When I was a young teenager living in Peachtree City, GA, I used up one of those precious "right time right place" situations that you only get a handful of in life. The very first day I turned on Toonami in its new PM time slot was also the very first day that Cartoon Network started airing the English version of Dragon Ball Z.
From that moment, the remainder of my teenage years was dedicated to Dragon Ball Z. Getting home from school, dismissing the idea of hanging out with friends or extra curricular activities, and plopping down in front of the TV at 5PM and watching Goku and friends save the Earth. I'm sure many have a similar story.
Even as a teenager, my first impressions of the show was that this had to be a larger fictional universe, and that this was clearly the middle point of an established lore. I think by the time my college years came around, I had branched out into other anime franchises that are admittedly far better than Dragon Ball Z in characterization, storytelling, action, and most importantly, pacing.
However, as I approach a new decade of my life, I can fondly look back at Dragon Ball Z in a happy, nostalgic kind of way as a truly enjoyable memory. With the upcoming release of the Dragon Ball Xenoverse video game, I can relive these stories through a whole new light. I'd like to share a few highlights from the show with you.
Keep in mind, I am looking at this very nostalgically and in no means how I looked at the show when I was in middle school. My preferences of action and storytelling have dramatically shifted in that time frame.
I am still very much of the "Rock the Dragon" generation. I like the Ocean Group better than the Funimation dub, censorship and all. I like the Saiyan Saga best of the four main story arcs, and I believe that Dragon Ball has aged far more gracefully. I am also an older person now with the gift of hindsight, and this cherry picking of high points comes with a lot of nostalgia and cynicism.
In other words, my opinion is probably going to be a lot different than yours, and that's okay. Let me know all about it in the comments below. Just remember to keep it civil
Oh, and, spoiler warning?
Piccolo Sacrifices Himself for Gohan
Redemption has always been a key theme in Dragon Ball. Each and every one of Goku's allies was at one point a rival of his, and some to a much greater extent than others. Yamcha was a slippery, comical mountain bandit, Krillin was a rival student who just wanted to be better, Tien Shinhan turned it up a bit by being a misguided assassin, and of course, Vegeta once was hellbent on immortality and destroying the Earth.
However, the first time Goku was ever truly tapped to save the Earth was during the closing arc of Dragon Ball. The evil Piccolo was a force unlike the manga or the anime had ever seen to this point. Here was a character who was more than just a silly villain and actually had the power to exact his will on the Earth's population. A clear and obvious tangent of the more serious tone the series would be using in Dragon Ball Z.
Of course, Goku ultimately succeeded in his battle against Piccolo, but not before the demon laid a spawn who would become his dangerous successor and Goku's rival in many battles. Travel several years later, and the Earth is faced with the threat of the Saiyan invasion. Goku trains in the afterlife, but it falls on Piccolo to train Goku's son, Gohan. Seeing the nerdy boy struggle against the wildlife, become stronger, and look more towards Piccolo as a role model day by day softens the green fighter's heart.
From the start of the Saiyan battle, Piccolo is still a villain of questionable loyalties with no clear intention of if or when he will turn on his temporary alliance with the Z-Fighters. However, at one point in the battle, the young and unprepared Gohan is caught off guard by a deadly ray that will surely take his life. Unwilling to let his student die, Piccolo takes the blast and sacrifices himself.
It's from this moment on that Piccolo secures himself as one of the most powerful and popular heroes in the show.
Kaio-ken Kamehameha vs Galick Gun
The Kaio-ken was a sweet ability picked up by Goku during his training in the afterlife with King Kai. Searching deep into his untapped power, Goku became able to double, triple, and even quadruple his power at will.
What makes the Kaio-ken such an interesting move is that it comes with limitations. Goku can't use it for too long without putting too much stress on his body, reserving the upper limits of the technique only for the briefest and most desperate moments. Sadly, these limitations made the technique obsolete with the introduction of… ugh… Super Saiyans.
