Red Ribbon Army arc Part III
Chapters 55 – 112, Episodes 29 – 78
Upon being gifted a Dragon Ball from Hatchan and finding the gentle Artificial Human a new home with Snow, Goku sets out to find the next Dragon Ball only to discover that the radar Bulma gifted him at the end of 21st Tenkaichi Budokai broke at some point during the events of Muscle Tower. Given the ferocity at which Goku fights, it does make sense he would naturally damage his possessions sooner or later. Depriving Goku of the Dragon Rider likewise provides a suitable excuse for integrating Bulma back into the plot considering she was the one who originally built it, requiring Goku travel to West City and find her.
Comically, with no means of transportation, Goku temporarily finds himself stranded only to be informed by the mayor of Jingle Village that Kinto’un cannot actually be destroyed. So long as Goku calls out for the cloud, it will come back reformed. While giving Goku back Kinto’un so soon after its initial deformation at the hands of Colonel Silver seems like a misstep, the humor associated with Goku never even trying to call for the cloud in hindsight fits his character rather well, and Kinto’un is simply too useful as a literary device to keep it away from Goku for the bulk of the arc.
Goku’s visit to Bulma acts as a detour of sorts, allowing audiences to decompress after the action of Muscle Tower. Toriyama also uses this story beat to introduce the series’ first urban setting: West City. A metropolis, West City adds a considerable amount of flavor to the world of Dragon Ball. While the manga’s aesthetic was rooted in retro-futurism from the first chapter, the settings were almost always primarily grounded in rural environments with a Chinese influence. West City feels appropriately westernized with a heavy emphasis on technology.
West City also shows a greater glimpse at the inhabitants of Dragon Ball’s world. Throughout the early arcs of the series, Toriyama draws an equal blend of human and animal characters. It isn’t until West City, however, where they are shown co-existing in one set location. The blend of humans and animals is entirely visual, but it’s one that adds a considerable amount of charm to Dragon Ball’s socioeconomic landscape.
Goku spends approximately two chapters of the manga in West City. The first chapter sets up the new environment along with showcasing how out of place Goku is in an urban setting. The second, meanwhile, has Goku reuniting with Bulma and her agreeing to help hunt for the Dragon Balls. As far as pacing goes, two chapters are more than enough to gives readers a chance to breathe before moving onto the next major plot point. Anymore downtime in West City would risk damaging the story’s natural flow. Up to this point, Dragon Ball has made rather consistent work of ensuring every story beat either moves the plot forward, widens the world, or expands the series’ arcs of themes.
As to be expected, this is an idea that only applies to the manga. While the anime often makes insightful additions, the rate of needless or harmful filler has risen considerably since the start of the series. Muscle Tower’s filler mostly helped to meaningfully expand Goku’s adventure in Jingle Village, but West City’s filler is more in line with the material found in the build-up to Colonel Silver. While not harmful in the same way as Silver’s filler, Goku spends three episodes in West City, all of which serve to mainly stall for time.
Rather than simply finding Bulma and heading off together to find the next Dragon Ball, the Red Ribbon Army hires a mercenary, Husky, to intercept Goku once he arrives at West City. In turn, what should be a moment of decompression for the audience is turned into yet another piece of conflict for Goku. The time he spends in West City is not particularly interesting, but it isn’t meant to be. The metropolis acts as a moment of genuine levity. Husky’s presence is ultimately a distraction that works in detriment to the plot.
The only real benefit to adding filler to this portion of the arc comes in the reappearance of Yamcha, Oolong, and Pu’er. In the manga, Bulma is the only familiar character Goku reunites with at this point in the story. Yamcha, Oolong, and Pu’er, who now all live with her, are currently out when Goku winds up visiting. As a result, they’re left out of the action until near the end of the arc. That said, there is no real downside to only having Goku meet up with Bulma. Their friendship is by far the most meaningful at this point in the story, and it is clear that the Red Ribbon Army arc is actively trying to avoid another large group adventure, pairing Goku with as minimal a cast as possible.
It must be reiterated just how much of a boon it is for the Red Ribbon Army arc to take Goku effectively around the globe. Most arcs from here on out will make little use of their settings, but Goku’s second hunt for the Dragon Balls adds a non-stop barrage of world-building for the series. Fittingly, as the antagonist for this portion of the arc is named General Blue, Goku and Bulma’s quest takes on a fairly nautical aesthetic, with the two starting out on a beach, heading to Muten Roshi’s miniature island, and then diving into an abandoned cave adorned with a pirate flair to find the Dragon Ball.
Unfortunately, while the hunt for the next Dragon Ball is set up well enough, with Goku and Bulma physically unable to reach that Ball at the bottom of the ocean and General Blue set up as the most dangerous agent of the Red Ribbon Army thus far, both the manga and the anime make poor use of the premise. This section of the arc, as a whole, seems to take several steps back in regards to tone.
Rather than earnestly leaning into the potential tension associated with the prospect of the Red Ribbon Army specifically coming after Goku, Toriyama elevates the series’ comedic angle to an extreme, arguably much higher than ever before. This is especially disappointing considering General Blue’s appearance also marks Kuririn’s return into the plot. Goku and Kuririn are finally together again after the end of the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, but the emphasis on humor stifles what can be accomplished with said reunion.
That said, the events surrounding General Blue are not all bad initially. The first half of Goku, Bulma, and Kuririn’s time in the pirate cave is spent showing just how much Goku and Kuririn have improved as martial artists. They are able to get past virtually every single trap with relative ease, demonstrating just how far they outclass an average human like Bulma. There’s a charm to seeing Goku and Kuririn use their learned abilities from Kame Sen’nin’s training to blast through a pirate’s lair with an incredible amount of ease.
