Although Akira Toriyama didn’t write his way through Dragon Ball completely blind, the reality of the situation is that he primarily improvised where he was going week to week. It’s clear certain events were planned and structured in advance (the Tenkaichi Budokai arcs & the Cell Games in particular,) but most of Dragon Ball’s storytelling is very “seat of the pants.”
While some brush this off as a writing flaw on Dragon Ball’s part, it’s arguably the series’ greatest strength. Akira Toriyama’s ability to improvise and adapt a narrative on the fly is precisely why Dragon Ball is so compelling, resulting in some truly impressive plot twists.
10 Goku Transforms At The Sight Of The Full Moon
For as character driven as Dragon Ball‘s first story arc is, Goku takes a bit of a back seat when compared to the likes of Bulma, Yamcha, & Oolong– who all noticeably develop as characters. While Goku remains a bit on the static side, he’s not in want of drama. The reveal that he is the monster who killed his grandfather as he transforms into an Oozaru is a very sudden shift for Dragon Ball.
The Pilaf trio raised the stakes considerably, and Goku’s transformation is a way of ensuring the main cast’s survival while ending the arc on a high. Yamcha does away with his fear of women to save Bulma, and he works in tandem with Puar to stop Goku’s rampage.
9 Goku’s Tail Grows Back During The 21st Tenkaichi Budokai
With his tail cut off, Goku spends virtually the entirety of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai arc just another tailless freak. Enough time passes between when Yamcha cuts Goku’s tail off to the start of the tournament proper where one can be forgiven for forgetting Goku had a tail in the first place. Of course, this only makes it all the more surprising when his tail very suddenly grows back.
Pinned into place by Giran, Goku is on the verge of losing in his very first match of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, only for his tail to suddenly grow back. Overwhelming Giran’s self-confidence with his regained strength, Goku wins by forfeit and Bulma & company lament the coming full moon.
8 Jackie Chun Destroys The Moon
Sure enough, the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai ends up convenitaly falling on a full moon– and the tournament has lasted just long enough for the sun to start setting. With Goku’s tail regrown and the moon in the sky, the martial artist transforms midway through his final match with Jackie Chun. With everyone in immediate danger, Chun prepares a Kamehameha which Bulma believes will kill Goku.
The anime actually has a bit of fun with this, ending the episode on a cliffhanger and having Bulma do the only Next Episode Preview in the entire franchise not narrated by Goku. It’s one of the most charming adaptation details in Dragon Ball. Naturally, Chun does not kill Goku, instead destroying the moon and allowing the two to finish their match.
7 Tao Pai Pai Kills General Blue
The Red Ribbon Army arc marks a turning point of sorts for Dragon Ball. Blending the comedy of the first Hunt for the Dragon Balls with the action of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, the Red Ribbon Army results in Goku going on a globe-trotting adventure that has him fighting some of the series’ most colorful antagonists– most notably General Blue, first villain to truly give Goku a run for his money.
It gets to a point where the best Goku can do is survive his encounters with Blue, never defeating him. Blue eventually regroups at the Red Ribbon Army HQ, unknowingly sealing his fate. Unsatisfied with Blue’s performance, Commander Red gives Blue the chance to live by killing Tao Pai Pai. Before Blue can even flinch, Goku’s greatest enemy thus far is killed with a single tap of the tongue.
6 The 4-Star Dragon Ball Saves Goku’s Life
With General Blue dead, an even deadlier target is painted on Goku’s back. He could just barely withstand his encounters with Blue, so what hope does Goku have against Tao Pai Pai? It turns out, none. Tao Pai Pai makes quick work of Bora, tanks a Kamehameha at point blank with no visible damage done, and unleashes a Dodonpa that seemingly kills Goku.
The blast is so strong that Upa even begins digging a grave for Goku. In truth, Tao Pai Pai’s Dodonpa hit Goku’s 4-Star Dragon Ball. Perhaps it’s a bit obvious Goku was never going to die here, but how Toriyama keeps his protagonist alive is a stroke of genius and an excellent incorporation of Goku’s most prized possession.
5 The 7th Dragon Ball Is Missing
Single-handedly destroying the Red Ribbon Army himself, Goku is able to acquire every Dragon Ball the army has nabbed for themselves. Unfortunately, Goku realizes he only has six with no more Dragon Balls on the radar. With Bulma confirming that the radar isn’t broken, Goku has no choice but to divine the location from Uranai Baba.
Considering how the Red Ribbon Army arc was building up to a confrontation with, well, the Red Ribbon Army, it’s interesting for the arc to take a detour right at the end. When all is said and done, Uranai Baba’s portion of the arc puts into perspective that this saga was always about character & world building, not necessarily the Red Ribbon Army.
4 Tenshinhan Abandons The Crane School
Tenshinhan is known these days for his rather stoic demeanor (and noticeable lack of presence,) but he entered the story a bit of a massive jerk. A student of the Crane School, Tenshinhan aspired to be a great assassin like Tao Pai Pai at the start of the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai. He even goes at Goku with the intent to kill when he finds out Goku is responsible for Tao Pai Pai’s death.
That said, Tenshinhan’s fight with Jackie Chun ends up changing his life. Roshi forces Tenshinhan to question why he follows the Crane School, and to examine his relationship with martial arts. Tenshinhan finds himself not only struggling to come up with an answer, but enjoying the thrill of the fight more & more. Through his battle with Goku, Tenshinhan’s third eye is opened and sees the artistry of martial arts– leaving his old master behind.
3 Demon King Piccolo Wins
Between General Blue, Tao Pai Pai, and very briefly Tenshinhan, Goku faces some very dangerous opponents after the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. Even when he loses, though, Goku finds some way to come out on top, or at the very least safe. That changes when Demon King Piccolo enters the picture. Not only does he beat Goku into submission & nearly kill him, Piccolo actually succeeds in his initial goals.
Muten Roshi’s Mafuba fails, ending his life on the spot; Chaozu is killed before he can make his wish, keeping Shenlong active; and Piccolo kills Shenlong after having his wish granted, ensuring the Dragon Balls can’t be used anymore. It’s a conclusive victory on every front, and it takes a literal miracle for Goku to turn the tide in his favor.
2 God, Devil, And The Piccolo In-Between
It’s easy to misremember the Demon King Piccolo arc ending with its eponymous villain’s death, but the saga actually carries on a bit longer– both in the manga and anime. With the Demon King defeated, Karin instructs Goku to use his Nyoibo to ascend into the Heavens. There, Goku will meet and be trained by none other than God.
Unfortunately, the encounter ends up triggering a rather extreme fight or flight instinct in Goku. Recognizing Kami as Piccolo, Goku rushes in to attack only to be effortlessly deflected. God explains that he and Piccolo were once one & the same, while informing Goku that his archenemy is far from gone.
1 Goku’s Flight
After three years of training with God, Goku heads to the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai ready to dominate. He manages to get through both the quarter- and semi-finals with minimal effort, saving his strength primarily for Majunior (the reincarnated Piccolo.) While a fight to the death on Piccolo’s end, Goku very much wants to finally win the Tenkaichi Budokai, opting to fight by the rules whenever possible.
This naturally results in Piccolo gaining the upper hand in several instances, even fully crippling Goku by the end of the match. But Goku as written in the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai is incredibly cunning and strategic. Saving one last ability for the grand finale, Goku reveals that he’s been able to fly all along, colliding with Piccolo head-on.
Akira Toriyama’s ability to improvise and write on the fly is precisely why Dragon Ball is so compelling, resulting in some unforgettable plot twists.