Review: Dragon Ball Z

The most famous series of Goku and friends is an essential in the anime canon.

The Lowdown:

Show: Dragonball Z

Network (Studio) and years intially aired: Toei Animation, (Japan 1989-1996), USA- Cartoon Network 1998-2003)

AniB’s thoughts: Ah, the show that really brought anime into its own in the West; that gave Toei Animation a much bigger name, and that anybody who ever claimed to love the genre has laid eyes upon: Dragon Ball Z. I’d have to imagine that for many a reader, you lived through plenty of late nights on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block (before it was Adult Swim) at the turn of the millennium absorbing in the adventures of the one anime character even the most casual of TV watchers might know- Goku- in all their action-packed, blood and sweat filled, 4 hours of yelling filled glory. If you haven’t seen the series, it’s the 25- year old predecessor to the currently airing Dragonball Super, but was not the original iteration of the Dragon Ball franchise- that honor belongs to the same-named show that aired originally in Japan from 1986-1989, which among other things, shows Goku in his formative years and the introduction of franchise standbys such as Bulma, Master Roshi, Krillin, and Piccolo. But, as this review focuses on Z, I’ll save the details of the original series for another day.

Dragonball Z was an archetype show for anime that came after it for many reasons. However, it too was likely inspired by another of Toei’s works from the 1980’s- Hokuto no Ken, or in English, Fist of the North Star, which set templates for fantastical post-apocalyptic worlds and much more importantly, the idea of the superpowered shonen badass who has the capacity to be the strongest, faced by ever increasing challenges, higher stakes and powerful foes. Dragon Ball Z took that concept and ran; every danger was a planet-busting monster with little in the way of redemptive qualities (sans Vegeta, whose character development turns out to be the best of anyone in the show), which ultimately concludes with the pink blob destroyer of worlds, Majin Buu. But aside from the fight sequences, there were other reasons Dragon Ball became beloved: The FUNimation dub is fantastic to this day (and even better with updated Kai animation and lack of filler); we came to love the characters of the DBZ universe, which beyond Goku included people growing up with his eldest son Gohan; Piccolo’s transformation into one of the good guys, Future Trunks appearing in his debut to slay the rebuilt Mecha-Frieza and his father to bits, and of course, Vegeta, whose undying thirst to be the greatest warrior in the universe had an unexpected transformation in his character, giving us the greatest of rivalries. Even Frieza and Cell had their fans (though Buu’s only confirmed one was Mr. Satan, the self-proclaimed “hero of the world.”) And who could forget the dub opening of “Rock the Dragon?” (Mind you, the original Japanese opening has its own charm as well.)

Whatever the reasons, DBZ transformed into a cultural phenomenon the way few shows and fewer anime do. There are plenty of fine shows out there, but few ever make it quite as big as DBZ did. It’s not the greatest anime ever created, but it very well may be one of the most influential, and cultural affluence aside, is a pretty good show, aside from copious filler in parts and fights that literally stretch on for hours (though it’s part of the show’s experience.) So, without further ado, here’s the breakdown of Dragon Ball Z!

Animation Quality: Classic hand drawn Japanese anime from the 80’s. It was excellent for its time, and was brought up to date in Kai, but the original still has a nostalgic charm (which admittedly looks dated, but that’s an aside). The animation is especially brought out in action sequences; example include the famous struggle on Planet Namek between Goku and Frieza; the climatic fight at the Cell Games, and of course, the iconic beam struggles popularized by this show. (There’s a bonus point here, as Kai’s essentially a better remake with superior animation, so take that into account): 4.5/5 points.

Characterization: Dragon Ball Z boasts a surprisingly large cast of characters, many new, but also many holdovers from predecessor Dragon Ball. Despite the size, it focuses on a few main characters, namely Goku, and as the series progresses, Vegeta.

Goku (better known as Son Goku in Japan) is the main protagonist of the entire Dragon Ball franchise. Known for his insatiable appetite for both training and food, Goku transforms from a simple minded nice guy into one of the fiercest, toughest warriors in the universe- (spoilers- not really!) a Super Saiyan when drawn into battle, where he is veritably a combat genius. Gaining various powerups and powerful new abilities at each step along his journey, Goku’s will and drive to become the strongest for his own sake (and to protect those he cares about) helps him to overcome all the obstacles in his path, however insurmountable they may seem.

