In April 1989 Toei began to screen their animated version of the popular Shonen Jump manga by Akira Toriyama on Fuji TV in Japan, continuing the martial arts/SF saga about a prodigiously strong boy, Son Goku. Loosely based on The Journey to the West but very much Toriyama’s creation, enlivened by his unique sense of humour, Dragon Ball Z starts five years after Goku is victorious in the Martial Arts Tournament. The good-natured young man now has a little son, Gohan… but his origins far beyond Earth and his mysterious past catch up with him at last as an unwanted visitor arrives in a space pod and…well, you probably know the rest, as there have been many versions made available to us in English, including the streamlined Dragon Ball Kai (practically no filler!)
To celebrate the 30th anniversary in 2019, Funimation brought out this massive (37 discs!) Collector’s Edition, with an art book, a Ban Presto figure – and the anime itself remastered in 4:3 aspect ratio. Manga Entertainment made this set available in the UK – and here at Anime UK News, we’ve been taking a look at this new version. We won’t be watching all 291 episodes this time around but we’re taking a look at the Blu-ray transfer, the sound quality and – of course – some of the special features.
As anyone even casually following this site over the past few years would know, I do like myself some Dragon Ball. A favourite show of mine in my late teens and still is now in my mid-30s, it’s my perfect “switch your brain off and have fun” show, or shows, I guess. The UK has had a severe lack of physical Dragon Ball releases in the past, but within the last decade we’ve gotten all three original series on DVD, and the Kai cut-down version of Z on Blu-ray, plus films and the sequel series Dragon Ball Super. Where does this rather expensive black box sit in the grand scheme of things? It truly is a mixed bag, so let’s take a look at why…
The Technical Bits:
Narrowing our focus to just Dragon Ball Z, we’ve had two releases prior to this one. The infamous “Orange Bricks”, DVDs that were cropped to 16:9 widescreen and so heavily filtered and cleaned that black lines were vanishing and distant objects were blurring, and Dragon Ball Z Kai, a version of Z without filler and nicely restored in 4:3 (with the exception of the Buu arc…), but also censored (blood removed, nudity censored, that sort of thing) and obviously missing a lot of footage if you want the original Z experience. How do these releases stack up? Let’s have a look with these picture screengrabs granted to me by a nice chap who wishes to remain nameless (right click and “View Image” for a closer look!):
As you can see, the 30th Anniversary picture has still been heavily colour graded (goodbye green sky…) and smoothed out, but in general it hasn’t gone as far as the original “Orange Bricks”. The 4:3 framing is also slightly different to that of Kai, which I found odd when comparing the images (obviously not while watching, that would take a hell of fan to notice that!) Let’s take a look at a second example:
Once again if you compare Nappa’s arms or Vegeta’s face on the far left to the far right, you’ll notice more line detail and a softer skin tone on the 30th Anniversary set, but then comparing that to Kai and you’ll see the skin tone is still off compared to a restoration job that’s closer to the original footage. That being said, the footage in Kai has been altered to better fit continuity, so you lose out on that original Z colour palette for Vegeta (which good or bad, is part of the show’s history…) Also look at the lack of alien blood splatter at the arm, even the alien blood was removed in parts of Kai…
I guess in conclusion, if you want a quicker narrative that’s closer to the manga and a picture that’s closer to the original film, then go with Kai (especially given how much cheaper that would be!) but if you want the full run of Z episodes, then the 30th Anniversary set is the best of the two options (with the exception of the price…) as well as the only UK release that has Buu arc episodes in 4:3 framing…
Sound-wise the release is good, with both audio tracks sounding good through my speakers, so no matter which side you fall on, you’ll be happy on that side of things. I’m also happy to report that you still have the option of watching the English dub with either the dub musical score or the Original Japanese BGM. The other advantage of this over Kai is in the sound department: the UK releases on Kai used the brand-new score from Kenji Yamamoto which then switched to the original Z score a few volumes in, due to Mr. Yamamoto being caught on plagiarism charges, giving the show an inconsistent tone, whereas this is obviously entirely the now-classic original score from Shunsuke Kikuchi. The Japanese voice acting in Kai was re-recorded many years apart, so this set also keeps the original performances from when the cast was younger, not that the Kai version sounded awful or anything, but some voices were obviously lower and gruffer, or replaced entirely.
