Well it's finally available in the UK! Chances are, anime fan or not, you've probably heard of Dragon Ball even if it's just in passing. Created, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama the original manga ran in popular Japanese publication Weekly Shonen Jump between 1984 and 1995 comprising a total of 519 chapters. These were collected together and released across 42 volumes outside of WSJ, and almost concurrently Toei Animation adapted the manga into two anime series - Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z - which originally aired in Japan from 1986 to 1996. Much like the popular shonen anime adaptations we enjoy today (Naruto and One Piece for example) new episodes were broadcast on a weekly basis with minimal downtime. The first series, Dragon Ball ran a total of 153 episodes, and its follow-up Dragon Ball Z started shortly after and ran for 291 episodes. Those 291 episodes covered the final 26 volumes of the manga, and are what we are finally seeing released on DVD here in the UK.
This of course means we're missing out on the original Dragon Ball anime series - a total of 153 episodes which cover the first 16 volumes of the manga. That's a considerable amount of content that, short of importing the DVDs from America/Australia or picking up the original manga (which is available over here), puts UK fans at something of a disadvantage going into Dragon Ball Z. As a newcomer to the world of Dragon Ball myself I decided to approach Manga Entertainment's first DVD release the way I suspect a large number of readers will. That is, completely fresh to the series with no former knowledge of the story short of knowing it revolved around martial arts. Heck, it wasn't until shortly after the discs turned up that I did some initial research and discovered there even was a first series!
What I found as I began watching is that Dragon Ball Z's universe is quite easy to dip into, thanks largely to characters whose motives and personalities are worn quite brazenly making them easy to absorb and begin charting out their relationships and goals in your head. As DBZ is set some time after the first series ends it also sets about re-introducing a number of characters to show what's happened to them in the passage of time between series. This works out very well for newcomers as we get intros to the major players while new additions to the cast are also prominent on screen. In fact, any concerns I had about jumping in at what is essentially the midway point were quickly brushed aside as I started having fun with the characters and getting sucked into the action. This is a shonen series (aimed primarily at males aged 10 and up) after all, but that's not to say it's just for youngsters. Much like current favourites there is a lot of shared history between the characters in play here, and while I found myself adapting fast, as these 39 episodes progressed there are most certainly elements where I felt lacking in context. This is particularly evident in the relationships between the secondary characters, the friends and family who support the leading man, some of whom feature very little across this set of episodes and feel like they should be important but are given short shrift as the story focuses elsewhere.
Those are some general impressions, but let's get on to the show proper...
Set five years after the original series, Dragon Ball Z opens with a run of episodes which set out to shake up the established universe. The lead character, a skilled martial arts expert by the name of Goku, is seen to be living a charmed life with his wife and new addition to the cast, his four-year old son Gohan. Over the coming episodes however Goku's reality is shattered as he learns he is not only born of another planet, but that he has a brother - Raditz - who has sought Goku out with the intention of recruiting him into a team of Saiyan warriors who go around eradicating world populations for the highest bidder. Said proposal is met with disbelief and a flat out refusal, but Goku's astonishing abilities on Earth are soon shown to pale in comparison to those shared by his brother. An ultimatum is laid down which sees Raditz kidnap Gohan and leave Goku with the choice of joining his brother's genocidal ways or forfeiting his son's life. An unlikely partnership is then formed, as Goku's rival Piccolo arrives with a proposal of his own. Having also witnessed the power of Raditz, Piccolo knows when the odds are stacked against his own plans for world domination, and suggests a temporary truce while the duo take out Raditz and rescue Goku's boy. The battle that ensues brings with it revelations about Gohan's untapped battle potential, the threat of further invasion by an additional Saiyan force one year away from Earth, and the death of Goku.
With the initial Saiyan threat on earth quelled Goku's friends begin seeking out the dragon balls of the title which it turns out can be used to summon Shen Long, a powerful dragon who will grant any wish, including the ability to bring the dead back to life. Rather than come straight back to the realm of the living Goku decides to spend the next year training with Kaio-sama - the most powerful of all the gods - in preparation for the aforementioned follow-up Saiyan attack which is one year out. Goku's cohorts back on earth make similar preparations, locating some old martial arts friends and rivals of Goku's so they too can train with a god. Gohan meanwhile finds himself a student of Piccolo who puts the child through a harsh regiment of survival and martial arts training in the hope of whipping the lad into fighting shape to fight alongside his father in the coming battle. One year passes and the two Saiyan warriors land on earth with devastating effect. Can our heroes save the day?
