Greek tragedy in East Asia: Bardock (Father of Son Goku)

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The father of Son Goku, Bardock, as he confronts and challenges Freeza just before he destroys Planet Vegeta and exterminates the Saiyans

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 episodes in the Dragonball franchise, since the tragic fate of the Saiyans is revealed in ways which are premonitory, 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 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, an outcome which he desperately tried to avoid by fleeing what he thought was home (Corinth) but one which was guaranteed unknowingly by his subsequent conquest of his real ancestral origins (Thebes)), 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. This 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), which marks the beginning of the Dragonball story, 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 thematic 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 even though 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 comic narrative.

Originally published at on December 26, 2020.

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