Like it or hate it, if you’re an otaku, you owe a lot to the phenomenon that was “Dragonball Z”. As I’ve said in earlier posts, how this anime became the “flagship” for so many others is a mystery. Whereas the atrocious dubbing and editing of Japanese animated media that came into the USA detracted a great deal from the “core” of most material, shows like “Sailor Moon” (at least the TV version) survived mostly intact while shows like “Dragonball Z” got wrung through the wringer of editing, both in dialogue and content, that it’s surprising enough people got on board with it. Yet they did, and while American audiences blossomed from there into assortments of other anime becoming mainstream, there was a time period (that’s still going on today more or less) where numerous animes/mangas are trying to “be” Dragonball Z in terms of content and action.
Dragonball Z can be thought of as largely split into four separate sagas rather than a continuous narrative, with a major plot epoch and villain capping each one. All four had their highs and lows, but what’s considered largely by fans to be the best with the best villain was the third arc, “The Android Saga/Cell Game”, or, more loosely, the “Cell Saga”. By reading this, I’m assuming you already know a decent amount about the show, but just as a quick recap…
Around the time Goku, now the legendary Super Saiyan-Jin, returns to Earth after his battle with Frieza and mastering the technique of Instantaneous Teleportation, a mysterious youth, Trunks, appears who is also a Super Saiyan-Jin. He informs Goku that he is the son of Vegeta, the only other full-blooded Saiyan-Jin alive and Goku’s enemy/rival, and Bulma, his childhood friend, and that in the near future Goku will die as a result of a heart virus, before a pair of androids created by Dr. Gero of the Red Ribbon Army (which Goku destroyed in “Dragonball”) will appear, kill the remaining Z-Fighters, and turn the future into a living post-apocalyptic hell. He’s traveled back in time to try and prevent this from happening.
In spite of everyone’s best efforts, the two Androids, #17 and #18, are activated and pair with a third Android, #16, and seemingly begin to act out inevitable history. What makes things worse is the appearance of a creature named Cell, a bio-android also created by Dr. Gero but completed by his computer in the distant future. The monster will kill Trunks in the future after he returns to the future and destroys the Androids in his own timeline, and then go back in time to the present using the machine, seeking #17 and #18 to absorb and become his all-powerful “perfect” form. Eventually Cell succeeds and becomes stronger than everyone else, but rather than outright destroy the planet he holds an event called the “Cell Game” where he invites every fighter in the world to challenge him to battle, saying he’ll destroy Earth if no one can stop him.
Goku ends up fighting him but ultimately proves weaker, and so he nominates Gohan to step in instead, relying on Cell to make him mad so that he unleashes his true power. After torturing the Z-Fighters and killing Android #16, who ended up being benevolent, Gohan’s rage explodes and drives him into the state of “Super Saiyan-Jin 2”, outclassing Cell completely. Yet Cell, desperate to win, elects to blow himself up along with Gohan and Earth. Goku manages to save everyone at the cost of his life by instantly teleporting Cell to Kaio-sama’s world, but one cell of Cell’s body survives and regenerates even more powerful than before, and, having mastered Goku’s ability to teleport, returns to Earth to blow it up yet again. This time, however, Gohan destroys him with a one-handed Kamehameha, leaving no trace behind. The Dragonballs wish everyone back to life Cell killed save Goku, who elects to remain dead as he fears his presence draws foes like Dr. Gero to threaten Earth. Trunks returns to his own timeline and single-handedly destroys #17, #18, and Cell while still in his imperfect form.
To most people, this is where the series peaked. The fighting was good, the story was good, and it seemed as if this was everyone’s favorite arc for a while. It lacked the sense of “shark jumping” the next arc would have and was more fast-paced than the previous arc. And, as far as villains go, Cell was one of the favorites.
Yet in spite of getting plenty of love and admiration…to me, while this may be where the series peaked, it’s also where it began to die. I feel this arc wasn’t quite as great as everyone thought it was, and what it set up guaranteed that the series would have to strain itself just to survive for one more arc before it seems Akira Toriyama knew he couldn’t last any longer. And because of that…not only is this arc possibly not as great as it seems, there’s actually reason to hate it a bit.
Let’s go over the reasons.
Goku Needed to Die Before It Started – Ever since the beginning of the first saga of Dragonball Z, it was clear Akira Toriyama wanted to pass the torch onto the younger generation. He wanted Goku out of the picture and for Gohan to take over. Hence, Goku spent most of the time showing up only to get nearly killed. Yet for one reason or another, but likely mostly due to fandom, Goku kept hanging on. There were a whole line of downstream problems because of that. In fact, I dare say the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to kill off Goku at the end of “The Frieza Saga” eventually led to 90% of all the problems with this arc.
