You think Dragon Ball is just an action shonen series? You fools. You heathens. Allow me to enlighten you, to expand your mind to galactic proportions through a long series of hyper fixations that reveal what many overlook about Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball—that it’s secretly great at romance.
When I think of anime’s greatest couples, Vegeta and Bulma come to mind, as do Goku and Chi-Chi, Gohan and Videl and Android 18 and Krillin… but why? Why is Dragon Ball my shining example of great couple dynamics that fill you with warm fuzzies and have you cheering for their relationship to thrive and blossom?
The reason I love the couples of Dragon Ball is the same reason fans love the rival dynamic of Goku and Vegeta or the master/student dynamic of Piccolo and Gohan. What the series lacks in the more traditional lovey-dovey elements of romance media, it more than makes up for in how Akira Toriyama picks his moments. We are shown, not told why the characters love each other, how their relationship changes over time, and how much the characters enjoy their significant other.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about the relationships is, unlike the implied romantic subplots of other shonen series that either pan out briefly or don’t at all, these relationships exist in a way that makes them feel lived-in. Let’s go through each couple one-by-one.
Goku And Chi-Chi, In The Manga And Anime
Goku and Chi-Chi’s relationship is founded on shared childhood naivety. It’s kind of sweet that the only two characters in Dragon Ball who have a sheltered, childish concept of romance and love (or none at all in Goku’s case) end up together. Initially, they promise to get married based on different types of naivety but they both take it seriously as adults when they meet again at the World Martial Arts Tournament. It’s not just Goku agreeing to keep his word too, it’s clear he definitely cares about her in both Toriyama’s work and in added moments in the anime adaptation, and vice versa for Chi-Chi.
A great illustration of this is in how far Goku has come as a caring spouse. When the two first got engaged, he didn’t care to have Chi-Chi touching him and fawning all over him. Goku barely seemed to understand romance, much less sex. Mostly, Goku cared about fighting and at this stage in his life wouldn’t have considered Chi-Chi’s feelings. Eventually this obliviousness starts to lift, allowing him to understand that, say, staying-dead at the end of the Cell Saga would devastate her. More than that, Goku makes sure to comfort Chi-Chi when they thought Gohan died at Buu’s hands.
As for Chi-Chi, she goes from yelling at him for training too much and turning their son into a fighter to understanding that they have different philosophies and parenting styles. She ends up valuing Goku’s ability as a fighter when she tells him to make their son as strong as possible during the Androids/Cell saga. There’s something heartwarming and endearing seeing their relationship progress from childish proposal, to marriage without knowing each other too much, to understanding and loving each other’s differences and compromising when they have to.
We also see how much Chi-Chi cares about Goku when he succumbs to the heart virus. She stresses in finding the medication he misplaced and dotes on him throughout the sickness, grateful for Yamcha and Trunks’ assistance in making sure he is taken care of. Later when he recovers, Goku apologizes to Chi-Chi for worrying her during the whole ordeal. Chi-Chi also shows very real concern when Goku takes her side on making sure Gohan studies, rather than continue to train. By doing so, Chi-Chi makes it clear that despite all her nagging, she likes Goku the way he is. These little moments do a lot, and seeing them care about each other and it’s just as effective as, or perhaps more effective than a direct profession of love from either of them.
Vegeta and Bulma, The Unlikely Dragon Ball Z Couple
Next up is the aspirational power couple, Vegeta and Bulma. Though their relationship starts as a fling, there’s a lot of subtext and specific character moments that show their initial closeness. For example, Bulma knows enough about Vegeta to think that Trunks, her son who travels from the future, is similar to him somehow. Additionally, when Future Trunks describes how the two ended up together, he describes Vegeta being lonely, and reading between the lines that means Vegeta, a character who is notoriously caustic, was vulnerable with someone before he had fully become a good guy. Of course, it would be quite some time before they actually become a couple, but the fact that a relationship came out of it gives Bulma and Vegeta’s fling a lot of retroactive significance.
When the two are actually married in the Buu Saga, we see that they care for each other in small, but impactful moments. Perhaps the one of the best examples comes when Vegeta allows himself to fall to Babidi’s control and return to his ruthless, evil ways. Bulma isn’t mad, she isn’t ready to berate him, she’s worried because she knows this isn’t him anymore.
Vegeta has his own major moment, where he pushes aside the one thing he values more than anything, his pride as a warrior, to fuse with Goku — why? Because he learned Buu killed Bulma. The death of his wife was enough to make him forget about his other true love, his pride. And, of course, in Battle of Gods, there is the famous, delightful, romantic “THAT’S MY BULMA!” moment, in which seeing her hurt by a God of Destruction enraged him enough to have the power to go toe-to-toe with said god. Now that’s true love.
It’s also evident that they both mutually respect each others’ strengths—Bulma admiring Vegeta’s dedication and drive and Vegeta admiring Bulma’s strong will and intelligence. Bulma sees Vegeta’s determination while he was training for the fight against the Androids, and Vegeta clearly respects her intelligence enough to ask her to build him new armor. And later in Dragon Ball Super, Vegeta admits that he likes Bulma’s feistiness, while Bulma is shown being very understanding of why he needs to go away for six months to train with gods and angels.
Prior to this, Vegeta was… well he was a badman, just like his infamous shirt labeled him. But in the Buu saga, Vegeta is no longer a blood-thirsty, ruthless warrior. Being with Bulma changed him, made him better, and his family continues to make him better every day. Vegeta even states as much when he lets Babidi turn him into a Majin: He liked having a family so much that it scared him, so much so that he wanted to go back the way he was. This was a change he regretted soon after when that family was threatened by Majin Buu, leading him to make the ultimate sacrifice—he fell into darkness and came out willing to give everything for his wife and son. And like… f*** man, that’s so much more powerful than an “I love you.”
