Back in 2013, when Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods movie came out, people were excited like never before. It’s something from nostalgia coming back in ages. But to me, the experience was completely different. Although it did introduce new concepts and potential for an interesting future, I just had a bad feeling that it won’t go well. And now from hindsight, it’s just as I thought. But still, its continuation managed to keep people captivated with the lore, action and heart.
What’s Dragon Ball truly about
To understand what has gone wrong, we must know the main theme. And for that, we have to go back in time to the original Dragon Ball. Thinking back, this quote by Master Roshi touches my heart very strongly,
“One does not strive for victory over an opponent… One strives to avoid defeat by one’s own self. Move well, study well, play well, eat well, rest well.”
This philosophy also implying as not getting into meaningless fights and win rather improving oneself regardless of the current goal and protecting those who are in need with the power acquired through rigorous training. This speaks volumes about how every fight is important as an experience & the means for self-improvement. Knowing one’s limits & overcoming the weaknesses is what Dragon Ball is truly about, both physically & mentally.
The character of the main protagonist
The main character Goku is brave and unyielding spirited, never gives up or runs away from a fight. He lives up to the 3 golden principles of Shounen Jump i.e. Friendship, Effort & Victory. He also has a naïve side as well that often gets him in awkward situations. Throughout his journey, he met various people, befriended them and fought different opponents. If there is someone who needs help, he never hesitates to jump in and face any danger. He is even ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good and he did lay down his life to save others, twice in the series. In the Red Ribbon Army arc, one of his friend’s father dies in battle. Goku then goes on a journey to find the dragon balls to revive him. During that, he gives up the four-star dragon ball he keeps as the memento of his late grandpa. He puts others’ needs before even with the cost of losing his own. He saw his friend’s sadness and he knows how loneliness feels. Goku is not some braindead idiot who can’t get the context. He sees what’s in someone’s heart and acts accordingly. His selfless nature is what inspires others around him and makes them follow in his steps.
Goku’s motivation comes from his enjoyment of fighting. He is a martial artist, fighting is what he likes most. Just like in the quote mentioned before, he wants to get stronger and improve himself, which is still apparent to this day. The teaching he received in the early days taught him that there will always be someone stronger. There is a humbleness in such a mindset. But what pushes him over the edge is when he encounters evil. Goku doesn’t murder someone no matter how bad someone is. He beats them up, teaches them a lesson and gives them a chance to reflect upon themselves. But we see that sense of morality evolves as he meets new types of characters. Some he meets are just evil to the core and irredeemable. Demon King Piccolo, Raditz, Frieza, Cell, Buu and so on, every villain has affected his worldview. Through them, he learns what to do when encountering evil without taking any risk by giving them any chance. He has had traumatic experience before and suffered loss. The death of his grandfather, Android 8 and Krillin, all of them were major reasons for Goku to dive deep inside and find new power. Part of his character is shaped by loss. The main theme of Dragon Ball Z is about protecting loved ones, that’s the reason for everyone to train and get stronger. It wasn’t about just meaningless fighting and testing one’s strength. There were instances when Goku thought he can’t beat a villain so he thought of training the next generations like Gohan, Goten and Trunks, only with the purpose of protecting the Earth.
Goku’s secret characteristic
Though Goku enjoys fighting most and often leaves his family behind just for that purpose, he does feel lonely sometimes. There is a void in his heart. After his grandpa’s death, he didn’t have any goal or motivation. He went on the journey to find the dragon balls in hope of seeing his deceased grandpa again. But after finding them all, he used them for the sake of others. Later in the series when searching for the dragon balls to revive his friend’s dad, he gets to meet his late grandpa. His selfless nature got him to where he needed to be the most. With the subtle buildup, the brilliantly executed fight and sequences leading up to the moment when we see who Goku truly is. On the inside, he is just as lonely as anybody can be. With the outburst of emotions and wholesome moments, he was humanized more than ever. After reuniting with his closest one, he found peace in his heart, found the newborn motivation and continued onwards. He realized what was important to him and that he is not alone anymore. He got his friends. In episode 94 of Dragon Ball Super, Goku pays homage to that moment; reenact the fight he had with his grandpa at Fortune teller’s arena which shows that Goku is still Goku deep inside.