On paper DBZ gets off to quite a start and indeed the opening run of episodes dealing with Raditz and setting up a future Saiyan threat make for compelling viewing. On screen however the opening couple of episodes are a little slow thanks to an extended introduction to Gohan, a major cast addition and one who quite obviously is rather important and proves to be a driving force of the show going forward. First impressions aren't the best though, he's somewhat loud and whiny, petulant even, but his kidnapping and subsequent training under Piccolo make for a natural character arc which sees him come into his own. This includes a run of episodes whereupon Gohan faces various trials as Piccolo leaves him in the wilderness to fend for himself as the first part of his training. The world of DBZ includes dinosaurs, flying cars and robots amongst other strange things and Gohan runs into some of these as he becomes a markedly stronger character (you have to do your best to get past the fact he's only 4 years old!). There is also quite an intriguing revelation as to his latent Saiyan abilities which in turn has potentially catastrophic implications regarding the Saiyan warriors making their way to earth, but I won't spoil that here. While each episode typically has a self-contained story focussed upon one particular character, we nearly always jump to the other principals at some point to keep things interesting, so while Gohan is training on earth we also see Goku enduring trials as he continues a seemingly never-ending trip along the serpentine road. A trial in itself, this path to his new mentor includes a brief layover in a unique version of hell and a quick spa break with a snake princess, and while all that is happening the other characters we meet back on earth are also given some time on screen and prove to be interesting in their own right as they too seek out new training of their own. Elsewhere we also get a demonstration of the contempt the Saiyan's have towards all forms of life as they make a stop on their way to earth to obliterate another unsuspecting race of people.
The training progresses on all fronts across 15 episodes (6-21) and becomes a little tiresome in places as we see each character overcome various trials until Goku finally meets Kaio-sama and receives his special training. Then, in a welcome and somewhat smart move, the story jumps forward around five-months to the completion of Goku's training and with it the Saiyan's arrival on earth. We're shown a taste of one of the new techniques Goku has developed, a move that draws upon natural energy and can be dangerous used incorrectly, so he is permitted to only use it once in dire emergency. What's more tantalising however is the techniques he's learned that we aren't aware of, and similarly we can be sure Gohan, Piccolo and the others back on earth have developed new techniques of their own, and in the fights we're about to witness there is plenty to look forward to.
And it delivers?
Not quite, certainly not initially as we spend another several episodes seeing Goku travelling back along the serpentine road while his friends on earth do their best to withstand the Saiyan onslaught. This isn't quite as exciting as I had hoped, as a series of fatal defeats can't hope to hold the weight they probably should with a viewer who's had so little time to spend with the characters involved. Only one of them really stands out and it brings with it serious ramifications with regards to the use of dragon balls, so again, this is something else that will be curious to see what happens next as with these types of shows, all bets are off as to what workarounds might be found. Indeed the closing episodes of this volume are focussed on just that, but I digress...
The Saiyan warriors introduced at this stage do help keep things interesting as we await Goku's delayed arrival. Nappa is a colourful character and the only Saiyan we see in battle for a lengthy period of time, his abilities impressive and his impatient nature played off well against Vegeta, a character with a cold visage who calmly dictates orders at Nappa, suggesting his power is considerably higher. They seem more or less oblivious to the techniques of Goku's companions, laughing them off and merely toying with them for the most part. It's something of an unfair fight then, and even becomes a little cruel as each character takes severe punishment, so while these episodes may disappoint slightly, what they do at least manage is to tip our anticipation of Goku's arrival over the edge so when he does finally arrive it's worthy of rejoice for both the characters trying to withstand Nappa's assault and indeed the viewer who is waiting for the main event. When it finally arrives the battle with the Saiyan's takes a considerable turn, with Goku demonstrating his new found abilities with delightful effect. This in turn leads to Vegeta stepping into the fray, demonstrating a poise and assuredness to match that of Goku's while also managing to leverage in a little social commentary over class within society and the age old argument of whether or not you're born into your position in life and is it possible to break free. It's minor, and certainly not something to concern yourself about as to whether it might prove overbearing, it really doesn't. It adds a little flavour to the character commentary we are treated to as the fight ensues, highlights Vegeta's arrogance which is often his downfall, and serves to back up the 'give it all' motto of Goku and friends (and indeed just about every hero in a shonen series). We're treated to numerous ups and downs on both sides of the fray as the two duke it out, unleashing new and more powerful moves and finding untapped resources the way we surely knew they would, and the result several episodes down the line may be predictable, but the journey is what matters here and it proves very entertaining.
What all this equates too overall is a series that offers exciting action set-pieces in the now familiar mould, with fights often taking place across multiple episodes as the participants undergo both a physical and mental battle trying to out-power and outfox their opponent. They explain their techniques, analyse each other and spar both verbally and physically while onlookers typically throw in some commentary of their own. The fun here is quite often found within the dialogue and the inventive techniques that are constantly raising the ante each episode, while the animation, music and voice work help deliver the payload to our screens.
