The Dragon Ball franchise is named for the seven mystical orbs used primarily to reverse death, and yet somehow, watching our favorite characters die on a regular basis doesn’t get any easier to process. It’s a huge credit to the series that, even as fans know that their deaths will most likely be undone in the near future, it still finds a way to make us feel something for its protagonists.
This also rings true for Dragon Ball GT and the spin-off movies and specials, whose deaths will be considered alongside those of Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball Super for this list. Even if the stories take place outside of the official canon, they generally feature the same group of characters, and so their deaths can often be just as impactful.
So keep your tissues at the ready, and let’s begin the 16 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Dragon Ball.
17 Goku – Dragon Ball Z (Saiyan Saga)
We open up with a death that, somewhat ironically, sparked life into Dragon Ball Z. Goku had managed to survive the entirety of Dragon Ball, but he met his end early on in the follow-up series, when he and Piccolo faced off against Raditz. In a last-ditch effort, Goku holds his Saiyan brother in a full nelson just long enough for Piccolo to launch a full-power Special Beam Cannon through the pair of them.
Goku’s death was the catalyst for the introduction of Vegeta, Gohan beginning his training under Piccolo, and Goku learning such techniques as the Kaio-ken and Spirit Bomb from King Kai. It also comes at a point in the series when the passing of lead characters was still relatively rare. Judging by Krillin’s disbelief as he kneels at his side, Goku’s death is a huge blow to his friends and family, and just the fact that Goku could be killed off in the first place significantly raises the stakes as Dragon Ball Z unfolds.
16 Chiaotzu – Dragon Ball (King Piccolo Saga)
Back in the penultimate saga of Dragon Ball, Chiaotzu became the third protagonist to die at the hands of King Piccolo (although the first of the three to be killed directly by Piccolo himself). As the evil Namekian wishes for his youth to be restored, Chiaotzu, prompted by Tien, interrupts the ceremony. But just as Chiaotzu is midway through wishing for King Piccolo to disappear, he is swiftly cut off by an energy blast from the Demon King.
Meanwhile, Tien struggles desperately to move, just about managing to punch the ground beneath him. His complete helplessness as he watches his best friend die for the first time doubles the trauma of the scene, while Chiaotzu’s parting cry of “Tien!” doesn’t help matters. Chiaotzu is, of course, wished back to life, but Krillin’s long-awaited revival overshadows his own, and his death, though certainly heartbreaking in its own right, never had quite the same impact.
15 Krillin – Dragon Ball GT (Super 17 Saga)
We’re not here to pick on Krillin for the sheer number of times he is brought back to life through the series, but let’s just say that this isn’t the last you’ll hear of Krillin as this list develops.
In this case, we’re looking at Krillin’s death in Dragon Ball GT, which coincidentally makes Krillin the only character to have died in Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, and Dragon Ball GT. No character has died in all four Dragon Ball properties as yet. Krillin and Piccolo are tied at three apiece, but with Piccolo already being dead in Super, Krillin remains the only candidate for rounding out the set.
This time around, Krillin is killed by a brainwashed Android 17, as his family looks on (Marron is a teenager at this point and fully aware of what she is seeing). It might not be the most impactful of Krillin’s deaths, but it’s always tough to watch when a family is torn apart, and even tougher when you consider that the killer in question is 18’s biological brother.
14 Chi-Chi & Goten – Dragon Ball Super (Future Trunks Saga)
Anything that sparks an emotional reaction in Goku is the very definition of heartbreaking. He may be often criticized for his somewhat laidback approach to fatherhood, but Goku shows just how much he truly cares for his family in the recent Future Trunks arc of Dragon Ball Super.
Stabbed through the chest and pinned to a wall, Goku learns the horrific truth about what happened to his wife and son in Goku Black’s timeline. After Zamasu used the Super Dragon Balls to swap bodies with Goku, he emerged as Goku Black, swiftly dispatching Goku, now in Zamasu’s own body, before decapitating Chi-Chi with his God Split Cut. Goten is killed shortly after.
