Red Ribbon Army arc Part IV
Chapters 55 – 112, Episodes 29 – 78
Upon receiving the Dragon Balls from the General Blue with the help of the cast of Dr. Slump, Goku, still lacking his grandfather’s keepsake, leaves Penguin Village to find himself directed towards the Holy Land of Karin, a Native American themed village inhabited solely by a father and son: Bora and Upa respectively. As perhaps to be expected by this point in the story, the duo is introduced being terrorized by the Red Ribbon Army. Initially, this appears to merely be set up for Goku’s inevitable arrival, but Bora is able to remedy the situation before Goku can even arrive at Karin. Once he does, Son does take out the remaining Red Ribbon soldiers, but Toriyama has clearly introduced Bora as a ferociously strong character capable of taking care of himself.
While Goku is acquainting himself with Bora and Upa at Karin, General Blue is returning to Red Ribbon headquarters to meet his untimely demise. After three consecutive failures from Colonel Silver, General White, and General Blue, Supreme Commander Red has hired the assassin Taopaipai to kill Goku and retrieve the Dragon Balls once and for all. Where Red initially planned to have Blue executed for his inability to retrieve the Dragon Balls, he is given one last chance to prove himself should he manage to defeat Taopaipai in a fight on account of stealing Goku’s original Dragon Radar.
At this point in the story, General Blue is the only member of the Red Ribbon Army to not only defeat Goku in combat but nearly kill him on multiple instances. For all the tonal issues surrounding Blue, he has been consistently portrayed as a legitimate threat. For Taopaipai to kill him in a single blow as soon as the fight starts is a massive shakeup that underlines just how much danger Goku is about to be in. While there is still humor associated with the arc, particularly in Taopaipai killing General Blue with a tongue to the noggin, the scene nonetheless serves to build tension. Taopaipai is eccentric, but he is the single most dangerous antagonist the series has seen.
Taopaipai’s newfound presence is likewise necessary as it creates an important dramatic irony regarding Goku’s hunt for the Dragon Balls. In meeting Bora, Goku has finally found the Suu Shin Chuu, bringing his quest to its prospective end. After fighting off Colonel Silver, scaling Muscle Tower, and enduring the wrath of General Blue, Goku has seen the world, fought strong opponents, and reunited with the one memento connecting him to the man who raised him. Although Goku has not changed much over the course of his adventure, his personality has been better solidified. He is a young man with a pure heart, a strong will, and a desire to help those in need. He’s naive and loves a good fight over anything else, but he won’t let others suffer if he can prevent it.
Suffering is all that awaits when Taopaipai arrives at Karin, however. With the Dragon Radar in hand, Taopaipai finds Goku within minutes, but Bora, in thanks for Goku saving Upa’s life from the Red Ribbon soldiers earlier, chooses to fight the assassin on Son’s behalf. Both Bora and Taopaipai shared similar introductions, defining them as formidable men, but Taopaipai is able to immediately subdue Bora, flinging him into the air. Goku desperately calls for Kinto’un to catch Bora before the fall, but Taopaipai launches Bora’s spear, impaling and killing the tribesman before he ever hits the ground.
Bora’s fight with Taopaipai, while brief, serves as an excellent demonstration in regards to how Toriyama uses build-up to deliver on and subvert audience expectations. At this point in Dragon Ball, the good guys do not die, Goku always finds a way to save the day, and the villains do not win. Taopaipai, as expected, is able to outperform Bora, but Goku has Kinto’un on his side to break the fall. When Taopaipai launches the spear into the air, it’s not just a shock to Goku and Upa, it’s one to the audience as well. A named, likable character has actually died on-screen for the first time. Not just that, this is a character who was specifically built upon the prospect that he was strong enough to fend off the Red Ribbon Army himself.
Taopaipai killing Bora marks a fundamental shift in how Dragon Ball approaches tension. Although Bora was not a major character by any means, only appearing in a handful of panels before his death, his demise does solidify Dragon Ball as a story where characters will not necessarily overcome, or even survive every challenge.
Bora’s death immediately transitions into Goku fighting Taopaipai, where the most he can do is burn away his opponent’s clothes with a Kamehameha. General Blue nearly killed Goku on more than one occasion, but Goku was always able to get a few good hits in. Their fights weren’t so one-sided where it was given that Goku could not win. With Taopaipai, it is clear that there is nothing Goku can actually do. His strongest technique that he only saves for when he absolutely needs it ends up doing no damage whatsoever. Taopaipai, in retaliation, fires a single Ki blast at Goku’s heart, the Dodonpa, seemingly killing the series’ protagonist right then and there.