Vegeta is the self-proclaimed “Prince of All Saiyans”- the last of the former royal bloodline of the destroyed Saiyan homeworld. Originally coming to Earth with fellow companion Nappa in an attempt to find the Dragon Balls (for those who really have never seen this show, the titular items summon a wish-granting dragon, Shenron), Vegeta has a change of heart after an epic battle with Goku, starting on an intertwined destiny with his new rival while serving as a personality foil and anti-hero. Boastful, tougher than nails, and arrogant to boot, Vegeta’s pride knows no bounds, and while it makes him very strong, it is also his fatal weakness.

Aside from these two, Goku’s son Gohan plays a major role as well. Introduced as a young child at the start of the series, he is a quiet, shy boy with genius intellect and initially no fighting prowess. However, a confrontation with the first villain of the series reveals Gohan’s incredible hidden power and potential, something that first Piccolo and then Goku train tirelessly with Gohan to draw out. Their efforts do eventually pay off…and Gohan’s character arc is very good.

Trunks (both Future and regular) are Vegeta’s son. Initially appearing as anonymous Saiyan through time travel with a sword and the ability to go Super Saiyan, it is revealed through the course of the following arcs that he is in fact, Bulma and Vegeta’s baby. (During the Majin Buu saga, the present timeline Trunks, a young boy, appears as a major part of  the cast, along with Goku’s second son, Goten.)

Piccolo also deserves a mention in this column. Initially still Goku’s great enemy from the 23rd World Tournament in Dragon Ball, Piccolo quickly becomes an anti-hero out of necessity, and upon taking up the mantle of surrogate parent and trainer of Gohan, purges the evil out of his heart. He too receives several powerups through the series (though not to the same level as the Saiyans), along with a great deal of wisdom and a distinction as the Earth’s strongest non-Saiyan fighter.

Finally, there’s Krillin. Goku’s first training partner with Master Roshi, Krillin’s devotion to his friends and great spirit help keep him in titanic struggles despite being utterly outclassed by all the major DBZ villains as a human. Quick with a joke, he invented the Destructo Disk technique and later, gets another certain character to somehow fall for him. (The others might be much better fighters, but it can’t be denied Krillin’s a ladies man!)

A quick final mention goes to the major villains of the series, topped by Frieza, the insufferably pompous, polite and sadistic galactic overlord; Cell, a genetic abomination created by the evil Dr. Gero in an attempt to create the perfect fighting android, and Majin Buu, a destructive force with not much in the way of words, but plenty in terms of livability and combat prowess. Inevitably, the major problem with a cast the size of DBZ, not everybody gets enough screentime. 4/5 points.
Story quality: Dragon Ball Z is a canonical show with a progressive story, the typical format of most anime. The story focuses on four (five if you count Androids/Cell separately) main arcs, though they tend to be very long in the original due to the presence of filler. Overall, the narrative is gripping and strong, if simplistic; the writing is generally on point, and the action sequences are satisfying in that 1980’s/1990’s way. It is an action show with some actual weight in universe, and because the characters create such a strong attachment, the story itself becomes more compelling.  4/5 points.
Themes: Family, saving the universe/world, fighting for justice, pushing your limits, a never can die attitude, self sacrifice… and a whole lot of fighting, hence violence. It goes without saying DBZ’s pretty intense. It’s good to actually have some strong elements of thematic relevance in a show of this style, and the things it does focus on tend to be done pretty well. 3.75/5 points
Don’t insult the viewer: The Frieza battle comes to mind as being an endurance test. Otherwise, the show doesn’t assume its viewers are too young, even though you probably were when you first watched this. Epic 90’s rock score in the American version really sets the tone in intense ways as well. 4.75/5 points.
Total Score: 21/25 (84%). While Dragon Ball Z has its flaws, its cultural impact is undeniable (although discounted in the grading analysis). It was a great show then, as it is now, and set precedents for many popular anime that followed it. The characters are also iconic, well known beyond Japan, especially Goku, Vegeta, and Frieza (who was THE villain when he appeared back in the day). It is a classic in many hearts, and these ratings mostly reflect that.

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