The so called anime boom of the previous decade wasn’t quite as powerful here in the UK. However a few shows did still erupt, and one of these happened to be Dragon Ball Z.
Dragon Ball Z is the continuation of the popular Dragon Ball, which chronicled the adventures of the monkey boy Son Goku as he and his friends searched for the mystical, wish-granting Dragon Balls and stopped would be tyrants who sought to use their magic for evil. After having toppled many foes and becoming a martial arts legend on the cusp of adulthood, Goku retired back into isolation with his new wife to start a family. It’s at this point a few years later that Z kicks off, with Goku introducing his old friends to his young son, Gohan. The reunion is abruptly ended by the arrival of Raditz, a warrior from outer space with some dark secrets for our hero. Learning that he is actually from a blood thirsty race of planet conquerors known as the Saiyans, Goku is forced to ally with his arch-nemesis Piccolo in an attempt to stop his brother Raditz. After finally killing Raditz in a tense battle, the villain gets the last laugh: two more Saiyans are on their way to the planet, both easily dwarfing his own power. With but a year to prepare for the arrival of opponents beyond anything they’ve faced, can Goku and his friends possibly hope to become a match for the invaders?
Dragon Ball Z arrived somewhat stealthily on these shores. I still remember the original Cartoon Network trailer in which a dubbed-over martial arts master recounts his greatest victory before announcing “Last week I saw Dragon Ball Z….I never knew what hit me”. The show was really unlike anything else airing on British TV at the time, and proved to be a sound investment for the channel, with many more high budget promos to follow. Wider success and merchandising seemed inevitable, but sadly a messy crisscross of rights issues meant the property was squandered, with some outright embarrassing merchandise released. Even simply getting a release of the show itself seemed impossible.
But finally it’s here. A wish granted not by Shenron or Porunga, but by Manga.
This first six-disc set covers the show’s opening Saiyan Saga and carries a whopping 39 episodes. That’s almost an entire series for most Japanese shows. The six-disc breakdown actually organizes the episodes quite neatly; disc one is the fight with Raditz, discs two and three cover training; discs four and five are the fight with Nappa and Vegeta; and disc six serves as an epilogue/bridge to the next saga.
One problem is that the show’s role as a sequel leaves certain things unsaid. Obviously, Japanese viewers would have gone into Z quite familiar with Goku and his adventures, but the rest of us are much less likely to be familiar with the back story. The original televised versions of these episodes saw FUNimation remove particularly continuity heavy elements, such as a comedy subplot involving secondary character Launch. For this release, however, all said content has been restored, and whilst it doesn’t cripple the show for newcomers it does leave a few headscratchers regarding characters and their relationships. An unfortunate standout is Goku himself. Again, Japanese viewers would know him quite well, but with Z electing to briefly ‘kill him off’ and shift focus to developing the newly arrived Gohan, this means a viewer coming in with Z won’t get the best initial feel for his character. Indeed, Goku spends half the set getting only token cameos as he speeds down the near infinite Snake Way to receive training from King Kai in the afterlife whilst Gohan receives full episodes dedicated to developing his character.
Goku is thankfully highlighted by a few filler roles. For the unfamiliar, many Japanese animated shows are adaptations of ongoing comic books. To avoid the TV show overtaking the printed story, new content termed ‘filler’ is created to allow the main work some lead time. In recent years this has often meant shows having full filler arcs, but Dragon Ball Z opted to mix in a few extra scenes alongside canon material along with the odd filler episode. Two of these detail Goku’s misadventures on Snake Way, running afoul of ogres in hell and the predator Princess Snake. Both episodes give newer viewers the chance to understand Goku’s personality. Gohan also benefits from the filler by a series of episodes set during the time Piccolo has left him alone in the wilderness. These range from effective (“The Strangest Robot” is a cute episode which gives Gohan the drive he needs to become stronger and stop relying on others) to horrible (“Plight of the Children” sees Gohan escape the island to hang out with orphan children, whilst portraying social services as evil for wanting to give the kids a home and education and offering a flat ending that seems dictated more by run time then any concern for storytelling). Perhaps the most unique use of filler in the set is to tell a story about the villains. “Trouble on Arlia” sees the Saiyans make a pit stop on a world home to insect men who are ruled by a despot, and where their thrill-seeking carnage is mistaken for the tides of revolution. Given that usually villains in anime are stuck lurking in the darkness and making cryptic threats, this is a standout episode that builds anticipation for what will happen when the Saiyans meet our heroes on Earth.
The action in Dragon Ball Z is something I don’t think really anyone else has been able to replicate. If you look at modern shonen, the focus seems to be on character goods and specially developed powers. The world of DBZ comes off as more intense for the sheer brutality of it. Whilst the characters can pull off a cunning gambit when the time is right, the focus is on sheer unbridled power. This also makes the villains all the more terrifying; in other shows a villain can be beaten if you can outwit them. In DBZ if you’re not strong enough you basically have no chance and are delaying the inevitable, something the villains are aware of and milk for their own entertainment.
Likewise, another factor the series uses well is time skips. It’s become pretty common to use these now to age characters up and explore them when the writer has done all he can with them at that stage in their life. Here, the cast are warned they have one year to prepare for the Saiyans and it’s a very dramatic timer, certainly more effective than a simple ‘A villain shows up one day’ plot.
Aside from being uncut, much has been made by FUNimation of the fact these sets offer the show in a digitally remastered HD format to remove all imperfections, and have transferred them to widescreen to allow more of the source footage to be visible. Two of the set’s extras are even given over to explaining and hyping this process. However, I feel they’ve overstated this treatment. The show looks much as I expected it to on my modern 1080 setup, and there were several times where clear dirt and scratches appeared on the picture. This is a perfectly acceptable release of a 20-year-old show but certainly not an incredible upgrade. (It doesn’t really help that in making this argument, the extras highlight footage from the more high budget spin off movies.)
Audio choices consist of the dub with either American or Japanese music or Japanese with the original soundtrack. I chose to watch the dub with Japanese soundtrack. This is the first time the FUNimation actors have been able to do these earlier episodes, and much like the video, the script has been rewritten to remove some of the more infamous dub-created plot holes. This is still a fairly liberal translation however, opting for the gist of the original dialogue rather then what it says exactly but a more exact one is presented via subtitles. Unfortunately listening to the dub track is sometimes a nostalgia trip for all the wrong reasons. FUNimation has produced several high quality dubs in the last several years, and maybe it’s to do with the age of the source material but the work here is often let down by awkward, flat or annoying line delivery. Another problem is the absence of opening song “Cha-La-Head-Cha-La” from all the audio tracks, replaced with generic rock music. This is made all the more bizarre as it’s present as an extra on the final disc, alongside ending song “Zenkai Power,” which is present on the end of all episodes.
Too often legends go unchallenged, getting placed on a pedestal and championed even after their worth has vanished. Dragon Ball Z, however, proves it has truly earned its title as a fun and engrossing piece of entertainment. At a time where most shows seem to think they somehow have to offer audiences the meaning of life, Dragon Ball Z reminds us it’s perfectly fine to have noble heroes, evil villains and kick butt action. It’s been a long wait to get this show on home media in the UK, but it’s easily been worth it.
Dragon Ball Z Series One (UK Edition) is available through Amazon.co.uk.