Greek tragedy in Asia: Dragonball

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Freeza and Cooler, two master villains in the Dragonball franchise

Toriyama Akira’s Dragonball is without doubt one of the most popular mangas in the world, having swept through Asia and the West with its unique characters and complex story-telling. Its popularity has not waned since making its manga in the 80s and its recent installments such as Dragonball Super and various movies show that its popularity is still on the rise throughout the world. Much has already been said about its literary composition, namely its precedence from the Chinese classic Journey to the West (西遊記), its eponymic symbolism as encouched in the characters’ names, and its literary allusions to Western Greek mythology. I have pointed out before that the life of Goku resembles the story of main characters in Greek tragedy and Christian literature, namely the time-honoured tale of the Prodigal Son who leaves his home while young and makes a fated comeback, let it be killing his father and marrying his mother in the case of Oedipus, or becoming king and ruler of the land in the case of Simba in Lion King (derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet), all of which employ this classical literary framework of birth, fate and tragic irony. This was discussed with regards to Goku’s role as the avenger of his Saiyan race in his fight and victory over Freeza, the monster tyrant who exterminated the Saiyan race shortly after Goku was born. Goku was then raised on Earth (地球) and did not learn about his identity and origin as a Saiyan till many years later and subsequently confronted Freeza by chance on Namek Planet. Similar things can be said of a famous Dragonball OVA (spin-off) which is an offshoot of the Freeza saga: the Cooler saga. Cooler is the older brother of Freeza whose appearance and abilities are highly similar to his (indeed he is even more powerful than Freeza as he is capable of transforming one more time), and this makes Goku’s confrontation with Cooler a direct sequel to the Freeza story arc and its many themes. It turns out that Cooler has an early encounter with Goku as Goku is dispatched as an infant from the Saiyan Vegeta Planet just when Freeza destroys it, and even though Cooler is tempted to shoot down the capsule and in effect exterminate the last remaining Saiyan, he decides not to as he sees this as an ominous seed of trouble and ruin which Freeza has sowed for himself. Many years later, after Goku defeats Freeza, Cooler goes to Earth to seek revenge, and when he confronts Goku and realises that he is the child whose life he spared all those years ago, they engage in an epic battle where Goku ascends to Super Saiyanjin and defeats Cooler much like how he defeats Freeza, and as Cooler dies in a massive explosion with the Sun, he laments that it was not only Freeza who suffered in his own hubris in neglecting the capsule carrying Goku, he himself is also the perpetrator and victim of his own hubris by not shooting it down when he had the chance, and this has come back to seal his doom.

The Cooler spin-off clearly shares many points of dramatic interest with the Freeza saga and it reiterates certain important points which overlap with Greek tragedy and Western mythology. Goku’s life story as the Prodigal Son who is destined to return and haunt the nemesis of his race is evident once again and this time it is made even more prominent by the fact that he narrowly and luckily escapes as an infant from the brother of Freeza who could easily have killed him and ended the lifeline of the Saiyan race. Hubris, an essential tragic element in classical Greek literature as it is almost always what causes the tragic hero’s downfall, is also evident here and made more emphatic by the fact that Cooler has a direct confrontation with Goku when he was an infant and could easily have killed and disposed of him like an insect in his own hand, and his fatal mistake in letting him go comes back to haunt him even more than it haunts Freeza who did not know about Goku’s existence till many years later (though he did immediately recognise Goku who looked identical to his father, Bardock, one of the last members of the Saiyan resistance to confront Freeza). The legendary life of Son Goku as the saviour and fated warrior of the Saiyans is hence magnified and emphasised in this spin-off to the Freeza saga where tragic elements such as fate and pride in excess are brought to the fore in the villain Cooler’s death. It is easy to read Dragonball superficially as a manga for children’s entertainment, but its literary texture is wonderfully rich and complex. Fabulous stuff.