Dragon Ball Z Season 1 from Manga Entertainment is available on DVD only and comprises 39 episodes across 6 discs. This breaks down to 7 episodes per disc until the final disc which has 4 episodes plus extras. For those familiar with Manga UK releases, it will come as no surprise that the DVDs are based on masters from Madman - the largest distributor of manga and anime in Australia - who do all of the PAL conversion work. As a small aside it's worth pointing out that Madman have released the original Dragon Ball series on DVD in Australia, so it was clearly a conscious decision by Manga to skip straight to the more popular Dragon Ball Z series.
The 'Season 1' title is not particularly accurate but is consistent with how the show has been released in the USA and Australia. As the show was broadcast on a weekly basis in Japan over several years there are no 'seasons' to speak of, but for its Western release the episodes have been split into batches (typically between 25-40 episodes) that cover arcs or sagas in the story. This first season set covers the 'Vegeta' saga, referring to one of the Saiyan warriors Goku must defeat in order to protect earth.
Picture and Sound
The transfer used here is rather controversial so there are a number of concerns that need to be addressed first. Based on the remastered version of the series released by Funimation in the USA back in 2007, the masters used by Madman were restored by Funimation from the original film negatives which were cleaned up and cropped from the original 4:3 to 16:9. As one of the extras points out, this apparently makes the presentation more 'cinematic' and 'impactful' for the viewer. I would have to disagree with this sentiment, instead finding the 16:9 presentation to be rather cramped and not even slightly cinematic as the frame struggles to cope with action at the extreme ends of the vertical frame.
Along with the aspect ratio switch, another mark against the restoration work undertaken here is an overzealous use of DVNR. This results in a complete removal of film grain and a general clean-up across the board, and with it quite a lot of basic details with an overall softness throughout the frame and the line work for example occasionally fading in and out on character's hair and clothing. Even with the DVNR, there is still frequent examples of nicks and scratches to the print, but they're rarely distracting.
With the above in mind, I will concede that I found the overall presentation to be acceptable for a show of this vintage. Generally speaking colours are bold and detail, although slightly lacking and varying greatly frame to frame, is reasonable and holds up fairly well in motion. The lack of grain felt natural for an anime series, the nicks and scratches didn't bother me, and while the 16:9 cropping was always gnawing at the back of my mind, it never felt like the show was being ruined. So it looks alright. It's just not presented to the best standards possible, which is a real shame, particularly when there are superior versions out there. Those being a new 4:3 restoration version by Funimation released in the USA between 2009 and 2011. Madman however are yet to release this version (and maybe never will) so considering Manga's production process goes through Madman I'm assuming the newer 4:3 version was never a viable option.
Two final notes on the transfer. The opening and closing animations and episode title cards are the English/American versions, and the transfer appears to be a native PAL transfer with no telltale signs of a poor standards conversion (unlike the featurettes on the last disc which look awful).
Below are a few screencaps showing the cropping at its worst...
The audio side of things is fortunately much simpler. There are three tracks starting with the original Japanese language which is presented in Mono format and appears to have very little work done restoring it. As such it's very raw at the high ends, with screams and higher pitched voices such as Gohan's coming over as very harsh on the ears and even at moderate volume levels you'll hear some distortion. Music is very subdued in the mix and separation across speakers is obviously non-existent. All that aside I found when viewed at a standard volume the audio does its job but there is clearly much room for improvement.
The remaining tracks are an English stereo mix which features Funimation's English dub with a new soundtrack composed by Bruce Faulconer and Nathan Johnson (this was made for the American TV broadcast ) and an English 5.1 mix which features the same dub with the original Japanese music.
Subtitles are optional and intended for use alongside the Japanese mono track, featuring a translation that differs considerably in places to the English dub script (even some character names are different). Spelling and grammar is sound throughout (usually I will note any major grievances as I watch but nothing jumped out) while the font used is yellow in colour and fairly clear. Personally I prefer a white font with a black outline, but this set being derived from an American release it's not surprising the font is yellow.
Here you'll find 'clean' opening and closing animations which are always welcome but rather standard with anime releases. Alongside those are two short promotional featurettes on the work Funimation carried out for the remastered 16x9 version presented here. The less said about these the better really as they wound me up a little with their buzzwords, focus on aspects of the remastered versions I flat out disagree with and other oddities like adding up how much the equipment costs they used to do the transfers.
Dragon Ball Z is a classic of the shonen genre and so far it boasts an intriguing cast of characters, some great action and plenty of simple but effective humour which combines for an entertaining watch. This first season also features a lot of episodes which appear to be treading water and serving simply to re-enforce character traits which, while not a complete loss, does make for several low points along the way. As a newcomer to the series my interest was mostly held and I'm keen to see future instalments, and while the UK DVD release may not be based on the best masters available, it's still a good proposition to those who like to support their home market.