You know, there’s a lot of experiences we all had as children. Playing Pokémon cards on the playground. Under the bleachers black market Beyblade part trading with a side ring tournament, complete with lookouts due to the teachers having banned the metal parts that half of you were using. And the real universal experience of our childhoods: turning on the TV late in the afternoon and watching grown men in funny clothing scream themselves blonde.
To a number of us, the introduction to Dragon Ball was not intentional, but captivating in a way our young minds couldn’t comprehend. We would turn on Cartoon Network, and there it was. Some of us showed up, completely unsure what was happening. Who was this small yellow-haired child and why was he punching the weird gum man? Others had somehow caught this phenomenon from the get-go and understood everything that was unfolding on their televisions.
This was the start of Dragon Ball obsession for many. The introduction to Goku, Vegeta, Frieza, and a whole host of other crazy characters just grabbed us right by our reptile brains and engaged us with screaming and flashing lights.
A fun personal anecdote: my parents had actually banned my brother and I from watching Dragon Ball Z initially, due to the violence and our parent’s urge to control our viewing. The first episode we watched was of Videl in the World Martial Arts Tournament. If you don’t recall, this was a three-minute segment of this poor girl getting absolutely destroyed by a magically powered muscle man, while Goku kept telling Gohan just to watch. Which brings us to the topic of today’s blog. Goku.
What makes Goku, Goku?
Goku is a bizarre character — to say he’s had growth would be a flat out lie. At his heart, Goku is a man of straightforward pleasures and straightforward tastes. He likes to fight, he likes to eat, he loves his wife, his kids, his friends, and his training. There’s not much to understand about him; he just wants to fight for what is right.
He’s not a smart man, he’s not a good father, and he’s honestly able to talk himself into trouble more often than talk himself out of it. But that’s the beauty of Goku — he’s simple, he doesn’t need anything to be somebody, he exists for his goals and nothing more. Plenty of other Saiyans had their own character arcs, but when we asked which is your favorite on Twitter, a majority of you said it was Goku.
Goku doesn’t have some sort of profound arc where he overcomes himself like Vegeta. He isn’t a tragic character who knows nothing but rage and sorrow like Broly. Goku simply exists. His appeal lies within this simplicity. It makes him relatable. Before we get too into this, I’d like to credit Totally Not Mark on his video about Goku, and how his flat arc makes Goku a good character, rather than a dull one. That helped me put together my thoughts on why Goku is such a relatable character that many of us ended up imprinting on.
What is it about Goku then, that keeps us coming back to Dragon Ball?
Goku’s primary motivation, much like every other Shonen protagonist, is improving oneself. Goku is so into his training that he’s willingly stayed dead for a year just to train with dead masters. He had a special space ship constructed to help him train even more as he went off to fight Frieza — who he was fighting both for his friends, and to see just how strong he had become.
Heck, Bulma literally had to buy a resort island so Goku and Vegeta could fight at full strength without leveling a city. The training has gotten so intense that Goku has ascended, in many ways, past the gods who train him. His guiding philosophy is that you can always do better, you can still be better, so long as you put the work in to become better. Practice makes perfect, and this Super Saiyan proves it to a fault.
This is why Goku is the main character despite his lack of any meaningful character arc. Goku’s way of life imposes arcs on other characters. Vegeta and Frieza are two wonderful examples of this. Vegeta showed up to Earth, a proud Saiyan Prince, hellbent on the extermination of humans, and the sale of the planet to the highest bidder. He considered himself the strongest in the universe, second only to Frieza, a gap he thought he was closing.
Although it was a struggle, and a team effort, Goku’s heroic influence drove Yajirobe to stop cowering and slice off Vegeta’s tail. This sent Vegeta into a shame spiral, even more so when Goku became an actual Super Saiyan. Goku, through his training, ascended past Vegeta, in so many ways that it then influenced Vegeta to better himself, to compete against Goku, and in the process become a more sympathetic being.
The big piece of Goku’s influence comes in the form of Frieza. Frieza is a maniacal, cunning, ruthless tyrant bent on one thing — the complete subjugation of the universe. In a way, Frieza, like Goku, is a beast of his ideas and enforces them on those around him. The difference is, Freiza’s ideals shape an army, while Goku’s influence the universe’s strongest fighters. Frieza, up unto this point, had his father’s army handed to him, had done no training, and had merely been born with amazing and horrifying powers.
Frieza was in every way a power-hungry brat, with the strength to back up his ambitions. But Goku was everything he feared, everything he dreaded. The whole reason he blew up Planet Vegeta was to prevent someone like Goku from ever existing. A Super Saiyan, a fighter unparallelled, a man Frieza couldn’t change or tempt with promises of power. Upon his first resurrection (death is always temporary in the Dragon Ball Universe), Frieza began to train. And for the first time in his life, Frieza put effort into bettering himself. Although only physically improving himself, this still shows a change in Frieza’s ambitions. He was influenced and became better due to his failure. He, of course, died again (He was still the same arrogant Frieza), but that’s nobody’s fault besides his own.
The influence of Goku is not something he intentionally exerts. Like all naive characters, he just wants to see the good in people shine. He’s like All Might (if you watch My Hero Academia), but without the fatherly tendencies. He’s a hero who wants to see other people be the best that they can be. Somebody who doesn’t want to kill, but would instead nurture in his own, weird, fist filled way.
This can be seen the most with Broly. The same Broly that almost destroyed his world, who would have, in his fit of rage, killed and desecrated everything that Goku held dear. After the fight, Goku finds Broly and company on their out of the way, deserted planet. Goku shows up — not out of malice, but out of kindness. He comes with a backpack with shelter, food, and other commodities from Earth. My favorite Saiyan gets that Broly isn’t something evil like Frezia, and he’s a Saiyan, like Goku.
He would rather teach Broly than let him die on some horrible planet like Vompa. Sure, this is half out of selfish reasons; Goku himself even admits he wants to train against Broly’s strength. Yet it shows that Goku cares enough about his well being that he brought food and supplies. While Broly hasn’t returned in the Manga, hopefully Goku has been a positive influence on this angry boy. Is it weird that Goku was there more for Broly than he was for his own sons?
I want you to note though, in almost all of these instances (bar Broly), Goku had no intent to change anybody. He merely offers the choice to be better with the hope that it will avoid more fighting. Sure, Goku loves a good fight, but he would rather have a peaceful sparring match. He doesn’t want a fight to the death over the state of his Universe. Heck, he convinced the god of all universes to hold the tournament of power, not because he wanted to watch other universes get eliminated, but because he wanted to fight stronger people from different universes.
So why do we love him?
Goku has the appeal that he has because he’s not somebody with a message, or even a real point to prove. He wants to be stronger for himself and will achieve this through hard work. Unlike other Shonen protagonists, Goku doesn’t go on tirades about his training. Even Vegeta gets on Goku about not taking training seriously.
But that isn’t why Goku is fighting, or why he’s training; he’s doing it merely to better himself. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to protect his friends and family — he pushed Beerus into outer space to protect his loved ones — but that isn’t why he exists in the day to day. Goku just wants to get better and to train with others who seek to do the same. If he changed now, he wouldn’t be Goku, and he wouldn’t have changed so many lives around him.