Dragon Ball is a franchise defined by extremes, and its setting is no exception to that. The Earth is home to futuristic technology, magic, and futuristic technology that might as well be magic. At the same time, dinosaurs are still around, the King of Earth is a dog, and the God of Earth is a green alien. Given the original manga author Akira Toriyama’s off-the-cuff writing style, it’s safe to assume the world wasn’t meticulously detailed in advance, and instead formed from his whims on any given week. But one dynamic Dragon Ball does explore from the very beginning is the sharp divide between the rich and the poor.
The story opens with a chance encounter between Goku—a child fending for himself in the wilderness—and Bulma, the rich daughter of a major corporation’s president. During their journey to collect the mythical Dragon Balls said to grant any wish, Bulma relies on the capsule technology from her father’s company, Capsule Corporation. The company’s namesake invention plays an important role in society by providing compact storage for almost anything, ranging from rice cookers to hovercars and everything in between. Bulma showcases this early on when she bypasses camping in the woods by pulling out a capsule containing a small house complete with food and a television.
Capsules are the kind of fantasy technology that could easily solve widespread poverty if properly distributed. We catch a glimpse of this concept early in the series when Goku knocks a competitor named Nam out of the World Martial Arts Tournament. Nam entered for a shot at the prize money so he could buy enough water to help his desert village survive a drought. Upon learning this motivation, Master Roshi gives Nam a capsule to hold as much water as he needs. Master Roshi himself is a frugal hermit, but a single capsule means less to him than it does to a man who could presumably save dozens of lives in his homeland.
At the end of Dragon Ball Z, Uub enters the World Martial Arts Tournament for the similar motivation of saving his village from a famine. Sadly, this means that very little about the Earth changed in the 30 years that passed since Nam’s defeat. Goku may save the Earth from Majin Buu and King Piccolo, but he never saves its broken global economy.
Capsule Corporation continues to play a role even in the sequel series, highlighting the importance of Bulma’s wealth and corporate ties. This isn’t a jab at Bulma, who is clearly still a genius inventor, but the fact is that she couldn’t accomplish these feats without the support of one of the richest companies in the world. Whether it’s to build a time machine that saves the world or an artificial gravity room for Bulma’s trophy husband to work out in, Capsule Corporation ends up providing most of the solutions to problems in the narrative that can’t be solved through violence alone.
Meanwhile, Goku lives a simple life in the countryside with his family. Their finances are limited, so Goku reluctantly works as a farmer to provide for them in Dragon Ball Super. It’s only once the worldwide celebrity Mr. Satan bails him out that he can go back to his sole hobby of training to get stronger. But after an ambiguous span of time passes, Goku has to go back to farming like before. Despite being the strongest warrior in the universe, his income is still a major limitation in his life, unlike Vegeta who mooches off the food and shelter provided by his wife’s corporate family.
What About the Rest of the Gang?
The other good guys’ finances are hard to measure because money itself rarely comes up in the series. Yamcha, Tien, and Yajirobe live the majority of their lives nomadically, with Yamcha debuting as a desert bandit who robs travelers. His later stint as a pro baseball player in Dragon Ball Z probably gave him decent money, but it’s hard to say.
Meanwhile, Piccolo is an anomaly. Money means nothing to an alien who doesn’t eat or sleep. And if he really needs a material object, he can just make it with magic. His protegé Gohan, however, ends up well off in adulthood. In Dragon Ball Super, as a result of his mother Chi-Chi’s insistence that he spend time studying rather than simply learning how to punch through mountains, Gohan is a scholar married to the daughter of the famous Mr. Satan. He and Videl live in a mansion built by her rich father, who lives in his own mansion with reformed genocidal genie Majin Buu.
Goku’s lifelong friend Krillin is probably the closest to middle class of the entire cast. In Dragon Ball Super, he works as a cop and lives in the city with his wife and daughter. It’s unclear what his wife, Android 18, does for a living, but she values money more than the other heroes. When Goku is recruiting fighters for the Tournament of Power, Android 18 refuses to join until he lies about a massive cash prize.
In general, most Dragon Ball characters don’t care much about money, despite its role in forming the world around them. The global distribution is clearly skewed, with the majority of the wealth in the hands of big companies like Capsule Corp and celebrities like Mr. Satan while people outside of urban areas frequently live in poverty. The protagonists consider the Earth to be “at peace” when supernatural beings aren’t attacking, but it’s clear humanity has created enough problems for itself that go on regardless, even in the presence of literal gods and super advanced technology.
Maybe with the Zero Mortal Plan—his goal of wiping all mortal life from the universe—the villain Zamasu was onto something after all.