The 'Dragon Ball Z' saga runs a massive 291 episodes (not even counting the 'Dragon Ball' or 'Dragon Ball GT' series). Sure, 'The Simpsons' has more than 450 episodes now, but it isn't a serial, requiring one to watch each episode in order to truly keep one's thumb on the pulse of the events shown. In my opinion, the only things close to 'Dragon Ball's run are the 10,000-plus episode streaks of a few soap operas, and some of the larger comic series, like Spider-Man and Batman, which constantly move forward in story, though the occasional sidestep or backtrack is inevitable.
To undertake a series of this length would be difficult and time consuming, at best, and to have seen the entire series in order numerous times shows serious devotion...and a serious need for a significant other. With the three series providing some confusion, and the enormous size of the show, I've never found myself truly capable of "getting into" the 'Dragon Ball' program. If you're anything like me, you may see 'Dragon Ball Z: Kai' as a way to eliminate any excuses and finally give the king of anime series a real shot. With the attitude of following the Akira Tokiyama manga closer, and tightening up the action, 'Kai' doesn't reinvent the show like the new 'Evangelion' series is doing, but instead tries to present the story the way it was originally intended.
In 'Dragon Ball Z: Kai: Part One,' the 13 episode span replaces the first 30 episodes in the original 'Dragon Ball Z' saga, condensing the plot dramatically, for better and worse.
When a mysterious stranger arrives at Master Roshi's house, interrupting a get-together by some of Earth's greatest warriors, he claims to be the brother of the most powerful man present, Goku, whose own past is a mystery to him. After revealing his intentions, and the methods by which he goes about them and asking his brother to join him, the warrior, known as Raditz, demands Goku join him, and the rest of his race, in doing their dirty work. Refusal by Goku leads to what will become the greatest battle Earth has ever seen, but not before Goku is killed in a last ditch effort by fellow warrior Piccolo to kill Raditz. The compatriots of the invading alien have been alerted, and have started their journey to Earth, while the slain warrior seeks out training, even in the afterlife, so that he may one day rejoin his friends in defending his home. With the clock ticking down, two Saiyans, Nappa and Vegeta, both more powerful than the first, seek to destroy the world if no one stops them.
I can say, without fanboy blinders, that 'Dragon Ball Z' purists will both love and hate this release, and that newcomers may find the daunting task of taking on the entire show much easier to swallow with this shorter series. The trimmed show has many strengths, including an emphasis on action, and a brisk runtime that can be tackled in a single, somewhat short marathon viewing. There is still a small amount of fluff, and some redundancy that can get frustrating, but arcs are clean and quick to pick up on, and newcomers may find this to be a great introduction to the world of 'Dragon Ball.'
But, sadly, much like the 'Evangelion' reboot, there are some things lost that cannot be made up for. I'm not a devoted 'DBZ' fan, by any means, but even looking at the show from an unbiased opinion, there are artifacts present that just don't quite make much sense, and it can be a tad frustrating. In the 'Daredevil' theatrical cut, characters literally parachute into the middle of scenes as their form of introduction, and that same troubling (lazy, lazy, lazy!) theme can be found here. We aren't given enough time to understand Turtle, the perverse Master Roshi, or Bulma, let alone Chi-Chi, who finds out her husband is dead, and her son left with a monster she fears, then disappears for the rest of the season. I mean, I understand the grieving process, but this just feels odd. Then there are the other background characters, who are fighters. Korin, Yamcha, Tien, and Chiaotzu are handled so improperly that it's impossible to truly care about them. They appear, they train for about five seconds, then they go to battle and get their asses stomped. Chiaotzu sacrifices him/herself (really, what the hell is that thing?!) in battle, and it's supposed to be a sad moment, particularly through Tien's eyes, but we don't quite care, as an audience. Wow, a character who has been on screen for a few minutes, who had maybe a total of five lines, is dead. Hey, pizza!!!! Awesome, man, I was really starting to get hungry!
We see these little Senzu beans, and a cat character who gives them to Goku, and we don't quite understand what they are, and what a stupid cat is doing with them. With all the other cuts to the show, why not cut that moment, and just let us believe they're ready to fight anew. Goku went how long on the Snake Way on his path to meet with his new master, King Kai, without food, and his journey back, as a fully trained warrior, which lasts for a mere fraction of what his previous journey took, leaves him that much in need, and that exhausted?
