Review for Dragon Ball: Season 1
I was all Dragon Balled out with Dragon Ball GT, the most recent iteration of the Dragon Ball franchise to be released in the UK. I reviewed the first part of it, following Dragon Ball Z, and by that point I had had enough of the Superman homage, the mega-powered warriors, the same dialogue over and over again, everyone flying around everywhere (except when they’re hanging off a cliff and forget that they can fly), and epic battles with the fates of the universe, heaven and hell at stake. There’s only so much you can push the bounds of credulity before they shatter, but by Dragon Ball GT, they’d been ground into powder. I swore never to review another Dragon Ball again, and gave part two of GT a wide berth. Which in no way goes to explain just why four months later, I’m reviewing Dragon Ball Season 1.
Dragon Ball is the beginning of the saga. It’s the birth of the franchise, and back when Akira Toriyama first started the Dragon Ball manga, it wasn’t about battling gods, it wasn’t a constant stream of Superman homage, and instead it was just as the Son Goku character suggests, a loosely based adaptation of the Journey to the West story, also remade as the Saiyuki anime, and best known in the West as the Monkey television series. I’ve read the first few volumes of the Dragon Ball manga, and I certainly appreciated the smaller scale action, the greater emphasis on comedy, and the fact that not everyone in the universe flies! I still have my reservations about watching another Dragon Ball anime, but as this is where it all began, I’m putting those reservations to one side and giving it a shot.
A young girl named Bulma wants a boyfriend. For some reason, she’s decided to go looking for the seven Dragon Balls, which when collected summon the eternal dragon Shen Long, which will grant one wish, before the Dragon Balls are scattered to the four winds once more, inert for a whole year before they can be gathered and wished upon again. Her search leads her to an isolated mountain, where dwells a young boy named Son Goku, trained in the martial arts by his late grandfather, possessing a magical staff, sporting a monkey’s tail, and suffering from a ‘time of the month’ that you wouldn’t believe. Goku also has the four star Dragon Ball, his last remaining memento of his grandfather, and one he isn’t too willing to part with. Which is why he winds up travelling with Bulma as she looks for the other Dragon Balls. But they aren’t the only people looking to have their ultimate wishes granted, there are some other, more nefarious characters out there too.
Twenty-eight episodes of Dragon Ball, plus extras are presented across four discs from Manga Entertainment.
1. Secret of the Dragon Ball
2. The Emperor’s Quest
3. The Nimbus Cloud of Roshi
4. Oolong the Terrible
5. Yamcha the Desert Bandit
6. Keep an Eye on the Dragon Balls
7. The Ox-King on the Mountain
8. The Kamehameha Wave
9. Boss Rabbit’s Magic Touch
10. The Dragon Balls are Stolen
11. The Penalty is Pinball
12. A Wish to the Eternal Dragon
13. The Legend of Goku
14. Goku’s Rival
15. Look Out for Launch
16. Find That Stone!
17. Milk Delivery
18. The Turtle Hermit Way
19. The Tournament Begins
20. Elimination Round
21. Smells Like Trouble
22. Quarterfinals Begin
23. Monster Beast Giran
24. Krillin’s Frantic Attack!
25. Danger From Above
26. The Grand Finals
27. #1 Under the Moon?
28. The Final Blow
This takes me back some. Back when I first started reviewing anime on DVD, it all looked like this, sourced from tape masters of varying condition, and mastered on disc with NTSC-PAL standards conversions. The Australian Madman release that is the source of these discs was made 10 years ago, while the anime itself is from the mid-eighties. It’s a simple but effective animation, which does what it needs to get the gags across. The tape origin shows in the transfer, which isn’t overly afflicted by visible interlacing or blended frames. Then again, the softness of the videotape origins tends to mask all that. You might expect that with as many as eight episodes on a disc, that will tell in the compression, but other than macroblocking being a little more obvious in large expanses of colour, the Dragon Ball discs get off pretty lightly.
You have the choice between DD 2.0 Stereo English, and what I assume is 2.0 Mono Japanese. I had to watch the bonus feature in English, and I don’t really need to expound on my opinion of that, given that I refused to watch the dub where the original language was available. Again, given its vintage, expect a rather thin, and occasionally shrill original language experience with the odd moment of hiss as well. Those early Funimation releases via Madman actually used to come with two subtitle tracks, dubtitles to go with the English dub, and a translated English track to go with the Japanese audio. It’s interesting to see how the anime was re-versioned for the US television audience.
Incidentally, I had an audio drop-out in the Japanese track, 1.35:33 into disc one that lasted from that point to the end credits of that particular episode, some 4 seconds in length.
The discs present their content with animated menus, and there is no Marathon Mode. Oddly enough, Dragon Ball doesn’t need it, with its short, gag filled stories, with not a lot in the way of recaps and previews at this point, and a couple of very agreeable (in Japanese) theme songs. You can tell from some of the shows trailed on the discs that they are sourced from a vintage release from Madman.
Disc 1 offers six character profiles, Australian trailers for Cromartie High School Volume 1, and Panyo Panyo Digi Charat Volume 1.
The big extra is the first Dragon Ball feature, Curse of the Blood Rubies, which lasts 47 minutes and is in English dub form only. It’s a retelling of the start of the Dragon Ball story, but one which reworks the story to replace Pilaf with an evil king named Gurumes who is abusing his subjects, destroying their land in the hunt for blood rubies, and the Dragon Balls. As Goku has his first encounters with Bulma, Oolong, Yamcha, and Roshi, he also helps a little girl save her home from the evil king. As mentioned, this is dub only, and you’ll have to put up some awful MIDI music, and Funimation have made it child safe with judicious edits for content, and mysteriously floating stools in front of naked people. It’s not very good.
