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On Goku’s Character Development: An Essay on Dragon Ball

When you ask avid Dragon Ball fans what is the one bad thing of this legendary series, most of them would quickly answer “the lack of character development for Goku.” 

But the truth of the matter is Akira Toriyama did develop Goku properly. But unlike other characters, the changes happening in Goku are much more subtle. But it is definitely there if you look close enough.

And that’s what I want to talk about in this essay. I’ll divide Goku’s character development into five phases that are spread within the ten story arcs. Hopefully you’ll see Goku in a better light by the end of this article.

1. The innocent young mind (First arc)

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The first time we met Goku, he said that he never saw any other human being other than his grandfather. He can’t even tell the difference between a man and a woman. It got so bad that he was constantly touching new people that he met to make sure whether they are male or female. 

As you might expect, it turns into chaotic, hilarious, lewd, and weird situations. 

This is who Goku was at the beginning. An innocent boy with little to no knowledge of the world outside of his own limited view. The accidental meeting with Bulma is what triggers the chains of events that force him to break out of his own little world.

2. The child prodigy (Second and third arc)

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The second arc is about the time Goku spends training under Master Roshi with his fellow pupil, Krilin. This is also the first time he and Krilin enter the “Strongest Under The Heaven Martial Arts Tournament.”

The third arc is about his journey around the world to find his late grandfather’s four-star dragon ball. He met lots of new people, fought an evil organization, explored new places, basked in new experiences and grew even stronger. 

There are two notable developments happening in this phase. The first one happened during the tournament in the second arc. There, he finally notices that he is in fact stronger than the average human being and he decides to hold his power back. 

The second important development happens after his journey in the third arc. His adventure opened his eyes to the fact that there are so many interesting things in this vast world. There are lots of exciting places and people stronger than him everywhere. 

He got a taste of adventure and real fight. And he loved it. Thus began his life-long obsession.

3. The unstoppable teen (Fourth to sixth arc)

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The fourth and sixth arc is all about the martial arts tournaments while the fifth arc is about the fight against The Demon King Piccolo. 

In both tournaments, he faced even stronger opponents than ever before. But his love of fighting makes it all the more exciting to him. On the fifth arc, however, he lost numerous people that he holds dear. 

There are several notable developments in this arc. The first one happened in the fourth arc, during his fight against Tenshinhan. There’s a time when Goku could unleash a full power kamehameha to the airborne Tenshinhan. But at the last minute, he chose not to go through with it.

Not out of his kindness or anything, but because he knows Tenshinhan would simply evade his attack. It’s just a waste of energy. Goku has finally shown his adept combat strategy. He no longer relies on his brute strength alone.

The second one happened in the fifth arc. He is hopeless against Piccolo. Here he learns that stronger opponents could suddenly come and take everything that he holds dear. The only solution is for him to keep training to be even stronger than before. 

And when the sixth arc comes along, he finds himself facing against the reincarnation of the Demon Lord Piccolo. And after an earth-shattering battle, Goku manage to defeat him. But when it’s time to deliver the finishing blow, he decided not to do it.

With Tenshinhan, he did it out of strategic reasons. While with Piccolo, he did it because he’d like to fight him again someday. 

He knows there’s a chance that something terrible like what happened in the fifth arc could happen again. But the possibility of another great fight with a strong opponent like Piccolo, beats every potential risk. Besides, he figures that as long as he keeps on getting stronger, then all is well. 

He’s now addicted to fighting strong people and he has become quite skillful at it. 

4. The selfish saiyan (Seventh to eighth arc)

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In the seventh arc, Goku finds out about his true nature as a member of an alien race called The Saiyan. A warrior race that thrives in fight. The harder the fight, the more they feel alive and the stronger they become.

In the eighth arc, he comes face to face against the strongest villain in the universe, Frieza. This is by far one of the hardest fights he ever experienced in his life. And letting Frieza roam free is simply too dangerous.

And yet the same thing with Piccolo happened again. He defeats Vegeta and yet asks Krilin not to kill him despite Krilin’s effort to remind him of the danger that Vegeta could bring. 

He manages to defeat and incapacitate Frieza by awakening his hidden strength. And still he refuses to kill the villain. Not only that, he even spared some of his energy so that Frieza could survive. And even when Goku finally destroys Frieza, there’s a trace of regret in his face. As if to say, “What a shame!”

There’s no way that he could feel any sympathy towards both Vegeta and Frieza. And it’s not like he has any problem killing other people. He kills Frieza’s goons and he even has no problem killing his own lunatic brother. 

So what’s the reason for this irrational behaviour? Well, Goku did see something within Vegeta and Frieza. It’s certainly not kindness because both of them have none of that at the time.

He sees the same thing that he saw in Piccolo before. A strong fighter. Someone that could bring challenging fights for him and help him get stronger.

Make no mistake, he is still the same happy-go-lucky Goku as usual. But when it comes to strong people that could satisfy his thirst for battle and self-improvement, he’s become a selfish man who won’t listen to any rational plead from anybody.

5. The watchful adult (Ninth to tenth arc)

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Things begin to change a bit in the last two arcs. There are two extremely powerful villains in these arcs. The Cell and Majib Buu. Both possess unbelievable strength and absurd regenerative ability. A perfect foe for Goku in every way.

But no, he decided to do things differently this time around. He is still the same battle-crazed Saiyan as before. But he started to let other people take the reigns now, particularly the younger generations.

On both occasions, he stepped back and let his sons take the spotlight. To the point people started questioning his decisions. 

In fights against Cell, he acts so calm and nonchalant. He could try to be stronger in order to beat Cell. But no, he recognized the great potential within his son, Gohan, and let him fight Cell instead. He even stopped midway during his fight with Cell in order to pass the baton to Gohan.

The same thing happened when he faced Buu. He could try to overpower Buu and he might even grow stronger in the process, just like when he fights Frieza. But no, he decided to teach new moves to his son, Goten, and Vegeta’s son, Trunks, instead. 

At one point, he even said to Piccolo and Kaio-shin that he wanted to leave everything in the capable hands of the younger generation. He was forced to fight at the end, but if everything turned out the way he hoped it would be, then he had no intention to fight at all.

The same Goku that let dangerous villains live in order to fight them again now decided to let other people take the reigns. He simply wants to sit back and watch over his sons’ growth.

All of those things happened within the pages of the 42 volumes of Dragon Ball. Some are indeed quite subtle but other things happened right there on your face. 

So how can you say a character that started as an innocent boy who couldn’t differentiate between man and woman, grows into a battle-crazed selfish man, and ends up as a watchful parent, has no development at all?

Dragon Ball is one of the rare manga where we could follow the life of the main character from his childhood and all the way to parenthood. And that’s why I believe Akira Toriyama decided to take the long and subtle way to develop his main character, Son Goku.

So please don’t say that he has no character development. It’s there beneath all the fancy fights and grand adventures. You just didn’t notice it.

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