Fenzel on Dragonball #5: The Passage of Time

What don’t Dragon Ball Z and Sex and the City have in common? It’s not what you think…

Happy new year, everybody! If anybody knows of a calendar system in which 2011 is a year over 9,000, post in the comments!

(Just in case you need to catch up, since this series hasn’t had an update in more than a year, ON THE LAST EPISODE OF FENZEL ON DRAGON BALL…)

Let’s say I sit you in a room and give you a bouncy ball. Since this is a thought experiment, you don’t have a cell phone or anything, the room has no windows, there is no temperature variation, and I’m protected by a force field, so you can’t bum rush me with your incredible fighting skills and steal my watch – or, better yet, knock me out with an energy blast from your palms and fly out the door (which is of course the answer a lot of us would prefer for such hypothetical quandaries).

Your challenge? I’m going to come back in an unspecified “later” and ask you how long you’ve been there.

Every human being faces challenges of this nature – marking time does not come naturally to humans, despite its usefulness and, perhaps, psychological necessity. Different cultures have approached the question in different ways at different times. Goku, Vegeta and the gang from Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, Akira Toriyama’s sex farce turned kung-fu epic turned sci-fi stakes-raising extravaganza — by way of comic book turned TV show turned endless cavalcade of remakes, remastering spin-offs, and franchise video games — have some interesting things to say about marking the passage of time. Why does the passage of time matter, how do we measure it, and why that also matters.

So, let’s power up, because the barbecue is over and it’s time to find out who is trying to destroy the Earth, and, more importantly, when!

Lest We Forget

Why do I want to talk about a TV show from decades ago? Dragon Ball is one of the most popular and enduring works of fiction of the last 30 years, with unique global cultural influence and ubiquity. Its innovation in character design, structure, motif and pacing have influenced many successors can be found in many places in the popular culture. What Dragon Ball has to say about how we think matters, especially for the generation about my age, give or take, say, ten years.

Back to the bouncy ball

Let’s go back to the timekeeping thought experiment from the intro, where you’re alone in a room with just a bouncy ball trying to keep time. In this little hyperbolic time chamber, how would you mark the interval, with so few external markers — no day, no night, no stars? Maybe you’d try counting Mississippi for a while. Maybe you’d listening to your body’s internal rhythms, probably with limited success, since the environment is so disruptive and your heart rate so variable over time. My guess is you’d eventually realize a repeating external cue is easier and works a lot better. You’d count the bounces of the bouncy ball — not rolling it from one side of the room to the other at constant speed and gauging time from distance, but specifically counting repetitions.

Credit to The Drawing Empiricist

Almost all ways human beings track time involve observing periodic repetitions — things that have happened before with regularity. While I can’t speak for your own subjective experience (as again, marking time and “feeling” the passage of time are difficult things for people to do), I would wager watching the above graphic can open your mind to a cognizance of the passage of time that is much harder to achieve without external indication. “Look at that! Now, look at that again!” — we build our clocks and calendars around this stuff.

This is not just emergent from our use of units of measure either (as Dragon Ball famously teaches us, numerical units can be pretty useless if you never question the assumptions on which they are based) – nor does the desire for a repeating interval cause us to search for corresponding phenomena — the phenomena precede what we decide to do with them; the rising and setting of the sun and the cycle of seasons had schedule-like effects on our perceptions of reality before we articulated a need for such things.

“Timekeeping” isn’t just a practical concern, it’s a fundamental element of how humans relate to and frame reality — and, as many storytellers discover when they eschew repetition because they think it is boring, it is not the only way human existence and relationship with reality might play out. You can write stories in which there is not repetition in people’s lives, in which people do not keep routines that make them cognizant of time. Sometimes you have to. But they feel very different from our reality.

This is for the ladies

One TV show that always exemplified this for me is Sex and the City — part of the point of Sex and the City is the girls were always discovering new things — new men, new outfits, new feelings and thoughts about themselves and each other, new situations. If there’s an event that isn’t fresh for them, it generally either isn’t shown is glossed over or is truncated and made to look as such. While there are of course recurring characters and long-run situations, there isn’t a ton of repetition, with a result that it is very difficult to know in a given scene how much time has passed for the characters.

