The Afterlife in Dragon Ball Kai: an Introduction


I’ve never finished watching Dragon Ball Z back in the 90s, so I relished the opportunity to follow the narrative through Dragon Ball Kai. I’ve never read much about the franchise the same way I’ve done for Macross and Gundam, so I’m pretty much viewing the show with somewhat fresh eyes.

When I first saw it in the early 90s, the first thing that really grabbed my attention is how Goku got killed very early on. This is no great disaster since the Dragon Balls grant wishes, and will be gathered in a quest arc to revive Goku. Now when Goku enters the afterlife, a few interesting things grabbed my attention.

dragon-ball-kai-04-lord-enma-son-goku-kamiGreat King Enma decides your eternal fate.

My background and upbringing is Roman Catholic, so imagine my surprise that St. Peter was a giant horned demon. This guy decided whether you go to heaven or hell. Goku had an advocate in the form of  Kami, who’s this guardian being (who looks like an alien related to Piccolo). Kami advocated that Goku be allowed to train under this great guardian being called Kaio-Sama, who’s supposed to be some king of strong martial artist.

The plea was a comic scene, so it isn’t really a profound presentation on why Goku should be allowed to train under Kaio. However, Great King Enma agrees. And gives him permission to travel to Kaio’s domain, which is at the end of the 1,000,000 kilometer long Snake Road.

An interesting part of the whole exchange is that Kami reveals that there is only one person to have made it to Kaio Sama’s, and that is Great King Enma. This recounting pleases the giant’s vanity. I found him very interesting, so I looked Enma up [->]. There’s isn’t much, so I’ll just put it here:

Enma (閻魔 ?) is the Japanese name for Yama, the ruler of the underworld in Buddhist mythology. He is often referred to as “Great King Enma” (閻魔大王 Enma-daiō?). In both ancient and modern times, Enma is portrayed as a large man with a scowling red face, bulging eyes and a long beard. He wears traditional robes and a crown on his head that usually bears the kanji 王, which stands for “king.”

Saimyō-ji is a temple with a statue depicting Enma with a laughing face.

Dragon Ball exaggerates this and gives him a decidedly comical feel, which even with his potential for rage — he comes off as a fun and light character consistent with the tone of the series. So Goku is given permission to run the Snake Road, which was in hindsight, the first training arc (a story arc wholly devoted to characters undergoing training)  that I’ve ever witnessed.


One thing about the Snake Road that I find interesting is that to fall over it’s edges leads to a one-way trip to hell. What? I can appreciate the involvement of risk and sanction built into the training and development system but hell|ultimate and absolute punishment is absurd! I’m not disparageing the show, just exploring its world.

What could be the possible moral or ethical basis of building such a risk in the system?

  • Discourage the weak and unworthy
  • Keep the trainee on-point always

None. The abovementioned are neither moral nor ethical bases. They are management considerations to keep the system efficient. Anyone who takes this on is automatically bad ass.

So it is perhaps an amoral system, merely interested in producing the strongest possible fighter. Lord Enma succeeded, and his approval of Kami’s endorsement of Goku wasn’t on moral grounds. It was quite arbitrary — he found Goku interesting, that’s all. Being amoral however, I still am quite disturbed by the consequence of failure.

First, what is being punished? Is failure a consequence of immoral behavior? I don’t think it is. Second, the intention to undertake the training is not immoral. If so, this can be screened by Lord Enma himself to prevent the powering up of evildoers.

Hell is the ultimate punishment for immoral beings. I wonder why it’s being used here to admonish the merely brave or stupid.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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33 Responses to The Afterlife in Dragon Ball Kai: an Introduction

  1. kiriska says:

    Heh. That’s a pretty interesting observation. I was watching the episode last night and remember remarking that that’s a really shitty way to go if you fall, but I never really thought of the reasons why they set it up that way.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I wonder what the most elegant design for a training system like this would look like, given their resources. This is partly why this subject interests me so.

  2. animekritik says:

    maybe it’s just a deterrent. otherwise there’d be hordes of guys saying “i wanna try it out, me, me, me!”

    • ghostlightning says:

      Great King Enma is the deterrent. After all, he has to let you on the road first. Otherwise it’s just heaven or hell for you.

  3. What I wanna know is how someone as big as Enma-Daio was able to cross the damn thing. Wouldn’t he have to just sort of shuffle along?

  4. jiff says:

    “Hell is the ultimate punishment for immoral beings.”