If it wasn’t enough that Goten is made to watch his mother and father die, seemingly at Goku’s own hand-- his and Chi-Chi’s murders mark the first permanent deaths in the franchise for a long time, albeit in another timeline.
13 Master Roshi – Dragon Ball (King Piccolo Saga)
Minutes before Chiaotzu is killed by King Piccolo, Master Roshi’s attempts to defeat the Demon King backfire in a similar fashion. Following in the footsteps of his master before him, Roshi uses the Evil Containment Wave to trap King Piccolo in an electric rice cooker for all eternity. Fully aware that it will drain his life force, like it did Master Mutaito, Master Roshi paralyzes Tien to ensure that there is still someone around should he fail in his attempt.
Roshi does indeed miss the rice cooker, and ultimately dies for nothing, but not before delivering a speech that instills further fear in the Demon King. His death is such a blow that Goku feels the loss from miles away, while Yamcha and Bulma arrive to give Roshi and Chiaotzu a heartfelt send-off. But it’s Turtle’s reaction that pulls hardest on the heartstrings, as he weeps over the grave of his oldest friend.
12 Krillin – Dragon Ball Z (Frieza Saga)
After narrowly surviving the Saiyan Saga, Krillin was not so lucky on Namek. With Frieza seemingly defeated by the Spirit Bomb, joy turns quickly to despair as Frieza returns to deliver a devastating blow to the remaining Z Fighters.
Krillin has barely enough time to register Frieza’s return, let alone Piccolo being shot through the chest, before he is lifted off his feet and straight-up imploded by the villain. It’s one of the most brutal deaths in the entire franchise, with the uncompromising graphics and Krillin’s Funimation cry of “Help me!” combining for a tragically memorable moment.
Even more memorable is the transformation that follows. Krillin’s death proves entirely necessary in Frieza’s defeat, as it stirs up the required emotion in Goku to force the first Super Saiyan transformation of the series. In hindsight, it’s a death that had to happen, and one that almost goes forgotten amid what is arguably the defining Dragon Ball moment.
11 Android 8 – The Path to Power
A good seven years after Dragon Ball had aired, Toei released The Path to Power as a re-telling of the Pilaf and Red Ribbon Army arcs, but with a few minor differences. Bulma has a fresh hairstyle, for example, while Android 8 plays a far more significant role. Android 8 is the eighth of Dr. Gero’s android constructs, but like Android 16 some years later, it is not in his nature to battle.
So when Android 8 is sent to kill Goku on General White’s orders, the two instead become the best of friends. Their friendship comes full circle at the end of the special, when Officer Black unveils his destructive creation, the Battle Jacket. 8 shows up in the nick of time to save Goku from the giant robotic suit, but he soon lands in a crumpled heap next to a heavily beaten Goku.
He uses his dying words to ask if Goku is alright, to which Goku responds with a spectacular transformation exclusive to Path to Power. Whether you count the power-up as official canon or not, it speaks volumes to how well their relationship is handled that 8’s death sparks a reaction in Goku that even Krillin and Roshi’s deaths could not.
10 Goku – Dragon Ball Z (Cell Games Saga)
Goku’s deaths tend to have an impact on everyone, but none more so than his sacrifice at the Cell Games. With Cell threatening to explode to ensure his victory, and Gohan powerless to stop him, Goku intervenes, teleporting Cell to King Kai’s planet seconds before the explosion. Goku is destroyed, alongside a severely unfortunate King Kai, leaving his friends and family back on Earth to mourn his loss (at least until Cell’s return).
Krillin loses his best friend, and Vegeta his only reason for getting stronger, but you have to feel for Gohan, whose own decision to torture Cell leaves him once more without a father. Even when the Cell Games are won, Goku reveals that he intends for his death to be permanent, which heaps yet more regret on Gohan. It’s even sadder in hindsight, as Goku misses the birth and childhood of his second son before his inevitable revival.
