ON THE LAST EPISODE OF KENTAI FILMS VS DRAGON BALL Z:
Kentai has grown ever impatient over the news that American anime specialist label FUNimation has promised a fully restored High Definition Blu-ray release of one of his favorite anime series of his misplaced childhood, DRAGON BALL Z!
JOURNEY IN THE WORLD OF 1990s MEMORIES!!
Can 1080p Replace Bootleg VHS In Kentai's Heart?!
Some background is necessary, I think, for explaining what this series means to me on one of those weird personal levels. If you just want to know how the fucking Blu-ray release looks... well, you're gonna have to wait a couple of days. I want to do this right, and the first part of that will be presenting you with a snapshot of my life from the mid 1990s. Nostalgia equals Distortion, I know this, but to understand why I even care, we need to dig for the nuggets of madness in the vomit-filled sink of my younger years. So read on, friends... or don't. I'd maybe skip this sort of thing, depending on how rough a day I'd had when all I want to know is how the fucking thing looks, so if you do the same I won't judge you... to your face.
Let it not be said that Dragon Ball Z is a fine series, in the scope of serialized entertainment for Japanese eight year olds. That's not to try and trivialize the show's appeal by suggesting that it's especially juvenile or simplified, but I think parts of the Western world has long held a mistaken assumption that a cartoon that features the hero getting drilled through his abdomen by a corkscrew fireball in the fifth episode is some crazy underground affair that was made to appeal to college kids, like the [adult swim] block of programming that's delivered on The Venture Bros. but still owes us more Korgoth of Barbaria. Just so we're clear that the blood drenched, child traumatizing, and man ass fueled action of Dragon Ball and its' related franchise was firmly a money-making juggernaut not unlike He-Man, G.I. Joe or any other ridiculous parody of 1980s machismo most men my age seem to remember with a far greater sheen of rose tinting than I do:
That's some big pimpin' there, Gokuu.
Unlike shitty 80s American cartoons literally based off of ridiculous toy designs, however, Dragon Ball was a single creator driven concept, as has been more or less normal in Japan since the 1960s when the thought of animating local properties started with Mushi Pro and titles like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, which in the context of me calling them "cartoons" forbids me from calling them Tetsuwan Atom and Jungle Tantei Leo. The creator of Dragon Ball is a charming, wicked little imp of a man man named Akira Toriyama, who decided after a lengthy and successful run with the gag comedy Dr. Slump that he'd change up the pace by adapting the 16th century Chinese fairytale Journey to the West (sometimes simply known as "The Monkey King") in what was scientifically designed to be the single most ass way possible, with the snarky sinning macaque god San Wukong having been turned into an innocent adolescent boy who sets off on a quest with a precocious 16 year old stranger to recover magical artifacts. Along the way they meet shape shifters, badland bandits, ninjas, and discover that the damn kid is not only stronger than Hercules but also roughly as educated as a jug of spoiled milk.
Potty humor, improbable martial arts, and an old pervert who hangs out with sea turtles proved to just be the start of a literal epic that would stretch from 1984 to 1995, totaling over 500 weekly chapters which would later be collected into 42 tankou digest books. It's easy to forget that a show as popular and successful as Dragon Ball Z basically started out as a bunch of gags that nobody with the emotional faculties past those of the average thirteen year old would probably find legitimately hilarious, but these people forget that Japan is great like that. Plus, a lot of people around the world only saw the censored international versions of stuff like this to start with...
"Wah! There's no balls! They're gone!"
If you think THIS is juvenile, go look up "Unchi-kun".
Toei Douga, having already animated Toriyama's Dr. Slump gag-comedy to great success through the first half of the decade, began adapting Dragon Ball into a TV series in 1986 once Dr. Slump's run ended. The adaptation was essentially usurped in 1989 when the TV show's title was changed to "Dragon Ball Z", and would continue until 1996. While Toriyama had very little direct influence with the TV series or related TV specials and theatrical films, series director Nishio Daisuke would pester him for input on character casting and like before being trusted to oversee the adaptation on his own for which, I think, he deserves plenty of credit - the Dragon Ball anime franchise expands upon the storylines Toriyama created without typically contradicting them, and the animation and direction itself, though naturally limited by the break-neck pace of being a weekly serial, was reasonably good and generally quite consistent, with most fans only turning their back on the (admittedly god-awful) anime only Garlic Jr. saga that tried to tie the stand-alone movie universe back into the generally more canonical TV series... let's just pretend this never happened. You know, like we tend to do with the fourth and eleventh DBZ movies.
