Goku vs. The World: Revisiting Dragon Ball’s Tournament Saga

Den of Geek takes a look back at Dragon Ball's second adventure, the Tournament Saga! Here's what we thought...

It’s a big year for Dragon Ball: a new theatrical release arrives in North America in August and a new anime series has already debuted in Japan. It’s safe to say that Goku and his friends are definitely living through a renaissance at the moment.

So I’ve been looking back at where it all started. I talked at length a couple of weeks ago about the genesis of the series, from the first stories by master storyteller Akira Toriyama in manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump to the debut of the anime in 1986 (or 1995, if you’re an American fan). I also took a closer look at the show’s first saga, The Emperor Pilaf Saga, which serves as a fantastic introduction to the world and characters of Dragon Ball

A couple of weekends ago, I sat down and binge watched the show’s second adventure, the Tournament Saga, in which Goku meets his greatest friend Krillin, trains under the pervy Master Roshi, fights in the world martial arts championship, and grows his tail back. It’s a fun interlude before the show shifted to what would be its main focus for quite a while — Goku’s fight against the Red Ribbon Army — the Tournament Saga delivers a lighthearted adventure that further develops these beloved characters. If by the end of the second saga, you’re not in love with what this show is about — martial arts, raunchy toilet humor, and fantastic adventure — then I don’t know what else to say. 

For now, let’s take a look at some of the key elements and best moments from Dragon Ball‘s Tournament Saga. Remember, these posts are not meant to be straight recaps of each saga. Instead, we’ll be dissecting the stories for a larger discussion on what makes the series so great.


Roshi Knows Best

I really have to begin by saying just how much I enjoy the first few episodes of this saga, as Goku and Krillin begin their training with the great Master Roshi, who delivers so many gags in these early moments that it’s impossible to accept his alter-ego Jackie Chun by the time the world martial arts tournament comes around. It really is a gift to watch this old man go, and like a modern Quixote (though not quite at all), strip away his elderly guise for that of hero…or maybe swindler…Although he does save the city from Goku’s Great Ape (the little dude grows his tail back!!).

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Roshi’s motives for fooling everyone and going to great lengths to defeat his students in the tournament are those of the wise man. I could almost see Mr. Miyagi behind those sunglasses and thick white beard. Roshi trains the boys in the hopes that one day they’ll be able to be as powerful as him (although Goku proves to be quite the student) only to severely beat them down in the actual tournament. Why would a master not want to see his students on top? Isn’t that the greatest victory?

Roshi says no. He feels that if Goku or Krillin (but really Goku, c’mon) peak too early by winning the tournament, they’ll grow over-confident and lazy. No, what Roshi is trying to do, between pervy jokes and nose bleeds, is train great warriors. These two boys will one day grow up to be Earth’s greatest heroes and it’s all due to Roshi. 

Master Roshi is the main character of this saga on a show that tends to focus heavily on the weird boy with the tail. In the Tournament Saga, we get a story that presents two sides of the old man, one half disturbing in the best way and the other half a great warrior. 

The fact that we start the adventure with Goku and Krillin trying to find Roshi a companion “to go on a walk around the island with” and end with Roshi (as Jackie Chun) saving the city and crowned the world martial arts champion is a testament to the complexity of the character. Behind the coot and the apparent lightheartedness of Roshi’s thread through out the series is the man behind the future Z Warriors. 

Enough said.


The Girl Next Door

Dragon Ball doesn’t skip a beat when it comes to providing pretty girls for the boys to ogle at or poke with a stick (remember Goku smacking girls’ private parts to make sure they were female in the first saga?), and even though we regrettably don’t get enough Bulma during the Tournament Saga, there is the terrifying Launch to take up the role. 

Launch is a bit of an anti-thesis to Bulma and doesn’t really carry much weight in the overall story, but she does deliver a strong episode early in the saga, and it’s all due to her split personality. Half-part naive darling and half-part man-hating psychopath, Launch switches personalities every time she sneezes. One second, she’s cooking for all of the boys at Kame House, and the next, she’s showering them with bullets. By the way, Launch always seems to have machine guns hanging around the house for some reason. Whatever, it’s anime. 

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In terms of the departure from Bulma, well, it’s all due to the fact that Toriyama decides to poke fun at women in a different way. This show isn’t exactly kind to women. You might even find some of the portrayals a bit offensive at times. I don’t think there’s a hidden agenda, but a lot of the girls in these shows tend to exist for the boys. Although Bulma is awesome once you get past her one-dimensional obsession with boys and romance. 

Instead of Bulma’s search for the perfect boyfriend as her ultimate life goal, we get the emotional Launch, who is moody, ready to serve, often soft-spoken, often yelling, unpredictable (you never know when she’s going to sneeze), and pretty much stays in the kitchen during the saga. I told you this stuff is a bit offensive. But this is the female character Toriyama decides to go with during the Tournament Saga.

Bulma’s few scenes involve her pretty much just cheering on the boys, especially her boyfriend Yamcha. I hated to see her sidelined, but Launch is at least hilarious. 


