For a couple weeks, I’ve been watching my brother play Dragon Ball Z Budokai 3 for the Xbox 360. Like most kids that grew up in the 90’s, my first exposure to anime was through DBZ and Sailor Moon, so when I say that I like DBZ it’s mainly because it holds a lot of nostalgia for me and I’m exceptionally pervious to the nostalgia goggles. The characters are likable enough and the scenery, while repetitive, is colorful. However, it does fall into the trap of taking way to many episodes to get one thing done. As my brother said, “I remember it taking like, six episodes to get past one battle.” Not a soul will debate this—in fact, one of the premises of the newer release of this beloved series is to shorten the unnecessary monologuing and powering up in the middle of battle. No one needs to hear Goku think to himself ‘wow, I don’t know if I can actually beat this guy. His power level is off the charts!’ more than three times per big bad.
I always knew that there had to be some other reason that I liked this series: Bleach could arguably be said to have the same exact qualities, yet I can’t stand that show. In watching my brother play, I think I was finally able to figure it out. It was the representation of female characters the whole time.
To be fair, shonen series are all about the adventures of the male-oriented cast, so expecting amazing female characters can sometimes be a stretch—even though a lot of the time I feel they do a much more respectful job of portraying females than shoujo does. Despite this, most of the time the female characters can be seen as mere catalysts to get the male to do something without that much of a personality or goals of their own. That’s what I think helps set DBZ apart from other shonen series in my mind: all the women—and there’s a great diversity between them—have their own, independent goals that may or may not coincide with the main groups’. They have their own agency and they are more than just a pretty face and a pair of tits.
This is not to say that they’re completely exempt from being used for that purpose. Take a look at one of the longest running, and probably the most important, female character, Bulma. In DBZ’s predecessor, Dragon Ball, she was a young teenage girl who was obsessed with looking good, boys, and flirting to get what she wanted. And though she did have importance—she’s the daughter of the head of Capsule Corp. after all—a lot of her purpose was to be eye candy, both to the characters and the audience. Enter DBZ and a Bulma that had matured from her earlier teen phase into a more fine-tuned late-teen phase. Not to say that she was perfect—she was still selfish and a bit bratty—but she had overcome her roots and evolved into a character that not only had her own motives, but that the audience could relate to. Despite being a bit of a damsel in distress archetype, there’s no denying that without Bulma’s inventions (i.e.: the Dragon Ball Radar), access to technology, and headstrong personality, the main group would have been screwed so many times. As DBZ continues, Bulma also continues to mature until at the end she has a family, a company, and a legacy behind her all without giving up what made her her, while learning from her mistakes as well.
Speaking of kick-ass family women, I have to devote some time to Chichi, the long suffering wife of Goku. Being the daughter of the Ox King, a strong man that could almost be mistaken for a demon in some parts of the series, Chichi grew up with a strong will and a higher threshold for dealing with weird things (like that weird little boy with a monkey tail). From a young age, she knew she wanted to marry Goku and she basically told him outright that’s what she was going to do. Lo and behold, they got married and had two kids. I have no doubt in saying that Chichi is the strongest character in the whole entire series. Not in a physical sense, of course, but her mental fortitude is astounding. Imagine having to live through your spouse dying; it would be an awful, heart-shattering ordeal, leaving one feeling empty with a sense of loss that could never be fully healed. Now imagine going through it four more times.
And then one of your sons dying too. This is Chichi’s life. Every arc Goku dies at least once and although there are the Dragon Balls available to wish him back, there’s never a sure sense that it will work (and then there was that one time Goku told his friends not to wish him back to life). To keep the household going—to keep herself going—Chichi would have to be exceptionally strong. She never wavers from what she knows she has to do. This is what made our main character, Goku, fall in love with her in the first place… even though he’ll be the first to admit that she scares him sometimes. Although Chichi is a family woman it doesn’t stop her from being a strong character or a dynamic character.
The last character I’ll gush about today started out as a baddie. In fact, she was the badest bitch out of all the seasons if you ask my opinion on it. Originally a member of Dr. Gero’s Red Ribbon Army, Android 18 along with her brother (Android 17) and another android, 16, set off on a journey to destroy Goku.
Yet, due to the fact that they were androids and teenagers, they basically said “fuck it” and did whatever they wanted, hedonistic little shits that they (also) were. The depth to her character was added when faced with her own mortality. You see, they weren’t the only baddies that season: there was also an intergalactic fighter called Cell who only wanted to absorb the androids so he could gain their powers and become the most powerful fighter in the universe. Upon being targeted by Cell, and already losing her brother to the alien, Android 18 had to make the decision to break from her own goals to save herself (and partially protect the fighters of Earth). Not only that, she had to live with the fact that she ultimately failed—yes, she was absorbed. She got better—but that she was saved by the people she was trying to kill. After re-examining her priorities, she was able to grow and eventually came to live among the people she had a hand in hurting. What I love about her is that despite her finding happiness on Earth, in marrying one of DBZ’s many punching bags, Krillin, she still held onto her grudges and didn’t immediately get along with everyone. It’s a fine difference between “becoming good” and “not being evil”: all she wanted was to be normal, not “good”, after her normalcy was stripped from her by becoming an android. By having her keep her distaste for some of the “good guys”, but also being able to move past that and help them when necessary, it allowed her to become much more rounded than a wide majority of the other baddies.
This isn’t every female character in the series, not by a long shot, but it’s a good primer into what makes a good female character in a shonen series. They don’t have to be fighters, they don’t have to be overly courageous, and they definitely do not have to be a “strong, independent woman”. They need to stick behind their morals, have their own agency, and, above all else, have the opportunity to mature and grow from their experiences and have that growth shown to the audience. That last part is rarely done, unfortunately, and although DBZ is a rather old series, it’s touches like this that make the characters memorable and able to stand the test of time. I can only hope that future series and ongoing series alike learn from this model and utilize it to its fullest potential for their female characters. Even though shonen focuses on boys, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some kick-ass chicks along the way!