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"Dragon Ball Season Five" Grows Up But Doesn't Get Old

If there is one part of the original Dragon Ball series that a fan who got started on Dragon Ball Z or Dragon Ball Z Kai should watch, it would be this fifth and final season. The majority of it is occupied by the last and best tournament arc of the original series; it introduces the “Piccolo Jr.” character that all DBZ viewers are familiar with; and it sets up DBZ nicely by maturing the entire cast and showing the growth of Goku from a pint-sized boy into, well, a boyish man. Here is where the Dragon Ball saga starts focusing much more on the action part of its action-adventure identity. Meanwhile, any collector of the original series will want to purchase this final set and see more of the same quality that season four delivered.

At the end of season four, Goku narrowly managed to defeat King Piccolo and put an end to his bid for world domination. There were sacrifices along the way though, as the struggle against the villain claimed the lives of Master Roshi, Krillin, and Tien Shinhan’s best friend Chiaotzu along with many other innocent people. The fiend even destroyed the eternal dragon, rendering the Dragon Balls worthless and making it impossible to wish anyone back to life. Being the hero that he is, Goku immediately sets out to find a way to make things right again. His journey takes him back to Corin’s Tower, where he is sent even higher up into the sky to seek the aid of Kami, the current guardian of the Earth. Meanwhile a new threat is already looming as King Piccolo’s legacy continues through his malevolent “son” Piccolo Jr., whose egg he spawned at the moment of his death. As fans know it turns out that Kami is the creator of Earth’s Dragon Balls, and Kami also reveals Piccolo Jr’s existence to Goku as well as the fact that King Piccolo was the evil part of him that he exorcised from himself long ago. Kami agrees to restore the dragon and everyone is brought back to life, but this is done on the condition that Goku agrees to receive three years of his training in order to get rid of Piccolo once and for all when he comes to get revenge at the next World Martial Arts Tournament. Goku readily accepts, and is excited by the fact that Kami and his assistant Mr. Popo are both much stronger than he is.

The ensuing training arc deserves at least some credit for variety. In general, the common cliché has the hero getting faced with some difficult challenge that he overcomes within an episode or two amidst plenty of lecturing from his instructor. Here, Goku spends plenty of time getting smacked around by Mr. Popo, gets sent back in time to learn from Master Roshi’s instructor Mutaito, tries to dodge lightning, fights a clone of himself, and gets to spend a little time questing on Earth also. All this is meant to develop Goku’s concentration, control and awareness in order to make him a more complete fighter, as opposed to simply handing him some fancy technique. For their part Goku’s friends all get busy training in hopes of challenging Goku once again, a process which culminates nicely with a two-part adventure where Tien, Yamcha, Krillin and Chaiotzu have to team up to stop an erupting volcano.

All this is well and good, but the highlight of the season undoubtedly comes when the matured cast reunites at the 23rd tournament years later and Goku and company have advanced to the point where they’re truly among the world’s finest at last. Even though Yamcha and Krillin lose in the finals they go down fighting against tough opponents, and Tien gets to show off against an opponent he once respected. A real treat here is an aggressive rematch between Goku and Tien, whose choreography and intensity is at least equal to anything that happened in the impressive fourth season. An amusing diversion amidst all this is Goku’s unexpected reunion with and engagement to Chi-Chi, who expects the clueless hero to make good on a childhood promise to marry her while she’s grown into a young woman that almost no one even recognizes. The whole affair is a good last laugh at the charming naivety of Goku, a.k.a. Mr. “What’s a Bride?!”

Despite the over-the-top heights that battles come to reach in Dragon Ball Z, the climatic encounter between Goku and Piccolo endures as one of the most brutal in the entire saga and undoubtedly the most savage fight of this series. Incredible levels of punishment are taken by both combatants even as they come back for more, rendering it painfully clear that two are truly in a class by themselves. The pacing does have a tendency to be uneven at times, as this is about when significant time starts being taken to show one fighter or another powering up while the opponent and other characters observe. Despite that and a few obvious cases of reused animation throughout parts of the tournament at large, the show still retains its ability to deliver a well-planned fight and have it look much more interesting than a couple of people trading lighting-fast punches. I particularly appreciated how Goku and Piccolo took turns gaining the upper hand here; their battle practically does feel like an authentic and desperate brawl even though fantastic super powers are involved, and the difference between victory and defeat is slim indeed. This is how a good animated brawl plays out, as opposed to the one-sided smackdowns that the fighting genre too often falls back upon in Japanese animation.

Regrettably, the series’ conclusion ends up being the season’s biggest weakness. Rather than wrapping things up after the Piccolo fight, the show decides to show Goku and Chi-Chi getting married. But first they have to embark on a quest to save Chi-Chi’s father, the Ox King, and his castle from a relentless fire that he cannot escape. In essence this is a repeat of what happened to the same castle way back during the first season, except the problem is more severe and the solution to the problem is far more complicated than firing a kamehameha wave. Goku and Chi-Chi travel to points A and B in order to get artifact Z to put out the fire, only to find out that it doesn’t work since the fire is special magic fire! At which point they go points C and D and so on, where they have other adventures and find other things that allow them to save the day once they finally get to where they need to be. In a way this is nice since Goku and Chi-Chi get to have plenty of time in the spotlight with pretty much no one else in the way, and the younger and more mellow Chi-Chi is like a different person compared to her DBZ counterpart. If the point of the story was simply to sell the pair as a couple, it admittedly worked. Even so the overall story of the arc almost feels like a laborious RPG, where a special problem can only be solved once all the right items are brought together at just the right place after an excess of travel. To be fair all this would probably have been well at home alongside the show’s earlier adventures, but after Piccolo the challenges that Goku has to deal with here really don’t measure up.

On the whole though, this fifth season is a fine sendoff that effectively closes the book on the first chapter of the adventures of Goku and his friends. A viewer could easily finish here and walk away perfectly happy and content, notwithstanding the narrator’s encouragement at the very end to move on to the series’ famous sequel. Dragon Ball is a genuinely fun action-adventure cartoon that even now balances both traits better than its most of its aspiring imitators.

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