When something is described as iconic, it usually means that the thing has transcended its medium, and now lives in “pop-culture land”. Think Superman, Kanye West, or… the yellow Angry Bird. Sure, the content they were created in, or created, possesses significance in its own right. You can’t deny the cultural significance of Kanye’s music, or the way in which the Angry Birds series changed the trajectory of mobile games. But it’s through the value they offer to a wider community, whether that be merchandise, events, or memes, that make them special. Simply put, they’re no longer a thing, they’re a symbol.
A personal example of the power of symbolic transcendence in my life is Astro Boy; from a young age I’ve known who he is, what he does. I can recognise him from posters or merchandise. Even when his series is condensed down to a symbol, I understand what it represents. But I’ve never seen the original Astro Boy, or any of the subsequent spinoffs. By the time I read Pluto, an adaptation of an Astro Boy story arc, the character had already been cemented in my brain. I felt a familiarity to Atom without ever officially meeting him. When you become an icon in this way, it really doesn’t matter where you started.
Based on the way that content is now consumed, contemporary pop-culture is heavily linked with a rapid renewal in cultural significance. What we find funny, sad or infuriating one week may be completely forgotten by the next, as we attempt to stay on top of current events. It’s very rare to find pieces that remain relevant for long periods of time, and even rarer to find content that can be continually readapted to fit a modern audience. Enter Dragon Ball.
To say that the Dragon Ball series is iconic is an understatement. It is pop-culture royalty. Beginning as a 15-volume manga series in the 1980s, its subsequent anime series, sequels and merchandise have allowed the series to remain a staple of popular culture.We aren’t just talking about a show created within a different era of content creation, one where it was easier for classics to be established. We’re talking about a series that is constantly transforming itself. When a new addition to the Dragon Ball series is announced, it’s considered an event of cultural significance.
While creator Akira Toriyama continues to create action manga in a time of saturation, Dragon Ball’s historical significance, alongside a consistency in quality has allowed the series to remain relevant for over 30 years. And these accomplishments aren’t only in Japan. The series is a pioneer of Asian cinema, introducing anime to a new audience in western nations, where it would expand into a cultural phenomenon. Through the use of groundbreaking action scenes, a large, colourful cast of characters, and an odyssean journey of discovery, an entire genre of comic was established. Alongside shaping shōnen manga, arguably the most popular genre of the medium, several character archetypes created by Toriyama have been reworked for a quarter of a century.
Among many, one archetype has remained consistent across all genres of manga, anime, and even bled intro traditional cinema. However, buried under dated concepts and other incredibly powerful characters, one man’s importance to this story, and the medium he resides in, has often been overlooked. Ironically, it’s this trait that makes him so important in the first place.
It’s easy to see that Goku has become the template for shōnen protagonists. He represents the most marketable type of character for a younger audience; he’s comically naive, innocent, and easily manipulated, allowing his motives to be easily derailed by immoral characters. In spite of this, he possesses incredible strength, allowing him to retain his morals no matter what the complication, and inspires through his determination and loyalty.
A young, happy-go-lucky protagonist who masters his incredible strength through hard work is now a staple in the medium, and while not the first of his kind, Toriyama perfectly balances absurd power, likeable qualities and recognisable design. Manga like Yudetamago’s Kinnikuman and Masami Kurumada’s Fūma no Kojirō, predecessors to Dragon Ball, used similar traits when creating their stories and characters. But neither possessed the mainstream appeal, at least to survive in the west.
However, another archetype has found itself re-used after Dragon Ball’s success, and its significance has remained undeniable.
Master Roshi is many things; for one, he’s old. He’s aloof, lazy, and often acts on whims that satisfy his perverted cravings. And while issues with the sequels of Dragon Ball may lead to him being remembered for only that, his significance within the original story cannot be overlooked. He shaped the characters who would go on to define the manga medium.
When we’re first introduced to Master Roshi in chapter 4 of the manga, he is immediately portrayed as a character unfit for training anyone, and far from possessing skills like Goku. After Bulma and Goku aid Roshi’s turtle in returning to sea, he rewards Goku by giving him the famous flying nimbus. But this is only after being unable to summon “The immortal Phoenix” (who’s died after eating tainted bird seeds) and falling through the nimbus himself, which can be only ridden by someone who’s pure of heart.
