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Dragon Ball Z Kai Season 1 Blu-ray Anime Review

16 min read

Recut and retooled with all the action you remember and less of the filler you wanted to forget.

What They Say:
Goku, Earth’s greatest champion, bravely defends humanity against an invading race of warriors known as the Saiyans. When the mighty hero falls, his young son Gohan rises up to face the very villains who murdered his father. The battle rages through space to Planet Namek, where Gohan and his overmatched allies risk their lives to defeat the Saiyan warlord Vegeta – and the monster known as Frieza!

The Review:
While the series and most of the animation originates from the 1989 run, the use of new cuts to spead the story along with some new animation to bridge some gaps created pretty much necessitated that the dialogue would have to see a re-record. To this end the Japanese track gets an upgrade from its original mono track…all the way to a stereo one which frankly while an improvement is a disappointing one (the English track also had the same issues in needing a new recorded dialogue track, though FUNimation used a 5.1 track in both this and the previous release of DBZ). Fortunately Blu Ray allows for plenty of space which allows for both the English 5.1 track and Japanese 2.0 track to be present in Dolby TrueHD. For the purpose of this review the Japanese track was used and it was found to be really solid with the stereo providing a nice depth to the images on the screen and while not being as much of an emersion type of feeling like one might get from a 5.1 (or higher) mix, it was a step up from what has been available previously. As to the question of the newly recorded track and how the passage of time catches up with the actors and some replacements, that is covered later in this review.

Originally airing in 1989, Dragon Ball Z Kai is presented here in its original 4:3 format in 1080p using the AVC codec. Given this series was marking the 20th anniversary of even DBZ’s initial run Toei decided to do something special to celebrate and went with this reworking of the original material. To that end they capitalized on the restoration work they had done to create the Dragonboxes while also making some tweaks to color while also animating a few additional scenes to fill in now existing gaps where excised material used to belong. The restoration did a good job of fixing many of the issues found in the video for the series as even considering the popularity of the series. The vast majority of the material is still TV animation from the late 80s through mid 90s quality though and there is some cell damage that came from that period as well as the TV production rush schedule. For the most part many, though not quite all, the blemishes have been fixed-for example there is one scratch that runs horizontally for several frames that is of particular note in this regard that is still present.

One of the things that Toei seriously minimized was the presence of grain that the Blu Ray format has a high enough resolution to bring to the front and center and there is quite a bit that is native to the series original film stock- even the most cursory comparison between Kai and FUNimation’s short lived BD transfer will show the inescapable difference in grain presence along with the difference in the colors used as the ones on Kai are much, much brighter. There are also some little issues with bright reds and spotting, a bit of blurring, and some shaking & minor wavering that is variable between slightly annoying at times while at others looking like it is a more than modest attempt to induce a sense of seasickness.

Overall though the material comes off as fantastic and, barring either a complete reanimation or some future leap in computer technology that will create a machine capable of correcting for all the various pops and other issues that human can’t possibly do and have the process be cost effective this is probably the best that the source material will ever look. And the possibility of reanimating the series doesn’t hold a lot of promise to me, not just because of the cost but also the fact that the new additional scenes that were created for this series as bridges just don’t look the same as the original material, though once one gets used to it the contrast really only jumps out heavily in the eye-catch and new closing and openings which frankly have a bit of a plastic feel to them. On top of that, the open and closings are a haven for other technical problems as this new animation introduces in jaggies to the release, which thankfully I couldn’t notice in the original restored material.

The release arrives packaged in an almost PS3 sized case that is thicker than the standard Blu Ray case and is used to house the four discs and which, rather than using hubs on the case itself, uses two “flipper” trays which each house one disc on each side so that there is no disc overlap. The discs are all a sort of soft yellow-orange that is almost crème colored that uses a slightly darker shade for contrast so that an image of Shen Long is present but in a muted fashion. Additionally over this on the left side of the disc hub is the series logo while the right side has a white rectangle which lists the disc number as well as having a single yellow-orange star.

The cover for the release goes for the simple and clean look as it uses an off-white background with a gray image of Shen Long as a muted backdrop similar to the discs while a full color image of Goku about to launch a Kamehameha takes up the center of the cover with the series logo listed near the bottom of the cover. The back cover uses the same background though its foreground is busier given the presence of the logo, copy, quotes and five stills that take up the majority of the space and stand over the release’s copyright and technical information.

Also included with the release is a simple O-card style slip cover which mirrors the disc’s cover. FUNimation does make use of the transparency of the Blu Ray cases though as it includes an episode listing on the left side (with the episodes on the odd number discs listed in black and the even disc numbers listed in the now familiar yellow-orange while the right side simply has a single yellow-orange star, though both are present over a large (and now also very familiar) image of Shen Long. The discs themselves continue the episode distribution pattern of the original releases as the odd numbered discs have 9 episodes while the even discs have four.

