The 'Saiyan Saga' or the 'Vegeta Saga' is the first of four chapters that follow the path of our main protagonist 'Gohan' as he grows from boy to man. The Saiyan Saga reveals to us the secrets of Gohan's past and plants seeds for future story arcs. Here we are introduced to key characters that play important roles in Gohan's physical and mental development. We are also introduced to story telling devices that allow us to traverse the vast tracts of exposition needed to explain the often convoluted and sometimes confusing plots of DBZ. Herein I will offer a guide of sorts to the many and varied characters of DBZ and in doing so outline the dominant themes therein.
Goku is Gohan's father and in whose shadow Gohan must constantly tread. Goku was the hero of Dragon Ball and it was there that we first see the evolution of a character from boy to man as viewed through Toriyamas unique vision. Goku is originally a monkey-tailed boy of mysterious origin. He rides a nimbus cloud and for all intents and purposes reminds us of the Monkey King from 'Journey to the west' on which he is based.
This in itself is interesting, for the Monkey King in "Journey to the West" is representative of the restless spirit of man and possesses what is known as the "wild mind", unchained, unfocused, constantly being distracted by new ideas, happenings and objects, thinking only of its wants and desires.
Unlike the monkey king, Goku is a perfectly sublime child (if sometimes oblivious), afraid of nothing, always righteous and compassionate. Even in DBZ he remains perfectly serene most of the time and in this way takes on characteristics of both restless Monkey King and the Holy Fool (also Journey to the West).
The Holy Fool puts all of their faith in the divine, they are always looking to give all they have or even lay down their lives for others, regardless of their misdeeds, in the belief that their actions are at all times guided by higher forces.
Goku is ever innocent, deeply compassionate and ultimately on the eternal road to martial perfection (which in DBZ is used as a substitute for the enlightenment as depicted in Journey to the West). In his quest however Goku seemingly estranges himself from his family spending less time with his son than his old arch-nemesis Piccolo and compromising his relationship with his wife by constantly putting Gohan in mortal danger.
In this story Goku is the herculean hero of Greek mythology or the martyr of Christian mythology. We may try to emulate him but we cannot be him, he is to us as he is to his family; on a pedestal, always just out of reach, ordained by the gods, supported by a Greek chorus and has a perfection that is seemingly unattainable.
The Greek chorus is a theatrical device which has its origins in ancient Greek theatre, it consists of a group of people usually to the side of the performance area who commentate the action and reveal hidden information that the audience may not be privy to. The Greek chorus for DBZ typically consists of Krillin, Yamcha, Tien and Chiaotzu but is often joined by others who due to their relative insignificance are unable to partake in the main plot.
Krillin was literally created by Toriyama because his editor suggested that Goku was too bland. Krillin (also a mainstay of Dragon Ball) is the beta to Gokus alpha in the pack like structure formed by the group of protagonists in DBZ known as the 'Z fighters'. Krillin is mostly used by Toriyama for comic relief and as a platform for much needed exposition and as such heads up the Greek chorus.
Yamcha, once a desert bandit is now loyal follower/Z fighter member, Yamcha is also a carry-over from Dragon Ball. In DBZ Yamcha does little more than bolster the Greek chorus led by Krillin.
Tien & Chiaotzu are again featured in Dragon Ball and while all their back story says they are arguably more powerful than anyone on earth these credentials serve only to qualify them as speed humps for key antagonists and as more commentators for the much needed Greek chorus.
Divine providence is brought to bear in DBZ through a pantheon of godlike characters who emulate the jade emperor in 'Journey to the West' by similarly inhabiting detached floating buildings in the clouds. Like the Christian mythology, it is divinity of these characters that justify and guides the "right" actions of their chosen champions on the earthly plain. They offer training, advice and even miracles in the form of the wishes from Dragon Balls to support the progress of their cause. The main figures in this pantheon are King Kai, Kami and King Yemma.
King Kai is the guardian of the north quadrant of the universe, he is theoretically all-knowing and all-seeing but not powerful enough to face the threats presented in DBZ so instead focuses on lending his talents and training to others. King Kai is paternal and kind in nature yet harsh with lessons representing a sort of celestial father figure.
Kami is the name held by the current deity whose responsibilities are to guard the planet earth. The Kami of the DBZ timeline comes closest of all characters to actually realising the struggles of man to attain the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment as explored in Journey to the West. Kami comes across as a wise old man, both pure and benevolent, however this was only achieved by separating his dark side forcibly from his body, which created a super-powered, mass murdering, megalomaniacal version of himself who became the main antagonist of the Dragon Ball series. In DBZ we find Kami as a deity struggling to reconcile his darkness and in doing so comes closest to representing the eternal struggle against ones ego in the quest for enlightenment, or possibly redemption. I say redemption because in DBZ enlightenment equals, you guessed it, giant cans of whoop ass! Kami in Japanese is also the same name held by spirits of nature, objects, ancestors or pretty much anything really, so if this guys got your back then you must be doing the right thing, right?
King Yemma is King Yama from east Asian mythologies as he is no different in function or appearance.
King Yama is big, red faced, rules over ten kings of hell, judges the dead. Dress Yama in a suit, add some horns plus a pinch of comedic bureaucratic intolerance and you have King Yenma. Yenma completes the divine trinity of heaven, earth and hell all willing to do what is necessary to help our heroes win the day.
Gohan is the main protagonist of DBZ; it is his journey from boy to man that takes the center stage in this series. Gohan is introduced at the start of DBZ as the son of Goku, inheriting his father's supernatural abilities. He becomes the hope for the future, as recognised by Piccolo, and as such undergoes relentless training in order to deal with what is to come. Gohan's journey is the one we all want to relate to in DBZ, he carries our hopes and fears along with those of all the protagonists in the series and at the end of the day he stands as an amalgamation of their best features.
Piccolo was the final antagonist of the Dragon Ball series, he is strong, ruthless and comes across as one of the most intelligent characters in the series. Once begrudging of Goku for killing his father, Piccolo decides in DBZ to throw past feelings aside in order to combat far greater threats to the universe. What he comes to represent is a more educated mentor for Gohan and a champion of reason in the series as a whole. Piccolo is beloved by the audience as the bad guy come good from the original series.
Raditz is the first antagonist to arrive from off world in DBZ, he is Goku's brother and reveals the truth of Goku's origin. Raditz appears as the darkness of the past coming forth to reveal the sins of their families origin and in the process attempts to draw Goku and Gohan back in to the fold. Raditz has little complexity beyond the classic portrayal of a snarling ruffian which suits his purpose as the harbinger of worse things to come.
Nappa arrives on earth with Vegeta soon after the death of Radditz and is essentially the Goliath character from Christian mythology. Nappa delivers death and suffering as an appetiser for conflict with one of the most beloved characters of the series, Vegeta.
Vegeta is the anti-Goku and the main antagonist of the Saiyan saga. Where Goku is compassionate and oblivious, Vegeta is cold, calculating and self-serving. Vegeta uncompromisingly views weakness as the greatest flaw, even in himself. Born of nobility, Vegeta had every opportunity to train and rise to greatness while being fully aware of his powers and their origins. Vegeta is, like Goku, on the quest to achieve martial perfection and will always forgo fighting weaker opponents in order to push his skills to the limit. Vegeta represents everything that Goku and Gohan could have been - a grand prince of the universe conquering all for glory and riches.