Dragon Ball has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the dubbed anime on Cartoon Network, always rushing home from school to catch the daily episodes. I collected the cards and played with my brother, many times resulting in a heated argument or scuffle over who was really more powerful, Goku or Vegeta. I collected the manga because I could read ahead of the show, and they had blood and curse words, which for a youngster like myself was just the coolest. Suffice it to say, I am a big fan of Akira Toriyama’s creation.
However, with the shows US commercial run ending in 2003, so too did my interest, of course not entirely but it certainly waned. That is until Battle of the Gods, the first original Dragon Ball movie in 17 years, was announced in 2012 and subsequently released in 2013. I was suddenly roped back in and rediscovered why I loved the series in the first place: self-deprecating humor, diverse cast of personalities, and of course the fighting. Less than a year after reengaging with the series through Battle of the Gods, a second original movie, Resurrection ‘F’, was announced, as well as an entirely new series, Dragon Ball Super.
Dragon Ball is back and better than ever, and there’s never been a better time to be a fan. All of this nostalgia has sparked my retrospective side, and I thought why not create a list around Dragon Ball. I mean, who doesn’t love lists? So, without further adieu, here is my list of Top 10 Most Important Dragon Ball Z characters (emphasis on Z):
If this were Dragon Ball, Master Roshi would be higher on this list, but in Dragon Ball Z, his importance takes a dip. His influence on the battlefield is zero as the Z Fighters have long surpassed his battle strength. However, what he lacks in physicality, he makes up for in knowledge. His greatest gift to the series is its most famous technique - the Kamehameha.
It's used by a number of Z Fighters, including Goku, Gohan, Krillin, and Yamcha, as well as notable baddies Cell and Majin Buu. It’s a technique that has killed countless enemies and was the centerpiece of some of the greatest beam duels in the series, including Goku and Vegeta’s, Goku and Frieza’s, and Gohan and Cell’s.
And lest I forget, Master Roshi is also the series champion of comedic relief through his obsession with nudie magazines and lawsuit worthy acts of sexual harassment. The uncut Japanese version of the show is especially hilarious. Master Roshi, never change.
King Kai is not a character I first thought of when internally debating whom would make this list. However, after careful inspection, I realized just how important he truly was to the development and eventual outcome of the series. He was never directly responsible for any major development, but his brief appearances indirectly affected the outcome of nearly every battle.
Without King Kai’s training, Goku would have never learned two of his most featured techniques throughout the series, the Kaio-Ken and Spirit Bomb, both of which saved his ass against Vegeta and Frieza, and the Spirit Bomb was responsible for killing Majin Buu. The two techniques are also two of the most recognizable moves in the series. Ask any fan and they’ll know the ins and outs of each move and how they’re performed.
In addition, King Kai is the catalyst of some of the best comedic segments in the series. He adds battle substance and injects youthful flavor, two pillars of Dragon Ball Z.
Cell was the product of the evil genius Doctor Gero. Decades in the making, Cell was created in a lab using the genes from the strongest fighters on earth and beyond. With the regenerative properties of Piccolo, the Zenkai ability – genetic trait that allows a Saiyan's power to increase substantially after recovering from near fatal injuries – of Goku, and others, Cell made for one of the most formidable enemies the Z Fighters ever faced.
But simply being strong and causing mass chaos isn’t enough to land on this list, you must also bring an element to the series as a whole, and Cell certainly did that. He was the anchor of two seasons, one of which was entirely devoted to a tournament that beared his name - The Cell Games. He sparked the rage inside Gohan that brought about the first Super Saiyan 2. Finally, he also was involved in arguably the greatest fight sequence in the series. For a series that's cherished for its action, that's high praise.
Supposing this list was based purely on overall danger posed to the Z Warriors, Earth, and the Universe, Majin Buu would be #1. He was far and away the most powerful enemy Goku and company faced in the series. At every turn he took the very best the Z Warriors could muster head on, and he defeated them.
