When I was a kid, there were few responsibilities I took as seriously as my daily obligation to join Toonami Tom and watch the newest decade-late rerun of Dragon Ball Z. It didn’t matter if I’d seen the episode a million times—the battles fought by Goku, Piccolo, Vegeta, and all their friends against countless colorful foes lit up the dopamine centers of my adolescent brain like a Christmas tree.
I love Dragon Ball Z. I always have, and I always will. But I have a confession to make:
I don’t give a crap about the super powerful, never-give-up, unwaveringly-cheerful main character of the series. I don’t care about Goku.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the guy, I’m just sick of him. As a working fiction writer, I could happily dissect the many reasons why over a cup of coffee, but here’s the short version: he’s become tired, stagnant, and boring.
That’s kind of weird, right? To love a franchise with your heart and soul, while feeling utterly apathetic about its main character? But it’s not like I’m alone here! The anecdotal evidence is pretty damn strong that a lot of fans of the Dragon Ball franchise no longer care about Goku. Many even outright hate him. And yet, we’ll happily watch him take on all comers for hundreds and hundreds of hours.
So what’s the deal here? Are we all just stupid, or snared by our own nostalgia?
I don’t think that’s the case. When the franchise’s latest entry, Dragon Ball Super, was still airing new episodes, it consistently ranked as one of Japan’s highest-rated kids’ shows. That’s proof of the franchise’s ongoing ability to connect with new fans. In fact, Dragon Ball is more profitable now than ever. (Hell, in October, an hour-long special pulled in so much traffic that it spirit-bombed the servers of multiple anime streaming sites, including Funimation and Crunchyroll.)
Clearly, there’s still some meat on them old Saiyan bones. But how do we account for this, the global popularity of a franchise with a protagonist even its most diehard fans will admit has the rich inner life of a sponge?
If I don’t care about Goku, why do I love Dragon Ball so much?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the realm of “kayfabe”, a theatrical storytelling tradition that describes the structures and roles of professional wrestling—known most popularly today by the output of the WWE.
A word whose origins are as mysterious as a kid with a tail, kayfabe was once used to describe the curtain of showmanship and secrecy that surrounds wrestling, presenting its fictions as “real” for the purposes of entertainment. In recent decades, as the rise of cable television has released the proverbial cat from the bag, the term’s usage has broadened, and it’s now often used to refer to the entire narrative structure of wrestling itself.
And in the narrative of wrestling, one thing drives the story above all else: the match.
The structure seems simple enough—two fighters square off, do some moves at one another, and then someone is declared the victor.
But the versatility of that structure, and the utterly unique feel of every match, is proof of kayfabe’s tremendous staying power as a dramatic art-form, and the extent to which watching broad, colorful archetypes smack each other around is the fictional equivalent of eating Pringles.
And there are no archetypes more time-tested in the world of professional wrestling than those of the “heel” and the “face”.
Heels, as the name implies, are the bad guys. The cheaters. The ones we love to hate. Wrestlers like the backstabbing Triple H, and characters like the genocidal space emperor Frieza, who iced dear Krillin right before my horrified young eyes.
Faces, on the other hand, are the good guys. The heroes. The ones who always triumph in the end, because they also have to serve as the franchise’s mascot and move merchandise off the shelves.
So there it is: Goku is Dragon Ball’s face.
Once I realized that, it all fell into place. What seemed to be unique flaws in Goku’s characterization are actually fairly common for the role he’s playing. As a face, Goku is simple, his character doesn’t change much, and he never loses (or at least not for long). It’s a winning formula for predictable storylines, but it sacrifices tension for the sake of dependability—and poor Goku has to shoulder all the blame.
You know who else gets complaints like that? Well, you might recognize him from this year’s sex comedy Blockers—his name is John Cena, and he’s current leading face of the WWE. Imagine Hulk Hogan’s patriotic brand updated for modern sensibilities and you’re not too far off the mark. But all this raises the question: if the WWE and Dragon Ball share similar main characters, then what else might they share?
All the World’s a Ring
Goku, as it turns out, isn’t the only Dragon Ball character who perfectly fits a wrestling role. Characters like Piccolo, Yamcha, and Tien, for example, are “jobbers”—lesser-tier fighters who must lose or “put over” matches to emphasize a threat, but are nonetheless liked by fans. And among jobbers, none stands so proudly as a “carpenter” or “jobber to the stars”, a fan-favorite professional who makes losing into an art form. That one should be obvious: it’s my main man Krillin, Goku’s best friend and a bald little sport you can always count on to die in a tight spot.
To find a heel in the Dragon Ball universe, all you have to do is throw a rock; each arc has one, from the calculating Frieza to the haughty Cell to the unhinged Zamasu. And there are even instances of what’s known as a “heel-face turn”—a transition from villain to hero. Characters like Vegeta and Majin Buu are introduced as a conquering alien and a mythical demon, respectively, then Goku beats them up until they learn their lesson and join the squad.
And while fans often snark about the disparity in strength between Goku and his friends, the truth is that a multi-tiered roster is crucial to making a fight-based story structure work. When a face generates “heat”—audience boredom or dislike—they need to be able to disappear for a while. In the meantime, there have to be other, lesser heroes who can step up to advance their own stories, secure crowd-pleasing victories—albeit minor ones, and ultimately get their asses kicked to sell the threat of the storyline’s next big heel.
Passing the Torch
So where does this leave us with regards to The Goku Problem?
Well, kayfabe has a special word for what happens when fans develop genuine dislike or boredom toward a character; it’s called “go-away heat”, which is pretty self-explanatory. And after more than thirty years in the spotlight, it’s safe to say Goku has generated his fair share.
But what’s to be done when the target of go-away heat is your franchise-leading star?
Wrestling fans know the answer all too well—you retire your faded hero to the back-bench and replace him with a “babyface”, a beloved up-and-comer. Perhaps one who wears glasses. Perhaps one who fights only when necessary. Perhaps one who is the literal next branch in the family tree.
The WWE doesn’t have the luxury of casting John Cena’s son, but Dragon Ball does. So maybe it’s time for Goku to hop into the backseat, take a well-deserved rest, and let Gohan do the driving for a while.
Hey, it can’t be any worse than that time Goku tried to do it.