This is something general, so I’ll just ask you to keep it all in mind as I go over the more specific reasons, most of which streamed from the fact Toriyama didn’t start with Goku dead.
“Super Saiyan-Jin” Ticket Admission – This is the main way the series jumped the shark, starting halfway through this arc and continuing through the “Buu Saga”. When the Super Saiyan-Jin transformation debuted, it was amazing. Everyone was wowed by it. It was supposed to be this big, ultimate, unbeatable technique that was supposed to elevate a character about god status. It was supposed to be reserved to a select few so that every time a Super Saiyan-Jin showed up, it was supposed to be amazing.
But then what happened? Trunks showed up as a Super Saiyan-Jin. Vegeta went Super Saiyan-Jin. Gohan went Super Saiyan-Jin. Soon…it wasn’t even a big deal anymore. Every new opponent they ran into could thrash it. Eventually it lost all meaning. Rather than just simply be a recolor, it became irrelevant. It didn’t matter that Vegeta could be a Super Saiyan-Jin…or Goku or Trunks. They still had to power-gain in order to make anything out of it. So…it was pointless. It was pretty much back to just straight training and powergaining. Oh, they capped off the series with Super Saiyan-Jin 2, but that eventually became irrelevant too.
Eventually, what was the only thing that resulted from this? Now Super Saiyan-Jin had to be an “admission requirement”. “You must be a Super Saiyan-Jin to get in a fight.” And why not? That power was supposed to be so far and above everyone else that ideally if you had to take that form whatever you were fighting would treat you like a mite and crush you if you didn’t. But now that everyone can go Super Saiyan-Jin, you need opponents that can handle multiple ones at a time. Where does that leave everyone else in the series?
It basically made the “first generation” Z-Fighters useless. By this point Tienshinhan and Yamcha weren’t much to speak of (or Yaijirobe…who most DBZ fans don’t realize was actually second only to Goku and Piccolo initially). But Kuririn was now little more than a mascot, and Piccolo’s sole duty was to look “gruff” until Vegeta pretty much absorbed his character. Basically, the series was now a “Saiyan-Jin Club”. Heck, in the next saga, Trunks and Goten had to become Super Saiyan-Jins as little kids…which makes no sense. Even Vegeta complains that the Super Saiyan-Jin form had become the “plaything of children”. Yeah, yeah…I’m sure some people are protesting: “But Essayist, the human/Saiyan-Jin hybrid is supposed to be stronger than a Saiyan-Jin…” Alright, that doesn’t explain why it took Mirai Trunks forever to learn it, which IS canon, by the way. And Vegeta was supposed to be above and beyond the normal Saiyan-Jin whereas Goku was lower-ranked, yet it still took him the “longest” to reach Super Saiyan-Jin. So I’m not buying it. The two had to become Super Saiyan-Jins only because by that point it was no longer realistic to have anyone get in a fight who wasn’t, and that was because of the “Cell Saga”.
The fact is all of this could have been avoided by one simple thing: Goku dying on Planet Namek. Then there would be no need for the heart virus. Then the Androids could have been much weaker than Frieza initially and still caused problems. Then the training the Room of Spirit and Time could have brought out Vegeta and Trunks’ initial Super Saiyan-Jin forms so there would be no need for the “intermediate” state of Ascended Super Saiyan-Jin before Gohan came in. Hell, Gohan wouldn’t have even had to go to the “2” stage. He could have just been a normal Super Saiyan-Jin who got ticked. But no, and so most of the characters are now just “gloss”.
As another problem…
Goku is a Plot Device – Technically, this is true of EVERY saga. Ever realize that? I almost wonder how people who are exclusively DBZ would react to reading the original “Dragonball”. Back in the old day, Goku did everything. The series focused on him and everywhere he went and who he interacted with. But who is Goku in “Dragonball Z”? A plot device.
It’s true. Goku is the most boring, mundane, and one-dimensional character in “Dragonball Z”. He does the same thing every arc. While everyone is going around doing, I don’t know, things like dialogue and plot, Goku is training. Then the story progresses until all the characters we’ve interacted with and watched struggle and toil and emote all inevitably fall to the big bad…at which point Goku steps in and kills the big bad but gets disabled himself in the process so everything can repeat. That’s Goku’s only purpose. He’s constantly made to be the biggest and strongest character…so he can never show up. Because if he DID show up early, he’d end the saga because he’d kill all the bad guys. He can only show up at the end.
“Hey now, wait a second, Essayist!” You say. “The Cell Saga was the one saga that balked that trend! Goku couldn’t beat Cell! Gohan had to do it!”