The Flat character
Goku’s character is called the Flat Character, the one who doesn’t change but causes others to change. Goku himself doesn’t have any noticeable growth or development. That is because of the ideal he firmly believes in. And because of that, his truth and the ideal affect those around him. Characters like Piccolo, Vegeta, even Frieza and Jiren, they all have character developments because of Goku. The writers call it, the lie they believe in. It’s the flat character’s job in the story to make them see the truth and help them break out of the mental jail they are trapped in. Piccolo and Vegeta believed in gaining the power to be the strongest, Frieza’s desire to rule all, and Jiren’s self-pride and lack of trust. After facing Goku multiple times, they all realized the delusion they were sunk in. Now, that doesn’t mean that Goku’s character doesn’t have growth. No one starts a fixed character from the start. The events he found himself in affected his character in some way to see the world for what it is. The things he learned and the experience he gained made him who he is now. There were some moments when he was proven wrong and he had to take responsibility for his reckless action. He does what needs to be done. All of that makes him the perfect example and inspiration to many other shounen protagonists from other series as well.
What went wrong
The greatest strength of the Dragon Ball series is the way of storytelling in the form of fighting. The interesting characters, their developments and the adventures they went on took the story to its peak. When a character arc is over, meaning their development is finished, what we want to see as audiences is what they would do with the experience they gained, or what influences they are gonna have on the younger generations. But everything that the new series brought up went downhill fast. There were good concepts and ideas but the execution was wrong. One of the reasons is, that it’s been around 17 years since DBZ ended. So it’s most likely that the staff members who worked on the show didn’t have it in them anymore. It’s as if they have forgotten how the characters are supposed to act, previous developments, etc. Another reason is that there was no manga to adapt from. Akira Toriyama is one of the great tellers but his manga ended with DBZ. Years later when they started working on the new series, they had nothing planned out, no story structure or anything of that matter. Which resulted in a mess of a plot, cheap character moments, reusing old ideas, retcons and numerous plot holes.
One of the common problems that the series have is forgetting the characters. Akira Toriyama can write characters well with individual quirks & design, but he forgets. In the original series, characters were properly introduced, developed and had a role in the story. Everyone had some use in a way. In DBZ however, as new characters were introduced, they got overshadowed. Up until the Frieza saga, everything was kind of fine. Characters who weren’t strong enough contributed to the story. In Super, that problem got even bigger. Characters who were the focus of the story once got no screen time. It essentially became a Goku-Vegeta show. They tried to bring the older characters back in the Tournament of Power arc but didn’t work out well as they couldn’t do much. This is sad since how much it went to develop them as characters and how much they could’ve done, all just went down the drain. A great story doesn’t throw away past characters when new ones are introduced; it carries them over & gives them purpose.
One of the best features in any series, not just Dragon Ball is transformation. The most iconic & impactful are Goku’s transformation against Frieza, Gohan’s against Cell and Majin Vegeta against Goku. All these events were built up and have emotional attachments. Nowadays, it’s just a super saiyan bargain sale, as Vegeta says himself in the series. New power-ups and forms getting introduced because of the plot. “You too can become a god with the power of friendship” is how I like to put it which is just plain cheap. Also one can’t just achieve a new form with training only which is shown in the Future Trunks special. This reminds me of another quote,
“Power comes in response to a need, not a desire.”
What’s done right
Despite all the negativity, this is still Dragon Ball. There’s always a reason for fans to come back and enjoy it in some way. The new series have introduced many interesting concepts and ideas, new world-building, characters, and plenty of lore to explore and expand upon. Some new power mechanics such as magic, time-skip and god ki are introduced, which is a subject of much discussion.
The philosophy of keep improving oneself is still apparent. We see both Goku and Vegeta training to be better throughout the whole series. Though Goku’s character is a bit off the rail, the experience he gained previously can be seen. He knows what to do in different situations and how to fight different opponents. An example is when he fights Broly and he could tell that Broly was not a bad guy. His interaction with the villains like Frieza and Goku Black was always interesting to see. Vegeta’s character arc may be over but got reinforced during the fight against Toppo. In later arcs, we even notice Goku and Vegeta switching their training methods. We even got to see friends and enemies teaming up together to fight a bigger threat, where ideological conflict takes place. We finally see Goku reaching new heights and fighting for something important to him. The ending of the Tournament of Power arc is done masterfully well with brilliant fight scenes, animation, camera works, music, dialogue, voice acting and pretty much everything. They had a clear goal and a message to convey, which is having trust in each other. There were also so many Easter eggs and attention to detail that are worth looking into. In some episodes, we even see homages paid to the classic moments from the original series, which hits hard for the long-time fans. The Broly movie gave us what Dragon Ball truly is, a great fight, well-written characters and potential for a future story. A lot of care went into making and it all came around right in the end.
Dragon Ball is a show beloved by so many people, it’s only cathartic that they do this right. The main character Goku is an inspiration to almost all shounen protagonists. When you see him out of character, it only saddens us. But the way the show evolved, from something complete strangeness to something that is attached to our hearts, feels amazing. And it’s only getting better. The later movies and manga chapters are given much thought in making. It’s starting to feel like Dragon Ball again. Hopefully, they won’t mess this up again.