Naturally, Goku does not actually die, but the reason he survives is a stroke of narrative genius on Toriyama’s part. Rather than simply surviving thanks to his durability, Goku is saved by the Suu Shin Chuu. After being gifted the Dragon Ball by Bora, Goku placed it in his gi, and rather than making contact with Goku’s heart, the Ball served as a buffer between Goku and Taopaipai’s Dodonpa. It is a rather simple solution to ensuring Goku does not die, but it’s one that’s narratively fitting. Goku has spent the entire arc searching for his Grandfather’s Dragon Ball and it comes back to save him in a moment where he otherwise would have perished.
It is also worth noting that Taopaipai’s Dodonpa marks the first instance of a character other than Goku or Muten Roshi using a Ki attack in the series. Taopaipai is strong, skilled, and has access to a technique with visual similarities to that of the Kamehameha. While General Blue used telekinesis against Goku, Taopaipai fights on a more “even” playing field, so to speak, where his abilities are in-line with Goku contextually and visually. Readers have become accustomed to Goku using his Kamehameha as a finisher up to this point, and Taopaipai flips the script by “finishing” Goku off with a Ki attack of his own.
Goku has suffered a legitimate loss on every single front for the first time, even commenting how he doesn’t believe he could win in a rematch, a rather large shift for the character that nicks a chink in Goku’s otherwise confident exterior.
For as initially hopeless as Goku may seem in fighting Taopaipai, he does nonetheless resolve to use the Dragon Balls to wish Bora back to life, effectively rendering his search null so that he can save Bora’s father. Although the anime does adapt this moment rather well, the manga’s approach is a perfect example of “less is more.” In the anime, Kikuchi’s somber score plays over flashbacks of Upa and Bora as Goku looks on at the crying child, clearly determined to use the Dragon Balls to help him. The scene takes roughly a minute of screen time, properly conveying what Goku is feeling before he ever says a word.
This moment in the manga consists entirely of three panels: Goku staring directly at Bora’s grave, Goku looking down at the Suu Shin Chuu in contemplation, and Goku telling Upa, with a considerable amount of determination, that he’ll reclaim the Dragon Balls and revive Bora. Reading all three panels takes a matter of seconds, but each panel is so visually clear and explicit with what Goku is feeling that Toriyama is able to craft an entire arc for Goku in half a page.
Bora’s death serves as an opportunity to give Goku depth. At his lowest point thus far, Goku recognizes the severity of the situation but pushes on ahead, unwavering. In being bested by Taopaipai, however, Goku finds himself at a serious disadvantage, requiring additional training. Fueled by a tribal legend stating that he who climbs Karin Tower will be blessed with sacred water, Goku scales yet another tower, this time to hone his skills in time for when Taopaipai inevitably returns to steal the missing Dragon Ball.
Where Kame Sen’nin’s training centered around the philosophies and basics of martial arts, Karin’s is one of refinery. Karin’s nimble movements actively prevent Goku from retrieving the flask of sacred water, pushing Son to hone the skills he already has rather than outright teaching him any new given abilities. Muten Roshi’s training was the basics, Karin’s is a mastery of what Goku has already learned. Fitting as Karin likewise reveals that he trained Muten Roshi centuries prior.
What is particularly interesting about Goku’s training with Karin is how it directly picks up on the reason Goku lost the 21st Tenkaichi Budokai. In the final match of the tournament, upon realizing that Goku was following his lead, Muten Roshi goaded his pupil into launching into a jump kick that he would inevitably receive the brunt of. Karin explicitly notes how Goku fails to read to his opponent’s movements, simply reacting to whatever the opposition is doing.
Karin’s training also serves to break down the notion that Goku will win a fight he otherwise would have lost so long as he gets a chance to eat. In the series’ first proper battle, Goku nearly lost to Yamcha due to hunger, but is able to take him out with considerable ease after eating for their rematch. With Karin, Goku is given a Senzu, a bean that keeps its eater full for ten days. Even with the bean filling him up, however, Goku still finds himself unable to find an advantage over Karin, forcing him to reevaluate the situation entirely.
