*All images in this review taken from the Blu-ray discs in this set. Click on all images to view full size caps.
"As nice of an idea as Dragon Ball Z Kai was, I personally feel it took away one of the greatest strengths from the series as a whole - The sagas all made use of the (very) slow burn technique, but that's what made many of the big reveals such a big payoff. You invested your time hanging on the edge of your seat, and in the end you were greatly rewarded. Kai offers all the payoff with little build-up or viewing discipline, and in my opinion, greatly reduces the effect of many of the best moments the series has had to offer." - From my Dragon Ball Z Level 1.1 review
The nice thing about opinions? They're always subject to change.
At the time of that writing, I was against the idea of Kai (which in and of itself means 'revised') based on principle. With new technology spilling out by the minute, the latest generation has had their attention span reduced to nanoseconds. That may seem like an unfair assessment, but just think about the current trends in entertainment - Setting aside the time to listen to an album as a whole has gone by the wayside. Now, music is played on devices dedicated to shuffling songs. Sitting down to watch a movie is also hindered, as people constantly take themselves out of the experience to play with their cell phones. So, I felt that Kai was attempting to grab the attention of future generations by replacing the slow burning fuse of DBZ with a speedy trail of gunpowder instead.
Part of the fun of watching Dragon Ball Z, at least the first time around, was playing the waiting game. There were plenty of episodes that did little more than focus on stalling the villain, powering up a (hopefully) devastating attack, or having the main characters go off on needless diatribes. This may sound less than ideal, but it was all done to build the anticipation before delivering exactly what you were waiting for. At least, that's what I used to think. Don't get me wrong - I still think in its uncut form, DBZ is the only way to go about watching the series for the first time. On subsequent viewings? Well, being a husband and father, finding the time to choke down almost 300 episodes is nearly impossible. I have a huge backlog of movies and television shows that I would like to eventually get through, and outside of that, I have a social life and I'm trying to learn how to forge/blacksmith. Suddenly, the convenience of Dragon Ball Z Kai was looking pretty good...
After doing a bit of research, I found that Dragon Ball Z Kai was done to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show. Although I'm still thoroughly convinced it was merely a way to keep the series 'milkable' for generations to come, my interest was fully piqued with the changes that were going to be made to the series. For one, Kai was going to drop everything that happened after the Cell Games Saga. The fact that I'll never have to watch the Great Saiyaman in action again thrilled me to no end. Second, new scripts and dialogue were written in order to emulate the original Manga as close as possible. A new English dub was done with most of the original cast, and if any animation was deemed unfit for high-def viewing, it would be replaced. The end result? 291 episodes have now been effectively reduced to a manageable 98.
The fourth season of Dragon Ball Z Kai provides us with the Cell Saga in its revised entirety (episodes 78-98), which was only previously available in split-season sets (Dragon Ball Z Kai Part 7 and Part 8). I've already reviewed the final ten episodes that were compiled in Part 8, giving it high marks for presenting us with a substantial batch of explosive episodes... but now that I've had the chance to watch the fourth season in its entirety, I'm a little underwhelmed. The first leg of the season really only exists for two reasons - To allow Goku and Gohan to train to their full potential, and to allow Cell to toy with his opponents in the meantime. Yes, instead of finishing his opponents off when he has the chance, Cell, in typical Dragon Ball Z fashion, is so confident in his power that he actually pauses the action so he can setup a tournament. Why? Because he's curious to see if Goku's training will eventually translate into some sort of challenge. It's an interesting way for the villain to posture and flex his muscles, but I consider this to be the least imaginative plot thread in DBZ thus far. There's Gohan's ongoing transformation to consider - as the most intriguing part of the series has always been the hint that Gohan could actually surpass his father as a warrior - but the training in the first half of season 4 somehow manages to come off as filler.
Still, this should come as no surprise to fans of the series, as things have been formulaic up to this point. Let's be honest - We're not exactly watching for immaculate storytelling now, are we? No. We watch to see the ante upped constantly, so we can witness tremendous battles unlike anything we've ever seen. That being said, after all the times we've seen Goku on the outs while his friends get slaughtered in succession, only to come back at the final hour and save the day until the next 'big bad' comes along... the 4th season actually breaks the established mold in the final 10 episodes. This time, the focus is placed squarely on two other characters - Trunks, who proves to be a more powerful ally than anyone could have imagined, and Gohan, who is finally given the opportunity to step up and show everyone what he's made of.
