Dragon Ball Z is an anime that holds many fond memories for me (and probably for you too, if you're reading this review). As a kid, I found myself hopelessly addicted to the sight of watching two guys blast the hell out of each other while spewing out iconic lines like "Its over 9000!!" After all these years, however, I have finally gotten around to writing a review of this show. It pains me to say it, but after taking a good hard look at it critically, I found it simply doesn't carry the same charm it had all those years ago.
Okay, maybe it does...kinda. No matter how much criticism I can lay on the series, I still maintain that it pulls no punches when it comes to action. Simply put, Dragon Ball Zhas some of the best choreographed, most stupefyingly awesome fight scenes aound. Admittedly, the fighting is pretty simplistic as the characters repeatedly grow to new power levels and just beat the Hell out of each other, but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for with pure, testosterone-fueled martial arts mayhem.
Unfortunately, flashy battles cannot hide the fact that the show simply lacks the fun and creativity of the original Dragon Ball (which I admittedly liked more than Dragon Ball Z; okay, I will now go into hiding). For one thing, there's no epic quest to obtain the dragon balls here - Oh, they're still there, but they serve as little more than plot devices that pop up to bring dead characters back to life. Yep, Dragon Ball Z is 100% fighting anime - no adventuring, less fun. Given that, the "plot" ends up being little more than an excuse to fight increasingly powerful bad guys. What's more, the fights all seem to follow a given formula. Good guy fights, gets beaten and either
a. Goku will arrive just in time to save them, or
b. Good guy will suddenly become stronger and beat bad guy.
This formula repeats itself throughout the show, so after a while, the fight scenes, stupefyingly awesome as they are, pretty much lose their tension - they just aren't enough to hold viewer interest for 291 whole episodes.
DBZ's major problem isn't any of the above flaws, however, which are possible to accept as common shonen action tropes. No, DbZ's biggest problem is, inarguably, its atrocious pacing. Dragon Ball Z is one of those anime that was unfortunately running at the same time as the manga, and as a result, the show adds lots of filler and massively drawn out fights to pad out the show. The average length of a figt scene, I believe, is no fewer than five episodes - and that may even be a little low. The best example of this is probably the fight between Goku and Frieza at the end of the Frieza saga, which lasted for no fewer than 19 episodes. This would be a little easier to stomach if the characters spent most of this time actually fighting, but thing is, only about 40% so-called "fights," actually consist of super-awesome fighting. The other sixty percent consists of characters staring each other down, going over their strategy, and gloating over how much more powerful they are than the other guy. After ten episodes of this, you'll probably fall asleep waiting for it to end.
As if to add insult to injury, the show also includes some of the most blatant filler episodes I've ever seen in any anime, period. One infamous filler arc early in the show has Goku running down a long path for ten or so episodes while going through some totally useless adventures in Hell and on the path. Another filler arc ties in to one of the many DBZ movies and ends up being just as disposable as them. As such, in all of 291 episodes, Dragon Ball Z just doesn't have enough substance to carry it through. Good luck trying to finish the show.
Dragon Ball Z's animation hasn't aged well at all, mainly because it was never a great looking show even at the time it was first aired. Early on, the low-budget animation is particularly obvious, with washed out colors and an overall grainy look. The backgrounds also aren't much to look at, with most fights taking place in either barren deserts or grassy plains that all look the same. The producers couldn't even come up with something unique for the other planets - Namek is basically Earth with tortoise shell-shaped houses. There are certainly a few high points - most notably a battle between Goku and Frieza on an exploding planet - but, for the most part, the backgrounds are rather plain.
As for the fight scenes, they suffer from the natural restrictions of a long-running show. Animation shortcuts abound, from speed lines to re-used cells that make each fight look similar to the last, thus making the already repetitive fights even more repetitive.
That said, DBZ's animation has a few saving graces that prevent it from from looking completely flat. Most notable of these are the character designs. Boasting seemingly endless variety (and ridiculous hairstyles), Toriyama's character designs are creative, inventive, and appealing. Notable standouts are Frieza in his forms ranging from scary to deceptively non-threatening, and Vegeta, who's small stature manages to hold a surprising menace (and an awesome widow's peak). Also, given that this is a show that ran over a course of seven years, the animation quality does improve over time. At the show's beginning, the animation is nothing short of piss poor, but by the time of the show's final season, it actually looks pretty decent, with a better use of color and more fluid movements.
