Today, I wanted to shake things up a little bit.
Of all the characters in Dragon Ball, Goku probably gets the most flak from fans. He is often criticized for not being interesting or for developing well. And it’s true. Goku, in terms of personality and motivation, is the same in the lastest episode as he was in the first. The only thing that’s really changed is that he is slightly more knowledgable about the world, universe, and martial arts.
I’m here to argue the opposite. I want to argue that Goku isn’t just a great character. I believe that he is the perfect protagonist for Dragon Ball.
Ask yourself this: how did every character in Dragon Ball start before they met Goku? The answer is: not well. Before meeting Goku, there are very few, if any, characters that are truly good.
Bulma is catty, greedy and cruel. Oolong manipulates a village with fear. Yamucha and Puar are thieves in the desert. Krillin is a vengeance-seeking, lustful dickhead. The Ox-King is a violent super murderer. Tien gleefully hurts people using his strength, such as the time he broke Yamucha’s leg in the world tournament. The list goes on.
People often joke that all of Goku’s friends, at some point or another, hated or tried to kill Goku. But in doing so, they ignore the truth right in front of their faces.
That is Goku’s character arc. Because Goku isn’t meant to change or develop. Because Son Goku is the perfect example of the Flat Character Arc.
Whereas a traditional character arc is about a character overcoming the lie they believe and achieving their want and need, the flat character is someone who does not change themselves. Rather, they inspire other people to change. They are important centerpieces towards other people’s traditional character arcs.
Think about it. You know how all those characters were before meeting Goku. Now, let’s look at where they are after meeting the pint-sized Saiyan.
Bulma is honest and generous with her wealth, and she helps our heroes with her technical know-how whenever she can. Oolong became a selfless hero that put his own interests and safety aside to save the world (albeit one time, but it still counts). Yamucha became one of the Earth’s defenders (not a strong one, but one nonetheless). Krillin is now a kind-hearted, supportive friend. The Ox-King is a charitable and large-hearted man. Tien puts his life on the line, using his great strength to protect the world against threats far greater than he is. And don’t even get me started on Vegeta!
At the start of the series, Goku was the only character that was truly good. He was simple-minded, yes, but he had a massive heart. At every turn, Goku put himself out there to help people.
He didn’t need to change. But upon noticing his behavior, everyone else slowly did.
This is why Goku’s interactions with Freeza are so flawless! Whereas Goku is a positive character arc, inspiring good change in those he interacts with, Freeza is the perfect negative character arc. Freeza uses his power and intellect to manipulate people into being worse than they were.
Thus, when the Saiyan and tyrant clashed, it was incredibly engaging! Goku could not inspire Freeza to be good. Freeza could not trick Goku into being bad. The conflict between them is completely unavoidable. They are, in every way, dark reflections of one another.
Sure, Goku isn’t the deepest and most interesting character. But for a series like Dragon Ball? He is absolutely perfect!
Don’t believe me? Try remembering that short time when Gohan was the main character! It was a solid number of episodes, of decent to low quality. Something about it just felt wrong. Simply because Gohan wasn’t a flat character. He, like everyone else in the cast, had a traditional character arc.
Say what you will about Goku. Call him boring, unlikable and dull. But remember: he is more cleverly written a character than you think. Whether you like him or not, he is an impossibly important centerpiece to Dragon Ball. Without him, the series simply does not work.
Though it sure would be nice if the other characters got the spotlight every now and then. Looking at you, Toei Animation! Add a few names to the ‘Goku and Vegeta Show’!