Reviewby Theron Martin,
Dragon Ball Z Kai
On Namek, Vegeta is on the verge of success at gathering all of the Dragon Balls, but the untimely arrival of the Ginyu Force – Frieza's most elite strike team – shatters his plans and forces him to team up with Gohan and Krillin for mutual survival. However, all they can really accomplish against Frieza's ultra-powerful corps of oddballs is a delaying action until Goku arrives on the scene to kick tail with his newly-increased power levels. Injuries Goku suffers in insuring the Ginyu Force's final defeat leaves him temporarily out of the action as Gohan, Krillin, and new Namekian friend Dende seek to use the Dragon Balls to bring back Piccolo (and by extension Kami) and then, with Vegeta and Piccolo's help, face off against the irate Frieza. As all of them soon learn, though, Frieza is capable of transforming multiple times into increasingly powerful forms, and any of them pose a possibly overwhelming challenge.
Meanwhile, Bulma tries to muddle along on a planet that she is convinced is out to get her.
Episodes 27-39 of Kai cover the same story territory told in episodes 57-83 of the original series, beginning with Vegeta intimidating Krillin into handing over a Dragon Ball and ending with Gohan rushing to help the Piccolo during the latter's battle with Frieza's third form. This span essentially covers most of the preliminaries which set up the upcoming epic Frieza/Goku battle, but in the grand scope of the Dragon Ball franchise it is light on major events. It does feature the first time that Vegeta fights on the same side as the Z fighters (even if only out of necessity), the return of Piccolo and Kami, and an increasing role for Dende, but that's about it. That does not keep this collection from having all manner of dramatic events, and it certainly does not come up short on entertainment value, but the impact of this collection is the least of the three released so far.
Actually, the biggest development of this collection, in terms of the grand scheme of anime over the years, is the revelation that Frieza can undergo multiple physical transformations into increasingly powerful forms rather than merely powering up. While DBZ may or may not have been responsible for originating this gimmick, it certainly was instrumental in popularizing it; variations on it can be seen to this day in innumerable popular anime, particularly including Bleach. (What are the release forms of the Arrancar if not a descendant of that?) This collection also firmly entrenches the powermongering and one-upmanship in power levels which became a staple of DBZ as it progressed through the rest of its run and the ensuing Dragon Ball GT.
This collection also, unfortunately, introduces one of the biggest poxes on the original DBZ: the Ginyu Force. Dragon Ball series have always had a penchant for outright silliness mixed in amongst heavily dramatic action, but the inanity of the obsession with sentai team battle poses amongst these elite fighters is mind-numbing, as is the ignominious way that its strongest member, Captain Ginyu, goes down to defeat. Although they make worthy villains when being purely brutal and intimidating, their absurd behaviors result in their elimination being more of a relief than a triumph.
Otherwise the series is pretty much business as normal. Lesser characters get stronger, but continue to discover that, despite their increased power levels, they still cannot measure up to the baddest villains. Goku comes in to save the day, only to get hurt again. Other heroes get beat within an inch of their lives on multiple occasions. Bulma gets frustrated that she's being left out of the action again. The Dragon Balls get used to summon a dragon and wish someone back to life. Vegeta further proves to be a self-centered opportunist. A massively powerful villain threatens the entire world. Same-ol', same-ol', except that the entirety of the action, aside from a brief appearance by King Kai's world in the afterlife, happens on Namek instead of Earth. And really, there's nothing wrong with that. Viewers don't watch Dragon Ball titles for their cerebral content or complex character development (although Vegeta's mental gymnastics to justify his actions are interesting to follow); they watch it for all of the high-powered action and, yes, even for the stupid humor. On those accounts, the series delivers, and that is all that really matters.
The Kai format here does a wonderful job of taking 27 episodes of the original series and whittling down into a streamlined 13, so much so that only the most diehard DBZ fans will be able to tell where material has been cut out and even they probably won't care. Time-wasting asides have been eliminated and the lengthy stare-downs that DBZ became justly infamous for have been seamlessly pared down, leaving a collection of episodes which zips along at a comfortable clip without ever feeling like a highlight reel (a common failing of anime series compilations). New linking animation, if used at all, integrates in much better here than in the earlier stages of this project. This fully restored form also looks great, especially on Blu-Ray; never before has Dragon Ball content looked better on a TV screen, though it still shows its age.
The artistic effort is on par with earlier releases. Character designs for the Ginyu force utterly fail to impress – in fact, they look quite generic as alien bad guys – but Frieza's second and third forms are suitably monstrous and evil-looking, including a third form which may have been vaguely inspired by Aliens. Even though the animation may not be the greatest, it still does a better job here than in the vast majority of anime series of conveying a sense of the rapid speed and intensity of the fight scenes, a feat which the franchise never gets enough credit for. The soundtrack merely continues the themes used in earlier episodes, which means more limp battle themes and only the occasional effectively dramatic punctuation. The opener and closer are also unchanged.
Funimation's English dub makes some slightly questionable casting decisions on a couple of the Ginyu Force members but continues to be solid overall. One stellar performance lays at its core: that of Chris Ayres as Frieza. The previous collection showed him to be deliciously evil in the role in calmer moments, and this collection shows that he loses none of that in Frieza's more excitable moments. He even does a superb job of modifying his voice for Frieza's transformations while still convincingly keeping the voice as Frieza. It is one of the best male English vocal performances of the past decade and a real treat to listen to. The English script continues to be more interpretive than accurate but only rarely changes the meaning of a scene.
The Blu-Ray version of this release is a 1080p up-conversion which uses the AVC codec. It is of comparable quality to most of Funimation's other up-conversions, which means that the picture quality is an improvement over DVD but not dramatically so. Audio tracks are done in Dolby TrueHD, with 5.1 for English and 2.0 for Japanese. Extras on the second of two disks include the standard clean opener and closer and the less standard U.S. Cast Interviews featurette, a 7½ minute piece featuring English dub producers Justin Cook and Christopher R. Sabat (also the voice of Piccolo and Vegeta) and some other key voice actors, including Colleen Clinkenbeard (Gohan), Sean Schemmel (Goku), Sonny Strait (Krillin), and Monica Rial (Bulma) talking about the show and their respective characters. The content is pretty bland, but the most interesting detail is that Mr. Sabat, who has possibly the most prominent bass voice in all of English anime dubbing, looks nothing like what you'd expect.
An argument could be made that all of the action in this volume makes it too thin on actual plot development, and indeed not much actually transpires through this stretch. In that sense, it is the least meaty of the collections to date. The quality action should sufficiently compensate for that, however. The set may be merely a placeholder in the preparation for the series' second epic battle, but it does not come up short on entertainment value.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : D
+ Condensed format is executed seamlessly and makes the work more dynamic, plentiful high-powered action.
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