Whether you’ve watched the series religiously, only seen an episode, or heard of it in passing, there is good chance you know about Dragon Ball Z. The most popular anime of all time, with a franchise worth of over $4 billion dollars, a long running manga, countless series, games and spin offs, Dragon Ball is rooted in both Eastern and Western pop culture as iconic. If there is one thing that everyone knows about this series, no matter how little the detail knowledge, it’s the term Super Saiyan. To the general audience, it’s this rooted image of someone screaming until his hair turns blond. To fans, it’s an unmistakable moment of their childhood. The term has become so iconic that it transcend the show itself. Here, we will take a retrospective look back at the Super Saiyan legend and deep dive into the battle that started it all, Goku vs Frieza.
Manga vs Anime: Goku’s Super Saiyan Transformation
On March 19, 1991, the Super Saiyan was brought to life for the first time in the manga pages of Dragon Ball. For readers new to this, a manga is the Japanese equivalent of a comic book or graphic novel. The birthplace from which most anime derive from, the manga provided the story, characters and plot points that later get translated on screen. The creator of Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama, hand wrote and drew the manga during its most popular days and that includes this iconic chapter.
The Japanese broadcast of this chapter aired on June 12th, 1991 and subsequently blew the minds of fans around the country. Voiced by the legendary Masako Nozawa as Goku and Ryūsei Nakao as Frieza, this was the first time this moment would be brought to life on screen. Almost following a panel to panel copy of the manga chapter of the same year, the Super Saiyan was beautifully translated on screen with incredible animation. For anime fans of today, we are used to a relatively quick turnaround time between the original broadcast and an English dub. That was not that case with Dragon Ball Z. On October 18th, 1999, over eight years after the original air date in Japan, the series finally aired in the United States.
To take a step back, anime was always not a popular concept in the West. Television distributors did not want to take a gamble on Japanese anime, fearing that english speaking audiences would either reject it or not pay attention. After all, when you have DC and Marvel superhero shows to keep children entertained, why even try for something new? Thankfully, Cartoon Network and Funimation did. Dragon Ball Z was likely the first anime most Western fans were introduced to and paved the way for the worldwide craze we see today. In many ways, the Godfather of western love for anime, Dragon Ball was the gateway to this new world for most fans. Chief among them, was episodes like this one.
I won’t let you get away with this! I won’t let you get away…Goku
Titled, Transformed at Last, and later, Awaken, Legendary Warrior! Goku the Super Saiyan! for its Dragon Ball Z Kai remaster, western audiences finally got to see this moment come to life and subsequently embed itself into modern pop culture. Voiced by Sean Schemmel, the long running voice of Goku, the transformation sequence was a highlight of his tenure as the Saiyan warrior. But to achieve the emotional and organic weight of this episode, it required a fair amount of set up and cues, starting with the villain that awoke it.
The Perfect Villain: Frieza
Every hero needs an arch-nemesis, a villain that they can not forgive and one that will continue to be a threat to the hero. Up until this point, Dragon Ball has not had a villain to that degree. King Piccolo and Vegeta were formidable and turned out to be strong characters over time, but neither distilled pure fear in the hearts of the characters or the audience, quite like Frieza.
When creating and designing Frieza, Akira Toriyama compared him to the monsters he imagined as a child. An evil emperor, visual monster, masterful martial artist and eerily voiced by Ryūsei Nakao, Linda Young and Christopher Ayres respectively, Frieza was a constant threat at his worst and a nightmare at his best. From the moment he arrives on screen, no hero stands a chance. Vegeta, Gohan, Krillin, Piccolo and even Goku himself were throughly outclassed by the tyrant for episodes on end. Every time the audience is given a sense that maybe the heroes still have a chance; such as when Piccolo first arrives, Vegeta gets a power up or Goku uses the Kaio-Ken, Frieza simply answers back with another transformation, or hauntingly lets the protagonist know he’s using less than a third of his strength.