Everybody Hates Krillin

This saga is perhaps most famous for introducing Krillin into the Dragon Ball mythos. Who is Krillin? He’s Goku’s best friend and a little dude who dies way too many times throughout the series’ history. But there’s no hating on Krillin, even when he first arrives to Kame House as Goku’s rival. Krillin is presented as a bit of an antagonist at first, outsmarting Goku when it comes to every day things (Goku grew up alone in the forest and is very gullible) and even gaining Master Roshi’s favor early on when he shows him a skin mag. And it’s Krillin, who is way more into chicks than Goku is, that is able to spot a nice girl for Master Roshi (that girl is Launch, though!!). 

My favorite early moment with Krillin is “the find the stone” lesson, where he and Goku compete to find a rock that Master Roshi has thrown deep into the forest. The area they must search is very dangerous, including a huge drop off a cliff that Goku just decides to free fall. It’s really entertaining to watch Krillin and Goku approach the task differently. While Goku is honest and determined to find the stone, which Roshi marked with a special character, Krillin quickly finds a way around the task, almost as if to say that the more human you are (SPOILER: Goku is an alien!!) the easier you are tempted to do the wrong thing. Goku, as we’ll often see, is immovable when it comes doing what’s right. 

Krillin is more akin to Roshi’s swindler personality, but in the end, Goku is the more able student, beating his rival in speed tests and pretty much every other test of strength. The line is pretty much drawn from very early on in the series that there’s only so much Krillin can do and an infinite amount of feats that Goku can accomplish. Although Krillin will remain at Goku’s side (as the bumbling sidekick a lot of the time) for the duration of their adventures, and is considered one of the most powerful martial artists in the Z Warriors, he will prove to be no match for the otherworldly threats that often haunt the planet. Goku is the hero and Krillin his sidekick. 

One thing that took me by surprise is Krillin’s origin story, which is slowly revealed during the tournament. It’s a little hard to believe that Goku’s strong-willed rival is in fact running away from a group of monk bullies from Orin Temple. We see Krillin often picked on by the big kids, who are also competing, during the build-up to his inevitable face-off against one of his tormentors in the tournament. By the time he enters the ring, you have a fully developed character — one you’ve hated, laughed at, felt sorry for, and cheered on at the scratching of a pen. It’s just really good writing on Toriyama’s part. 


Goku vs. The World

While the second half of the Tournament Saga as a whole isn’t particularly plot-heavy — besides Master Roshi’s mission to defeat Goku and Krillin in the tournament — it does introduce several minor characters we’ll see again in later episodes as one-off breaks in between major plot points. The real takeaway from these episodes is Toriyama’s masterful pacing. By writing plenty of build-up to fights (or just really long fights), Toriyama is able to tell smaller, more intimate stories about many of the minor characters, such as Nam, who must win the tournament to save his village from being completely obliterated by a drought. 

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Late into the saga, Toriyama makes the audience feel conflicted about the fight between Nam and Goku. By the time their inevitable semifinal fight comes along, we know all about where Nam comes from and his motivations, which Toriyama uses to flip the table on us. Why are we still rooting for Goku here? He’s a boy with not much to lose (and he does end up losing the tournament), but we still want him to defeat a man who is trying to save his family from starvation. This is probably one of the few times in Dragon Ball history where we wouldn’t have been so mad about Goku losing. But the show is as much about destiny as it is making one’s own path. Goku is destined for great things, so of course has to reach the finals.

Along the way, we also meet several other colorful characters, such as Bacterian, the smelliest fighter in the world, who really is one of the most disgusting villains I’ve ever seen. He’s reminiscent of the baddies in old wrestling movies, only a lot smellier. Poor Krillin has to suffer through all of Bacterian’s disgusting tactics in order to advance to a semifinal fight against Jackie Chun. Bacterian isn’t very significant to the story, although we’ll see him again. Same goes for Giran and Ranfan, both of which are just as entertaining to watch as Bacterian. 

Of note is Jackie Chun/Master Roshi’s fight against Goku in the final, a match that goes on for three episodes (not too bad for a climactic fight on Dragon Ball). The fight is so close that it’s almost impossible to see how Roshi can teach Goku anything else. Toriyama recycles story devices in this showdown by having Goku grow his dreaded tail back in order to transform the hero into the Great Ape again. If for no other reason, it’s fun to watch Dragon Ball do its own version of King Kong. And, as I said above, it’s nice to see Roshi, who’s been playing everyone from the beginning, save the city from Goku at the end of the saga.

All in all, the Tournament Saga is a nice detour from the plot-driven Emperor Pilaf Saga. It feels like more of a summer vacation for the characters than anything else. Toriyama does an excellent job of allowing the characters room to breathe and develop while keeping the gags coming. Lighter stories are absolutely necessary on a show that so often endangers or kills main characters and threatens to oppress or destroy Earth, and the Tournament Saga is one of Dragon Ball‘s best. 

John Saavedra is an assistant editor at Den of Geek US. Chat with him on Twitter! Or check out all his work at his website.

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