At any rate, Goku found himself in such a desperate situation close to the climax with his first battle against Vegeta. The mini-Saiyan launched a ferocious Galick Gun attack powerful enough the "destroy the Earth," although it was probably just hyperbole judging by the beating the planet Namek would take in the following story arc. Obviously not wanting the Earth to be destroyed, Goku jumps in the way to save the day with a counter of his own iconic attack, the Kamehameha wave. Vegeta's power proves to be too great, and Goku is pushed against the ropes.
On the surface, these two become rivals in a "good guy/bad guy" generic fashion, but the true drama between Vegeta and Goku stems from a class system. Vegeta is a high born noble prince, spoiled by his upbringing and entitled to be the strongest ever. Goku is a lower class soldier of the Saiyan race, humbled by his adoptive martial artist grandfather. He is the strongest because he earns it.
In this moment, Vegeta, having the upper hand from higher in the atmosphere, displays this kind of arrogance in an all out attack he feels must succeed just because of who he is. Goku though taps into the hidden power of the Kaio-ken and ultimately overcomes his foe in what is one of the many "false endings" that occurs over Dragon Ball Z.
For as brilliant as this moment is, Goku and friends still must rally to defeat Vegeta two or three more times. How exhausting!
Starship to Namek
"Filler episodes" have long been the bane of anime fans and especially Dragon Ball Z fans. Why take a break from the drama with these wasted moments when there are repetitive fights to be seen!?
The honest truth is that writer Akira Toriyama probably needed to let the manga get far enough ahead of the show, and the animators still needed something to do in the meantime. However, I like to be less cynical about them than that, and I believe the Dragon Ball Z filler does have a very necessary purpose: to remind people of what the show used to be about.
Dragon Ball Z is pure action. It's all about fights, spectacle and super moves. Dragon Ball on the other hand is all about adventure. Traveling the world, seeing new places and cultures, uncovering lost secrets, meeting new friends.
And a whole lot of poop jokes!
In my older and more retrospective age, it's a far more enjoyable show with more interesting character art and a variety of situations for our friends to overcome rather than a villain of the week. Seriously, look how charming the original cast is compared to what the show eventually became.
These filler episodes are when Akira Toriyama can kick back like its the mid-80s and remind people of this adventure and the series' roots.
Fake Namek is a planet Bulma, Krillin and Gohan stumble across on their trip to the alien planet with the new Dragon Balls. This mysterious planet is home to a pair of goons who trick people into seeing whatever they desire, and in our heroes' case, that is the planet Namek and its new set of Dragon Balls. Our heroes tour the planet with these mischief makers, rescuing the balls from various elements, monsters, and traps, just like Goku did back in the day.
Honestly, it's pretty awesome. The planet proves to be a trick on the audience and ultimately a waste of time, but sometimes, you just need those moments to bring this series back to where it all started. Gohan searching for the Dragon Balls is oddly reflective of his father as a kid. In fact, this is entire space trip to Namek is loaded with great episodes with new worlds, new characters, and new adventures.
It's this sense of adventure and going to a new world which ultimately ends up being more interesting than the endless string of fights they find there.
The First Super Saiyan Transformation
I hate the idea of Super Saiyans, or rather, I hate where Akira Toriyama took the idea. Originally, the legend surrounding this plot device was that once in a millennium, an incredibly powerful Saiyan would emerge and wreak havoc on the galaxy or some such nonsense. It serves its purpose setting up a climactic battle between Goku and Frieza in the closing moments of the series' second major story arc.
And once he does, suddenly every character can become a Super Saiyan. The series leans so heavily on this plot device that it becomes ultimately pointless. Trunks followed by Vegeta followed by Gohan followed by even younger children! Why? "Because their father's were already Super Saiyans when they were conceived, so they naturally know the ability."
Give me a break. The real world truth behind this contrivance is that a new generation of Dragon Ball Z fans needed some kids to idolize, and Shonen Jump demanded something new to advertise and sell. Toriyama was clearly at the end of his creative rope once Goten and Trunks were introduced to the series. Of course, we couldn't have a girl be a Super Saiyan despite Pan having the same half-Super Saiyan genes as Gohan
Super Saiyans are further destroyed by levels and bungled down by other rules. Of course, Goku is the strongest character in the show and nobody can be stronger than him, but we can't have other popular characters left behind. Thus, we start to divide Super Saiyans into classes and levels, each of them looking sillier than the one before it.