Dragon Ball Z's English dubbing is surprisingly strong, and marks the start of Funimation's long line of quality dubs. While I didn’t care for the voices of a few of the side characters (particularly the goofy sounding King Kai), there are many more standouts. I actually like Goku's English voice, Sean Schemmel, more than his Japanese seiyuu (who I heard was a woman), despite his occasional bit of stiff delivery. Keep in mind, though, that this praise applies only to the Funimation dub, and not to the far-inferior Ocean dub. A good comparison to make would be between the voices of Vegeta. Chris Sabat makes him sound downright sinister in a way few other actors could; conversely, Ocean's Brian Drummond makes him sound more like a pissed-off munchkin (y’know, those cute little guys from Wizards of Oz).
However, I'd recommend watching the English dub not for the voice acting, but for the music. Simply put, aside from the catchy opening themes, the original Japanese soundtrack sucks. The BGM basically consists of some slightly revamped tunes from the original Dragon Ball's already unspectacular soundtrack. Not only does this sound totally dated, it just doesn't seem to fit the zany action taking place on the screen. The Bruce Falconer score, on the other hand, features a much livelier selection, with a healthy selection of guitar riffs that suit the action quite well, even if it is ridiculously cheesy.
Characterization is something of a mixed bag, but given that this is an anime focused predominantly on fighting, the characterization as a whole is surprisingly strong.
First off, if you’re a fan of the original Dragon Ball, don’t expect much from a majority of the old cast. Aside from Goku, Krillin, and Piccolo (and Bulma to an extent), the old characters like Tien, Yamcha, and Master Roshi are pretty much reduced to guest appearances. This is due to the fact that the show is pretty much a continuation of the original Dragon Ball, so the writers apparently assumed that the viewer has already watched that show. If you haven’t (which would likely be most of you, I believe) you’re given little reason to care about them other than the fact that they’re on Goku’s side. This doesn’t help with the fact that the characters are generally worthless in battle – in the face of more powerful foes, they end up as mere cannon fodder, which would have more impact if death in the show actually meant something. Thing is, when a character dies (which they do, often), they will assuredly be brought back to life either by the dragon balls or by some other contrived means, so you don’t really care if they live or die.
That said, the characters that are there manage to be strong enough to carry the show. Son Goku remains the benchmark by which all shonen protagonists are judged –strong, naïve, brave, and just an all around perfect hero. Piccolo, one of the villains from the original Dragon Ball, undergoes a somewhat surprising though still welcome change of character, as he goes from evil villain to respectable comrade through his interactions with Goku’s son Gohan, and Krillin manages to get some good moments in the spotlight. As for new characters, a few of them actually manage to bring something to the table. While some are fleshed out more than others, you’ll see a good amount that you’ll come to care about as they form bonds and grow in power as well as maturity.
Among them, the strongest example of this by far is Vegeta. The complete opposite of Goku in every respect, Vegeta starts out as a purely evil bastard that you just love to hate. Whereas pretty much every other character fight under the stale “I will defend the Earth” moniker, Vegeta is driven by his excessive pride and a repeated desire to surpass Goku that makes him all the more interesting. At the same time, the relationships he develops with Bulma and his son Trunks prevent him from coming off as a one-dimensional badass, and the choices he makes towards the end of the series show that he is ultimately not as evil as he initially seems. Indeed, watching Vegeta’s gradual change from ruthless villain to respectable, yet still badass comrade was one of the main factors that kept me watching to the end.
So, to answer the question many of you are probably asking: Does Dragon Ball Z live up to its massive hype. Well…that’s difficult to answer. On the one hand, it possesses some of the flashiest battles in all of anime, but on the other hand, it comes close to ruining it with lame fillers and really drawn out battles. My recommendation – Watch the new, streamlined Dragon Ball Z Kai, which is superior in almost every imaginable way.