Let's Talk About: Dragon Ball Z Kai

As I’ve already written two articles here cutting to the chase, I’d like to take the opportunity on this one to introduce myself properly. My name is Harrison Fleming; I’m a creative writing student, and as you might’ve guessed from my last two articles, I’m a fan of Monster Hunter and belly danc – ahem, Shantae! Lewis invited me to join the Alt:Mag team in February, and although I haven’t done much for the website since then, the thought of contributing more to it has never been far from my mind; I’ve just been held back by my studies all this time. When I’m not busy writing I devote my time to reading, gaming and watching classic television series (yes, including anime) on DVD. But I’m not here to bore you with my life story; today I’m here to talk about an anime that first came into prominence fifteen years ago, and is now returning to the UK. Ladies and gentlemen – Dragon Ball Z Kai!

If you were born in the 90s, it’s likely you were introduced to Dragon Ball Z in the same place I was: on Cartoon Network’s action block Toonami in 2000. Originally made in 1989, the series followed the adventures of Son Goku, a Saiyan, and his ongoing fight to save the Earth from intergalactic (and interdimensional) threats. The English dub ran for 276 episodes – 291 uncut – and was Cartoon Network’s highest rated programme in the US. Dragon Ball Z Kai is a revision of the anime made to mark its 20th anniversary. It was broadcast in Japan and the US, but is only now arriving on our shores thanks to Manga Entertainment; season one was just released on DVD and Blu-ray. Kai, like the original, was highly-rated… but suffers unfair criticism to this day from fans who watched the first dub on Toonami. So what’s different in Kai and why?

Well, first of all it’s shorter than the original series. It tells the same story with the exact same footage… but while DBZ ran for 291 episodes, Kai's count currently stands at 98 minus the Buu saga (Hold your Kamehamehas! It’s on the way as we speak). This concision is one of Kai’s key selling points and a major gripe for purists. But, for those who haven’t seen either version before, I’ll be perfectly honest: Kai doesn’t suffer for it. I loved DBZ on Toonami; when Manga released the original series on DVD three years ago, I leapt at the chance to reclaim a piece of my childhood – but I was put off by incredibly slow pacing. For example, it took Goku thirteen episodes (and a run-in with the temptress Princess Snake) to reach the end of Snake Way and begin training with King Kai in the original; in Kai, it only took him three (and no run-in with Princess Snake). This is but one of many storylines that have been streamlined. Toei Animation, who produced the anime, made the cuts because the scenes they cut weren’t part of the manga by Akira Toriyama – they were “filler” scenes created for the screen. The DBZ manga was originally developed at the same time as the anime, so Toei used filler to allow time for Toriyama-san to finish the next chapter. It did its job, but disrupted the flow of the story; at worse creating blatant inconsistencies between episodes. Kai tightens up the action and removes the filler, improving the pace dramatically and giving us an anime more faithful to Akira Toriyama’s work. Some traces still remain (e.g. King Kai’s cricket buddy Gregory), but otherwise Kai delivers on the tagline, "all action, no filler." It also removes some (not all) of the blood and nudity in the original Japanese version; this wasn't an act of censorship, but a deliberate choice by Toei in response to new broadcasting standards in Japan. Nevertheless, it's still bloodier than the original Toonami broadcast.

Another thing discerning fans will notice is the picture quality – the footage has been digitally restored and remastered in HD. The original DBZ had already been remastered for DVD, but despite having been done from the original film prints, it was a low-budget effort resulting in reduced detail and poor colour correction. Worse still, it was cropped from the original aspect ratio of 4:3 (full-frame) to 16:9 (widescreen). Kai received a better restoration – this time supervised by Toei itself – retaining the original aspect ratio and delivering a cleaner, sharper image. However, due to the age and deterioration of the prints, some scenes had to be re-animated digitally. If you’re watching DBZ for the first time with Kai, you’ll need an eagle-eye to catch most of the new shots. Some, however, are much easier to spot… but they don’t impede on the overall quality of the series. In fact, I found some re-animated scenes literally easier on the eyes than their original counterparts (like Goku’s Kamehameha vs. Vegeta’s Galick Gun – originally unsuitable for epilepsy sufferers).

The last big change in Kai is in the dialogue; to match the edited footage, both the Japanese and English scripts were rewritten. But, this isn’t what a fan might call a butchering of a classic. As well as removing filler, the new script tightens up the dialogue and brings it closer to the manga than the original dub. In other words, it's more intense than the DBZ you remember (taking up the rating from PG to 12). And the new dub was produced by the same team who produced the old: Funimation. The Texas-based production company have been dubbing Dragon Ball since the original DBZ’s Ginyu arc, and ten years later they returned to give us what is arguably their best work in the franchise. Most of the original cast return (incl. Sean Schemmel as Goku, Christoper Sabat as Piccolo and Vegeta and Sonny Strait as Krillin), but several key characters are voiced by new actors. Among them are Colleen Clinkenbeard (Luffy in One Piece) as Gohan, Monica Rial (Mirajane in Fairy Tail) as Bulma and Chris Ayres as the galactic tyrant Frieza. The changes are another point of unfair criticism for fans; some love the new dub, some stay with the old one like a dog with a bone. Me… I love the new dub (Enough with the Kamehamehas already!).

As a writer and former drama student, I’ve come to know the difference between good writing, good acting and the bad. DBZ was a big part of my childhood and a huge success, but I’ll be honest: the original dub was awful. The writing was poor and the voices lacked the emotion of the Japanese cast. But I’m not insulting Funimation - the people there write and record their own dubs and I respect them a lot for that. They were just a different company back then. When Funimation started dubbing Dragon Ball in 1999, they didn’t have the experience and resources they have today. But, ten years on the same franchise made a world of difference. I’ll admit it took me time to adjust to Colleen Clinkenbeard’s performance as Gohan – but when I did, it felt like she’d always been part of the cast. And Ayres’ Frieza… what he lacks in effeminacy, he more than makes up for in scare factor. With his continuing success in the role (culminating this year in the feature-length film Resurrection ‘F’), he is fast becoming to Frieza what Mark Hamill is to the Joker. Check out an iconic scene below for a comparison (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

Funimation's 1999 dub:

 Their 2009 redub for Kai:

Quite the difference, eh? The fans will continue to debate which version is “the best” until the world ends – but if you need further proof of which version to go for, there are interviews with the cast to be found online. The question of whether Kai is better than the original dub has often been asked to Schemmel and Sabat ever since it aired six years ago… and their answer has always been, “yes.” To this day loyalists continue to cry foul at this – but let’s stop for a moment and think about it. Sean Schemmel and Chris Sabat are artists who make a living out of bringing characters to life. As artists, they always need to find ways to improve themselves; to do better with every project (like Goku’s never-ending desire to become stronger). A mark of a good artist is when he can look back at his work and admit its flaws. Sean, Chris and their colleagues at Funimation did just that with DBZ – and were given a one-in-a-life-time chance to better themselves with Kai.

Whatever your opinion, whether you’re returning to the franchise or discovering it for the first time, I strongly urge you to give Dragon Ball Z Kai a chance. It has its faults (as did the original - don't deny it), but with its sleek editing, renewed visuals and superior voice acting, it's set to be exactly what the makers of the show intended: the definitive cut of Dragon Ball Z. Time to rock the dragon again! Season one is now available on DVD and Blu-ray; season two will be released on September 28th and seasons three and four are due this winter.

Did you watch Dragon Ball Z on Toonami as a kid? Are you still a fan today? What is your opinion of DBZ Kai? Sound off in the comments below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages!

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