Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 1st 2010
Dragon Ball Z Kai
Goku has returned to battle the villainous Saiyan Vegeta, but while he can damage and knock down Vegeta, even his tripled Kaio-ken technique is not enough to keep Vegeta down. Irritated that he is struggling against Goku, Vegeta pulls a trick to go Great Ape, but thanks to a team effort involving Krillin, Gohan, and even Yajirobe, the gang is eventually able to knock Vegeta back down to size and hurt him enough to force him to retreat off-planet. While cleaning up afterwards, Krillin posits the idea that more Namekians, and thus more Dragon Balls, might be found on Kami/Piccolo's home world, so the gang soon locates planet Namek and Bulma, Krillian, and Gohan use Kami/Piccolo's original spaceship to set off on a new Dragon Ball quest. This time, though, their opposition is more fearsome than ever before, for Vegeta, after healing up, has also headed to Namek with the same intention, as has his uber-powerful boss Frieza, who is intent on wiping the Namekians out as he hunts down the Dragon Balls. The situation is not entirely bleak, however; Vegeta's pride puts him at odds with his former coworkers and master, a rescued Namekian boy helps Krillin realize a new level of power, and Goku is on his way, training in ultra-high-gravity as he goes.
Episodes 14-26 of Kai cover the same chunk of story originally told in episodes 31-56 of Dragon Ball Z, which covers the period in the story from the time that Goku goes to Kaio-ken x3 in his battle with Vegeta to the point where Vegeta defeats Zarbon on planet Namek. Moreso than the first set of episodes, this run is a triumph of editing, as the scene transitions are so smooth, and the brief bits of added connecting animation so innocuous, that those new to the franchise will probably be unable to tell that this part of the story was originally double this length. Those familiar with the original episodes will probably not find anything wanting, either. This is the way the series should have been done in the first place: a tight, fast-paced action story which does not dillydally around with ultimately minimally important details.
Even so, the first signs of the dragging out of combat scenes that the series is infamous for do start to show here. The first Goku/Vegeta battle is a suitably epic fare, but by the end of it even diehard action fans may start rolling their eyes at how ridiculously long the battle is, at how many instances of each combatant pulling out yet another trick the battle has. It does prove sufficiently satisfying, but moreso because the secondary players (especially Yajirobe) make their own significant contributions than because it shows Goku at his most puissant level to that point.
This run of episodes also makes some other important contributions to the overall Dragon Ball franchise. It provides the first taste of Gohan finding his fighting resolve, puts Bulma back into play in a prominent way for a while, and shows the first combat use of the Spirit Bomb, but it is much more important for the introduction of two characters who will have a major impact on the Dragon Ball universe. With Frieza, DBZ gets its first ultimate villain, a character who, comparatively speaking, stands on the same level as King Piccolo did in the original Dragon Ball series and will become the focal point of events for the next few dozen episodes. (Yes, technically Frieza made a brief appearance back in episode 1, but this is the first place where he becomes an integral part of the current-time storytelling.) The other is the young Namekian Dende, who may seem like a throw-away character at this point but will still be around playing a prominent role through the end of the series.
The main reason to watch DBZ was, of course, for all of the outlandishly super-powered fighting, and in that respect Kai's take on the series will not disappoint. Although this set has only the one major fight, it offers no shortage of lesser slugfests and, thankfully, only a minimal amount of training footage. Those fights offer plenty of opportunities for assorted characters to show off what they can do and deliver more smackdown than pro wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts combined. The series takes itself seriously enough at this point that little of the franchise's traditional humor survives the cuts, but that also means that few of the series' irritatingly ridiculous elements also survive. (Although that will only remain true until the Ginryu Force, which is first mentioned but not seen here, shows up. . .)
Comments on technical merits here are mostly the same as for the first set: the cleaned-up and reedited artistry holds up remarkably well for episodes made back around 1990 and the contrast to the new digitally-drawn images used in the intro, closer, and eye catches should allow long-time fans to breathe a sigh of relief that the series was not entirely redrawn; yes, the art may be a little rougher than series made in the most recent decade, but more recent series also do not have the kind of visual charm that this one does. On the downside, the terrain of, and architecture on, planet Namek is utterly underwhelming, with almost no effort to make it distinctive from the Earth-based settings. Spacecraft design also completely fails to impress. The soundtrack is equally weak, with limp battle themes and dramatic themes that only occasionally amount to anything, and the same lame opener and closer as seen in the first set continue on.
The English dub continues the solid work seen in the first set of episodes. The script remains fairly tight and by now viewers should be used to the most distinctive vocal changes (Monica Rial as Bulma, for instance). New additions to the cast are, without exception, on the mark, with Chris Ayres doing an especially fine job of making Frieza sound like the thoroughly evil bastard that he is while still giving him a distinct character; this is one of 2010's finest male English dubbing performances. Maxey Whitehead also does a nice job as the new Dende, whose voice is almost indistinguishable from earlier versions.
Funimation's Blu-Ray print is presented in 1080p format using the AVC codec, which when combined with the frame-by-frame clean-up and restorative effort produces unquestionably the best-looking version of the series to date. Yes, there are still some very minor flaws that show through at the highest resolutions, but this still looks as sharp as could be hoped for given its age. The 5.1 lossless audio for the English language track does mix the sound a little better than the 2.0 lossless Japanese track does, but this release does not have the tremendous drop-off in audio quality between the two tracks that was heard on all earlier releases of DBZ. Extras on the second of two disks (which have a 9-4 episode distribution) entirely consist of various iterations on clean opener and closer.
DBZ can justifiably be considered one of the classics of shonen action series and the Blu-Ray release of this treatment of the material is its best possible version, whether one looks at storytelling, technical merits, or physical presentation. Even a pathetic musical score cannot keep all of its other advantages from shining through.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : D
+ Slick editing job, Frieza's English dub performance, Bulma does something meaningful.
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