Chances are that even if you haven't watched Dragon Ball Z, you know something about it. It's one of the most enduring anime series to have made it outside of Japan, largely introducing a generation of North American audiences to the Japanese animation industry.

But what exactly is Dragon Ball Z? You've probably seen the muscular, battle-damaged men with spiky blonde hair — or you may have heard how they like to scream at the top of their lungs as they level up. If you haven't followed the series, however, you might be more than a little lost as to why a simple hair color change is such a big deal.

With a new Dragon Ball series airing in Japan and a new Dragon Ball Z movie premiering in North American theaters later this summer, now is the perfect chance to finally learn what exactly a Dragon Ball is. Read on.

The Basics

Dragon Ball originally started as a manga – or Japanese comic – from creator Akira Toriyama, and would later be adapted into two popular anime series.

The first, Dragon Ball, follows the adventures of Goku, an almost Superman figure. Goku is a Saiyan, a member of a powerful race of warriors who enjoy conquering other planets — which is the exact reason Goku was sent to Earth in the first place.

Only Goku doesn't remember any of that. He crash-lands, hits his head and soon befriends a teenage girl named Bulma, who is on the hunt for the seven magical Dragon Balls. Along the way, Goku becomes a skilled martial artist, fights in various tournaments, and meets numerous friends and villains who will continue to play a large role in the series — such as Krillin, Piccolo and Master Roshi.

That's where Dragon Ball Z comes in. Dragon Ball Z serves as a follow-up series, with Goku all grown-up and married with a kid. His alien origins finally come back to haunt him when a fellow Saiyan named Raditz appears on Earth and spills the beans. Goku of course refuses to help Raditz conquer the planet, and so the two fight. Things get pretty over-the-top from there. The series is a fighting anime, with characters screaming as they fly through the air, delivering punches and kicks at lightning speed.

Expect to see lots of this:

And this:

Yep, that's Dragon Ball Z in a nutshell.

The Main Characters


One of the last Saiyans, Goku is an innocent, naive and genuinely kind-hearted person, always trying to help others. He is also extremely competitive and is always looking to better himself. He is Earth's primary defender against all manner of intergalactic threats and the first Saiyan to achieve the legendary "Super Saiyan" form. He dies numerous times over the course of the series, and is revived each time with the power of the Dragon Balls. He is married to Chi-Chi and has two sons, Gohan and Goten. Goku is the heart and soul of the series, and without him, Dragon Ball wouldn't be as wildly popular as it is today.


Bulma is a brilliant scientist and inventor. She's also the daughter of the owner of Capsule Corp., a technology corporation known for creating tiny capsules that can shrink down objects for easy storage. She first meets Goku on her quest to find the Dragon Balls, using a Dragon Ball detector of her own creation. She later marries Vegeta and even invents time travel in an alternate timeline — where she sends her son Trunks to the past in order to save the future.


Vegeta is the prince of the near-extinct Saiyan race. Originally a villain in the service of intergalactic tyrant Frieza, Vegeta eventually becomes an ally as he helps the defenders of Earth thwart Frieza's plans. He then settles on Earth and later marries Bulma. The two have a son named Trunks.


One of Goku's most loyal friends, Krillin starts as Goku's rival while the two train together under Master Roshi to compete in the Tenkaichi Budōkai tournament. Krillin is a capable warrior, though he is often presented as comic relief and is killed multiple times over the course of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z.


The spawn of the demon king Piccolo Daimao, Piccolo is yet another character who starts as a villain and eventually joins Goku and his friends as defenders of Earth. Piccolo originally intends to carry on his "father's" dream of world domination, and seeks revenge against Goku for his father's death.

Piccolo at first only helps Goku upon realizing that if Raditz and the Saiyans conquer Earth, his own plans to conquer it will be ruined. Later on, it is revealed that Piccolo is a Namekian, a member of the race responsible for creating the Dragon Balls. He is a mentor to Goku's first son Gohan, helping him train in the way of martial arts. As a result, the two share a close bond.

What Exactly Are The Dragon Balls, And Why Do People Want Them?

Think of the Dragon Balls as a kind of magic lamp split into seven pieces. When all the balls are collected, the magical dragon (genie) Shenron appears, granting the person who summons him one wish. Once that wish is granted, the Dragon Balls are again flung to the far corners of Earth and must be collected once more.