That doesn’t excuse him as a plot device; it makes it worse than ever. Yes, Goku doesn’t kill Cell, but he still needs to act as Deus Ex Machina by teleporting him away, and then Toriyama intentionally killed him (yeah…he’s able to get into a Ginyu Force ship and escape Planet Namek in an instant, yet he wastes time apologizing to Kaiosama instead of simply taking his hand back off of Cell and teleporting back to Earth…which is a big sin too…). And who does kill Cell? Gohan.
What exactly was Gohan doing that entire arc? Nothing, nothing, and NOTHING. Gohan didn’t balk the trend; he made it worse than ever. We devote almost the whole arc to everything Piccolo, Vegeta, and Trunks are running around doing trying to stop the Androids and Cell, Bulma actually figures a lot in it, heck, so does Kuririn, #16, and even Tien a bit…and yet it gets resolved by the two people who pretty much sat the whole arc out.
And for all the work to make Gohan the main character…Goku steps in again at the last minute to save the day in the next arc.
The Heroes Became the Villains – A lot of people may diss “The Frieza Saga” for being too long winded and drawn out, but I disagree. It actually had some intrigue to it. Here we’ve got Gohan and Kuririn completely outclassed on a strange world filled with Frieza, his men, and Vegeta running around and struggling to find a way to survive and get the Dragonballs, both to save themselves as well as to wish back those murdered on Earth in the last saga. And during all this, we have Vegeta more or less doing the same thing, performing this dangerous dance around supposedly the greatest villain in the cosmos. There was no looking for fights here. No time to train. There was only an attempt to survive and fight back when they could. And when push came to shove, the whole final fight was a desperate gamble against a god-like opponent who had no equal.
And this was very much in the vein of the original series. A lot of “Dragonball” was questing around and running into strange villains and more desperate circumstances. A lot of that had been lost for the “Saiyan-Jin Saga”, which was pretty much a fight and then a build-up to another fight. But with the advent of characters who were dramatically stronger than their companions and being held “in reserve”, and no clear threat hanging over everyone’s head, and the emphasis being more building up to inevitable fights, the series resorted to a rather shocking plot device to keep it going: making the heroes so stupid and arrogant that they are the real villains.
Don’t believe me?
Bulma mentions killing Dr. Gero before he has a chance to build the Androids in the first place, but Goku says no…not due to some moral quandary about killing someone for something they haven’t even done yet…but because he wants to fight the Androids. That’s right…he heard they destroy the future, but at no point in his discussion with Trunks does he care about that. He’s only upset he dies before he gets a chance to fight them. Yeah…and this jerk actually has the nerve to get upset later when Android #20 starts slaughtering people. 😦
Vegeta could easily have killed Cell when he was only semi-perfect, but he ended up letting him become complete just so he could “have a challenge”. Vegeta’s greatest contribution to the plot is constantly helping the villains reach their full murderous potential. Pretty sure he would have killed Trunks if he had ended up stopping him, too. Why not? Vegeta didn’t care earlier when baby Trunks was nearly killed along with Bulma.
And, of course, Goku could have killed Cell himself taking a senzu bean, but he decided to risk everything on Gohan, even trying to be “cute” by not letting him or anyone else in on his little plan, and for what reason? If he intended Gohan to step in and kill Cell all along, then Vegeta’s comment that he had pride in wanting to beat Cell himself was a load of bull…which is kind of good because otherwise that shows Goku really doesn’t care if Earth burns so long as he gets a good fight out of it. But it doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t heal up first…or why he would be dumb enough to let Cell heal up by giving HIM a senzu bean.
Finally, Gohan kills his own father and Trunks by wanting to take his time torturing Cell.
It would be one thing if the series really emphasized the goal of kung fu being personal betterment, or warrior’s honor, or the Saiyan-Jins were the only characters. But no, no, and no. It constantly has characters who are more selfless and care about protecting the Earth and it’s people like Piccolo, Trunks, and Kuririn. It constantly shows the foolishness of pride and misplaced honor…not only with the protagonists themselves but in other areas. Heck, even after #17 died as a result of his stubborn pride and how much everyone keeps suffering for their arrogance, they keep it up. And that just continued for the rest of the series to ridiculous levels in the Buu Saga…even though it keeps utterly failing. (Case in point, Goku begged Vegeta to put aside his pride to fuse into Vegetto, and after he did and they fused…they broke the earrings when Kid Buu showed up and refused to fight him together for the “warrior pride” of doing it solo…and, as a result, got their asses kicked easily and ended up having to use EVERYONE’S power to beat him…so yeah, screw your pride.)
