It’s not exactly a secret that I like Dragon Ball Z. It’s one of the first anime series I watched, pretty much defining my childhood. I have all of the currently released Dragon Boxes, though I’ve yet to actually watch any of them, for a good reason. As much as I love DBZ, it’s way too long. I just don’t have the time or patience to commit to rewatching the entire thing. I buy the Dragon Boxes for the sake of collecting them, but it’s possible I’ll go my entire life without ever watching them. That’s what makes Dragon Ball Z Kai so appealing. I can enjoy the show I loved as a kid in a fraction of the time.
Dragon Ball Z Kai tells the story of a fighter named Son Goku and his friends. Several years of peaceful times for the group are quickly interrupted when a strange person arrives from space. The person claims to be Goku’s brother Radditz, revealing that Goku is actually part of an alien race known as the Saiyans. Radditz wants Goku to join him on a mission to conquer another planet, but when Goku refuses Radditz takes his son as a hostage. When Goku faces off against Radditz to save his son, he sets off a chain of events that puts the entire world in peril when two more Saiyans, Vegeta and Nappa, decide to head to Earth.
The story of Dragon Ball Z isn’t a very deep or complicated one. It’s a straightforward “Good vs. Evil” story where a man with the mental capacity of a 12 year old punches bad guys in the face, with some training arcs thrown in for good measure. Such is the case for many shounen fighting series though; there’s as much story as is necessary to get the characters from one fight to the next. So taking a series known for its often horrendously slow pacing and trimming it down to the bare necessities, like Kai does, is a pretty good idea. However, this does have some downsides to go along with the benefits.
The biggest improvement Kai makes to the series is cutting all the… less than stellar episodes of Dragon Ball Z. I love DBZ and all, but I can honestly do without seeing Gohan hanging out with a bunch of rebel kids, or Goku falling off Snake Way and ending up in hell. Those kinds of episodes bored me when I was a kid because they were clearly just time wasters that didn’t add anything of value to the show. They just weren’t entertaining so I’m fine with seeing them go if it means we get to the action sooner.
Kai also quickens the pace of fights themselves. DBZ is known for having fights where opponents spend a lot of time just standing across from each other and shouting or charging up attacks. That kind of thing is gone from Kai. A rather long scene where Vegeta just floats in the sky, screaming at the top of his lungs while the clouds darken and the ground shakes is shortened to a more reasonable length. Shots where combatants stand around while the camera pans dramatically are also reduced. Kai does a great job trimming the series down to its most basic entertaining elements, turning Dragon Ball Z into a fast and exciting series.
The quicker pace does have some downsides though. Sometimes the stuff you really want to see gets shortened such as some of the fights, even the ones that aren’t ludicrously long. The fight between Goku and Vegeta is the highlight of the first story arc, with everything that happened beforehand leading up to that one climactic moment. This wasn’t originally a long fight to begin with, only lasting about three episodes, but Kai shortens it even more such that it feels like it’s over as quickly as it starts. The series spent more time on Nappa pounding everyone into the dirt than it did on Goku and Vegeta facing off. It’s nice to have filler removed and the pace sped up, but sometimes it can take the already brief great moments and make them even shorter.
Regardless of all the changes, the Dragon Ball Z that people grew up loving is still there, with all the same characters and events. Things may be sped up, but Goku is still his childish fight loving self, and Vegeta is still a sadistic murderous villain. Some of the humour may be gone, since much of it came from filler episodes, but the series still has a sense of fun about it. All of the action is still there, and Kai gets to the fights faster so it can be non-stop action at times. If you grew up watching the adventures of Goku and his friends, Kai still has everything you love. If you haven’t seen the original series, Kai makes it easier than ever to do so, conveying the original experience in a faster more condensed manner.
This new version of Dragon Ball Z has given Funimation the chance to do a proper dub for the series, one not rewritten to cram in dumb jokes for kids. This time around the script sticks closer to the original Japanese but while still being tweaked to sound good English, the way they do most of their dubs these days. There is the occasional extra joke thrown in, but it’s not even close to the amount of rewriting that went on with the original dub. One tiny problem that crops up later in Part 2 is a small continuity error with the dub script. At one point Dende refers to all the other Namekians as his brothers and sisters, and then a matter of seconds later he doesn’t understand the concept of females because Namekians are genderless. This doesn’t exist in the original script because he never uses the phrase “brothers and sisters.” This is the only mistake like this I noticed, and the dub script is excellent overall.
Funimation also took this opportunity to recast some of the characters. Christopher Sabat is no longer playing half the characters in the series, though he does still voice his old main ones like Vegeta, Piccolo, and Yamcha. Sabat’s performance as those characters has obviously improved, since he’s gotten about a decade’s worth of experience since originally playing them. His Piccolo voice is also notably softer, sounding much closer to his normal speaking voice than the more gruff voice he used in the past. Other changes to the cast include Colleen Clinkenbeard as Gohan, who perfectly nails the character’s trademark whimper-like-a-little-girl-while-all-my-friends-die that he’s so known and loved for. The biggest change is Christopher Ayres as the new voice of Freiza. Ayres manages to capture the effeminate nature of the character without making him sound like an actual woman as the old voice did. Every aspect of the dub is an improvement over the old one.
If you watch Dragon Ball Z Kai expecting great animation… you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a really old show, so it’s not going to look as good as anything made more recently. Toei did a great job cleaning it up and re-colouring certain parts, but it’s easy to see when looking at it that it’s from the ’90s. That’s not to say the animation is complete garbage. It can be pretty good at times, with one example being Goku attacking Vegeta after using the Kaio-ken early in their fight. It’s a rare moment where there’s actually some flow in the combat which usually consists of abusive overuse of speed-lines and the like, and since a large part of the fighting consists of people using beams from long-range there are scant few times the animation actually has a chance to shine. One particularly jarring thing is the opening and ending, which bookend the old ’90s animation with shiny new animation made just for the show. It really highlights just how old looking the actual show is, but it does manage to make me excited to watch DBZ after all these years, so I have to give props there.
Dragon Ball Z Kai is a great way for both newcomers and older fans to enjoy the story of Dragon Ball Z. It removes all the fluff and gets straight to the action, making it a much more enjoyable experience. Some DBZ fans may complain about all the material that gets taken out, but those people are weird and should be ignored. The new dub is a vast improvement over the old one, having a much better script and improved performances from returning cast members. Kai is an simply excellent revival of a classic series, and definitely worth checking out.
Pros: Full of action, great dub, much more accessible version of the show
Cons: Still looks really old, some good things get lost in all the changes