The Saiyan Arc
So each of us got one major story arc to look at, and I got numero uno, the Saiyan Arc. What’s confusing about this, for those not in the know, is that while it’s the first arc in Z, it’s actually roughly the eighth arc in the Dragon Ball manga, which was just a continuous run in Japan, so much like when I first watched the show in 2000, it’s watching a reunion between old friends, despite the fact that it’s the “start”. Now obviously back then I eventually got to know the characters and loved the show, and now I’ve watched all of Dragon Ball several times over by this point, so I can easily pick the story up without issue, it still has to be mentioned that if you SOMEHOW blind-bought this near £300 box to watch the show for the first time, you might be lost to start with.
This is the part of the Dragon Ball story where Akira Toriyama looked to space to come up with new adversaries for Goku after he’d just won the title of “Strongest under the Heavens” and beat the biggest villain on Earth in Demon King Piccolo’s reincarnation… Piccolo. An alien lands named Raditz who not only is extremely powerful but claims to be Goku’s brother! Yes, Toriyama decides to go all Superman and have Goku’s backstory be that he was sent to Earth as a child and raised as a simple-minded farm boy on Earth (okay, so Clark Kent wasn’t so simple-minded, but you get the point), with his old giant ape form from the start of the series being an aspect of his alien race. Goku has a son now who is starting to show the same powers as he did, tail and all, so Goku’s past comes back to haunt him in more ways that he’d ever imagine. Goku teams up with Piccolo and the duo manage to knock off Uncle Raditz, but soon find out that two even more powerful Saiyans are on their way to Earth.
It seems odd to use the word “spoiler” on a show that’s old enough to have a 30th Anniversary box, but that’s the gist. Everyone trains for a good while, then they take on Nappa and Vegeta, the latter being a prince and looks down on Goku for being a low-level warrior from a simple family, setting up the whole “even a low-level warrior can beat an elite with enough training” thing… The battle between Goku and Vegeta is still a great sight to behold, even now. Unlike the other three arcs in Z, this arc leaves a lot of threads hanging and transfers almost immediately into the next one…
Extras for what is being billed on-disc as “Season 1” is a clean opening and ending. That’s it, but then it is technically discs 1-4 of a 37-disc box, so… can’t complain there!
The Cell Saga
When it comes to determining my favourite of DBZ’s overall storylines my mind often wavers over the Cell Saga and its accompanying parts starting with the Trunks Saga and finishing with the Cell Games Saga.
This portion of Dragonball Z feels quite different from what we’ve had so far as the actual reveal of Cell is a slow burn as we first get some time travel shenanigans in the appearance of Future Trunks. This is followed by the villainous Dr. Gero of the Red Ribbon Army whose machinations see their creation of bio-organic androids who pose a real threat to the Z Fighters.
Cell appears from the future, having been designed “using the genetics of the greatest fighters to have been present on earth”. His evolution and various techniques of fighting and killing make for an intriguing threat and his presence and personality ensure his legacy as one of the franchise’s signature foes.
Another aspect I remembered from The Cell Saga is Gohan’s character development. Gohan is a character that (literally and figuratively) grows throughout DBZ, going from a scared and fragile child to a capable enough fighter, and seeing him getting praise from his father as the Z Fighters look on with pride is a touching moment.
This arc also has Goku instantly transmitting a self-detonating Cell to King Kai’s planet and blowing his home to kingdom come in the process. It manages be both a poignant sacrifice and hilarious, thanks to the line delivery and absurdity of the situation.