Tension building and a sense of hopelessness is expertly weaved into the manga and anime versions of this showdown. Dragon Ball has always worked its best when it kept things simple. Insert a villain that is completely overpowering, set all the odds against the hero and keep just a slimmest glimmer of hope alive at all times. In this case, that glimmer of hope was the legend of the Super Saiyan.
He was scared of us. Scared that a Super Saiyan would be born to rise up and overthrow him. Kakarot, please… destroy Frieza. He made me what I am… don’t let him do it to anyone else. Whatever it takes… Stop him, please.Vegeta
Throughout the saga, Vegeta has continuously given the audience hints about the myth of the Super Saiyan. Most times, he used it as a bar for himself to reach. But more importantly, is what the Super Saiyan legend meant to Frieza. His paranoia about one appearing led him to destroy Planet Vegeta, the home world of the Saiyans. Vegeta is confident that it’s his destiny to reach that status and take revenge for his fallen people. It was not until his own death that he finally gave Goku that bar to reach. His death wish was for Goku to embrace his Saiyan lineage, embrace the idea of a Super Saiyan and avenge an entire planet that fell to Frieza. Even when Goku was being beaten to a pulp by Frieza for several episodes, this omen was keen in the audience’s mind. All that was missing was a catalyst, and it finally occurs in one of the highest rated episodes of the series.
The Catalyst of the Super Saiyan-Rage & Loss
After seemingly beating Frieza with a Spirit Bomb, the tyrant shocks the heroes, shoots Piccolo down and kills Krillin, Goku’s childhood friend. At this point, the audience is taken to the point of no return. Goku is backed completely in a corner, two of his friends are presumed dead and Frieza has his next kill focused on his son, Gohan. In a surge of anger and rage, Goku finally lets his Saiyan instincts take over and the legend finally comes to pass.
This is the moment fans have been waiting for and this is the moment that brought a plethora of new fans to the series. Simply put, there was nothing quite like this scene in the medium and proved to be a genre defining moment for an entire generation. There is a poetic irony to the sequence. Frieza had continuously put the Super Saiyan legend to shame in front of Vegeta and Goku. While audiences were given hints that he was truly paranoid of the legend, he also downplayed it, almost to keep himself calm. The second Goku ascends and his hair turns gold, the entire pace of the episode changes. Bruce Faulconer score for the sequence, in my opinion the most iconic of the 3 scores given to this scene, continues to give chills today and perfectly sets the tone for not just this episode, but the series itself.
The Hope of the Universe vs The Warrior Awakened by Fury
I am the hope of the universe. I am the answer to all living things that cry out for peace. I am protector of the innocent. I am the light in the darkness. I am truth. Ally to good! Nightmare to you!Goku’s Original Speech After Turning Super Saiyan
I wanted to take a second to discuss the difference in tones between various interpretations. In the Japanese Manga, Goku, while being the protagonist, is not necessarily a hero. First and foremost, he’s a warrior on the path to being the strongest in the universe. At the same time, he is trying to protect and avenge his fallen friends. While compelling, the Western dub of Goku tweaked his persona. Taking a much more Superman, interpretation, Goku is more or less a superhero himself. When he turns Super Saiyan and Frieza finally asks him what he has become, Goku answers back with the quote above. This sets up Goku’s motivations to be very much in line with the superhero tropes western kids were used to. Now, lets take a look at the Dragon Ball Z Kai re-dub of the sequence.
You haven’t figured it out yet? I’m the Saiyan who came all the way from Earth for the sole purpose of beating you. I am the warrior you’ve heard of in legends, pure of heart and awakened by fury. That’s what I am. I am the Super Saiyan! Son Goku!Goku
The Dragon Ball Z Kai dub of this scene puts it in line with the original Japanese Manga, the Japanese dub and Akira Toriyama’s intention for the character. By acknowledging he is the Super Saiyan of legend makes him almost messianic in nature. The prophesy of a Super Saiyan rising from among this warrior race that would avenge their years of being oppressed by Frieza is poetic enough to be an improvement over the original. While he does profess himself to be pure of heart, he does not go as far as to say he is the light in the darkness or even the protector of the innocent.
