Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Dragon Ball Z
Dub.DVD - Rock the Dragon Edition
You know the story: Goku, martial-artist extraordinaire, discovers that he is a member of the Saiyan race—a race of space-faring genocidists who “develop” occupied planets for colonization. Killed in his first encounter with a Saiyan, he trains in the afterlife and is resurrected in time to fight a titanic battle against the Saiyan prince Vegeta. In order to resurrect those killed by Vegeta, Goku's remaining friends head to the planet Namek to collect Namekian Dragon Balls, which when collected will grant three wishes. Goku follows, which is good because Vegeta's boss, the insanely powerful Frieza, is also on Namek looking for the balls.
If this DVD set is intended for you, you do not need the synopsis above. Truth be told, you probably don't need this review. All you need to know is that this set collects in its entirety DBZ's original Ocean Group dub—the heavily-edited version first broadcast in the US (discontinued when Funimation took over dubbing duties in episode 54). Which is to say that this set brings to you—for the first time on DVD—an exact replica of the series that you saw, between Hot Wheels commercials, in your youth. Minus the Hot Wheels commercials of course. It is, in short, one of the biggest nostalgia wankfests since Media Blasters put together their Voltron box sets. The quality of the content frankly matters less than your history with it. If you come from the generation of anime fans for whom DBZ was the gateway drug, if you chomped on Doritos while thrilling at the censored excesses of Goku's fights and laugh knowingly when I mention the Home For Infinite Losers, if you even know what “Rock the Dragon” refers to, then this set is aimed squarely at you.
But that doesn't mean you should run out and buy it. Funimation is clearly counting on nostalgia-blinded fans to plunk down a hundred bucks for a chance to relive their youth. The back of the box says right out, “Isn't it time you feel like a kid again?” Take it from someone who's been through this set: this isn't the way to do it. Memories are funny things. They seem absolute, but they're malleable. The show we fondly remember—and I am of the generation that remembers DBZ fondly—doesn't necessarily match the show that exists in reality. Having physical proof of that reality, in the form of a DVD set, doesn't do your fond recollections any good. All it does is remind you of all of the terrible tedium and eye-rolling stupidity that your youthful memories conveniently glossed over on their way to enshrining the series' rare moments of genuinely legendary action. Our adult minds can't help but chafe at the hours (and hours and hours) lost to dull between-fight training, meaningless preliminary battles, and fight-distending cuts to uninvolved bit players. They can't help sneering at the characters who always—always—think that their enemy is lying defeated behind that convenient cloud of dust when their enemy never—never—is. They can't help but wonder why no one is ever attacked while standing around for minutes at a time powering up. And the payoff, the deeply juvenile coolness of watching muscle-bound dudes pop veins and bleed energy and whack each other through mountains, just isn't powerful enough to wipe all of that out now that we're grown up and less susceptible to such things. Because memory is malleable, each time we watch DBZ we're poisoning our youthful memories with our adult misgivings. Better to not watch and leave those moments of legendary action safely enshrined in our childhood recollections.
If, after reading that, you're still set on watching this set, then it's only fair to mention the advantages of this particular version. The Ocean dub really is a different series than DBZ uncut (and thus appreciably closer to the series that lives in our memories and, thus again, more capable of unleashing a potent wave of nostalgia). It's a lighter series, heavier on silly banter and lighter on sadistic martial-arts violence. It avoids talk of death—referring to the act of dying as passing on to “the next dimension”—and actively downplays the show's enormous body count. The preposterous lengths that this version goes to in order to lighten the show's tone and avoid potentially problematic material actually adds an interesting layer of humor—a veneer of knowing camp that, contrary to most of the show's charms, is actually more enjoyable as an adult than as a kid. Characters compose bad ad-hoc explanations for how city-destroying attacks somehow failed to kill anyone (“This is reporter so-and-so, at the site of the mysterious explosion in the abandoned warehouse district of such-and-such city”). Goku makes a weirdly PSA-ish speech about why sports drinks are preferable to beer. Hilariously unconvincing overlays—a tree in one scene, a scrap of Vegeta's torn uniform in another—cover young Gohan's privates when his nudity can't be edited out altogether. It all adds up to a big, self-conscious jab at the show's desire to retool itself as kiddie fare. In conjunction with the oft-funny rewrites of minor characters' personalities (Frieza henchman Jaice, for example, is re-written as a cockney butt-rocker) that jab makes dubbed DBZ a considerable step up, fun-wise, from its drearily serious source material.
Not all of the dub's adjustments are so beneficial however. Shuki Levy's humorless action score—brought in to replace Shunsuke Kikuchi's sometimes weirdly goofy original—helps establish a new identity for dubbed DBZ but is also overbearing and irritatingly over-used. The new OP and ED are rocking fun, but definitely try too hard—setting the stage for the awful dub songs used by series like Pokémon and Beet the Vandel Buster. The acting overall suffers from traces of the hammy falseness that American cartoons suffered from throughout the '80s and '90s, and the writers were clearly working through problems with matching dialogue to lip flap, resulting in lots of weird phrasing and unnatural pauses. Most damaging of all, however, is the broadcast version's tinkering with action sequences. The original DBZ's fights were already messy: so packed with shortcuts and so devoid of intermediary frames that they were essentially blinding montages of stills—long runs of cheap pummeling interspersed with equally long stretches of manly banter and interrupted only occasionally by invaluable bursts of superior motion and memorable imagery. Add to that the edited version's unwillingness to show actual impact (that's right, you never see a fist or foot actually hit anyone, only the aftermath of the hit) and you get fights that constantly descend into jumbled nonsense.
In case it isn't clear, the warnings in this review come from personal experience. Years of rewatching DBZ, thanks in part to reviews like this, have curdled the happy memories—of the childlike surrender to and irony-free enjoyment of mind-blowing martial-arts excess—with acid criticism and deadening adult concerns. If you must revisit the DBZ of your youth, do it carefully. Pop in the movies that comprise the final disc (three of them: Dead Zone, World's Strongest, and Tree of Might) to get a feel for the action without the tedium of the main arc. Watch the opening sequence to taste the sugar rush once felt before every episode. Revisit favorite episodes. The HFIL episode is a good option and the Vegeta fight, one of the great classics of shonen action, is an absolute must. But whatever you do, don't watch the whole thing. Some series justify their nostalgia value on repeated viewings—Card Captor Sakura comes to mind—but not DBZ. It is best left stranded in your past, where it can sit, the good parts cherry-picked by memory and all of the accompanying crap forgotten forever.
Overall (dub) : C+
Story : D
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C-
+ DBZ exactly as it was when you watched all those years ago: goofily dubbed, badly censored, and periodically awesome.
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