You know what this is, right? It's "Midichlorians," attempting to rationalize a mystical element with science and rules after the writers put themselves in a corner.
Vegeta believes himself to be this Super Saiyan because of his spoiled upbringing, but the first proves to be the lowly soldier Goku. The show's protagonist loses himself in a fit of rage once his friend Krillin meets his end at the hands of Frieza. Then "it" happens! It's the moment we've all been waiting for!
Goku, our hero and savior, becomes a Super Saiyan, and brings a world of hurt to Frieza over the course of many episodes. Everything we've built up towards over the course of Dragon Ball Z finally happens, and yes, it is dragged out far too long but at least it is ultimately satisfying. And then the series ends happily…
…not! Frieza comes back a few episodes later and is destroyed by a new more powerful Super Saiyan in a matter of seconds, completely negating the entire struggle of Goku against an impossible evil.
Goku's transformation and ultimate sacrifice to save everyone else, not to mention his ambiguous fate, was just perfect. This transformation marked a serious direction shift for the show, and while it was the dramatic moment we had all been waiting for, it also marked the downfall of the story. Was it worth it? Might have been if Toriyama had killed it here.
I belong to a club that thinks the Frieza Saga was a pretty perfect place to just end it all. The cracks were really showing and the storytelling was plummeting in quality. The Cell and Buu Sagas could have been given a different subtitle letter like "X" or some such generic silliness, and I could dismiss them just as easily as I do "GT."
However, there is one shining moment in the Cell Saga I can't overlook.
Tien Shinhan Distracts Cell
The Cell Saga is no great work of fiction. Dragon Ball Z has long been criticized for being a "villain of the week" show, and it definitely started to show these cracks in the Frieza Saga. However, that still benefited from at least knowing who our ultimate showdown was going to be against. Toriyama had a planned direction for the most part, and all of the other villains along the way simply add up to just practice.
The Cell Saga, though, has this villain problem occurring within its own story. We have no idea where any of this is going at any moment in time. First Frieza shows up and is dispatched quickly, then after a few years of training, we have a fat android and a bearded android show up and start causing problems, followed by a younger pair of hip androids. Cell then shows up in his weak form, and then a newer stronger form, and then an even STRONGER newer form, and then we have training, training, training so our heroes can gain several levels of Super Saiyan to their stats before the fight with Cell can ultimately spread into a free-for-all with his offspring.
Meh, this is where Dragon Ball Z ultimately lost me. Outside of a shining few neat moments, the spirit of the show was lost. The original (superior?) Ocean Group dub was replaced by Funimation's, and the animation style became much harder and sharper. Remember, Dragon Ball was at least ten years old by this point, and we need a new group of kids to get involved. The smooth, goofy character designs must have been just too 80s for the kids of that day.
Most importantly, though, my favorite characters all became wasted to the ever increasing importance of the Super Saiyan. Little did our new and flashy heroes know that one of these scrubs would prove vital to their survival.
Trunks and Vegeta had taken over the show at this point by unlocking a new "sub-level" of Super Saiyan. This bulky body proved muscular and powerful but ultimately far too slow to take the quick footed Cell. With Vegeta unconscious and Trunks needing to carry him away in retreat, the two dimwits needed precious moments to get away until Goku could bail them out.
Who steps up but Tien Shinhan? Our three-eyed hero we've known for years who has fought alongside Goku ever since they were kids, drops into the fight and uses his Kikoho attack to cripple the unstoppable android. Of course, he is powerless to kill Cell because he isn't a "mythical" Super Saiyan, but all-out attack after attack after attack after attack after attack keeps the villain on his knees long enough for Goku to come and save the day.
Yamcha, Tien Shinhan, Krillin, Master Roshi, Oolong, Chiaotzu, and I guess even Piccolo to some extent all suffer this fate. Characters we'd followed and cheered for for a decade were thrown to the wolves because they were just not strong enough to compare to Vegeta and the "flavor of the month" Trunks. Super Saiyans boosted Dragon Ball Z's popularity in ways that its publishers could have only dreamed, but it ultimately crippled what once made the series so special, its characters.
