Like many children of the 90s and early 2000s, I grew up during an anime boom. With Cartoon Network’s Toonami and the growth of the internet, anime spread like never before. And by far the most popular anime of the day was a little title called Dragon Ball Z. Even now, nearly twenty years later, it’s rare to find an anime fan who hasn’t at least heard of Dragon Ball. But as popular as it was–and continues to be–Dragon Ball Z isn’t exactly the pinnacle of storytelling. It’s an action series first and foremost with the plot often serving little more purpose than to get the characters from one fight to the next. Dragon Ball Super, on the other hand, brings a stunning amount of heart and character development to the table, especially in the current arc of the story with Future Trunks.
The Future Trunks arc of Dragon Ball Super once again centers around the Future Trunks seen in Dragon Ball Z‘s Androids and Cell arcs. The last we saw of him in DBZ, Trunks returned to his future parallel world and did what he had failed to do in the years before his time traveling adventure: defeat the androids and leave the human race free of terror once more. In Dragon Ball Super we learn that the peace he fought for was far shorter than anyone could have guessed.
After a few years a new threat appeared, Goku Black, who nearly wiped out humanity. Once again it was up to Trunks to save his world–and like with his early battles against the androids years before, he failed. Left with no other option, Trunks decides to return to the only allies he ever had for help: the main timeline Dragon Ball heroes. Unfortunately, for him, his trip isn’t without major cost.
Future Trunks has always been the most tragic character in Dragon Ball. He comes from a future wrought with disaster–the future where the bad guys win. All the heroes we know and love are gone. Only Gohan was left to train Trunks, and when Gohan was killed, Trunks was left as the sole person on the planet who had even a fraction of the power needed to save it. And he failed, again and again. Even his time traveling to the past went far worse than could be expected. It was only thanks to young Gohan becoming Super Saiyan 2 that our world didn’t have a fate similar to Trunk’s own. If anyone deserved a win, it was Trunks.
And while he does finally win in DBZ, it seems as if that’s only so more can be taken away. With the appearance of Goku Black in his timeline in DBS, Trunks’ tragedy is compounded. Not only is humanity nearly extinct, not only does Trunks spend a year losing battles to Goku Black, but he loses both his mother (Bulma) and lover (original DB villain Mai) in the moments before his flight to the past.
But it’s not the tragedy alone which makes Future Trunk’s story so gripping, it’s how the anime presents that to us. Nearly an episode and a half is spent showing his panicked flight from the future. The series gives us time to see, feel, and experience Trunk’s world and just how hard it is for him to run away, even if temporarily. But more than that, we see that the fate of the world has been put on his shoulders. Bulma and Mai aren’t simply killed: They die for him, to keep him alive. Trunk’s burden is a terrible one, knowing that those you love will die for you whether you want it or not.
In Mai’s case, her death is even more heartbreaking as it is revealed that she is his entire support network emotionally. When Future Trunks opens up his soul to Mai’s younger counterpart (if that is the correct way to describe a 60-year-old woman in a child’s body), we see via flashback why he fell in love with the former villain (i.e., her bravery and ingenuity) and how her belief in him kept him going even as his failures mounted.
The most recent episode (as of this posting) is yet another one dealing with Trunks and his interpersonal relationships. With Mai and his mother gone, there is no one left in his world that he has a close emotional attachment with. So now in the main timeline, he goes to visit the counterpart of the closest person he has to a father figure—Gohan.
The last time Trunks encountered the main universe Gohan, Gohan was still a child. But now, so much time has passed that Gohan is nearly the age he was when he died in Trunks’ own timeline. Thus Trunks is left seeing a twisted mirror image of the man who raised him. The main universe Gohan has all that his alternate universe counterpart could have dreamed of. He is a scholar, has a wife and daughter, and lives his days happily, far removed from the fighting lifestyle of his father, Goku.
While Trunks feels more than a little out of place, he comes to see that this happiness is what he is fighting for. Without Trunk’s intervention in the main timeline, our Gohan and his Gohan would have turned out more or less identically—and the main timeline would be facing the same doom as Trunk’s own. By seeing Gohan’s family, he has real proof that he has not been fighting in vain; and that through his actions in the main timeline, he may get the aid he needs to grant such peace and happiness to those few humans left alive in his world.
Thanks to the amount of time spent on Future Trunks, his history, and the tragedy surrounding his life, he is by far the most sympathetic character in Dragon Ball Super. You feel his pain and want him to get the happiness both he and his world have been so long denied. You root for him on a far more personal level than someone like Goku who only fights because he enjoys the challenge. Trunk’s stakes are real, personal, and understandable. And if the recent teases of what’s going on in his future during his absence are to be believed, his chances for personal happiness might not quite be as impossible as he believes.