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Oh, the tortured life of Dragon Ball Z on home video. Despite being nearly 300 episodes after all was said and done, the original DVD's trickled out with a paltry offering of 3-5 episodes per disc. Complete season sets were finally delivered in the 'orange brick' collection, but die-hard fans of the series began a war of words upon learning the studio had cropped the show for a widescreen friendly presentation. As something of an apology, Funimation released the infinitely more faithful 'Dragon Box' sets, but boosted contrast and a lack of audio options kept it from being the definitive collection everyone had hoped for. No, it wasn't until the 'Level' sets debuted on Blu-ray that we saw DBZ in its definitive form, but a lack of sales seemingly forced a knee-jerk reaction from the studio, as all subsequent releases outside of the first season had been canceled. After taking some time to reevaluate DBZ's future on the format, they've decided to give full season sets another go... but have once again resorted to using cropped imagery. Has Funimation learned nothing?
For those unfamiliar with the series, Dragon Ball Z picks up five years after the original Dragonball, with life moving along at a respectable pace for the now grown-up Son-Goku. There's been no tournament fighting, no rivals causing terror around the globe, and no reason to train and keep his martial art skills sharp. No, Goku has become fully domesticated as a happy-go-lucky guy that does all the heavy lifting at home to provide for his family. That all changes however when an alien spaceship screams through the atmosphere and crash lands on Earth. A muscled warrior by the name of Raditz emerges and reveals some troubling revelations - Raditz is actually Goku's brother and they come from the planet Vegeta - home to a race of Saiyans with superhuman strength that use their power to conquer worlds - where their father was King. Goku had actually been sent to Earth as a baby to kill its inhabitants, but a head injury at a young age completely wiped his memory of his origins and the evil objective he was tasked with. Raditz now wants Goku to join him so they can conquer worlds together, but when Goku refuses his brother lays down an ultimatum - Either he fulfills his destiny as a Saiyan, or his little boy, Son-Gohan, would perish.
Of course, Goku refused and sacrificed himself in order to rid the world of Raditz. Before everyone could breathe a sigh of relief, the ruthless Saiyan reveals two of his pals are on the way, both of which more devastating than he. What happens next is fairly predictable - The Z Fighters fall in battle one by one until Goku is trained and ready to return from the afterlife. Arriving in the nick of time, Goku faces off against Vegeta... but what happens next isn't so predictable. Someone else causes Vegeta to relent, and Goku being the kindhearted soul as always, decides to let his opponent live to fight another day. After all, Saiyans live and breathe to fight, and the shame attached to loss is a fate worse than death. But oh, what's this? A spaceship is found and proves to be a trap...
Gohan, Krillin and Bulma travel to Namek and begin searching for the next set of dragon balls, but soon find themselves in a race against time, as Frieza wants them to claim immortality. Planets away, Goku is informed of Frieza's quest, so he hops on a spaceship and trains for the fight of his life along the way. Hopefully, he'll arrive before his friends once again perish at the hands of a powerful adversary, but... well, we know the DBZ formula at this point. In true DBZ fashion, Frieza deals with the lesser contenders before Goku steps in to kick his ass... oh, and Goku finally unleashed his inner Super Saiyan. The now golden haired warrior put an end to Frieza once and for all, and his on his way back to Earth.
And thus begins Season 4, where some shorter story arcs are introduced as a way to fill time as Goku speeds back to his home planet. An evil little thing by the name of Garlic Jr. - with a band of henchmen known as the 'Spice Boys', no less - capture Kami and Popo and claim their piece of cloud real estate in the sky. Unleashing a black mist that brings everyone's evil intentions to the surface, and it contaminates nearly everyone. Fortunately, Gohan, Krillin and Piccolo remain battle ready.
As the season progresses, an old villain returns to strike fear in the hearts of the Z Force once again, but more importantly, a new warrior by the name of Trunks appears. His appearance is a turning point for the series overall, as he claims to be... well, I'll keep that stuff to myself, as it's spoiler heavy for sure. If this boy is who he says he is, what was his purpose in showing up to help the Z-Fighters? Well, apparently some nasty adversaries of the android variety will pop up in three years time, and since Trunks displays strength unlike anything they've ever seen, everyone decides to take his warning seriously. Furthermore, the mysterious warrior also reveals that Goku is suffering from an incurable heart disease, and may not live long enough to neutralize the android threat. So, the Z Force goes into training, and three years later they finally get to size up their opponents. Unfortunately, the two androids turn into more, and in typical Dragon Ball fashion, they prove to be nearly invincible adversaries.
The fourth season's storyline packs a bit more drama and introduces new elements of danger. The fact that Goku is dealing with a serious heart condition really ups the ante, as he could perish before the androids have a chance to be dismantled in battle. It's a game changer, for sure, as the other Z Fighters would really be lost without their ace in the hole. Normally we have to wait for Goku to arrive at the battlefield, but having him instead fight against a ticking clock is a breath of fresh air. Going into further details about the season would undoubtedly spoil some of the story, so I'll merely say that there are some major twists along the way that not only shocked the Z Force fighters, but left my jaw agape the first time I watched the series.
