I love Dragon Ball Z. I used to watch it all the time as a kid. I still read fanfiction for it, and I follow the amazing Dragon Ball Multiverse fancomic. The story has also become a cultural icon, and it is probably one of the more well-known manga today. As much as I adore this story, though, I have to admit that I always wanted more from it. DBZ is more or less about a bunch of super martial artists who have banded together to save the world from alien invasions, cyborgs, monsters, and any and all villains that they find. Along the way, a good number of our DBZ fighters die, including the main character. Multiple times.
DBZ is so named because within this universe, there are seven magical balls that, when gathered, summon a giant Dragon. This Dragon has the ability to grant a person any wish, including bringing people back from the dead. While a neat idea, this is also unfortunately problematic for creating suspense. It removes consequences from the story, and that only hurts the narrative.
Spoilers for all of DBZ below.
To say that DBZ has no consequences whatsoever is a little unfair. At the very least, the Dragon can only be summoned once per year, and can only wish back one person at a time. It can also only revive said person once. So if any of the characters die a second time, that’s it. Additionally, if the creator of the Dragon Balls passes away or is killed, the Dragon dies as well. So there’s that. These issues, however, are more annoyances that our characters work their way around than they are absolutes within the story.
We find out that there is a second set of Dragon Balls on a different planet called Namek. When Kami, the creator of Earth’s Dragon Balls, dies, the characters must travel to Namek in order to find the second set. The people who killed Kami, Vegeta and Nappa, also killed most of our protagonists, so our surviving DBZ fighters need Namek’s Dragon to not just wish back Kami, but also their friends. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones on Namek searching for the Dragon Balls. Also on the planet is an evil galactic overlord named Frieza who wants to use the Dragon Balls to gain immortality. The story establishes that Frieza is incredibly strong and has hundreds of followers. He runs an organization that purges planets of all intelligent life, and then he sells the planets to other aliens who want them. Our surviving DBZ warriors, Krillin and Gohan, are not strong enough to take on all of Frieza’s men, let alone Frieza himself. The entire arc is a giant struggle, and since Frieza has a good majority of the Dragon Balls for most of it, Krillin and Gohan cannot summon the Dragon to fix any problems that come up.
During their time on Namek, they end up having to forge an uneasy alliance with Vegeta, while also making a few new friends among the Namekians. All in all, though this arc was long and drawn out, it was suspenseful, which is more than I can say for the later arcs in the series. Often times, it seemed like Frieza was going to come out on top. The characters faced numerous hardships, their relationship with Vegeta allowed for some interesting developments, and they didn’t have the Dragon Balls to make everything better. Unfortunately, when this arc came to its end and our heroes triumphed, they did manage to get their wish. With both Kami and the Earth Dragon Balls back, all the characters who had died were restored to life, and other than Vegeta now being their frienemy, everything was more or less back to the way it was. The characters lost just about nothing.
While the Frieza arc had a weak ending, it was a pretty decent storyline. One of the reasons for that was because the Dragon Balls were the endgame. The characters couldn’t rely on wishes to fix anything, and they didn’t even know if they would get a wish for all their troubles. The heroes would not have won had Frieza made a wish to the Dragon first, which he almost did. That is not true for the later arcs.
Our heroes still fight villains and the overall plot stays mostly the same. DBZ is just a bunch of “good vs. evil” storylines—but the role the Dragon Balls play in the narrative changes, and not for the better. By the time villains like Cell or Buu come around, the Dragon Balls are simply a ploy the characters use to get out of consequences. Every time something happens to the Dragon Balls, or the wishes become limited, our heroes simply find a way around it. The Dragon Balls end up being little more than a deus ex machina. For the vast majority of the series, which went on for years and years, there were no downsides to using the Dragon Balls, either. Whenever the Dragon grants a wish, the characters have to give up nothing in return.
It doesn’t matter if the villain kills one of the characters or annihilates half the world, because the Dragon will just bring those people back to life. Even the “only one person can be brought back at a time” rule goes out the window. Our heroes just learn to phrase their wishes as some variation of “we wish for everyone killed by Buu/Cell/random villain to be brought back to life” and the Dragon does it. In the end, Dragon Ball Z started getting boring, because I knew that no matter what happened, the heroes would come out on top and lose nothing in process.
DBZ is hardly the only story that deals with bringing the dead back to life through magical means, but it is the only one off the top of my head that neglects to discuss the moral or ethical implications of bringing people back to life. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer raises characters from the dead, for instance, but that was a huge deal for everyone involved. At one point the titular character Buffy dies, and her friends insist on bringing her back to life. We discover that the spell they used could have had disastrous consequences—such as death and destruction—had something gone really wrong, and even though they manage to revive Buffy without destroying an entire town, not everything went right. A demon attached itself to Buffy’s soul and used her to gain access to the living world, and we also find out that Buffy didn’t even want to be brought back to life. She was in Heaven, and Earth is an awful place to be in comparison. Also, by bringing her back to life, the characters upset the balance in the world, which allowed for the First, the very first evil being to exist, to rise to power and attempt to bring about the end of days.
Harry Potter also deals with raising the dead. Though the dead do not come back to life, per se, it is possible to still talk and interact with them. But this is also something that can potentially have disastrous consequences, and people lose themselves to the idea of being with late loved ones. Dumbledore even leaves us with the message “Do not pity the dead […] Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
Both Harry Potter and Buffy teach us a lot about death and morality. They had good messages that we could then internalize, and those messages made the characters’ fight for survival more meaningful. What did Dragon Ball Z teach us about death? That we could get some magic, and everything would be just fine.