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"Dragon Ball Z Kai Season Three": Same Great Story, Less Great Telling

A mysterious boy from the future warns Son Gokuu and friends of two Artificial Humans who will appear in three years and send the world into chaos. Thrilled by the chance of getting to battle foes superior to a Super Saiyan, Gokuu foregoes attempting to locate and destroy the Artificial Humans before they are complete and trains to surpass their immeasurable strength. However, all does not go as planned three years later when Gokuu falls prey to a heart virus and the vengeful Doctor Gero—creator of these almighty Artificial Humans—proves more crafty than expected. A new battle begins, filled with more twists and turns than any before it.

FUNimation’s ‘Season Three’ release wraps up the arc that began in Season One and introduces the audience to the first half of Dragon Ball Kai’s ‘second arc’. This portion of the series is interesting story-wise. The usual formula established in the Saiyan-Namek arc of having Gokuu immobilized to give the other characters something to do is continued, but at a much greater length than previously. In fact, across twenty-five episodes, Gokuu only battles in one. This is primarily an issue with the lead villain(s) changing three times, each time becoming stronger, meaning more time that has to be spent on giving the other characters something to do, but it makes for an interesting cat-and-mouse game. Miraculously for a series based on perverted jokes and people resolving their issues with violence, this cat-and-mouse game lasts the entirety of the set, shifting from the heroes chasing the villains to the villains chasing the heroes to another villain chasing the other villains. Story-wise, the series is still in top form despite being written literally without Original Comic Author Toriyama Akira knowing what would happen in the following week.

Where Dragon Ball Kai’s story is sound, its technical elements are best described as ‘the pits’. Pieced together from the 1989-1996 animated series Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball Kai is a hodgepodge of different animation teams’ work poorly edited together into twenty-minute episodes. This is especially apparent in this set due to episodes outsourced to Last House which saw a considerable drop in quality while episodes shipped to Shindou Pro saw a considerable increase in quality. All-in-all, an episode like episode #63—which is composed of animation from Dragon Ball Z #132 and #133—will shift to animation from the worst team working on the series to one of the best teams. Toei Animation’s reasons for re-using Dragon Ball Z’s animation rather than animating the series from scratch has never been made public, either. Dragon Ball Kai was crafted and advertised as a “twentieth anniversary HD broadcast of Dragon Ball Z, cut to match the original comic.” Since Dragon Ball Z originally ended in 1996 Toei still employs the vast majority of the most influential animators who worked on the first three cartoon series’, some of whom have improved considerably as animators and even continue to work on the new animation seen in specials or video game cut scenes. Clearly this is not an example of how to treat one’s internationally-renowned cartoon franchise.

While Toei failed to provide on the visual side of the coin, they did provide Dragon Ball Kai with a new musical score from veteran video game composer Yamamoto Kenji … initially. The music heard on this ‘Season Three’ set is not the music each episode was originally created with. In March of 2011 Toei Animation replaced Yamamoto’s musical score (save for the eye catch and next episode preview jingles) with a small, randomly selected set of Kikuchi Shunsuke’s music composed for Dragon Ball Z. Toei Animation released a PDF on their website explaining that “multiple suspicious musical pieces which may infringe on the rights of third parties has been confirmed.” In their scramble to replace Kai’s music with no budget or time to do so properly, Audio Director Nagasaki Yukio and his team of helpers essentially used the same time codes for the placement of Yamamoto’s music and substituted with one of the very few pieces of Kikuchi’s music they had on hand and were allowed to use. The music pool featured in this season set is a meager selection of maybe twenty pieces consistently placed and re-used with next to no rhyme or reason. Piccolo’s theme originally composed for the Dragon Ball Z Saiyan arc is often featured as the recap music, for example. On occasion a piece might actually be competently placed, but considering how the piece shouldn’t even be there in the first place it is no consolation to Dragon Ball Kai or Kikuchi’s wonderfully orchestrated music now woefully employed.