Aesthetically, the pirate’s cave simply makes for a nice change of scenery after Jingle Village, Muscle Tower, and West City. It can perhaps be taken for granted, but the mere fact that pirates do exist in some capacity in Dragon Ball’s world is a rather endearing fact, and the concept behind the heroes searching for pirate treasure goes hand in hand with a hunt for the Dragon Balls. Conceptually, the General Blue portion of the arc is sound, but the tone ultimately drags the quality down to an all-time low for the series.
The fight against General Blue is arguably the most important in the arc so far while also being the most frustrating. Goku and Kuririn are completely and utterly outclassed. A master of telekinesis, General Blue can freeze his opponent’s muscles, paralyzing them completely. No matter what Goku and Kuririn do, they realistically cannot get an edge on an enemy they cannot hit. In that regard, Toriyama is able to build an exceptional amount of tension during the fight itself, although said tension is thrown out the window as soon as Goku is about to be killed by General Blue.
A rat that Goku picked up earlier in the cave suddenly makes a reappearance, disgusting General Blue enough to cause him to drop his paralysis and allowing Goku and Kuririn to break free. Goku is at death’s door for the first time in the series, but any and all potential drama is undercut by a joke that simply does not land. The strength of the Red Ribbon Army arc has been in its world and tension building, not its humor. For Toriyama to take a potentially serious moment and flip it with comedy comes off reductive.
General Blue’s inclusion marks a brief regression for Dragon Ball. Rather than reflecting the tone established with the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai, Toriyama’s writing takes a step back, reading more at home with the Hunt for the Dragon Balls arc — a massive shift considering Muscle Tower more or less managed to recreate some semblance of the tournament in a unique format.
Thematically, outside of demonstrating how much Goku and Kuririn have bettered themselves, there’s little that General Blue can add to the plot outside of the idea that there will always be someone better, a concept the arc has already been pushing consistently. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a narrative reiterating a theme by any means, this does leave the General Blue section feeling thematically dry in comparison to the rest of the arc.
In regards to filler, the anime more or less embraces all forms of padding time by this point. Episodes take on legitimate B-plots, typically as a means of keeping characters like Muten Roshi and Lunch relevant; short scenes in the manga are drawn out to a crawl; and diversions are added to the main plot in order to keep the manga ahead. The most meaningful piece of filler comes from Kuririn facing off against a divine statue in the cave’s treasure room. In theory, none of these approaches to filler are necessarily bad, but they falter in execution. Dragon Ball is not a series that benefits from sub-plots or a slower pace. Some instances of filler can work as evidenced by Muscle Tower, and even bits of episodes in the pirate cave giving Kuririn more to do, but Dragon Ball as an adaptation is beginning to suffer immensely.
A larger problem plaguing the anime is the mere fact that the source material simply isn’t strong. Even in the manga, this is a low point in quality for Dragon Ball. The emphasis on humor coupled with the sheer persistence of General Blue takes an arc that was flowing smoothly from beat to beat and grinds it to a narrative halt with uninteresting action, a lack of genuine tension, and a style of humor the series had seemingly abandoned for the better. The Red Ribbon Army took the series one step forward, but General Blue took it two steps back.
On the subject of heading backward, this portion of the arc also features cameo appearances from Akira Toriyama’s previous manga Dr. Slump. Although this is Toriyama quite literally taking a step back from Dragon Ball, Penguin Village and the cast of Dr. Slump fit surprisingly well in the context of Dragon Ball’s world. Penguin Village is such a wonderfully colorful setting, both in content and tone, that it’s a genuine shame it needs to be associated with General Blue. By this point in the story, Toriyama has more or less given up on the idea of Blue as a legitimate threat, having him suffer at the hands of his previous protagonist, Arale.
At its core, Penguin Village’s cameo is a love letter to Toriyama’s pre-Dragon Ball roots, but the context behind the Red Ribbon Army arc, alongside the insistence on world-building, allows for a blatant Dr. Slump cameo to work regardless of any preconceived familiarity with Toriyama’s previous manga. It is worth mentioning that the lack of quality revolving around General Blue isn’t simply a perceived tonal dissonance within the series, but rather that the context surrounding his character lends itself for a more serious approach. Penguin Village, on the other hand, clearly establishes a comedic tone and thrives off its humor. Who General Blue is and what he does clash without developing a suitable literary juxtaposition.
With that in mind, Penguin Village isn’t some sudden jump in quality that justifies General Blue’s inclusion in the series. In the manga, it certainly does mark an improvement in the arc’s quality, but the anime is held back by a specific characterization choice with General Blue that neither adds to his character nor contributes to the general humor of Goku finding himself in what is effectively an episode of Dr. Slump.
General Blue is Dragon Ball’s only canonically queer character, specifically implied to be gay. While Toriyama does use this to poke fun at Bulma’s expense when she tries to seduce him, this detail is more or less in the background. The anime, however, turns General Blue into a pedophile, lusting after Dr. Slump mainstay Obotchaman, a robot designed to look like a young boy. This change to General Blue is entirely in poor taste, adding absolutely nothing to the character and souring an otherwise charming cameo.
When it comes down to it, General Blue outstays his welcome. Colonel Silver was deliberately dealt with rather quickly while Muscle Tower featured a variety of characters and settings to vary Goku’s adventure, even giving Hatchan an arc of his own to compliment the narrative. With General Blue, the set pieces are strong enough, but there is a distinct lack of progression regarding his many confrontations with Goku, and neither Bulma or Kuririn influence the plot meaningfully. The anime sullies what good his character may have while extending an already lengthy portion of the arc with filler. General Blue simultaneously feels overused and underutilized, which would amount to a complete waste of time if not for one key story beat: the introduction of Taopaipai.