Eventually the original DBZ experience made its way to DVD in the States, the result of which ended up creating 'version specific' loyalists across the internet defending their preferred way to watch the series. To say the debates would often devolve into a series of condescending attacks would be underselling the truth, as I half expected the internet to explode in a 'Kamehameha destroys the planet' sort of way with all the friction they caused... but as for me? I wasn't in either camp. Although I found the Japanese version to be superior - which featured bloodied battle wounds, an orchestral score as opposed to Bruce Faulconer's techno-rock music, and much less chintzy dialogue - I was still partial to what Cartoon Network presented me. It was what made me originally fall in love with the series, after all. So, as far as FUNimation getting me to buy the series in its entirety went, they needed to win me over with options. I've been waiting for a series release to contain both orchestral and Faulconer scores, as well as dialogue in both English and Japanese. The 'orange brick' sets provided me with the options I so desired, but the video presentation was in 16x9 and despite how some enjoyed this, the bottom line for me was that they weren't in the original aspect ratio. In short, no sale. The Dragon Box sets that came after the fact still didn't offer me the options I wanted, so my home video collection remained DBZ-less and I was teetering on the edge of breaking down and buying one of the sets that were, in my opinion, inferior to what I wanted/needed.
That's really the hurdle that FUNimation really has to overcome with this Blu-ray set - Choice. Sure, they have to give people reason enough to justify an upgrade in the A/V department, but most of all, the fan base is so divided on what 'version' of the show they will and won't watch that they have to provide us with a multitude of options just to appease everyone... because let's face it: If they don't, they're not going to make a whole lot of money on these sets. Fortunately, the Dragon Ball Z - Level releases are aiming to be the most definitive release of the series there's ever been, or ever will be. With the 16mm film elements having been restored frame-by-frame with cutting edge technology, while also preserving the director-approved color and original 4:3 aspect ratio, it looks like FUNi is finally offering the definitive release DBZ fans have been waiting for... as long as you don't mind buying these releases at 17 episodes a clip.
Dragon Ball Z picks up five years after the original Dragonball series, 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.
Even as a Saiyan, Goku's domesticated lifestyle has left him too soft to deal with the likes of Raditz, and the time in which he has for finding help is short. Goku convinces his greatest enemy, Piccolo, to put their differences aside long enough to save Earth. In the end Goku's plan pays off, but unfortunately at the cost of his own life. Worse yet, Raditz was able to call with his dying breaths not one, but two more Saiyans to come and finish the job he could not. The only saving grace is that it's going to take the pair of Saiyans a year to arrive on Earth, so a handful of the world's best fighter band and train together as the Z-Fighters, while Piccolo isolates Gohan in the wild for some intensive training in an effort to bring out his inner-Saiyan. And Goku? He's searching the underworld for the great King Kai, who should be able to help him hone his skills enough before, hopefully, returning to Earth in time to help put an end to the incoming Saiyan menace. His year of training will mean nothing though if a select few can't obtain the seven Dragon Balls in time to wish him back to life...
If you've never seen the series before, don't let the fact that it gained its mass appeal in the States on Cartoon Network fool you - There's a reason why Dragon Ball Z gained a rabid fan base, and it wasn't because it was some watered down kids show. Sure, this particular series may not have the same adult oriented themes that provide the makeup for other popular anime, but its ability to hook the audience and keep them on the edge of their seats is virtually unmatched. For starters, the action is so intense it actually makes the main characters seem like they're at enough risk to cost them their lives. Thanks to the show's slow burn storytelling technique, adversaries often bring the good guys to the brink of destruction, to the point where the audience themselves feel like all hope is lost... and that's when 'it' happens. That's when a new revelation occurs and some serious ass kickin' begins. Of course, the 17 episodes in this collection only give us a taste of what the series has in store for us. A fair chunk of what's contained on this 2 disc set deals with Raditz fairly quickly, and then follows the year long training process that Goku, the Z-Fighters, and Gohan have to overcome if they hope to stand a chance against the Saiyans.
Of course, watching the year of training brings about another common criticism of the show that may have kept newcomers at bay - It's no secret that Dragon Ball Z has a reputation for being loaded with filler (episodes of stalling for time, powering up, dialogue exchanges, etc), and I'll agree quite freely that the show's slow burn technique is really slow at times. Hell, it's the very reason why Dragonball Z Kai was introduced - To offer a 'fat free' version of DBZ. However, just taking this release into consideration, it's necessary to see how much effort and training everyone puts in before the Saiyans hurdling through space land on Earth. It gives the audience an accurate gauge of how devastatingly powerful these adversaries are going to be... of course, we'll have to wait until the next set to discuss how all that goes down.
This brings up my only minor complaint about this release - It only has 17 episodes on it. I mean, come on FUNi - 17 episodes? The Dragon Box DVD sets, and even the 'orange brick' releases gave us 40 episodes or so at a clip. Now, if FUNimation was aiming at providing us with half a season/saga at a time, that would make some sort of sense... but 17 episodes isn't even half of the first saga! This is undoubtedly going to alienate certain DBZ fans, namely the ones who already own the series in full on DVD, because they're probably content enough to hold on to what they have so they can see if FUNimation will release proper saga sets somewhere down the line. I can't say I blame them in this respect, but the quality this set offers in the A/V department more than makes up for the lack of quantity (more on that in a bit).
But, back to what I already touched base on in regards to DBZ vs Kai - This is probably where those who are interested in high definition are going to have to make a decision. Kai was the only option up until now, but the time for the uncut series is finally upon us. For my dollar's worth, I'll take the uncut Z experience over Kai any day of the week. Kai is all of the payoff with none of the buildup, which seriously hampers the effect the series was meant to provide. If you're been deciding if you want to get into Kai now or spend the next 2 years or so collecting these 'Level' sets to see the series in its entirety, I say take the long road. You won't be sorry. For the rest of you who already know everything there is to know about DBZ, the question you likely want answered is in the next part of the review...
There's been some misinformation on the web in regards to what this video presentation actually holds in store for the viewer, so allow me to put some of these debates to bed:
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.
I made a pretty big deal about FUNimation offering us the right 'choices' on this release, 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.
This is really the only place where this release is lacking. The packaging doesn't contain any nice booklets like the Dragon Box series does, and the 'next episode previews' aren't even included (the narrative at the end of the episodes are still present, however). There is a post-card material photo of Vegeta with a silver imprint signature by Christopher R. Sabat in the corner. I really don't care about collectible cards such as this because, well, they're not very collectible. Everyone who buys this set will have one so, where's the value in that? I'd much rather have a detailed episode guide in hand.
-Dragon Ball Z - Film to Blu-ray - Basically details the actual restoration process done by FUNimation and the facility utilized for scanning and preserving the original color timing.
-Textless Opening Song
-Textless Closing Song
-Marathon Feature - Allows you to watch the episodes in one sitting without having to sit through any of the opening/closing credits.
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. I waited a long time for a release to cure my 'not ready to buy DBZ yet' woes, and I wasn't going to settle for Kai. Thanks to the first Dragon Ball Z: Level release however, especially considering how pristine it looks after such meticulous restoration, I simply cannot wait to get my hands on the rest. Film damage has practically been eradicated and the original color timing and OAR have been flawlessly preserved. What more could you ask for? Well, I guess it would be nice if FUNimation gave us more than 17 episodes per release, as that doesn't even really give us half a saga/season. It's a minor complaint however, as I feel the quality takes precedence over the quantity. Add in the fact that all of your audio preferences are now contained in a single package, and this is a DBZ release I can finally highly recommend to the masses.