Pretty much you can trace all of the worst evil and damage in the rest of the series starting here to the pigheadedness of the characters themselves, and what does it say for your protagonists when their stubborn pride leads to those who can beat them, as well as countless innocent deaths on the side? Oh, but it’s ok…they have Dragonballs to keep them from every having to be responsible or mature.
Androids: Total Wastes of Characters – In particular, I’m referring to #17 and #18, although #16 wasn’t much better. He wasn’t even original. He was more or less #8 from “Dragonball” given a new image. But #17 and #18…talk about incomplete.
What exactly are these characters? Are they machine? Cyborg? How much is man and how much is machine? They act emotionless most of the time, and yet they clearly can show fear and desperation, and occasionally anger. They claim that they’re hunting Goku because they need purpose, and yet they clearly make decisions of their own. They refer to themselves as machines and act that way, and yet they also say they used to be human and were turned into androids by Dr. Gero. How? When? Who were they before that happened? Twins who died in a car accident? Poor schmucks he abducted? Former Red Ribbon Army members? Good people? Bad people? If they were hunting Goku out of a lack of purpose, were they destroying Earth in the future for the same reason? Not having “anything better to do”? Are they genuinely evil or just suffering from ennui? When they’re being hunted by Cell, should I feel tense for them? Is #16 right when he said he liked them because they didn’t kill without reason? If that was the case, what the hell happened to them in Trunks’ timeline? Could he have reasoned with them? (Why not? They could have reasoned with Fat Buu and avoided a lot of pain…) Should I feel pity when #17 and #18 are absorbed, or is the only emotion being displayed because Kuririn is thinking with his you-know-what?
And the answer to everything…I don’t know. No one knows. These characters seem to change to fit whatever mold is necessary for the moment. #17 seems to be arrogant and cocky and self-interested, and yet when he hears Goku at the end of the series he’s one of the first to give up his energy. Why? Did he “admire” Goku? He never even met Goku. Did he “turn good”? Or is he still an asshole who just commits petty crimes now so that he doesn’t get suspicion and did what he did just because he knew Buu would kill him again if he didn’t? Why did #18 marry Kuririn? She hated Kuririn. The thought of pairing with him disgusted her. Is it the power of saying “later”? Was Toriyama living out the nerd’s fantasy that the weakling twerp has a chance with an attractive woman? She definitely doesn’t look like she likes him during “The Buu Saga”. On the contrary…that angry look she gives is almost as if she’s glaring daggers at Toriyama for making a plot device that she not only married him, but obviously slept with him at least once.
At any rate, the Androids are a waste. Sometimes they seem to be blind machines; other times they seem to be individuals; but never do they seem to be anything consistent, so why should we be attached to them? And more than that, technically we have a pair of humans at the end on par with Super Saiyan-Jins…one of them the most underused demographic on the show, the powerful female, and they never really get tapped (other than with the Mr. Satan fight, of course).
And that brings up the next part…
Toriyama Can’t Write Love – This has been obvious from the start. Goku never married Chi Chi out of the slightest modicum of affection. He did so because he mistakenly thought he had to when Chi Chi started yelling at him. Now, granted, it was supposed to be mostly a joke at the time…but it was still pathetic. The real reason he got married was because Toriyama wanted to introduce Gohan. That’s all that mattered. It didn’t matter that Goku is effectively too childish to be anything more than asexual. It didn’t matter somehow Chi Chi had to have “coached” him at one point in the bedroom, in spite of the fact later episodes reveal she despises Goku and is overbearing to Gohan. It didn’t even matter we knew next to nothing about Chi Chi and never learned anything about her. Why? Because I’m firmly convinced all Toriyama did was flip through his own past chapters, looked for the first female character he could find, saw Chi Chi way back in the first two mangas, and said: “Boom! Mommy for Gohan!”
If Chi Chi hadn’t existed, Goku would have married Bulma. If Bulma hadn’t existed, Goku would have married Snow. If Snow hadn’t existed, Goku would have married the girl from Oolong’s introduction. Why? Because the character was unimportant. All that mattered was Goku had someone to bang to sire Gohan, and then everything would focus on him. Nevermind Goku is irresponsible and obsessed with fighting and eating and is essentially a horrible father. Seriously…Piccolo has been a better father to Gohan than Goku and he said “hi” to Gohan by trying to throw him through a mountain.
But all that was ok…because Gohan was the point. Not the relationship.
