Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of Dragon Ball FighterZ, and the game’s fast-paced, explosive action has inspired me to reflect on what made me fall in love with Akira Toriyama’s beloved manga (and its equally renowned anime adaptation) in the first place. To that end, I’ve compiled a short (and by no means complete) list of my favorite fights from the series, taking into account not only choreography, but also the narrative context that makes them so emotionally resonant:
3. Son Goku & Piccolo vs. Raditz
Despite its relative brevity, the first battle in the Saiyin Saga remains one of the franchise’s most memorable, if only because it heralded such a dramatic shift in tone. Son Goku had faced superior opponents before, but had always managed to discover some miraculous means of closing the gap in power (training with Korin, drinking the Ultra Divine Water, etc). His villainous brother, however, is on a different level entirely, forcing our hero to enter into a (supposedly) temporary alliance with his deadliest foe: the reincarnation of the Demon King Piccolo. And even that nearly isn’t enough: our protagonists are on the ropes from the beginning of the fight to its bittersweet conclusion, and their eventual victory costs them dearly. Packed with iconic moments that have been endlessly imitated but rarely improved upon—Goku and Piccolo shedding their weighted clothing; Raditz charging, only to suddenly vanish and attack from the rear; Goku’s ultimate sacrifice—this brutal brawl deserves recognition for its historical significance alone.
2. The Z Fighters vs. Vegeta & Nappa
Although it’s often overshadowed by Son Goku’s spectacular one-on-one showdown with Vegeta, I’ve always preferred the slow and suspenseful buildup to his belated arrival; much like Seven Samurai, it’s the perfect underdog story, with a small (and dwindling) group of warriors standing firm against insurmountable odds. All of the supporting players get an opportunity to shine—Krillin’s rage-fueled decimation of the remaining Saibamen, Chiaotzu’s bold kamikaze gambit, Tenshinhan’s dramatic last stand—while the evolving mentor/pupil relationship between Piccolo and Gohan lends the action some much-needed personal stakes; the former would-be world conqueror’s decision to throw himself in front of a fatal blast meant for his archenemy’s son serves as the culmination of the series’ most compelling character arc.
1. Son Goku vs. Tenshinhan
The championship bout of the 22nd Tenkaichi Boudokai is more than a mere fight; it’s a debate on the nature and purpose of martial arts, with each blow elegantly reflecting the participants’ personalities. Ruthless, arrogant Tenshinhan—who, true to his Crane School upbringing, values power and dominance above all else—is always the aggressor, unleashing a series of increasingly devastating techniques in an effort to overwhelm his opponent with sheer force. Son Goku, on the other hand—embodying the Turtle School’s philosophy of patience and discipline—stays on the defensive, continually countering or enduring his foe’s attacks, gradually chipping away at his stamina. Ultimately, the younger fighter’s grit and tenacity convince Tenshinhan to abandon his wicked ways and embrace martial arts as a means of self-improvement, rather than a blunt instrument for crushing his enemies. And that inextricable link between conflict and characterization makes this battle one of the finest Toriyama ever crafted.
[Originally written February 17, 2018 to coincide with the release of Dragon Ball FigtherZ.]