An anime hero and an anime villain are often two sides of the same coin; one character sets off on a chosen path and the other is a dark mirror of those decisions. The best rivalries hinge on commonalities that link hero and villain in a bond that is serendipitous, yet seemingly written in the stars. From Rurouni Kenshin to Naruto, a show’s ability to captivate an audience depends on the interplay of good and evil.
In the case of shonen anime (a genre with a name that translates to “young boy’s cartoon”), when these forces meet, there’s usually an explosion — figuratively and literally. Even Dragon Ball Z — often considered to be the greatest shonen of them all — is at its best when main character Goku is paired with villains who reflect the sinister side of his own innate goodness. Frieza, Cell, and Buu all reflect infected, twisted versions of Goku’s persona.
Then there’s Broly.
First introduced in a non-canon film, Dragon Ball Z’s hulking green-haired monstrosity of a villain is everything that other DBZ foes are not. While other antagonists clash over differences in morality, personal ethos or what it means to wield destructive power, Broly is a hammer pounding a round peg into a square hole. By all accounts he is nothing more than a meat suit meant to pummel Goku and friends for an hour before disappearing into the ether, never to bother anyone again with his monotony and overpowered shenanigans.
And yet, not only has Broly persevered as a character in the Dragon Ball lore for over 20 years but fandom’s howling demanded that his evil smirk be plastered on merchandise, appear in video games, and once again return to the spotlight. Broly will officially be canonized in this winter’s Dragon Ball Super: Broly, an in-continuity reimagining of the Legendary Super Saiyan’s origins.
Why does the world love Broly, a character so seemingly one-dimensional that fans should have left him in the rubble of his 1993 first appearance? To paraphrase a popular Dragon Ball Z satire: “He’s so cool, but he’s so dumb!” Sometimes your hero just needs a big dumb antagonist. If you’re lucky, that villain might also be the very thing your story has lacked all along.
Created in 1984, the Dragon Ball franchise today finds itself in a resurgence fueled in part by how easy it is to watch anime in the streaming era. With services like Crunchyroll, Hulu, VRV, Netflix and Funimation Now all offering a bounty of anime at less than $15 a month, the ways in which Western anime fans once consumed the good stuff seem downright archaic. VHS tape trading in the ’80s and ’90s made anime an underground sport not unlike tape traders exchanging rare concerts or bands’ low-quality demos.
Even after anime gained a foothold in mainstream retail stores in the late ’90s, English dubs remained laughably bad and picking up taped episodes meant lots of money for little gain. Ten VHS tapes would hold about 30 episodes — three episodes per tape, with a single tape running nearly $30 a pop thanks to the difficulty of manufacturing. In Dragon Ball Z terms, that meant barely a third of Frieza Saga. The DVD era of anime felt like a period of prosperity in comparison, with more episodes per disc and set, but high prices still ruled, a single season costing up to $50. Now it’s all just a click away.
While there’s nostalgia for the old stories, Dragon Ball is carried into the modern age of anime with its immensely popular new series, Dragon Ball Super. According to Nielsen ratings, new episodes of Super draw near one million viewers per week on Cartoon Network, while Blu-ray box sets litter the best-selling anime lists on Amazon. The success of Super is also translating over to the world of video games; Bandai-Namco’s fighting game Dragon Ball FighterZ has sold over 2.5 million copies, making it one of the best-selling titles in 2018.
Looking to strike while the iron is hot, Toei Animation and Funimation got to work on Dragon Ball Super: Broly, and lured back series creator Akira Toriyama to lend integrity to the effort. The reintroduction and success of the Super series was the catalyst for the film, bringing the brand back into mainstream consciousness in ways that were bigger than ever, according to Funimation CEO Gen Fukunaga.
“Having [Toriyama and Dragon Ball manga publisher Shueisha Publishing] commit to a new series for the first time in decades obviously helped,” Fukunaga told Polygon during a recent visit to New York City. “That helps refresh the brand, which then boosts the profile so that when you follow up with this new big movie you can now bet bigger on it.”
Not everyone was immediately excited at the prospect of Broly’s return. This included Scott “KaiserNeko” Frerichs, writer, voice actor, and co-founding member of Team Four Star, the YouTube production company responsible for Dragon Ball Z Abridged, the popular satire of the original DBZ that first appeared in 2008 and has gone on to tens of millions of views and many other projects.
“When the Broly movie was announced, there was a collective groan from our team,” Frerichs told Polygon over Discord. Team Four Star has made their hesitant acceptance of Broly’s popularity known, but have said in the past that they felt Broly was one-note and channeled the worst tendencies of Shonen anime. Compared to Dragon Ball Z’s other villains, Broly is a one-note villain that could be found in any run of the mill cartoon. And yet, Broly finds love and adoration from the DBZ faithful.
One of Team Four Star’s most popular videos is a satire of Broly’s first appearance, Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan. The eighth movie from the original Dragon Ball Z series, The Legendary Super Saiyan, is the most popular of the DBZ movies, with its Blu-ray HD remaster currently sitting at 65 on the Amazon anime best-selling list; it was as high as 34 when the new Dragon Ball Super movie was announced.
The movie is also remembered by some fans as being an hour-long slog filled with bad jokes, a story that didn’t seem to understand its established characters and a whole lot of Broly doing what he does best: standing tall as an impenetrable wall until defeated by Goku in a single punch. A 2003 review by Anime News Network’s Zac Bertschy is blunt in saying, “It’s as if the screenwriters knew that all they had to do was come up with a villain for Goku to fight and knew that all the audience wanted to see were muscle-headed, blonde-haired dudes beating the snot out of each other.” The film’s MyAnimeList score is 7.5, based on around 60,000 user votes, which tells a tale of fans either exceptionally loving or downright loathing the OVA.