Disc 2 gets the same six character profiles again, as well as trailers for D.N Angel Volume 1, and Beast Wars Transformers Season 1.
Disc 3 gets twelve character profiles this time, including the participants in the first tournament arc, as well as trailers for He-man and the Masters of the Universe Season 1 Collection 1, Kimba the White Lion Deluxe DVD Edition, and Stellvia Foundation 1.
Disc 4 gets those 12 character profiles again, and trailers for Madlax: Volume 1, and Planetes: Volume 1.
This first collection of Dragon Ball sets the template for all that would come in the future, in Dragon Ball Z, and in Dragon Ball GT. This is a collection of two halves; it was actually released in Australia as two separate releases, still reflected in the disc menus, as opposed to the US saga releases, which the UK release is emulating by amalgamating the Australian releases. It’s confusing and really quite inconsequential, but what isn’t so meaningless is that in the first half of this collection we have Goku and his friends hunting for the Dragon Balls, with the fate of the world in the balance as a villain attempts to find them first for his own twisted ambitions, and in the second half we have a fighting tournament. That’s the kind of repetitive tedium which by the time of Dragon Ball GT had me beating my head against a desk with such impact that it caused a bigger concussion that any Kamehameha, and had me avoiding the second half to protect my own sanity. But the difference is that Dragon Ball, Season 1 is good. I enjoyed these 28 episodes, I looked forward to watching each new instalment, and I was thoroughly entertained by them. The big difference is humour.
Dragon Ball is funny, it’s laugh out loud hilarious, it refuses to take itself seriously, and can get self-referential at times, even breaking the fourth wall on occasion. It plays like a spoof parody of shonen shows, rather than the straight-laced full on testosterone-fest that it became by Dragon Ball Z. It borders on Gintama wacky at times, and for me this is a good thing. It’s hard to remember after all the levelling-up and succeeding through superior willpower po-faced seriousness that it rapidly became, but when Akira Toriyama first started on his Dragon Ball epic, it was a full on gag manga, playing purely for laughs. That genre choice is reflected in the first anime adaptation of his creation, and that makes all the difference to me. If a show can make me laugh, then it will keep my interest, and that’s 90% of the work done.
Dragon Ball has a ribald and crude sense of humour that really got toned down and eventually vanished in the sequels. You’d hear about how perverted Muten Roshi was, but you’d never know exactly how perverted until you see the original Dragon Ball which introduced the old martial arts master and his obsession with ‘pafu-pafu’. Goku is introduced as a naive young boy without any social graces or general knowledge, having grown up in the mountains, learning martial arts from his adoptive grandfather. He’s unacquainted with bathing, is unashamed of nudity, and doesn’t know what a girl is. He has a hard time realising that Bulma is a girl at first, and soon takes to the Mick Dundee approach to gender identification, i.e. a quick feel of the crotch.
Dragon Ball’s first villain is an ambitious king named Pilaf, who wants to take over the world, but again the show presents him in a wholly comedic light and the same goes for his two henchmen. At one point he has Bulma captive and tries torturing her to get the final Dragon Ball. His idea of torture is to blow a kiss at her, a wholly brazen and shameless deed in his eyes, but he winds up more offended at Bulma’s ‘wanton’ lack of reaction. The goals are comparatively small too, certainly there’s no need to gather the Dragon Balls to resurrect a planet or anything. Bulma wants them to find her a boyfriend, whereas when we first meet Yamucha, he may be a great fighter, and able bandit, but he’s totally floored in the presence of a woman (and fortune contrives for him to repeatedly wind up in Bulma’s vicinity), and as soon as he learns of the Dragon Balls, he wants them to cure his gynophobia.
As often happens in the early parts of shonen anime, most of the villains that you meet in the beginning turn out to be friends and allies later on. Oolong is a shape-shifting pig, who’s also got a perverted fascination with women’s underwear, and causes Bulma and Goku no little trouble, until she doses him with a long lasting laxative that goes off at her command. Cue lots of toilet humour. Even the fights in the tournament arc are wholly played for laughs, with daft techniques, and even sillier executions. Kuririn’s battle with Bacterian is a case in point. Bacterian is a giant who has never bathed in his life, and lets his stench do the fighting for him. Crotch finger is bad enough, but Kuririn almost loses to Bacterian’s flatulence, until Goku reminds him that he doesn’t have a nose. Revenge most certainly isn’t sweet in this instance.
I had a great time watching the original Dragon Ball mostly because unlike its sequels, Dragon Ball is funny. It plays it for laughs, and never takes itself too seriously. The characters are crude and the situations are daft. The basic template for Dragon Ball is set here, the hunt for the Dragon Balls and the fighting tournaments, Goku’s love of food, his were-monkey nature but there’s none of that stupid Saiyan nonsense, no aliens, none of the characters fly, it hasn’t turned into a rinse and repeat Superman ‘homage’, and there no over 9000 foolishness. Dragon Ball at this point is a comedy, with more in common with shows like Urusei Yatsura and Ranma than Naruto and Bleach. I haven’t read too far into the original manga, but I hope it manages to remain a comedy to the end of its run, and leave it till Dragon Ball Z to go full-on shonen testosterone overdose.