Dragon Ball Kai – The Reluctant Team
Recently I started watching Dragon Ball Kai because it’s up to my favorite DBZ arc: The Androids/Cell arc, which has just about everything I’ve always loved — time travel, robots, lots of superpowers (which DBZ always has, of course), etc. (And as a bonus, Norio Wakamoto’s performance as Cell is off the charts hilarious.) But this post isn’t about that arc; rather, it’s about an element of DBZ‘s beginning that still appeals to me to this day.
One general storyline I almost always like when it shows up in anything is when the hero and a villain (could be the main villain or a lesser villain, whatever) are forced to team up to combat a common foe. Under normal circumstances, they of course would have absolutely nothing to do with each other (they’re enemies, after all!), but desperate times call for desperate measures. And the pair just about always makes a good team; however, rarely does it last. (At least in western animation, anyway, which is where my love of this type of story truly blossomed. Maybe it’s just because of what I watch, but I’ve rarely seen this in anime without the villain slowly becoming a good guy, DBZ included. Also, I’ve found that no matter the country of origin, this scenario is mainly found in shows meant for kids.)
Part of the appeal is that it gives the relationship between hero and villain a new dimension without necessarily changing who the villain is. DBZ famously starts with Goku teaming up with his Dragon Ball enemy, Piccolo, to take down Goku’s far more powerful brother, Raditz. (That’s pretty much what every hero/villain team boils down to, right? “We have to team up, or else this guy will totally beat the shit out of us.”) Above all, this team really shows how pragmatic Piccolo is — the thought of teaming with Goku makes him sick to his stomach, but if there’s no planet to conquer, then what’s the point to anything? But his pragmatism isn’t solely in service of the Earth, either, as Piccolo shows when he gleefully kills two birds with one stone by running Goku and Raditz through with the Special Beam Cannon. (It’s goofy American naming conventions or nothing with me!)
That’s another point to these arrangements: There’s this tension boiling beneath the surface because the hero is going along with the lesser of two evils. Piccolo is still a bonafide villain at this point, as he proves when he kills Goku without hesitation or remorse. And during the Namek storyline, Vegeta eventually teams up with Krillin and Gohan against the Ginyu force, and later with Goku when he arrives on the planet. But when Vegeta senses an opportunity to use the Dragon Balls to grant his wish for immortality, he leaves Goku high and dry. You just never know with these assholes.
Depending on the viewer, these teams also allow the person to root for the villain guilt-free. Now, I was always the type of kid who rooted for a character regardless of alignment; good or evil, as long as the character was cool, I liked ‘em. For example, Piccolo was — and still is — my favorite in Dragon Ball Z from the beginning. He’s just so smooth and cool; definitely the Samuel L. Jackson of DBZ. I didn’t exactly like that he killed Goku so readily, but I justified it like Piccolo does: Raditz needed to die, and the Dragon Balls could always bring Goku back to life, anyway. (What really made me turn against a character is if someone lower on my pecking order went against one of my favorites. I liked Krillin, but if he went against Vegeta, well, that bandwagon was going to be empty.)
But what if a kid just roots for the good guys? You want to like Piccolo, but you can’t truly like him because he’s such a dick. Now, though, he’s teaming up with Goku — the ultimate in good guys — so by proxy, Piccolo is also good and totally cool to root for now. This view almost always leads to the villain eventually becoming a true good guy, though, and I have mixed views on that. I like both Piccolo and Vegeta as heroes (although they’re different sorts of heroes than Goku), but there’s no denying that they’re also different when they’re “good”. The dynamic is just different when the hero teams up with a villain.
It’s not a brilliant storytelling device, or anything, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for it, just like I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Dragon Ball Z, even though it is no masterpiece. (To put it kindly.)