Whether you are an avid manga reader or simply someone who occasionally reads it whenever you find something that caught your eyes, I am 100% sure that you have heard about dragon ball before.
You might only see the anime version of it or you might only ever hear other people talk about it. One thing for sure, you are certainly familiar with the phrase “Dragon Ball”.
What you may not realize is how long the whole series actually is. Dragon Ball ran for 42 volumes in Japan. For the English reader, however, those volumes are divided into 16 volumes of Dragon Ball and 26 volumes of Dragon Ball Z.
These are the ten story arcs within those 42 volumes, listed in chronological order. After that are my short reviews and commentaries for each story arc. You can simply click the titles of the arc and you will instantly jump into the relevant section.
- The hunt for the Dragon Balls arc: Vol. 01-02 | Ch. 01-23
- The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc: Vol. 02-05 | Ch. 24-54
- The Red Ribbon Army arc: Vol. 05-10 | Ch. 55-112
- The 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai arc: Vol. 10-12 | Ch. 113-134
- The demon king Piccolo arc: Vol. 12-14 | Ch. 135-165
- The 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai arc: Vol. 14-16 | Ch. 166-194
- The Saiyan arc: DBZ Vol. 01-05 | Ch. 01-51
- The Frieza arc: DBZ Vol. 05-12 | Ch. 52-135
- The Cell arc: DBZ Vol. 12-19 | Ch. 136-226
- The Majin Buu arc: DBZ Vol. 20-26 | Ch. 227-325
One more thing, SPOILER ALERT!!
While I do try to avoid spoiling the story as best as I could, some of its elements have to be mentioned so that I could make a coherent paragraph. So please do keep that in mind while reading this wall of texts.
Let us begin!
1. The hunt for the dragon balls arc: Vol. 01-02 | Ch. 01-23
As the first arc for a long series, this arc is the introduction to a lot of things. The main characters, the premise, the concept, the world, and of course the tone of the story.
This arc is about the journey to find the dragon balls. And in a sense, this is the true essence of Dragon Ball as originally conceived by Akira Toriyama. An adventure story inspired by the Chinese tale of Journey to the west.
In the original tale, there are four people, one master, and three disciples, who travel to the west in search of enlightenment. And each character in this arc resembles those four, but with a twist. Akira Toriyama plays around with the elements of the story to make it his own.
And by the time we get to the 23rd chapter, the story of dragon ball is basically over. The objective has been met, and although there are still things that could be done, most of the characters have accomplished their initial goals.
Honestly, if you only give the first two volumes of dragon ball to a new reader who never heard about it before, and said that these are the only two volumes of it, with one bonus chapter, I’m sure they will surely believe it.
The rest of the story after this first arc is basically an extended story of the original dragon ball’s quest. Because although there are multiple times when they look for dragon balls in the subsequent chapters, none of them are as focused as this one. That’s why I really like this arc.
That being said, there are some things that I found quite..um..distasteful(?), I suppose? You see, this first arc is quite vulgar. Lots of pervy moments and characters in this one.
Nothing too excessive though, but I’m sure there would be people who’d feel turned off by this. This is why Viz media used to heavily censor it before. Thankfully they’ve realized the error in their ways and return it to its original, glorious form and simply adjust the age rating instead.
So is it appropriate for your family? Well, it depends on your family, isn’t it? I won’t say what’s appropriate for you and what doesn’t. All I can say is give it a read.
Before you give it to your offspring, friends, colleagues, employers, or whoever it might be, I urge you to give it a read. And then make your own judgment.
This is a really engaging arc with lots of funny and exciting moments with a dash of vulgar and absurd comedy sprinkled on top of it. Great stuff. So again, I urge you to read it. Highly recommended.
2. The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai Arc: Vol. 2-5 | Ch. 24-54
This arc could be divided into two big parts. The first one is about training while the second one is about the martial arts tournament.
Training and tournament arcs have become somewhat of a staple in the world of shonen manga. And I’ve read so many of those that I kinda expect it to happen whenever I read a manga for this demographic.
And although the tournament arc is still quite interesting, and I got several laughs and giggles while reading it, it still follows a familiar formula. So I can’t say there’s anything that stands out in that part of this arc.
The training part, however, that one is truly a breath of fresh air. I know it’s weird to say “fresh” to a manga that was made in the late 1980s, but it is what it is. What surprised me the most is how much it managed to convey while still being so minimalist in its approach.
The main star in this arc is certainly the turtle master, the Kame Sennin, old man Mutenroshi. There are so many different sides of his personality that come through in this arc. He’s become one of the most well-rounded and well-developed characters in this series thus far.