For all the punching, a typical Dragon Ball villain is cerebral in nature. Frieza, a space despot and perhaps DBZ’s most iconic villain, is a power-mad egotist who is more of an evil, intergalactic Dorian Grey than the typical screaming stereotype one would expect in an anime antagonist. He’s also the perfect opposite of Goku. Where the Saiyan hero trains to reach new limits and protect those he loves, Frieza sees the concept of needing to train or improve as a flaw and proof of inferiority. He believes one is either perfect already or is a lesser being.
Broly grunts a lot and talks very little. The Legendary Super Saiyan is a perfect encapsulation of what is great and terrible about Broly as a character and archetype. He’s a steroid-injected mass of muscle and bad one-liners, meant purely as a counterbalance to typical evil-doer motives and drives.
“I don’t want to shit on the fanbase of Broly, but there are times when his fans come off as a bit too ‘This is what Dragon Ball should represent!’”, said Frerichs. “My personal belief is, that, no: Broly shouldn’t represent Dragon Ball. There’s so many amazing things in and about Dragon Ball and he’s just one facet of it.”
Broly’s origin is a slanted variation of Goku’s own origin, which may allude to fans endearment towards him. Much like how Marvel’s Venom is a reflection of what happens if you take Spider-Man’s origin and introduce someone with a darker personality, Broly’s beginnings reflect that he could have very well become a hero like Goku if not for tragedy and corruption.
Broly was a baby with immense power thrown out like trash by his own people, a relic of a bygone age that was the Saiyan’s former home planet of Vegeta. The trigger that sends him into an unstoppable rage is the mere mention of Goku’s true name: Kakarot. This is explained by a scene in The Legendary Super Saiyan, in which an infant Goku’s incessant crying causes a young Broly extreme distress.
Yes, Broly hates Goku because, once upon a time, he was a big cry baby. His boiling rage prompts him to take on the entire roster of Z Fighters all at once. Or as Vegeta puts it in Team Four Star’s spoof of Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan: “That’s really dumb. But he’s so cool. BUT THAT’S SO DUMB!”
Frerichs says the quote sits at the heart of he and his team’s feelings for Broly. “That line was completely representative of how we felt about Broly. He’s so dumb, but he’s so goddamn cool. Those two things are just at war with each other.” Frerichs explains.
In many ways, Broly shares DNA with the beloved Star Wars character Boba Fett. A villain with few lines of dialogue — not counting an awfully Wilhelm scream-esque wail before his death — Fett has persevered in pop culture purely on his cool factor and non-canon appearances in toys, video games, and novels. Like so much Star Wars iconography, the sleek helmet, cape and rocket pack unlocked something in kids’ imaginations and prevailed through history.
That’s Broly, a personification of rock-and-roll anime stereotypes in a show that largely averts the tropes of the genre — despite inadvertently having created so many of them. Dragon Ball as a series uses big battles time and again to point out that the engorged, empty-headed villain who relies on brute strength usually fails. Broly is the exception: a wrecking ball with no ethos or direction. He lashes out as a weapon aimed by others with no true purpose of his own. He’s everything the series wasn’t.
Series creator Akira Toriyama’s lack of direct involvement with Broly in the past is one of his reasons for wanted to helm Dragon Ball Super: Broly. In a statement released through Toei Animation in July, Toriyama said “I apparently at least drew the designs for him, but I had practically no involvement with the anime [The Legendary Super Saiyan] at the time, so I had totally forgotten about the story content.”
And yet, the legendary Toriyama is aware of the character’s popularity and sees a chance to connect old to new, saying “I felt this could be quite interesting once I got right to work trying my hand at a story that incorporates him while keeping in mind Broly’s classic image so fondly in the more fascinating Broly.”
Toriyama’s involvement spells potential for a massive return on investment, according to Mr. Fukunaga. “We’re releasing it into a lot more theaters. Everything is bigger. Everything is committing more to make it bigger. That all leads to more marketing and higher profile release. Cartoon Network has helped it obviously because you have all these fresh episodes that were on TV and being top-rated on the Toonami block.”
Frerichs backs up Fukunaga’s theory, saying that the Team Four Star response changed when they saw Toriyama’s involvement.
”When we heard that Toriyama had gone out of his way to rewrite the character, and that got me excited. Now, it’s a reimagining of the character,” he said. “Toriyama has this creative touch, this spark, to him.”
Until that time, the current iteration of Broly is both beloved and maligned for being the pure, distilled essence of cool that brings out the kid in us all. Perhaps it all goes back to Funimation’s original tagline “There’s a nine-year-old born every day.” Characters like Broly will continue to bridge the generational gap and bring new audiences into a series looking ahead to the future and a third decade of mainstream popularity.
“A lot of people think we’ve made some huge insult towards him, while others took it as exactly what it meant,” Frerichs said. “It’s okay that he’s dumb. Him being dumb doesn’t preclude Broly from being cool, or good.”
Dragon Ball Super: Broly will release theatrically in Japan on Dec. 14 and in the U.S. and worldwide in Jan. 16, 2019.
Will Harrison is a writer and reporter from Toledo, Ohio, currently residing in Austin, Texas. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their three cats: Shadow, Ziggy and, yes, Broly. He is on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison.