Dragonball Z - The Anime TV Hit Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Dragonball Z - The Anime TV Hit

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Dragonball Z, (sometimes 'Dragon Ball Z'), was unveiled in the USA in 1996, and is still going strong through repeats. It has become one of the few Japanese animation series to have gained a big following in the West - outside of the anime fanbase for (mostly male) children, teenagers and young adults. Dragonball Z was a sequel series, rather than a spin-off, of the events that took place in the original Dragonball series. We therefore begin by detailing the high points of the original series.


Long ago, seven dragonballs were forged and scattered over the face of the planet. Once united, the Eternal Dragon will be called forth to grant the discoverer a single wish...


Dragonball had its beginnings in 1986 as a Manga strip, and was the brainchild of cartoonist Akira Toriyama. Toriyama was inspired by a live-action martial arts adventure programme called Monkey about a group of friends travelling on a journey from China to India1. He then added to the travelling idea his own storyline, with a plot that was a combination of humour, adventure and limited martial arts.

The Plot

The adventure begins with a young teenage girl named Bulma Briefs who has uncovered an old legend about seven magic dragonballs that, once collected together, would summon a dragon that could grant wishes. Being a technical genius, she constructs a 'Dragon Radar' that gives the location of each dragonball2.

Driving down a mountain road in the search for her third ball, she accidentally knocks down a young boy with a monkey's tail, who is living alone after the death of his grandfather. To her surprise, the boy is not only uninjured, but also has the four-star dragonball3 in his possession. The boy, called Goku, refuses to give up his ball as it was a gift from his grandfather, so Bulma convinces the boy to join her. Along the way they meet many of the characters who would later make up most of the cast in Dragonball Z.

Unbeknownst to the pair, the idiotic Emperor Pilaf had also discovered the legend and wanted to make himself king of the world4. Though many bad guys came and went, Emperor Pilaf was a mainstay throughout the series.


The series was split into different parts, called sagas, with each adventure. What was special about the series was that the characters grew and aged, which is rarely touched upon in any cartoon. Cleverly, as numerous people were after the wish5, actions and decisions made, along with the characters' personalities, would affect the stories in Dragonball Z.

The comic strip was developed into an animated TV series of just under 200 episodes written for the small screen by Toriyama, and became a hit for 'children under ten' in Japan (through TOEI Animation), followed by France, Spain, and finally the USA (through FUNimation Inc, via Kidmark Entertainment)6, though the western dubbings had to be seriously edited, (even to the point of losing entire episodes), before being deemed suitable - as the Japanese version contained scenes such as old men reading pornographic magazines and girls flashing.

Time for the Z

In 1991 Dragonball ended in Japan, with Goku then a young man who had both defeated the evil King Piccolo, and married his new wife, Chi-Chi. Bulma was still in her on-again-off-again relationship with boyfriend Yamcha, which had started way back in episode 13. Toriyama decided to drop the humour and add more attacks to the one 'energy blast' - the 'Kamehameha7' and integrate them into honourable fights, ie one-on-one using only the body's strengths and limitations. Fights were long and blood became more prominent. This gave the strip a new attitude which brought it a wider audience8.

It's a What?!

What surprises many viewers of Dragonball Z is that the programme, through media conventions, is in fact considered to be a soap opera. When it became a TV series (Japan 1991, USA 1996) each episode began with a 'Last time on Dragonball Z...' and ended with a 'Next time on Dragonball Z...'.

Another change from Dragonball was that the other characters in the huge cast were concentrated on as much as Goku, so he was not always the central character - though always the star. Toriyama also finally decided to explain the reasons for Goku's superhuman strength and why he had a tail9.

The Plot

Like Dragonball, this series was split into sagas. These however, were much larger than the original, and there were some sagas that were a metaphorical breather for the viewer. Toriyama continued to write the script in the Japanese version, but the American one, while remaining faithful to the spirit, changed the wording slightly.

We begin over five years after the ending of Dragonball. Goku has decided to have a reunion with his friends, on the island of his first martial arts trainer, Master Roshi. His friends, Roshi, Krillin and Bulma are all surprised to see he has a child with him: Gohan, Goku's son, named after Goku's grandfather. Gohan also sports a tail, as Goku had done, and wears a hat with the four-star ball on it10. Piccolo, Goku's nemesis, has been in training after his defeat to Goku (so that he can beat him and take over the world) - but when an alien with a tail shows up looking for a man called 'Kakarot', Piccolo's ambition gets disrupted...

Signature Moves

What gained the programme appeal for many young teenagers11 were the new moves and energy blasts. Each character that fought had a distinct signature technique, similar to pro-wrestling or video games. Energy (in Japanese, 'Ki') was like the 'Force' in Star Wars. All living things have energy. If a character concentrated their energy, they could fire powerful beams from their hands and manipulate them. The stronger the character, and the more they train, the better they can learn to deflect, repel or even absorb energy. If too much energy is used it would make the character tired, and even lead to death if all their energy was expended. It could also be used to sense other characters with high energy levels, or even allow the character to fly.

Although characters learned many moves throughout the series, their signature move was the one that they tended to resort to when they were losing and/or desperate. Their techniques were usually performed by a hand movement followed by shouting out the name of their move. Goku's Kamehameha was the most famous signature move, mostly because it was the most common move (anybody who trained under Master Roshi learned how to do it). In this move each syllable would be shouted while clasping the hands together, then to let loose the blast the hands were outstretched together. They did, however, always seem baffled when an enemy dodged an attack that they had shouted out...

The Sagas

Dragonball Z was well over 250 episodes long. As stated earlier, the series was split into 'sagas' to differentiate each plight the heroes got into. Unlike Dragonball, Dragonball Z had sagas which linked together in some form as each episode ended in a cliffhanger. Sagas were usually named after their subject matter, with the longest ones having as many as 30 episodes, each lasting 25 minutes.

The Saiyan Saga: Raditz, an alien with a tail, arrives on Earth, and after a brief confrontation with Piccolo, he goes off in search of a man called Kakarot. He confronts Goku and informs him that they are both Saiyans from the planet Vegeta... and brothers!

The Namek Saga: After a long battle with two Saiyans, Nappa and Vegeta, who arrive on Earth searching for the dragonballs in a bid for immortality, Goku's friends Yamcha, Tien, Choatzu and even Piccolo are killed. Piccolo has somehow become linked to the dragonballs - so that when Piccolo dies the balls are turned to stone forever. With Goku injured, it's up to Krillin, Gohan and Bulma to go where they have heard of a new set of dragonballs... On the planet Namek.

The Captain Ginyu Saga: Goku, now on Namek, has to stop the leader of the 'Ginyu Force' from destroying his son, Gohan, and best friend, Krillin!

The Frieza Saga: An evil, tyrannical alien called Frieza wants immortality so that he can be 'the strongest fighter in the universe' forever.

The Garlic Jr Saga: The Guardian of Earth, Kame, is under attack from the immortal Garlic Jr who is determined to destroy Kame for imprisoning him inside the Makeo Star. With Goku away, it's up to Gohan and Krillin to fight.

The Trunks Saga: A purple haired boy from the future calling himself Trunks, informs the returning Goku that in three years time, two evil androids will show up and kill everyone that Goku knows, (except Gohan), while Goku himself will die of a heart disease which Trunks gives him the antidote for. So Goku and his friends train for their arrival.

The Androids Saga: Following Trunks' prediction, two androids arrive and start destroying everything in sight... but they're not the androids that Trunks meant...

The Imperfect Cell Saga: Another android (named Cell) travels back in time from Trunks' future and is obsessed with absorbing the androids that Trunks referred to - thus making himself 'perfect'.

The Perfect Cell Saga: Cell has found the androids he seeks, but Goku and friends aren't prepared to let them be absorbed...

The Cell Games Saga: With the absorption of the two androids, Cell is complete and has no equal... so he wants to test his skills against the Earth's strongest with a tournament...

The Great Saiyaman Saga: Now a teenager, Gohan is going to high school. In his spare time he decides to become the city's superhero under the guise of the 'Great Saiyaman'...

The World Tournament Saga: Goku and co. take part in a large tournament to determine the world's strongest fighter - but there are a few people present who look suspicious...

The Babidi Saga: Gohan and Goku need to stop the wizard Babidi from resurrecting the most devastating fighter in the universe: Majin Buu

The Majin Buu Saga: Majin Buu has been released and is destroying all life on Earth. Gohan is the only one whose power can stop it...

The Fusion Saga: Buu has become stronger and Gohan's power alone isn't enough to stop it. The Earth's fighters need to fuse together to become stronger...

The Kid Buu Saga: Buu has reverted into his most primal form: a child who doesn't have any guilt... Goku has only one last chance to rid the world of the pink menace....

During the course of the series, 13 movies were made, but most of these did not actually fit together with the sagas, often contradicting known facts. For instance, 'Dead Zone' - which has Goku with Krillin rescuing Gohan. Set before the series begins, it contradicts the fact that Krillin is surprised that Goku has a son. Two, however: 'Bardock: The Father Of Goku' and 'History of Trunks' were made from references briefly mentioned in passing.

History of the Saiyans

Warning! The following section contains information that could be construed as spoilers.

