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The Saiyan Saga begins five years after the events depicted at the end of Dragon Ball. A reunion at the Kame House reunites Goku with his old master, Roshi, and his friends Krillin and Bulma, who all haven't seen each other in five years. Goku surprises everyone by bringing along his four-year old son, Gohan. Unfortunately, the reunion is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious being, who identifies himself as a Saiyan by the name of Raditz. Raditz identifies Goku as Kakarot and berates him for not completing his "mission". Further complicating matters, Raditz also claims that Goku is from the same Saiyan race as he is, and that he and Goku are in fact brothers. Goku and Krillin understandably think that Raditz is nuts, however Roshi reveals that there may be some truth to the Saiyan's words. In a major turning point in the series, Roshi reveals that Goku's adopted grandfather, Grandpa Son Gohan, found a strange space capsule in the woods containing a baby Goku. As a baby, Goku was violent and ill-tempered, however an accident caused him to fall and bump his head, which in turn changed Goku into the happy, amicable child that everyone came to know and love.
This new revelation shocks Goku, who refuses to believe its validity. Raditz then goes on to state that Goku's original purpose was to destroy all life on Earth, which he should have done in a matter of years after his arrival. Raditz also reveals that the Saiyans' original home planet, Planet Vegeta, was destroyed by an asteroid some twenty years earlier, and that there are only four Saiyans left, including Goku. Finally, Raditz mentions that he needs his brother's help in destroying all life on a distant planet. Goku refuses, which prompts Raditz to notice Gohan (who still retains his Saiyan tail), which leads Raditz to threaten the fate of the child. Goku tries to attack, but is quickly defeated by Raditz, who then kidnaps Gohan, and tells Goku to kill 100 humans or else he'll never see his son again. With that, Raditz flies off. Goku is clearly distressed at his situation, and vows to rescue his son. Before he can depart, however, he is confronted by his nemesis Piccolo. Piccolo encountered Raditz after Raditz had first arrived on Earth, and was terrified by his raw power. Aware that they now have a common enemy, Piccolo suggests that he and Goku join forces to confront Raditz, which Goku hesitatingly agrees to. Bulma offers up her Dragon Radar so that Piccolo and Goku can track the 4-star Dragon Ball in Gohan's hat, thus finding his location.
Meanwhile, Raditz arrives at his spaceship and locks the crying Gohan inside. Through the use of his scouter Raditz discovers that two fighters are approaching; as they get closer it is revealed that they are Piccolo and Goku. The duo face-off against Raditz, however they find that there is little they can do against the more powerful Saiyan. Raditz gains the upper hand and soars into the air, firing dual ki blasts out of his hands at Goku and Piccolo. Goku is able to dodge his, however Piccolo loses his arm. Piccolo, unhindered, reveals that he has been holding back a new technique that he designed to kill Goku, however he decides that he'll use it against Raditz. In order to give Piccolo time to charge the attack, Goku distracts Raditz with his own Kamehameha. Raditz is astonished that the two fighters can concentrate their power into single attacks, however he manages to neutralize the Kamehameha with ease, and then takes care of Goku with a blast of his own. Fortunately, this was all the time Piccolo needed, and he fires his new attack, the Makankôsappô (Special Beam Cannon in the English dub). Despite the power of the blast, however, Raditz side-steps it and retains a small burn to his left shoulder. Goku takes advantage of the distracted Raditz and grabs his tail, which Goku remembers as being one of his own weaknesses as a child. Raditz is rendered helpless, however he appeals to his brother to let him go if he promises to leave the planet, which Goku does, much to Piccolo's chagrin. Raditz predictably double-crosses his brother, and pins him down, breaking bones and causing Goku much pain. At that moment, Raditz's spacepod explodes.
Gohan, who had been watching helplessly from inside Raditz's pod, manages to blow the thing apart upon hearing his father's screams. Raditz's scouter detects the child's power level to be 1,307, substantially higher than that of his father and Piccolo. The infuriated Gohan charges at Raditz, who is unable to react in time, and receives a swift head-butt to the chest, breaking his Saiyan Armor. Gohan's powerlevel soon drops back to 1; and Raditz realizes that Gohan's power is affected by his emotions. Raditz quickly smacks Gohan aside, but is still physically hurt by the previous attack. Goku, using what little strength he has left, leaps up and locks Raditz in a full nelson. Raditz is unable to break free, and Goku tells Piccolo to try his attack again. Piccolo does not hesitate to comply, knowing that the beam will kill Goku as well. He fires off another Makankôsappô, and Raditz, held by Goku, is unable to dodge it again, and the beam penetrates through both Raditz and Goku, mortally wounding both of them. Raditz curses Piccolo, but commends his brother's spirit. Piccolo informs Raditz that Goku will be wished back to life using the Dragon Balls. Raditz, with his dying breath, retorts by saying that the scouter on his head acts as a transmitter as well, and that the other two Saiyans will come to Earth and avenge his death. Piccolo, upset at Raditz's cockiness, delivers the final deathblow to him.
In space, the remaining two Saiyans, Nappa and Vegeta, get word of Raditz's death by the message transmitted to their scouters. Vegeta is intrigued by the Dragon Balls, and they decide to head to Earth to use them to wish for immortality (rather than wishing Raditz back to life, as Raditz had hoped). Nappa suggested to "spawn a few earthling-saiyan hybrids as well.
Back on Earth, Kuririn, Roshi, and Bulma arrive at the scene, and Kuririn mourns the death of his friend. Just as Goku dies, however, his body vanishes. Piccolo takes that to mean that the God of Earth, Kami-sama, has plans for Goku in the afterlife. Piccolo then surprisingly regenerates his arm, tells the others of the impending arrival of two more powerful Saiyans, and picks up the unconscious Gohan, with the intention of training the child to fight the Saiyans. The others protest, but can do nothing to stop Piccolo.