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Dragon Ball Kai Thoughts

[Note: This blog entry contains spoilers for both Kai and the original Z anime series]

The Dragon Ball franchise enjoyed immense popularity in Japan in the 80’s and 90’s and then went into a sort-of hibernation while the franchise started gaining serious traction in the west. It’s only natural; if you combine all the episodes from Dragon Ball and Z, you get 444 episodes. If you wanna factor in Dragon Ball GT, that boosts the number up to 508, plus all the specials and movies and whatnot. Much like creator/author Akira Toriyama, Japanese people just got burned out on Dragon Ball.

Thankfully the franchise has proven to have staying power. A brand-new 30 minute feature was created and not long after that Dragon Ball Kai was announced. On paper, it sounds like the ideal interpretation: take DBZ and boil it down to the animation that corresponds to Toriyama’s manga, remaster it in high definition and voila! A brand new viewing experience. I’ve watched up to episode 48 so far, which features Goku turning the tables on Freeza after having just turned into a Super Saiyan. In the original Z series, this would have occurred well after 100 episodes. 

The relatively brisker pace actually works fine. Pretty much all the story from the manga was animated so with careful editing nothing feels missing or skipped over. The progression of the story feels natural and logical. Unfortunately this means some worthwhile anime-only (filler) material has been excised. DBZ’s filler material can be excruciating (Garlic Jr. saga, ‘nuff said) but is also often worthwhile. Some filler episodes feature character growth not found in Toriyama’s manga. For example, Vegeta and Bulma’s relationship is given additional growth and context in one episode and Gohan’s birthday episode is rather endearing. 

Unfortunately, what truly holds this interpretation from being definitive is at least in part due to how much more conservative Japanese television has become. Dragon Ball Z had some graphic violence at times but was broadcast in an early-evening timeslot. Dragon Ball Kai has a similar timeslot and has to make concessions in the violence it depicts. For example, the sequence in which Piccolo blasts Goku and Raditz with the Makankosappo left a gaping hole in Goku’s stomach that bled out in Z. In Kai, it’s just a big burn mark. The violent sequences in Toriyama’s manga were actually even more graphic than the original anime, so it’s disappointing to see the violence toned down yet again for Kai. I think Toei missed the mark by not including the sequences uncensored on home video.

The look of the show is also flawed. Toei decided to remove all the film grain for the remaster, and that leaves the animation looking a little flat and lifeless. Though it has it’s moments, the 16mm footage doesn’t look as good as other classic anime titles remastered in hi-def, including Yu Yu Hakusho, which was a ratings competitor to DBZ back in the day. There are a number of instances where the film footage couldn’t make the jump to the HD remaster, so the animation for those scenes is re-traced and colored in digitally. This gives Kai a highly inconsistent look not seen since the late 90’s when shows were still traditionally animated but switched to digital coloring for special effects shots. 

The biggest problem with Kai is the music. Kenji Yamamoto composed and arranged the score and the choices he used feel weird, especially at the onset. I eventually got used to the music, only to find out most of it had been plagiarized from Hollywood movies. Ouch. Since that nugget of info came out, the Japanese broadcast went back to Shunsuke Kikuchi’s original score and FUNimation’s latest Blu-ray set also features the original music. Setting the plagiarism aside, Yamamoto’s music doesn’t always work as well as Kikuchi’s. Having recently watched Goku’s iconic Super Saiyan transformation, the sequence lacked the same punch for me that it did before and I really think the music was the cause.

Thankfully the voice acting is familiar territory. Most of the principle voice actors reprise their roles and while some of the actors can’t play the characters exactly the same way they used to (Masako Nozawa is over 80 years old), it’s close and the cast is clearly in familiar and comfortable territory. I don’t care for some of the new voices, such as Mr. Popo, but they’re easy enough to ignore. I don’t want to get into the English version right now (maybe in a future blog entry) but despite issues I have with the naming conventions and some voices that I am never, ever going to like, FUNimation’s Kai dub overall actually feels like a real dub this time. 

After all the talk of Dragon Ball Kai being a closer adaptation of Toriyama’s manga, the series does not cover the entire story. The series caps off at 97 episodes, ending with the defeat of Cell, thus the Majin Boo storyline falls to the wayside. This is leaving many wondering why Kai ended “early”. I don’t think Kai is ending early, however. The episode count quoted ever since Kai was announced was 100 episodes. 97 episodes is close enough to that number. Unless multiple people severely misjudged the math, I think this is all Toei ever planned to adapt. 

I suspect at least part of the reason why is because the manga and anime-only content for the Boo arc is more closely tied together. For example, Gohan assumes the identity of the superhero Great Saiyaman in the anime, which did not happen in the manga. However, when the characters are entering the latest Tenkaichi Budokai where they meet Kaioshin, which did happen in the manga, Gohan is seen in his superhero getup. Unlike the previous story arcs it would be harder to divorce the filler material and when factoring in the high cost to remaster and re-edit DBZ’s footage to make Kai, they probably just decided not to bother. I personally think that’s a shame because there’s good material in the Boo arc. Maybe if FUNimation has an interest in seeing the Boo arc adapted they’ll contribute some money to make it happen. 

All my criticisms of Dragon Ball Kai probably make it seem like I don’t care for it. That’s not true, however; I’m enjoying Kai quite a bit. For all it’s flaws Toriyama’s original storyline is enjoyable to watch and the characterizations are as fun as ever. The strengths of the original series make the translation and the content still feels fresh to me despite my familiarity with the previous incarnation. Even if Kai stops before Toriyama’s manga, I’m interested in seeing it through to the end.