Dragon Ball Z is undeniably one of the most beloved anime sagas of all time. Planet-splitting action, intense fights -- the reasons for its popularity are endless. It's undeniably popular. Therefore, it's more than a little odd that its main protagonist, Son Goku, is seldom referenced as anyone's favorite character. Sure, he is the most powerful and has some of the most badass scenes in the series, but he isn't as popular as Vegeta, Piccolo, Trunks or even many of the villains like Frieza, Cell or Broly.
Why is that?
The simple truth is this: Goku isn't really a central character in Dragon Ball Z. He isn't the main character. Very little in this series happens because of Goku. But if Goku isn't the main character, who is? Well, the truth is... nobody.
What is a Protagonist?
It may seem silly, but if we're gonna dethrone Goku as the protagonist of Dragon Ball Z, we have to briefly establish what a protagonist is.
The protagonist of a series is its central character. Decisions that direct the flow of the plot are made by them. Their actions influence and impact the path of the story. While a writer can create a passive protagonist, many readers usually identify or gravitate toward characters whose actions drive the plot.
Protagonists also usually undergo an arc where they change and develop as a character. The change can be for better or worse, as many protagonists actually become worse people as the story goes on (such as Macbeth or Light Yagami). This isn't always the case, though, as many more protagonists overcome personal shortcomings as a result of their journey.
So how does this play into Dragon Ball Z?
Goku Already Completed his Arc
Goku is undeniably the protagonist of Dragon Ball, but something changes once Dragon Ball Z starts.
In Dragon Ball, Goku is the central focus. He goes on a journey with Bulma to collect the Dragon Balls. Then, he trains with Roshi and Krillin. He fights the Red Ribbon Army. It is his emotional journey audiences are taken on during the Piccolo arc, with him having to process his emotions following Krillin's demise and his master being defeated, with him carrying through the legacy of his master and Kami in the process of beating Piccolo.
The story is his coming of age, from childhood to adulthood.
The only thing is, he really doesn't develop much after that. Coming out of Dragon Ball, Goku is a fully-formed character. He doesn't undergo any real change between learning of his Saiyan heritage and flying off with Uub at the end of the series. He grows stronger, sure, but he still makes goofy decisions, loves battle and maintains a pretty consistent desire to prove he is stronger than anyone else. His only decisions allow other characters to take center stage (such as encouraging Gohan to fight Cell, staying dead and not returning following the battle against Frieza on Namek).
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