So, was the wait worth it? Is the final season of Kai a big enough payoff for sitting through the first 77 episodes? This is where my being underwhelmed comes into play. After all is said and done, the final 10 episodes not only make sitting through the first half of season 4 worth our while, but rather DBZ Kai in its entirety. We've had to wonder since the first episode if Gohan would be able to fulfill his destiny, much like Goku had to when he was a child, and the Cell Saga's final episodes satisfy that curiosity with one of the most memorable character transformations in the history of anime. Also, thanks to some careful editing by Toei Animation, the action is far more intense than it's ever been. Still, the first half of season 4 feels unnecessarily long even in its revised state, so this season as a whole suffers as a result.
My biggest issue at this point, strangely doesn't even come from the content of these episodes. Although the original Dragon Ball Z pushes forward with what I consider to be a vastly inferior second leg (The Great Saiyaman, World Tournament, Maijin Buu, etc), Kai's original intent was to ignore everything that came after the endgame with Cell... which I personally thought was a fantastic call to make. Yes, Buu was part of the Manga's storyline, but was there really anything left worth exploring? The main character arcs came to a close at the end of the Cell Saga, and everything that comes after is more or less DBZ fan-service. The Saiyans conveniently discover their powers are virtually limitless, pushing themselves to the level of 'Super Saiyan 3' (really?) and can even fuse with one another to become truly unwieldy warriors. In short, all substance and character development (what little there was) goes out the window and we're supposed to be wowed by all the action. It's all fascinating enough in a 'popcorn anime' sort of way, but I was never truly 'in' to what I was watching as I was with the first half of the series. So, yes, I was happy that Kai seemingly recognized this and decided to end things at the right time. Now, it's been announced that Kai will push through the rest of the series in the not too distant future. This lessens the impact of the Cell Saga's ending, but there is a bright side to this - We probably won't have to endure the Great Saiyaman Saga again.
The more I watch Kai, the more I consider it to be my preferred version of Dragon Ball Z. That being said, this new iteration of DBZ still leaves a bit to be desired - Some of the vocal talent had to be replaced due to unavoidable circumstances, and some of it seems to be inferior to the English dubs that came before it. Also, the amount of blood and 'gore' (if you can call it that) has been toned down a bit. Although this is nothing new to those familiar with DBZ in the States, this still comes as something of a head scratcher. After all, the series is practically bathed in one form of violence or another, so why go through the trouble of censoring a little blood? Despite these minor quibbles, the good outweighs the bad by a large margin. The English dub is now more faithful to the Japanese script, and returning cast members deliver a performance that easily bests their work on the first go-round. Even though there still may be a small amount of questionable filler left in the mix, the revisions keep the action fast and furious without compromising any vital bits of story. One of the reasons why Dragon Ball Z had so much filler to begin with, was so the series wouldn't catch up to the Manga and be left with no story to tell. Now that the filler has been mostly removed, the series really does seem like it's found new life and can withstand numerous repeated viewings.
There's still something to be said about having patience and enduring the slow burn in the original series. In fact, I still highly recommend that newcomers watch Dragon Ball Z in its uncut form to experience that effect, but for the previously initiated, Kai is a breath of fresh air. Not just in its drastic reduction from 291 episodes to a brisk 98, but since there are only four seasons to purchase (or 8 'parts' that are half the price of the full season set), you don't have to sacrifice your bank account or even a lot of shelf space to store the series. Even if you do decide to start with Kai right off the bat, I can say with confidence that you won't come out at the end feeling like you've watched a gimped version of the show. As a DBZ veteran myself, I wasn't made to feel that way either. You can't go wrong with Kai, familiar with the original source or not.
I was somewhat underwhelmed by the 1080p, AVC encoded image (4:3), but that's probably because I've watched the Level sets prior to seeing Kai. The Level sets were a massive undertaking by FUNimation, as the original 16mm elements were scanned and were subsequently subjected to a clean-up project that fortunately didn't implement any digital noise reduction. What we were given was an image that was as faithful to the source as possible, and for the first time ever, actually allowed Dragon Ball Z to look like film as opposed to the overly contrasted Dragon Box sets, or the cropped digitally scrubbed 'Orange Brick' season sets.