    Perhaps you should abandon “knowledge” of the nature of hell gleaned from eldritch tomes – at least when dealing with fictional universes.

    Hell is a physical location in the DBZ world, not some abstract notion of distance from god/lake of fire. Heaven is a place too – a planet, in fact. Hell is just a shitty place below snake way, one that several people in the anime actually visit and return from. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that a certain demon king encountered much later is sent to heaven after he dies, on the assumption that he would enjoy hell too much. The afterlife – or “outer world” – is where Goku is currently located. Some people travel there before they have died – one Z warrior in the Buu arc, for example.

    I can’t believe you would pose questions about hell in this way and not ask why Goku would want to be reincarnated later – after all, if hell is the ultimate punishment, would not heaven be the ultimate victory? Why not spend just a few years in heaven waiting for your loved ones to die and join you? It’s because “heaven” and “hell” are rough terms applied to these places to make their existences more readily understandable. Kaio is a god; up to this point in the anime he’s kind of the only one we know about. Later we learn that there are many more gods, both greater, lesser, and equal in rank to Kaio.

    So, within the DBZ universe, we can explain away the dangers of snake road by saying this:

    When you die, you go to be judged. If judged favorably, you get to go to Heaven. If judged unfavorably, you go to Hell. If you wish to postpone judgement, you can try going down snake road – although the end result will almost certainly be hell, not the training you desire. Should you make it to the Kaio’s planet, he must still pass his own judgement upon you, deciding himself whether or not he will train you, so there is still no way for a truly evil entity to gain reprieve in this way.

    Choosing to go down that road would be wise for anyone bound for hell – one could gain at least a temporary stay of the hardships likely encountered in hell. The only other person who should tackle that path is one that is certain he can complete it – and one for whom it is neccesary to do so (for personal reasons, saving people form evil, etc). The punishment for failure is hell – the offense is the arrogance to try, to assume that you can wield the strength of the gods.

    tl;dr It’s a fighting anime, of course the afterlife is going to be based on strength. Go watch a show where people vie to help old ladies cross the street if you want an afterlife based on morality.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I get the impression that you disapprove of the very idea of the post. That’s okay, this is just a blog post about fighting anime that has no real influence on its viewers and the creative staff.

      That said, I believe the inquiry I put forth is no less valid. It’s a whimsical exploration (the writing here is all for foppery and whim (if you get that reference), that’s all. Btw, I appreciate you not spoiling things for me, thanks.

      Now to address your points:

      I made it clear where I’ll be starting from – hence the Catholic idea of hell. Heaven will be the ultimate victory, only that Goku isn’t interested in that – nor has he really thought about it (or much of anything).

      The discussion isn’t really about Goku, but rather the design of the afterlife. You shared very interesting things on how the narrative uses the afterlife (as to it being fleshed out in an internally logical system is yet to be seen).

      “The arrogance to try” – I get the logic of ‘sin’ here, though I disagree with it on a level that is beyond the show. Offense, insult, and sin are silly concepts to me personally. But I see now some semblance of logic in the narrative.

      When you die, you go to be judged. If judged favorably, you get to go to Heaven. If judged unfavorably, you go to Hell. If you wish to postpone judgement, you can try going down snake road – although the end result will almost certainly be hell, not the training you desire. Should you make it to the Kaio’s planet, he must still pass his own judgement upon you, deciding himself whether or not he will train you, so there is still no way for a truly evil entity to gain reprieve in this way.

      This is a sensible explanation, only that it doesn’t take into account Great King Enma’s role. If Goku needed an advocate just to ask for permission to go on that road, the option isn’t readily available. It really exists more than anything as a training program. Amoral, but perhaps ill-considered.

      • jiff says:

        I think Enma’s role is explained enough already – he is the judge. If one has met the requirements to go to heaven, it stands to reason that they would want to go there – barring any objective they need to meet back in the living realms. If you want to go down snake road, Enma judges that the option will be made available to you. There are several barriers to entry in the training program; perhaps it is the Catholic idea of one judgment and one heaven that is preventing you from accepting this?

        The Catholic perspective could make for an interesting discussion; many things could be said about the relationship of the systems in our world and in Goku’s. However, trying to rationalize Goku’s behavior through Catholic mores is an exercise in futility. After all, it it inconceivable that a Catholic operating in a Catholic afterlife would choose any option other than heaven – that’s the goal of it all. It is not Goku’s goal, nor has it been seen to be the goal of anyone on the show to get to “heaven.” Heaven is NOT the ultimate victory in this universe.

