A Writer?s Reflections on Shonen Anime Themes
I have been trying to write Dragonball short stories lately. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.
I have written Superman and Captain America. But Goku is different. And so is Vegeta.
The first time I watched DBZ was in 2003. I bought a bootleg CD of Bojack Unbound from a tiny music store in Barisal. It was Eid, and my father and I were exploring the city on rickshaw. My father always bought me stuff on Eid. He still does.
One view of that bootleg CD, and I was hooked for life. I didn’t understand a word of it. But everything was so colorful and so frenetic. So many punches were being thrown around. Let’s not forget about the yelling, either.
Growing Up with Dragonball
Eternal Rivals. Ego and SuperEgo.
I finished my first viewing of DBZ in 2008. That included the Funimation dub of the series and the movies. By then, Goku was my role model. He overcame every obstacle and defied overwhelming odds. He spared his enemies, and was always smiling, even when facing death.
As I grew up, however, I began to identify with Gohan and Trunks. Sons, burdened with the legacies of their fathers. Brilliant prodigies who only wanted to live their own lives, but never could in their early years.
Goku was my role model. He overcame every obstacle and defied overwhelming odds. As I grew up, however, I began to identify with Gohan and Trunks. As I matured further and entered manhood, I finally understood Vegeta.
As I matured further and entered manhood, I finally understood Vegeta. I understood what pride meant. What being so good at something that it’s effortless meant. And then, the rage and hurt that came from seeing someone surpass you with even less effort.
I understood the pain and loss that triggers the Super Saiyan transformation. For the Super Saiyan is a timeless metaphor for a boy becoming a man.
Understanding the Journey of the First Three Super Saiyans
The Birth of the Legendary Super Saiyan
Goku is a gentle soul, but he has the heart and body of a Saiyan. He was bred to slaughter. Despite that, the only time he truly wanted to kill someone, in his adolescence, was when he fought King Piccolo. He wanted vengeance for the death of his best friend, Krillin.
The second time he wanted to kill was when Frieza killed Krillin. For all intents and purposes, Krillin was gone forever. It was Goku?s fault, and Frieza made that perfectly clear. That drove the gentle Saiyan over the razor?s edge. That?s what made him a Super Saiyan.
Krillin was gone forever. It was Goku?s fault, and Frieza made that perfectly clear. That?s what pushed Goku over the edge and made him a Super Saiyan.
Becoming a Super Saiyan is not simply about harnessing power. It’s about harnessing pain and rage. It’s the freedom and release that comes when your heart withers and dies, leaving a dried husk in its place.
It’s understanding that, in this cold and heartless world, no one cares. No one. And thus, you don’t need to care either.
This understanding only comes when your heart and mind tires of caring too much. When your body is beyond exhausted after trying too much. Only when you don’t care about achieving something, does it become easy.
I don?t care anymore. I don?t care if I live. I give up!
This is what happened when Vegeta became a Super Saiyan. He gave up on his lifelong quest when he faced death in space. He didn’t have an iota of energy to care about his pride and heritage. He didn’t have anything left to give.
?Something just snapped. Something inside of me. I didn?t care anymore. I didn?t care about being better than Kakarot. I didn?t care if I became a Super Saiyan. I didn?t care if I lived. I didn?t care about anything.
And then, it happened.?
The rage and pain he felt at being powerless pushed him beyond his limits. In not caring about surpassing Goku anymore, he achieved in four seconds what he had been unable to do in four years.
The Death of Innocence
Future Trunks’ journey to manhood involved guilt and fury. He let his master down. He let his brother and only friend die in a pointless kamikaze attack.
?What did they do to you, Gohan? You were my best friend. You were everything to me. Everything?
This just isn?t fair. Gohan. Gohan! Gohan!?
That moment will forever be etched in my memories. That feeling that you failed someone, and they left you forever because of it. It?s meaningless. Everything seems meaningless.
You were my everything, Gohan.
Trunks was a child no more. Gohan?s death took away the last bits of his innocence.