The action sequences are also great. Despite the usual punches and kicks, there are also lots of out-of-the-box move sets that would only exist and happen in dragon ball. Which is what keeps the whole thing fun and exciting.
This arc is clearly designed for showcasing the growth and the personality of the characters. There are parts where it feels refreshing but there are also parts where it gets really boring.
Overall, while it’s not as good as the first arc, I still find myself enjoying reading this arc quite a bit. I even manage to get a few chuckles out of this, which is always a great sign.
3. The Red Ribbon Army Arc: Vol. 5-10 | Ch. 55-112
The red ribbon army arc uses the hunt for dragon ball’s arc as a foundation and builds everything on top of that to make it larger, better, and more engaging than the two previous arcs.
The premise is simple: right after the tournament, Goku decided to travel alone in search of his late grandfather’s four-star dragon ball. He doesn’t have any particular wish or anything, he simply wants to regain the last memento from her grandfather.
Going into it, I thought it would simply be the hunt for dragon ball’s arc version 2.0. The difference being instead of traveling together, now it’s just Goku all by himself. To be honest, I’m not excited at all.
Several chapters into it, I change my mind.
You see, my initial impression was dead wrong. Akira Toriyama combines the best elements from the previous two arcs and makes it so much more expansive. And yes, better. Way better than the ones that came before it.
Worldbuilding is great. We get to see different corners of the world in which our beloved characters reside. From the freezing countryside to the bustling city of flying cars. From the bottom of the ocean to the lonely towers beyond the clouds. All exciting and exotic places are fully explored.
The pace is awesome. For the most part, the pace of this arc is quite fast. But Akira Toriyama sneakily uses various methods to slow down the pace. Both to let the reader catch a breath for a while and to give a great sense of variety
Goku is alone for most of his journey. But there are occasional moments when he is back traveling together with his old companions from the previous two arcs. Not only that but there are also times when he slows down from his journey for one reason or another.
This kind of change of pace is what makes this arc flow really great and felt so natural. And the added variety of activities is also great.
There’s the dragon ball hunting, the fighting against different types of enemies, a treasure hunt to the bottom of the ocean, training on top of the highest tower, a tournament in the middle of a desert against various monsters, and there’s even a quick visit to the setting of Dr. Slump, Akira Toriyama’s previous manga.
This is the arc where Goku showcases his tremendous growth. And the people around him quickly realize and acknowledge that fact. He also has grown a bit mature compared to the first time we see him.
His journey has a great impact both on his personality and mentality. And he knows that. He has grown from the boy who’s holed up in a lonely house in a mountain and never seen any other human being before, to a boy who travels the world, meets lots of people, and falls in love with the idea of journey and adventure.
As you might have guessed, I love this arc. Definitely the best one so far. I racked my brain and flipped the pages over and over, but I can’t find anything to complain about. It’s a damn great read. Extremely recommended.
4. The 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai Arc: Vol. 10-12 | Ch. 113-134
This arc took place three years after the last arc. At the end of the last arc, Goku and his friends promise to meet and compete at the 22nd Strongest Under The Heaven tournament.
The progression of the story in this arc is quite similar to the previous tournament arc. Not only that, but even the length of the story is also pretty similar. But rather than having two different parts consisting of training and tournament, this one focuses solely on the tournament.
I’m not too fond of this type of arc. After all, it’s just one battle after the next. One enemy fell down, a stronger one would appear in the next round. So damn repetitive.
In a way, this is the condensed version of the kind of problem that’s been plaguing the shonen manga since the dawn of time. The main character fights one opponent after the next. Each one is stronger than the last. The cycle keeps on repeating until the story is over.
It might be exciting for some time, but once you spot the pattern, then it becomes boring as hell. Sure, the hero might come up with some new exciting moves or the foe would have some kind of unique powers, but the principle behind it remains the same.
Anyway, this being dragon ball, there are still some genuinely exciting and surprising moments here and there. But other than showing us Goku’s growth as a character and introducing some new characters as well, this arc doesn’t really do anything important.
My level of enjoyment reading this arc is the stark contrast of the previous arc. I’m not saying it’s bad, but there’s simply nothing worth mentioning at all.
5. The demon king Piccolo Arc: Vol. 12-14 | Ch. 135-165
This arc begins instantly after the previous arc ends. And it brings a very different tone to the story of dragon ball than what we’ve been witnessing thus far. After all, this arc begins with the death of a friend.
As the story goes, there’s a newly resurrected demon king who wants to gather dragon balls in order to grant his dangerous wish and help him conquer the world. To prevent anybody from hindering his plan, he begins to massacre anyone who he deemed to be a possible threat.