        DBZ draws heavily from many faiths – ancient Chinese myth being prominent among the mined lore. Though it hasn’t happened yet, some characters later come back from the dead, and some actually have their souls reincarnated into something else. Adding that layer, what is the ultimate goal? Can an entity in hell (under Snake Road) eventually atone enough/become strong enough to reincarnate? These questions are not answered as far as I know.

        I certainly do not disapprove of the idea of this post – I simply think you are taking it in a meaningless direction. Instead of an analysis of what is known about the universe and subsequent construction of a belief system hypothesis, you are trying to pigeonhole people’s actions into something that fits in with ideas you already hold as “truth.” In fiction, comparisons can be made, but you cannot use one system of beliefs as a lens through which you view another’s actions.

        As for the idea of an internally logical religion – they are all internally logical, that’s what makes them religions! Logic inside a system operates under the assumption that the Supreme God created the world and the system, and thus also the logic structure. All perceived illogical quanta can be explained away as the Will Of God, or the ignorance of Her followers. Religions, by there very nature, cannot contradict themselves – at least not in the universe they created for themselves. It is only outside observes who perceive illogical strands (one god’s heretic is another god’s prophet) and only an impartial observer – one who is neither a follower of religion X nor an enemy of religion X – can accurately gauge the logic of religion X’s beliefs: that is to say, if the internal logic matches up with external logic.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Catholicism is just a place for me to start from, being the familiar. As for meaninglessness, that’s okay too — foppery and whim, and nihilism and all that.

          Also, it won’t be the singular lens, only that I find it important to acknowledge where I’m starting from to avoid future confusion revolving around clarifications.

          Goku’s behavior… not very much to analyze, for now. He just doesn’t think through things and is dependent on mentors and sponsors.

          It’s an introduction, so I won’t be able to flesh out a lot of analysis but I do look forward to discovering the other elements both based on past and present traditions as well as the plain zany ones.

          Something you might be able to help me with:

          Etymologies of ‘hell’ and the precise words used in the show. I want to distinguish how much of a role the translator has in giving me this impression. Perhaps the idea of hell is already communicated from the Buddhist tradition, I don’t know.

          However, trying to rationalize Goku’s behavior through Catholic mores is an exercise in futility. After all, it it inconceivable that a Catholic operating in a Catholic afterlife would choose any option other than heaven – that’s the goal of it all. It is not Goku’s goal, nor has it been seen to be the goal of anyone on the show to get to “heaven.” Heaven is NOT the ultimate victory in this universe.

          You assume knowledge of the show beyond 4 episodes. I can’t know this yet based on the evidence. If it turns out to be this way, sure okay. Heaven isn’t a clear concept in the show yet, and given the audience of its demographic, I’m very interested in how the show builds its universe from here. (I’ve no idea how much religion is part of elementary education in Japan, but over here in the Philippines by age 10 we have been heavily indoctrinated).

        • animekritik says:

          But in a certain sense religions are fundamentally not logical. That’s where faith comes in. If it were perfectly logical you wouldn’t need proselytizers.

          The very words “explain away illogical quanta” seems to imply that there’s a flaw in the logic there. I mean, I could make up my own system of logic and if anyone saw a mistake in it I could say “Oh, no, that’s the mystery of the system, see?” That wouldn’t be logical…

          But I do see how to a believer in that religion, there could be no flaw, only errors of comprehension or unrevealed mysteries. Matter of perspective.

  5. Vendredi says:

    Wow, this brings me waaaay back. This series practically weaned me on animation in the early 90s when it first came to North America.

    As for the concepts of hell and heaven… Like Jiff noted, Asian mythology in general does not map very well onto Judeo-Christian notions of religion. They work a little more like pre-Christian religions such as the Greek or Norse pantheons, where deities are a combination of natural spirit, important historical figure, and supernatural demi-god.

    DBZ draws heavily from Chinese traditions. I wouldn’t say this system of the Snake Road is so much “amoral” as it is “bureaucratic”: you have to go through the process just as stated – and if there’s one thing you notice about Chinese culture and mythology in general, there’s bureaucracy wherever you go: on earth in the form of the state, in hell managing the procession of the dead, and even in heaven there is a celestial bureaucracy.