Worth noting, Goku’s training with Karin is significantly shorter than his training with Kame Sen’nin, albeit fittingly considering the context of the narrative when Goku begins climbing Karin Tower. In the manga, Goku climbs Karin Tower and drinks the water in a span of three chapters. In the anime, Goku is done within a matter of two episodes even with filler to elongate the training.
In both mediums, the crux of Goku’s training falls on the idea that simply being able to steal the water from Karin is enough for one to exponentially strengthen themselves. This is demonstrated visually by Karin tossing Goku’s Dragon Ball off the tower, requiring him to jump all the way back down only to need to climb back up. Where the initial climb took Goku an entire day, the second only takes three hours, hinting rather early on the true intent of Karin’s training.
As the air is thinner at the top of Karin Tower, Goku initially finds himself struggling to keep up, needing to stop for breath. The manga leaves the solution to subtext, suggesting that Goku is mastering his breathing as he chases Karin, but the anime lingers on this plot thread just a bit in an attempt to flesh out the training episodes. Rather than keeping Goku’s mastery in the background, Son explicitly watches Karin’s breathing to anticipate his next move, allowing him a chance to steal the flask.
Interestingly, the anime’s adaptation of Karin’s training takes advantage of the manga being ahead in order to foreshadow the end of the Red Ribbon Army arc. As soon as Goku arrives at the top of the tower, he looks into three pots which show him the past, present, and future. The lattermost shows images of Uranai Baba and a masked Grandpa Gohan, two characters who will go on to play pivotal roles by the arc’s end.
As the “holy” water is actually just rainwater, Goku is able to get a beneficial power boost through training without ever giving him a narratively undeserved handout. Despite being under the impression that he really will get to drink mystical water that will make him stronger, Goku works hard just to be able to conceptually do so.
Karin’s training isn’t as in-depth as Kame Sen’nin’s, but it plays off Goku’s strengths as a character and weaknesses as a martial artist to allow him to legitimately develop as a person and a fighter. At one point, Goku even gets the chance to steal the flask from a seemingly sleeping Karin, but ultimately relents as he wants to genuinely grow stronger, reincorporating the idea of self-betterment succinctly while further defining Goku’s character.
Although Karin’s training does make Goku quite a deal stronger, the boost in power isn’t so high where he is able to carelessly fight Taopaipai during their rematch. Toriyama’s panels actively show Goku struggling and taking damage even if he is, more or less, in control of the fight. The Dodonpa, for instance, still hurts Goku even if it doesn’t nearly kill him this time around. In the manga, the fight moves at a rather reasonable pace with a brief introduction to Goku’s new power, a section where Goku and Taopaipai fight with the Nyoibo and a sword respectively, and one final melee match where Goku kicks Taopaipai’s grenade back at him, seemingly killing the assassin.
Rather than adapting the fight as is, the anime adds an intermission where, upon hearing that Goku got stronger by climbing Karin Tower, Taopaipai rushes up to the tower, demands the “holy” water from Karin, and then is gifted a black Kinto’un that ends up betraying him mid-flight, plummeting him to the ground. For such a structurally tight battle to have a nonsensical piece of filler wedged into it utterly kills the pacing of the fight. In the manga, there is a clear ebb and flow to the battle’s progression with each segment featuring a defined transition to and from each other. As the anime has Taopaipai more or less flee from the fight, the battle ends up divided into two segments that are too interconnected to justify separating.
With a new sense of purpose for Goku’s character and a new sense of direction for the story, the Red Ribbon Army arc uses Taopaipai’s death as a jumping off point for Goku to finally come face to face with the army that has spent chapters and episodes terrorizing him. Speeding off to Red Ribbon headquarters, Bulma catches wind of Goku’s assault and rallies the supporting cast together to lend him a helping hand. In the manga, Goku’s arrival surprises the army as it ultimately means Taopaipai was killed, but the anime actually features a scene of Supreme Commander Red reacting to the assassin’s death only for the manga’s scene to play out as intended, creating a plot inconsistency.
Inconsistencies aside, the anime does have one leg up over the manga: “With a Blazing Heart: Defeat the Red Ribbon Army,” an insert song that plays over Goku’s flight to Red Ribbon headquarters, interspersed with flashbacks of the previous Red Ribbon colonels and Generals Goku has fought along the way. The song coupled with the flashbacks conveys just how wide the scope of the Red Ribbon Army arc has been. It has taken Goku all around the globe, greatly expanding the world of Dragon Ball. While the lows have been low, the highs were some of the highest in the entire series with the Holy Land of Karin even further redefining Dragon Ball. Goku heads into the prospective finale a more complete character than he’s ever been.
