I love Dragon Ball. I can’t properly explain why, but I’ve never claimed that my TV habit were sane. Like many American fans, I was exposed first to its sequel series, Dragon Ball Z, on Toonami. They played a fairly butchered version of the start of that show (the Saiyan arc up through the first portion with Freeza’s minions). I had no idea at the time that I had missed out on the real beginning of the story or that it was based on a manga or really anything else. It, Tenchi Muyo, and Sailor Moon made up most of my early anime habit.
It has been many years since I’ve seen just about any of the original Dragon Ball and I’ve never made it all the way through that series. I’ve decided to kick off a new rewatch for myself of the show in order, discussing episodes in roughly groups of 10-15 depending on where the plot points break off. This first post covers the 13-episode “Pilaf Arc” which kicks off the anime.
Our story opens with Son Goku living alone in the woods with a four-star ball which was handed down to him by his grandfather as his final memento. Goku has a tail and incredible strength– he’s even able to survive being hit by a car and shot by a gun. He is visited in the woods by Bulma who is on a quest to collect the seven “Dragon Balls”, mystical orbs that when brought together can be used to grant any wish. Her wish is for a boyfriend or for really good strawberries. Their antagonists are introduced immediately: Emperor Pilaf and his henchmen, Shuu and Mai. Shuu is a ninja dog and Mai is a Russian-esque agent. Pilaf is a… short green guy. Who knows what he is? They are also hunting the balls in their quest to rule the world.
After some initial mistrust, Bulma and Goku travel off together in search of the remaining balls. She sees the value in having a strong guy with her, plus Goku won’t part with his ball willingly. Along the way, Goku saves a turtle and finds out that he is friends with the Turtle Hermit, Muten Roshi, who also happens to have a Dragon Ball. Goku is given a flying cloud as a gift for rescuing the turtle while Bulma bargains for the Dragon Ball by showing off her “panties”. Unfortunately, Goku innocently removed her panties the previous night and the hermit got more of an eyeful than he expected.
Next up, they meet Oolong who is a shape-changing kid (actually, a young anthropomorphic pig) with the mind of a middle-aged pervert. He’s been kidnapping girls from a village and giving them a surprisingly nice life all considering. Goku defeats him and Bulma forces him to come along with them.
While traveling through the desert, they are attacked by a desert bandit named Yamcha and his partner Puar who learns of their quest for the Dragon Balls. Yamcha is another martial artist, wielding the powerful “Wolf Fang Fist” attack. Puar is a flying shape-changing cat that is better at shape-changing than Oolong. Yamcha is able to initially defeat Goku, but ultimately defeated when he realizes that Bulma is around. His weakness: he’s afraid of girls. Yamcha and Puar decide to follow the pair to steal the balls down the road.
Their next misadventure (and character introduction!) is Chichi and her father, Gyu-Mao, the “Ox King”. He’s an evil tyrant that terrorizes the local villages, but he has a dragon ball so they have to try to find a way to get it. It turns out that his mountain and castle are on fire and he needs the gang’s help to put the fire out, using an ancient treasure that Muten Roshi has collected. Goku flies back with Chichi in tow– along the way getting engaged without knowing it– and fails to collect the fan because the Turtle Hermit threw it out by mistake. Instead, the hermit comes with Goku to the mountain and uses his “Kamehameha” attack to put out the fire… but mistakenly levels the mountain instead. He is strong! After having seen it only once, Goku replicates the kamehameha on a smaller scale and destroys their car. Roshi offers to train Goku when his quest is completed.
Next up is Boss Rabbit, an evil gangster rabbit who can turn people into carrots. The less said about him the better, except that Goku defeats him and puts him to work collecting candy on the moon. It’s a Japanese thing. Yamcha finally reveals that he’s been following the gang and helps out. The ensemble is growing!
Finally, we near the end of the quest: Goku and Bulma have six balls while Pilaf has only one. Unfortunately, a surprisingly competent Shuu and Mai manage to ambush the group and steal five of the balls– they didn’t know that Goku still carried the four-star ball himself. Bulma uses the dragon radar, how she located Goku and the other balls, to track down Pilaf’s castle. They enter and have some wacky misadventures including being stuck in a giant pinball machine. Eventually, Pilaf emerges victorious and locks the team up while he heads off to make his wish. Goku is able to open a small hole to allow Oolong and Puar to escape and steal Pilaf’s wish. (Oolong wishes for women’s panties.)
The team is captured again and this time placed in a cell where they will die when the sun comes up. Goku happens to look at the moon and the real reason for his grandfather’s death is discovered: he turns into a rampaging monster under the full moon. He destroys the castle and attacks everyone. Pilaf and his henchmen try to fight back but then flee. Eventually, the team is able to grab onto Goku’s giant tail, weakening him enough that Puar can turn into a pair of scissors and cut it off. Goku returns to normal.
The following morning, the gang splits up because the quest is over. Bulma has found a new boyfriend in Yamcha, now over his fear of girls. Oolong and Puar will accompany them to the city. Goku heads off to find Muten Roshi to take him up on his offer of more training. Onward to the next arc!
This is so good! It’s not the action-heavy series that it will become, but there is so much to love here. Bulma is smart, Yamcha kicks ass, and even Oolong and Puar have their shapeshifting to ensure that they are of use to the group. We get to see Pilaf’s fall from grace although to have to wonder how he managed to get a small empire to rule in the first place.
This arc sets up most of the initial characters that will last for the remainder of the series: Bulma, Oolong, Yamcha, Puar, Muten Roshi, Chichi and the Ox King, and even the Pilaf Gang will all be back many times. We also get the very first “converted villain”, a evil person that is charmed by Goku’s sincerity and eventually comes around to being a partner. We get it three times over: Oolong, Yamcha, and Puar are all introduced as villains.
This arc is also the most self-contained of the series. I can’t think of any other time where we had all of the plot threads closed up as nicely as this. Everyone gets their wish! Every hero and every villain had a chance to shine! What could possibly happen next?
Best Fight: Goku vs. Yamcha. The first antagonist to compete with Goku as a martial artist, even if Goku was hungry at the time.
Coolest Move: Roshi’s mountain-destroying Kamehameha is by far the most powerful thing this early in the series.
Bad Stuff: Bulma is far too over-sexed for what is supposed to be a 16-year old. The sex humor was not really to my taste especially as it made Oolong come off as a rapist.