Reviewby Theron Martin,
Dragon Ball Z Kai
Part 1 Blu-Ray
Following the events of Dragon Ball, time has passed and life has moved on for Master Roshi's students and their associates. Goku wound up marrying Chi Chi and now has a son, Gohan, whom he brings to introduce to the whole gang at a meet at Master Roshi's house. The gathering turns out to be anything but peaceful, however, when a powerful alien named Raditz also arrives, claiming not only that he is a Saiyan, but also that Goku is, too, and his little brother to boot. He further claims that Goku was sent to Earth to ravage its population and resorts to drastic measures to try to “convince” Goku to rediscover his Saiyan heritage. An intense battle against the overwhelming power of Raditz requires both Goku teaming up with former enemy Piccolo and a great sacrifice in order to ensure Raditz's defeat, but Raditz's even more powerful Saiyan brethren are on the way. With one year to prepare, Goku's fellow fighters train diligently on Earth to up their power levels, while Piccolo works to develop Gohan's tremendous latent potential and Goku receives special training with (and learns several new techniques from) King Kai in Otherworld. In the face of the immense power of the Saiyans Nappa and Vegeta, though, can even Earth's most powerful warriors hold out long enough to allow Goku to arrive on the scene?
Many veteran anime fans look down on Dragon Ball Z as little more than entry-level fare, but if the series is examined without prejudice then it is hard to dispute that it is one of the all-time great anime action series. For all of its faults, its 1989-1996 run on Japanese TV set the standard for all long-running shonen action series which followed, including originating and/or standardizing many of the most common shonen action gimmicks and story elements; every time Bleach or Naruto characters go through some kind of elaborate powering-up process or feel compelled by increasingly difficult foes to constantly train to up their power levels and gain new abilities, that is an homage of sorts to DBZ. To expose a whole new generation to the biggest gateway title of the mid-to-late '90s (and, perhaps, also to answer the complaints of longtime fans about how bloated DBZ was), original animator Toei Animation undertook a bold experiment: they, rather than some American licensor, would make and air a compilation of the original series which strips it of all of the petty side stories and time-wasting elements, thus restoring the story to a form more in line with the manga and boiling the series down to its essence as a pure balls-to-the-wall action series. The result is Dragon Ball Z Kai.
The effort, at least so far, is a rousing success. The thirteen episodes presented in this volume cover the story from the time of Gohan's introduction at the very beginning of DBZ up until the point where Goku first powers up with Kaio-ken x3 in the battle against Vegeta, which in the original series covered 30 episodes instead. Despite more than half of the original content having been trimmed, Kai is edited so well that it is nearly seamless; only during the scenes involving the training on Earth during the year-long time lapse could a layman tell that any material has been cut. Fans who fondly remember watching the original series are unlikely to be bothered by anything that has been cut – unless, of course, you were particularly enamored with the Snake Princess. Kai also takes the story about the Saiyan home world being destroyed by Frieza (which actually comes from one of the series movies) and puts it at the very beginning, which greatly helps in setting up events both for this volume and later ones, too. In some places very brief new animation was made to smooth out transitions in the middle of fights where material was edited out, but these are infrequent, rarely last more than a handful of frames, and at least some effort was made to render them similarly to the original content; the shifts in digital drawing and color are still noticeable but not glaring.
The story content shown in these episodes represents a distinct transition point between the predecessor series Dragon Ball and the later DB content. By aging Goku to an adult, replacing his pint-sized status with that of newcomer Gohan, revealing Goku and Piccolo's true natures, and bringing other super-powered aliens into the picture, the storytelling decidedly ups the ante, increasing both the threat level and the displayed power level dramatically. In the process the series starts skewing towards slightly older audiences than it previously did, at the expense of much of DB's fun-loving factor. As a (for some unwelcome) trade-off, the content becomes more consistently intense and dramatic and the action becomes vastly more flashy than before. Shifting the focus towards the Saiyans and away from collecting the Dragon Balls (they get used but no time is spent showing them getting collected) marginalizes the presence of former main supporting characters Bulma and Master Roshi and almost completely hedges out the sizable cast of secondary supporting characters, who have little more than bit roles here. Watching Piccolo gradually transition into becoming an ally rather than enemy is a welcome development, though, as is seeing one of the cast members actually having a family life and all of the new tricks various characters have come up with over time. Amongst new characters, Gohan shows potential but is too timid at this point, King Kai has a colorful mix of goofy and businesslike demeanor, and Raditz, Nappa, and Vegeta make a satisfying and diverse collection of arrogant, intimidating villains.
