I was unimpressed when Dragon Ball Z first made its way to DVD in the States. The picture quality left a lot to be desired, and the head scratching release patterns in turn created 'version specific' loyalists across the internet, defending their preferred way to watch the series in debates that often devolved into a series of condescending attacks. It's a mystery to this day how the internet hasn't exploded in a 'Kamehameha destroys the planet' sort of way with all the friction they caused. The obvious response from FUNimation should have been simple - Give the fans a choice to watch whatever version of the show they want. Instead, the 'orange brick' sets gave use a widescreen image that didn't hold true to the show's original aspect ratio, and although the later released 'dragon box' sets alleviated that issue, the contrast was poor and the US broadcast music was no longer included. No matter which set you decided to go with, a sacrifice was being made somewhere. I personally gave up hope that a proper DBZ release would debut someday and was ready to settle on one of the inferior options, despite knowing I would have been unhappy to a certain degree either way... but just over a month ago, FUNimation saved me from anguish and released Dragon Ball Z: Level 1.1. It was the answer to my prayers as a DBZ fan in many respects, and one only has to read up on the 'video' and 'audio' portions of this review to see why. The short and thick of it, is that the bar had been set very high by FUNimation. This was the best DBZ has ever looked or sounded... but there was one minor caveat - The first set only contained 17 episodes, less than half of the first season. That left many-a-fan with one major question - Would the inevitable Level 1.2 release include more than 17 episodes so the first season could be concluded?
It would have made the most sense, but sadly, FUNimation is seemingly holding to the '17 episodes per release' format for the Levels. So, what does that mean for you, the consumer? It means that 18 volumes of Levels will have to be released if you want to own the series in its entirety. Now, let's say that FUNimation did what most fans are likely to agree would make the most sense, and release half-season sets - That would still come to 18 volumes. If it's going to take the same number of releases to complete the series either way, why didn't the studio have the foresight to understand how many fans they'd upset by following a rigid '17 episodes no matter what' release schedule? I'm going to give FUNi the benefit of doubt here and say they meant to do half season sets, but made a grave error in their calculations that (somehow) got overlooked:
Nine 'seasons' divided into half-season sets in order to get the most money from the consumer = 18 sets. From here, they probably divided the total number of episodes (291) by 18 to see how many episodes would end up on each release - 16.17. So they round up and wallah, come to 17 episodes per set, and forgot that each season doesn't have the same amount of episodes (whoops). That's the only logical explanation I can come up with.
Another thing that confuses me with this release pattern, is how the Level numbering systems are supposed to make any sense now. Knowing that the follow-up release in March will be called Level 2.1, one would assume that Level 1.1 and 1.2 would have completed the first season... but instead, Level 2.1 is going to contain the final five episodes of the first season before moving on. Make sense to you? No? Good, I'm glad I'm not alone on this one. Before moving on though, allow me to take one last wild stab in the dark - FUNimation is probably overlapping episodes to ensure we have to buy all the volumes they release. After all, I'm sure there's plenty of people out there that would be perfectly willing to forego the Garlic Jr. Saga, as well as the Great Saiyaman Saga (the very name of this one makes me shudder). However, if FUNi continues the 17 episode per release schedule, you'll inevitably have to own every single set if you want all the good stuff. Clever? From a business standpoint, perhaps. Wise? I want to say 'no', but Dragon Ball Z has provided them with reliable revenue year after year, and the next couple of years are sure to be just as profitable for them no matter how these Level sets are produced.
Right now you might be saying, "I really don't care how they package them. I think 17 episodes is plenty. It's certainly a great deal better than the original DVD's that only had a handful of episodes each." On a personal level, I'm partially with you in this regard. Some fans are undoubtedly holding out for full season boxed sets, but me? I've waited long enough and I'm happy FUNi is releasing DBZ, uncut, on Blu-ray at all. However, be warned that you're likely to feel the same sting as I did after all is said and done with Level 1.2 - Previously, we witnessed Goku and Gohan, as well as the various other Z Fighters, train their butts off so they could defend the world against the incoming threat of two Saiyan warriors, on their way to avenge the death of their fallen comrade (and Goku's brother), Raditz. In these 17 episodes, the Saiyans arrive, forcing the Z Fighters to begin the fight before Goku is able to return from the afterlife. The Saiyans prove to be even more formidable than their predecessor, and although the Z Fighters are giving Nappa and Vegeta everything they've got, they're barely able to make a dent. It isn't until Goku's imminent return that the Saiyans are met with a challenge, and it isn't long before Goku shows off his new skills and disposes of Nappa. However, Vegeta proves to be a far more devastating opponent than his partner in battle. The 'sting' I spoke of comes at the end of the 34th episode (the final episode on this set), which leaves us hanging smack-dab in the middle of the season's most climactic battle. After being forced to stop watching at this point, you'll agree - You'll practically go mad with anticipation to see what will happen next. What makes it even worse is that the next release isn't going to come until March...