Even when Roshi performs acts of greatness, they are overshadowed by his ailments. His perverted nature is almost immediately displayed when he asks Bulma to flash him in exchange for the incredibly rare Dragon Ball she seeks. After these gross acts from a frail old man, our protagonists leave him, and the reader is left thinking this man was nothing more than a bizarre plot point to give our characters their second Dragon Ball. It is the contrast between Goku and Master Roshi that cements his status as an ultimately useless character. The difference in power and passion for adventure sets Goku apart from the seemingly uninterested Roshi. However, Roshi is called for once more in chapter 12, when Goku and Chichi fly to his island in order to get the Bansho Fan, a powerful weapon that can extinguish a large fire that ravages Chichi’s home on Fry-Pan mountain.
After meeting the Kame-Sen’nin, and being unimpressed, Chichi tests the master by throwing a sword at him. He is unable to parry the blade, makes a comical expression as the blade is wedged into his skull, and falls into a heap. He then refuses to give the fan until Goku agrees to make Bulma flash him once more, only to realise he has thrown the great fan away after spilling wonton soup on it. Another act of brilliance ruined by Roshi’s perceived ineptitude. As a result, he must come to fry-pan mountain to extinguish the flame himself. And here is where the reader’s (and the character’s) perception of Roshi begins to change.
Picture this; your castle is on fire. The life you have invested decades into building is now up in flames. Your only hope is that a mystical item, deeply situated in legend, can be retrieved and utilised to save your belongings. And when your salvation arrives, it is a frail old man who can’t even climb up a waist-high wall. His skinny physique leaves a lot to be desired, and his good spirits seems to overlook the seriousness of the situation. But even the hotheaded and extremely violent Ox-King understands the significance of this moment. Within seconds, Roshi undergoes a transformation.
In the Dragon Ball universe, “ki” refers to the life force of its characters. This force, or energy, can be materialised and used outside the body by channeling it from within. Ki allows an individual to overcome the limitations of the human body, often leading to miracles within the series. Roshi possesses so much ki that, when focused, transforms him into a hypermasculine version of himself. He then uses, and teaches Goku yet another staple of the series, the Kamehema wave, and enlightens the boy on what hard work and training can do. Impressing all characters in his vicinity, and upon learning of Goku’s grandfather, offers to make him his pupil, which the latter happily accepts.
In these initial meetings, Master Roshi establishes a character archetype which has been utilised throughout the entire contemporary landscape of manga. That is, the creation of the overlooked; a character either small, old or lazy, which leads to the assumption that their lack of striking qualities prevents them from holding any surmountable power.
It looks like Roshi’s profile is on the up after Fry Pan Mountain, because immediately after, another aspiring martial artist, a young monk named Krillin, also comes to Roshi’s island in order to seek training. But it only takes a second for Roshi to incriminate himself again, asking for more perverted favours in return. And even when Roshi does begin to train Goku and Krillin, the tasks he sets for them are far from glamorous, slowly negating his previous feats of brilliance. They are left running with weights on their backs, delivering milk crates to strangers and other menial tasks that require no flashy moves. When the fruits of their training eventually pay off, completing their first feat of strength by slicing a boulder in two with just one finger, Roshi’s utility is questioned once more. He himself can’t complete the task, and intended on making a challenge so difficult it would take years to pull off. While Roshi may have underestimated the strength of his pupils, we have underestimated him; it’s his training, and ultimately his guidance that leads to these feats being achieved.
And Roshi is far from useless in battle as well. For the first third of the Dragon Ball series, he is the most powerful character, routinely defeating Goku during martial arts tournaments, under the guise of Jackie Chun. Eventually, he is outstaged by Tenshien, and the rebirth of Piccolo, which requires Goku’s infinite potential to overcome. But within Dragon Ball’s initial run, Roshi was one of the top martial artists in the world. Though, fans of Dragon Ball sometimes forget this. When Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball’s sequel was created, Earth had already been tapped for its strongest characters. So, to Toriyama, the only way to continue the series was to mine other planets for their martial artists, all of whom must be significantly stronger than the earthlings.
