Dragon Ball Z was a milestone for manga and anime. The show was a continuation of the already popular Dragon Ball series but Dragon Ball Z took the franchise to a whole other level. Its immense success has continued on through a number of films and further series such as Dragon Ball GT and Dragon Ball Super.
But, the show should have ended a long time ago. Because there was a perfect narrative moment where the series could have concluded in the best possible way. And that moment is the conclusion of the Cell Saga.
It’s important to understand how the series shifted gears when it went from Dragon Ball to Dragon Ball Z. At the beginning of Dragon Ball Z, we are introduced to Gohan, the son of Dragon Ball‘s protagonist Goku. The first episode sets up the idea that there is a hidden power inside of Gohan when he inexplicably is able to survive falling over a waterfall.
We see this power in full during the battle with Raditz. Gohan becomes enraged and his power level skyrockets enough to where he is able to harm Raditz. Gohan doesn’t retain the memory of his powerful abilities, but Piccolo decides to take the boy and train him.
As the series progresses, we follow Gohan’s struggle with overcoming his spoiled, insulated nature and becoming a fighter like his father. And though we see him become more and more adept at fighting and controlling his power, he still holds back from truly letting go.
Until Cell enters the mix.
It’s in the Cell Saga that we start to see different forms beyond that of Super Saiyan, a transformation that was first shown during Goku’s battle with Frieza. The Super Saiyan myth was given plenty of setups and when characters like Vegeta, Trunks, and Gohan himself began to transform to this level, it seemed an appropriate escalation of power.
Later, Vegeta and Trunks would showcase forms known as Super Saiyan Second Grade and Super Saiyan Third Grade. These transformations were basically an increase in muscle mass and power only, but they were forced transformations that didn’t feel like a natural evolution of the idea of increasing in power.
It’s not until Gohan became a Super Saiyan and then witnessed the death of Android 16 that we saw what seemed like an obvious escalation in transformed states. Gohan’s hidden power, a plot point that had been set up in the very first episode of the show, allows him to take his Super Saiyan form to a level beyond anything else in the show’s history.
Every Super Saiyan transformation after this feels forced or improperly constructive at the narrative level. The series felt like it was building to this moment with Gohan and it never quite reached this kind of long-form narrative satisfaction ever again.
There are other reasons why Dragon Ball Z should have ended at the Cell Saga besides Gohan’s story arc. One of them is in the Cell Saga’s very name. Much like the clear narrative escalation of Gohan’s hidden power being used during his Super Saiyan transformation, Cell was crafted to be the narrative culmination of every foe the cast had fought up until that point.
Cell is a being that was built from the genetic material of numerous Dragon Ball Z characters including Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo, Frieza, and King Cold. His very existence as a villain seems to be the ultimate compilation of powerful characters all smushed into one. Plus, he’s a villain that’s spawned from the ashes of the Red Ribbon Army, one of Goku’s oldest adversarial entities.
Subsequent villains don’t have that same kind of personal franchise history. Cell’s status as the amalgamation of heroes and baddies is such a wonderful idea. It also makes fans realize how big of a deal this villain really is without ever needing to showcase his power in a purely destructive way.
And as the series moved onto other villains, none ever felt as… well, perfect as Cell.
The last point to make about why this was a perfect place to leave the series is where this saga actually ends. After Gohan obliterates Cell — in what’s arguably the coolest destruction in the show’s history — the surviving warriors use the Dragon Balls to revive all the people killed during this period of time. One of those is Goku.
However, Goku asks to remain dead in order to train in the afterlife and fight tougher opponents from all across the universe. It’s a perfect sendoff for Goku: he dies sacrificing himself when Cell is about to self-destruct and gets to live the rest of his existence fighting opponents in a friendly way.
It also satisfies Gohan’s arc as the true focus and secret protagonist of Dragon Ball Z. He’s finally learned to accept the anger inside of him and can take up the mantle from his father as the protector of Earth. It’s a generational story with an excellent finish.
Don’t take this to mean that everything that happened after the Cell Saga is awful. That’s not the case at all. There are plenty of fun and exciting moments in the following sagas, new series, and films. But, none of them felt as expertly crafted as the work that was done during the Cell Saga. It felt like the true pinnacle of what Dragon Ball Z was building up to.
The Dragon Ball franchise continues to prove itself as a powerhouse franchise. Fans are never going to stop wanting more adventures with those characters in that world. But, for what it’s worth, if you just watch up to the finale of the Cell Saga, you’ll be treated to the best way to exit the Dragon Ball series.
Or, you could just watch The Tree of Might and stop there since that’s the best Dragon Ball Z thing of all time.