The Saiyans are an aggressive warrior race from the Planet Vegeta. Goku is one of them. The Saiyans live to fight and are born with a monkey's tail which is the only thing that differentiates their appearance from that of humans. The effect of the light from a full moon on their tails causes the Saiyans to become Oozarou (50ft were-apes) and releases the Saiyans' full energy and strength potential. However, once transformed, the Saiyans have no control over their enormous power and run rampant. The only Saiyans that are still able to have full control are the elite: kings, princes and generals. The tail is also the Saiyans' weakness. If grabbed (whilst in their human form), it forces the Saiyan to fall to their knees in pain. In ape-form it causes the Saiyans to feel the pain but get angry from it. To defeat a Saiyan's ape-form, the tail must be cut off or the moon must be clouded for them to revert back to their human-like appearance. Once again, the Saiyan elite have evolved past their tails being their weakness.

The Saiyans worked as space pirates for alien species, using their aggression to destroy the inhabitants of planets ready for the potential buyers. When a planet is found that is deemed weak by the Saiyans12, they send Saiyan babies through space to those planets, and when the moon is full they will kill everything.

Since not all planets have moons, the one-man Saiyan spacepod will create a projection if necessary. Stronger planets require a few Saiyan warriors to accomplish the same result.

Goku was sent to Earth as one of these babies. Found by an old man named Gohan who adopted him, Gohan could not control Goku's anger until the baby fell into a ravine and hit his head. The bump made Goku forget his Saiyan heritage and appreciate all life. Unfortunately it was Goku's tail that would kill his adopted grandfather and set up the events in Dragonball - though Goku had always believed his grandfather died at the hands of the 'monster that comes out at night'. Before Dragonball Z, Goku's tail was cut off permanently.

Even without a tail, Saiyans have bizarre attributes that make them potentially the most powerful race in the universe. Saiyans get stronger if they lose a fight. If they lose, their power doubles. They love to fight and without their tails they usually have to be destroyed to stay down13.

The Saiyans believed in the legend of the 'Super Saiyan' as did the tyrant Frieza. Knowing that as he would be destroyed by a Saiyan warrior, Frieza purged the universe of all but four Saiyans who weren't on Planet Vegeta at the time he destroyed it. These Saiyans were: Prince Vegeta, Nappa, Raditz and Goku.

The legend was that once every 1000 years a Super Saiyan would be born. In the climax of the Frieza Saga, it was Goku who transformed into the Super Saiyan to beat Frieza. But as the series continued, the ability to become a Super Saiyan became more 'scientific'. When Goku's rage became high enough he changed into a Super Saiyan. From then on he could change whenever he 'powered up'. This would later be the same for the Saiyan prince, Vegeta.

By the end of Dragonball Z, there are three Super Saiyan forms:

-Super Saiyan: When a Saiyan transforms, their pupils turn green and their hair spikes upwards, turning gold.
-Ascended Saiyan (Super Saiyan 2): With severe and lengthy training a Super Saiyan reaches the 'next level'. Their hair lengthens slightly and spikes more sharply. It also shows small lightning bolts.
-Super Saiyan 3: On surpassing the Ascended level, the Saiyan's hair lengthens back and over, reaching down to behind the knees. They also lose their eyebrows.

The Cast

Being a soap opera, there are a large number of recurring characters in DBZ, and their personalities are integral to the events that occur.

What follows is a short summary of the more immediate cast with their special technique(s) - if any - acknowledged in bullet points.

Goku: The hero of the show. A Saiyan warrior born with the ability to constantly increase his strength and power. Though sometimes slow, it is his love for friends and family that helps him save the day.

  • Kamehameha
  • Spirit Bomb

Gohan: The eldest son of Goku. When introduced in the first episode as a five and a half year old, he has a tail and sports the Four Star Dragonball on his hat. It is at this age that Piccolo realises Gohan has 'hidden power' which could make him potentially the strongest fighter in the universe.

  • Kamehameha
  • Masenko

Goten: Second son of Goku. When introduced at the beginning of the Great Saiyaman saga, he has the strange ability to turn Super Saiyan although, when first seen, he is only around seven. He looks up to Gohan as a role model and like all those with Saiyan blood, he loves to fight. Gohan taught him.

  • Kamehameha

Krillin: Goku's best friend, having grown up and trained with him since childhood. Initially bald, he is a short man, willing to do anything for Goku (and eventually also for Gohan). Although rather cowardly, he is a strong fighter when forced to compete. He is mainly used as the show's comic relief.

  • Destructo Disc

Bulma: A technical genius, part-owning the rich Capsule Corporation. Her father is the renowned Dr. Briefs, inventor of Dino-caps14. Another long-time friend of Goku, she is easily angered and flirtatious. The Dragon Radar that she invented initiated the entire series.

Piccolo: A green alien figure from the planet Namek, who was introduced as a villain in the original Dragonball. He becomes reformed when he takes the 5 year-old Gohan under his wing for training, after seeing the potential of the child's hidden power to combat the upcoming threat of the two Saiyan elite. Piccolo used to be one with Kame, a fellow Namek, but a separation occurred during Dragonball.