Within the first few chapters of DBZ, all of the development on Earth was invalidated. Roshi, Tenshien and Yamcha become easily defeat-able characters who held minimal significance in this new series. Yamcha in particular became known for his fragility, even though his importance in the original was undeniable. As tense, hyper-masculine battle scenes became DBZ’s primary concern, it moved away from its comedic, slice-of-life elements, and so too did Roshi’s involvement with the series. There were more powerful masters to learn from, though some snappy one-liners were included on the occasion. Even after his decline in relevancy, it wasn’t only his antics that made Roshi a fan favourite, and it wasn’t only his powers that made him so significant in Goku’s development.
To be overlooked is seen as an inherently bad thing. When one has met criteria for success, it’s only natural that they’d want recognition for it. Despite all the success Roshi has as both a martial artist and a teacher, he is dismissed for his zany antics, and in this sense, is overlooked. But surprisingly, and almost inconsistently with his character, he’s got no interest in correcting the perceptions of anyone. When Bulma and Goku first meet him, he is ridiculed for his age, perversion (and rightly so), his teaching methods, and ultimately his actual talent as a martial artist. While he may be goaded into the odd reaction, consistent with the comic relief character he is perceived as, he makes no effort in proving his pupils wrong.
Even in situations where he can correct them, like competing in the martial arts tournaments, he uses an alias, effectively forfeiting any form of glory. When he wins the competitions, it’s clear the thrill of testing himself is a reward in itself, and doesn’t fight for acknowledgment. As he changes out of his alias’ attire, he reveals that he enters the competitions to stop Goku from winning, to prevent the boy from being complacent with his training. While the reader knows Goku wouldn’t behave in that way, Roshi’s motives, and use of his true powers are far from the flexing.
Characters like Roshi remain in the shadows because they want to be. When they decide to use their powers, they represent the most powerful beings within their universe. However, they understand the responsibilities that come with holding such power, and use it in ways that benefit others, even if it takes a little bit of prodding at times (or a flash). As opposed to our protagonists, who have the pursuit of improvement and power as the crux of their personalities, our overlooked masters prefer to live lives contrarily. Even though the idea of selflessness may not be a perceived quality of theirs, they often possess it the most. We see the use of unconventional qualities to contrast actual power frequently within shonen anime. Kisuke Urahara, a lowly, lazy shopkeeper in Tite Kubo’s Bleach, ends up being the most influential scientist within the spirit realm, and integral to protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki’s initial training.
Naruto’s Jiraiya is also known for his antics, particularly his constant rejections by Tsunade, the fifth hokage of the village hidden in the leaves. But without his love for those around him, and the wisdom he imparts on the unruly Naruto, the protagonist would be unable to return to his village with new insight into what it means to be a ninja. While coolness is sacrificed for traits that assumedly cheapen power, a unique connection is also found with the character. Sometimes, as a way to map growth, we can also see these traits adopted by protagonists, such as Hanamichi Sakuragi of Slam Dunk or Eikichi Onizuka from Great Teacher Onizuka. If anything, these characters prove that holding these rigorous morals throughout an entire manga isn’t the only way to produce characters that inspire. Sometimes, it’s those that don’t talk about their skills that usually possess the most.
As someone who, at times, feels like they don’t have any striking qualities, it’s easy to feel like the only way to solve these insecurities is to prove to the public that you are in some way valuable, and thus validate your experiences.
Characters like Roshi understand their own value without having to do so. They can live their own life and be totally content understanding their value without needing the attention of the masses. Without Master Roshi, Goku wouldn’t be able to reach his full potential. It’s as simple as that. The overlooking of Mentors and their importance is, ironically, often overlooked. While their power is eventually surpassed by their pupils, they possess an internal contentedness that most people can only dream of having, and something our protagonists rarely achieve.
While Roshi may only be remembered for his pervy antics, I often saw him as a unique type of underdog. One who clearly possesses the capacity to excel, and can do so at any time, but also understands his own value and doesn’t require attention to reach his full potential. To find that satisfaction implies that characters like Roshi are happy with themselves, and no matter how powerful you get or how hard you push yourself, if you can’t reach that level of happiness, is it even worth it? And that’s not just a message for Goku, who lives in a fictional world where martial arts means all. It’s also something that we, living in reality, should reflect on also. Being overlooked isn’t just about perceived success, it’s a philosophy of living.
“Now listen to me boys! Always remember these words: Work hard! Study well! And eat and sleep plenty. That is the Turtle Hermit way! We must master the art of peace in addition to the art of war! The Turtle Hermit School will be with you…always!”