How Dragon Ball ultimately treats its cast is something of a hot button issue within the fandom. For the most part, general consensus seems to be that Akira Toriyama lets go of his supporting characters too soon, often before they can reach their full potential. On the flip side, it’s specifically because of this approach that Dragon Ball has so many characters with distinct arcs and identities.
Characters like Yamcha, Tenshinhan, and Krillin may not have held onto their importance until the very end, but they’re great characters with interesting arcs that… cut off perhaps a bit too early, but ended up allowing other characters to shine. Dragon Ball rotates its cast quite a bit, but it wouldn’t have a huge roster of fan favorites if Toriyama didn’t move on every now and then.
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time Oolong was a main character– let alone a part of the main trio alongside Goku and Bulma– in the context of modern Dragon Ball. The series moved so far away from its humble origins, even by the end of the original manga, and someone like Oolong seemingly doesn’t fit.
Oolong stops being important as soon as Goku heads off to train with Muten Roshi. While Oolong does get to appear and contribute lines of dialogue here & there, he’s very much in the background for the rest of Dragon Ball. Interestingly, Oolong is sidelined while Yamcha and Pu’er both get to be relevant later on despite initially being less important than Oolong.
9 Muten Roshi
Introduced in the very first arc, Roshi ebbs and flows between main character and supporting character during pre-Z Dragon Ball. He’s a main character for the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, and the Demon King Piccolo arc, but he appears in a more supportive capacity for the remainder of the series.
His relevance only drops after he dies in the Demon King Piccolo arc, but it’s actually the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai that fully resolves his arc. Roshi explicitly retires, refusing to even humor entering the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai. For the first time, the spotlight is solely on the next generation of fighters. This is one character retirement that actually has thematic and narrative justification.
One could argue Yamcha really stopped being important after the first story arc, but Toriyama does transition Yamcha into something of a martial arts expert– at least as far as history and knowledge goes. For the first few arcs, one of Yamcha’s main traits is his ability to recognize martial artists and different styles at a glance.
It’s a cool detail for a character to have in a martial arts story– and it keeps exposition clean– but Yamcha’s relevance completely tanks after he dies in the Saiyan arc. While he isn’t too important to the story up to that point, he’s a constant presence and always shows up to fight. Yamcha even goes so far as to formally retire in the Cell arc, completely outclassed.
Like Oolong, there was indeed a time where Yajirobe was quite relevant. He’s a flat out main character for the Demon King Piccolo arc, pretty much taking over Krillin’s role (to the point where they share a voice actress in the manga & Goku makes reference to Yajirobe sounding like Krillin in the manga).
Yajirobe’s importance more or less fades away with Krillin’s revival, but he does get to come back to pull his weight one last time in the fight against Vegeta. After that, though, Yajirobe is done for good. Which makes sense. He’s one of the only main characters who actively hated training– he was never going to keep up.
Considering just how hard and fast Tenshinhan loses his relevance– more jarringly than any other character in the series save for one, honestly– it’s hard to believe he was Goku’s secondhand man for basically two story arcs back to back, serving as the most important character behind Goku in both the Demon King Piccolo and 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai arcs.
He’s absent during the first half of the Saiyan arc alongside the rest of the Earthlings, but it doesn’t take long for him to take against Nappa. It’s shocking, and it sells how outclassed the main characters are without Goku, but Tenshinhan never quite recovers. Toriyama gives him stuff to do in both the Cell and Buu arcs, but it’s minor and his arc is very clearly closed.
God, Kami-sama, or just Kami is an interesting character. The end of the Demon King Piccolo arc introduces him with so much fanfare and he’s important to both the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai and Saiyan arcs, but he too loses his relevance after the fight against the Saiyans. He gets to briefly contribute at the end of the Namek arc, but that’s really it from God.
For the rest of the series, he exists in the background only to be assimilated by Piccolo a little over halfway through the Cell arc. It’s a good note to write Kami-sama out on and resolves his arc neatly, but it’s just a shame that he went from a critically important character to lore trivia in no time at all.
4 Future Trunks
Future Trunks has the best exit out of any character in Dragon Ball, and while he does return for the Goku Black arc, that meant having to undo a perfect character arc for Trunks. The entire Cell arc sees his world view changing, his confidence increasing, and his relationship with his father growing.
By the time he defeats Cell in his timeline, Trunks is his own man, fully developed, and ready to take care of the future. That’s a strong arc, even for Dragon Ball, and it only makes sense Akira Toriyama wrote out Trunks when he did and they way he did. The Goku Black arc doesn’t wrap up Trunks’ arc half as well, but it does reset the status quo back to where it was– with no Future Trunks.
Even though he dies twice and ends up missing an entire story arc because of it, Krillin holds onto his importance and relevance for dear life. He’s relevant to every single story arc after his introduction save for the Buu arc. Even then, he’s an active part of the cast until Majin Buu is actually awakened.
That’s an insanely long time for an Earthling to stay relevant, but as Goku’s best friend, it only makes sense. Krillin only truly loses his importance once the conflict starts and he can’t keep up. After that point, there’s no time to mingle with the supporting characters as Dragon Ball just powers through to the end.
Piccolo, like Krillin, is able to stay relevant from his introduction all the way to the final arc of the series. It isn’t even until Piccolo dies when Majin Buu destroys the Earth that his importance is sapped. Even then, it’s arguably that Piccolo is still important after the fact as he’s one of the few characters aside from Goku and Uub to get some decent focus in the ending.
Dragon Ball Super also keeps Piccolo active in the part, but here’s the thing: what’s his arc? Piccolo’s arc has been definitively done since he merged with God and arguably done since he sacrificed his life to save Gohan. The Namek arc didn’t give him much, but it gave him some connection to Freeza and a thematic connection with Goku. In Super, he’s just everyone’s favorite Big Green.
1 Son Gohan
Kind of hard to believe Gohan was the series’ main character for a while when he’s barely relevant in either GT or Super. Toriyama wavered on which direction to take Gohan in and it ultimately cost the character any semblance of direction. Super can still course correct things, and hopefully the Moro arc will, but Gohan’s not in a great place at the moment.
He went from Dragon Ball’s lead behind Goku to just one of Goku’s sons. It’s sad considering how prominent Gohan is throughout the series and just how much he ends up growing over the course of the Z-era. Toriyama wrote him to be the main character, changed his mind, and Gohan is suffering for it.