Looking back at Dragon Ball: Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return! (Part One)

The passage of time has a funny way of synching things up. It’s the year 2023, meaning that I’ve been a fan of Dragon Ball for a little over 15 years now. It’s also the 15th anniversary of the 2008 Dragon Ball short film “Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!”, which I haven’t seen since it originally came out. I ended up rewatching it recently, as part of a weird habit I’ve developed of watching the many Dragon Ball films made during its original anime run, and I thought it’d be nice to mark the occasion by talking about it. Nothing major, just some reminiscing over a neat little movie and what it does well.

Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return! was released as part of the “Jump Super Anime Tour ~The Jump Heroes Great-Gathering~”: a theatrical event held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Weekly Shonen Jump manga that Dragon Ball was originally published in. The festival premiered various short movies based on popular Jump comics of the day such as Bleach and One Piece, but what’s interesting about Yo! Son Goku is that it was the only short made for a series that wasn’t currently running.

Dragon Ball had been over for a long time; the original manga by Akira Toriyama had ended back in 1995, and while the anime soldiered on for a bit longer, that too came to an end by 1997. Outside of nostalgic merchandise such as video games and home video releases, Dragon Ball was definitely done. This gives Yo! Son Goku a uniquely nostalgic quality, as it’s a reunion with characters that the audience haven’t seen in a long time.

This is true both in the meta-textual sense and in the diegetic sense, with its plot being about the cast of Dragon Ball reuniting for a dinner party a couple years after the defeat of the series’ final villain Majin Boo. There’s a casualness to everyone meeting up again, with even the gods sitting things out to have drinks instead. Goku’s gotten into farming now that there’s nothing to worry about, and although there are villains to be fought, it’s treated as lightly as possible.

In fact, that flippancy is one of the film’s major charms. The plot is kicked off by the arrival of Vegeta’s never-before-discussed brother Tarble, who’s introduced with all the drama and suspense that his Saiyan comrades got in the original series. But then he turns out to be a deeply polite young man with a cute wife asking for help with an oncoming threat, immediately undercutting any kind of tension. The characters don’t even take it seriously, instead drawing straws (or pulling radishes, rather) to decide who gets to fight in a very gentle comedy sequence.

The movie gets a lot of mileage making fun of the usual dramatic conventions Dragon Ball got up to, and it’s hilarious seeing characters pull up a chair, chatting amongst themselves and chilling out while goofballs Goten and Trunks take on the not-so-threatening Abo and Cado. Even the narrator notes that this story is a minor incident that nobody remembers because it happens too late to have any real impact.

As the name suggests, Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return! is not about having cool dramatic fights with heightened emotions and scenery-destroying attacks or transformations, it’s about reuniting with Goku and the gang one last time. For me, it was particularly refreshing in light of how self-serious and stoic most Dragon Ball films tend to be, often to the point of boredom.

Admittedly, it’s a matter of taste and there are plenty who enjoy that exact quality, especially because of how the movies can offer similar experiences to what you’d find in the source material but in miniature. Dragon Ball is a long series, whether you’re reading or watching it, and it can be daunting to sit through a single story arc that lasts months or even years. With the movies, you can experience the vibes of the series, the thrills, the fights, the drama, and the humour within just under an hour. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

However, I’ve come to realize that while they tend to be well-produced and exciting in their own right, the big dramatic fights which take up the majority of these films are not what I’m interested in. I’m more into the stuff surrounding them, particularly the light-hearted events such as the opening tournament scenes in Movie 9 or the adventures of Goten, Trunks and Videl in Movie 10. Once the villains come in, you know how the rest of the picture’s gonna go, and I find myself watching more out of obligation than any personal interest.

What makes Yo! Son Goku a blast is that it keeps all that bombast and action to a minimum, focusing on the things that I enjoy about these films enough that the fighting compliments them rather than overshadowing them. It’s fluff to be sure, and I can understand why it might be trite if that’s not what you want out of Dragon Ball. But sometimes, it’s all I need.

Though that’s not all there is to say about this film. I ended up writing a truly daft amount of words, most of which ended up going into topics I couldn’t quite weave naturally together as I would’ve liked. With that in mind, I’ve decided to give those topics their own article, which should be posted in the near future. It’ll take no more than five minutes.

Special thanks to Shrike from the World Animation Discord, who provided me feedback on the initial draft and gave me the idea to split this article in two.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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