Toriyama's publishers at Shueisha convinced him twice to extend the series - once after the defeat of Freeza, and again after the Cell Game. He continued pumping out new characters and expanding storylines, waffling back and fourth between his new role as the premier "action: mangaka and his first love of ridiculous jokes about poop, obesity and midgets. Toei Douga adapted the weekly chapters as best they could, adding original content (often disparagingly called "filler" by English speaking audiences) but stuck reasonably close to the source material, often cribbing dialog and camera angles verbatim from Toriyama's dynamic comics. The animated series was quickly sold to the rest of the world and dubbed into countless languages, and became a world-wide phenomenon that forever changed action cartoons. It may not sound like much, but the idea that, at any time, a main character - hero of villain - could be killed in the natural and due course of battle was kind of a big deal back in 1990, and it's a ballsy move that most children's entertainment (even back in Japan!) tend to avoid to this day. It also introduced the world to Mr. Satan, iconic pro-wrestler and Savior of Earth... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
This is the best thing ever and you fucking know it.
Toei Douga would continue milking the franchise - much to its detriment, it's worth noting - in Dragon Ball GT, a series that was made almost entirely without the input of Toriyama, and was uncerimoniously ignored to death after only a year and a half. The show was set to be canceled before that, but Toei kept plugging away at increasingly stupid stories after the defeat of the villainous Baby, only so that they could air the final episode on the same day as the Japanese release of the Playstation fighting game. That game was "Dragon Ball: Final Bout" and it totally ate a dick, by the way.
It's really a shame that Torimaya's Dragon Ball franchise, a decade long powerhouse of youth action and adventure that crossed all cultural barriers by way of sheer charming insanity, ended on such a whimper... but Toei found a way to milk the franchise 20 years later that's both better and worse in the form of "Dragon Ball Kai", essentially a 100 episode Cliff Notes reworking of the first 200 episodes of Dragon Ball Z. Most of the original Japanese vocal cast returned, essentially, to re-voice the roles that made them famous set to re-edited versions of the same fucking show - though occasionally brand new digital footage would be used to replace outdated special effects, which rarely looked half as good as the vintage material. I'd talk about the all new soundtrack, with Kenji Yamamoto's largely electronic beats replacing Shunsuke Kikuchi's neo-classical orchestral pieces, but it turns out that Yamamoto was a filthy plagiarist who thought little of ripping off scores from Hollywood movies and progressive rock bands alike, so Toei eventually nudged him off of the project and went about replacing the entire Kai soundtrack with vintage Kikuchi. I personally think of that as an improvement, but it does make Dragon Ball Kai feel all the more redundant for it...
I literally have no feelings for this song one way or another.
I actually admire the ruthless capitalism and nostalgia vampirism Toei showed in re-packaging a 1989-1994 TV series as a contemporary TV show in 2009 as a way to "celebrate" the manga's 25th anniversary, but in the end Kai is an amalgam of old and new, fixing what in my eyes weren't ever broke to start with. Kai is an abridged experience that some people find better than the cautiously paced original TV series that was always in very real danger of running out of new Toriyama created material to adapt, and even earned the snarky nickname "Drag-On Ball" by some of its fans who acknowledged that the show would tend to consist of long stretches of Gokuu and Freeza staring into each others eyes longingly instead of actually punching each other... but Kai decides that Goten and Majin Buu and Vegeto never existed, so fuck it. "Z" and "Kai" are completely different animals essentially made for different audiences. I'll not fault those who like it, but will say that it clearly doesn't exist for my sake.
It's greatest strengths are perhaps its incidental ones - the fantastically realized world of TORIYAMA Akira's boundless imagination that's equal parts Hamster dome and romanticized 19th century China. The fact that the hero, loosely based on the legendary Monkey King, literally grows up, gets married and starts a family after saving the world about a half-dozen times. The fact that the boundless power of a dragon crafted by God himself is abused to grant a Communist Pig - no, really, a talking swine in a Chinese military uniform - fresh panties. The fact that time travel, intergalactic warfare, and two children in a sheet passing themselves off as an adult are all given equal weight and exploration makes the show just as exciting as it is absurd. Case in point there are these guys, who are just as likely to break a five year old's spine in half as they are make even the homosexuals of N*Sync look like bastions of sweaty and heavily bearded heterosexuality.
Did I mention they're all named after dairy products?