The entire subplot in this volume with King Kai may be the highlight, but it's missing Eye of the Tiger to put it truly into perspective. The entire sequence is packed full of humor (and that's rare for a training sequence!), and is generally fun to watch. But it also leads to the most ridiculous part of this release. Back on Earth, as the warriors fighting the two Saiyans are dwindling in number, every time they mention Goku, we see him flying through the trail, increasing his speed, saying things like "I'm coming, guys!," and "hold on, here I come!" for a number of episodes. It's annoying, like we'd forget he was making his return journey, and it's flawed as hell, since he doesn't give it his all from the get go, as is evidenced by his continual increase in speed with each time he says some generic line about his desire to return.
Gohan's (that's Goku's son) training is another highlight, far more so than the battles ahead, as we see the child thrust out of childhood and nurture and into fierce, unforgiving nature, as Piccolo forces him to shape up or die. There's some light comic aspects, as well as a solid story of growing up and coming of age, even if the age is just four or five. I've never seen someone who looks like Batista from the WWE (only on more steroids) punch a child in the face (though in 'The Protector,' I did see people throw an elephant through a window. That has to count for something!), let alone at full force, impacting the little brat into a mountain, and have the kid live. No matter how hard you train, your skull is only so hard.
Speaking of mountains, it's got to be more than bothersome to see the constant debris created, solely to show how powerful these fighters are. Nearly every single episode of this arc has some kind of mountain being devastated by some random attack. It's like the creators thought to themselves, "How do we sell how powerful a blast or punch is? Collapsed lungs are hard to draw!!! I know, let's destroy yet another mountain!," only, of course, they thought it in Japanese. To be honest, if they were fighting on this very Earth, we'd all be living in plains right now, as every single mountain ever created would be flattened. There would be tons of debris, and as such, we'd see an increase in catapult use. Riveting stuff.
I also have to wonder about the fighting in this show. It's illogical, and for more reasons than having trained adults kicking the crap out of a kindergartener. When Vegeta and Nappa battle Earth's Z fighters (the guys who are trained to shoot stuff out of their body, much like Ron Jeremy), their arrogance makes them fight one at a time, no matter how many foes line up against them. As the battle grows longer, and attacks stronger, Vegeta just chills and hangs back, watching his henchman do his dirty work, but as Nappa starts to lose, Vegeta just stands there awed. For one, if they fought together, the match would have been long over before Goku ever returned, and for two, the entire reason for the first Saiyan visit, from Raditz, is to try to convince Goku to join them, as they need more bodies. Why would any fighter allow one of his compatriots to run the gauntlet unassisted if their race is in such short supply?! It makes absolutely no sense, other than to sell the arrogance angle. But even that makes no sense once the tide turns.
'Dragon Ball Z: Kai: Part One' may have its problems, from removing scenes that explain characters later, and giving the viewer an emotional attachment to said characters, but the sacrifice isn't for naught, as the expedient runtime makes for an enjoyable viewing session. The show may have its flaws, but it is more than entertaining, and the themes found within are more than adequate to sustain interest in future volumes. The 'Dragon Ball' series may be one of the most famous animated series in the entire world, and this first volume does help explain why. It's got plenty of ass whoopin', powerful characters, and sufficient drama. Hardcore fans may find themselves rallying against the changes made, but having seen the show numerous times over, one cannot help but be attached to the way one has always seen the show, and may desire to see more of the footage that was cut. Newcomers may be curious also, which may help bolster the sales of the season sets on DVD. 'Kai' is a necessary step in the continued evolution of this show, but it may be viewed by some as a grave misstep.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Dragon Ball Z: Kai: Part One' comes to Blu-ray across two discs, with both a BD-50 Dual-Layer (disc one, episodes 001-009) and a BD-25 Single-Layer (disc two, episodes 010-013). Both discs are Region A/B encoded. There is a single pre-menu trailer in front of each disc, with each being only skippable through the top menu button. The set is housed in a standard thickness case, and has an attractive slipcover that replicates the art on both sides.
'Dragon Ball Z: Kai: Part One' is presented with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Broadcasts of the show in Japan were framed in 16x9, but this ratio seems more in keeping with FUNimation's earlier 'Dragon Ball' releases, and has a nice centered feel to it, with no distracting missing off-screen information. Additionally, while "nudity" has been censored (not by bars or blurs, but by being obscured), blood spurts remain intact, which apparently isn't the case for some broadcasts of this show.