Anyway, regardless of the cropping, this release isn't all doom and gloom. Yes, Dragon Ball Z gained mass appeal in the States because it aired on Cartoon Network, but don't be fooled into thinking this is a watered down kids show. This particular series may not deal with many adult oriented themes, but its ability to hook an audience and keep them on the edge of their seat is virtually unmatched. For starters, the action is so intense it places the main characters at risk constantly, up to and including the consequence of death. This produces a feeling of hopelessness, and just when we think the bad guys are going to win... that's when 'it' happens. A new revelation emerges from the shadows and some serious ass-kicking begins. This formula is set on 'rinse and repeat' throughout the series entirety, but the slow burn build-up to the action makes for a grand payoff.
That said, the slow burn technique does work against the series to a certain degree. The creative staff had to prolong the show so they wouldn't propel past the manga's storylines, so they added tons of filler - entire episodes devoted to stalling for time, powering up, witty dialogue between foes, Snake Way, etc. - and the wait was almost unbearable at times as a result. It's for this reason that Dragon Ball Z Kai was conceived - To offer a 'fat free' version of the series. However, much of the payoff that awaits is a direct result of the viewing discipline the show demands. It's necessary to understand how much effort and training our heroes have put in before taking on the villain of the hour, and gives the audience a more accurate gauge as to how devastatingly powerful their adversaries truly are.
There's a reason why Dragon Ball Z has been referred to as the 'gateway drug' into anime - It's balls to the wall action, the characters are endearing and the villains mostly unforgettable. If you need an excuse to start watching, just do yourself a favor and dig right in. Chances are, you're going to fall in love and feel pleasingly overwhelmed in knowing how many episodes are yet to come. If there's one positive thing I can say about Funimation and their release schedule - provided they don't cancel future Blu-ray releases yet again - it's that they seem to spit new releases out with speedy regularity. Enjoy the ride...
Back to the original question - Does Funimation even listen to customer feedback anymore? The Dragon Box sets were released to satisfy the DBZ die-hards, and the subsequent 'Level' sets on Blu-ray remained faithful to the series original 4:3 aspect ratio. So, why did the studio feel the need to go back to widescreen? Whatever the reason, I think it's safe to assume that fans of the series are going to vent their frustrations on the net with fire in their bellies.
That said, this 1.78:1 AVC encoded presentation (1080p) is pretty much the antithesis of what the Level sets represented - A presentation that was faithful to the source. Instead, the filmic look has been decimated with heavy doses of digital noise reduction. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that this is nothing more than a prettier version of the Orange Brick masters, but there are some notable differences - Framing is different than on the Orange sets, while nicks and scratches are also less frequent. My guess is that they went back to the uncropped source of the Orange Bricks, reframed and then performed a kind of digital cleanup which wouldn't require much human intervention. This would explain the complete lack of grain and the minimal amount of print damage seen (which is virtually non-existent). Furthermore, going this route probably makes more financial sense for Funimation - Instead of having to re-scan the entire series from the 16mm source and perform nitpicky cleanup from there, they can work with existing material already in their possession and let computers do most of the work. Fair enough, I suppose, but it isn't what the fans deserve, especially after being nickel-and-dimed for well over a decade.
That said, if all you want is a clean looking DBZ in HD, then these Season sets should suit you just fine. There's no grain, the lines are bold and the colors really pop as a result of the increased resolution (compared to DVD)... BUT...
...Purists - like myself - will be quick to point out that the level of color saturation on display isn't faithful to the source. The contrast has also been artificially brightened to enhance the 'pop' effect. The boosting and saturation look much better here than they did on the Dragon Box sets though, so I'll give it that - Skin tones don't look pink and the overall presentation doesn't hurt my eyes. There's also some judder on occasion, but nothing that's going to pull you out of the experience.
As far as the encode itself is concerned, there's some blocking, although it isn't always easy to see. You're far more likely to notice the ugly after-effects caused by Funi's digital cleanup. In fact, pretty much everything that could be pointed out as a fault is a direct result of Funimation's tinkering... but I'm not in the habit of giving sources that have been DNR'd to oblivion a decent score. It's for this reason I'm giving Dragon Ball Z - Season 2 2.5 stars. Blu-ray is about presenting an image that's as close to the original source as possible, and Funimation's latest release is anything but.
At least Funimation left the audio from their stellar Level sets alone:
I made a pretty big deal about FUNimation offering us the right 'choices', 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 TrueHDM
-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.
-Inside Dragon Ball Z: Interview with Matthew O'Hara
-Inside Dragon Ball Z: Interview with Daniel Mancilla
-Textless Opening Song
-Textless Closing Song
-From the Vault: The World of Dragon Ball Z
-From the Vault: Goku vs. Vegeta Featurette
Dragon Ball Z is one of the best anime series of all time. As nice of an idea as Dragon Ball Z Kai was (with the 'no filler' technique and all), 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 to offer. So as far as episodic content goes, the complete series is where anyone just beginning to discover DBZ should begin. That said, Funimation have - surprise, surprise - dropped the ball by cropping the original source and slathering it with DNR to appeal to the Joe-six-packs that want a 'purdy' image, and not something that represents the original artistic intent. The audio options are stellar though, and should appease all fans regardless of preference. Recommended... but only if you aren't fed up with dipping on the series just yet.