That being said, just like the second arc, this one is also divided into two parts. The first part is all about the terror of the demon king and the second part is about the aftermath of the battle.
The first part of the story is pretty grim. Tragedy and destruction are happening at every turn of the page. You could feel the desperation and helplessness oozing from every character. There are no usual dragon ball jokes and lightheartedness anywhere in this part of the arc.
And whenever you think things won’t get any worse, well, it gets worse by the minute. And not to mention everything happens so fast. Which is one of my complaints with this part of the arc.
I think it would be better if the story slowed down a bit and let the readers soak up all of the horrendous things that happened throughout the arc. But then again, making the pace move faster creates a sense of urgency that keeps us at the edge of our seats.
Other than the aforementioned slight pacing issue, the first part also has a villain issue. Although Piccolo is brimming with personality, he barely has any reasons and motivation behind his actions at all as a bad guy. He is simply evil. How boring!
The second part of the arc, however, is where everything begins to slow down. And the story started to move forward slowly but surely. There are new characters and a new wondrous part of the world opens up. This latter part of the arc is shorter than the first, but this is certainly my favorite part.
This part of the story sees Goku ascending further into the sky and end up training in heaven under the direction of God. Yep, this is the kind of craziness and absurdities that I always crave from Dragon Ball.
Overall, it’s a pretty good arc. There are some issues here and there, but it sure brings a nice change of tone to the familiar story that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past 120+ chapters.
6. The 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai Arc: Vol 14-16 | Ch. 166-194
So, this is the third tournament arc and also the last story arc in the saga of Dragon Ball. From here on out, we’ll enter the tale of Dragon Ball Z. So, is it as good as the last arc? Well, it’s quite great actually.
If you’ve read this post from the beginning, then you might have realized by now that I’m not particularly fond of a tournament arc. There are several reasons why but it all comes down to it being so formulaic and repetitive.
That being said, compared to the previous tournament arc, this one is quite special. This is kinda like a send-off to the boyhood journey of a boy named Son Goku. All of his hard work and adventure finally come to this.
The story in this arc takes place three years after the previous arc. After such a deadly battle against the demon king, Goku and friends finally meet again to compete in the 23rd Strongest Under the Heaven tournament.
The roster is filled with strong contenders, and amongst them all is the clone of the great demon king. Looking forward to fighting, and possibly killing his biggest nemesis, Son Goku.
The action sequences in this arc are definitely much more exciting than all of the previous tournament arcs. The main reason is that the main characters have become much stronger and more creative now. Which allowed for so much variety of attacks.
Rather than a simple punch, kick, and jump, there are energy beams, flying showdowns, and unique attacks now. Every contender has their own special attacks that are vastly different from the others.
With things like regular human physical ability thrown out of the window, what we have in this tournament is a brawl between a bunch of superhumans.
Well, not all of them, there are still your average martial artists thrown into the mix for the sake of variety. But for the most part, it is a battle between those who’ve attained strength beyond the realm of humanity.
And since it is still an official tournament, everything has to be done properly according to the rules. Even the demon lords who intend to seek revenge against his nemesis have to obey the regulation set by the organizer. So in a way, it is a very dignified way to fight your enemy.
Goku himself has certainly grown and properly developed as a character. He’s become mature both in his physical appearance, intelligence, and behavior. Well, to some extent.
He is no longer the boy we all knew and loved. He’s a proper man now. And this arc is both a farewell and a welcome to the next stage of his journey.
And in that regard, there’s no better way to end this phase of the dragon ball saga than this tournament arc. It was a great read and I’m looking forward to venturing into the world of Dragon Ball Z.
7. The Saiyan Arc: DBZ Vol. 1-5 | Ch. 01-51
We finally come to the first arc of Dragon Ball Z. The story of the grown-up Goku has now officially begun. Speaking of Goku, the man has a four-year-old son now. His name is Son Gohan by the way. Yep, time sure flies by, isn’t it?
This arc is all about the alien warrior race called the Saiyan and the revelation that Goku is actually one of them. A bunch of them come to earth to cause troubles and as you might expect, all of them are way stronger than our hero and all of his friends.
The tone of this arc is similar to the Demon King Piccolo arc. Grim and hopeless. Lots of people lost their lives and just like with Piccolo, the fate of the earth is also at stake here.
This arc also focuses heavily on the action and fighting sequences. There are little to no jokes to find here. Which is quite appropriate given the serious nature of the story.
And the fighting itself is also quite impressive. You can feel the otherworldly powers oozing from the enemies. And yet the heroes of the earth are no slouch either. They manage to put up a good fight. How disappointing it would be if the characters that we always thought to be super strong end up to be nothing but flies in the face of aliens, right? Thankfully that is not the case. Well, to some extent.