The planet Namek also has its own set of dragon balls, which we'll get to in a minute. Needless to say, those wishes come in handy for bringing characters back to life or restoring the untold destruction that is inflicted over the course of the series. Without the Dragon Balls, none of the series would make any sense — so they are kind of a big deal.

Main Dragon Ball Z Story Arcs:

Frieza Saga

Perhaps the biggest villain of the series, Frieza is an intergalactic tyrant who committed genocide against the Saiyan race in fear of their power. He did, however, spare three of them in exchange for wealth and power, including the prince of the Saiyans, Vegeta. After Raditz is defeated on Earth at the cost of Goku's life, Vegeta and another Saiyan named Nappa arrive on Earth to finish the job. Goku is revived with the Dragon Balls in order to stop them — but not before a number of Goku's allies are killed and the Dragon Balls become useless.

The heroes of Earth then learn of the Saiyan's master Frieza and his plans for immortality. Frieza intends to travel to the planet Namek in order to use the planet's own version of the Dragon Balls to become immortal. Krillin, Goku's son Gohan and Bulma travel to Namek to thwart Frieza's plans. Vegeta slowly but surely becomes an ally as well, as he rebels against his master.

Frieza mercilessly kills entire villages of Namekians as he searches for the Dragon Balls and eventually succeeds in acquiring them. The only problem is he doesn't know Namekian — requiring him to search out a Namekian elder in order to learn the proper phrase to invoke the dragon.

While Frieza does this, Goku and Vegeta become locked in a battle with the Ginyu Force, Frieza's elite group of mercenaries. Goku eventually defeats their leader and arrives to help battle Frieza, but not before Frieza has already mortally wounded Piccolo and killed Krillin. The death of his friend pushes Goku over the edge, causing him to take on his "Super Saiyan" form, increasing his power substantially. The two battle as planet Namek deteriorates around them, with Goku emerging the victor.

Cell Saga

Several years after the events of the Frieza saga, a number of powerful androids created by the Red Ribbon Army awaken to seek revenge against Goku for thwarting the army's plans in the original Dragon Ball. The Red Ribbon Army also created a powerful artificial life form with the ability to absorb the power of others. This creation is known as Cell, and possess the genetic information of Frieza, Goku, Vegeta and Piccolo. Cell travels back in time from the future in order to achieve his ultimate goal of absorbing the androids and becoming the perfect life form.

After absorbing two of the androids, Cell intends to destroy the planet. But first he wants to hold a tournament, dubbed the "Cell Games," in order to test his new-found power. Goku is defeated by Cell, and when it comes time to choose who will fight next, Goku nominates his son Gohan. When Cell destroys Gohan's friend Android #16 and unleashes an army of Cell Juniors on the rest of the fighters, Gohan becomes enraged and achieves the power of Super Saiyan 2. Gohan then destroys Cell with a powerful Kamehameha blast.

Majin Buu Saga

Long before the events of the show, an evil warlock named Bibbidi created the magical life-form known as Majin Buu with the purpose of conquering the galaxy. Even his creator found Buu too powerful and sealed him away on Earth with the goal of letting him loose at a later date — but he was killed before he could release his creation once more. Bibbidi's son Bobbidi arrives on Earth to finish the job.

Buu is unleashed on the world — but isn't the terrifying creature many expected. He is a fat, pink naive blob who doesn't understand his own destructive powers or the pain he inflicts on others. He quickly kills Bobbidi and goes about destroying Earth. He later expels the "evil" from his body, creating a new, more powerful version of Buu that then proceeds to absorb the fat Buu. This leads to the creation of yet another Buu form.

Goku and Vegeta perform a "fusion" and turn into the character known as Vegetto in order to defeat this new Buu. They are eaten by Buu, but while inside his body, manage to free the various characters that have been absorbed. Once outside Buu's body, Goku and Vegeta travel to the planet of the Kais (gods of the Dragon Ball universe), where Goku destroys Buu and wishes for him to be reincarnated as a good person. Buu is reincarnated as the character Oob, whom Goku takes under his wing in order to train.

That's how the series ends. Another spin-off anime called Dragon Ball GT was released, but has since been disowned by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. Instead, the most recent Dragon Ball Z movies and the upcoming Dragon Ball Super show will serve as the real continuation of Dragon Ball Z, starring many of the same characters as the heroes of Earth, who must once again protect their planet from super powerful beings who wish to do it harm.

Now that you understand the basics, you should have no problem diving right into all the new Dragon Ball goodness to come.

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