silver by showing Silver training and leading a sizable army of men, but the adapted material plays out as depicted in the manga, creating an internal inconsistency in the anime where Silver loses both his men and his supposed competence.

Colonel Silver destroys Kinto’un, Viz translation

Before the anime goes on to adapt the manga, however, it does linger on one last bit of filler where Muten Roshi tells Kuririn and Lunch about the legend of the Dragon Balls. According to Kame Sen’nin, the Dragon Balls used to be one singular orb, but were split in seven in order to better prevent it from being stolen by unsavory sorts. The plot hole here might seem to be that the legend contradicts the real origin of the Dragon Balls, but it is important to remember that, even in the context of the anime, this is just a legend.

The real plot hole comes from Muten Roshi knowing about the legend at all. In the very first arc, Roshi makes a passing comment suggesting that he has no idea what the Dragon Balls are. Realistically, Roshi should not be familiar with a legend depicting the origin of the Dragon Balls as he apparently spent years with a Dragon Ball around his neck, never knowing what it truly was. Bulma herself has to explain what the Dragon Balls are to Roshi. It is possible that Kame Sen’nin learned of the legend after meeting Bulma for the first time, but the scene is very clearly framed from the mindset that this is a familiar legend that Roshi is passing on to Kuririn and Lunch.

Interestingly, the anime adaptation not only creates a new plot hole, it fails to fix a pre-existing one from the manga. As the Red Ribbon Army arc takes place immediately after the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, Goku is hunting for the Dragon Balls a mere nine months after Shenlong was originally summoned at the end of the first arc. Since the Dragon Balls turn to stone for a full year after granting a wish, they should not be active during the course of the arc.

As an adaptation, it can be argued that the anime’s job is to adapt the manga as closely as possible, flaws and all, but it is clear by this point that Toei is comfortable adding and changing their own details. Fixing the timeline and putting Goku’s journey off by three months via the five episode filler arc would have been a more acceptable use of time than building up Colonel Silver incorrectly for four episodes along with ruining the surprises of Chichi’s and Pilaf’s inevitable returns.

That said, in the manga at least, the Red Ribbon Army does get off to a good start. Goku loses Kinto’un, is legitimately caught off guard by Colonel Silver for a brief moment, and finds himself pitted against an entire army out of the blue. Not only that, Goku remains the only familiar face in the cast. There is no Chichi, there is no Pilaf, and there is no Muten Roshi expositing to Kuririn or Lunch. The Red Ribbon Army arc sets itself up to be a fresh coat of paint for the series, determined to see what it can do with a plot driven almost entirely by Goku. While the anime fumbles out the gate, the manga does an admirable job of blending the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai’s action with the Hunt for the Dragon Ball’s sense of adventure.

Part One  |  Part Two  |  Part Three |  Part Four  |  Part Five  | Part Six  | Part Seven  |  Part Eight

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