The main menu uses a feature similar to many Blu Rays in that it has a simple bar in the bottom of the screen while the rest of the screen has images from the series play in rotation with a short and simple instrumental track playing in the background. The different options are listed in a yellow-orange color with a yellow-orange square marking the currently highlighted option. Clicking on one of them causes the bar to rise and with the sub menus options appearing in the place of the original options. To finish things off the menu is quick to respond to changes and implement them however, but I think a serious improvement would be made if only they lost the changing sound that happens when a selection is implemented as it is gratingly obnoxious.

The extras sadly aren’t nearly as spectacular as the rest of the release as this set has only the original Textless open/closings though it does add clean DVD versions and the clean English broadcast version to round things out slightly. While these are practically industry standard it is sad FUNimation wasn’t able to get anything more to go with this and they weren’t even able to include English commentary tracks which they have made almost a standard feature of their releases.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Sometimes something so big comes around which catches the imagination of so many that it becomes a truly multi-national -if not worldwide- hit. Dragonball was one such property which has had some successful adaptations of characters based of one’s appearing over the course of the Dragonball manga run from creator Akira Toriyama.

The thing is that, like a number of other manga adaptations, the series was originally created at around the same time as the manga was running (at least while it was running and after it had gained a significant audience) which lead to some issues for the TV producers with not having enough material to animate given the difference in production scale and timing of a 20 some page weekly comic versus a 20 some minute weekly animated show. The answer was found in the form of padding the episode run with filler material, be it entire episodes crafted out of whole cloth or the extending out of scenes by add a little extra flourish here or, as Dragonball critics easily mock, long scenes of characters either staring at each other or elaborate “powering up” sequences that try to buy time like an emcee who was just informed that the guest of honor is late and he needs to stall for time.

With the 20th anniversary of the airing of the original Dragonball Z series coming up Toei announced that as part of the celebration they would be revisiting the lengthy series and performing a number of tasks on it to both bring it more in line with the original manga as well as to undertake some restoration of the film stock itself. In order to bring the series into form with the manga though the company needed to do some major excising of material which then introduced the additional necessity of adding some new frames of animation in order to bridge gaps that suddenly existed in the material. In order to do this though they realized they would need to re-record the series audio (more on this later) and they also used the opportunity to create a new soundtrack for the material as well (more on this later as well).

To kick of the events the series spliced together some scenes from the DBZ special Bardock- the Father of Goku which provides the background of how Goku is actually an alien who was rocketed to Earth in order to conquer it just before his home planet and nearly all the race of Saiyans are wiped out rather easily by a malevolent being known as Frieza. The intro then very briefly recaps the original Dragonball series as it touches on some of the main events in a very quickly narrated piece designed to give a bit of back story before dumping the viewer into current events.

The viewer discovers that about 5 years have passed from the last events in the recap and that by and large the world has discovered an era of peace after much combat by some of its strongest fighters. During this tranquility even Goku has settled down and become a father and he has a young son named Gohan who his wife refuses to let be raised in the martial arts despite both of his parents coming from such a background as she believes the era of scholars will trump the need for fighters in the era to come.

Things are shattered though by the appearance of a monstrously strong being that goes by the name Raditz who claims he is Goku’s older brother. It turns out that Goku had been believed to be one of the weaker cast of fighters and that he had been dispatched to Earth in order to wipe out the population in advance of the planet being sold off to aliens looking for a habitable world without the aggravation of having to deal with the native population. When Raditz discovers that not only has Goku not carried out his mission but has instead become a kind hearted being (as a result of a childhood accident where Goku hit his head), Raditz kidnaps Gohan in order to get Goku back on the “right” path by having him kill 100 humans.

Goku isn’t going to stand for this despite his much weaker in comparison fighting ability and he teams with his one time (and possibly still) adversary named Piccolo as the two attempt to combine their might to fell the warrior. While they do eventually manage to do so, victory comes at a high cost as Goku sacrifices his life long enough for Piccolo’s new technique to finish the alien. A return to a pleasant existence for the survivors is denied though when Raditz announces two more fighters who are even stronger than him are on the way. This leaves Goku having to use his time in the afterlife meeting and training with an incredibly powerful individual while Piccolo kidnaps Gohan to attempt to bring out the full fighting potential the boy exhibited by chance during the fight with Raditz as the rest of Goku’s friends attempt to use the years time they have been given to hone their skills.

Time passes quickly however (even more so in this now condensed version) and things go rough for the Earth’s last hope as Goku is late in returning and the planets defenders are horribly outmatched. But even if Goku does manage to arrive will he find his power has raised enough to fight a man who proclaims that he is the Prince of the Saiyans? Worse yet, what happens if there is a powerful being that even this prince fears who has discovered the truth behind the Dragonballs and their ability to grant his wishes? Will the universe quake in terror as the ominous being moves to an alien planet which may hold the key not only to the mysterious Dragonballs but also to the truth behind Piccolo and Kami, and will this threat force Earth’s champions to become the universes champions in order to stop this being from gaining his wish?