And its poop jokes.
Tien Shinhan obviously didn't get the memo. Either that or Toriyama was painfully aware of the direction his series had taken and wanted to let one of the old guard shine just one more time. Tien Shinhan took command of a battle that gutter crawlers like him had no right to be in and put the final goal of victory over his own life, saving two others who would prove to be far more useful than him in the final battle.
An absolutely wonderful and defining moment of the Cell Saga. Far more dramatic than any Super Saiyan transformation had to offer.
The World's Strongest
I'm not going to dedicate a section to the Buu Saga. All the problems I had with the Cell Saga occur exponentially in this mess. Aside from Goku beating Buu with a good, old-fashioned Spirit Bomb rather than some silly Super Saiyan technique made up by Toriyama at the last second, are there really any high points here?
Weird enemies being replaced every episode, so many names, so many outlandish character designs, magic spells, the laughably silly Fusion idea… it all just became way too much for my brain, which was already exhausted of the series after Cell finally met his end after three or four false endings. All I see in the cracks of the Buu Saga is Shonen Jump executives flogging the corpse for ideas and stretching out this story as far as it could go.
I quit here and never went back.
So instead, I want to talk about the movies. Growing up, Dragon Ball Z had 13 theatrical releases that fell beyond the canon of the show, and during the "Rock the Dragon" days, we were allowed three of these: The Dead Zone, The World's Strongest and The Tree of Might.
My favorite of the bunch is easy to pick out. The World's Strongest felt the most like it captured what Dragon Ball Z should be about. Plenty of classic characters were given a chance to shine, including Master Roshi! Goku and Piccolo get a chance to spar one last time before they officially become allies, Gohan showed his hidden power and became more developed, and Krillin has his hapless moments of excellence. Everyone contributes evenly, and best of all, nobody is left behind by Super Saiyans!
Everything about this movie is just fun. It's never too dark, and it's never too serious. Goku is just called upon to save the world from a delightfully evil bad guy, and indeed, he does just that. No complaints here!
The superior Ocean dub even leaves the original Japanese soundtrack in place, and it is wonderful! Far more enjoyable than the insufferable "rock" background music Funimation would play in the later movie releases.
I mean, why not, right?
By the time the later movies began to see releases in the States, my fandom of Dragon Ball Z had already faded. The Lord Slug movie proved wretched, and I didn't bother seeing any others. No Brolly, no Coola or his second return, no androids, no Bojack or Janemba. No, thank you. These once mythical gems lost their shine before they were even discovered.
As for the other two, The Dead Zone is okay. A nice light watch with plenty of the classic feel. The Tree of Might dips a little too far into that overly dark territory which I'm not a real fan of. Plus, Saiyans make an appearance, but it comes far before the alien race became overplayed.
Nope, The World's Strongest is the king of Dragon Ball Z movies for me. It perfectly captures everything I loved about the show without the baggage it picked up along the way. Goku makes use of the Flying Nimbus, Power Pole, Kaio-ken Attack, and he ultimately wins with a well placed Spirit Bomb while Piccolo, Krillin and Gohan play their roles of supporting distractions perfectly. Totally satisfying!
Bonus: Head-Cha La!
All in all, Dragon Ball Z means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some like the long, drawn out fights and find that the fast paced action is the greatest thing on the face of the Earth. Some see Dragon Ball as the evolution of a popular kids show growing up alongside the generation who watched Goku's sillier adventures as a kid.
In fact, there are a ton of people who dismiss it as just a really bad television show. Others have pushed for the much trimmer version known as Dragon Ball Kai, a show which only focuses on the action and very little of the other fun characterizations.
Regardless of how you prefer the show, you aren't wrong. With over 400 total episodes spanning three major franchises, nobody is going to see eye to eye on everything.
If you love it though, be sure to check out Dragon Ball Xenoverse when it launches for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC on Feb. 24, 2015. No doubt your favorite moment is going to make an appearance, and you'll have to set history straight.
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