9 Piccolo – Dragon Ball Z (Saiyan Saga)
When Dragon Ball Z began, no one could have predicted that Piccolo would sacrifice himself for anyone, let alone Goku’s son. But as the Saiyan Saga comes to a close, and Nappa bears down on Gohan, Piccolo stands between the two Saiyans to complete an unexpected redemption arc.
Plenty of the entries on this list are sacrifices of some kind, but few mean more than Piccolo’s. Where some of the other redemption stories in Dragon Ball are spread out over time and mapped out by moments, we can pinpoint every step in Piccolo’s transition from dark side to light. For every scene that he watches over Gohan, Piccolo learns something new about kindness and empathy.
This all comes to a head as Nappa launches a full-power energy blast at Gohan, and Piccolo dies, not only to make amends for his and his father’s misgivings, but to repay Gohan for showing him the alternative.
8 Future Bulma – Dragon Ball Super (Future Trunks Saga)
As if Future Trunks hadn’t lost enough already. Trunks’ timeline was turned upside down by the androids, and by the time he made his canon debut in Dragon Ball Z, only he and Bulma had survived the onslaught. Fast-forward to Dragon Ball Super, where Trunks’ world is attacked yet again, and this time, he watches helplessly as Goku Black kills the only family he has left.
There are still no Dragon Balls on Trunks’ Earth, meaning that Bulma, like the Z Fighters before her, is gone for good. She gives her life so that Trunks can return to the past and recruit Goku and Vegeta to his cause, and though Trunks does avenge his mother by destroying Zamasu, he loses his entire world in the process. He eventually finds refuge in an alternate timeline, one in which Bulma still lives, though an alternate version of Trunks himself exists in the same timeline.
7 Vegeta – Dragon Ball Z (Majin Buu Saga)
Vegeta’s sacrifice is one of the most powerful moments in all of Dragon Ball, as he finally completes one of the longest-running redemption sagas in anime history. Even as Piccolo explains that he will not be given the chance to fight Goku in Other World, Vegeta understands for the first time that he has a family to keep safe. He shares a rare moment with his son, before knocking him out in true Vegeta fashion, and disappearing in a blinding flash of light.
The only reason it misses out on the top five is that the death itself is so short-lived, especially for a moment built up so heavily as Vegeta’s “final atonement”. We’re not saying we wanted Vegeta dead for good, but what a way it would have been to go out (especially as Toriyama never intended for Vegeta to survive the Saiyan Saga in the first place), and the goodbyes between Vegeta and Trunks are somewhat undone when the death is overturned later that same day.
6 Android 16 – Dragon Ball Z (Cell Games Saga)
16’s death is also a sacrifice, used as a plot device to inspire Gohan’s Super Saiyan 2 transformation (in the same way Krillin’s death inspired Goku), while it rounds out yet another android redemption. It’s a death we’d seen before and have seen since, but it provides perhaps the most human moment in the series, and from the most unlikely of sources, as well as a moral that transcends anime.
It’s 16’s monologue that separates his death from the rest. His parting words to Gohan differ according to the various dubs, but they all convey the same message: to do what is right, and to protect those closest to you, no matter the cost. 16 was designed as a killing machine, but he bows out of the series having given more to the Earth than most of its human characters, and dies as proof that you can always be better.
5 Krillin – Dragon Ball (Tien Shinhan Saga)
Krillin’s death in the original series still holds up as one of the most shocking Dragon Ball moments. It’s the first of several deaths that would eventually turn Krillin into something of a running gag, but it comes at a time that deaths in Dragon Ball actually meant something. Long before finding the Dragon Balls became an afternoon’s work, and even before the deaths of Roshi and Chiaotzu, Krillin becomes the first series protagonist to lose his life to the forces of evil.