I make no bones about it- I enjoy most of the Dragonball franchise (not keen on GT along with a couple features) and was intrigued when I heard that Toei was going to be revisiting the series in order to bring it more in line with the manga. What I found was a series that seems to have almost a balance in the plus and minus department as a good number of the changes I enjoy as it speeds the series up but some of the changes- particularly given that this show is so dependent on older animation and attempts to try to work in material used for (essentially) a different interpretation of the material- leave a good number of places where it stumbles rather than glides smoothly.

The biggest issue is that the original manga run for this material flows right after the 16 volumes that were adapted for the animated material that was known as Dragonball (all the manga was under the Dragonball title in Japan, it was when the animation studio went to create the post 5 year time jump that the title of Dragonball Z was created and VIZ manga adapted this for the volumes 17-42 when they released the title in the US) and as such there is precious little time there spent revisiting some of the characters (which the filler parts did do but which were excised for Kai) which creates a bit of an issue for getting back into the groove if one has had a break from the characters for a bit as Goku is about the only one who gets much early exposure.

What also doesn’t help is that some of the early cuts in material are rather rough as if the producers had yet to figure out how to stream line things so at times even with the new animation bridges not all the events play well. An example of this is at one point the introduction of a TV crew filming a battle is cut out yet later the crew is there because of how the story plays out but their appearance is just out of the blue in Kai. Fortunately though once the series gets into the mid to late teens in terms of episode count either the producers caught on to how to better adapt things or the material lent itself to condensing better as the series rolled on. What still sticks out to me is how much the new opening with Goku’s arrival on Earth removes some of need for exposition from Raditz (though we still get that anyway) while also making Goku look like some sort of Superman clone which he really isn’t.

Along with this, the new material is animated in a different way than the original which can cause it to stand out though as the series went along I got used to it and most of it didn’t seem as jarring over time, though it was mostly a familiarity thing as the scenes could still be stark between taking a break and coming back and finding I had to adjust all over again. Additionally the (Japanese) producers brought back as many of the original voice actors as they could but I don’t know that this was always for the best as it seems that time has robbed a few of the range they had initially and some of the replacements just feel off when paired with those originals who could get at least into a comfortable range with their original performance.

And then there is the issue of the soundtrack. When Kai originally was released it had a new sound track created for it which may have helped people adapt better to the new cuts and different vocal track. Unfortunately (or not, depending on how much one cared for the original track) things went awry as one of the composers of the new Kai track was accused of plagiarism, an accusation that the producers of Kai seemingly acknowledged through the scramble to wipe almost all the new music from as the series went forward (only the new open, close, eye catch music and some later insert music was spared). The producers even went back and scrubbed the episodes that had previously aired, a good deal of which had been released on home video, so that all new printing of the series on home video- including this release by FUNimation- used the original music from the twenty year old series rather than anything that might have been written by the now disgraced composer.

I am somewhat torn on the excising of the filler as well. Some of it was substandard and at times it undercut the material badly (notably in a filler episode that introduces Vegeta on an alien world and which spoils what should have been his shocking revelation of power on Earth) and some of it actually allowed for some expansion of characters which helped me connect to a few after a long time away. When combining this with the cuts I kind of wish that the producers had just gone for broke and made a new animated program with a new (or largely new) cast, though I can see how with this being a anniversary celebration of one of the most popular anime series ever it would have been a very risky endeavor.

Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t a lot of enjoyment to be found here as the story now sans the excised filler really does work to help bring up the pace of the show as well as to heighten tension and payoff in some areas. It just feels like a bit of a game where the advantages and disadvantages wind up on opposite sides of a fulcrum and what is left is a series where the tilt is toward this being a positive endeavor, though not so much that it creates a tremendous incline when weighed as a whole.

In Summary:
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Dragonball Z the Japanese company that owns the rights to the franchise made the decision to revisit the series and to try to bring an animated series to the screen that played closer to the beloved manga that Akira Toriyama wrote. In order to do this the producers of Kai revisited the original animation and did some extensive cleaning up of the materials along with adding some new bridge animation and rerecording of the dialogue and soundtrack while taking out a large amount of material that the initial TV production had used to stall for time while new material was being written. The end result is a bit mixed though as the series has a very rough start trying to find its groove, the changes in the voices may cause fans of the original to cringe at times and the soundtrack was beset with a plagiarism scandal. And yet despite the flaws the final product still manages to shine through and at times even triumph thanks to the excising of some of the more useless filler that bogged the original down and was a source of a good deal of mocking from not just people disinclined to like the series but also from some of those who loved it as well. This new take on the franchise may finally make it a bit more palatable for those who weren’t already fans while allowing those who are to get a far better paced product, though it isn’t so spectacular that it is likely to cause the most ardent fans to give up their Dragonboxes altogether for this release.

Japanese Language, English Language, English Subtitles, Textless Songs

Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: C
Extras Grade: C+

Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: May 22nd, 2012
MSRP: $54.98
Running Time: 625 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.

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