Numerous unique powers are being displayed here, both from foe and friends, which makes the fighting felt unique and dynamic. At some point, there’s even a colossal ape joining the fight. Yeah, it’s awesome.
Being a purely confrontational arc, the pace is blazingly fast. That being said, there is still some downtime right at the middle of the arc where the characters seek new ways to gain a power-up. Such as when Gohan tries to survive alone in the desert or when Goku trains in the underworld.
This kind of variation in pacing is one of the things that I appreciate the most in Dragon ball. Akira Toriyama knew no matter how great the story is, if you keep the same speed from start to end, it would soon feel boring. That’s why he always strives to bring about a much-needed change of pace.
Another element that this arc brings is world expansion. By introducing the alien race, now dragon ball is no longer contained to earth alone. The whole universe has become a potential place for adventure. Which means new opportunities for world-building.
I can’t wait for a new dragon ball adventure set in an alien world. How exciting!
8. The Frieza Arc: DBZ Vol. 5-12 | Ch. 52-135
This is arguably the best arc in the entire saga of Dragon Balls. It has every element that makes dragon ball great and it is my most favorite story arc by far.
The premise of the story is pretty simple. There are lots of people who have lost their lives in the previous arc, including the creator of dragon ball, the God of Earth. In order to resurrect everybody, Bulma, Gohan, and Kuririn decided to go to the planet where the original Dragon Ball exists. A lonely planet called Namek where the sun never sets.
Unbeknownst to them, the strongest being in the universe, Freeza, and his army are also on the way there in search of the same Dragon Ball. Frieza craves eternal youth and he intends to use the dragon balls to grant him that one wish.
Knowing this, Vegeta, another Saiyan warrior, frantically looks for the Dragon Ball so that he could gain powers to defeat Freeza. And so begins the race to find dragon balls on a foreign planet.
In this arc, there is the adventure on an alien planet that has three suns, the intriguing three-way race to find the dragon balls, and of course, the exciting fighting sequences against different kinds of enemies.
What makes this arc feels refreshing is because, for the first time, Goku didn’t take the spotlight until about the last third of the story. Most of the time, it is a battle of wit and muscle involving those who usually sit behind as supporting characters.
Since they are below the enemy when it comes to raw strength, the group has to employ a sort of guerilla tactics and try their best to move undetected in order to achieve their goal. So it is a stark contrast to the usual head-on approach that we often see in Dragon Ball.
Other than the obvious expansion on settings and worldbuilding, the most surprising thing here is the fighting sequences and the character developments. Even the main enemy is more fleshed out this time around.
Let’s start with the enemy. Frieza is arguably one of the best villains in the series. Although not much could be said about his background, we do know that he is a powerful conqueror and a savvy businessman. He loves what he does for a living and he is very good at it. So it’s no wonder he wants to keep going for eternity, and thus the wish for eternal youth.
And when it comes to the fighting sequences, other than the guerilla tactics that I mentioned before, another surprising thing is also the use of traps and ambushes. Employed by both the enemy and by the protagonist. Even Goku set up some traps when facing Freeza. That is cool as fuck, by the way.
And lastly, the character development. Lots of characters have a good development in this arc. For some, we get to know their personality better, while for others, we get to see them grow and change. And that’s true even for Goku himself.
You know, there are lots of complaints about the lack of character development for Goku in Dragon ball. Well, I beg to differ and I’m gonna write a dedicated article just for that. But I digress.
Another great thing about this arc is the revelation of the true nature of both Dragon Balls and the Saiyan race. This revelation is important not only for this arc but also to the subsequent arcs and for dragon ball as a whole.
By the way, the design of the original dragon is so badass.
I can’t think of any bad things in this arc. There is a healthy mix of exciting, suspenseful, and even funny moments here. Just like the Red Ribbon arc, the Freeza arc also encapsulates what I think is the main spirit of Dragon Ball. Super recommended.
9. The Cell Arc: DBZ Vol. 12-19 | Ch. 136-226
This arc begins with a mystery and a lie. We as the readers are led to believe that this arc would be about one thing while it turns out to be other things.
A year after Goku and friends defeated Frieza, a young man comes from 20 years in the future, bearing grim news. Soon there will come a pair of androids who will ravage the earth and kill most of its inhabitants. Their strength far surpassed every enemy that they’ve faced before.
And thus begins an arc that is filled with twists and mystery. Or so I thought.
