Aging Up Goku For Dragon Ball Z Was A Controversial Move Behind The Scenes

Long-running anime series have a habit of clinging to the status quo, especially when it comes to the look of their protagonist. Everything from hairstyle to clothing to their very age has a tendency to stay the same, which occasionally leads to eyebrow-raising situations like the "How old is Ash Ketchum" dilemma that continues to inspire memes and existential crises alike. But not every creator out there is gaslighting us with an immortal 10-year-old Pokemon trainer! In fact, one of the most recognizable protagonists in Shonen anime history has been aging right alongside the audience. Sort of.

With five series and 681 episodes, the "Dragon Ball" franchise has spanned 30 in-universe-years of story for Son Goku. Back when the original series first began, Goku was an 11-year-old warrior with a tail. In another world, he might've stayed that way forever, but series creator Akira Toriyama had other plans; midway through the series, Toriyama made the (apparently controversial) decision to age Goku up a few years. While a few years passed throughout "Dragon Ball," Teenage Goku was still his tiny self when he faced off against Tien and Demon King Piccolo. But when we catch up with him three years later (in time for the 23rd World Martial Arts Tournament), he's visibly older. 

It might sound like a small development, but this artistic choice altered the rest of Goku's journey.

Goku gets a growth spurt

Giving Goku a massive growth spurt wasn't just for the sake of showing how much time has passed — it made things a little easier on Toriyama. Goku's smaller stature made the series' battle scenes more difficult and as the story became more about the tournament arcs, making Goku adult-sized was a necessity. Toriyama unpacked this decision back in 2015, while chatting about the series' for its 30th anniversary. He said:

"I got a lot of pushback on that at the time. Apparently in shōnen manga changing what the main character looked like was a big no-no, but I didn't care about that. His head/body ratio made fighting hard, so I said that if the series was going to start focusing more on battles, then I needed to make him an adult. But this really shocked them: "The series has finally gotten popular, and now you want to go and change everything!" That was the kind of reaction I got."

It almost sounds like that reaction should've been discouraging, but Toriyama wasn't fazed. You know that phrase, "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission"? Editorial department be damned, Toriyama had already made his decision:

"First I drew a sketch of adult Goku and sent it over to the editorial office to get their feedback. But then I started drawing the rough draft before I even heard back from them. (laughs) By the time I sent the rough draft to the editorial office, there wasn't any time left to make major revisions, so they were just like "if you're so dead-set on doing this, then fine..."

In the end, everything worked out for the better. Aging the characters up made a lot of sense for the future of the story and pretty soon, massive time skips became the norm.

Did Goku stop aging after DBZ?

This decision also made space for a new set of characters to enter the fold as the next generation of Z fighters. When Goku returned in "Dragon Ball Z," he had a tiny boy with a tail in tow. His son Gohan became one of the first new young warriors and eventually, grew up to have a daughter (another new fighter) of his own. More importantly, letting everyone age and change is how we got memorable developments like Gohan's teenage superhero crisis and Vegeta's dad-stache.

So you might be wondering — if Vegeta grew a mustache and Gohan had a kid, why hasn't Goku's appearance changed much since "Dragon Ball Z"? As it turns out, both Toriyama and his editors got what they wanted. He got to age Goku up, but after that, his appearance went relatively unchanged. Rest assured, it's not the Ketchum immortality striking again, Goku's appearance does change in small ways that hint he's getting older, but he also has some legit reasons for staying relatively the same. First off, Goku isn't human! He's a Saiyan warrior and aging works differently for the aggressive alien race. While their lifespan isn't that different from humans, their physical aging slows once they reach adulthood, so they can maintain their peak physical strength for as long as possible and keep fighting into their old age. And the second reason Goku looks the same? Because he's dead — but only sometimes.

For about six years between the Cell Saga and the Buu Saga in "Dragon Ball Z," Goku is chilling in the afterlife and basically staying the same while his friends and family continue aging on Earth. So when he finally returns to the world of the living, he hasn't aged a day. Classic anime move.