There’s also plenty of examples of their relationship dynamic being “lived in,” especially in the Buu saga and parts of Dragon Ball Super. In the Buu saga, Vegeta just hangs around in his comfy/work out clothes around Capsule Corp. and Bulma calls him a bum who just trains all day. I think there’s something cute about this kind of playful teasing, and I’m certain Vegeta admires that a non-powered human like Bulma is strong-willed enough to berate him with confidence and zero fear. There’s more of this playfulness and cute bickering in Battle of Gods that further illustrates that they like their “feisty” dynamic, like when Vegeta sends Bulma to slap Goku for waiting and watching the fight with Beerus before entering. She agrees, of course.
Krillin And Android 18
In the case of Krillin and Android 18, seeing the cause-and-effect of their relationship is what makes it such an endearing dynamic. Krillin, though the strongest human, stood no chance against the Androids and still bravely stood up to them. While they still continued their devastation, Android 18 gives Krillin a goodbye kiss on the cheek, perhaps out of admiration of his bravery. Krillin also wished for Shenron to make her and Android 17 human again (and when he couldn’t do that, he wished to take the bombs out of her and 17’s bodies). Though she plays it cool and says “don’t think I’m grateful,” she also makes a point (perhaps a little too eagerly) that she and Android 17 are twins, not a couple. They’re literally married with a daughter the next time we see them, it’s fantastic. It gives me warm fuzzies and it’s a series about aliens punching other aliens through mountains.
It’s also clear 18 admires Krillin’s bravery and he admires her stern coolness. It’s born out of seeing his bravery in facing her and 17 and, more importantly, letting her go instead of detonating her bomb when it could have prevented Cell from getting stronger — he couldn’t sacrifice a life, her life to save himself and others. 18 shows clear admiration and love of Krillin’s bravery in Resurrection F, in which she swoons over Krillin flying off to fight the Frieza force, knowing he isn’t the strongest fighter — literally, she says “Don’t get your feelings hurt but I’m still a lot stronger than you.” She stares as he flies away and says, “he’s so cool,” in a dreamy tone.
This scene also shows their familiarness, illustrated by how she gives him a buzz cut to bring him back to his classic monk look. It’s endearing and adorable that they’re just comfortable enough to do grooming for each other. Later in Super, they even train and fight together — in fact they’re the only couple that does fight in major arcs together, which is romantic as hell.
Android 18 and Krillin don’t go through too many dynamic changes, but we do see Android 18’s cold and harsh nature is applied to making sure her husband doesn’t die when situations get a bit too big for his human strength. You see this protective dynamic in the aforementioned Resurrection F moment, as well as in the Buu saga when she tells him to bail if the fight gets too dangerous. As for Krillin, he learns to accept his limitations and understands that 18 is powerful.
Gohan And Videl
Finally, we have Gohan and Videl. Though we don’t actually see them go on their first dates, we see their feelings grow for each other, and Toriyama’s depiction of the process is just as, if not more effective than any slow burn romance anime. In fact, their relationship is my personal favorite because of how we see them fall in love over time. Videl goes from hunting Gohan down as Saiyaman and blackmailing him to enter the World Martial Arts tournament (literally just using him to give her dad an ego check) to seeing him as a window into a whole different world. She goes on to admire his strength, becoming close to him and later outright saying she is going to ask him out after he flies off to stop Babidi.
Gohan on the other hand originally sees her as something of a threat to his privacy as a half-alien superhuman, someone he has to help lest she reveal his identity as the Great Saiyaman. But as they spend time together while he teaches her how to fly, they get close, a closeness reflected in their changed dynamic at the world martial arts tournament. This intimacy escalates to full on rage on Gohan’s part when Spopovich ruthlessly attacks and injures her in their tournament match. His care for her, a love that clearly grew and is communicated through the contrast of their first meetings to this point, where his rage at her being hurt triggers an unplanned Super Saiyan transformation. Later on, when Goku VERY GROSSLY offers the Old Kai some flirtation time with Gohan’s “girlfriend,” he doesn’t deny the label while telling his dad to cut it out.
It’s also great to see Gohan and Videl go from friends to a young couple, to newlyweds and new parents, endearing to see their stages more spotlighted than the rest of the cast. That said, fans have often criticized how much less fiery Videl is in Battle of Gods and later Dragon Ball Super, and while I’m also a fan of her personality in the Buu saga, I also think it kind of speaks to how happy Gohan makes her. Gohan similarly slips on his training because he works on making sure his family is taken care of. This also speaks to the lived-in aspect of their relationship, Videl is comfortable with Gohan and Gohan in turn is comfortable enough to continue being his silly Saiyaman self.
With all of these couples, there’s not a lot of overtly romantic content, but what’s there speaks volumes, and solidifies the existence of love between the characters. It’s powerful and effective, and speaks to Toriyama’s ability to masterfully craft relationships of all kinds. The couples of Dragon Ball aren’t really showy, there’s no professions of love, there’s not a lot of direct affection, there’s not even a single on-the-lips kiss… but there is a sense that these relationships are real. There’s a sense that just because we didn’t see the exact moment these couples got together, we accept that they’re true, even when its pairs are as wild as a short bald monk and a hot blonde android, or a murdering alien warrior prince and a rich genius.
Sean is a writer/researcher who lives in LA and loves Sonic, Dragon Ball and his dog. You can follow him on Twitter and find his work on his website. He also co-hosts Sonic Podcast Adventure and streams frequently on Twitch.