A maddening break in the season aside, this batch of episodes has really upped the ante over the previous release. Whereas Level 1.1 only gave us a taste of what the series had to offer, Level 1.2 gets right down to business and doesn't let up. This is the first time we truly get to see where the real 'meat' of DBZ lies - In grueling one on one confrontations (or one-by-one-by-one on one) that go on for episodes at a time. I've echoed this in my review for Level 1.1, but I felt most of the 'filler' complaints were unfounded (except, again, in the case of the unnecessary Garlic Jr. and Great Saiyaman Sagas). The greatest strength Dragon Ball Z has is its unmatched ability to feed our anticipation with swelling tension, ultimately making the most notable climaxes all the more impressive. This is all thanks to the slow burn technique implemented by the series, without which, the battles would seem like fights just for the sake of having fights. No, the tension can be quite palpable at times, and main characters are always at risk of meeting a fatal end. I know, I know - "But we already know based on what we've seen that they can come back to life!" True, but when a main character is pulverized, or in some cases, sacrifice themselves for the greater good, it removes them from the immediate battle for quite some time... and every second counts. So, regardless of the 'coming back to life' loophole (which does sort of seem like a cop-out), the anxiety of battle and the fear of losing our main characters still remain to be large factors.
What impresses the most in this batch of episodes however is the introduction to Vegeta. His dimwitted counterpart, Nappa, really comes off looking like a decolorized version of The Incredible Hulk - A big muscle dummy with no real wit - but once he's taken care of, Vegeta shows us that Nappa was only a drop in the bucket as far as power goes. Vegeta is smaller, lighter, stronger, much faster, and has a badass attitude that would make Duke Nukem scuttle away in fear. I may have been rooting against him, but man I loved seeing him do his thing. I won't go into discussing his character much further because I'm sure to give some things away. Well, at least for those who haven't seen the series in its entirety yet. So I'll leave things be and cap this thought off by reiterating that he's one of the coolest characters in anime history (my personal opinion, of course, but I'm sure many DBZ fans could back me up on this).
Yep, the episodes in Level 1.2 are practically light years ahead of the 17 episodes that preceded it, and set the bar very high for the 257 episodes that remain. The good news? Despite the intensity of the action in this collection of episodes, we haven't seen anything yet. Hopefully these Level releases aren't your first introduction to Dragon Ball Z, but if they are - Try not to let anyone spoil the rest of the series for you. Stay away from fan sites and the DBZ dedicated wiki page, and for the love of King Kai, don't watch the umpteen million fan made music videos on Youtube. This series is best served when you don't know what surprises await around each corner - As of right now, we know that Goku is the number one guy to have on your side. We know his pals are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the world out of danger. Last and most certainly not least, we also know that Gohan is much more than meets the eye... but where will his path lead him? You're just going to have to keep waiting to find out, but in the meantime, this is another great set of episodes that are going to keep you plenty satisfied. Just be sure to keep in mind that you're going to be left with one hell of a cliffhanger...
The video portion of this has been carried over from my Level 1.1 review.
This 1080p, AVC encoded transfer is presented in the show's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (4:3, if you're more familiar with that). Furthermore, this is the most faithful representation of DBZ on any home video format to date. FUNimation has gone back to the original 16mm source and digitally transferred it frame by frame in order to provide us with the best looking product the format can offer. In previous DVD set releases, the colors were either too saturated or the contrast was boosted (due to differences in the NTSC standards between Japan and the US). This time however, the 'Level' releases are giving us the original director approved colors and contrast. Before anyone decides to get argumentative and point out the original director wasn't actually involved in this digital restoration/transfer, he doesn't really need to be. The 16mm film contains the show as it was meant to be seen and it was up to FUNi to decide how to alter the image or not. In this case, they left well enough alone and stayed faithful to the source.
Of course, that's stirring a bit of debate on the internet as well, as the word 'faithful' in the home video market often does.
