"Dragonball" Seasons 1 and 2: No Z Is a Welcome Blessing
Travel back in time with me. Back to when the word “Saiyan” had never entered people’s vocabulary. Back to when Master Roshi was the strongest fighter on Earth. Back to when Oolong actually contributed to the plot. To when Bulma did stuff. To when Yamcha was only semi-useless. To when Krillin was sneaky and when Goku had a gut. Back to the original Dragonball.
Deep in the mountains lived a small monkey boy named Son Goku. One day, as he is minding his own business, he runs into a young teenage girl named Bulma, who was searching for a mystical orb known as the Dragonball. Legend says that whenever all seven are brought together, one can summon the Eternal Dragon Shen Long, who will grant a single wish. After some convincing, Goku agrees to travel with Bulma to help collect the Dragonballs and explore the world outside Mt. Paozu.
There, he meets a shapeshifting, scheming pig named Oolong, a desert bandit named Yamcha who is afraid of women, a midget named Emperor Pilaf who dreams of ruling the world, a sneaky little monk named Krillin, and a wise old pervert named Master Roshi. With these new friends and enemies, Goku embarks on one of the wildest adventures one has ever seen. Traveling across vast deserts (of which there are apparently a lot of in the Dragonball world), honing his fighting skills, gaining new powers, all in the sake of having some fun. Oh yeah, and he also learns that girls don’t have weenies, that math is boring; he also tries to learn what a “pichi-pichi” gal is. Oh Goku, you silly scamp.
For those of you who missed the series on Cartoon Network and are only familiar with Dragonball Z, I’ll just let you know right now, this ain’t Z. It’ll eventually get there once Piccolo Jr.’s introduced, but right now, this is about as far from Z as you can get. Instead of high-stakes action and drama with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, we get goofy adventures where Master Roshi keeps trying to feel up Bulma, and Goku kind-of-sort-of attempts to learn some modesty. And I love it all the same. These quaint early adventures of Goku and the gang are just pure fun to watch and an excellent contrast to some of the uber-serious destruction-of-Earth tales we get pounded with over and over with Dragonball Z. Goku’s charming innocence provides plenty of fun even when the plot tends to stall early on due to filler (yes, even this early we still have filler, though not nearly to the extent we’ll see later on) and his earnest attitude drives the show far more than the relatively lackluster supporting characters.
It’s pretty evident from these adventures that Akira Toriyama really loved making simple gag comics (further evidenced by later stories Cowa! and Sandland, among others) and intended for the action to be rather simple instead of the high-flying ki-barrage battles we see later on. During the first half of the boxset most of the fights are lackluster at best. Many are against opponents that Goku could beat with his eyes closed—with the sole exception of Yamcha, and the fight with him only lasts an episode before he becomes a good guy. Instead, the series focuses on gags and mysticism, as many mystical plot elements are introduced that are never mentioned again (such as Roshi drinking from the Fountain of Youth, a spirit setting Ox King’s castle on fire, and the Nimbus Cloud being a present from Kami) that add to the strange nature of the Dragonball world that slowly and slowly loses its charm over time. It’s particularly interesting to see just how Goku acted during these early episodes, and he doesn’t actually change all that much as he grows up. Perhaps it’s this enduring innocence that enraptures Japanese fans enough that Goku always wins the series’ popularity polls in a landslide, although it’s a lot more tolerable here than later on.
One thing Toriyama is known for, especially evident early on here, is his sexual innuendo and gags. Both Oolong and Master Roshi try to fondle or molest Bulma more than once during the series, while Yamcha sees Bulma’s breasts twice and goes ga-ga over them. Goku pats everybody’s crotch to see if they’re a boy or a girl, and of course, everybody remembers how Bulma got her Dragonball from Roshi in the first place. While this stuff is funny at first (especially Bulma’s flash), it does grate on the nerves after a while, so I’m glad the series pulled back on that after Pilaf was defeated. Most of the rest of the humor is geared towards general goofiness and gags, at first relating to Goku and Krillin’s harsh training, and then at how these two pipsqueaks mop the floor with the competition at the Tenkaichi Budokai. Special mention must go to Master Roshi, who continually plays an important role early on here and makes the most of it. His constant pervings of Bulma and Launch (another character who was awesome but eventually forgotten, literally), his Jackie Chun personality, and his serious fighting skills all come up to make him one of the best characters in the show who never offers a dull moment.
Speaking of which, it’s rather interesting to see how the old favorites acted way back when. Bulma was highly immature back in the old days, and one questions just why she so readily flashes her panties at guys (though it may be because she’s a teenage girl and this is Toriyama we’re talking about). Oolong gets more development and screen time during this first arc then he ever gets in the future, and he makes the most of it. It’s particularly hilarious when you consider that one of the more useless characters in the series is the one who makes the first ever wish in the show. Yamcha here is seen as a serious character who is one of the stronger people on Earth. Not Goku strong, but pretty smart and able to handle himself, which pretty much evaporates after the first arc, when he basically becomes the butt monkey of the show. And then there’s Krillin, who is a sneaky little turd when he’s first introduced, far from the open and friendly guy we see later on. In fact, this competitive attitude he has with Goku makes the character more interesting to watch, especially since he actually is able to fight on relative equal terms with Goku at this point.