Goku, at his core, is not Superman. He might be the Japanese equivalent of Superman in terms of pop culture status and a few origin parallels, but the key difference between them exists in the subtext of this very moment. Goku has become a Super Saiyan, he is awoken for the purpose of avenging his race and seeking revenge for the death of his best friend.
Revenge & Mercy: The Storytelling Brilliance of Goku vs Frieza
Goku and Frieza’s battle was a prime example of why people gravitated to Dragon Ball so much across the world. There is a simplicity to the theme that is consumable regardless of what language you speak or what background you come from. From the moment Goku turns Super Saiyan, audiences around the world are ready for a thrilling conclusion. In classic Dragon Ball fashion, it achieved this quite well.
Goku’s primal need to fight Frieza at his 100% power required him to throw his life away. With the rest of his friends on Earth and King Kai devising a strategy to save everyone, they used the Dragon Balls to bring everyone to Earth. Everyone except Frieza and at the order of Goku, himself. Goku was more than willing to take the gamble on the planet blowing up while he was on it, as long as he got a few more minutes to fight Frieza and take him down. When both are at their 100%. the fight is trilling but it is clear Goku is in the lead. Eventually he takes the tyrant down, leading to one of my personal favorite moments of the series.
How many people begged for their lives at your feet and you killed them anyway. Did you show me mercy when I asked you to spare my best friend Krillin?Goku
Frieza, at the brink of death, begs Goku to save him. This is the first time Goku, the boy raised on Earth is in direct conflict with Goku, the Super Saiyan. All of his Saiyan instincts are to kill Frieza or let him die with the planet he doomed. His earthly emotions and his natural personality would rather spare him. After a moment to think, he gives Frieza his own power. Frieza, quickly uses that spare power to launch one last blast to kill Goku, this is when all of his Saiyan rage returns and he launches his own counter blast that effectively kills the tyrant in his eyes and finally ends the battle and effectively fulfills the Super Saiyan prophecy.
Goku & Frieza- A Rivalry for the Ages
While never having quite the emotional firepower of their first encounter, Dragon Ball reunited the two warriors a couple more times over the years. Namely in the sequel series, Dragon Ball Super, Goku and Frieza had another rematch, where Goku and Vegeta take him down once again. In the final saga of the Super franchise, Frieza actually works alongside Goku in a multiverse level event to save their universe. Here, the two actually worked in complete synchronization to defeat the powerhouse of Jiren. While they are by no means friends and return to being enemies in Dragon Ball Super: Broly, it was interesting seeing the two fight side by side, especially when comparing it to the hate and fury that they exhibited in their first bout. When Dragon Ball returns for another feature film or series, there is no doubt the two will meet again.
The Legacy of the Super Saiyan
Going back to heart of this piece is the Super Saiyan legend. As said earlier, no matter where you’re from, what language you speak or what your familiarity with Dragon Ball is, most people know what a Super Saiyan is. The majority of the credit goes to this saga and episodes we covered above. The Super Saiyan appears many times as the series progresses, more fighters are able to attain the form, and the best fighters, like Goku, are able to further ascend to higher levels. Since the Super Saiyan was introduced in 1991, there have been a plethora of further transformations. Super Saiyan 2, 3, 4, God, and Blue have all been derived from the primal legend that Vegeta mentioned to Goku all those years ago.
There is no mistake that Dragon Ball Z‘s introduction of the Super Saiyan changed the trajectory of the series, took the franchise to new levels and brought an incredible number of new fans to the story and to anime itself. The impact of this series to children across the world truly speaks to the relatability it has held across language barriers and cultures. To end on a personal note, I was of the generation that watched the original English dub as it aired on Cartoon Network. When the Super Saiyan first appeared, I was only 4 years old and the series and these characters have been close to my heart ever since.