Within a short time after the first publication of the manga, it had reached a level of popularity in Japan that convinced Toei Animation to produce both an anime series and a feature film based on the characters. The anime series premiered in February 1986 on Fuji Television, running weekly and in prime time with new episodes every Wednesday night.
The anime series that was produced closely matched the manga that it was based on (as opposed to Sailor Moon, for example, which the manga and anime diverged significantly), but this had the major drawback that the anime would often catch up to the current point in the manga and the animators were left to create additional episodes and situations (known by fans as filler) to allow them time for more source material to be written. This is perhaps unsurprising due to the difficulty of producing 20 minutes of animation each week, with only 14 pages of manga to work from.
In December 1986, the first theatrical film version of the anime was produced. Called simply "Dragon Ball" (in Japan, the movie's eventual English title is Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies), it retold the events of the first several episodes of the anime series. That was followed by additional movies in July 1987 (Dragon Ball: Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle) and July 1988 (Dragon Ball: Mystical Adventure). The first two films were directed by Daisuke Nishio, the third by Kazuhisa Takenouchi.
Because of the popularity of the title in Japan, three video games for the Nintendo Famcom were produced. The first, released in 1986 as Dragon Ball: Shenron no Nazo, is the only action game of the three. The other two (1988 and 1989) are RPG / card game hybrids.
The anime series ended in April 1989 after 153 episodes (and Goku's marriage and transition to adulthood). Although the animated series ended, fans did not have to wait long for the continuation of the story. The sequel anime Dragon Ball Z debuted the following week.
Dragon Ball Z
Picking up exactly where the previous series left off, Dragon Ball Z began airing in Japan a week after the Dragon Ball anime ended, and in the same timeslot. A new series name was chosen by the producers to differentiate the current series, with its reduced emphasis on comedy and its new science fiction themes, from the previous one, even though both were still based on the same Dragon Ball manga. The new show also featured improved production values and animation quality. This transition point was attractive because not only did it follow a several year gap in the plot (one of several such gaps in the series), but it also featured revised origin stories for several lead characters and the introduction of several new characters. This made it a good jumping onpoint for new fans of the series. Like the original Dragon Ball anime, Dragon Ball Z suffered from the same manga-to-anime pacing problems which resulted in the excess of filler material in the previous anime. In some ways, the problem was more pronounced during the production of the "Z" series as the increased focus on action resulted in many issues of the manga devoted entirely to action sequences. These combat-oriented issues were more difficult to "stretch" into episodes than more diverse action and this resulted in pacing problems throughout some sections of the series.Three months after the premier of the Z anime, in July 1989, the first Dragon Ball Z movie (entitled Return my Gohan in Japanese and Dragon Ball Z: Dead Zone in the U.S.) premiered in theaters. This was followed by two additional theatrical movies released per year (one in March and one in July) until 1995. In total, thirteen Dragon Ball Z movies were produced. In addition to the feature films, two movie-length television specials were also produced for the series. These initially aired in 1990 and 1993.
In May 1995, the long running Dragon Ball manga finally ended its run in Shōnen Jump. Without additional issues of the manga to translate onto the small screen, the Dragon Ball Z series ended in January 1996 after 291 episodes. Once again however, Japanese fans would not have to wait more than a week for the continuation of the story, in Dragon Ball GT.
Dragon Ball GT
Back in Japan, the third and final Dragon Ball series quickly followed the completion of Dragon Ball Z in February 1996. This new seRies, called Dragon Ball GT (for "Grand Tour"), was a complete departure from the previous two anime series. Unlike those series, GT was not based on the Dragon Ball manga by Akira Toriyama. Instead, it was completely new material. Dragon Ball GT logoAdded by Beadtmdc From the beginning however, there were problems with the series. Dragon Ball fandom in Japan was waning. To help renew interest in the series and bring it back to its roots, a decision was made to return the series to the style of the original comedy "Dragon Ball" anime, rather than the more action-oriented Dragon Ball Z. This decision led to the reintroduction of several villains not present since the original series, a return to the "Dragon Ball quest"-style plot of that series, and even the mystical de-aging of Goku, back to roughly the age he was when the first series began. Unfortunately, this creative change did not improve ratings and the series focus was changed again after the completion of only sixteen episodes. The remaining episodes of the series returned to the more action-oriented style of the latter series. As a result of declining interest, the series had ended in November 1997 after only 64 episodes. There was no sequel the following week.
Dragon Ball GT was also less successful in its tie-ins than the previous series had been. Unlike the previous series,Dragon Ball GT did not spawn any theatrical films on its own. In March 1996, just one month after the introduction of the series, the Dragon Ball 10th Anniversary Special (called Dragon Ball: The Path to Power in the U.S.) was released. Although produced in the artistic style of Dragon Ball GT, the plot was a modified retelling of the very beginning of the original Dragon Ball anime. This was the last Dragon Ball animated movie to be released to date. Other than that film, the final series was limited to a single television special, released in March 1997. In other product areas, such as video games and merchandise, Dragon Ball GT was also less successful than its predecessors.