Here at The Solute, we have occasionally talked about (complained about) stories that perpetuate themselves with the phrase ‘the same, but moreso’ – that is to say, stories that simply replicate a past experience and try to deliver the same effect on a grander scale. To my mind, Dragon Ball Z ought to be seen as the apotheosis of this goal and a demonstration of everything that goes wrong with trying to achieve it. Famously, the series was perpetuated long past the point that creator Akira Toriyama wanted to take it – it is in fact a sequel to his acclaimed action-adventure series Dragon Ball, and it was intended to act as a grand finale for his protagonist Goku and killing him off before shifting completely to the character’s son Gohan. Fan reaction drove him to keep Goku alive and the main hero, and I believe this forced him to lean in on his weaknesses in a way that exaggerated them. Toriyama has a wild and unimpeachable creativity when it comes to designing his characters and worlds, not just in the visual treats of his distinctive artistic style but in the strange and totally awesome worldbuilding, like the rules of the Super Saiyans, the froglike Namekians, the ‘fusion’ powers (which Steven Universe gleefully ran away with) or the various tournaments the characters compete in. The flipside is that he’s not someone you turn to for rich characterisation; look at these pictures of the major DBZ villains, and you see a wildly diverse set of visuals and the exact same goddamned facial expression.
(Also he’s wrong about which version of Cell looks the coolest)
What this meant is that the story kept giving us the exact same emotional arc over and over – someone arrives to take over everything, the good guys throw wave after wave of their own men at them to buy time until Goku shows up, kicks their asses, and either dies or leaves forever again. For most DBZ fans, this is best symbolised by power levels, which were introduced in the first arc of the show as a way of conveying the threat of the Saiyans (“We can objectively measure power and ours is much bigger than yours! … Wait, how has his power level grown?!”) but gradually became in equal parts ludicrous and meaningless – somehow, the series is still clinging to them when the characters are fighting against and alongside literal gods. The actually entertaining stories manage to slip in through the cracks of this ritualistic plotting, and they almost always had to do with villains who ended up swept into the good guys when the next villain comes along. It’s a very strange energy; once a character has served their purpose as a Villain, it’s as if Toriyama discards that purpose and the character is allowed to come alive, to be used to fulfill a completely different purpose, and he generally commits just enough to character that this turn is not just plausible but meaningful. The two most famous examples of this are Piccolo and Vegeta. Piccolo is actually a villain from the original Dragon Ball who, upon learning that a pair of superpowered aliens called Saiyans are coming to Earth to take over, kidnaps Gohan to train him in fighting them and ends up becoming his strongest father figure (like a lot of classic purehearted heroes, Goku is actually a huge dick), which leads him on the path to becoming a godlike protector of Earth.
Vegeta, meanwhile, is one of the Saiyans that came to Earth to take over. When he enters the series, he’s in the service of Lord Frieza, leader of an organisation of mercenaries that takes planets, wipes out the locals, and sells the planets to the highest bidder (who the fuck is supporting an industry of genocided planets remains unanswered), and who shores up his troops by going to planets, finding the strongest people on them, and wiping out everyone else. Vegeta is revealed to be driven by pride, and after suffering his humiliating defeat on Earth and learning about the eponymous Dragon Balls (which could grant him eternal life), decides to find them and use them to kill Frieza, pulling off the double duty of a) vengeance and b) gaining power. What happens is one of the most fun villain-redemption stories ever, in which he never actually formally gives up being evil – he’s forced to turn to the heroes because they’re his most practical option in the moment, and then he ends up forming roots with many of them (including, you know, the fact that one of them bears his child). Often, the main thing holding him to the group is a mixture of competitiveness with Goku (constantly trying to keep up with his strength) and a familial attitude to Goku as the last fellow Saiyan. It’s a fun journey with someone whose pride drives them to do things both Good and Evil.
The drive for Bigger is understandable; you found something that entertains the audience, so you try and deliver a higher dose for more effect. I suspect this kind of thinking becomes more attractive when you’re motivated not by having something specific to say or by exploring a specific character or by building and playing out specific storytelling structures, but by appeasing an ever-more unwieldy audience hungry for more and willing to pay big money for it – as any fan of the Game Of Thrones show can tell you, once something gets big enough, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. In fairness to Toriyama, he did eventually get a goal outside that eventually, building the final arc around the lighthearted humour that Dragon Ball was built on and DBZ slowly moved away from (which combined with the more-is-better philosophy the new series had taken on in weird ways – at one point, all of humanity is killed, and we see a scene in which ghosts are doing laundry in the afterlife while patiently waiting for Goku to fix everything again). This is all yet more evidence that sells me on dramatic structure being the ideal for a story; the relatively objective and universal nature of cause-and-effect is comprehensible to just about anybody, and even if you’re not susceptible to its car-crash thrills, it comfortably provides a ballast to just about anything else that you are interested in – character, theme, worldbuilding, etc. The thing about taking higher and higher doses of a drug is that eventually you won’t be able to get a high from anything anymore; the endless procession of living life and seeing that life have effect is not a feeling that ever goes away.