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"Dragon Ball Season Four" Is More Of The Same, Except Better

Season four of Dragon Ball needs very little introduction. Even casual viewers of anime likely either remember Dragon Ball from its television run on Cartoon Network years ago, as I do, or they’ve at least heard of it thanks to the enduring popularity of its sequel, Dragon Ball Z. If the show is brand new to you, you’ll be lost coming into the middle of a story arc; better to begin with the first season. If you’re a long-time fan of Dragon Ball or have been collecting it for the first time, this DVD set is a worthwhile product. It offers 30 uncut episodes at a very reasonable price, and these offer some of the most entertaining adventures in the series.

The first nine episodes of this fourth season end what began in the third season, the 22nd World Martial Arts Tournament, and revenge is the name of the game. Master Shen of the Crane School of martial arts wants to see his rivals, Master Roshi and his students, defeated by his top disciple, Tien Shinhan, whom he has trained to be brutal and merciless. For his part, Tien wants revenge on Goku for the defeat of his role model, Mercenary Tao. On the other side, Goku’s friends are itching for payback against Tien for needlessly injuring Yamcha’s leg in the tournament quarterfinals. Everyone is hoping that Tien will be humbled by the winner of the 21st Tournament, “Jackie Chun” (a thinly-disguised Roshi), whereas Goku must face his best friend Krillin in order to reach the finals. These early battles are good fun and take their share of surprising twists and turns. However this story arc definitely hits its strongest note near the end, when circumstances conspire to pit Goku against Tien in a no-holds-barred smackdown between two very resilient fighters. The entire affair is given some meaning by Master Roshi’s desire to reform Tien’s violent ways by appealing to Tien’s pride and sense of honor, an effort which is given plenty of help by Master Shen’s willingness to stoop to dirty tricks in the pursuit of victory. Who wins the tournament finals in the end? That would be telling.

True to the established pattern of Dragon Ball, Tien promptly switches from foe to friend soon after his fateful encounter with Goku. It’s a good thing too, because the tournament is a mere warm-up to the King Piccolo saga. Though he was long ago imprisoned by Master Roshi’s master, Mutaito, and his “Evil Containment Wave” at the cost of Mutaito’s life, the wicked green-skinned tyrant has been freed to threaten the world again thanks to the self-styled Emperor Pilaf. The villains plan to use the seven Dragon Balls to wish for the very aged Piccolo to be restored to the prime of his youth, which would give him more than enough strength to conquer the world and give Pilaf his own little slice of it. Predictably, things quickly get out of control; on a good day, our villainous midget and his two hapless cronies would be lucky to be more competent than Team Rocket from Pokemon. On the other hand, King Piccolo can spawn powerful minions by spitting giant eggs out of his mouth; he conducts a campaign to systematically kill any martial artist that might be able to imprison him again; he is completely merciless; and he is so powerful that for most of the season no single fighter can stand up to him even in his elderly state. Considering how impressive our favorite characters were in the recent tournament, this reality is downright sobering.

The King Piccolo saga divides much of its time between two interconnected story arcs. On one front we have Master Roshi, Tien, and Tien’s loyal friend Chiaotzu on a quest to gather as many Dragon Balls as they can. On another front Goku sets out to pursue King Piccolo’s minions, recover his stolen four-star Dragon Ball, and exact some personal revenge. In the process Goku encounters Yajirobe, a rotund swordsman of some skill and a large appetite that dwarfs his courage. Yajirobe happens to have found one of the Dragon Balls and selfishly clings to it, leading Goku to follow Yajirobe everywhere so that he’ll be there when the inevitable attacks come from King Piccolo’s forces. Eventually the Dragon Balls are all brought together, though none of the heroes’ well-laid plans go quite as expected. The highlight of this first part of the saga is without a doubt the first meeting between King Piccolo and Goku, a brutal encounter where Goku doesn’t give an inch despite being at an obvious disadvantage.

The second act of the saga does a particularly good job of balancing the obligatory battles with the series’s strong element of adventure. While King Piccolo makes a bid to basically take over the capital of Earth, Tien attempts to master the Evil Containment Wave for his own use, and Goku bribes Yajirobe to take him to Korin’s Tower for some healing and more training. This promptly leads to yet another quest, this time for so-called “Ultra Divine Water” that could potentially push Goku’s strength to new limits if he can endure the challenges required to get it. Tien’s actions are less prominent but no less noteworthy; it’s hard to imagine the brash and arrogant youth that he was in the tournament training to risk everything for the greater good. When it’s eventually time for Goku and Tien to step up, it’s a battle to remember. Unlike Dragon Ball Z there are no prolonged power-up sequences, nor is time spent on overly long shots where two fighters are trading lighting-fast punches. The animation of Dragon Ball may be dated by today’s standards, but the fight itself is executed with some actual tactics and choreography that keeps things interesting. When the tide of battle turns one way or the other the viewer tends to feel that it’s because of good planning or just sheer talent and skill, so brutal blows struck by the good guys end up feeling particularly satisfying. In fact, in one especially surprising moment, the show subverts a significant cliché when Goku attempts to stop an attack of Piccolo’s by punching him in the gut while he’s preparing it!

All this said, season four is admittedly not perfect. While the entire King Piccolo saga progresses with a purpose, and the preparations that Goku and Tien make for the final battle are interesting, they make much of King Piccolo’s invasion feels like unnecessary padding. Frankly, at this point in the saga, the viewer does not really need to be convinced that the villain is evil. Half of these scenes could have been cut and the point would have gotten across. The biggest flaw, however, has to do with most of Goku’s friends besides Master Roshi, Krillin and Tien. Incredibly, Yamcha’s injury from the tournament pretty much keeps him sidelined for the entire saga, except for a brief skirmish that barely lasts any time at all. Most of the time he, Bulma and Launch hang around at Master Roshi’s house and mostly fulfill the commentator role that became all too common in Dragon Ball Z, and they leave this locale exactly twice. The first time Yamcha insists on training along with Tien only to be rebuffed; the second time Yamcha has mostly recovered from his injury, and Bulma and Launch accompany him to the battlefield with caution, but by the time they arrive it’s all over and they literally accomplish nothing by going. Now, comic relief is one thing, that’s a part of the series’s humor, and at the least Launch does provide some of that in most of her scenes. But this was actual action that literally went nowhere and took up time that could have instead been spent on a very enjoyable main storyline.

Ultimately, however, make no mistake. There are a few flaws and the series’s age is palpable, but all in all this fourth season offers more of what made the earlier episodes entertaining while taking the series’ battles to a new level. Between the imminent arrival of Dragon Ball Z Kai and the ongoing Dragon Box release for the original Dragon Ball Z, it can be easy to overlook this show, but it is still one of the most enjoyable cartoons in FUNimation’s considerable catalog. Dragon Ball is a splendid blend of spirited humor, action, and adventure that proves that a good classic is never outdated.

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