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"Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies": A Japanese Classic (Emphasis on "Japanese")

Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies is a fun little picture that doesn’t quite do its source material justice. It has the handicap of being part adaptation and part original material: the movie follows the basic plot of the Dragon Ball comic—Goku and Co. go on a quest to find the seven Dragon Balls—but the story is almost completely original, being centered around an evil king who is also searching for the title orbs. The new material isn’t bad—the tale itself is a classic and the king is a delightful piece of Toriyama-style whimsy—and it has been cleverly handled so that it and the source material fit together much more cohesively then they should. Nevertheless, there are still times when the places where the plots “meet” are uncomfortably noticeable: the climax, for example, seems to come out of nowhere. Furthermore, with a mere fifty minute run-time, there are some scenes that seem overly compressed. In fact, that running time can be blamed for a lot of the movie’s problems. There’s just not enough space. This is a story that was made to be episodic, so condensing what would ideally be several hours worth of material to less then one hour is bound to cause some snags.

So the timing issues keep it from being all that it could be. But it is still a lovely little piece of Dragon Ball memorabilia that newcomers in particular might enjoy, as it squeezes everything that exemplifies the franchise’s early stages into one package. The style is typical of Toriyama’s work during the period, with genuine action blending almost seamlessly with a cheerfully juvenile sense of humor. A lesser writer would have been held back by strict adherence to either of those themes, and absolutely destroyed them by trying to blend them, but Toriyama crafts his world and the characters that inhabit it so lovingly that there never seems to be a discrepancy, even when the story turns, as so many shonen anime eventually do, to melodrama. Toriyama, despite having a limited role in the making of the movie, can be felt very strongly here, and in a way that makes it the perfect introductory point into the franchise.

The characters in question are fully fleshed out despite the short running-time, and not just because we’re already familiar with most of them. They seem to spring to the screen fully formed. Within minutes of Goku’s first appearance even a newcomer will feel like they know every facet of his personality, not because it is shallow, but because he is so strongly portrayed. The same thing applies to the new characters, especially the villainously gluttonous King Gurume and his sidekicks, Pasta and Domo. The king is an especially intriguing creation, since he blends a sinister, “Evil Overlord”-type personality with a cleverly executed gimmick (he is in constant need of richer and richer foods).

The visuals are more of a mixed bag. The characters are, of course, sublime. This is one of Toriyama’s strong suits, and he was especially good at it during his pre-Dragon Ball Z years. Son Goku in particular has a brilliantly balanced design—he’s just fun to look at. However, these character designs were made for a comic, and the translation to animation hurts them a bit, simply because that format has different demands. Goku may always look great, but (though this sounds very strange) he is more expressive and moves better in the manga. It’s snags like this that tend to keep Japanese comics visually superior to their animated counterparts. Still, where there are no direct comparisons to be made, the problem isn’t as pronounced. The new characters, like Domo and King Gurume, don’t have the same problem to the same extent.

But I digress. The designs themselves are still top-notch, and they couple bright and tasteful coloration with some downright beautiful effects animation. This kind of thing—there’s an explosion that entranced me like no explosion ever has before—that help the movie stand apart from its source. It also has brilliantly choreographed action sequences, which blow both the comic and several other anime out of the water. The fights are spread disappointingly thin, but when they happen, the combatants hit each other with fantastical attacks while always retaining their feeling of weight.

There is one last thing to talk about, but it’s a big thing. There are two tracks available on this DVD, an English dubbed one that is in stereo, and a Japanese one that must be listened to in mono. The dub features VAs such as Coleen Clinkenbeard (Goku) and Monica Rial (Bulma), and it is, unfortunately, abysmal. The voice performances are almost comically forced. The two actresses above named, who I know for a fact are talented, spend the entire film trying to out-screech each other, and Bryan Massey (as Oolong) just doesn’t seem to get the joke. The only one even remotely tolerable is Christopher Sabat (Yamcha), and even he, when compared to his Japanese counterpart (veteran VA Toro Furuya), is stilted and weak. I’m not sure what caused this amazing result, and I frankly wasn’t given much time to wonder—I was too busy trying to figure out whose idea it was to translate a theme song, and why the dub script and the subtitled one differed from each other so completely. Seriously, watch the opening scene in both formats: the conversations go in almost completely different routes! And while I, not being fluent in Japanese, can’t vouch for the faithfulness of either translation, I can’t help but notice that the subtitled one always tends to fit the scene much better. The Japanese track may have a worse sound quality, but the superiority is so distinct that I have to recommend watching it anyway. This is truly a disappointing move from the folks at Funimation, whose dubs I almost always approve of.

I could see this movie converting a few viewers who were previously unaware of the franchise, simply because of how strongly Toriyama’s talent and personality shine through. I should mention, though, that Funimation has released a DVD set that contains the first four Dragon Ball films, including this one. Conscientious collectors and fans will probably find that set the better deal. As I’ve said above, this DVD is more for newcomers who want to know what this Dragon Ball nonsense is all about.

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