As Good Buu - a relative term in this case - he took Vegeta’s Final Explosion, a Kamikaze technique, point blank and survived with barely a scratch. As Super Buu, he absorbed Gotenks, Ultimate Gohan, and Vegetto; and he blows Earth to pieces, the only villian to ever actually destroy Earth. Finally, as Kid Buu, he handled a reincarnated, stronger Vegeta with ease, and he takes Super Saiyan 3 Goku beyond his limits. The only way Goku is able to defeat Kid Buu is through a combination of his Spirit Bomb and a power up using Shenron. Talk about needing to pull out all the stops to beat this guy.
But that’s not the end of Majin Buu. The Good Buu lives on and becomes a part of the Z Fighters, and Kid Buu's reincarnated into Uub, a child who becomes Goku’s number one student; Goku and Uub are the closing image of the series as they fly away together to train.
Trunks is really two different characters in Dragon Ball Z. He first appears as an adult from the future and has come back to warn Goku and friends of the impending android threat. His second appearance is during present day, first as an infant, and then later an adolescent during the Majin Buu saga. On their own, neither character would be enough to warrant a place on this list, but together they make a formidable combo.
Without future Trunks’ involvement, Goku would have certainly died from his heart disease, and consequently the androids would have destroyed the earth. Without present day Trunks’ involvement, there would be no Gotenks, who proved pivotal in the group effort to defeat Majin Buu.
As a side note, after Cell is defeated, Future Trunks returns to his own time and defeats the androids using the power he achieved in the present. We never see how that era ultimately plays out, but he was pivotal in saving earth in two separate timelines. That’s something no other character can say.
Frieza, to me, is the ultimate villain in Dragon Ball Z. He’s the personification of evil. A truly terrifying enemy the Z Fighters encounter, the saga that bears his name is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the series.
He’s known and feared throughout the universe, even by the gods. Out of fear that a Saiyan would become the legendary Super Saiyan, rise up, and destroy him, he single “fingerly” annihilated their home planet Vegeta.
Fast forward to his battle with the Z Fighters, and that’s exactly what happened, but not before a series of duels and deaths, many of which are among the best and most important in the series.
He’s the first character to achieve a power level of one million when he transforms into his second form. In his fourth and final form, he completely outmatches the Z Fighters without even using his full power, and he kills two of the series’ main characters, Vegeta and Krillin. Vegeta’s death is especially moving, as he was essentially a slave under Frieza for his whole life. And Krillin’s death is the catalyst that ultimately leads to Goku transforming into the legendary Super Saiyan that Frieza so deeply feared.
Frieza has everything a fan could want in a villain: terrifying power, a complete lack of empathy, and badass character design. There will never be another bad guy as cool as Frieza.
Few characters in Dragon Ball Z change. At its core, the show is simple and made for kids; complex, evolving characters are hard to find. Piccolo is one of those characters.
Dragon Ball Z begins with Piccolo vowing to kill Goku; their history carries over from their battles in Dragon Ball. But as the series progresses, he undergoes wholesale changes.
We get our first glimpse of his capacity for compassion after he sacrifices himself for Gohan during their battle with Nappa. Then, after fusing with Nail, a pure hearted Namekian, he becomes even more imbued with a sense of kinship among the Z Fighters. His final transformation happens after fusing with Kami, earths long standing, Namekian God. It’s at this point that Piccolo’s journey from villain to pure-hearted hero is complete.
That long, arduous journey showcased Piccolo's importance to earth's and the Z Fighters protection. As a fighter, he killed Raditz; he stalled Nappa, giving Goku time to make it the battlefield; he took Frieza second form head on; and he went toe-to-toe with Android 17 and Imperfect Cell. As a mentor, he transformed Gohan into a formidable warrior, and in Goku’s absence, taught Goten and Trunks fusion, allowing them to become Gotenks.
He’s the most important non-Saiyan character in the series. A stalwart professional of his craft. A fighter. A mentor. The best Namekian in the universe.
Gohan, whilst vitally important to the series, never quite lived up to expectations, and yet he sits at number three on this list. Why?
