It’s always difficult reviewing an classic. Dragon Ball Z is almost review-proof at this point – to many it’s an untouchable part of their childhood and the greatest fighting anime ever made, to others it’s a cheap, bloated symbol of everything which went wrong with shonen anime. As the show is unleashed on DVD for the first time ever in the UK, it’s a chance to sit back and reappraise it thoroughly, and see if it’s stood the test of time as well as those with nostalgic memories would hope.
This ‘Season 1′ box covers the first 39 episodes of the show, roughly corresponding to what’s commonly known as the Saiyan saga, after its primary antagonists. The setup is simple but effective – several years after we last saw him, our hero Son Goku now has a wife, a son and a happy family life. But this idyll is shattered by the appearance of a shockingly powerful warrior named Radditz, who proceeds to drop a series of bombshells – not only is he Goku’s brother, but they’re both members of an alien race sent to conquer Earth! Goku is forced to team up with former archenemy Piccolo to stop him. But Radditz’s even more powerful superiors are on their way…
If at this point you’re going ‘Goku? Piccolo? Guh!?’ then I don’t blame you. It’s easy to forget that Dragon Ball Z was in fact a sequel series to the original Dragon Ball, and those not familiar with the show’s unique mythology will take a couple of episodes to orientate themselves. Fortunately, it’s easy to catch up, helped by the fact that this arc was such a huge status quo shift for the series already. In fact, the opening is one of the strongest parts of this set, a surprisingly briskly paced five episodes that do a good job of setting up the new premise, throwing in a brief but gratifying fight (with a shockingly violent denouement) and ending with a twist that establishes the status quo for the next set of episodes.
It’s these subsequent episodes though where the cracks begin to show. Put simply, Dragon Ball Z is just really, really slow and it can become mind-numbingly tedious for long, long stretches. What follows the Radditz battle are sixteen episodes of essentially filler that cause the plot to grind to a halt, and really derails any momentum that might have been built. That’s not to say it’s 100% trash – young Gohan’s training with the formerly evil Piccolo offers an appealing glimpse into both of their shifting characters – but did we really need episode upon episode of Goku running down a road, or yet another dull training sequence? It’s not been nicknamed Drag-on Ball for nothing, and slogging through these episodes is a nasty reminder of just how shallow the show could become in its desperate attempt to fill time.
Ironically, we’re rescued by the villains. The arrival of the infamous Vegeta and his crony Nappa mercifully ends the filler and begins a series of crunching battles that fill most of the rest of this set. Say what you will about everything else, but Dragon Ball Z is still the best in the business when it comes to fights. There’s still too much monologuing and power up sequences that go on for way too long of course, but the construction of the fights and their brutal choreography make for compelling viewing. Nappa’s sytematic demolition of the Z warriors is almost painful to watch, as they resort, without avail, to increasingly desperate tactics to defeat the juggernaut. This only makes his subsequent curb-stomping by Goku all the sweeter. And the subsequent Goku/Vegeta battle is the stuff of legend, spanning earth and sky as the two go at each other with everything they’ve got. Bereft of the ridiculous series of transformations (OK, there’s one) and powerups that later Dragon Ball became bogged down in, there’s a thrilling purity to the supercharged martial arts action on the screen.
Despite all the preposterous testosterone fuelled combat, the show never makes the mistake that many of its successors did by falling into empty headed machismo. There’s a pleasing lightness of touch to many of the details about Dragon Ball Z and a nice undercurrent of quirkiness that makes this world where flying cars and spaceships exist alongside Shaolin martial arts and magic rather fascinating, especially in these early segments where some of the goofy humour it inherited from its pre-Z incarnation is still apparent. Characters are not deep but often lovable nonetheless, with Goku and Gohan providing standup heroes while Vegeta is a compelling villain. In the meantime, side characters like the wry Krillin and the gag-loving King Kai add flavour, although the cast is already far too large and unwieldy and many of them could (and will be) pruned without much loss.
Artistically the show is uneven. Akira Toriyama’s classic art style and character designs are still fresh, compelling and instantly recognisable and the animators often have a keen eye for a cool shot, such as bleaching all the colour out of an important scene for Piccolo. But it’s also apparent that the show was extremely cheaply made, and this bubbles up all too often. There’s a noticeable lack of motion even in many of the fight scenes, with the camera holding on still frames for way too long and preferring to trick viewers with speed lines and motion blur. Characters are also frequently off-model, with the shorter characters such as Vegata and Gohan noticeably shifting in size between shots and everyone being subject to erratic proportions. There’s also the notable example that Vegeta is coloured completely differently the first few times we see him, which is jarring to say the least.
Manga UK’s release here mirrors FUNimation’s original season boxes, which means we get a nice bright cleaned up print with strong colours that nevertheless still shows plenty of scratchiness. The show is presented cropped to 16:9 widescreen, but it’s a good job and very rarely betrays its 4:3 origins. Audio options are generous – there’s a mono mix of the original Japanese audio, a stereo version of the broadcast English dub (with recomposed music) and a 5.1 surround hybrid track which mixes the Japanese music with the English voices. Of these three the last is by far my favourite, with the Japanese music being generally brighter and goofier while the English music is more cinematic but also sometimes too bombastic for its own good. The Japanese audio track is nice to have but is of palpably poorer quality and in any case I can’t recommend anybody forgo the dub, which is one of the best in anime history. Sean Schemmel is the perfect Goku, while Christopher Sabat delivers a deliciously evil performance as Vegeta.
The dub script often deviates massively from the original and it’s all the better for it, adding wisecracks and additional exposition without being a torrent of words. It also provides a very different and much more satisfying reason for Goku sparing Vegeta at the climax of their battle. Extras wise we’re limited to a couple of five minute featurettes on the remastering process (one of which is basically an advert) and clean openings and closings. I would point out however that this set is pretty good value – 39 episodes for less than £25 is not to be sniffed at.
The truth is that Dragon Ball Z doesn’t live up to the hype, or people’s childhood memories of it. How could it? In the cold light of day, this is a show that suffers severe problems – most notably in its abysmal pacing, but also in its poor art and animation. Watching it can be a chore at many points, and that’s not something you ever want your entertainment to be. And yet there’s also a spark and brilliance to Dragon Ball Z that, at its best, rivals any action show ever made. When everything clicks and jumps to life, the show can be tense, exciting and just so damn cool that all its myriad sins can be forgiven. After watching it, the filler fades away but the iconic moments remain burnt into your memory – Piccolo firing beam cannons from his fingertips, Nappa cutting through fighter jets with his bare hands and Goku, bloodied but unbowed, blasting his Kamehameha into the heavens. Whether such moments are worth it will depend entirely on how in touch you are with your inner child, but if they’re alive and kicking, Dragon Ball Z shows that age has not withered it yet.
Dragon Ball Z Season 1 will be release on 2nd July and is available to order now on Amazon.
Dragon Ball Z Season 1 [DVD] – £21.99