To me, the enjoyment of reading this arc is quite a mix bag between boring and exciting. There are parts where I couldn’t take my eyes away from the story. But there are also parts where I sigh at the familiar sight that keep repeating themselves over and over again.
This arc has one of the best beginning out of all the other arcs. The prologue is definitely one of the best in the series. Presenting questions, mysteries, and so many doubts and uncertainties, so early in the stories. What a way to begin a story arc!
There are some highlights here and there, but the beginning is still the best part of the arc. By a fairly wide margin. I take the first third of the story over the other two-thirds of it.
We have to think and speculate during the early parts of the story, which is quite a rare thing to do when it comes to dragon ball. After that, you could simply take everything at a face value and enjoy the ride. In a way, it is quite a good combination of tense and loose moments. But in an effort to keep things simple and straightforward, it kinda loses its earlier charm. Which is a shame.
And then there’s the goddamn tournament again. What’s with dragon ball and tournaments anyway? At this point, it has become quite an unhealthy obsession, don’t you think?
Overall, it is not a bad arc. Not at all. It is still quite enjoyable. There are some concepts and decisions that deserved to be applauded in this arc. The character development and pacing are also quite good.
The only problem is consistency. The high is so high while the low is so low. Unlike the previous arc, this one couldn’t keep the excitement alive throughout the story. Such a waste of a good beginning.
10. The Majin Buu Arc: DBZ Vol. 20-26 | Ch. 227-325
At last, we finally arrive at the last story arc of Dragon ball. We’ve powered through skilled martial artists, evil geniuses, monsters, demons, gods, aliens, and even androids. And now, it’s time for warlock and his genie.
This arc takes place ten years after the Cell arc. Earth has enjoyed a lasting peace since then and now most of our heroes have aged quite considerably. Some of them have married and even have kids of their own.
The story started in a lighthearted manner and with one of the most recurrent events in dragon ball. That’s right, it started with a goddamn martial arts tournament. The nth Strongest Under The Heaven Tournament.
To be fair, there’s a rather cool prologue about Gohan’s high school life before that, but the story is still officially kicked off with the damn tournament. Sigh…
So let’s jump right into the most notable things, shall we?
Let’s start with the villain. The warlock Bibbidi is frankly a pathetic excuse of a villain. It has the same problem with the great demon king Piccolo from the fifth arc. Flimsy motivation with a passable personality.
But Buu the genie, on the other hand, is one of the most interesting villains in the series. He is certainly the strongest foe, by far. He can mimic your moves, has unique attacks, has a near-infinite power source, virtually indestructible, and has the weirdest body and personality transformation. This right here is the recipe of one of the most intriguing characters ever made.
Some of the new characters introduced in this arc also bring about another unique flavor to the series, particularly the little boys, Goten and Trunks. Their playful and sometimes strange approach to certain situations allowed for some of the most absurd and amazing moments to occur.
Akira Toriyama seems to retain his ability to create absurd comedic moments in serious situations even this late in the story. There are numerous moments where I found myself chuckling while reading the pages in this arc.
And lastly is of course, as always, the character development. Sure, the developments might be more apparent to some characters compared to others, but overall, they all have their own shares of growth and development. Nobody stays the same since the very first time we met them.
I like reading this last arc. Although the story has a rather weak beginning, the rest of the arc, especially after Buu appears, is quite an exciting read. And I also feel Akira Toriyama has created a proper and most suitable ending to this legendary series.
I can gladly say that the Majin Buu arc is a great closure to one of the best manga series ever created.
I can proudly say that I am very familiar with the Dragon Ball series. That being said, I never read the entire 42 volumes in one sitting prior to writing this article. I gotta say, it is quite an enjoyable experience.
Because of this, I notice lots of details and nuances that I never realized before. And I also gained new insight and appreciation to both this series and its creators, Akira Toriyama.
Reading this article, I’m sure some of you would feel intrigued with the scope of the adventure and the story, while others might feel intimidated by the sheer volume of it all.
If you are part of the first group, then you should read it as soon as possible. There’s no need to postpone it any further, right? You can see the different formats of dragon ball that you could choose from and where to get them in my official dragon ball review. Link below.
If you are part of the second group, then I suggest picking a story arc that you like and only read that one. If you like what you read, then try reading the series again from the first volume. If you don’t know which story arc to pick, then I suggest my personal favorite, The Red Ribbon Army Arc or The Frieza Arc.
But no matter which group of people you belong to, I hope you have as much fun as I was when reading this iconic manga.
For everything about dragon ball in MangaDigest, click here to visit our Dragon Ball hub. There’s also my official dragon ball review and recommendation. Be sure to check them out. Up next is my feeble attempt at ranking these story arcs from best to worse.