Although it begins with a comedic edge, Dragon Ball is a martial arts story from top to bottom. Action is constant, character development is intertwined with fighting, and the art of combat stands out as one of the series’ core principals, especially earlier on. That said, Dragon Ball isn’t all action, even at its most combat heavy.
Dragon Ball is a story that knows how to let go of characters, how to let a moment land, how to move on from a concept. To some, it can read like Dragon Ball doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing and while it clearly doesn’t all the time, that isn’t a bad thing. Often, it leads to some of the most memorable moments. Most of which have nothing to do with fighting.
The Red Ribbon Army arc is an incredibly long story arc, especially for the pre-Z era. It’s more than twice as long as the average early Dragon Ball arc and often shakes up Goku’s motivations and goals.
One of the arc’s better changes came from Bora’s death. After spending all arc looking for his lost Dragon Ball, Goku now chooses to sacrifice his momento to revive Bora. As Goku flies back down onto the sacred lands of Karin, he and Upa summon Shenlong and revive the series’ first character. This is where Dragon Ball establishes one of its most important rules, and it’s handled magnificently.
The fact that Goten hugs Goku when they first meet in the anime masks the fact that the two do not have a very good relationship at the start of the Boo arc. Pretty much all of Goten’s very little development leads up to him respecting and loving Goku as a father, culminating in their hug right before Goku leaves Earth.
Goten’s an underwritten character so the moment might not land from his perspective, but it’s fantastic when looked at through Goku’s eyes. Very rarely does he have these tender dad moments, and to see him embracing his second son is very reminiscent of how affectionate he was with Gohan.
It’s not exactly a shock when Gohan transforms into an Oozaru during the Saiyan arc, but it is a good moment. It’s the first time anyone transforms into a giant ape since the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai— the series’ second story arc. Piccolo takes action and naturally does the only sensible thing by calling back to Roshi before him: destroying the moon.
While the spectacle is cool and all, it’s really what Piccolo does after that sells the moment. Upon watching Gohan transform, Piccolo gives Gohan a replica of Goku’s gi with Piccolo’s kanji, branding the boy as his true pupil.
Raditz isn’t in much of the series, but everything involving him is just top notch writing on Akira Toriyama’s part. He knows how to use him, when to use him, and when to let him go. All of Raditz’s moments land and few of them actually involve fighting. The big Saiyan twist doesn’t even have a battle attached.
Raditz just drops the truth right on Goku. Even Raditz is shocked by Goku, lamenting on how his brother has lost his violent, Saiyan edge. This moment also adds a layer of morbidity to Goku’s character and the story. Earth’s savior was very nearly Earth’s destruction.
The Majin Boo arc is at times overwhelming considering just how much of the plot focuses on the rather static variations of Boo. That said, Majin Boo’s first depiction as Fat Boo is actually one of the series’ better villains, actively developing as a character until he purges all the evil out of himself in order to save Mr. Satan.
Mr. Satan actually befriending Boo is also a nice change of pace considering how dark the Boo arc very quickly became once the 25th Tenkaichi Budokai ended. With Vegeta dead, Gohan off Earth, and Goku’s time out, it’s left for Mr. Satan to hilariously save the day. Had the poachers not shown up, the arc would have ended here.
Akira Toriyama’s not all that great when it comes to writing romance, but he does get better at it as the series progresses. By the Boo arc, he does a fairly good job at fleshing out the relationship between Gohan and Videl. Gohan and Videl realistically get to know one another over the course of a few chapters/episodes.
Gohan teaching Videl to fly is easily their best bonding session and the moment that solidifies Videl’s place in Gohan’s life. That she’s Mr. Satan’s daughter just adds another layer to their relationship. Plus, Videl’s inclusion helps dull the edge of Gohan’s resolution. He may not be a fighter, but at least he settled down with a good partner.
Dragon Ball’s first story arc was building up to one moment: Shenlong’s summoning. After nearly getting their hands on all seven Dragon Balls, Goku and Bulma lose all their Balls and get captured by Pilaf. They’re forced to watch as Pilaf uses the Dragon Balls for the first time in order to summon Shenlong.
It’s a terrific moment in both the manga and anime as Shenlong is depicted as a truly otherworldly buildup. Toriyama nails the pay off and outdoes himself one over by having Oolong steal the wish at the last moment, wishing for panties in the process. It’s as dramatic as it is hilarious.
Toriyama could have ended the arc here with Oolong saving the day, but wishing on the Dragon Balls only makes everyone’s lives worse. In retaliation, Pilaf locks them up in a new cell, intending the sun to cook them by morning. In a stroke of luck, the full moon is out and Goku suddenly transforms into an Oozaru.
He destroys Pilaf’s palace in the process and even tries to kill his friends. It takes Yamcha working together with Pu’er to cut off Goku’s tail. This is the first real transformation in Dragon Ball and just a generally important moment for Goku’s character.
Following the end of the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, Goku spends most of his time away from the other characters. Kuririn is dead, Roshi and Chaozu die shortly after, and Goku parts ways with Tenshinhan after dealing with Piccolo. By the time he’s training with Popo and God, Goku has been away from the main cast for a while.
This makes their reunion at the start of the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai arc all the more powerful. Goku, now an adult, reunites with his lost friends for the first time in years. This marks the first time Goku sees Roshi and Kuririn after their deaths as well. It’s an emotional moment that transitions the audience into Goku’s adulthood.
Akira Toriyama does something he rarely does after Goku defeats Pure Boo with the Genki Dama: he utilizes pure silence. For multiple pages, Goku, Vegeta, Mr. Satan, and Majin Boo return to Earth and reunite with everyone on the lookout. Toriyama just features panels of characters look at one another, reacting and showing emotion.
It might not close out the series, but it’s the perfect note to end the Boo conflict on. The heroes won, the story is over, and now they can rest. It’s also just a nice reminder of where Dragon Ball has come from. Every character gets their own panel. It’s almost like saying goodbye.