Villain Redemption in Dragon Ball

Today I’m going to talk about villain redemption in Dragon Ball.

It’s a really simple formula, something the comic did over and over again. But it just worked.

Yamcha was a dirty misogynistic thief, but after a beating from Goku and friends he eventually became a hero. Tenshinhan was a rude haughty antagonist in the World Martial Arts Tournament who soon became a steadfast ally. Piccolo was a literal demon made of evil incarnate and also an inspiring adoptive father to poor lonely Gohan. Vegeta massacred planets and still somehow morphed into a grumpy father. Villains like Buu and Beerus went through the same exact transition.

And somehow, it always worked.

I love villain redemption in Dragon Ball and in the sparing few series that also make it happen.

It’s such a simple thing that so few long-running action-packed series are keen on doing. Which is really weird for how utterly influential Dragon Ball has been for the past forty years, honestly.

You’ll get the occasional single baddie who slowly redeems themself over the course of the series, especially anything where that villain is overwhelmingly the best part of the show. Your Prince Zukos, your Catras, your Green Rangers, your Shadows the Hedgehog, those sympathetic brooding dudes who you know can make that heel-face turn if they just shift a little bit. (tw: TVTropes)

But villain redemption in Dragon Ball is different breed than that. First of all, the big villains are usually much more threatening, with entire story arcs built around defeating them. But once they’re out of things, once a new baddie rears their head, they’ll join the heroes. Sometimes reluctantly at first, but once they’ve dipped their toes into heroism that all goes away.

It’s one of my favorite tropes, and it works better and better the longer a story goes. They don’t necessarily have to atone for their actions, or even really be a good person, but they’ve joined the gang’s friend group, they use their cool powers for heroism, and we get another excellent character to root for. It turns out sometimes the key to converting someone to heroism is to beat them up so hard they see the light. And when it happens several times in a row? That’s the best.

It probably helps Frieza hit harder as a villain because he refuses to change, refuses to bow down to loss after loss no matter how badly outmatched he is, how many chances he’s given. A nasty man who meets several nasty ends.

Some western series do it, like Steven Universe and Jackie Chan Adventures, but it’s surprisingly thin even in the world of shounen anime. I’d love to see so much more of this!

Villain redemption in Dragon Ball is one of the things that makes the series great. It gives a light comic vibe even when the story has entered its most serious and dramatic moments, because you can at least look at the scene and go, “Wow, half these heroes were trying to conquer the world just like the villain now.”

Toriyama Akira was the best at keeping things light, keeping things fun, and bringing back almost all his best villains in a new light was one of the best things he ever pioneered. I’m really gonna miss him.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get a series as wacky yet cool as Dragon Ball ever again, so I’ll just keep appreciating the work we did get.

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