Consider this an ad for tomorrow’s game review. I wonder what it could be!
Dragon Ball has a huge selection of lovable, iconic characters. Son Goku is the most recognizable face in the history of anime! Vegeta still stands as the golden standard for antiheroes! Yamucha is the punching bag that everyone in the world wants to see hit back! The list goes on and on!
However, not many characters in this series have a whole lot of depth. With a few exceptions, the cast of this series is about as simple as the plots they find themselves in. But the few characters that are deeper than a puddle are great! And one of those characters is the son of our legendary hero: Son Gohan!
There are also fewer characters who can bring tears of frustration to a fan’s eyes just by mentioning their name.
Today, I’m going to be doing something a little different. Rather than just breaking down his character arc and calling it a day, I want to delve a little deeper. After we’re done with the usual fare, I’m going to tackle the biggest questions in Dragon Ball history: what the fuck happened to Gohan? Why isn’t he as awesome as he was when he murdered Cell? Can he ever go back to the way he used to be?
Thankfully, getting through the first part shouldn’t be too time-consuming. Gohan doesn’t really have much of a Wound, so we can skip that part entirely! Plus, the other three blocks are pretty straightforward. It helps that DBZ was rarely very subtle.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The Want: Scholarly Ambition
When we’re first introduced to Gohan, he seems to be Goku’s total opposite. He’s shy and reserved, easily brought to tears, and highly intelligent for his age (friendly reminder that he was four years old at the start of DBZ). Sure, he did inherit Goku’s insane power! But he did not inherit his father’s love for combat.
Gohan’s desire is a simple one. One drilled into him by his dear mother Chi-Chi. He wants to be a scholar. What does he hope to achieve with that? Answer: who cares? It doesn’t particularly matter. He just wants to be a scholar and make his mom proud. Again: it’s Dragon Ball. The series was never especially deep. It’s tried to become so more recently, with characters like Zamasu (I’ll get to him another day) and Broly. But even then, it’s still pretty brain dead.
Unfortunately for Gohan, his scholarly ambitions are very often put on the shelf. It’s not his fault, the poor kid. But when the earth is constantly attacked by aliens, cyborgs, and magical demons? It would be irresponsible not to step up.
But even then, Gohan is hesitant to be the one to do so. Because…
The Lie: I Can’t Do This
For as long as Gohan has been alive, he’s been surrounded by some crazy powerful people! His father is the strongest man on the planet, maybe even the universe! After he died, he spent a significant chunk of time being trained by Piccolo! After he died, he went on a space-faring adventure with Krillin and Vegeta! And that’s before we get to the various enemies he’s been faced against over the years!
Understandably, Gohan had strong feelings of inadequacy while being around these people. Sure, he’s managed to keep up! But how could he compare to his father, the first Super Saiyan? Surely someone weak like him shouldn’t even be there! So long as his dad was around, everything would be fine! It was okay that he was weak!
Except here’s the little secret: he’s not. At all. In fact, he has the potential to become even stronger than his father!
Or at least he had.
This is why the Super Saiyan 2 reveal is such a dramatic moment! Not just because it pays off all the moments of Gohan going berserk! But because it is the moment that Gohan manages to overcome the lie and complete his character arc! When he transforms, Gohan conquers his insecurities, realizes and accepts his own power, and steps up to become the earth’s next great defender!
Until he let his father do it again. But we’ll get to that.
The Need: Get Angry!
So we know that Gohan has an incredible amount of untapped power. We also know that Gohan was afraid to let it all out and get the job done. It’s a natural reaction; how else would a well-mannered little kid react to gaining the power to destroy a planet?
Gohan’s need is an exceptionally simple one. He needs to let go of his fear. To let his anger out and master his power. By doing that, he becomes exactly what the earth needs: an unstoppable defender.
Again, this is why the ending of the Cell saga is so effective! With Goku dead, Gohan needed to come into his own! His father had passed him the torch. Now, it was up to him to carry the flame.
Which is where it all falls apart.
Where He Went Wrong
This is where things get hard. And depressing. And frustrating. And I can go on.
After his peak in the Cell saga, Gohan was supposed to become the main character of the series. With Goku gone, it was time for his son to step up to plate! It was that or end the series, which was a big no go. Toriyama and Toei Animation liked money too much to do that.
Unfortunately, this is where things fell apart.
See, part of what made Gohan’s first character arc so compelling was his status as a reactive character. Rather than pushing the story forward himself, Gohan reacted to the story as it took shape around him. His transforming and defeating Cell was him taking the reigns on his life and becoming an active character.
Unfortunately, during the Buu saga, he was still a reactive character. The only action he took that drove the plot along was him becoming the Great Saiyaman! Y’know! That thing that didn’t do anything for the plot of the Buu saga as a whole! After that, he was entirely reactive, just like he was as a kid!
Why did Gohan enter the World Martial Arts Tournament? Because Videl blackmailed him into it! Why did he go with the Supreme Kai to stop Buu’s resurrection? Because his dad, Vegeta, Piccolo, and Krillin were already on it (plus, he’s nice like that)! He almost took the reigns back when he achieved his Unleashed form and wiped the floor with Super Buu! But then Toriyama decided to make Goku the main character again and had Buu absorb Gohan, taking him out of the story!
This is why Gohan is such a frustrating character in the Buu saga! It feels like his character arc from before was completely ignored! As if Toriyama pressed Ctrl+A followed by Backspace! Everything that Gohan had learned throughout the Saiyan, Freeza, and Cell sagas had been thrown out the window!
And it only gets worse in Super! Not only was Gohan shoved into the sidelines, but he wasn’t even allowed to be cool anymore! He could barely go Super Saiyan, frequently got his ass kicked, and did little to help in any of the stories he found himself in! Hell, they didn’t even bother putting him into the Broly movie!
Worse yet, it’s clear that Gohan’s character suffered the most when Super traded directors over and over. One director promised that Gohan would train and regain his place next to his father and Vegeta! Then, one arc later, the new director decided that Gohan would not, in fact, do any training at all! Then they traded directors again and the third one decided to try and make him cool again in the Tournament of Power!
He didn’t succeed.
This is the problem with post-Cell Gohan. Inconsistency. Rather than giving him a new character arc that built on the one he had before, they simply kept him the way he was before and hoped it would work. Then, going into Super, the staff had no clear or consistent vision as to what Gohan would do next and simply sidelined him.
Gohan is trapped in limbo right now. For some reason, the team behind Super is terrified of doing anything with the story aside from adding new transformations. They don’t want to give any new arcs to old characters to make their new story more compelling. Piccolo and Vegeta haven’t grown in any way and have basically repeated their arcs. Krillin, Yamucha, and Tenshinhan have all been complacent and unchanging since the end of the original Dragon Ball. The only returning character that has had a character arc was Android 17, for fuck’s sake!
Alright. Tangent over. Let’s wrap this up.
Do I think that Gohan will be redeemed? Honestly… no. I don’t. Not unless Toyotaro starts becoming bolder with his writing for the Super manga. Do I desperately want Gohan to be redeemed? Yes! More than anything! He used to be one of the strongest characters in the entire show!
Still, it is too early to jump to conclusions. There can be no doubt that Dragon Ball will continue for a long time to come, regardless of its quality. Maybe Gohan will come back swinging! Maybe he’ll fall into complete obscurity. Only time will tell.
Please, for the love of God, let him get better!