The year is 2003: It’s 4 p.m., school has just let out and thousands of kids around the country are eagerly rushing home to their TVs. The trials and tribulations of the school day quickly fade away as Cartoon Network’s popular programming block Toonami begins its daily introduction of one of the most influential anime of all time: “Dragon Ball Z.”
From 1998 to 2008, “Dragon Ball Z” ran on Cartoon Network every day after school, introducing an entire generation to the highly acclaimed Japanese series created in 1984 by Akira Toriyama. Originally written in the comic book format referred to in Japan as “manga,” “Dragon Ball” follows the story of Son Goku, or simply Goku as he’s known in the West. The series later adds the “Z” to mark Goku’s transition to adulthood.
The story begins with Goku as a child as he embarks on a journey to find seven objects known as dragon balls. The dragon balls function as a deus ex machina throughout much of the series. Once gathered, the sky ominously darkens, lightning forms and a giant dragon emerges from the balls, promising to grant one wish to whoever is brave enough to ask. After a wish is granted, the dragon balls turn to stone and randomly scatter across the Earth, remaining inactive for one year.
Of course, something as significant as a wish-granting dragon draws plenty of attention from all kinds of characters, including the wonderfully naive and endearing Goku. First introduced as a little boy appearing no older than the age of 10, it’s quickly made clear that Goku is no ordinary child. Sporting one of the wildest yet most iconic hairdos in all of fiction, Goku’s wild appearance is accentuated by his opposable monkey-like tail.
The series opens with him dragging a fish twice his size over his shoulder, cheerfully anticipating a delicious lunch before he’s hit by a car. A terrified but bewildered young girl named Bulma peeks out of her vehicle to see who or what she just hit. To her surprise, Goku is merely annoyed by the collision and confuses her car for a monster as he retaliates by tossing the entire vehicle with Bulma still inside it. She responds by firing a flurry of bullets right at Goku’s head.
Following further confusion and awkward introductions, Bulma is shocked to discover that aside from his deceased grandpa, Goku has never met another person and has no ability to distinguish men from women. This leads to some hilarious interactions with Goku innocently misgendering people on multiple occasions.
Once introductions are made, Bulma tells Goku that she’s on a quest to gather the seven dragon balls, which is what led her to Goku’s remote house in the mountains. Goku reveals to Bulma that his grandpa left him one of the balls before he died; however, he is completely unaware of their wish-granting powers, and instead treats the ball as a precious gift and the embodiment of his deceased grandfather. After some negotiation, Bulma recognizes Goku’s usefulness as a bodyguard and coerces the naive boy to accompany her on her journey for the rest of the balls.
If Goku were a normal boy, the story would’ve probably ended with a car accident and Bulma having to explain a hit-and-run in court. Thankfully, Goku’s unearthly durability enabled him to shrug off a car collision and take bullets like airsoft pellets, allowing this chance encounter to spark the flames of an incredible journey.
Along the way to find the dragon balls, Goku befriends and trains under the world’s greatest martial artists, competes in fighting tournaments, single-handedly defeats an entire army and kills an evil demon hellbent on conquering the world. The incredible strength he demonstrated by lifting and throwing Bulma’s car skyrockets as he finds himself constantly challenged by stronger and more dangerous enemies.
Aside from his strength, part of Goku’s charm lies in his endearingly innocent personality. As a child raised in isolation, Goku is initially completely oblivious to social norms. When he meets a young girl named Chichi, the two promise to one day get married and start a family, something that Goku only agreed to because he thought marriage was a type of food. Eventually, he comes through on his promise and the two marry, though his transition to adulthood doesn’t change his naive nature.
Oddly enough, most Westerners’ first taste of the series began late in the story after Goku had reached adulthood. It was thought at the time that American audiences would be more likely to connect to the action-oriented turn the show takes once he becomes an adult. Eventually, the entire series received an English translation, but it was the fully-grown version of Goku that most Americans became familiar with initially.
The Origins of Goku Day
“Dragon Ball Z” begins with the revelation that Goku is a low-class member of the alien race known as the Saiyans, a warrior people who live to fight and conquer other worlds. This leads to countless battles against beings powerful enough to destroy entire planets with the flick of a finger. Eventually, Goku finds himself face to face with Frieza, the planet-destroying alien responsible for blowing up his home planet along with the entire Saiyan race.
Goku’s odd presence on Earth finally makes sense as he, along with the audience, learns the true nature of his existence. In their brutal, Spartan-like society, each Saiyan’s value is based on their strength demonstrated at birth. Born with little battle potential, Goku was considered a low-class warrior and was thus cast off to a technologically primitive planet like an unwanted toy. It’s poetic justice when Goku eventually finds himself as the last surviving member of the Saiyan race, challenging the being who subjugated and destroyed an entire people he never got to know.
In essence, Goku Day is in honor of a beloved character who represents progression through intense struggle. Originally seen as a low-class weakling, Goku’s constant striving to improve and face tough opponents eventually puts him on par with the gods. Perhaps this is why millions of people around the world have been inspired by his story.
References to the popular character can be found in rap, sports and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where he made his debut as a giant balloon. In Mexico, a gathering resembling a prized UFC or a boxing match assembled as thousands of fans cheered on Goku in the final episode of the series’s most recent iteration.
It’s this level of fan recognition and dedication that eventually led to Japan declaring May 9 as Goku Day. According to the official “Dragon Ball” website, this date was chosen because “in Japan the date is written in the order 5/9, and because 5 and 9 can be read as ‘Go’ and ‘Ku,’ the numbers combine to make Goku’s Japanese kanji!”
This isn’t merely a symbolic holiday, either; Goku Day is used to drop big announcements in the franchise. This year, the date was marked by the launch of a brand new website and a note from series creator Akira Toriyama that revealed that a new “Dragon Ball” movie is in the works for 2022. It’s nice to think that all these years later, those same kids who used to rush home to catch the latest “Dragon Ball Z” episode can still look forward to seeing Goku beat down enemies at least one more time.