Sunday, 4 March 2012

Revisiting Dragonball

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

We all have favourite things from our childhood. Without question, my favourite show was Dragonball Z. However, how many of us are the same when we're barely-double-figures-year-olds as when we're 20-somethings? So, just on a whim, I saw every episode of Dragonball, Z, and GT again. Every episode was a FUNimation dub apart from 1 that was Ocean because I couldn't find the FUNimation version. Even though my perspective on the show now is very different to how it was 10 years ago, my appreciation for it largely remains undiminished and, in other ways, has been improved. It should be noted that there are spoilers.


Chronologically, this is the 1st one. It takes place within a 7 year period and centres around the main character, Goku, and his development from a worldly ignorant, pure-hearted, superhumanly strong 11-year-old boy with a tail who has only seen 1 human being in his entire life (his adopted grandfather, Gohan) into a slightly less wordly ignorant, even more pure-hearted 18-year-old protector of the Earth. Goku's character is a work of genius. The extent of his initial ignorance gives us frequent, slightly low-brow comedy, especially when matched up with Bulma, the girl who first discovers Goku in the woods while searching for the dragonballs. One thing I really liked about the FUNimation version was the music. It was very memorable, slightly Japanese themed, and was generally quite upbeat, although the best of it was what I'll call Bora and Upa's theme: more downbeat and mellow but absolutely stunning.

A lot of the action is focused around the dragonballs. First is where we get the real chunk of character development as Goku learns about the world mostly through Bulma, but also through Oolong, Puar, Yamcha, and, to a lesser extent, Master Roshi. Crucially, Goku isn't interested in the dragonballs at all, he comes along simply because the 4-star ball is one of his only possessions and reminds him of his grandfather. Contrast this selflessness with the selfishness of both Bulma and Yamcha who are essentially just trying to find an other half (Bulma has no luck at all, and Yamcha is cripplingly shy around any girl old enough for him). At the same time, Emperor Pilaf seeks the dragonballs to become ruler of the world. I won't spoil what the wish ends up being but, in the end, evil doesn't get what they want and the dragonballs aren't needed to satisfy Bulma and Yamcha's wishes.

The 3 big enemy stories all precede a world martial arts championship and so are each set 3 years apart. These championships give us a reference point for where each character stands in relation to the others and gives us additional reason to cheer on the characters: in this case of the type that you would normally only find in sporting events. From a storytelling perspective, I liked this.

I would say the best part of the series is Goku's confrontation with the Red Ribbon Army, collectively representing the 2nd main enemy. Pilaf is looking for the dragonballs again, but he is a footnote compared to the Red Ribbon Army who are, funnily enough, an army, although several of their members and associates are superhuman or androids. After the 1st wish, the dragonballs were scattered and so Goku is looking for his grandfather's ball. This brings him into conflict with the Red Ribbon Army, but for the most part, he is simply searching for 1 ball, he is not interested in making a wish for himself. Once again, Goku's selflessness contrasts starkly with the selfishness of Commander Red, who simply wants to be taller. However, this time there's a brilliant twist. Goku finds the ball, but when Mercenary (later General) Tao kill sthe Native American-style hermit, Bora, father of Upa, Goku's priorities shift, and he vows to collect all of the dragonballs to wish Bora back to life. This is Dragonball's shining moment for me.

I would place this series in the middle in terms of how I rank the 3.

Dragonball Z

Whereas Dragonball focused on the development of Goku, Dragonball Z develops entirely from his origin story. Goku is revealed to be a member of an alien warrior race called the Saiyans, and that his real name is Kakarot. He was sent here to sterilise the Earth of human beings for the purpose of it being sold. The mission failed after Goku suffered a head injury which wiped the aggressive Saiyan tendencies from his brain. The structure of this series is far more complicated. First, Goku and his friends have to prevent a Saiyan invasion. Then, after several of his friends were killed by the Saiyans, and crucially they were brought back once before in Dragonball so they can't be brought back again with the same dragonballs, they travel to the planet Namek, homeworld of Piccolo, Goku's rival turned friend, to use their dragonballs. They then have to deal with Vegeta, the Saiyan prince who Goku spared on Earth, and Frieza, a being capable of destroying planets with a single blast from his finger. Then they go back to Earth and get told that 2 androids are going to turn the Earth into a Terminator-style apocalyptic wasteland in 3 years by Vegeta's son from the future, Trunks. Then they find there's another android, Cell, who was sent to absorb the original 2 androids to become "complete". Then, a further 7 years later, they have to deal with the wizard, Babidi, and his monstrously powerful creation, Majin Buu, who was capable of killing supreme Kais (basically the Dragonball universe's equivalent of gods).

There are numerous plot holes and problems with realism in this series. We can quite easily accept, as a premise of the story, as was in Dragonball, that characters are able to summon and manipulate their internal (ki) energy to use as a weapon against their opponents. That's fine. However, Goku's brother, Radditz, the first enemy in the series, who explains Goku's origin story, is equipped with a device called a Scouter, which measures that aforementioned internal energy, and essentially gives us a numerical method to determine where 1 character stands in relation to another. It becomes useless at Frieza's level, but given the power levels that we're told about throughout the series, and assuming a linear scale, as any other would be even more preposterous, you can work out that Goku literally becomes 1 million times stronger within, at most, 2 years! I need to be clear here. This isn't any form of exaggeration as in "well Dragonball Z's a MILLION times better than Dragonball", and I'm not using "literally" incorrectly here where some people might. No, Goku's power level, as an accurate mathematical measurement, jumps by a factor of 1 million in less than 2 years. By the end of the series, that's probably 1 trillion, and certainly more than 1 billion.