  • Special Beam Cannon

Yamcha: Another character from Dragonball. Yamcha was once a thief who wanted to steal the wish from Bulma and Goku. He was, at the time, afraid of girls. That was until he saved Bulma from Goku in his ape form. Yamcha also has a sidekick in Puar (Pw-arr), a shape-changing cat.

  • Wolf's Fang Fist

Tien: Although human, Tien has a third eye in the middle of his forehead. Usually seen with best friend Chaotzu, Tien is regularly there to help Goku in a crisis.

  • Tri-Beam
  • Multi-Form
  • Solar Flare

Vegeta: An extremely cocky and arrogant Saiyan who refuses to acknowledge when he's beaten. Knowing Goku by the name of Kakarot, his defeat at the climax of the Saiyan Saga was to fuel his attitude throughout the series. Not evil, but extremely self-centred, he is in many ways Goku's equal. This character with his distinctive hair15 typifies the attitude of DBZ. If any fan's favourite character is not Goku, then it is almost certainly Vegeta. His character suffers most from censorship, as he decapitates or blows up many of his foes. He has been pivotal in the outcome of many battles, though flashbacks tend to avoid any acknowledgement of his role16.

  • Galek Gun
  • Big Bang Attack
  • Final Flash

Trunks: A time-travelling teen from the future with a grave message for Goku about his fate in 3 years time at the hands of some androids created by an old nemesis - Dr. Gero.

  • Burning Attack
  • Buster Cannon

Shenron/Porunga: The eternal dragons that spring forth from the collective power of seven dragonballs. Shenron is the Earth dragon, with an appearance similar to Chinese dragon drawings. Porunga is the Namekian dragon, who can grant three wishes, while Shenron only grants one. Porunga doesn't look that much like a dragon, resembling more closely a large muscle-bound reptile. Their weakness is that they only have as much power as the Namek who created the dragonballs, lessening the omnipotent powers the balls seemed to have had in Dragonball. Both dragons are rather impatient, seeming to prefer life in the dragonballs than out, always attempting to hurry up the wish decisions.

Find out about the cast and more at the official site: dragonballz.com.

Dragonball Z is still going strong despite the failure of the follow-up, Dragonball GT. Toriyama left after Dragonball Z, not wanting to create any more. GT was a strange programme, returning Goku to childhood and the Kamehameha/Super Saiyan techniques were used in every fight. The fights themselves were fairly short and only 64 episodes were made.

Fans are eager to see more of Goku's adventures despite Dragonball GT, desiring the action, thrills, even artistic detail that Dragonball Z gave. All they can do at present, is to keep on wishing.

Related BBC Links

  • Some of the best stuff on TV is for kids - see what you might be missing out on with CBBC.

  • Whether it's stakes, spaceships or string-operated super-spies, BBC Cult has it all...

1Which itself was inspired by the Chinese story Journey to the West.2How this was actually done and where she discovered the legend is never given.3Each dragonball has a number of small red stars on it corresponding to which ball it is (one through seven).4Apparently being an emperor wasn't enough, especially as his empire seemed to consist of a lone castle in the desert.5The dragon could only grant one wish at a time. After each, the balls would scatter across the planet and turn to stone until one year had passed.6The Japanese version began in 1986 and for the USA 1995, but only the first 13 episodes (The 'Goku Saga') and the feature, 'Curse of the Blood Rubies'.7Mistakenly spelled 'Kamehameah' (Ka-May-Ah-May-Ah) in Dragonball. The Kamehameha was in fact a suggestion by Toriyama's wife who took the name from a former King Kamehameha of Hawaii. It was a blue energy blast fired from the palms clasped together at the wrists - which Goku learned from his teacher, Master Roshi, from one demonstration, although Roshi himself had taken fifty years to master the technique.8This was particularly clear in the US TV show's theme tune - which was heavy rock played over continuous clips of fighting scenes from the show.9It was cut off numerous times until eventually permanently removed in Dragonball to stop Goku changing into a huge ape-like monster when the moon was full. Unknown to Goku, it was this same monster that had killed his grandfather.10Regardless of the balls scattering after each wish the dragon grants, Goku has somehow retrieved his grandfather's gift. 11The extra brutality of the show meant that the children's audience was changed to 'ages 13 and up'.12Namely a planet whose inhabitants can't fire energy blasts and put up a fight.13On a side note their haircuts also stay the same from the moment they are born!14'Small' cars or other kinds of transport that appear when small capsules are thrown.15Similar to the 'troll' toys.16In another example: At the end of the Saiyan Saga, this Prince of the Saiyans was barely defeated by Goku, Krillin, but mainly Gohan. Any flashbacks only hold Goku accountable for Vegeta's loss.

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