When Tambourine is revealed, he turns out to be a servant of King Piccolo, which significantly raises the stakes ahead of the next arc. But there’s something about the image of Krillin lying still on the floor, his neck snapped by Tambourine, that changed the franchise as we knew it. Given that we don’t immediately know the identity of Krillin’s killer, Dragon Ball became a series in which no one was safe -- albeit briefly -- and Krillin’s death sparked a reaction in the characters that let us know Dragon Ball deaths are not to be taken lightly.
4 Piccolo – Dragon Ball GT (Baby Saga)
Say what you will about Dragon Ball GT, but its decision to not only kill off a main character, but commit to it, makes Piccolo’s death one of the saddest in the franchise. As the Earth nears destruction, Piccolo chooses to remain behind so as to rid the world of the dangerous Black Star Dragon Balls.
In his final moments, Piccolo telepathically reaches out to Gohan, and the pair share a moment truly reminiscent of Dragon Ball Z. Their final interaction harks back to the early stages of their relationship, and to arguably one of the strongest Dragon Ball arcs, which adds a level of nostalgia to an already emotional farewell.
Piccolo chooses to remain dead, and actually keeps good on his promise, protecting those in Hell for all eternity. It’s the only instance of a character we have known from the very beginning dying for good, and for that, GT deserves a lot of credit.
3 Future Gohan – The History of Trunks
Going into The History of Trunks, you have to know that Gohan’s death is inevitable. What you don’t expect is just how bleak and undignified his death is going to be. Having already lost an arm to the androids, Gohan faces the cyborg siblings for a final time, matching them blow-for-blow for a while and more than living up to the mantle of Earth’s greatest hero.
But at the end of the day, four arms are better than one, and as soon as the androids gain the upper hand (ahem…), it’s all over for Gohan, who succumbs to an unrelenting cascade of energy blasts.
The dreary backdrop and haunting score signify the despair of Trunks’ world more than exposition ever could. Gohan is left face down in a puddle and alone, in the remains of a city. The character deserved more than to go out like that, never to be wished back, and Trunks is still dealing with the aftermath of Gohan’s death to this day.
2 Vegeta – Dragon Ball Z (Frieza Saga)
You can make a case for Vegeta’s Buu Saga sacrifice being more immediately affecting, but the Saiyan Prince’s first death on Namek arguably has more of a lasting impact than any other in the series. He does return to life later in the same saga, but his parting speech is far more powerful than any goodbye. What’s doubly heartbreaking is that he has no one to say goodbye to.
Instead, he opens up to the only remaining Saiyan. It just so happens that the one Saiyan survivor is his sworn enemy, but personal rivalries are long forgotten as Vegeta begs Goku to avenge the race he was destined to rule. He dies a lonely, forgotten man – a man who knows he could have been so much more, and one who certainly doesn’t know he’s coming back to life. After everything Frieza had put him through, this is the legacy he chooses to leave behind.
Vegeta’s sacrifice is an epic Dragon Ball Z moment, but it’s hardly surprising considering his first death, which offers an entirely fresh perspective on the Prince of all Saiyans.
1 Honorable Mentions
Just missing out on the top 16, but making up the hypothetical top 20, are both times Future Trunks is killed by Cell. The first, which sees Imperfect Cell snap the young Saiyan’s neck in an alternate timeline, is hinted at only vaguely. The second is often forgotten amid the chaos of the Cell Games, as Trunks is shot through the chest by Perfect Cell, and he is back up on his feet in no time.
It goes without saying that there will be Dragon Ball Super spoilers plastered all over this list, although you only need to have seen Resurrection ‘F’ to know about Piccolo’s latest sacrifice for Gohan. Repeated in the Super canon, Piccolo’s most recent death is more or less a carbon copy of his first, which may or may not appear in our ranking, while Yamcha, Tien, and Chiaotzu’s deaths in the same arc are unfortunately not included.
Which Dragon Ball death had the most impact on you? Let us know in the comments!