Dragon Ball Super
by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 109 of
Dragon Ball Super ?
How would you rate episode 110 of
Dragon Ball Super ?
Now that both One Piece and Dragon Ball Super's big one-hour specials have aired, a few things become clear. For one, this was clearly meant to be a special from beginning to end, and for two, Toei's been holding back on us, y'all.
Obviously, that last comment is a little facetious in the face of shows that undoubtedly suffer from a lot of behind-the-scenes stress as high-profile year-long products, but I'm in awe regardless of both these specials as they demonstrate a flair for the dramatic that I had given up on ever seeing. Super's special in particular is a solid hour of thrilling entertainment, easily the best we've seen from the show yet. The showmanship is off the charts.
When something is as much of a brand exercise as Super, it's hard to imagine there's enough wiggle room within its story to lead to something inspired, but then you've got an antagonist like Jiren. Once you start asking yourself, "how can we make a good new rival for Goku?" there are so many ways for your attempt to come out weak and unconvincing, and so far they're avoiding the pitfalls pretty well. Jiren is Universe 11's trump card, the only mortal being in all the universes rumored to be as strong—if not stronger than—the Gods of Destruction. As the tournament's clock reaches its halfway point, it's finally time for Jiren to do more than stand around looking menacing, and once he lets loose it's a sight to behold.
The story is running fast and loose with Jiren's backstory, assuring us that, like Goku, he must have gone through many abnormal life experiences that have led to him getting so strong. This is a case where the multi-universe idea opens the door for new powerful foes that exceed our expectations. Jiren is the ultimate version of that. When he lets his energy show itself, the remaining fighters left in the tournament are frozen in awe, and it becomes clear that Goku and Jiren are the only ones who have a chance at taking each other out (with a significant edge in Jiren's favor, of course). What really makes it juicy is how the gods look at Jiren, as if he's some kind of perversion of what "strong" is even supposed to mean.
This is an hour of great fight animation. The first of these two episode covers a great looking battle between Goku and the magical girl Ribrianne, and of course the first course of Goku vs. Jiren. There's a lot of personality showing here, especially with Ribrianne, and the way the episode juggles drama and comedy through expressive movement and direction builds to the more serious fighting masterfully. The magical girl is putting up a good fight, but once Jiren starts to get real, the belief that this was everybody's fight vanishes. Even with Goku using Super Saiyan Blue, it looks like Universe 11's win might be predetermined.
Of course, more than this being an episode about Goku fighting Jiren, this is an episode unveiling Goku's newest form. After a failed attempt at a Spirit Bomb gets flung back at him, Goku barely avoids disintegration by unlocking something that we're calling 'Ultra Instinct', where Goku has been beaten so thoroughly that a new source of energy has to step in and keep his body moving past its limits. Ultra Instinct appears to be a technique that even the Gods of Destruction covet, so why it's being triggered in a mortal Saiyan is anybody's guess, but it keeps the fight alive at its darkest hour. It's less of a new form like Super Saiyan and more of a state of hyper fight-or-flight. Goku's body is now moving faster and hitting harder than either he or Jiren are ready for, and the accompanying J-Rock insert song kicks in at just the right moment to send the adrenaline through the roof. If I was a kid watching this for the first time, I might have cried over how good it was.
When it comes to big match-ups and sensationalist hooks in these shows for kids, there can be a fine line between sincere blood-pumping excitement and phoned-in cynicism, and the difference between the two can be difficult to pinpoint, but you know it when you see it. There were always occasional episodes that stood out as above-and-beyond for this show—within this arc, especially—but this is a centerpiece moment, something planned out way ahead of time as a way to lead the audience's experience, and it's a total home run.
I'm honestly surprised they didn't hype up Jiren and Goku's new form even more. I can't believe it took leaks to first unveil that Goku was even going to have a new form, and that it wasn't foreshadowed thirty episodes in advance. I'm glad it wasn't, because it gives the arc a chance to feel spontaneous the way a good Dragon Ball story should, and that's exactly why this special feels so, well, special. I remember being a kid and how much episodes for new transformations were mythologized between me and my friends, and how big of a deal it was to actually get to see them on TV after reading and talking about them for so long. That's not to say Ultra Instinct is as big a deal as the original Super Saiyan, but this episode demonstrates an awareness of what that experience looks like, and it executes on it with so much gusto that I can't help but respect the hell out of it.
That's what ends up being the most important to me. My attachment to Dragon Ball and One Piece can survive some crappy production values. It's not like their glory days were the prettiest things in the world, so my frustrations with Toei more often than not come from how little they take advantage of the true spirit of these shows. There's a power to the communal aspect of these big moments, and there's a story to be told through my choice to sit in front of a screen and keep hitting Next Episode. Specials like this show me that those feelings are being acknowledged and respected to a degree I was honestly not ready for.
Dragon Ball Super is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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