Although we all accept Saiyans as part of the Dragon Ball universe now, it’s easy to forget that this whole concept, and the fact that Goku is not human but of this alien race, is introduced right at the start of the Dragon Ball Z. Mind you Goku had a tail, super strength, and could transform into a giant ape in the Dragon Ball manga, so it was already pretty obvious. Still.
The manga begins with the arrival of Goku’s brother, Raditz, to Earth. After his defeat, Raditz mentions that two more Saiyans, Vegeta and Nappa, would be coming to scope out the planet. Nappa is a villain to his core who does eventually get defeated; however, Vegeta remains a continued presence in the series. He was a monster when he first arrived on the scene—brutal, calculated, and focused on one thing: pure strength. What happened to those around him was irrelevant as long as he could become stronger. Even the goals of the one who he worked for at the time, Frieza, were ultimately irrelevant to him. He’d kill Frieza if it would make him stronger. He did not care. He fought, cheated, stolen, and murdered his way to where he was. Power and pride are what he worshiped above all else. He was, in many ways, pride incarnate.
But by the end of the Dragon Ball Z series proper (anime and manga), Vegeta is one of the heroes of Earth. He has been redeemed. How does this shift happen? It is gradual over the entire series and it is brilliant to watch.
During the Buu saga, Goku battles Kid Buu. In that moment, Vegeta has an inner monologue where he finally realizes something about himself and Goku:
Kakarrot you are glorious. This creature is far beyond my power…no one but you can fight him. I think I see at last why I could never beat you. I thought it was because you had people to protect. I thought that desire created some unfathomable power in you, but I have the same desire now. I have others to protect and yet I still fight to win…to enjoy it…to kill enemies…to puff up my pride. Not you. You’ve never fought to win. You fought to better yourself! To push your limits! That’s why you never killed your enemies…why you refused to kill me. As if you knew all along I would learn to have a soul. I should hate you! A Saiyan who loves to fight—and is kind?! Good luck, Kakkarot…You are the champion!!
Vegeta has an epiphany as he witnesses the fight, realizing his own nature. He recognizes that even after everything he had done to better himself, at his core was pride. That pride was what motivated him. Even after he lived among humans, met Bulma, had children, got married, and found motivation beyond himself—he was still powered by pride. It was what allowed him to be manipulated by Babidi. Do not get me wrong, Vegeta clearly loves his wife and son, but he still worshiped power and pride first. Recognizing his failure was the first step toward redemption.
For all the battles and fighting observed in the various Dragon Ball series, it is redemption that has always been a core message. We saw it first with Piccolo. We saw it with Vegeta. We would see it later with Buu and others throughout the Dragon Ball series. Villains become friends of the heroes as Goku and company refuse to kill them in most instances.
As a Christian, I can think of many people who went from villain to friend and hero, like the Apostle Paul in the Bible. There’s Chuck Colson, who went from Nixon dirty trickster to prison evangelist. There’s also Frank Meeink, the former Neo-Nazi skinhead who now speaks out against racism. Yet, redemption is not always staggering in its shift—sometimes it’s far more subtle.
Before I found Christ, I was not a kidnapper, murderer, political dirty trickster, or prideful, space trotting Saiyan Prince—I was simply a sinner. I still am. Yet, the Lord has changed my life in so many ways and continues to mold me into a redeemed person. He will continue to do so until I have reached completion, which I can never do on my own. Alone, none of these people mentioned were redeemed from their former selves. Colson found Christ in a prison cell. Meeink saw the humanity in those who were different than him from the love they showed him. Paul was miraculously struck by Christ and forced to reconcile with his sin. And Vegeta was shown mercy at a moment when he did not deserve it. He continued to watch the mercy of Goku toward others and it changed him.
Of all the characters in the Dragon Ball universe, Vegeta perhaps has the most personal growth—transitioning from space pirate and murderer to heroic father and defender of Earth. He grew to eventually be a voice of reason in the series, even calling out his friends!
And isn’t that a powerful thing about redemption? It’s both a moment in time and forever more. You’re not truly redeemed if you continue to live like you once did. Vegeta’s path is gradual, back and forth, and dynamic—and it is amazing, a picture of what redemption can be for a Saiyan, and more importantly, what it can be for me.
The Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z manga can be read digitally at Shonen Jump.