Why Dragon Ball isn’t part of the “Big Three” shonen anime

The anime community is rife with debates, but one of the most persistent has been why Dragon Ball is not considered part of the Big Three, the term coined in the mid-2000s to refer to Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. These three anime franchises were ubiquitous, dominating magazine covers, conventions, merchandise, and forums, and were perceived as the most popular and influential within the shonen fandom. However, Dragon Ball, despite being a long-running, highly popular shonen anime, was never associated with the term, prompting discussions on the possible reasons why.

One explanation that has been proposed is the timing of Dragon Ball’s publication and release dates. While the Big Three’s manga launch dates in Japan were scattered, with One Piece starting in 1997, Naruto in 1999, and Bleach in 2001, their North American release dates were closer together, with One Piece launching in 2002, Naruto in 2003, and Bleach in 2007. In contrast, Dragon Ball’s original manga launched in Japan in 1984 and finished in 1995, years before the other titles were even released. Its North American debut in 1998 meant that many anime fans would have read it before its counterparts had even come out, making it feel like a franchise from a different era.

This early debut trend continued with the animated releases for these titles. Dragon Ball Z premiered on North American TV in 1996 and quickly gained a dedicated fanbase, but its run of new episodes ended in 2003, before any of the Big Three hit screens. One Piece was the first Big Three anime to launch in North America in 2004, with Naruto following in 2005 and Bleach in 2006. Therefore, Dragon Ball had already come and gone before the Big Three trend started, making it seem like a separate franchise altogether.

Another reason why Dragon Ball is not considered part of the Big Three is its mode of publication in North America. Viz Media released the Dragon Ball manga as a monthly comic book rather than through the American version of Shonen Jump, which served as a central hub for the Big Three. The fact that the Big Three were frequently seen together on various Shonen Jump covers created a sense of unity and movement among fans. Those who read the magazine would likely read all three series at once and then watch their anime adaptations on TV, which reinforced the idea that they were part of the same phenomenon. In contrast, Dragon Ball felt like its own separate franchise, not closely associated with its contemporaries.

The concept of the Big Three is now seen as a relic of a different time when the North American anime market was more centralized, and anime fans had fewer choices. However, the debate over why Dragon Ball is not considered part of the Big Three continues to be a source of fascination for anime fans. Despite its exclusion from the Big Three, Dragon Ball remains a beloved and enduring anime franchise with a massive following worldwide.


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