Retro Review - "Dragon Ball Z"
Why the hell am I reviewing Dragon Ball Z? We already know the deal with it, right? Big guys screaming at each other, shooting stuff out of their hands, blowing up planets? It's a shtick we all know by now, and one that's been attempted over and over again, but never done quite to the original golden-haired standard. The thing is, I've just finished the show in its entirety for the first time. Since 2008, I've been watching it in chronological order, and not the random mix-and-match order I viewed it in as a little kid. So, throughout high school and into college, I've watched Goku and company grow alongside me. It's been an interesting journey, and sometimes, it's helped me through some pretty rough shit in my life.
Through ups and downs, a few failed relationships, more than a few broken friendships, and shifts in direction in my life, all 291 episodes of Dragon Ball Z have been a constant companion. Now that it's over, with my third year as an English major almost upon me, I have a few things to say about each saga. To find out what they are, tune in for this exciting episode of... eh, you get the idea.
We know the story of Dragon Ball Z already, especially if you're on this blog of all places. It's the sequel to Dragon Ball, and the prequel to Dragon Ball GT, if you're into that one. The birthplace of overused memes like "over 9000," "this isn't even my final form," and probably some others that I'm totally spacing out on. The bloated, chaotic story that's an excuse for aliens and humans to beat the living hell out of each other with recycled animation that somehow continues to be compelling. Simply put, it's the original long-running shonen anime with special attacks, transformations, 20 episode fights... and dwindling budgets... and filler arcs. And watching it in order, I've seen it go through several ups and downs. Some highs are some of the best moments in anime, in my opinion, but some of the lows are insufferable and dull. It wouldn't do the series justice to mush all of the sagas together, so for this review, I decided to break down the series into each saga and assign each one a score. Consider this my definitive review of Dragon Ball Z.
Saiyan Arc (1-35)
This is where it all begin. Toriyama's massive shift in direction from the original whimsical tone of Dragon Ball into the loud, bombastic, drawn-out fights that people commonly associate with the series as a whole. But the change wasn't abrupt, making this more of a transitional piece than anything else. We still have some sight gags, puns, and other fun things that were slipped in to alleviate the dark tone, but ultimately, the overall tone here is a bit grim. After all, the first few episodes have little Gohan getting kidnapped, civilians getting killed, and (most dramatically) Goku getting outright murdered by Raditz in an attempt to save the Earth. From the get-go, these episodes sent a very powerful message that this series was never going to be the same again, and established many of the core building blocks of later episodes. These include Vegeta's rivalry with Goku, the existence of other planets, powered-up fighting forms, using Dragon Balls to bring back people in en masse... those tropes are born here.
It's an uneven start to be sure, though. That's thanks to some jarring tonal shifts, an art style that feels very rough and undefined, and a budget that renders the show looking outright awful sometimes. Frankly, I enjoyed reading these parts in the manga much more than I did watching them. Still, for somebody who had never watched the early episodes of the series before, it was nice to see where things got their start, and a lot of character dynamics made more sense to me than they previously had. Plus, the parts where Goku is resurrected from the dead and outright owns Nappa, along with the climactic showdown between him and Vegeta, are damn fine entertainment. Not to mention the somewhat enjoyably grim tone things take when we watch the side characters try and take out the Saiyans, only to get quickly picked off, is very compelling television.
Overall, I look back on these episodes fondly, but not enthusiastically. Watching them before I officially began high school, they were something that I watched in my spare time, entertained but not enthralled. That's pretty much how I feel about them today. Good, but not great. Nowhere nearly as good as things were about to get.
Frieza Arc (36-107)
Some people differentiate between the Namek Saga, Captain Ginyu Saga, and Frieza Saga, but for the sake of this review, I'm using the Dragon Ball Z Wiki's method of putting them under "Arcs," with one minor exception you'll see soon enough. After all, it all takes place on the same planet, has the same overarching antagonist, and is working towards the same thing, right? Right. Anyway. This is the Frieza Arc, arguably the most famous and popular of all Dragon Ball Z story arcs out there. For good reason, too. All of the core story mechanics we saw get introduced in the Saiyan Arc are refined here. Transformations, character deaths, purely evil antagonists, secondary enemies that give other characters a chance to shine. These aspects, to me, arguably make the Frieza Arc not only the best episodes of Dragon Ball Z, but one of the very best story arcs in anime, period.