    In this sense differentiation in the afterlife is a little tougher – there’s no real sense of the “burning lake of fire” hell that you get in Christianity. Rather, it’s more like “That place with the really dismal waiting room versus that place with the really bright sunlit waiting room”, or something to that effect. Plus, in Chinese mythology everyone gets reincarnated eventually – so your stay in heaven/hell is ultimately temporary: you can be in longer or shorter, of course, depending on your conduct during your past life, but you get out eventually.

    It’s actually rather amusing how that bureaucracy is a constant no matter where you go. Heaven and Hell, in Chinese mythology, are essentially just giant waiting rooms with a different set of amenities – where you sit around until it’s time for you to get spit back into some new mortal coil.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Giant waiting rooms where one waits for reincarnation eh? Interesting, this is all new to me (or I just managed to forget after all these years since university). A bureaucracy is amoral in that it is neither moral or immoral.

      Now given that we’ve established this bureaucratic system — the training program. Is the dimly lit waiting room appropriate punishment for falling off the road? The best kind of learning is done through mistakes, and nothing fails to teach like success. Let’s say the above statement is true. The training program fails because it doesn’t account for failure as a learning opportunity.

      If used only as a screening tool, why the redundancy? The Great King Enma is not enough then? If so, the learner is punished for Enma’s mistakes rather than his own. If he really wasn’t qualified he would have just been told by Enma and sent to heaven. I don’t suppose a hell-bound being would be granted permission anyway.

      • Vendredi says:

        It definitely is sort of flawed, but as I see it Chinese meritocracy has been a lot more about the stick than the carrot (punishing failure rather than rewarding success). It’s not exactly Confucian but it seems to have sort of seeped into the culture.

  6. Inuhanyou says:

    I woulden’t necessarily think about it in those terms..hell is technically, not a place where “divine punishment” is handed out. Really in reality its only a crappy place where the bad people are put to separate them from the rest of the afterlife, so they don’t go around wrecking junk. Its much less serious than a rigid system such as divine judgment and more or less a lighter more comical version, different cultures mixed together and whatnot.

    • ghostlightning says:

      That’s okay, I’m not interested in a ‘correct’ interpretation anyway. Rather, what’s fun to think about? Am I underestimating this aspect of the show as mere lulz? Is there anything we can learn from Toriyama Akira about world-building?

      In this case, I’m interested in the design of the training program and the role of the Snake Road in it.

      • Inuhanyou says:

        That’s pretty true actually..i’ve always figured to just take a light stance on it and not to think so deeply on the subject. I doubt toriyama made it as a deep structural thing in the first place tbh, making only as much as he needed to, such as the person to go to for training, how to know where good guys and bad guys go, simple stuff like that. Toei is the source of how it expanded to a much greater level, mostly being because of the need for original material.

        • ghostlightning says:

          You’re probably right! I don’t think he’s Tolkien building the world of Middle-Earth using unbelievably detailed notes, chunks of which became The Silmarillion.

          That said, and drawing something from what jiff above shared – the world and system fleshes itself out to a degree. I am interested to know how far it goes and how solid it is constructed.

  7. coburn says:

    Although I haven’t seen the show, I like how the idea of a ‘bad-ass bureaucracy’ fits with The Shonen Anime/Manga formula. I enjoyed the idea that there’s some gigantic horned bastard managing applications and generally being absurd, because it kind of ties into that sense of the young hero struggling into prominence within a world of grown ups.

    It seems like even the cosmic order is a continuation of the world of hard bastards. And, not unusually for the genre, it’s the junior members of the bare-knuckle hierarchy who keep up a moral position.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Son Goku at this point is young, but in the respect that he’s a young father. Dragon Ball Z has become more his son Gohan’s story, though Goku never lost his dumbass naivete with his most pure of hearts.

      It seems like even the cosmic order is a continuation of the world of hard bastards. And, not unusually for the genre, it’s the junior members of the bare-knuckle hierarchy who keep up a moral position.

      I’ve never thought of things this way, though now that I have it is quite everywhere. Only the adults are full of betrayals and lies, and only the young are capable of redemption. And when an older character is given an opportunity to repent (usually before the end), there is a powerful hearkening to youth and one’s own innocence.

  8. Cuchlann says:

    It seems like you’re making an assumption, that the hell of DBZ is meant to be a punishment, and hence lead you to ask why people should be punished for attempting the Snake Road. Isn’t it more thematically appropriate to consider hell as another place, another risk, like any other danger on a fantastic voyage?

