The Dragon Ball Super era has made many alterations to the original mythology, but Akira Toriyama’s S-cells explanation is undoubtedly the weirdest.
What in Kami’s name are S-cells in Dragon Ball? Thanks to the eternal popularity of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball franchise, the story of Goku is still going strong decades after the manga series’ debut. Set in the years following Buu’s epic defeat, the Dragon Ball Super era has given rise to new movies, an anime series and a fresh comic run that remains in publication. Dragon Ball Super may not be afforded the same reverence as Dragon Ball Z, but it’s certainly a vast improvement on the infamous Dragon Ball GT.
Despite being largely well received, modern Dragon Ball is guilty of liberally rewriting its own mythology. Goku and Vegeta growing beards, Potara earring fusion, Goku’s origin story, Frieza introducing scouters on planet Vegeta and Gohan actually being useful – all examples of Dragon Ball Super ignoring or changing major lore. Arguably the biggest retcon, however, concerns the fabled Super Saiyan transformation. Even in the Dragon Ball Z era, fans questioned how the likes of Goten and Trunks could pick up the golden-haired form so easily when their fathers went through hell for the same power. Dragon Ball Super goes further by showing Saiyans from another Universe transforming with surprising ease, and making “weird tingles” the trigger instead of immense anger.
Asked about the Super Saiyan transformation, Akira Toriyama came out with a wild explanation that caught fans completely off-guard: S-cells. The Dragon Ball creator stated that all Saiyans possess these cells within their biology, and a certain level is required for Super Saiyan transformation. S-cells can be increased either through regular training or by being kind-hearted. This is why Goku was the first Saiyan to achieve the form in generations. According to Toriyama, accumulated S-cells are passed on genetically, explaining how half-human Saiyans transform so easily. Meanwhile, the Saiyans of Universe 6 were peace-keepers rather than barbarians of Universe 7, so Caulifla and Cabba already had the S-cells required to go Super Saiyan.
Toriyama’s S-cells explanation works in terms of plugging the plot hole that Goten and Trunks created when they secretly attained the Super Saiyan form, despite not training anywhere near as hard or feeling anywhere near as angry as their fathers. The S-cell addition to Dragon Ball mythology also clears up why the Universe 6 Saiyans take to their golden upgrade so quickly, making the “tingly back” nonsense a little easier to swallow.
On the other hand, many fans recoiled in horror at Toriyama’s sweeping rewrite of Super Saiyan mythology. The idea of S-cells accumulating over generations doesn’t logically make sense, even in a world where an evil pink blob turns people in chocolate bars and Goku can have two children without ever kissing his wife. Surely the transformation shouldn’t be so elusive, especially after Gine proved good-natured Saiyans did exist before Goku. Logic aside, Toriyama’s claim that a Saiyan needs to have lots of S-cells to become a Super Saiyan, but also needs to be a good person, and then requires a certain level of raw power feels cumbersome compared to the original explanation of “be strong and get angry.”
But the biggest problem with Dragon Ball’s S-cells is how they retroactively change Goku’s most important arc. During his fight with Frieza, Goku achieved the mystical Super Saiyan transformation after the death of his best friend, fulfilling the prophecy of the Saiyan race. Adding S-cells to the mix detracts from the intense emotion of Goku’s first transformation and makes the iconic scene feel more clinical. It wasn’t really Frieza brutally murdering Krillin that did the trick – it was genetics and Goku’s friendly attitude. Because of this, the S-cells have been compared to the midi-chlorians of Star Wars – a scientific explanation for the Force that took away the inherent mysticism of the Jedi and replaced it with something from a textbook. S-cells haven’t been explored in the Dragon Ball story just yet, and Toriyama is notorious for adding mythology on the fly – perhaps this explanation is best taken with a large pinch of salt.