Trying to explain the appeal of Dragon Ball - and its' latter chapters, which Toei Douga adapted as "Dragon Ball Z" to signify the rather dramatic shift in tone as classically "evil and stuff" demons loosely based on the Djinn's of 1001 Arabian Knights were replaced by murderous intergalactic real estate agent aliens as the show's main villains - is surely an exercise in futility. The show's core focus is on supernatural martial arts, the hierarchy of intergalactic race relations, time traveling android fighters and a being made of pure magical evil who happens to be legally retarded. Calling the premise of any given story arc "batshit crazy" is an understatement, and watching the series evolve from weekly comedy sketches about a naive country boy with a tail's lack of understanding that girls don't have penises to a show about a murderous lump of silly putty literally killing every single person on the planet just to draw out a worthy challenger is one so gradual and unpredictable that Toriyama's comics would literally shift between one extreme to the other seemingly at the drop of a hat, and created such a ridiculously convoluted world of fantasy, science fiction and straight up nonsense that it becomes impossible to explain where each ingredient begins and ends. Seriously, let me describe the backstory to one of the standard saga-long villains:
Upon returning from a second alternate future in which Dr. Gero has created a perfect hybrid clone of the Z Fighters, this biological create - Cell - returns to our time with a murdered Trunks' time machine so that he might collect the bodies of Androids #17 and #18 so that he can perfect himself, and - becoming the most perfect being in the universe - will spend his time destroying it to stave off boredom until he spends eternity in a void of nothing, satisfied that he is now everything.
Yes, that is the show's greatest villain's motivation in a nutshell; he can now truly be the greatest thing in the universe SO FUCK ALL Y'ALL. It's these broad, black and white terms in which Toriyama's universe exists, but it's in so many ways removed from reality that it never feels like uncomfortable thematic propaganda, but is also just close enough to our own that it never feels completely alien. Japan in particular is a modern culture obsessed with trying one's best, evolving and surpassing all others, and this is realized by the heroes literally becoming golden, glowing gods that possess untold powers in their Super Saiyan forms. A lot of people have read into this being a symbolic and racist concept, of Toriyama and perhaps all Japanese viewers wanting to "evolve" into aryan supermen, but I think taking that from a black and white visual medium where a change in hair and eye color from black to white might be taking it all a little to far without factoring in the limitations of a monochromatic visual medium.
Son Gokuu himself is an inspiration to geek culture everywhere, though most people probably don't consciously recognize it. Discovering martial arts at the start of his adolescence, Gokuu literally spends every free moment pursuing his passions. Not because he's the Earth's defender with a strong sense of justice or even because he's a brainwashed murder machine, but because it's fun. Becoming stronger, finding tough opponents that excite him, literally spending months dead to learn a new style of martial arts - he wouldn't have it any other way. He isn't a neglectful father or a bad husband, though; aside from the whole "being dead" and "lost in space" parts of the story he spends his days at home punching trees for firewood or preparing hot baths, providing for and doing his best to take care of his dangerously insane wife and young son. He without hesitation accepts the trials and responsibilities of adulthood, but spends the time that's his own learning and experiencing that which he adores, solely because it's the one thing he really enjoys in life. His hyper-focused nature and complete ignorance of anything that's unrelated to his family and friends, eating or punching gives him an accessibility to the work's target audience - children, remember - but keep him from being a totally irresponsible role model, and could be the poster boy for the modern age if only people equated "punching skulls" with "playing Xbox". I suppose a cynic would argue these are less "geek dedication" traits and more a simplified discussion of aspergers syndrome, but I've no time for all that, so I'll let the Cracked.com editorial staff decide exactly what personality flaws fictional characters have.
Son Gokuu is a fascinating character anyway, because he is - at face value, anyway - an idiot savant. The victim of violent head trauma as an infant, an alien monster who turns into a giant ape in the light of the full moon, and able to launch fireballs out of his fist like he's snapping his fingers, Son Gokuu has all of the ingredients to be a jaded war-machine who's decades of fighting monsters, robots, aliens and balls of pink snot could have left him a bitter husk of PTSD. Yet he speaks with a thick Osaka twang, and seems more interested in what's for dinner than getting any traditional therapy. It'd be disingenuous to call him a redneck, but he's a simple bumpkin with a fair share of brain damage who's natural talents to work out what's wrong compensate for his broad lack of common sense. But he's also a fighter, through and through; the threat of bodily harm or even death to little to persuade him to stand down, and seem only to goad him on in some self exploratory emotional masochism that demands he fight until he has, in no uncertain terms, beaten his enemy on terms they can both acknowledge. He doesn't want to kill anyone, or even prove that he can win... he just wants to know he can. He's an ineffably charming bastard who's manly leanings were really incendental, and yes, the fact that he was voiced by a squeaky woman made the combination perhaps all the more charming.
"All these damn Chinese cartoon characters look exactly the same!"