Dragon Ball Z Kai features an HD remaster from Toei Animation's source, and they've painstakingly cleaned up most of the imperfections, which results in a respectably clean presentation. The image is a little on the soft however and is mostly devoid of grain, so some DNR is evident. That being said, I'm not exactly sure I blame them for doing so. DBZ has always looked 'clean' on television, but more important, any section of animation that was deemed unfit for HD was actually replicated with new animation. I assume 'cleaning' the source of heavy grain would allow the new animation to fit with the old seamlessly, and I have to say that I'm pretty impressed with the results. Shadowing and changes in line consistency are dead giveaways, but if you're not one to notice that sort of thing you'll be hard pressed to notice where the new footage has been spliced with the old. This is especially impressive when one considers that there are new pieces of animation also created for the purpose of bridging minor story gaps.
As far as the technical presentation on these discs, there's really nothing to complain about. Black levels are fairly solid, contrast and colors are presented without the harsh boosting that was apparent on the Dragon Box sets, and digital anomalies are minimal even at their very worst. After all is said and done, Kai isn't the absolute best I've seen Dragon Ball Z look to date, but it's still a nice leap from the previous DVD incarnations that didn't have a lot going for them in the first place.
This release contains both Japanese and English audio tracks (Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 respectively), and these are brand spankin' new in every conceivable way. Both languages feature newly recorded dialogue from (most of) the original voice actors, and they now sound clean as a whistle. Unfortunately, the rest of the sound design is still somewhat flat, but the English 5.1 track actually does a decent job of separating effects across all channels. It's not a completely immersive experience or anything, but it's appreciable nonetheless.
It's the music that may make some people do a double take - A new musical score was done by Kenji Yamamoto, who has some experience composing tunes for the DBZ video games. He was laid off by Toei Animation though, as it was discovered he was stealing music from other artists in the business. Toei Animation had no other choice but to replace Yamamoto's music with that of Shunsuke Kikuchi, who created the original soundtrack for the Japanese series. In the States however, we had already received the first two seasons of Kai on Blu-ray, so they were pulled from the market and were replaced with the Kikuchi score some time later. Part 5 was also delayed in the States to accommodate the change in score. Personally, I have zero problem with the change. I love the original Japanese score (even though the music used on Toonami back in the day will always hold a special place in my heart), and I am not cool with someone plagiarizing the work of others. Toei did the right thing, and still having a (reworked) version of the original score is ideal. Unfortunately, the score is still rather flat, but the music doesn't really need to be all that immersive. It just needs to drive the story along.
Much like the video presentation, the audio is good, but not great. On the technical side of things however, there's absolutely nothing to complain about. Dialogue isn't 'thin' or tinny, and the sound effects sound better than ever.
Like most other Dragon Ball Z Kai 'Parts' and season sets, there's next to nothing in the way of supplements. All we have are the opening and closing songs available with no text to obscure the animation.
I've been a fan of Dragon Ball Z for well over a decade, and I've seen all 291 episodes multiple times in both English and Japanese. This unfortunately gave me a negative bias towards Dragon Ball Z Kai, but now that I really can't justify sitting down and watching that much television over a reasonable period of time, the option of Kai was looking pretty good. I'm man enough to admit when I was wrong, and, well, I was wrong. Kai in its entirety is pretty much a masterpiece compared to the original filler-filled saga, but as far as the fourth season itself is concerned, the first half is a bit of a slog. Still, the action is remarkable throughout, especially in the final 10 episodes, which easily ranks as some of the most memorable anime of all time. As far as the technical presentation, the remastered A/V bests the previous DVD boxed sets, for sure, but the extras are practically non-existent. Still, the fourth season of Kai still comes highly recommended. One small disclaimer before leaving you, though - Those uninitiated with the series should still try to watch the original, uncut 291 episodes of DBZ before taking on Kai. Watching the truncated version of the series is likely to rob you of a far more rewarding (and equally frustrating) experience. If you can't justify setting aside that much time and money, Dragon Ball Z Kai is still a great option for vets and newcomers alike.