Sunday, December 29, 2013

Overlong Discussion of the Filler-Free Dragon Ball Kai

I'm not even done with the first season yet, I *should* wait to write a review. But history tells me, if I wait until I'm actually finished, I'll never get around to writing a review at all.

A lot of the anime I watched as a kid has actually gotten better with age. Evangelion and Gundam Wing seem smarter than they did when I was 12 years old because I can understand more of what they're going for. Even Hellsing seems a litle more en pointe now that I've become a horror fan.

Dragon Ball Z was always my primary obsession as a kid. Memories of watching the Ocean dub Saiyan fight, and the rickety VHS tape fansub Freezer fight, are among my most eternal and cherished childhood memories. And I've certainly remained a fan. I seem to rewatch the first and/or third season of the show every couple years, which is saying something since there were probably 10 years in between my last two viewings of both Evangelion and Gundam Wing.

Yet, while I've remained an advocate of the show, it definitely hasn't gotten better with age. While it didn't irk me much as a kid, after Avatar: The Last Airbender came into existence, the flaws in Z's formula became more apparent. While Avatar tells a succinct, well-paced story, DBZ unfortunately rambles on for dozens of episodes without progressing much at all, and as the series went on the story became even less cohesive and less consequential. Don't get me wrong, there's no question that ATLA is Oasis to Z's Beatles. But I've never been one to favor history over results. I'll take Led Zeppelin over Robert Johnson, Nirvana over Fang, Ani Difranco over Joni Mitchell... And there's truly nothing I respect more in fiction than a well-paced story with a concise beginning, middle, and end; that's one reason why I prefer Breaking Bad over the Sopranos. And one reason why DBZ doesn't hold up as well as it rightly should.

But I'm not the only one who feels this way about Dragon Ball Z. In fact, they took the core of the series, subtracted the filler, and put it out anew as Dragon Ball Kai. A fresh start for a legendary series, and an attempt to right what they did wrong in their overly gluttonous and unfocused interpretation of a fairly focused and ungluttonly manga series.

First we'll discuss the bad, because it's ever so easy to nitpick.

Part of me wants to say, this was an opportunity wasted. DBZ only got a reversion when it really deserved a remake. Kai feels a little ramshackle, it doesn't flow as well as it could. Certain things are left in that shouldn't have been (e.g. Gregory serves absolutely no purpose -- Goku solves that trial the exact same way he caught Bubbles!) and other things are cut out that probably shouldn't have been -- For example, the Z fighters are called to Kami's palace for special training but Kami then proceeds to do absolutely nothing -- he doesn't train them or give them any special pep-talks, all they do is fight in front of him for a couple of scens and then leave. You also have Lunch appearing in the intro whereas she never actually appears in the series -- they cut her little scenes out. We also have a TV crew magically appear broadcasting the fight for Earth, without any explanation of their arrival or how they know what a "Saiyan" is.

So, while certain continuity issues are resolved in Kai by cutting ill-conceived content that wasn't in the manga, new continuity issues are born from the need to subtract so much filler. This problem would be resolved had Z been reanimated instead of just reedited. Presumably Gregory's little arc was included because they couldn't subtract all the future scenes that feature Gregory standing next to Kaio-sama while Kaio says something important. But a series remake could have removed the Gregory character entirely, and included brief but consequential scenes to give Kaio and Kami's respective training a sense of weight, without having to take up much time. And, naturally, I'd have taken the opportunity to give Z my dream ending -- kill off Goku on Namek and then finish with a proper season detailing Vegeta's attempt to take over Earth.

It's also worthy of note that Funimation's Kai DVDs appear to be edited, despite being advertised as uncut. That is to say.... they aren't edited, they just appear to be that way. Because the original Japanese version of Kai is "edited" compared to the original version of Z. While we do see some blood, and some swearing, and a lot of characters taking a whizz, and Kame's beer has been restored to its natural brown... Gohan's nudity has been conspicuously covered in typical 1999 censorship "here's a shrub in the way!" style and the bloodiness of Raditz's death was all but removed, his gaping torso wound looks more like a bruise. But I don't much mind, it's not like this is Game of Thrones, where censorship would actually have an effect. The cuts here are extremely minor. The only thing that annoys me is the torso wound because it looked so idiotic -- you can't have an energy blast disembowel you and then leave a fucking bruise. Might as well have sewn Raditz's head on a turtle, it would have looked equally nonsensical.

But now, onto the good. While Kai isn't as seameless as it could have been, the end result may be worth it. What we have here, is all the best of Z and none of the worst. What really started out as a fantastic story, was diluted into an ugly mess, and now DBKai has restored it to (most) of its proper glory, and that's a wondrous thing.

This is, by far, the most fun I've had watching Dragon Ball of any sort since I was probably 13 or 14 years old. Maybe the Buu saga with my brother, that was pretty fun even though the content was mediocre, not sure what age I was when we did that. But this is definitely the best time since I've become an adult. It's just, extraordinarly exciting and satisfying, to see this show with the action intact and the filler gone.

The problem with Z wasn't really the filler storylines -- Garlic Jr., Gohan & the robot, Bulma & co.'s space adventures... if you don't want to watch that stuff, all you have to do is skip those episodes. The real filler problem was the constant stalling, where you'd have the characters stand around and stare at each other, and then they'd go to commercial, and they'd reshow the exact same scene of the characters standing around staring at each other. Then the episode would end, and they'd start the next episode with the same staring scene you had already seen twice. The stalling is what made Z jarring on rewatches, and with Kai you don't have that problem. I was literally in tears watching the Nappa battles with no filler what-so-ever. It was filled to the brim with quality action and content, I was at the edge my seat even knowing every little nuance of the fights already.

I'm not about to get rid of my fansubs or DVDs of the original Z, for memories' sake if nothing else. But I do suspect I'll be rewatching Kai in the future in most cases instead of Z. This is a better version of an already great show. And I'd even go so far as to say that this is, thus far, the definitive version of Dragon Ball Z. I think they could do better with it in the future, but this is a superior telling of Z's story.

This truncated version of DBZ has gotten me thinking about the original Ocean Dub. I still have some of the VHS tapes but many of them over the years have been lost or damaged. But you know what's absolutely peculiar? FUNimation released a DVD set of the original Ocean Dub. Yeah... they did, FUNimation released a set of the Ocean dub. This has to be like... the 25th time they've released DBZ. On the one hand it's kind of sickening that DBZ can apparently make money off of 10,000 different releases while Neon Genesis Evangelion can't even stay in print. But on the other hand I'm thrilled that I have the chance to buy the Ocean dub on DVD if I want to. In some ways this was the original Kai. Yes, the censorship was unfortunate, but the voices and music in Ocean's version are far superior to FUNimation's own work on the series. The Ocean dub seemed to take itself seriously while FUNimation's version sounds more like SpongeBob than ATLA (or X-Men TAS, Batman TAS, any cartoon that takes itself seriously).
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