- My grandfather and his infinite wisdom.
- My grandfather and his infinite wisdom.
Ah yes, the last sentence has instantly created a divide in some people; those who think of Son Gokuu as Masako Nozawa, and those who think of him as Sean Schemmel - or, if you're getting old like me, maybe Peter Kelamis. FUNimation's English "reversioning", as they literally like to call it, has come a long way since they were working with the Ocean Group to dub the first 13 episodes of Dragon Ball in the mid 1990s. They were playing the Syndication game back when, and were busy making both Saban and the fellas at the freakin' FCC happy, which resulted in a show that was dramatically censored and repurposed for its American broadcast. The first 35 episodes were so chopped up they literally became 26 on syndication (with a "bonus" episode that was released on video), with the show's main selling point in the action sequences being bowdlerized, often outright castrated beyond recognition. People never "died" and went to Heaven, as was the case in every other dubbed version of the show (and made obvious by the halos) - oh no sir, they merely passed into "another dimension"! There was regularly ADR work to downplay images of destruction, with city blocks being blown to smithereens accompanied by someone snidely remarking about how it's a good thing they'd evacuated - when, often enough, the original version of the show would include images of hapless citizens being vaporized. This was on top of bizarre anglicized names, like "Krillin" instead of Kururin, "Tien" instead of Tenshinhan, and of course Son Gokuu's family name being dropped. In America he's just 'Goku', thank ya very much. Apparently last names are for losers.
Blood, booze and tobacco was digitally erased frame by frame on a regular basis, and in a stunningly bizarre decision, FUNimation removed all instances of a character being punched in the head. Obviously they could only cut so much before the battles became incomprehensible, so they came up with a "clever" solution by way of adding blinking "POW!" stars like you'd see in old episodes of the Adam West Batman TV series. Well, they didn't literally say POW!, but they sure as hell looked just as silly. Of equal note was that plenty of minor characters - holdovers from older storylines, mostly - were minimized, with some of them (such as the multiple-personality bank robber Lunch) disappearing outright. The show's soundtrack was replaced, a necessity after all of the drastic cutting done, and some episodes would be re-ordered or sped up digitally, just to meet episode count quotas. While perhaps not quite as butchered as vintage Harmony Gold titles - particularly the still beloved Robotech, which tried (in vain) to convince Americans that Southern Cross and Mospedia were somehow just the later episodes of Macross - the Americanized version of Dragon Ball Z was still a massive departure from the Japanese title it once was, and at the time, it was something of a big deal. Even before Dragon Ball Z hit American airwaves there were studios who were pushing for authentic and unedited presentations of Japanese animation... so what made Dragon Ball Z any different? Obviously, DBZ had a larger market for action figures and bed sheets than Ranma 1/2 and The Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor, but what about the emerging base of fans who realized that Dragon Ball wasn't an American production, and wanted to see what all of the fuss was about without needing to see it through a filter of FCC regulations and a new electronic score?
That said... I kinda wish all syndicated cartoons had death metal themesongs.
It's thanks to Chris Psaros and his time capsule of a website DBZ Uncensored that I even knew that Dragon Ball Z was a different product outside of North America. At the time I had already "discovered" anime thanks to my father having shown me and my brother a copy of Vampire Hunter D and Robot Carnival, and I'd spent the next few years tracking down whatever I could find, good or bad, for adults or children, just to get a better understanding of what this crazy Japanimation stuff even was. The internet was in its infancy, mind you. I mean there was still a lot of porn, but it was all pictures instead of streaming video, and Real Media was the only way to see movie trailers in postage-stamp sized clips that may as well have been pixels on top of more pixels - I know I'm dating myself with all of this, and that's fine. I think it's great that now anyone can watch all of Citizen Kane on YouTube, I really do. But for there to be such a comprehensive and amusing (to my younger self) look at the differences between Toei's Dragon Ball Z and FUNimation's English bastardization thereof that I had to see it for myself. Only trouble was I wasn't Japanese, and it wasn't 1989...
