I am a bad geek- or maybe I’m just a little late in catching up on what is considered classic geek TV. I just watched Dragon Ball Z (in its entirety) for the first time a few weeks ago. Yes, yes, mock me all you want, I argue that I could not have really appreciated it as much if I had watched it when I was younger (its first episode aired when I was 9) than I do now. Let’s set the record straight here: I am, and always will be, both a Vegeta and Trunks fangirl (anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter knows this.) I could write an entire article on Vegeta’s character development (and I probably will) and the many incarnations of Trunks (from bratty, smart-mouthed Kid Trunks to calm and collected Future Trunks). But let’s also make one thing clear: when I first watched Dragon Ball Z, I didn’t really like Goku.
Let’s look at it from a literary perspective (which is hilarious because this isn’t literature, per se, but I am an English Major, so you shouldn’t really be surprised)- Goku’s character is completely and utterly flat. There is very little dimension to him: he likes to fight and eat. He isn’t very bright. He’s happy-go-lucky. He’ll do anything to defend the Earth and his family. And that’s about it. In literary terms, Goku is a flat character- he shows little to no character development or change. Goku is Goku, and he will always be the same Goku. There is virtually no escaping it, and flat characters are boring and hard to empathize with because humans are very rarely flat. WE are multidimensional, and we enjoy reading about dynamic characters- characters who grow and change as time passes.
Enter Vegeta, who is his polar opposite in almost every respect: smart, cunning, ruthless, and very, very angry (we do not mention Raditz because he is such a disappointment.) That is not what’s important, though. What’s important to note is that this is where the comparisons between the two Saiyans begin because it is here, at this first, pivotal meeting, that Vegeta starts to change (ever so slightly, at first- Goku’s decision to allow Vegeta to leave Earth with his life definitely had some positive consequences on Vegeta when they met up on Namek- and then more and more so as the series goes on)… and Goku remains stubbornly the same. At first, it was difficult for me to like Goku because I was comparing him to Vegeta (Vegeta being the only character I really could compare him to. What was I supposed to do? Compare him to Krillin or, heaven forbid, Yamcha?) But then I realized I wasn’t doing Goku any justice. Why should I compare him to anyone? I certainly shouldn’t be comparing him to my favorite character because, in my opinion, he would never quite measure up.
So I stopped trying to compare him to anyone in the series, and that’s when I started to appreciate him as his own character. That is also when I realized that Goku’s role wasn’t just to be the hero who goes on to save the world a half a dozen times (and finally manages to kill someone with the Spirit Bomb). He was the Good Guy. Sure, he has his own fair share of character flaws (exactly when was he going to start being more of a father figure to Gohan than Piccolo?) but he fills a needed role in such a setting- he’s the one guy you can always trust to do the right thing. We’ve seen lots of transformations from bad guy to good guy in Dragon Ball and DBZ (Piccolo and Vegeta being the prime examples, with Tien and Yamcha at a close second) but Goku has always been the guy to be measured against- no one (except the superpowered half-Saiyan children in the series, and that’s only a possibility) comes as close to being the penultimate Good Guy as Goku. Goku is the standard against which every other fighter character in the Dragon Ball universe is weighed. Goku is the guy everyone else wants to be like in one respect or another.
That’s the key. That is Goku’s real purpose- he’s the moral compass. Yes, he’s a hero (but not always THE hero.) Yes, he has saved Earth- and the universe- several times. Ultimately, however, every character is measured against Goku. And that was when I learned to love Goku, not for the flat character he is, but as the standard that all others compare themselves to. Goku is the catalyst that begins the change from bad to good in both Vegeta (leading him to become the symbol of redemption in the series) and Piccolo (who becomes the symbol of guardianship- more on both of these in future articles.) Goku is the one hero the Z-Fighters continually turn to because he is one of the strongest guardians Earth has ever produced (and, make no mistake, Goku is a product of his lifetime of growing up on Earth) and because he will ALWAYS do the right thing.
So, no, Goku- while his character is remarkably simple and flat- is not simply the “hero.” He is the Good Guy. He is the measuring stick. And he does his job well. So, thank you, Goku. I can finally appreciate what you do in the series. Keep fighting the good fight- you can even keep the blue hair. I promise I won’t complain about it too much.
You can follow Aura on Twitter at @InquisitorAura.