Since this new digital transfer came from a 16mm source, there's a substantial amount of grain. FUNimation didn't throw the DNR switch to any extreme, nor did they try to enhance the image with color boosting or artificial sharpening. No, this release sports a ton of grain (which looks quite natural and not digital or blocky, mind you), and some people will automatically be put off by the fact they're watching 'film' instead of something that looks like freshly painted animation cells. Of course, there are plenty of other people that understand that the more digital 'tampering' you do, the more detail you're going to wipe away. Grain is an inherent trait of film, and to remove that grain would result in an effect that looks like smearing (in motion), or at the very least, a softening of the overall picture. The decision to keep the grain structure intact was an important one, because otherwise there would have been no point in upgrading from the DVD's. For anyone who is worried that such a film-like presentation would be marred with print damage galore... don't be. 99% of all film damage has been 'repaired', an impressive feat considering there's no negative 'evidence' left behind to indicate such a restoration.
Although there are some studios out there that think Blu-ray is for presenting the 'cleanest' image possible, true home theater enthusiasts know what the format is really about - Preserving the source as is, to obtain the most detailed and faithful image possible. That's exactly what FUNi has done here, and as someone who has been waffling back and forth between the inferior video presentations available on DVD for some time, I'm happy to finally have the option to own a faithful reproduction of DBZ. Black levels are solid and the image doesn't look overly bright (or slightly washed out, as was a common complaint on the Dragon Box sets), colors are perfectly saturated without bleeding over lines, and digital anomalies are non-existent. To say this is worth an upgrade from the DVD would actually undersell what FUNi has done, and any DBZ newcomer or hardcore fan should be thrilled with this release.
The audio portion of this review has been carried over from my Level 1.1 review.
I made a pretty big deal about FUNimation offering us the right 'choices' on these releases, and those 'choices' were specifically in regards to the sound options that would be available. FUNi has come through on this release big time, as there are three lossless audio tracks here to choose from:
-English dubbing with Japanese score - 5.1 Dolby TrueHD
-English dubbing with original English broadcast music - Dolby TrueHD Stereo
-Japanese dialogue with Japanese score - Dolby TrueHD Mono
Of course, English and Japanese subtitles are included.
Being that I'm such an advocate for 'faithful' video presentations, I'm going to risk sounding like I'm double-talking myself here - But, the 5.1 option is the most impressive of the bunch (English dub with Japanese score). The surround effects are much more engaging than I expected them to be, the dynamic range was wide and didn't sacrifice the clarity of the dialogue, and there was even a bit of LFE when appropriate. In comparison, the English stereo track is impressive enough in its own right, whereas the Japanese mono track isn't nearly as clear or concise - That is, considering it's a mono track for a television show from 1989, it sounds good enough, but it is somewhat muffled when compared to the other offerings.
All in all, FUNimation has done an excellent job in the audio department, and fans will be happy to know that no matter what audio option they decide to listen to, they won't have to worry about having the wrong set because it's all here. It's worth noting that the English dub isn't the original Ocean dub, but the FUNimation re-dub that was done after the fact (once FUNi stopped working with Saban, they could no longer afford Ocean Studio's services, so began doing their own dub in-house after uncut episode 67). Overall the scripted dialogue is pretty similar, but I find the FUNi re-dub to be slightly less wordy and thus more effective overall.
Much like the previous release, there isn't much here to satisfy those who truly care about extensive supplements:
-An Engineer and a Pen - Autograph Collection Part 1 - Features autographed photos of the English vocal talent... but what good are autographed photos in a video?
-The Many Faces of Christopher R. Sabat - A photo of Sabat gets reworked by some artists. Again, I'm left scratching my head.
Also included is the Textless Opening Song, as well as the Textless Closing Song.
This is one of the most beloved anime series of all time, so I find it hard to believe that FUNi doesn't have some sort of archival footage they can use for a 'making of' featurette. I know FUNi isn't responsible for the creation of DBZ, but what about some shots of the vocal talent reading their lines behind the mic? Hopefully FUNi gets a little more inventive down the line. After all, there's still 16 sets to go...
It's a little frustrating that FUNi decided to leave the first season's final five episodes for Level 2.1. It makes no sense to... well, anyone. All in all though, this is still a no brainer for fans of Dragon Ball Z. This is the original series in all of its uncut glory, and FUNimation has given us the plethora of choices we've always craved. Want the US broadcast experience you fell in love with? Check. Want the English audio with the superior Japanese score instead? Can do. How about the original Japense production with English subtitles? Not a problem. Furthermore, this is the best that Dragon Ball Z is ever going to look and sound - The original aspect ratio has been preserved, and the film grain has been left intact to leave detail unhindered. This looks like film (appropriate as the series is on 16mm film), and the 5.1 English track is surprisingly robust. Contextually, the episodes included in this batch of episodes are far more exciting than Level 1.2's predecessor. Highly Recommended.