The Garlic Junior Saga is underrated
The Garlic Junior Saga is a filler arc of the anime Dragon Ball Z. It chronicles the adventures of Gohan, Krillin and Piccolo as they fight a threat to the world spearheaded by Garlic Junior, the main villain from the very first Dragon Ball Z movie (‘The Dead Zone’). By many fans it is reviled. For years I hated it but looking back it is not half bad at all.
The thing people hate it for is that it’s pure filler which also jacks up the continuity as the Dead Zone movie was very much not canon.
However filler is inevitable with any on going anime. It wasn’t like it was egregious and interrupted something more interesting. It was a 10 episode arc all it’s own. I wasn’t a whole seasons worth and wasn’t dragging us away from a more interesting fight with Frieza or Cell or whoever.
And for what it is it is, its actually okay. I mean for one thing Garlic Junior was a decent antagonist in the Dead Zone movie and still is here. He resembled Emperor Pilaf (the first Dragon Ball villain) but was more serious and evil as a good symbol for how the Dragon Ball series in DBZ had become darker and more serious. Additionally as a genuinely immortal villain he served as a unique antagonist compared to the other villains up until then in DBZ who could at least be killed. More than this since no other villain in DBZ after the Frieza Saga was interested in immortality as Frieza and Vegeta were, having the heroes fight a villain who genuinely is immortal is a good cap off to that idea that puts it to bed for good. Garlic Junior is also a villain with a personal beef with our heroes as he wants revenge upon Kami, Piccolo, Gohan and Goku.
The dilemma for our heroes is that Goku is nowhere to be found. The filler Saga uses the status quo the series was in at the time and built upon it cleverly. For non-manga fans who didn’t know what was coming the Saga felt like a set up similar to the Saiyan and Frieza sagas where Goku would be absent and join in to save the day later on. But what was refreshing about this was that Goku NEVER showed up, it subverted the trope. Indeed Goku not showing up makes the situation all the more desperate but it allows Piccolo, Krillin and Gohan to shine. This is a trio who we’ve seen build up in the Saiyan Saga against Nappa and in the Freiza Saga when they watched Goku and Vegeta’s fights against the tyrant together. We like these characters as individuals and we like them as a unit. So seeing them save the day without Goku is rewarding for them as characters. At the same time the kindly Mr. Popo and even Kami (who lest we forget were both bad asses in Dragon Ball) even get a chance to bask in the spotlight and genuinely contribute to saving the day.
The absence of Goku and the filler nature of the Saga (including the final episode where Krillin and his new girlfriend Marron break up) also gives the audience a breather after the intensity of the Frieza battle. We get to see these characters during calmer moments when they can hang out and relax a bit more, thus making the times of action and danger that permeates the rest of the series more meaningful by contrast. More than this since it occurs during the year when Goku (and in the anime Vegeta) are off Earth it really makes you feel their absences. You really feel like Goku has been gone a long time. This works with Frieza as well. As opposed to the Manga or DBZ Kai where Frieza returns shortly after his ‘defeat’, here having a whole saga where Frieza is apparently dead lulls you into a false sense of security and fools you into thinking Frieza is truly dead and gone, that the heroes are safe. Hence when he shows back up again it is a BIG shock that scares you
This arc also has a unique setting in having a fight occur on the Lookout. The Lookout was not used as a battleground until the Fusion Saga towards the end of the series and back then it wasn’t used extensively. The Lookout here is used as a proper battleground with the fighters wrecking it, but not entirely destroying it. At the same time, it makes the battle more personal as the Lookout is the characters’ ‘safe place’, no villain has ever violated it’s sanctity before and now Garlic Junior has taken it over and is wrecking it.
The Garlic Junior Saga also contained a lot of accidental foreshadowing for the series, particularly for the immediate Cell era which followed it. Krillin’s love life being explored foreshadowed how his love life would become important in the Imperfect Cell Saga when he allowed Android #18 to live because she kissed him on the cheek once before. Kami and Piccolo’s relationship, their bond that allows one to feel the pain of the other (something which this saga used as a plot point like nothing else in the series ever had) and Kami’s entire contribution to the plot foreshadows their fusion and Kami’s disappearance from the series. This was almost Kami’s last hurrah, a chance for viewers to connect to him and get to know him a bit more thereby making his ‘death’ hit harder when he eventually disappeared. Finally we have the great foreshadowing of Gohan’s rise to replacing his dad and saving the day. In the Cell Games Gohan defeated Cell and effectively took his father’s place as defender of Earth, winning the fight by virtue of being Goku’s son. Here something similar happens as in Goku’s absence it falls to him to save the day and it is ultimately his specific attack which wins the fight when he destroys Garlic Junior’s power source. In the end in the Funimation dub Piccolo even goes as far as to say to Gohan his father lived inside of him and that was why they won. Seriously, looking back you’d think this was planned this way when it wasn’t.
So that is why the Garlic Junior Saga, whilst not necessary, is still not this irredeemable pile of crap people have painted it as.