Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 5th 2012
Dragon Ball Z
Blu-Ray - Level 1.2
The Saiyans are still coming and Earth's heroes are still preparing. At King Kai's planet in the afterworld, Goku undergoes a bizarre but effective series of training tasks. The plan is to power up and then resurrect him using the Dragon Balls before Prince Vegeta and his burly underling Nappa can slaughter the human race. To do that, his friends back on Earth must hold off the two seemingly indestructible warriors for the hours it will take him to get back. They're sure that they can, but at what cost?
Goku and his friends continue training for long, poky episodes and head into a similarly long run of time-killing preliminary fights. Boredom, anticipation...sounds familiar. There is one major difference between this set and the last, though. This one includes the payoff.
Whether the payoff is worth it depends on a couple of things, not least of which is how aggravating you find the lead-up to be. In truth, it has its own charms. The displays of power that sometimes cropped up last volume aren't here so much, but the series' strange sense of humor does make an appearance in the form of gag-loving King Kai and his bizarre training regimen. It's also nice to see Gohan being less of crybaby, going head-to-head with Piccolo during their training and softening the onetime demon lord with his childish trust and affection. The problem is all of the pointless visits to sub-characters, repetitive training interludes, and simple little plots puffed up to episode-long wastes of time—Gohan growing his tail back and transforming into a Great Ape, say—that you have to wade through to get to them.
The arrival of the Saiyans mercifully ends all of that. No more training, no more sub-plots—just lots of fighting. Of course, the preliminary fighting is merely another form of build-up, but at least it's a higher form. It benefits from a wide streak of ruthlessness, killing long-running characters with abandon and seriously messing with their chances of resurrection. The later stages, when the weaker of the Saiyans enters the picture, feel like horror at times so helpless are the characters in the face of his overwhelming power and unremitting evil. There's a sort of heartless utility to it all, with Krillin, Yamcha, and the rest serving as fodder to demonstrate the invincibility of Goku's enemies and raise anticipation for his eventual thrashing of them. And it works exceedingly well, all the more so because the damage the Saiyans inflict is so excruciatingly drawn out.
Unfortunately a lot of other things end up excruciatingly drawn-out as well. The predictable clouds of dust that obscure an unharmed enemy, for instance, or Gohan whining that he's scared and can't fight, or Goku rushing to the rescue for eight whole episodes. And the devices used to stretch the better parts out aren't exactly a barrel of fun either. There are the usual insert shots of empty landscapes and startled wildlife, the long pauses as characters power up or gloat, more cuts away to uninvolved characters like Roshi and Lunch, and an episode where Vegeta literally sits on his butt waiting for Goku while Nappa runs amuck amongst the earth's armed forces. Worst of all, though, are the little green plant men that Goku's allies are forced to fight before they can actually face the Saiyans. Every minute of that fight is a flagrant, irritating waste of time—and there are a lot of minutes. All of which leaves one with the experience, peculiar to DBZ, of not enjoying the show and yet not being able to stop.
And then Goku arrives. He isn't just rescuing his friends by this point; he's rescuing us. What follows is perhaps one of anime's best fights, and certainly one of its most classic. In the current age, when computers can generate almost anything that the mind can devise and energy-blasting fighters have all but become passé, it can be a bit hard to remember how it was being a first-time anime viewer watching this fight. It was the first time that DBZ really unleashed itself, allowing the action to rampage thoroughly out of control, and the result was like nothing out there: a vision of martial-arts action that went so far over the top that it inspired pure awe. It was a spectacle that connected with a very deep, teenaged part of the soul: the part that wanted to be able to split mountains with its fists and rend the sky with its rage. The series would try to recapture that feeling many times during its run, cranking up the power and scale with every iteration, with limited success.
That the Vegeta fight still retains some of that power, even after all these years and despite its rather attenuated structure, is a triumph of DBZ's enduring imagery. The series' animation is frankly crude, relying heavily on speedlines and implied movement and only bursting into full motion at discrete, important intervals. Quality control is less than optimal, with fighters' bodies changing size and shape and proportion with some regularity. It's hardly an impressive showing as far as the movement of pictures goes. The pictures themselves are another matter, though. There's a rare intensity to the imagery of DBZ. Muscles swell, veins pop, and characters scream, their mouths open so wide that their heads are nothing but teeth and tonsils. Their bodies steam and crackle with energy, their square eyes blaze with feral joy, and their mouths freeze in wolfish grins of manly pleasure. Light coalesces into tactile auras, the earth shudders and cracks, and blasts of destructive energy explode from protruding palms. Few if any series has as many or as distinctive of visual trademarks, and every one of them is brought together first and arguably best right here, when Goku meets Vegeta.
There are, of course, memorable moments outside of the main fight. The sight of Nappa tearing through fighter planes like paper is hard to shake, and there are brief flashes of cool throughout the lesser battles of Yamcha, Piccolo and the rest. The use of pure line art, bleached of all color, during a particularly important moment for Piccolo is both arty and powerful. Not everyone will remember or even catch those moments however. No one, on the other hand, will ever forget the sight of Goku, braced against the shattering Earth, firing his Kamehameha Wave into the heavens.
The work of the cast is also important in keeping the intensity up. Specifically, their ability to scream power-ups and special moves like there's no tomorrow. The Japanese cast isn't half bad at it, but the real masters are Funimation's English actors. No one can sell a Kamehameha Wave like Sean Schemmel or growl an alien-sounding special move like Christopher R. Sabat (who plays so many parts that he has to be good at it). The commitment the actors show to the series' many and lengthy screams of rage and pain and various other manly emotions is very impressive (there are stories of Schemmel passing out during some of them). That its script bears scant resemblance to the original hardly matters, though one does miss the original's macho reserve, crushed here beneath reams of additional dialogue.
Among the perks this Blu-Ray re-release offers is nice, clean video (though given its nostalgia value, one almost misses the old, dirty, jittery video) and two picture galleries. One consists of cast pictures signed by each member and addressed to someone named Justin and the other of pictures of Sabat violated in various, sometimes disturbing ways. The final perks are the triple audio tracks, which follow the same pattern as last volume. The original music is less of an advantage to the two tracks that have it this time around thanks to the relative dearth of light adventure and humor, the two things it is particularly good at. With the bulk of this set being grimly serious, it doesn't much matter if you choose to listen to the tinnier, lighter Japanese music or the smoother, more ponderous English.
Regardless of super-coolness, the question still remains of whether the Vegeta fight was worth sitting through ten hours of tedium to get to. The answer is going to vary. Exactly how tedious you find the tedium will of course factor into it. So will your love of beefy dudes pounding each other into cliff faces. Nostalgia will also play a part. Perhaps most important, though, is how well your inner teenager is doing. Not only because he or she is more likely to thrill along with Goku's exploits, but because he or she is less likely to mind that that hour or so of thrills cost twelve hours of life.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Vegeta fight; occasional outside burst of coolness.
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