In “the Cell Saga”, things started to fall apart with that approach. More or less Trunks was the important one here, although the mother figure was important here because Bulma was conceivably smart enough to build a time machine. But that’s a stretch enough as it is. Bulma…shallow, self-obsessed, childish, and greedy…suddenly becoming mature and nurturing enough to go through a nine-month pregnancy and give birth to a child? Heck, the mere fact that she just randomly decided to go to bed with Vegeta one day, a character who seems couldn’t care less for sex other than boredom, and then would be just as happy with a prostitute, makes Bulma seem “loose and easy” by comparison. For goodness sake, she was mad at Yamcha for years and then sleeps with Vegeta, who’s abusive, cruel, uncaring, and hates her and every other Earthling.
But even worse is Vegeta. He couldn’t care less about Trunks. He cares nothing for Bulma or baby Trunks. Hell, he almost lets them die early in the saga. He definitely didn’t care for Mirai Trunks except as a tool to get stronger. Oh, Trunks cared about him, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. All Vegeta cared about was being the best. And yet we’re supposed to believe Trunks getting killed was enough to enrage him to attack Cell. Even Toriyama didn’t believe that. He needed a plot device…again. Something to make him get hurt so Gohan could jump in front of him. How do we know? Because right after Cell is gone he couldn’t care less about Trunks getting revived by the Dragonballs. He’s just hovering there moaning about how he never got to prove himself against Goku.
And I hate to be crude, but it’s true. Are we supposed to honestly believe Vegeta bothered to lower his power enough to not kill Bulma during…you know what?
The biggest head-scratcher of the “Buu Saga” to me was always when Majin Vegeta yells at Goku that he wanted Babidi to make him “how he used to be”. …When did Vegeta “stop” being how he “used to be”? Sure, he’s a different character at the end…but even that makes no sense. Suddenly he’s upset that he doomed Earth by allowing Buu to be revived in spite of the fact that this isn’t the first time he’s done something like that. And it started right here…in “The Cell Saga”. Proof that the most amount of character intrigue we could ever get from the plot was forcing a character to get angry without real motivation.
Trunks is Pointless – Alright, if you want to be technical, he did have one point. Goku would have died if he hadn’t brought the medicine from the future. But…yet again, look to my first point. They could have done that and then Trunks truly would have been worthless.
And seriously, he is. He’s practically Kuririn in this arc. The older class Z-Fighters get about as much action and relevance as he does. Whereas when he first appeared he was supposed to be this ultra-badass, almost immediately he started suffering Badass Decay until he became the weakest of all the Super Saiyan-Jins in the bunch. He does nothing useful. Hell, he indirectly nearly doomed the past by exposing his machine to Cell, allowing him to go back in time. The rest of the time he’s getting his butt kicked and dying.
Oh, he’s still popular…even if it’s only for style reasons. There’s his attire and the fact he packs a sword, and he was the first Super Saiyan-Jin other than Goku to show up…and another big reason might be because the female fans found him far more attractive. And granted, he’s probably indeed the most “likable” of the Saiyan-Jins. Goku’s a big doofus, Gohan constantly whines about having to fight, and Vegeta is…well…Vegeta. He’s the only one out of the bunch who’s interested in actually fighting to protect people and to save the future, so he’s got that going for him. But still…he’s useless. Ultimately everything to the plot except for the heart medicine could be reworked slightly to be done without him.
And that, in turn, exposes the weakness of the entire Cell Saga: it makes it obvious just how shallow each saga in Dragonball Z really is. No matter what saga you watch or when, every saga has the same point: stall and meander on useless battles until Goku can show up to fight the Big Bad. That’s it. That’s all there is to every saga in the series. And that’s just plain sad. The fact is, useless as he is, Trunks was interesting in this saga. Piccolo was interesting. Vegeta was interesting. Heck, even Kuririn was. And why? Because they actually run around doing stuff. They actually make plans. They actually strategize and fight. They get into dialogue that’s not about how they need to get stronger. Hell, they even try to emote once in a while. But always they get supplanted by the one character who has no point to him other than beating up a bad guy and then getting beaten down in turn: Goku. Everything in the series comes back to him. All the characters and interactions and fun earlier is always irrelevant, because ultimately everyone is just “padding”. “Background noise”. In the end, they’ll all fail…and Goku will come in and do everything. (Again, yes, yes…it was Gohan technically in this one, but the same thing. Gohan did nothing in this arc either.) In the end, all of the well-developed and interesting characters have to be sub-par to the character Toriyama couldn’t bring himself to rid the series of much earlier, and as a result every other character became somewhat inferior and “overshadowed”. He had managed to mask it fairly well at the start, but this made it abundantly clear.
And that’s why for all its pluses and appeal, “The Cell Saga”, to me, marks where the series had gone too far.