Looking at the discs themselves, having these episodes returned to their original 4:3 is nice to see, though there are still well-documented issues with the video quality which is a shame, considering how much fans have anticipated a release like this and the cost it incurs.
If you’re looking to revisit the original series and have £300 to spare then I’d recommend doing some research on how the images stack up before taking the plunge.
The Majin Buu Arc
While each of these sets appears to have been divided into arcs involving the four main antagonists that Goku and friends face, it is, in actuality, much more convoluted than that. They have been broken down into nine seasons and the Majin Buu portion of the collection consists of Seasons 7 to 9; however, all of us familiar with Dragon Ball Z know it as being divided into sagas. This arc of the anime consists of more sagas than any of the others, making it one of the most varied in terms of the stories told.
This is a very common sentiment with this particular series here in the West, but Dragon Ball Z was one of the gateway series that would start me on this long love affair with anime over the years and it is still a series I hold in high regard. With that said, if I had to rank these major arcs of the series, I would have always placed the Majin Buu arc at the bottom. Going back and watching it now, all these years later, there is actually a large amount I appreciate about this last chapter in the Z epic.
Perhaps a result of Akira Toriyama having worked on the Dragon Ball manga for many years by the point of writing this arc, it takes some chances and introduces a few new ideas to the main series canon. The time skip forward, the often maligned shift to Gohan as a main character for a period of time, the addition of now iconic abilities and transformations such as fusion, and the very unconventional path of Buu as a villain through the series. It does a lot different and not all of it hits the mark, but if you are binge watching this massive collection of episodes it contributes some really interesting additions to the formula. Through these episodes there are some underappreciated gems in the hall of great Dragon Ball battles, such as the fun Goten versus Trunks match and Vegeta finally gets another crack at Goku after all this time and it is as intense as I remember. I have to say that the real special through-line of the set for myself, that is punctuated in this last chapter of Z, is the arc of everyone’s favourite brash Saiyan prince, Vegeta. In a series where characters rarely grow outside of power levels, and the main protagonist has yet to learn how to be a responsible father figure, the journey of Vegeta through the series is perhaps my favourite. Upon re-watching these last episodes, it really has cemented him as one of my very favourite anime characters, even all these years later.
Being the last discs of this massive collection, the lion’s share of special features are to be found here. For your dose of the usual textless opening and closing you will get a pair of them per season. The special features are spread across the fourth discs of each season (and in the case of the last season, Disc 5 also). These include several interviews; Inside Dragon Ball Z: Interviews with Justin Cook and Nathaniel Harrison, Interviews with Kyle Hebert and Kara Edwards, and Interviews with Josh Martin and Chris Rager. There are also several specials into the cultural influence of the show such as a look into the production and gameplay of the collectible card game, Dragon Ball Z Card Game: Past, Present and Future. A couple of features provide a glimpse into the series adaption from Japan to the West: From East to West: Dragon Ball Z’s Epic Journey and Dragon Ball Z: Coming to America. The later looks specifically at the licensing and brought to my attention a fun fact that I was never aware of; that the famous “Over 9000!” line was actually a mistranslation. The only new special feature made for this collection is; Celebrities Talk: 30 Years of Dragonball Z, where a few young celebrities discuss what the series has meant to them.
Also, while not a brand-new feature, the inclusion of marathon mode as a watching option has been great and can remove many features that would become tedious in long binge watching sessions across discs. After the initial opening, first recap, and title card, it will remove these along with the closing titles and deliver just the core of every episode after. It allows the episodes to continue the main narrative, uninterrupted, without missing a beat and I really liked this streamlined way of going through the series.
My Final Thoughts:
This seems like the definitive way to own all original episodes of Dragon Ball Z on Blu-ray… because it’s the only way to do so in this country. Still, if you do have £299.99 to burn then this will undoubtedly look nice of the shelf and the episodes are certainly far better quality than the original DVD releases. I’d say good if you have the money… and if Manga UK don’t start selling individual sets in a few years…