One of the most beautiful and poignant episodes in the Dragonball franchise. This is an OVA (i.e. anime spin-off) which deals with the prehistory of the Dragonball story, namely Son Goku’s birth and his Saiyan origins, which he does not realise until the second half of the story (Dragoball Z) from when he meets his brother, Raditz. This episode tells of the Saiyans’ destruction at the hands of Freeza, their eternal nemesis and one of the main villains in the franchise. This is also the story of Bardock, Goku’s father (to whom he looks identical and from whom he inherits the responsibility to avenge the Saiyans), and how he discovers Freeza’s plot to exterminate the Saiyans once and for all. The episode begins with Bardock and his Saiyan companions on a mission to conquer and colonise another planet on Freeza’s orders (at this stage, the Saiyans, like the surviving remnants in present time (Vegeta, Nappa, Raditz) are working as mercenaries for Freeza and his clan, the ultimate conquerors and pirates of the universe whose desire is to subjugate every single planet and every single race under their command), and after they successfully (and brutally) destroy the indigenous population of the planet, one of the survivors, who possesses psychic abilities like foretelling the future, confronts them and passes his abilities onto Bardock in a last-ditch, desperate attack. This collapses Bardock and sends him into a coma in which he sees visions of Goku’s future living on Earth as well as some disturbing images of the explosion of his own Saiyan planet (Planet Vegeta, namely after the eponymous Vegeta, the royal family of the Saiyans, and Vegeta is their prince after all who makes a brief cameo in this OVA where he shows his inborn martial talent and ice-cold killer instincts). After he wakes, Bardock becomes continually plagued by images of the future in which he begins to see more clearly Freeza’s conspiracy to eliminate the Saiyans and the doom of the Saiyan race, and after a confrontation on Planet Meat (another wordplay with the etymology of Saiya (Japanese 野菜 ya-sai ‘vegetable’) which explains the origins of all the names of the Saiyan characters: Kakarotto (< ‘carrot’; Son Goku’s Saiyan name), Vegeta (< ‘vegetable’), Nappa (< ‘nappa’), Raditz (< ‘radish’), Broly (< ‘broccoli’) etc), Bardock finds his closest Saiyan companions murdered by Freeza’s men and finally realises that his fellow Saiyans only have moments to live as Freeza intends to destroy Planet Saiyan. He returns to his planet in haste (and crosses path with his son Kakarroto/Son Goku who is being sent out to colonise another planet, namely Earth), and as he makes a final confrontation with Freeza and attempts to resist the doomed fate of his Saiyan brothers, he gets killed by Freeza’s massive energy ball, along with all the Saiyans, leaving just a handful of Saiyans left (Son Goku, Vegeta etc). The prequel to Dragonball is markedly darker than most of the Dragonball franchise, since the tragic fate of the Saiyans is revealed in ways which are premonitary, doomed and retributive. It has always been Freeza’s intention to use the Saiyans to his advantage and then betray them by exterminating all of them, which is due to the premise of the ancient legend of Super Saiyans who famously killed one of Freeza’s ancestors (as told in another OVA- another blog on this), though throughout the episode one sees the moral ethics behind the Saiyans’ destruction and how their hubristic behaviour practically seals their doom. The opening scenes of the Saiyans’ conquest of another planet symbolises their hubris, since although they are acting on behalf of another master-villain (Freeza), they are also aggressors themselves whose aggressive nature makes them complicit in Freeza’s criminal activities. The transfer of psychic ability to Bardock from the sole survivor of the planet being conquered shows retribution directly at work against the Saiyans, as the people whom they have just murdered make a subtle and haunting comeback by giving them the ability to find out for themselves the doomed fate that awaits them with absolutely no chance of wrestling themselves off of it, however much they intend to resist. This is an allusion to ancient oracles which hauntingly notify tragic heroes of their own fate and let them decide what to do about it, even if it is futile resistance or erroneous misinterpretation, and even though the human characters and the audience know about what awaits them from the outset, the subsequent course of action taken by the characters is fully in line with their own disposition and decision-making, the tragic result of which is their own making. One thinks of Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, or Oedipus, the tragic character of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, who know about their own fate from the very beginning (Achilles gets told by his mother, as revealed in Iliad 9, while Oedipus famously learns from the Delphic oracle that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother), but their subsequent decisions, all based on their own heroic and hubristic temper, contribute directly to their downfall and lead them directly to the threshold of doom. The episode certainly ends on a positive note as we see Goku landing safely on earth where he is discovered by his loving grandpa, Son Gohan (the namesake of his future son), but in the main narrative of this OVA it is without doubt that the Saiyans are the architects of their own downfall and deservedly face annihilation. It was mentioned before that the birth and life of Son Goku’s as a Saiyan exile who is fated to make a heroic comeback and avenge his Saiyan race is reminiscent of Western mythology, and the story of his Saiyan ancestors centred around his biological father is also based on thematics principles of Western classical epic and tragedy, namely fate, doom and double determination (human vs divine). The Saiyans are doomed to die from the very beginning, as revealed by the psychic’s vision, and although the main character (Bardock) finds out about it and tries to change the course of destiny, he and his fellow countrymen, who have been commiting crimes all along, die in a massive explosion, even though he realises in his final moments that his son will eventually defeat Freeza and avenge him. Toriyama’s Dragonball is a modern literary masterpiece which incorporates elements of mythology into its colourful narrative.

PS: Cooler survives the explosion and makes a comeback in a later OVA called ‘ Metal Cooler ‘ where he fights Goku and Vegeta in Super Saiyanjin form. I shall delve into it in a later blog.

Originally published at on August 21, 2020.

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