At the time, you were just plain out of luck. It's easy to joke about the concept of internet sucking back when, but I honestly can't, in any satisfactory way, explain how different things were as a fan of anime in the late 1990s who was still only getting a weekly allowance; your options were buying VHS tapes at the local FYE store and hoping they didn't suck, waiting for the Sci-Fi Channel to stop playing Kolchak reruns long enough to premier something from Manga Entertainment or Streamline Pictures in a heavily cut run form, or search high and low in the internet for someone selling these... "fansub" things, which sounded like non-profit bootlegs, a concept that made even less sense than it does now when getting strangers on the internet to type "koo! thx ni99a" is a reward unto itself... apparently. We were several years off from BitTorrent giving any asshole with google the power to watch an anime the same week it premiered in Japan - back then, it was dubbed and potentially bastardized US releases, or skanky VHS bootlegs you mailed $25 in cash off to some guy who ran an anime club on the other side of the country, and hoped the results were actually subtitled and remotely watchable. When I saw the first 35 episodes of Dragon Ball Z as they aired on Japanese TV for the first time, it was a revelation for me - the show's fabric, it's very culture had nothing to do with the cringe-worthy Americanized shit friends of mine had convinced was the best thing they'd ever seen on a Saturday morning. Instantly I had fallen in love, and while I won't claim that it's remained my favorite single anime series, the impact it had on me was undeniable. Instantly I got WHY people wanted to watch subtitled films, why they sought out strange artifacts of foreign cultures, why weekly cartoons intended to move plastic toys and curry rice lunches mattered... even when it didn't.
I literally had an EP dupe of this fucking thing with 3 other movies.
It must have cost me like $12. At the time, I was literally elated.
While I don't for a second believe the arguments that friends and even strangers propose of anime "being worse" in the 21st century than it was 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, I do believe that there's a certain cutoff they're associating with things that they thought were "better". Anime was always a cultish obscurity one had to go out of their way to find, and the lack of a unified distribution system (ie: The Internet) made anime both an appealing and treasured commodity before the mid-oughts made it available both free and instantly to anyone with a passing interest in it as a disposable entertainment medium. It warms my heart knowing that my teenaged sister goes through twitching miserable withdrawals when she hasn't caught the latest episode of Naruto Shippuden, but I also know the fact that she only needs to go to YouTube to get it makes the experience that much less personal.
Also, odds are they fell in love with this crap when they were like 15. After a decade or two you see through all of the superficial and pretentious bullshit you thought was awesome back when and see it for the cloying, goofy manipulative bullshit it really was. Movies, music, fashion - it all reaches a point where the stuff you thought was awesome now looks ridiculous and dated, and the only way to acknowledge that you weren't a flaming douche when you did think that stuff was cool is to assume that YOU didn't change, but the world around you somehow got worse. It's a trap we all probably fall into from time to time, but it's one I only hope the world can march towards understanding and recognizing more than it does.
I would never buy dubbed tapes, not even in '97.
But I have to admit, Blu-ray cases can't do that...
But I have to admit, Blu-ray cases can't do that...
Before one thinks this is strictly a bucket of self-pity about things being "better" back when, I don't decry the perceptible loss of quality anime as so many friends and frenemies over the years have suggested. Merely I decry the intangible concept that there was something special and magical about them, that you were alone in the world and consuming something that those around you just didn't understand. This doesn't make shows better or worse - it's an illusion, a fabric of coolness you build up around yourself subconsciously that makes what, and the end of the day, is a cartoon for 8 year olds seem personal. It's not even bad to take stupid shit like movies and video games and novels like they're tailor made just to make you happy... but with the ease with which one gets these things, the only thrill left is the consumption.
That isn't really such a terrible thing, mind you. Film is a consumable product, and if a film is good it doesn't matter if you imported the damn thing from Kazakhstan on a bootleg VCD or if you just saw it on cable one day. The only problem with the model of everything being readily available is that now nothing has a set worth - not only a price tag, but in how hard you had to work or how long you had to wait just to see something you were legitimately excited for. The days of trading fansubs with dudes you barely knew on message boards or writing reviews on a website before the word "blog" existed about some weird horror movie your local mom 'n' pop video store had which IMDb said didn't exist are gone, and with them is that sense of discovery and satisfaction. Don't get me wrong, the fact that I had to spend a comparative fortune and watch Dragon Ball Z on nth generation tapes with barely readable subtitles and utter garbage quality just to understand what the show really was is a thrill I'm not convinced I'll ever find again in this world... it's a dumb emotional attachment thrill, but that doesn't mean it was real. These days I'd probably have to murder a stripper with a length of habanero-coated barbed wire to get that same rush, and goddamn it, I can't keep asking friends to keep locked freezers on their property for me forever.
If, for whatever reason, I'm emotionally unable to put away my toys and grow the fuck up, I'm surprisingly fine with that. At the very least, maybe I can just put away my DVD box sets in favor of the new Blu-ray...
ON THE NEXT EPISODE OF KENTAI FILMS VS DRAGON BALL Z:
...wait, how the hell am I doing a Next Episode Preview if the Blu-ray doesn't include them? OH GOD, I'M BEING EATEN BY A PARADO--