"Dragon Ball Z: Kai" is a unique simultaneous re-mastering and re-telling of the classic "Dragon Ball Z" anime series. For the uninitiated, "Kai" takes the original 291-episode run and trims the fat, omitting filler episodes in order to present a series that more closely resembles the original storyline of the mangas. The result is 98-episodes of lean, mean and far from childish storytelling. In the process of doing so, the series was re-mastered painstakingly, in some cases requiring animators to trace the original cels and recolor them in order to fix print damage. Now, on DVD "Kai" gets a release in its original aspect ratio, with newly recorded dialogue from a newly translated script by most of the original series voice actors and presented uncut without network/cable TV censoring for younger audiences. The end result is a unique entry point for new fans and a new way of experiencing the classic saga for the long devoted.
Aside from maybe one or two complete episodes, various clips, and second-hand information, "Dragon Ball Z Kai" is my first proper introduction to the legendary series and right away, there's a confident sense in storytelling and pacing, with the first act of the premiere episode giving a proper, non-hurried recap of what happened in the prior series "Dragon Ball" which focused on a much younger version of our hero, Goku. It's not long though, before we rejoin our cast of characters including Goku, Master Roshi, Goku's wife Chi-Chi, and their son Gohan as the series' first major villain, Raditz arrives and quickly dispatches Goku's nemesis Piccolo. The writers trust the intelligence of the viewer by letting necessary exposition occur naturally without hasty omissions and viewers are left with a key revelation that will drive a large portion of rest of the series: Goku is one of the last of an ancient race known as Saiyans and Raditz desires Goku to fulfill his destiny as a destroyer of worlds for profit; naturally our hero refuses and an epic, multi-episode arc showdown is initiated.
The Raditz vs. Goku showdown handsomely allows "Kai" to show its themes to the world as foes Goku and Piccolo are forced to put aside differences to save the planet they mutually care for. The fights have tremendous emotional gravitas on top of highly stylized and satisfying physical confrontations and the end result is far more than a stop-gap between another arc, it plays into a natural character progression that goes beyond the standard "children's" cartoon into the realm of the metaphysical. Make no mistake, while the character designs are cute and some of the voice work is bubbly, "Kai" can be a violent and dark show, that may very well unsettle younger viewers.
As a work of animation, "Kai" still retains elements of the time of its origin. Animation is generally fluid, but clever tricks to mask some of the more over-the-top fights feel hokey and at times confusing. There are a few sequences that just ever so slightly kill the tension that a more modern series would never be plagued with, but it's hardly a knock against the series as a whole. Season one ends amazingly after 26 episodes of smart, serialized storytelling introducing a host of new friends and foes including the even more deadly Saiyans Vegeta and Nappa. There's nothing gimmicky about "Kai," it's flat out, a finely tuned, smart piece of thrilling and crowd--pleasing entertainment that never feels bogged down; despite having never seen the original series, the claim of being more faithful to an original story definitely rings true
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is definitely far cleaner and vibrant than the assorted "Dragon Ball Z" material I've seen in the past. There's a very minimal amount of compression in some shots, but considering how this new version of the series was crafted together, some elements still have some slightly faded quality to them. No one will ever mistake this for being a modern piece of animated work nor something from the heyday of classic Disney, but compared to other anime series' of the timeframe, this is a very good looking transfer.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track has considerable more life than the very flat and thin, original language stereo track. While voice work is incredibly well orchestrated, the dub is a bit more dominant than any other element of the sound mix. Effects are strong as forceful, despite the slight overshadowing by dialogue, but the accompanying score can sometimes go unnoticed. The Japanese stereo track, as stated above is far more flat sounding, but the overall mix is much more satisfactory. English subtitles are included that only accompany the Japanese audio.
The only extras consist of textless versions of the opening and closing music and original series trailers.
Whether you're going to buy "Dragon Ball Z: Kai" depends on how well you love the source material as well as the desire in wanting a leaner series. The stripped down storytelling works wonderfully and captures the elements and themes without a single instance of muddled presentation. If you already have the previous, two-part releases though, I can't say this more compactly packed season one presentation is of any benefit. Any interested parties who haven't made the purchase should definitely grab this release. Recommended.