Besides being the first-born son of Goku, he’s potentially the strongest character in the series. Unfortunately, we’re only privy to that strength on occasions when he’s angered beyond his limit. It’s these moments that elevate Gohan’s importance.
As an infant, he overpowers Raditz. As a teenager, he’s the first Saiyan to transcend a Super Saiyan and become a Super Saiyan 2, making it possible for him to kill Perfect Cell in one of the series’ most epic beam duels. As an adult, his true inner strength is brought out by Old Kai during a lengthy ceremony. This “Ultimate Gohan” easily overpowers Super Buu without even transforming into a Super Saiyan.
If it wasn’t for his mothers constant emphasis on education, and Gohan could simply focus on his training like his father, he would be the strongest character in the series.
Vegeta is the antithesis to Goku – slight foreshadowing I know. In any medium a polarizing dynamic that lives between its two main characters is essential to creating palpable drama.
Vegeta’s complex and evolving nature make him the most intriguing character in the series; you never know what you’re going to get with him.
Early in the series he was nearly pure evil. Born of royal blood, the prince of Saiyan’s killed without mercy. But as the series progressed, goodness slowly crept into his heart. Hanging around Goku will do that to you. But it was really his relationship with Bulma and their son Trunks that leveled him. Two memorable moments showcasing his love best are when he uncontrollably attacks Perfect Cell after thinking Trunks was killed, and when he sacrifices his life against Majin Buu. By the end of Dragon Ball Z he’s a hero. However, there’s one thing he never loses – his pride.
Vegeta’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. The prince of Saiyan’s is willing to die at the drop of a hat to protect his pride. It’s his early loss to Goku that sets him on a path he never quite reaches the end of, a path to surpass Goku and be the strongest Saiyan. There are moments he betters Goku, but they’re ephemeral. However, it’s this unrelenting determination that makes him so badass. Never one to back down, and always with a confident battle-ready smirk, Vegeta is not just the second most important character of the series, he’s also its coolest.
Was there ever going to be another choice? Goku is Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Z is Goku. One cannot live without the other.
He’s not just the spiritual leader of the Z Fighters, but also its strongest member. His battles are of the finest quality. His duel with Cell, as I previously mentioned, is arguably the best drawn and animated of the entire series. His bouts with Vegeta and Frieza a close second and third, respectively.
He's a master of breaking limits. He became the first Saiyan in the series to achieve the level of a Super Saiyan, and while he wasn't the first to ascend beyond a Super Saiyan, he discovered it was possible. Plus, he's the only Saiyan in the series to achieve Super Saiyan 3.
He’s involved in saving the earth on every occasion. Off the top of my head: Raditz, Vegeta, Cell, and Majin Buu. His selfless acts made him a favorite of the Universes deities, whom allowed him unprecedented leniency in coming back to life on multiple occasions.
What makes him the most important character, however, is not his strength nor his battle record, but his positive influence on kids. He’s whom kids first think of when they think of Dragon Ball Z. Go anywhere in the world and his Kamehameha will be recognized. His innocent demeanor and candid personality make him so relatable – you can't not like and trust Goku!
He finds a way to win no matter the odds. Sure, at times under stupidly impossible odds, but this is an anime for kids after all; it’s not supposed to be realistic. And while you can surely find fault in those eye rolling moments, it’s also those moments that inspire kids like me. He’s the hero that never gives up, never backs down, and always tries his best no matter how tall the odds are stacked against him and his friends. That’s a hero worth celebrating, and that’s why he’s the most important character in Dragon Ball Z.
Krillin - If this were a list of the most important Dragon Ball characters, Krillin would be near the top! In Dragon Ball Z, however, he never quite lives up to his past. He will always be a core member of the Z Fighters and a best friend to Goku, but he never makes a significant impact on the battlefield after the Saiyan Saga. It was a really tough choice leaving him off this list, but I felt the likes of Master Roshi and King Kai had a more significant impact on the series because of their knowledge that was passed down to the Z Fighters, much of which was used over and over throughout the series.
As a sign of respect for the little noseless guy, here's a highlight reel of his most memorable moments.