Most battles take several episodes, with the truly big ones taking 10 or more. 5 minutes on Namek seems to be quite a long time. Good and evil have objective existence in this world and affect what you can do with your ki. The public always look shocked at displays of ki but there seems remarkably little interest in actually finding out anything about it (you'd think Goku and his friends would constantly be hounded by reporters), the same disinterest is shown towards repeated invasion attempts and natural disasters caused by such ki, they seem to have absolutely no memory of it being used after only 20 years (Hercule is celebrated as the greatest fighter on Earth when less than a generation ago, Goku, Tien and Piccolo were levelling Papaya Island where the World Martial Arts Tournament was held). Finally, near the beginning of the series, Hell's minions are shown to be ineffective at keeping Goku in line, but they seem oddly capable of controlling Frieza, Cell and all other villains sent down there, the vast majority of which are vastly superior in power to Goku's when he fell of Snake Way. The disturbance after Cell's death is child's play compared to what they should logically be able to accomplish.

1 thing I'd like to note is that the classic line, 1 of the greatest internet memes ever ("it's over 9000") sounds TERRIBLE in the FUNimation version. OK, it's overkill in the Ocean version but I'd take that over the underplayed FUNimation 1 any day.

Having said all that, this series is so entertaining and so intelligent in many other ways that none of these plot holes are a big enough issue to detract from such entertainment. The Saiyan invasion is made to seem an insurmountable obstacle to Goku and his friends, as are the androids, Cell's perfect form, and Majin Buu. The strategy-based plot of the events that take place on Namek (which are kind of like playing the board game, Risk)  is fascinating. The importance which pride plays in the series makes it unavoidable as a theme to contemplate. On top of that, the series contains one of the saddest scenes I've seen in any form of visual media: Vegeta, who has destroyed many civilizations and planets, breaks down in tears in his final moments, after being pummelled to death by Frieza, and tells Goku that he must not spare Frieza's life. Vegeta did not want Frieza to turn anyone else into a monster like he did to him.

Finally, I praised the music of Dragonball. Dragonball Z's is even better. It is every bit as catchy as the Dragonball music, but it is very different in tone (more serious, even vicious). The best piece of music is in the Ocean dub when Goku arrives at the scene against the Saiyans and against the Ginyu Force on Namek, however the rest in the Ocean dub, while still good, isn't great. The FUNimation music, composed by Bruce Faulconer, is consistently brilliant. The sad theme played when Vegeta dies and when Frieza is begging for his life, Vegeta's theme, Majin Buu's theme, Hercule's theme, and Android 19 and 20's theme: all of these are masterpieces.

This isn't just the best series of the 3, it is that by an enormous margin. Even if you don't see the others, this is essential viewing.

Dragonball GT

Now you know that, by process of elimination, I must view this 1 as the worst. I'm guessing you think I'm going to say that it's still really good but 1 had to be the worst. Actually, no. This 1, this time round, sucked. I wish I could satisfactorily explain why, but I'll do what I can. First, the music, because this was the biggest disappointment. There is nothing catchy about it, and it doesn't even vary much. I can best describe it by saying that it sounds like they asked KoRn to go into a recording studio and jam for 5 hours, and the result would be spliced into the soundtrack where they thought it might loosely fit.

I think Dragonball GT tried to recapture the magic of Dragonball in the Baby saga. Goku was turned back into a child, and the team of Goku, Pan and Trunks travel the universe to collect the Black Star Dragonballs to prevent the destruction of Earth. However, I just didn't get any feeling of urgency that you'd think you'd get knowing that the Earth was going to blow up. There wasn't any character developing interaction of the kind that there was between Goku and Bulma. OK, there's maybe that 1 episode on the desert planet where Pan wants to feel useful in order to avoid being sent home.

Actually, let me talk about Pan. Apart from that 1 scene, she is literally of no use at all to the entire story. She is extremely annoying and pretty much does nothing but get in the way. I would say that she's like the Jar-Jar of the franchise but the robot, Giru, is even worse and more fitting of that description. However, at least Giru serves a useful purpose consistently, albeit only because he ate the Dragon Radar.

Really there were only 2 parts in the series where I even felt like it was still Dragonball: the end of the Baby saga covering everything from Baby's arrival on Earth, and the fight against Omega Shenron at the end of the series. Beyond that it was action devoid of any feeling of suspense or danger. The only interesting theme addressed in the series was the overuse of the dragonballs, basically the theme of karma.

Finally, there's a debate as to whether GT can be considered canon due to the lack of involvement by Akira Toriyama, the franchise's producer. I have no problem calling it canon, but the quality of this series is lacking compared to the others. I also wouldn't say that that's because of Toriyama's lack of involvement, as it shouldn't have been hard to find competent enough writers to work on it. What I would say though is that it is worth watching. It's not terrible, just not like the previous 2. It's worth it just to see how Goku's story ends, and to see Super Saiyan 4!

In conclusion, there's enjoyment in the franchise for people of all perspectives, except maybe GT. If your only knowledge of Dragonball is "it's over 9000", you've been missing out. You will not regret watching this franchise.


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