The first things fans will notice is the new animation and theme song for the opening sequence. Then non-fans will notice the drop in quality, as the show reverts to its classic animation, which has been cleaned up quite a bit. We also get new eyecatches (the graphic title cards shown before and after a commercial break) with the same graphic style as the theme song, and new animation and music for the closing sequence of each episode. The discrepancy in visual quality may upset some, but it must be noted that this first volume of the show does not have much new animation in the episodes, while later episodes will feature newer visuals much more frequently, though they are made in a fashion to blend in with the existing, familiar drawings.
Colors are bold and solid, with no wavering, no discrepancies, and best of all, no banding issues to be found. Aliasing is not an issue, though lines can sometimes disappear in animation, as well as occasionally shift and flutter, due to the fact that the clean-up process apparently didn't also include enhancing the original drawings. Black levels are healthy, and natural. There are some noise problems present, particularly in Frieza's outfit, Bulma's hair, some grass footings, and particularly the background of the Vegeta vs Goku battle in the last episode of this release, which actually pulses and spikes every few seconds! One cannot fault this transfer for the at times cheap animation, which can look awkward on more than a few occasions, and at times look rough and dull. Funnily enough, despite the massive clean up job provided, the picture does still jump around, from frame to frame. Either said issue could not feasibly be fixed, or it somehow slipped through the cracks.
One can look at this release and wonder what they just bought, but when figuring in the age and condition of the title, and how very clean (there are still some scattered debris elements, though they are quite minor and infrequent) this art looks, it's hard not to be satisfied. There is no weird transition between modern and traditional animation, as was found in 'Ghost in the Shell 2.0,' (and to a lesser extent, 'Evangelion 1.11'), and no sore thumb moments, just plenty of anime the best this series has looked. 'Kai' gets a thumbs up, especially for effort.
FUNimation brings 'Kai' to Blu-ray with two audio options, both with lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mixes. The default English is given a 5.1 track, while the original Japanese is presented in 2.0, with optional English subtitles. Even with subtitles off, there is just one moment with a subtitle pops up, and that is when Gohan receives an outfit from Piccolo and the symbol is translated. There are great differences in words used between the languages, with a few liberties (some of which are really awesome) taken in the English track. For example, in the English mix (but not in Japanese), Raditz tells Goku to keep killing past the 100 people he demands slaughtered to save Gohan, if he happens to get a taste for it. For this review, the English and Japanese tracks are each receiving individual scores, with the final score reflecting an average of the two.
English (4/5) - The packaging for this first volume of this 'Dragon Ball' "director's cut" states that the show has an "amped-up audio experience that will make your ears beg for mercy!," and I have to disagree, for two reasons. One, it isn't so bad that you beg for it to stop, not by any means; two, because it isn't anywhere near as immersive as some other FUNimation mixes, possibly in keeping with the original aesthetic of the show. This mix is solid, regardless of my disagreement with the hyperbole. Sound elements are mixed properly, with not a single element drowned out, no feedback undercurrents, or audio glitches or gaps. Dynamic range is solid, though there isn't too much in the high ends. Ambient and discrete effects randomly litter the soundstage, and find their way in the rears quite often, frequently adding little noises and accents to the solid score that is the most obvious element to find its way to the back end of the room. Movement isn't blatant, and is certainly reserved, but it can whisk through the room when it wants to, while directionality is always spot on. Bass levels aren't room shattering (which is odd, considering how much natural devastation happens in this series!), but fights and musical interludes both get the occasional light bump. Dialogue, including prolonged screams, are always distinct and perfectly coherent, and the Doc Morgan narration is dipped in so much honey that a diabetic coma is possible. This mix doesn't go overboard, ever, and is quite reserved. It lacks any real technical issues, and is only held back by its own restraint. Fans should appreciate this mix, for sure!
Japanese (3.5/5) - If you can get past the annoying voice for Goku, there isn't too much of a drawback to watching the show with this track instead of the English mix. Dialogue still stands above any other element, but there is much less bass to be found, while movement is restricted greatly. That said, a few of the voice actors speak a bit softer than their English counterparts. Range levels are about the same, as is the volume of the track. This mix is passable, and is honestly pretty good, but it doesn't stand up to the other mix on this release.
The 'Dragon Ball' saga looks pretty daunting from the outside in. Thankfully, 'Kai' helps cut down the required viewing load, condensing 30 episodes into a mere 13, losing very little along the way. Sure, character development is spotty, and emotional attachments to characters are slim, but this one is pure action. This Blu-ray release features great video for the series, and solid audio tracks. Extras are too minimal to make a dent, though. For newcomers and longtime fans alike, this one comes recommended.