His subsequent assault on the Red Ribbon Army places Goku into an understood position of power. Narratively, one-upping Taopaipai would simultaneously undermine Goku’s training and the assassin’s role in the arc. There is justifiable cause for Goku to simply tear through the Red Ribbon base along with a potential catharsis at stake. Now more than ever, the plot demands a Goku in complete control of the situation, at least in regards to storming the base and making his way to Commander Red.
In a change of pace for the adaptation, the anime is actually in a good position to create filler for Goku’s supporting cast. As soon as the supporting cast heads out, they all prepare themselves for a hard battle against the Red Ribbon Army, but they arrive too late as Goku has already taken care of the base and claimed the Army’s Dragon Balls. Such a situation would naturally lend itself to filler where Yamcha and Kuririn could fend off some Red Ribbon goons themselves. Of course, this is not a massive loss as, even in the manga, this isn’t a missed opportunity. Narratively, in an arc mostly about Goku, it makes sense that the character with the closest attachment to the Red Ribbon Army would be the one to defeat them.
It’s during Goku’s assault on the base where Commander Red finally makes his motivations clear. While the army does plan on world domination, Red’s main goal was to use the Dragon Balls to wish himself taller. While Red’s motivation is played for laughs, Adjutant Black’s reaction is not. Distraught and enraged over Red’s manipulation, genuinely believing in the Red Ribbon Army’s conquest of world domination, Black shoots Red point blank in the face, killing him instantly and announcing himself the new Supreme Commander of the Red Ribbon Army.
By this point in Dragon Ball, Toriyama has mastered the art of unpredictability. His plot twists are grounded in the context of the series and are directly influenced by the characters. Commander Red wishing to be taller is a twist dictated by his literal design, but it has legitimate consequences outside of being a joke. In revealing his hand too early, Red forfeits his life and is killed. Worth noting, the anime does keep Red alive just a bit longer with him deliberately betraying Black to keep himself alive, but the end result is the same between both mediums.
Regardless of medium, Goku’s final fight with the now Commander Black is a short one. He overpowers Black enough to rely on a battle jacket to continue the fight with Goku, but even that isn’t enough to take out Son. Ultimately, while Goku is hardly challenged by his final assault on the Red Ribbon headquarters, him struggling would not have benefited the narrative in any way. At least not after the events with Taopaipai and Karin. Goku’s charge on the base needed to be a triumphant one to close out the Red Ribbon Army with enough catharsis to retroactively justify their atrocities throughout the course of the arc.
In defeating the Red Ribbon Army, the Red Ribbon Army arc has come to its natural end. Or so it initially seems. Despite finally taking out the arc’s chief antagonists, Goku only has six Dragon Balls with the radar failing to pick up the seventh’s energy. With nowhere to go, Goku returns to Kame Sen’nin’s Island so that Bulma can look over the radar.
Despite being a mostly developed character at this point, it is worth noting how Toriyama uses Bulma throughout the series post the first arc. She is the de facto “genius” of the group, acting as a technician of sorts whenever Goku’s technological shortcomings come into play. Toriyama consistently depicts her as hyper-competent with gadgets, and her characterization in the later parts of this arc shows a more affectionate, familiar side to her character. While Toriyama is comfortable allowing his supporting cast to take a backseat whenever the narrative demands they do, he always ensures that the depth of their progression shines through.
This is best seen in the direction the final thread of the Red Ribbon Army arc takes. Upon being told by Muten Roshi to seek out the Uranai Baba, a fortune teller who can tell Goku where the seventh Ball is, the cast is once again divided to serve the direction of the plot. Not wanting to join in on another adventure, Bulma and Oolong hang back while Goku, Kuririn, Yamcha, and Pu’er set forth to find the final Dragon Ball. Kuririn and Yamcha both join Goku as they don’t want to fall behind in terms of power while Pu’er simply accompanies Yamcha wherever he goes. The cast was altogether in one location with one goal in mind, but the story itself did not necessitate the entire crew. Focusing on a smaller group allows the next section of the arc to flow naturally with better-concentrated character beats, which is especially beneficial considering the next section is essentially a miniature tournament arc.