Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 7th 2011
Dragon Ball Z
Blu-Ray 1 - Level 1.1
Years have passed since the people in consummate martial artist Goku's life have gotten together. They plan a reunion at Roshi's place, where they are shocked to learn that Goku has been reproducing. His son Gohan looks just like him—down to the monkey tail—but acts nothing alike. He's a timid, scholarly little boy, prohibited from any martial training at all. That isn't going to last. A terrible threat is fast approaching in the form of Goku's evil extraterrestrial brother Raditz. Raditz and, it turns out, Goku are part of a dying race of alien warriors known as the Saiyans, a group of battle-loving nasties who make their living by slaughtering the inhabitants of suitable planets and then selling the blood-soaked earth to the highest bidder. He's come to Earth to finish the job that his little brother didn't do. Goku doesn't take kindly to that. Teamed up with archenemy Piccolo, he braces his brother and wins, but at the cost of his own life. Before Raditz dies he tells of two far more powerful comrades, soon to be following in his footsteps: evil prince Vegeta and his burly sidekick Nappa. Earth's protectors must marshal their forces fast—and that includes little Gohan too.
"The Saiyans are coming! The Saiyans are coming!" No show but Dragon Ball Z could spend its first seventeen episodes, not fighting, but preparing for a fight. And by episode seventeen still not be done. Perhaps the most surprising thing about revisiting the series' early stages—and make no mistake, the vast majority of people watching these episodes will be revisiting them—is realizing just how fully-formed the series' more annoying traits were, even at the beginning. They're not as extreme as they would eventually become, but they're there all right: the power-ups, the power levels, the fights that always go on for one or two reversals too many, the sluggish pacing and endless stretches of repetitive training between bouts of manly bashing. The set's only real battle, the Raditz fight, is one of the series' shorter ones, but even it should have been over about midway through when Goku gets the advantage...and then gives it up because he's a dupe. Once the fight is done with, the show spends endless hours detailing Gohan's solo training in the wilderness and following Goku as he...runs. Thrilling stuff, to be sure. It mixes in some throwaway episodes about Goku's adventures in the afterlife, tosses in a few sequences where Earth's living heroes gather to train themselves up, visits with Vegeta and Nappa as they cruise the galaxy being horrible cads, and before you know it the set is over and we're no closer to the coming Saiyan apocalypse than we were when Raditz croaked. It's a mixture of tedium and anticipation that will be very familiar to show's fans.
The problem with this set is that it ends before we can learn why the tedium is worth sitting through. The Vegeta fight, arguably the series' best, is but a distant specter by the time the set waddles to a close. Still, there are hints here of why DBZ remains the phenomenon it is. There are flashes of the show's oddball humor throughout, long visits with members of its iconic cast, and plenty of time to soak in its bizarre fictional world. As short as it is, Goku and Piccolo's fight with Raditz is a furious and nasty bit of business, replete with flying elbows, exploding mountains, and vaporized limbs. Its conclusion is a reminder of how unpredictable the series can be: after all, it isn't every show that kills off its main character in episode five. More important, though, are the glimpses we catch—even in the training episodes—of how stinking cool the show can be: Piccolo lifting pyramids with his mind and spinning off mini-typhoons of leaves and debris; Nappa vaporizing bug-warriors without so much as touching them; Goku blasting Raditz with his signature Kamehameha Wave. When all of that combines during a fight that really matters, along with the fetishized manliness of the characters and the slavering anticipation that comes with waiting for thirty or fifty episodes, the result is positively exhilarating. Of course that doesn't happen this set, which is why it's so frustrating.
Pretty much anyone who is interested in buying this set already knows all of this. The question is what this release of the series provides that the others before it didn't. And that would be the newly remastered video. Funimation is proud of the new master—there's a very funny video about the process in the extras—and certainly the series has never looked crisper or more vibrant. Whether DBZ needed to be remastered, though, is an open question. The art tends to be simple and the animation mediocre to poor. Do we really need pristine video to appreciate the speed lines and lack of intermediate frames during the herky-jerky fights? Or to revel in the blocky lines of Akira Toriyama's characters? Even the series' more artistically accomplished sequences—its massive displays of power and languorous appreciation of the little details of Toriyama's world—aren't so complex that they need razor sharp definition to work.
More relevant to one's experience are the set's audio options. It has three different options: the original Japanese; Funimation's U.S. English broadcast version, complete with different soundtrack; and English with the original Japanese music. Each one provides its own distinct experience. The Japanese is lighter, more humorous and more subdued (relatively speaking, that is). The English broadcast version is hammier and more serious, thanks to some bombastic acting and a darker score. The hybrid track falls somewhere in the middle, retaining the edgier dialogue and broader acting of the English, but lightening the overall tone by sticking to the original music. For my money, it's the best of the three. The dub is great fun most of the time: unfaithful, unpredictable, and delightfully over-the-top. No one, not even the original cast, can shout power-ups like the English DBZ cast. It also has Sean Schemmel's Goku, who clearly outclasses Masako Nozawa's. Retaining the original music pulls the tone a little closer to that of the original, allowing Gohan's episodes in particular to retain a bit of the lighthearted sense of adventure that made Dragon Ball, DBZ's precursor series, such fun.
The thing is, if you own, say, the Dragon Box sets, you already have all of the audio options, along with superior packaging and all of the visual clarity that you really need. Plus better extras; there's no booklet here. If you haven't yet bought the series in any form and want the whole gargantuan experience, then this release will do as well as any—and better than some. At the very least it'll take up less shelf space than previous sets, and there's no denying that it's never looked better. If you're not a completist, though, go for the compressed Dragon Ball Kai Blu-Rays. Quibble however you will about video and audio quality; it's the quality of the show that matters in the end, and Kai is simply the better show.
Note: The music grade below is an average. Alone the English music would rate a C, and the Japanese a B-.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : C+
+ As fine a presentation of the bust-'em-up classic as you're likely to find; Raditz fight; is still danged cool after all these years.
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