Is there good in everyone? Between villains like Frieza, Cell, and Zamasu, Dragon Ball posits ‘no.’ Which isn’t to say that it isn’t good in most everyone, a message which Dragon Ball actually does portray with quite a bit of consistency. For every unredeemable villain, there are two others who have joined the main cast as protagonists.
From the very first story arc all the way to the last, Goku crosses paths with villainous characters who reform and even redeem themselves– often simply because they had the opportunity to meet Goku. He rarely ever means to, but Goku brings out the best in Dragon Ball’s villains. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend.
- Pure Buu
Majin Buu is chaos personified. Unlike Piccolo Daimao, Frieza, or Cell, Majin Buu isn’t a reasonable being. He has agency, as indicated by Fat Buu and Evil Buu, but in his purest form, the Djinn cannot be controlled. Before he can even think, his first instinct is to destroy planet Earth with everyone on it.
Shortly after Oolong joins the early Dragon Team, the main trio bumps into Yamcha & Puar in the desert. While Yamcha has gone on to become something of laughing stock in Dragon Ball, he was a legitimate threat at the start of the series. In fact, Yamcha very nearly kills Goku himself– only interrupted by his crippling fear of women.
Catching wind of the Dragon Balls and recognizing he won’t be defeating Goku in a fair fight, Yamcha fashions himself a double agent, planning to steal the Dragon Balls out from under the main cast’s noses. Like Oolong, however, spending time with Goku & Bulma slowly makes Yamcha care for them. By the end of the arc, he has overcome his fear of women by physically saving Bulma and he even cuts off Goku’s tail himself, going from bandit to genuine hero.
It takes quite a long time for Vegeta to reach anything even close to redemption, and while he’s part of the main cast in the Cell arc, he’s not a genuine hero until midway through the Buu arc. Vegeta carries a lot of Goku-related baggage throughout Dragon Ball, and it’s never really resolved unless until nears the end.
Vegeta is forced to come to terms with the fact that Goku is better than him, but this just makes him spiral. Majin Vegeta is a midlife crisis unlike any other, and it’s only fitting that it ends up in Vegeta’s death. When he comes back to life, Vegeta has clearly had time to think about his relationship with Goku, and even muses on how he’s come to accept his place in their rivalry. Vegeta’s reward? Enma deems him a good person and brings him back to life. Humility goes a long way.
Tenshinhan and Goku are ideological opposites in the 22nd Tenkaichi Budokai, both representing the Crane and Turtle schools respectively. Tenshinhan embodies the violence of the Crane School, a rejection of martial arts for its own sake, and an acceptance of physical cruelty. Goku, on the other hand, embodies the spirit of the Crane School, having a genuine love for martial arts & combat into battle.
Roshi manages to shake Tenshinhan’s beliefs enough where his fight with Goku ends up showing him how fundamentally flawed the Crane School is. Tsuru Sennin’s teachings invalidate the art and deprive Tenshinhan of the ability of enjoying martial arts. Fighting Goku puts into perspective how much Ten sincerely loves to fight, and while he doesn’t join the Turtle School, meeting Goku makes him reject the Crane School.
Oolong is ultimately the first in a series of villains that end up reforming thanks to their meeting of Goku. In Oolong’s case, he’s defiant towards Goku & Bulma for as long as humanly possible. He’s constantly trying to escape danger, withholds valuable information, and generally doesn’t act like a team player.
Which makes it all the more surprising when Oolong selfishlessly flies headfirst into danger to stop Pilaf from making his wish. Oolong doesn’t have some big dramatic turning point, simply spending so much time with Goku is enough to naturally develop him. The Oolong from the beginning of the arc would never have given Goku the clothes off his back.
It’s debatable just how much of a villain Broly is in Dragon Ball Super: Broly. A great deal of the movies is spent characterizing him and making sure that audiences can sympathize with the Saiyan. Heck, Frieza’s even the film’s formal antagonist, ensuring Broly won’t simply be a standard one & done movie villain.
Regardless of how villainous Broly is, he’s being explicitly manipulated to do evil– something Goku recognizes. It’s interesting how conscious Goku is of not killing Broly, even warning Vegeta that he’s about to do so himself. It all makes sense at the end of the film, however, when Goku offers to train Broly after seeing something in the Saiyan no one else could.
Piccolo is first introduced into Dragon Ball as Piccolo Daimao, a Demon King. He’s the first villain whose presence results in the deaths of multiple main characters, and Goku just barely manages to knock him off. Before Piccolo Daimao dies, however, he spits out an egg and lives on through his son, Piccolo.
Piccolo goes on to fight in the 23rd Tenkaichi Budokai as Majunior, but is defeated by Goku. Rather than killing him, however, Goku shows mercy and gives Piccolo a Senzu– giving them an opportunity to fight another day. This kindness ends up being the spark that lights Piccolo’s redemption. Gohan, Goku’s son, ends up bringing out the best in Piccolo when they train together, and Piccolo even thanks both Goku & Gohan for reforming him when he dies.
It could perhaps be argued that Jiren wasn’t a villain at the start of the Universe Survival arc, but he’s pretty much a traditional Dragon Ball antagonist by the end of the Tournament of Power– no different than Tenshinhan or Majunior before him. Jiren shows no consideration for his team members in a team tournament, and basically orchestrates Universe 11’s loss with no help. Jiren believes pure power is above all, but his ideology is flaw & warped as it’s too individualistic.
Jiren’s also extremely arrogant, dismissing genuinely powerful fighters like Goku and Vegeta unless they “impress” him. Jiren is humbled beyond belief, subdued by substantially weaker fighters and ultimately resulting in U11’s erasure. Given a new chance at life, Jiren’s demeanor at the end of the arc suggests Goku had a profound impact on the Pride Troop.