But the hallmark of any Dragonball series is the action, right? So, since this is the first series, we should see some killer fighting, correct? Eh, not so much. Much of the Tenkaichi Budokai arc on the second half of Season 1 is focused on character scenes and gags, rather than on actual fighting. In fact, most of the actual fights last less than half the episode before the fighter is knocked out and the episode ends. The sole exception is the final bout between Goku and Jackie Chun. The two fighters use a ton of interesting techniques, and it is certainly unlike any other fight in the series, although compared to Goku vs. Vegeta it is quite lacking. Most of the actual martial arts attacks are rather simple and not much attention is paid to them, as opposed to Jackie Chun’s Sleepy Boy, Lightning Flash Surprise, and Drunken Boxing techniques and Goku’s Monkey Boy and Oozaru transformation moves, which dominate the fight. Oh yea, and the Kamehameha, can’t forget about that one, now can I? Despite the lack of actual martial arts, the three-part fight is actually quite fun to watch and is the highlight of the first season.
And it gets even better in Season 2, as Goku meets many more bad guys who actually give him trouble. While Silver is forgettable as all get out, General Blue is quite the entertaining bad guy, and it almost makes me wish he had a longer stay on the show, even though he lasts far longer than most of his compatriots. His predecessors at Muscle Tower tend to range from awesome (Murasaki, Metallitron/Metallic) to pretty lame (Buyon, White), but overall the arc tends to balance the kookiness of its characters with the serious action the Red Ribbon Army is known for. Though I will admit it is a little weird watching this after the Path to Power special, mainly because Android 8 actually does more in the 70-some-minute special than he does in the 5 or 6 episodes he appears in the regular series! However, special mention must go to the 3-part Dr. Slump crossover, which, oddly enough, is more accurate script-wise in the dub than the rest of the series is! But then again, with as messed up as the Dr. Slump world is, FUNi didn’t have to do much to fit Arale and the rest of her kooky friends in with their joke-filled dub, although the voices of the two aliens make me seriously wish FUNimation would dub the Dr. Slump anime or just make one featuring the two aliens.
FUNimation has gotten a lot of flack over their treatment of Dragonball Z, especially with these recent boxsets, but most of the problems people had with those are not present here. For one thing, the video is in its original fullscreen format and has been restored beautifully. Colors are bright and sharp, the video is great, and everything just looks perfect. It’s not quite as good a restoration as, say, G.I. Joe, but this is about as good as one will get without HD. Sadly, restoration can only take a series so far. Even with all the bright colors, this is still a mid-80′s weekly anime, and the animation is often stilted or lacking in detail. It’s pretty obvious that the staff didn’t have anywhere near the budget of such other 80′s shows as Mobile Suit Gundam Zeta, Macross, or Golion, especially early on like this, as the visuals do not age well at all. The character designs are all far chubbier than what we’re used to, even with Bulma, but that tends to add to their charm, and it’s nice to see the animators incorporate all of Toriyama’s early design quirks into the animation.
Again, many, many people complained about the crappiness of FUNimation’s Dragonball Z dub, again the original Dragonball doesn’t suffer many of those problems. Stephanie Nadolny is a bit rough as Goku early on, but she catches on quickly and captures Goku’s innocent and childish nature far better than she ever did with Gohan. Chris Sabat also turns in his best Dragonball-related performance as Yamcha, probably the most normal-sounding voice Sabat has ever done, while Mike McFarland must have had a ball as Roshi. Special mention should go to Laurie Steele for reprising her role as Krillin years after the Sleeping Princess in Devil’s Castle dub (which also featured Sabat and McFarland) as she is a perfect child Krillin. As for the Japanese track, Masako Nozawa and Mayumi Tanaka sound a lot better here as child versions of Goku and Kuririn than they would as their adult selves.
Much was made of Commander Red’s Irish accent in the dub, but given how over-the-top the character is, the Irish accent actually suits him very well, much more so than the more generic voice the character has when he re-appears during the Great Saiyaman arc in DBZ. The rest of the Red Ribbon Army have rather standard voices, with Blue and Tao having the best dub voices of all the generals, but the best dub job may have come from the Dr. Slump crossover. Like I said before, the aliens have purely awesome voices, but even Arale, the twins, and all the various nutjobs in Penguin Village have excellent and fitting voices that gives me confidence should FUNi ever decide to dub one of the Dr. Slump anime. The music is all set in mono, which is expected considering that even DBZ had mono music for the Japanese track. All the original music is present, but that’s not a big deal since this series has had its original soundtrack from Day 1, although many of the vocal insert songs are missing in the English track. Speaking of which, I absolutely love the dub rendition of “Mysterious Adventure,” the opening theme, much more than the Japanese version.
For extras we get content similar to the Dragonball Z and Dragonball GT sets. Season 1 comes with a booklet containing short bios for the main heroes (Goku, Bulma, Krillin, Roshi, Oolong, Puar, Yamcha, Ox King, and ChiChi) and villains (Pilaf, Mai, Shu, Colonel Silver, and the Red Ribbon Army) as well as descriptions for all the episodes on the set. On the disc itself, textless versions of the opening and closing are on Disc 5 along with some trailers. Season 2 includes much of the same, with new bios for Android 8, Suno, Korin, General White, General Blue, General Black, and Commander Red. Mercenary Tao oddly doesn’t get a bio, but probably because he’s more of a focus in early Season 3. I really wish FUNimation had made a new trailer for the Season 2 and 3 box sets instead of simply recycling the old one and changing the “1″ at the end to a “2″ or “3,” especially since all the footage is on the box set the viewer just watched! Each disc also includes the awesome Marathon Feature, which plays a single opening, then each episode right after one another sans credits, which makes watching things a lot easier. The packaging is the same blob box art that adorned the other series, but the bright blue works a lot better here than the hideous orange and neon green did on the Z and GT sets.
Overall, if you are hankering for some Dragonball fun but don’t want the seriousness and epic power struggles, check out the original series. If only to see the awesomeness that is Emperor Pilaf.