I defend this stance with a few different things. First off, the pacing is legitimately good in many aspects, but also entertaining in how ludicrous it is. When Frieza says Namek is going to get destroyed in five minutes, it takes multiple episodes for it to even get close to the one or two minute mark. But you never really care, because you're on the edge of your seat the whole time. Secondly, the balance achieved here between the whimsical and the serious is impressive. It's great entertainment to watch Goku avenge Kuririn's (Krillen's) death by turning Super Saiyan for the first time, but also to see Ginyu get his body swapped with a frog and having to navigate the planet in that form. There was a successful melding of the grim and the lighthearted here that I would argue never happened again throughout the series. And lastly? This is the closest Dragon Ball Z ever got to the spirit of the original Dragon Ball. Buruma (Bulma,) Gohan, Vegeta and Kuririn all end up working together in order to hunt down Dragon Balls, get in scraps with a diverse cast of villains (The Ginyu Force,) and explore different locales on a strange new world. Meanwhile, Goku gets to wreck some shit in his fights with Frieza. It recaptured that sense of dangerous adventure that the original had, and I loved it for that.
Aside from those three main points, this was a definitive arc for how it changed the characters. Goku was forced to kill an enemy and wasn't able to win them over to the side of good for the first time. Bulma was no longer a cute teenage girl, but a woman who was more reliant on her wits than ever. And Vegeta began to realize that he fell much more on the side of good than he previously thought. These are just a few of the major changes that helped shape future events. I could go on and on, but nothing much more needs to be said. This arc helped me, as a creator, realize how great storytelling could really be, and how a work could successfully blend different genres in order to produce an extremely great piece of entertainment.
In a nutshell, the Frieza Arc represents everything I love about Dragon Ball Z as a cohesive whole. It can be fun and exciting, but also tense and even emotional. The fights are wonderful, the set pieces are iconic, and the character development is downright palpable. This is not just the crowning achievement for the series, but a crowning achievement in Japanese animation, especially when it comes to long-running shows, and honestly? I don't feel like anybody has ever come close to touching this since it aired.
Garlic Jr. Saga (108-117)
This was the exception I mentioned above. Some people think that this should be lumped in with the Frieza Arc. Others think it's more of a precursor to the Cell Arc. I think it shouldn't exist at all, and could be entirely skipped because it's basically hot fucking garbage masquerading as character development. Look, I love Kuririn. I love Gohan. And I really, really love Piccolo. But if you want to see any semblance of interesting development with them here, you're out of luck. This story arc is exactly how you don't follow up the compelling epic that was the struggle on Namek, and the birth of the infamous "filler arcs" we'd see other series like Naruto and Bleach abuse to high hell.
To be fair, there are a few okay aspects here. Kuririn's infatuation with a girl and subsequent heartbreak is surprisingly more memorable than the actual fighting and the core concept of the main series following up a non-canon movie (Dead Zone) is kind of cool. Also, seeing "lesser" characters get more screen time than they'll get for the rest of the show is also nice, despite Tien and Chaozu not getting any. But all of this doesn't make up for the crippling flaw in these awful 10 episodes, which is that Garlic Jr. and the unnamed Spice Boys are simply some of the worst antagonists in series history. They're never a feasible threat, only take a relatively small amount of episodes to defeat, and are giant fucking dorks. The fights themselves are boring, nothing feels urgent, and overall, it has no bearing on the overall plot at all. In the end, it's all meaningless.
You could skip the entire Garlic Jr. saga and miss nothing of worth. It's ten episodes of mediocre guff that's only good for a few novelty laughs here and there. To be honest, there's good filler in Dragon Ball Z, with episodes like Goku and Piccolo going to driving school springing to mind. But a whole arc of it held together by lame antagonists and blatant stalling before a huge time skip? Nope. Pass.