The relationship that embodied this for me more than any other (other than the way Miranda’s and Steve’s relationship went through a lot of off-screen development and change as they raised Brady) was Carrie and Aidan. How long were they together? How did their relationship progress on a day-to-day basis? Because the show kind of glosses over the boring parts and/or presents them 0nly when they are new or very changed, the sense of familiarity, comfort and routine in the relationship is diminished (which is probably by design, since the characters only connect so much), and you don’t get the sense that these two people spend time together.

Take this scene:

In real life, the conversation at the beginning of this scene about the dress and the closet would probably happen in shorter sub-conversations spread out over three or four weeks. This could have been shown in a montage of short cuts that would have given the sense of the passage of time, but the writers decided not to handle it this way. The dog eating the shoe, and the comparison between the boxes of stuff, the reveal of the hair tonic are a contraction of a series of arguments that would happen over the first few months of living together. The show goes through all these events on a tear, coming to huge realizations almost instantly — that’s fine, it’s efficient storytelling, it’s what the show is trying to do. But it is cutting out something essential about the human experience doing so.

Of course, any show needs to abridge the actual extent of such events. It can’t show the full duration of five weeks of people living together – the stuff it shows has to fit into the amount of time generally allotted for a TV show. But it’s important that by only showing things as new, the first time they happen, and then moving on makes it feel not just like it is happening quickly, but like it is unmoored from the passage of time – that maybe this scene is showing a day, maybe it is showing a week, maybe it is showing three months. And the timeline of the show reflects this ambiguity – there are lots of timeskips all over the place.

This Sex and the City scene is another example – in real life, this discussion would probably have started much earlier and taken place over months or years, and it certainly would not have finished over such short scenes. But maybe these scenes are standing in for months or years of backstory – just representing them in a more vivid and watchable way. Still, it feels unmoored from time – like we’re in the windowless room without a bouncy ball:

18 Comments on “Fenzel on Dragonball #5: The Passage of Time”

  1. stokes #

    Awesome to see another of these posts!

    When you talk about this kind of storytelling having a price, it made me think of console RPGs. They’re nothing if not repetitive. But if they weren’t repetitive, they might in fact be nothing. The charm of that kind of game is often said to lie in watching your character turn into a fearsome badass. Maybe the extreme monotony of the gameplay is necessary for this transformation to feel like biological/psychological “growth” rather than the simple adding up of numbers that it is?


    • fenzel #

      “Maybe the extreme monotony of the gameplay is necessary for this transformation to feel like biological/psychological “growth” rather than the simple adding up of numbers that it is?”

      I wouldn’t say “extreme monotony” is necessary, but I think the repetition is definitely necessary. When you think of all the RPGs where you fight “monster” and then later fight “different color of same monster which is stronger” it definitely seems to work that way. If it were always a new monster, it wouldn’t feel like time had passed.


  2. Qwil man #

    When I saw the title, I assumed this would be about why five minutes on Namek lasts two weeks. Great article as usual and I’m so glad to see both of this site’s resident Anime brains make a return within the same week!


    • fenzel #

      Ha! Yeah, I could write a whole article about the destruction of Namek. The pacing of those episodes is one of the strangest and most agonizing things to have happened on television, and probably most of where DBZ gets its bad reputation.


      • Howard #

        I always assumed that Frieza just…miscalculated. I mean, he’s a despot who rules through his physical strength. What does he know about cosmology? Unless the implication is that he’s destroyed so many planets that he has some intuition about how long it takes…


  3. C #

    The way repetition can show growth and foster emotion between the audience and the work is exactly why Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is so brilliant.


    • fenzel #

      Cool! Proust is a big blind spot for me. I think I’ve brough my copy of _Swann’s Way_ on ten different train trips, but haven’t ever really dug into it. It’s overdue.

      If you’re a Proust enthusiast, any translation recommendations?


    • lee OTI Staff #

      I’d just like to point out that in the Venn Diagram of “Places where Dragonball Z is discussed” and “Places where Proust is discussed,” the intersection of the two is almost entirely occupied by this article and its comments.


