Dragon Ball Z probably doesn’t need much explanation as to what it is, since just about everyone’s already heard about it, but for those of you who haven’t, here you go: Dragon Ball Z, written by Toriyama Akira, is actually a sequel series to the much less popular Dragon Ball and focuses on a hero named Goku. The original show centers heavily on Chinese mythology, Son Goku being the name of the monkey god, and a good number of its characters are from mythology, such as Chichi’s dad, the Ox King. On top of all this, the series has a strong emphasis on martial arts and the use of ki to do ridiculously implausible feats, such as flying or being physically strong enough to topple mountains with a head butt.
Dragon Ball Z stretches the suspension of disbelief much farther than Dragon Ball in this regard, but despite this, it did remarkably well. It’s over twenty years old and is one of the most successful anime ever. In fact, without the success Dragon Ball Z had in America, there would probably be nowhere near the amount of anime over here that we now have today.
The story itself is relatively simple. Within the manga, the Dragon Balls are seven mystical balls that summon forth a dragon who can grant a person any one wish once a year, including bringing the dead back to life.
I personally never really got into Dragon Ball, only the sequel, and instead watched Saiyuki when it came out some years later; however, both Saiyuki and Dragon Ball are essentially two very different interpretations of the same story. From what I have seen of Dragon Ball, I can say that it definitely has much clearer character arcs than its sequel. I don’t mean that Dragon Ball Z has poorer character development, but it introduced a lot of newer characters and focused on them, leaving everyone else not essential to the plot trailing along in their wake with nothing to do.
This is particularly seen in characters such as Yamcha and Tien. Remember those Dragon Balls I mentioned? Well, here’s the reoccurring plot of the series. Some ridiculously powerful evil dude comes and kills a bunch of people and is then defeated by Goku. Side characters like Yamcha seem to exist solely for the purpose of getting killed before Goku’s victory just to show us how bad the big bad truly is. There’s nothing wrong in killing a minor character to make a point, but there’s so little emotion to it in this anymore. No one cares if Yamcha dies because Goku’s going to wish him back to life just in time to be killed by the next villain.
Other characters, the ones who neither fight nor have an important relationship to the main characters, slowly just leave the series and become all but nonexistent pieces in the background. Tien, who does fight, goes this route, only to show up on occasion as a deus ex machina to keep the bad guy busy for a while.
And in case you haven’t noticed by now, all the characters’ names are purposefully stupid. Yamcha, for instance, is a play on for ‘drinking tea.’ Almost all the characters are named after some kind of food or some random object. We even have characters like the Ginyu Force, who were designed to make fun of things like Sailor Moon and Power Rangers.
There is a limit on the Dragon Balls that I should mention before we go any further. They cannot be used to make the same wish twice. So in theory, someone can die once, be wished back, and then have to remain dead the next time he or she gets killed. This limit doesn’t stick around for very long, and after the characters go off world for the first time and come back, this aforementioned rule sort of vanishes.
As bad as I’m making this series out to be, it’s really not that bad. Sure, characters like Yamcha and Puar don’t do much, but they’re not really needed anymore. But as someone who started the series in Dragon Ball Z and not in Dragon Ball, I couldn’t help but wonder why there were so many useless characters that had no purpose outside of dying over and over again.
Both the original and the sequel are two very different stories, and other than the aforementioned Dragon Balls, they don’t really have much to do with each other, which easily explains why Yamcha and a few others have no place in the sequel. Dragon Ball Z could very easily be a standalone series, and in many ways it is. The whole feel of the show changed in DBZ. Everyone got ridiculously stronger, aliens now exist—okay, they existed before, but nowhere near as prominent a plot point—and the characters travel to different planets in the course of only a few days. At a couple points they time travel.
I would quickly run through the story for you guys, but despite how simple all the arcs are and despite how they’re essentially the same thing with different villains over and over again, I don’t feel as though I’d have enough time to mention everything in one post. Instead, I’m going to focus on the first few arcs, since they sort of tie into each other.
Our story begins with Goku discovering he’s from an alien race called the Saiyans, and that he was sent to Earth as a baby to eradicate all life here to prepare the planet for selling. Fortunately, Goku hit his head as a baby and turned into a lovable, food-obsessed moron who doesn’t kill people and instead defends the innocent. Sometime after Goku was sent to Earth, an evil galactic emperor named Frieza destroyed the Saiyan home world. Surviving the destruction is also Goku’s older brother Raditz, a Saiyan elite named Nappa, and the Prince Vegeta. (In some of the movies we learn of a few more Saiyans who survived, but they don’t really fit into canon, so we’ll forgo talking about them.)
Don’t get too attached to Raditz, because even though he’s Goku’s brother, he’s only in about two episodes. A shame, really, since excluding Vegeta and Frieza, he seemed one of the more intelligent bad guys, and being Goku’s brother gave him a different dynamic than all the other evil dudes who have no personality outside being evil. Nappa eventually gets killed off as well. Nappa is also a complete dumbass, so it’s not really a big loss. Vegeta is by far the most interesting character to me. He’s the typical redeemed villain, but as the series is really long and his redemption happens over numerous episodes, it’s very believable. He first teams up with Goku’s eldest son Gohan and his best friend Krillin to fight Frieza’s lackeys out of a need of self-preservation, and he sort of falls in with the good guys from there. Overall, Akira did a very good job writing Vegeta’s character.
Eventually, the events of the story culminate into a showdown between Goku and Frieza. After Frieza’s eventual demise, DBZ just throws villain after villain at us, each with less personality than the last.
The anime particularly got a lot of shit said about it for all the dumbass filler episodes. Not only that, but during all the fight scenes—and I do mean all of them, at least the important ones—the characters had a habit of just standing and staring at their opponent seriously. A couple years ago, Dragon Ball Z Kai came out, which was the exact same show, only without the filler episodes. Or the staring. And the show is so much better for it. I am pretty forgiving of the filler in the original show however. The anime first aired alongside the manga, and the filler was added so the show wouldn’t get ahead of the manga. Yes, this can be annoying in many cases. Think Naruto, where the manga is so far ahead that it wouldn’t be a problem and yet the filler doesn’t end. But at the same time, if the anime skipped ahead, we would probably get some disaster like the first Fullmetal Alchemist, which wasn’t really a bad show, but it seems worse when held up next to what is was supposed to become.
One thing that can be said about both DB and DBZ and the final installment series Dragon Ball GT is that there is a passing of time. Goku starts off as a kid in the first one, and he’s a grandparent by the last one. It’s a series that details his life and the lives of his kids. For those of you who don’t know what the ‘Z’ stands for, I don’t know either. Looking it up, I’m still confused, because what I found was ‘Zetto.’ I think it’s safe to conclude that it probably doesn’t mean anything. As for ‘GT,’ I don’t know that either, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it means something along the lines of ‘Generically Terrible.’ If you haven’t watched GT, don’t. But I would most assuredly recommend both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. For those of you who don’t want to watch all of the series but still want to know what happens, or for those of you who have already seen it and love it, TeamFourStar has abridged episodes.