    And anyway, like most theologies, it’ll be Goku’s own damn fault if he ends up in hell. : D

    • ghostlightning says:

      Indeed I am. Is it not reasonable among other possibilities? I find it less plausible as a reward — would you see it as such?

      • Cuchlann says:

        I’m speculating as neither. In a system such as DBZ’s where good and evil appear not to be as universal as we assume, then whole places aren’t likely to be good or bad either. Later in the series Goku’s always trying to find ways to get out of what’s essentially heaven, and that’s supposed to be pretty good. So it stands to reason that, while no one would certainly want to go there, it’s at least *possible* that hell in DBZ is just a place, maybe positioned as it is as an aid to training, but not necessarily meant as a punishment. Think of it as the natural risk everyone takes when they train normally — it’s possible a person’s heart could be faulty and that hundredth jumping jack could kill. 🙂

        • ghostlightning says:

          I may be completely off-base, but my experience of DBZ is that it’s quite black-and-white. ‘Right’ are the actions that acknowledge love and friendship, and ‘wrong’ are actions that reject them.

          The possibilities you mentioned are reasonable, though improbable I think. This is a long arc and more clues will come. It’s quite fun to speculate, especially for a show as light-hearted as this one.

          • Cuchlann says:

            Yeah, the morals are pretty much black and white. But they also seem to generally stem from individuals, rather than a social order. So could hell be what you make of it? Maybe Goku would have fun in hell. He has fun everywhere else. : )

            And yes, dissecting the DBZ is hilarious and entertaining, which is the point. 😀

          • ghostlightning says:

            the morals are pretty much black and white. But they also seem to generally stem from individuals, rather than a social order.

            Good point. As far as hell being what one makes of it, I speculate this to be plausible in Dragon Ball… and applying some extreme logic, applicable to the Christian concept of hell either.

            Working with Christian assumptions:

            1. Humans have free will
            2. Hell is filled with elements that produce suffering

            Humans are capable of deriving utility from suffering. Subjectivity has some influence on what is deemed pleasurable. It is possible that there is a human who will quite enjoy fire and brimstone, or if not that – the very idea that God is changing his system of punishment to avoid things that the individual chooses to derive pleasure from. Verily the game can last for eternity. In any case, it can’t possibly get any worse for that person.

            I realize I may just go to hell for dicking around with this concept.

          • Cuchlann says:

            No no, you’re serving humankind. That’s good, I think. : )

            Also, alternately — with DBZ-specific values, 1. Humans can be completely oblivious to their surroundings. ^_^

  9. Jesus a lot of discussion here. And I actually read almost all of it lol. Good points to all on how Asian philosophy and religion does not compute with Western stuff, and I especially like the idea of them as ‘waiting rooms till reincarnation’. Heaven and hell are pretty arbitrary in DBZ and honestly, I don’t think they are all that well thought-out. It’s always made me go ‘why didn’t Goku visit his dead dad or grandpa in the afterlife?’ etc. There’s also the whole thing where if you die while in heaven and hell you die for ‘real’ or whatever. It all gets more and more convoluted towards the end of the series where death plays a more major role.

    Overall, I’d advise against making any statements until you’ve finished the show.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Oh yeah, no real definitive statements. But it’s quite fun to speculate especially since this is in no way meant to serve as a review of the show.

      As for Asian religion, we got about 80 million Catholics here in these islands; but I know what you mean with Christianity being a Western tradition all things considered.

  10. Note: your average American can’t locate the Phillipines on a map. Myself included.

  11. DonKangolJones says:

    Wow! I knew as soon as I saw Dragonball & Afterlife in a title there would be plenty to talk about. As a fellow Roman Catholic, I can understand how an anime afterlife, like Dragonball’s can get a reaction and entice you to ask some questions. I always viewed the Snake Way arc of this series as an somewhat amusing and nostalgic harkening back to the ridiculousness of the original Dragonball.

    I know you’re not & I didn’t either, take this too seriously. I’ve watched all of Dragonball. Believe me, this is just a side show. Dragonball hardly ever takes death seriously. Enjoyed reading this blog, though.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Yeah,this post isn’t about taking Dragon Ball seriously, rather about having fun with it using serious questions.

      As digiboy above says, this sideshow as you call it probably isn’t that well though out. Nonetheless, I want to map out the consequences of that lack of critical work and its consequences on the narrative and the kinds of signals these emit.

  12. Pingback: Making a Manga is a Man’s Love: Bakuman Teaches Me to Be a Man « We Remember Love

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