Whether you're more or less familiar with the world of manga and anime, Son Goku is a name that everyone has heard before. The undisputed protagonist of the successful Dragon Ball series was created by Japanese artist Akira Toriyama in the mid-1980s as a cartoon to take a break from the publication that had made him famous, Dr. Slump. But few predicted the passions that Son Goku and Bulma would raise and that have turned them into icons of Japanese and world popular culture.
What began almost as a stroll through the countryside, with a classic story plot intended for the younger members of the household, gained popularity and grew along with its followers. The original Dragon Ball was followed by Dragon Ball Z, much more mature and complex, Dragon Ball GT (technically unrelated to Toriyama's official canon), numerous films and the recent Dragon Ball Super. And no matter how many differences they had between them, they all had Goku in common. Where did their success come from? How did Toriyama create such a charismatic and popular character?
Building the character
When we first met Son Goku, we were introduced to him as a child living alone on Paoz Mountain. It was clear that, beyond his monkey tail, he was not an ordinary human because he possessed great strength, he was immune to bullets... the clues were always there. Although the advance of the plot showed that Goku's origin was much more complex than it seemed, Toriyama took two characters as clear references.
The first is Sun Wukong, the monkey king. This mythological being is one of the most important heroes of the legendary Chinese and protagonist of Journey to the West, an anonymous text that dates from 1590 and became one of the most representative literary works of the Asian country. Sun Wukong is a monkey-like being who fell from the skies, possesses a magic stick that changes size, moves in a flying cloud, confronted dragons and demons, and embarked on several journeys to achieve immortality and protect a young man in his quest for sacred texts of Buddhism. Does this look familiar? It should, as Akira Toriyama relied on this mythological hero to create Son Goku.
The action of the original manga focuses precisely on the journey Son Goku and Bulma make through strange lands to find the dragon spheres, which can bestow immortality. From grandpa Gohan's typically Chinese attire through the mountain where Goku lives, his transformation into a giant monkey (Ozaru) and even the supreme god of the heavens are many common points that can be found between the two stories. Even its Super Saiyan level four look is reminiscent of some of the interpretations that have been made of Sun Wukong. Toriyama, like other authors such as Tolkien, wanted to honour the beliefs and legends of other people to give life to the world he was creating.
The other great influence, though less notorious at first, came from across the sea. Akira Toriyama was always a confessed admirer of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Jose Shuster. Even before Dragon Ball, the mangaka (manga author) had already made references to the Man of Steel with Suppaman, a chubby and ridiculous parody of Superman who made an appearance in Dr. Slump. Later, the origin of the Kryptonian would serve to give more interest to Goku's character and develop later arguments.
With Goku as an adult we discovered that he arrived on the planet in a space capsule just like the DC Comics superhero, where he was found by the old Gohan. It turns out that Goku is an alien belonging to the Saiyan race, whose planet was destroyed, who had been sent to Earth to destroy it, but a timely blow to the head erased his memory and made him that kind and noble person we all know. In 2014, Akira Toriyama launched the manga Dragon Ball Minus, partially rewriting the character's origins and justifying his presence on Earth as an attempt by his parents to protect him, just as Jor-El did good with his son Kal.
But why do we like it so much?
The hero on whose shoulders lies the fate of the world, humanity's last hope on countless occasions. Son Goku is the classic warrior who always triumphs at the end of the Greek tragedy, a powerful and pure being who is good by nature and will always fight for his fellow men. It may be a flat, almost Manichean description, but Toriyama embodied in Goku the absolute good, all the good that man can offer.
In addition to his good-natured character, the legendary Super Saiyan manages to convey his good humour and innocence in any situation without this being to the detriment of the epicity that some moments deserve. This archetypal main character is quite common in the world of manga and anime, just look at the cases of Pirate Luffy in One Piece or Naruto in the series of the same name.
With Son Goku, Toriyama launched a direct attack on the most sentimental and emotional side of people. In addition to having seen him grow through his adventures, which always creates a deeper bond, we are presented as a balanced and fun character who appeals to our inner child and who is not hard to love. With his magical cloud or flying on his own, on Earth or in Namek, blond or dark, Dragon Ball fans are still looking forward to seeing Goku around for a while.
Image: Dragon Ball FighterZ, Bandai/Namco.