  4. Harold #

    Im so glad Dragon Ball is on OTI. I over thought the powerlevels as a high school kid. Meticulously trying to figure out how much of an energy boost a super sayian gets vs. a super sayian ultra. How is that if a Saiyan gets a 50x boost in power by going super, they can last so long in a fight while normal against an opponent they are equal to as a Super Saiyan.

    And one thing I did find out in my own OTI experience was how badly Toriyama messed up in his numerical power ups in the freeza saga. or example, Vegeta was some where between 25,000 and 45,000 when he faced Racoom, but after his power up from healing, he could stand up to Freeza who’s PL was 530,000. Thats a 10 fold increase in power for one ass whooping. By giving Freeza so high a number, he kinda ruined his own DBZ logic in his power ups.


    • fenzel #

      The power levels stop being really consistent around where Piccolo fights Raditz (that is, shortly after they are introduced). Piccolo reveals how you can use your energy in controlled bursts, which lets you fight at a power level higher than what shows up on scouters.

      From this point on, I didn’t really see the scouter numbers as definitive. But that’s okay, since it’s a major plot point of the Frieza saga that relying on the scouter numbers is almost always a terrible mistake.


  5. Harold #

    And fenzel I was trying to think of WHY he would even create them in the 1st place. My conclusion is to prove a point. I think he wanted to show that Bad Guys were stagnant, incapable of becoming stronger in means other than completely transforming their bodies while all the good guys grow stronger from training and spiritual growth. Reminds me somewhat of that TMNT article about transformation.


    • fenzel #

      Bingo. The scouters are there for the hubris factor. The elite judge the common people as incapable of rivaling them, which justifies their awful behavior, but turns out to get them in the end, because it is both wrong and unwise.


  6. Julien #

    Even though power levels become massively inflated with the Frieza saga, I still feel they had some sort of significance, apart from showing the bad guys’ dependency on the fixed numbers they get from scouters.

    When Raditz appears and we discover that the average human being’s power level is around 5, while Krillin’s and Master Roshi’s are in the hundreds, it gives a sense of all the progress they’ve made since the beginning of the story.

    However, the need to precisely measure power levels disappears when Goku becomes a Super Saiyan and completely tips the scale. After that, the characters go back to feeling the power of an approaching enemy. The horrified looks on their faces say at least as much as the scouters ever did.


  7. MsAnonymous #

    Finally, thank you someone did notice..


  8. Catie #

    I have no idea what Dragonball is, but I would like to comment on sex and the city… I was watching an episode last week and the girls were at the diner having breakfast, dressed to the nines of course. After breakfast Carrie was going to go buy shoes for their trip to LA that day, and the next scene the girls are arriving poolside at their hotel with the sun high in the sky. Estimate this was at latest a 3pm arrival after a 6 hour flight (and 3 hours back in time zones) so they left NYC at noon. Now anyone in NYC knows those women would have to have left for the airport by 10am for that noon flight. Carrie would have needed approx 1.5 hours to go shoe shopping and get back home to get her bags that puts her leaving the diner at 8:30am. (Saks doesn’t actually open until 10am on weekend so here’s another fault). Continuing on, giving them an hour to eat and socialize puts them arriving at the diner at 7:30am/ leaving their houses around 7:15am. Now for me to personally have been fully dressed, hair blown out and styled, makeup on to the extent they had, I would have needed 1-1.5 hours to get ready. That means according to the “timing” in this episode, they were all up at 6am for this day, whicH I find highly unrealistic considering they are out partying every night at clubs until 2-3am.
    And of course, while Samantha, Carrie and Miranda arrive in LA, Charlotte is still finishing her cup of coffee back in the diner in NYC. So that raises the topic of shows that not only have inappropriate passages of time, but have varrying passages of time for each character in the same episode!
    I’d also like to point out that the Rugrats are still in diapers and Maggie Simpson still doesn’t know how to walk.


  9. Justin #

    I love these articles about Dragon Ball and I wanted to say thank you for re-kindling my love of the show. I started watching DBZ during the Namek/Frieza saga when they were airing on Cartoon Network and watched till the end of the Buu saga but once that ended I was done with the show and kind of forgot about it. After you posted this article I went back and read the others and remembered how much I loved the show. I bought the DBZ: Dragon Box One from Amazon and I watched 10 straight episodes last night. I plan on getting the rest of them as well.


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