Cell Arc (118-194)
Now, I said the Frieza Arc is the best arc in the entirety of Dragon Ball Z. And in terms of balancing adventurous fun and dramatic battles, that's certainly true from where I stand. But I've always believed that just because you can recognize something as being technically better, you can still favor one thing over that other, superior thing. That's exactly how I feel about the events of the Cell Arc, which contains most of my absolute favorite moments in series history. Despite the overall grim, dark tone in the entirety of this arc, it managed to captivate me and surprise me in ways that no other arc did, and in fact, I tend to remember more from these parts than I did any others. Part of that is seeing more of this when I was a kid than the Frieza Saga before I did my full rewatch, and part of it is my love for the intense, visceral battles that became the hallmark of this story. Personally, I felt like more was at stake here, and like more important character dynamics and shifts in characterization happened.
Throughout this saga, we got introduced to the most interesting antagonists yet, and in fact, I would say the most interesting antagonists in the series. Cell himself is incredibly unique, not being motivated by anything other than to genetically perfect himself, a being who exists entirely to consume and destroy. He can't be reasoned with, because compromise is (quite literally) not in his DNA. And the Androids are pretty great too, a diverse trio with personalities that eventually clash and lead into engaging conflicts, not helped by the wrench Kuririn throws into the mix by falling in love with Android 18. Aside from the villains, though, we have some stellar introductions that shift the tides of the series. We see Trunks come back from the future, instantly kill the rebuilt Frieza without any effort, and then reveal that he is the son of Vegeta and Buruma. Mr. Satan (Hercule), the oafish yet lovable martial arts champion, is also introduced and provides some occasional comic relief... even if it is of the "painfully facepalm-inducing" variety.
Oh, yes, and did I mention that Goku fucking sacrifices himself to save the world? And that Gohan is the strongest he ever is in the entire series, and every incarnation of him afterward is incredibly lame in comparison? Because I feel like those are important points to make. Yes, Gohan's final battle with Cell is actually my favorite climax in the series, because it isn't a victory brought about some sudden deus ex machina, or Goku learning a new ability, or the energy of every person on Earth being used. No. Gohan kicks Cell's ass, royally obliterating him, because of his own willpower and determination to win. His emotional realization that the entire fate of the world rests on his shoulders, coupled with his otherworldly support from Goku, is my personal emotional high point of the series. The torch has been passed, the ultimate form of evil has been bested, and the world has been saved. Honestly, it feels like the best place the series could have ended, and in many ways, I wish it had.
So yeah. Maybe the Cell Arc is a bit too grim, or too focused on death and destruction, but I actually think that works to its advantage. The logical conclusion to evil is merciless evil that kills for the sake of killing and nothing more. And the logical conclusion to good is good that selflessly sacrifices and trusts humanity to protect itself from harm. Both of these are on display here, along with some amazing fights, a surprisingly compelling romantic subplot, and a time-travel story that works well because... well, it's pretty much lifted from The Terminator. It's not as balanced as the Frieza Arc in terms of content, but its my favorite, and its the one I think of first when I think of the most epic, jaw-dropping moments in the series. Sue me.
Buu Arc (195-291)
The Cell Arc of Dragon Ball Z had the most definitive ending in the entire series to me. Everything seemed completely wrapped up with a nice little bow, and nothing more needed to be done. But uh... see... the fans wanted more. Now, there are rumors that Toriyama wanted to end the series after the Frieza Arc, and because those fell through, he then wanted to permanently kill Goku, have Gohan be the successor, and let that be that. If that's to be believed, it obviously didn't work, because we got the Buu Arc, which took me the longest to actually finish. We're talking around three to four years, folks, and it's only done now because I spent the past few days binging on the last 36 episodes. Because I wanted the damn thing to be over. If that begrudging tone doesn't spell it out, then I'll be more clear. This arc starts off really fun and exciting, but gradually devolves into a repetitive slog with an uneven tone that makes it perfectly clear Toriyama wanted out. There are some saving graces that prevent this from being actually "bad," but it's easily the worst canonical saga in the entire series.