I identify with Vegeta and aspire to be like Goku. But it’s Future Trunks’ journey that still speaks to me the most. My innocence died, too, when I failed a friend, and she failed me. To this day, I regret nothing more than letting her down when she needed me.
May God forgive me and her. May we both find happiness in our own ways.
The Quiet Heroism of Goku
You will pay, Frieza.
A Super Saiyan is a sad and beautiful being.
His beauty is akin to that of a nearly extinct tiger, full of strength and majesty unparalleled in existence. His sadness stems from that very majesty and power: the unbearable loneliness of existence.
Goku was murderous throughout his entire fight with Frieza. He wanted the tyrant to suffer, to die knowing that Goku was his superior in every way. The power of the Super Saiyan controlledGoku, much more than he controlled it.
By the end of his duel with Cell, however, Goku was a changed man. His own personality was in full control. He laughed instead of showing anger. He trusted his son to be better and ascend past his limits, when everyone else doubted him.
In the last ten days he spent with his family, he caught up with his son and spent quality father-son time. Goku gets a bad rap for being an absentee father, and an idiot in general. Rather, he understood too well what he had to give up, every time he trained for and fought a powerful foe. Goku isn’t as stupid as he looks. He acted like an idiot, because it’s easier, to fool friends and foes alike.
Goku gets a bad rap for being an absentee father, and being an idiot in general. Rather, he understood too well what he had to give up, every time he trained for and fought a powerful foe.
When Goku died, his last words to his son were, “Tell your mother I am sorry.” That line brought to my mind the moment Goku lifted ChiChi up by the waist and spun her around like a ballerina.
Pure Love, Expressed with Childlike Joy
He had just beaten his heart disease and was ready to fight the Androids. Before leaving, however, the first person he met was, rightfully, the love of his life.
ChiChi was pregnant with Goku?s second son when he died. Neither of them knew this, then. What they knew, however, was that they were happy. Goku was the strongest, bravest man in the universe. ChiChi was his wife. They had a son who was strong, kind and destined to be a brilliant scholar.
Goku loved ChiChi and Gohan enough to leave them behind. He did this twice, with only a moment’s notice.
If that isn’t love, then what is? If that’s not heroism, then what is?
Tell Your Mother I am Sorry, Gohan.
This is why Goku will always be better than Superman in my eyes. He sacrifices without hesitation. He does what is right without pontificating about it.
Goku is the hero we need, and deserve. Thank God he?s been here for the last 33 years.
(I am discounting Goku’s depiction in Dragonball Super, which plays up the idiot aspect a lot more. I don’t hate that portrayal, but it undermines Goku’s heroism.)
The Final Atonement of Vegeta
Yes, Kakarot. I do this, even for you.
The most poignant father son moment in DBZ is Vegeta hugging Trunks, before fighting Majin Buu. In that moment, the Proud Prince of Saiyans was finally redeemed.
Vegeta understood what it meant to be loved, and to love, unconditionally. His thirst for power controlled him no longer. He was finally free. And he saw the trail of destruction his path of vengeance had left in it?s wake.
Vegeta understood what it meant to be loved, and love, unconditionally. His thirst for power controlled him no longer. He was finally free.
If I were Vegeta, I would have broken into tears at that moment. To understand that, I was truly alone for most of my life, until by sheer luck I found people who loved me regardless of what I did, and that I pushed these people away too, because I didn’t want to change.
I am proud of you, Trunks, my son.
Vegeta, of course, is too manly for that. So he hugged his son. This son, who he knew will grow up to be a strong warrior. He had seen it with his own eyes, both with Future Trunks and this brash, seven year old Trunks.
Trunks was his true legacy. And Vegeta died to protect him, and his one true love, Bulma.
The Journey Continues
The Light of the Super Saiyan Burns Eternal.
Becoming a Super Saiyan is a rite of passage. It represents the entry into manhood, and then how a man changes and becomes secure in both his power and powerlessness.
Dragonball, on paper, is a silly anime about colorful people fighting each other for childish reasons. But the messages it conveys, and the themes it represents, are timeless.
If you are a Dragonball fan, I hope it inspires you too, as much as it has inspired me, over the years.