The action is where the strength of the series lies, however, and in that sense Kai has few equals. Granted, the artistry increasingly uses super-fast movements to cover up for animation shortcuts (although it does this better than most other series in its genre), but the action scenes never lack for intensity, flashiness, diversity, or good-old-fashioned beatdown value. Excitement value is critical to the success of any shonen action series, and on that front this one certainly delivers.
Given the age of the source material (all of the DBZ episodes from which these are drawn originally aired in 1989), the cleaned-up artistry and animation hold up remarkably well. It lacks the glitz and digital coloring sharpness typical of series from the most recent decade but retains an invitingly earthy feel which suits the content well and gives the series a certain type of charm hard to come by in more recent fare. The new opening and closing animation, all done with up-to-date animation and rendering techniques, create such a visual contrast that they feel artificial and lifeless by comparison. All of the characters who can age have aged well since their days in DB and Gohan has just enough of a different look from his father at younger ages to distinguish himself. Villains also look satisfyingly villainy; even the slighter-built Vegeta strikes a distinct aura of menace. The animation manages to give a thrilling look and feel to the fights despite not actually being anything qualitatively or quantitatively special.
Both the opener and the closer use entirely new theme songs with new animation (and are redone in English for the English dub), and both are thoroughly underwhelming. The soundtrack in between is likewise a weak point, as it often tries much too hard to be dramatic while falling short the rest of the time. Only occasionally during these episodes does it actually integrate well with the action on the screen.
Funimation's new English script sticks closer to the original Japanese than its previous effort, eliminating some of the needlessly silly side jokes of their earlier English dub. King Kai's many stupid puns still do not translate well, though, and the writers clearly struggled to come up with sufficient English equivalents, but at least the subtitles include explanatory definitions for those not fluent in Japanese. Most of the original Funimation dub cast returns for this new effort; of the significant changes, Colleen Clinkenbeard takes over the role of young Gohan in smooth transition, while Monica Rial is a much more noticeable replacement for Bulma. (Tiffany Vollmer's original Funimation performance for DBZ's dub, as well as her performance in the Funimation release of Dragon Ball, gave the character an audio quality difficult to duplicate. Whether her performance or Monica's new one is better is highly debatable.) The casting generally fits the characters well and is well-enough performed that the sub/dub issue on this one should entirely be a matter of personal taste. The Japanese cast also sees some changes, too.
Funimation is simultaneously releasing this set on both regular DVD and Blu-Ray, but the Blu-Ray version is a waste of a few extra dollars for anyone who is not an audiophile or videophile. Funimation's print does have 1080p/24 encoding and lossless audio tracks, but it retains the aspect ratio of the original series content and does not look dramatically better on Blu-Ray than it does on DVD. The Blu-Ray version includes no Extras that cannot be found on the DVD release, either; it also only has the usual clean opener and closer.
The reediting does not cover all of the original's flaws. The series still spends too much time engaging in lengthy recaps and allowing fights to be improbably interrupted by lengthy character interactions. The reediting also even further clarifies how much the series revels in the hoary shonen action tradition (formalized by its originating series' predecessor Dragon Ball) of eschewing a substantial plot in favor of a succession of one-on-one battles; by contrast, this makes the group battles in a much more recent effort like Claymore stand out all the more. Still, if you never got around to checking out DBZ or missed large chunks of its earlier episodes, Kai is an excellent way to get caught up. It certainly offers all of the high-powered battles one could hope for as well as at least a bit of the silly fun that was a trademark of its predecessor while eliminating much of the fat.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Plentiful high-powered action sequences, trims a lot of the fat.
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