Review: "Dragon Ball Z: Rock The Dragon" Is the Home for Infinite Losers (plus, Season 1 and 2 Blu-rays)
Did you ever rock the dragon? Nearly two decades ago, Dragon Ball Z made its first splash on American shores in syndication, soon followed by its legendary Toonami run. Dragon Ball Z‘s first 53 episodes might have been a bit rocky in comparison to modern anime dubbing practices. The soundtrack was replaced, character names were adjusted and changed, 67 episodes worth of content were turned into 53 thanks to cuts, and some notable censorship jobs would even turn HELL into HFIL. Dragon Ball Z‘s original batch of episodes would be laughed at in 2014, but they made a landmark stand in 1996. The amazing action-adventure show shone through the cracks, and still reverberates to this day. Thanks to this run, the rest of the series (and most of the franchise) received English-language releases and put FUNimation on the map. In honor of this landmark, FUNimation has released the episodes as originally aired (alongside the first three movies) in the Dragon Ball Z: Rock The Dragon box set. Are these fond memories, or forgettable mistakes?
At this part in the review, it’s naturally to cover the plot of the show. With a franchise like Dragon Ball Z, it’s a little hard to find someone who doesn’t know it, but we’ll hit the beats. Superpowered family man Goku “loses a battle” saving his family from the alien brother he didn’t know he had. Rewarded with the ability to train in “Next Dimension,” his son likewise is forced to train to fight the oncoming “Saiyans,” world-brokers ready to destroy the Earth.
Notice the usage of quotes? This initial dub (with these episodes having been redubbed since) set the stage for Akira Toriyama’s classic in America. “Saiya-jin” becomes “Saiyan,” the afterlife is coddled into “the next dimension,” and characters are adjusted into “Krillin” and “Tien” from “Kulilin” and “Tenshinhan,” not to bring up that Goku’s family loses their surname of “Son.” Attacks become more Americanized, with “Kienzan” becoming “Destructo Disc,” and generally, any evidence of Japanese production disappeared (while Japanese culture peeks through at times, the show is set on a unique, “talking animals and prehistoric dinosaurs” variation on Earth).
Since the original airing, FUNimation has taken these early episodes and redubbed them, uncut and with the cast of the later episodes. This means the original Canadian cast was replaced with Texans. For some, this is a matter of taste; most notably, Goku’s voice actor goes from Ian Corlett to Peter Kelamis in this set (later consistently voiced by Sean Schemmel). As this is the first dub of Goku (ignoring the Harmony Gold take on Dragon Ball), it started the trend of Goku not being as “redneck” as his Japanese voice would be; he’s relaxed, but he doesn’t drop what could be “ain’t” and “y’all”s in the dub.
When it comes to audio, though, this set is where Dragon Ball Z got the tech-rock, ever-present soundtrack, and the iconic, for better or worse, “Rock The Dragon” theme song replacing Japan’s “Cha La Head Cha La.” There’s even lyrics for the simplistic song in the art book. There’s no sort of Japanese audio track in the set, but it’s not something you’d come to it for. Video quality is sad, looking like unrestored footage from 17 years ago; FUNimation just can’t toss the old audio track on newly restored footage. This set has extensive digital painting, and blue beer would be lost.
The art book, as mentioned, is a simple and quick read, but one of FUNimation’s better and more-inventive releases. The nine discs slide in the cardboard sleeves, and the earlier pages feature character bios, relationship charts, and facts about the run’s notoriety, mainly HFIL, “Over 9,000,” and “the next dimension.” It’ll only take a few minutes, and the character relationship chart looks a bit compressed, but is a noble effort.
Should you find yourself in the ownership of the “Rock The Dragon” edition, you’ll have an odd tome to a forgotten, but important, era of anime in America. Unless you’re particularly a fan of this episodes in this fashion, you should instead look at the much-loved “Dragon Boxes,” or even speedrun the series with Dragon Ball Z Kai. The Dragon Ball Z: Rock The Dragon set exists as proof that this era existed, but it should only exist so we can learn and move on.
Now, if you want the show modified in a different vein, FUNimation has begun releasing the series on Blu-ray, with a different mindset. While the “Rock The Dragon” edition was all about the original airing, the Blu-rays are all about bringing the uncut and unedited version of the series to a higher definition than was ever intended. They’ve gone through the set and digitally remastered it, clearing up much of the fuzz, glitches, and flaws of the original masters. Controversially, this includes making the show widescreen 16X9 via simply zooming in and reframing. For the most part, the original show rarely fully utilized the space, but this does lead to some oddities at times, with heads being cut off in the background with characters in the foreground gaining priority.
Is the “purity” of the show lost for a good cause? It’s hard to say. The show looks better in many regards, since crisper colors and lines beat blurry ones, but the show looks less like film and more like the actual cels, which gives it a “Colorforms” or simple marker stylization. There are few gradients here; if Goku’s shirt is orange, it’s bright orange with a darker auburn for shadows in a clearly-delineated border.
These sets feature the uncut and unedited dub, and while of age, are the best you’ll hear outside of Dragon Ball Z Kai. The content is comparable to the vaunted Dragon Boxes, which may look a fair amount older, but are audibly the same. At this point, the question is if you’d like higher definition visuals at a lower price, or a truer visual experience with more extras for a more grand price. Season One of the Blu-ray release features a five-minute preview of special features on future volumes (yes, that’s a tease), your standard textless opening and ending (surprisingly nice, because of how old the show is, that’s uncommon to still have), and a trailer for both this and other shows. Season Two features three of these special features, interviews with Christopher Sabat and Sean Schemmel (both peppered with discussions with fans and staff), alongside a personal tour of Justin Cook’s headshot collection.
These Blu-rays are less of a novelty than the “Rock” edition, and more of the future-forward for the series. They might be the best for people with no attachment to the original release and enjoy putting their Blu-ray player to good use, but for purists of the series, the Dragon Boxes will more than suffice. As always, those looking for a more expeditious run through the franchise and a fair bit of high definition would do best to look at the Dragon Ball Z Kai Blu-rays.