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Dragon Ball Super episode 84 is one of the most important episodes in recent franchise history. But how can that be? No new characters are introduced, no villains defeated, no new twists in the story occur. By “important” here, I mean important to a very specific group of people: lapsed Dragon Ball fans.
These are people I understand pretty well because I was once one of them. For folks who were previously invested in the franchise, two of the biggest reasons they get burnt out/their largest complaints against the series are (a) the combat mechanics boil down to whose power level is biggest and (b) Toriyama leaves too many fun and interesting characters behind in favor of continually pushing Goku and Vegeta. Super episode 84 represents the beginnings of an answer to both issues and perhaps even an allusion to a drastic shift in the way the series conceptualizes its combat.
So, what happens in episode 84? Goku and Gohan are recruiting team members for a cosmic battle royale known as the Tournament of Power. Eight teams of ten fighters will throw down all at once, attempting to knock opponents off of the fighting stage. The stakes are high. Each team represents one of the twelve currently existing universes (only the weakest eight of the twelve are participating) in Dragon Ball, and losing teams face the harsh penalty of having the supreme (and highly capricious) god of reality phase their universe out of existence. Thus, the Family Son is flying around the world recruiting the most capable fighters to fight for the survival of their universe.
First stop: Kuririn’s house. The Son boys manage to convince both the diminutive martial artist and his even more powerful wife, Android No. 18, to join their cause. Immediately afterward, Gohan (and later Goku) wants to test Kuririn’s strength in a match simulating tournament conditions. That last bit is key. Because these proving ground matches are carried out according to tournament regulations, Kuririn doesn’t need to match the Sons in strength. He employs intelligent tactics to score a decisive victory over Gohan and, with some help from No. 18, manages to present such a challenge to Goku that he has an epiphany concerning his entire approach to the Tournament of Power.
Let’s unpack how all this addresses issues (a) and (b) stated above. For a very, very long time, Dragon Ball has hammered home the idea that its Saiyan characters are more powerful than its human ones. Episode 84 doesn’t stray from this notion; Gohan and Goku remain galaxies beyond Kuririn in terms of raw strength. Yet, because the proving ground battles have a set structure, prohibited acts and specific objectives, Kuririn is able to use these limitations to his advantage and achieve victory. Simply pushing your energy to the next level doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win in the Tournament of Power…ironically enough.
This episode establishes that, for at least the current arc, the fights have the potential to play out entirely differently than in previous arcs. Rather than my-turn-your-turn slugfests in which combatants gain advantage by powering up beyond previously established limits, battles will be more akin to puzzle boxes or escape rooms. Competitors won’t be able to brute force their way through, instead needing to rely on planning effective strategies, adapting to a myriad of different situations, and using the tournament’s constraints to their benefit. And, since a battle royale doesn’t limit the combat to one-on-one duels, the variables for each match-up can change at a moment’s notice. Other shounen series such as Yu Yu Hakusho, My Hero Academia and Hunter X Hunter tend to utilize this kind of combat structure to great effect. In these series, even if you can usually predict who will win you cannot predict exactly how, and this keeps viewers interested. By having Kuririn beat Gohan and (with the help of his lovely wife) push Goku, I believe the creators are sending a signal that, going forward, the fights won’t be falling into the familiar old, Dragon Ball rhythms.
What, then, of the second issue raised earlier? Dragon Ball has a storied history of creating characters people want to root for only to relegate them to the backseat of the plot and eventually out of the active story altogether. The Saiyans are clearly the center of the franchise’s solar system*, and their gravity keeps pulling in the lion’s share of screentime. A large part of this is the significance these characters hold in crucial battles; as Saiyans their pure strength exponentially increases when they recover. In no-rules, winner-take-all combat, the Saiyans’ ability to “quickly level up” and be viable opponents for world-destroying evil keeps them permanently in the narrative picture. An alternative explanation: Toriyama just thinks they’re pretty rad.
As I established, though, having the highest power level is no longer the most efficient means to achieving victory here. Thus, it’s possible for once-discarded members of the cast to now play a much more substantial role in the battles. If what I say above about screentime being doled out to capable fighters is true, then I believe audiences are in store for a greater variety than usual of characters playing important roles in the story. Episode 84 supports my argument. Barring a couple of exceptions, Kuririn has been featured remarkably little in Dragon Ball Super up until this episode. What is more, on the rare occasion he is involved, he struggles to overcome cowardice in the face of adversity. Yet, here he is in episode 84 going toe-to-toe with the universe’s strongest, and not only not getting embarrassed, but winning. He got an entire episode dedicated to him and his family! All because the combat formula has been altered.
Now I’m going to speculate a bit. At the end of episode 84, Goku realizes that he can’t approach this tournament like his previous battles. In fact, he believes if he does, then he will lose. Knowing Goku as we do, he’s going to want to train in order to compete with and surpass the other fighters in the Tournament of Power. The catch is: this training won’t be about increasing his power level (at least not directly about that). Instead, he should be honing different areas of his repertoire, different skills that will increase his chances of success. He will be training with completely different goals in mind and developing an altered approach, which–it seems reasonable to assume–will result in some drastically different fights.
Even those who are its most zealous supporters will acknowledge that Dragon Ball has never been perfect. Fun, likable characters will get left behind, and the characters that remain in the spotlight participate in fights whose rhythm and structure is both simple and unchanging. These issues buttress each other in such a way that some fans became frustrated and moved on from the series. Episode 84 of Dragon Ball Super represents the promise that the franchise is finally addressing these matters. The Tournament of Power portends a fundamental shift for the nature of the show’s combat and everything surrounding it. The non-Saiyan cast are now viable fighters, as Kuririn demonstrates, because the tried-and-true “Saiyan way” of overcoming challenges is counterproductive to success in the competition. More of the cast will be getting more non-comedic screentime than any time in Super so far. This shakeup could possibly lead to some permanent changes for the series in terms of combat mechanics and structure, as well. Whatever the future holds, lapsed Dragon Ball fans take heart, this episode is for you.
*Though the half-Saiyan, half-Earthling characters have mostly gotten short shrift up to this point in Super