Why? Well, first off, Buu is not a great villain. He's the worst in terms of development, has the most cop-out reasons for getting more powerful, and is only really entertaining when he's in his childlike, chaotic original form. Everything after that is bog-standard evil psychopath, and his abilities are entirely uninteresting compared to the cool attributes and origins we saw in the previous arcs. Not only are the antagonist and the supporting cast of completely forgettable cronies unremarkable, though, but we also have the complete downgrade of everybody who isn't named Goku. The idea of Fusion is introduced, and the awesome Gotenks (that's Trunks and Goku's post-mortem spawn Goten) is formed... only to be eventually undone and made irrelevant. Gohan, now an older teenager, undergoes the most boring training possible (literally sitting down for several episodes) to trounce Buu... and only does so for a few seconds before getting pummeled. It all boils down to the resurrected Goku powering up to Super Saiyan 3, building a special attack, and winning thanks to some dumb twists.
The real reason I hate the main conflict here is that it is a downright retread of previous plot threads, woven together by a series of unexplained and improbably convenient twists. Not only that, but the show jumps the shark so many times that the analogy becomes useless. It would be more accurate to say that it jumps over a fucking ocean of sharks on a unicycle while on fire. That might seem like an exaggeration, but when one watches the incredibly cheap and disappointing climax strung together entirely by happenstance, or the moment where Gotenks screaming tears a rift between two dimensions, or when one realizes that Buu's primary method of killing is turning people into fucking candy... yeah. It becomes really clear that Toriyama wasn't sure whether to make this about fighting or gags, and he keeps fluctuating wildly between the two, with the animation staff dragging things out as long as humanly possible with the most dull stalling tactics.
But the thing is, while the main conflict is honestly awful in comparison to the rest of the series, virtually everything else is great. When the series is trying to be funny, it works. When we get to meet new characters, like personal favorite Videl, it works. When cunning triumphs over strength, it works. Honestly, the show is best when it doesn't take itself seriously, like when Gohan crusades around a major city in a cape and sunglasses, trying to stop crime. Or when Mr. Satan is trying to convince the world that he defeated Cell, and shows off a puppet film reenactment of his "triumph." Or when the Tenkaichi Tournament and the colorful contestants doing battle happens. Honestly, the only time the seriousness works is in the beginning, when Buu is a childish buffoon, Vegeta gets put under mind control, and the rest of the main Z-Fighters do battle with some more minor foes. Everything after Buu transforms is formulaic and reeks of desperation.
Ultimately, though, while this is the weakest arc, it's still not terrible. When you're able to slog through some of the more boring bits, there are some genuinely compelling and entertaining moments in there. So yeah. The Buu Arc is nowhere nearly as good as the series once was, but it's still fine entertainment, and occasionally shows even hints of greatness. It's just uneven and sloppily concluded.
Wow, that took a bit longer than expected. Well, there it is. My complete take on each saga in the anime epic that is Dragon Ball Z. And yes, it is an epic. Despite some boring bits, a short but insufferable filler saga, and a veer in the wrong direction there towards the end, this is still one of the very best shows I've ever watched, anime or otherwise. The sheer scope of what Akira Toriyama was attempting to accomplish is admirable in and of itself, and is helped by a diverse and amazing cast, astounding confrontations, and an adventure that spans several dimensions.
Not only that, but it's a show that changed who I am as a person. Watching Goku, Gohan and the rest change and learn together affected me in ways that I'm still figuring out today, and taught me so many important life lessons. Watching it helped me want to lead a better life, whether that was through being more healthy, giving even people I hated the benefit of the doubt, and the importance of picking myself up after life tries to knock me down. They're all fictional creations, I know this, but as odd as this may sound, the cast of Dragon Ball Z molded me into who I am today. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Akira Toriyama, for giving me the opportunity to meet these characters, and grow into the man I am today alongside them.
No bad filler arc, uneven tone, or questionable conclusion can undermine the fact that Dragon Ball Z changed my life for the better. Period. And I can count the television shows that have had that effect on me with one hand. If that isn't the highest form of praise, then I don't know what is.