Season Three also introduces a new ending theme song, ‘Kokoro no Hane’, performed by a select sub-team of seven female vocalists from the massive AKB48 idol group aptly dubbed ‘Team Dragon’. The ending theme features nice animation from current character designer and veteran key animator Yamamuro Tadayoshi. This review’s quickness to skip to the animation aspect of the ending, rather than the music aspect, should be taken as a rather clear sign that the music is completely forgettable. While the first year of Dragon Ball Kai received almost red carpet treatment in the announcement of the cast and crew working on the series, the only major announcement from Toei Animation about the second arc was that the new ending theme would be performed by the current mega-fad idol group of the time. For a song with seven vocalists, Kokoro no Hane is best described as being entirely without personality and an obvious baiting of AKB48 Otaku. The single for the song received eleven different CD editions at launch. This is in contrast to the first opening to the series, performed by Tanimoto Takayoshi, who also provides the vocals for the opening, ‘Dragon Soul’. Having Tanimoto return for a second ending would have been nice, but I suppose the allure of attaching the hugest name in the idol business to Dragon Ball Kai was too big a temptation for Toei to ignore.

In contrast to the content of the first two season sets, no roles were recast from the Dragon Ball Z adaption of the Artificial Humans arc. Kusao Takeshi returns as Trunks and all six Artificial Humans retain their original voice actors. The Great King Cold is the only named character to receive a new voice after his original actor, Gouri Daisuke, passed away shortly before recording. Ootomo Ryuuzaburou’s performance is nothing special, much like Cold’s character in general, but the Great King is only around for two episodes so it isn’t much of an issue. Ootomo also takes over for Polunga (who Gouri had voiced in episode #36) and the Gyuumaou.

As is generally the case with Dragon Ball Kai, the voice acting and directing isn’t nearly as good as what each actor was originally capable of fifteen and twenty years earlier. Some performances still shine, like Horikawa Ryou’s Vegeta or Kusao’s Trunks, but it’s clear that most of the cast has begun to tire. Lead actress Nozawa Masako, now in her seventies, has difficulty pitching her voice correctly for the young boy Gohan or doing many of Gokuu’s shouted lines. Nevertheless, Nozawa’s low-key Gokuu is as mean as ever, specifically in episode #60 where Gokuu belittles No. 20’s attempt at gauging his strength.

Every year since 2003 has brought at least one new video game for the cast to record for, each game simply retelling the story being retold in Dragon Ball Kai. Add in the fact that nearly every returning actor (barring Kusao Takeshi) is over the age of fifty  and some well into their seventies and it’s clear that the time is nearing for a wider-spread cleaning of the house. This is especially true of the legendary Wakamoto Norio, Cell’s voice actor. Wakamoto clearly phoned in his performance for this set, monotonously railing off the dialogue and providing none of his trademark screams or acting charms. Audio Director Nagasaki also appeared to push Wakamoto’s performance in a different direction, making his performance for Cell’s first form higher-pitch and more akin to a ‘character voice’. Considering the questionable performances Nagasaki has directed out of both old and new performers in Kai, it might be too quick to place the blame entirely on the passage of time so much as the level of care placed into the directing.

As with most FUNimation releases, Dragon Ball Z Kai Season Three includes English subtitles for each episode, two English dub audio tracks (one in 5.1 and the other in 2.0), text-less opening and ending animations, and trailers for their other properties. Each episode is edited to include English language text in place of the original credits and title cards as well as a replaced series logo. The Blu-ray release also includes the original “It’s time for Dragon Ball Kai” title card that appears before each episode transitions into the recap.

Dragon Ball Kai, as a product, asks the customer to compare it to its predecessor and ask which does a better job of telling the same general story. Kai may move at a brisker pace, but that is a skin-deep look at the series. Equally skin-deep is the complaint that its competition moves slowly without taking the time to look at the actual qualities of the content one will be subjecting themselves to for episodes at a time. Which series is best for any one person is difficult to express in a review based on one individual’s opinion.

Dragon Ball Kai tells a fun and interesting story with equally fun and interesting characters. The only problems to be found here more so stem from the lack of care placed into the production, rather than the story. Dragon Ball Kai could have been a fun look into a classic story retold with modern animation and storytelling techniques. Instead, it serves as an acerbic reminder of what could have been and likely won’t be until another anniversary or two down the line.


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