I haven't been reviewing episodes on an episode-per-episode basis, because I don't have much to say that wouldn't repeat itself after awhile. On a mass of episodes, I think I can more concisely put forth my feelings about storylines, animation, and music without being too much of a fanboy (granted, this blog is nothing but fanboy wank, so there's likely to be lots of that too...). So here we are, my first "review" of the blog.
My rating system: I'm going to be honest, I hate numerical rating systems. Perhaps it's because I'm a dyscalculiate IRL, I find them to be mostly random speculation. In a 1 to 10 scale, who really uses 1? Most 1 to 10 rating systems are really a 4 to 10. So why not use a 1 to 5 scale? Because those read like a 3 to 5 system. And so on. But I'll admit that having a rating makes reviews more interesting to the reader, even if they're pretty bogus. So I'll be using a simple, three part rating scale: Poor, Good, or Great.
Started off with a doozy, didn't I? (No 2 to 3 rating scale here, gents and gentettes). The Pilaf Saga (sometimes called the Goku Saga or the Emperor Pilaf Saga) suffers from being what it is; a gag manga. The main characters aren't likable here as they are in the rest of the story. Bulma is particularly ruthless and insufferable, and Goku, while charming and adorable, is admittedly a bit bland here. The secondary characters, like Oolong, Kame Sen'nin, Yamcha, Puar, Pilaf, Shuu, and Mai carry the story in many ways; Particularly, because they're funnier than our main characters. Still, some of Goku and Bulma's classic comedic moments are in this Saga, and I won't discount that. Goku discovering Bulma has "no balls" comes to mind immediately, as does "I don't want to touch your dirty butt."
There isn't much character development here, either. Yamcha grows the most as a character, from scummy desert bandit into Bulma's lovesick martial artist boytoy. Oolong gains a bit more of a conscience, and to a lesser extent, so does Bulma. Goku is more or less the same as he started, but even more mysterious (Oozaru and all that). Still, without this Saga, there would be no Dragon Ball, so it has that.
The overall story is fairly disjointed. Less so than the manga, in which Pilaf isn't introduced until he sends Shuu to steal the gang's Dragon Balls. But the Dragon Balls are the real story here - the villains and challenges they must overcome to get them are merely secondary, and often fodder for jokes. But perhaps we're looking too deeply into a story that was never meant to be examined so thoroughly...
What am I saying? Of course not.
21st Tenka-ichi Budokai
Talk about taking a turn! Unlike the Pilaf Saga, where Toriyama often uses jokes in place of a story, or the joke is the story, this saga has a plot! And the jokes are part of that plot! It starts out simple enough; Goku and Kuririn both seek out Muten Roshi to train them. But this arc has the episode where Dragon Ball, in this blogger's humble opinion, grows its beard. Allow me to direct you to episode 17, "With Life At Stake! Milk Delivery". This episode is the catalyst that gets Dragon Ball, as a whole (including Z) rumbling down the path that makes it such a great and classic series. Goku is a shining example of never giving up, Muten Roshi is the quirky yet wise master, and Kuririn the sneaky rival, turned begrudging friend, turned best friend. These are the beats that make Dragon Ball what it is, and this is where it all begins.
The tournament itself is a lot of fun. The battles are short (as all the fights are at this point), but every fighter has their gimmick (often to humorous or really awesome results). I've always had a particular love for Kuririn vs Bacterian. So much of that fight is Goku urging Kuririn onward, showing that critical trait of Son Goku's - his love and support for his friends. They're such great bros. <3
This saga also features the first battle to last more than one episode - Son Goku vs. Jackie Chun. Like all the rounds, this fight is really creative, exciting, and funny. Really, I don't have any complaints about this material. Even the filler material is solid.
Red Ribbon Army Saga
The Red Ribbon Army Saga starts off slowly, largely due to filler. The Colonel Silver sub-arc isn't very entertaining. Though Pilaf, Shuu, and Mai return to make with the laughs, Silver is a boring villain. The return of Gyumao and Chichi is appreciated, due to their role in the later series, but it all seems like a bit of a distraction (which is what filler is, but still...) - however, once Goku lands in Jingle Village, things begin to pick up noticeably.
Muscle Tower is awesome. I love watching Goku beat his way through the floors of the tower, meeting Hachan, and rescuing the village elder. General White is a moderately more interesting villain than Silver, but the real prize in this sub-arc is Murasaki. Episode 37, "Enter Ninja Murasaki" is possibly the most laugh out loud episode of the series, and a lot of it has to do with how solid the lines are written and delivered between Goku and Murasaki. With the whole adventure being fun and funny, it's hard not to like this a lot.
General Blue is a much more interesting villain than his forebears. It slows down a bit when Goku goes to the city (filler again, but this filler is much more entertaining than Silver v. Pilaf), but once Goku, Kuririn, and Bulma begin searching for Pirate Treasure it becomes pretty fun and exciting. Blue proves to be less of a pushover than the rest of the Red Ribbon Army, so we get some neat fights out of it (particularly, Goku vs. Blue, which is very well animated). Then it all comes together during a fantastic crossover with Dr. Slump, and Arale Norimaki beating Blue so bad he lands in a desert.
The Land of Karin sub-arc are my favorite episodes in the entire franchise. Upa and Bora are such great characters, and their bond so perfectly displayed for the viewer. When Tao Pai Pai arrives and so mercilessly kills Bora, we believe he is pure evil. His victory against Goku is one of our heroes most thorough beatings, and the first time in the series he gets wholly defeated. Karin-sama is a great character, with an interesting philosophy, and one of the coolest training regiments. Finally, Goku's revenge against Tao is the stuff of legend. Shit gets real.
Finally, the storming of the Red Ribbon Headquarters. It feels like a bit of a repeat of Muscle Tower, but it isn't a very long sub-arc and was necessary to close out the story of the Red Ribbon Army (well, for now...).
Uranai Baba Saga
This Saga feels like Toriyama needed an interesting way to have our heroes find the last Dragon Ball, so he dreamed up this small competition. While not as interesting or exciting as some of the better parts of the Red Ribbon Saga, it is quite entertaining. The matches are like that of the 21st Tenka-ichi Budokai; short, with their own gimmicks and gags. But the real diamond in the rough here is Goku reuniting with Son Gohan. It's hard not to shed a tear when this boy, who is so powerful, so strong, so unbreakable, dissolves into joyous tears when he sees his beloved grandfather again.
Pilaf, Shuu, and Mai return to end the Saga, and are amusing and quickly discarded (again), and then we're treated with some non-offensive filler episodes until the next major story begins.
Early Dragon Ball has its bumps in the road. It begins as a very different show than what it becomes. But gradually, jokes about human genitalia become an exciting adventure tale worthy of legend. Son Goku grows up a lot in these episodes, and a lot of it is due to learning under Kame Sen'nin and Karin-sama. The main cast is established, and they'll be here for nearly the entire franchise (with decreasing relevance as more Saiyans get introduced, sadly.) A lot of reasons to love this series' story is contained in this early part - even with the fair amount that isn't so lovable.
Dragon Ball is a low budget TV animation, despite everything. That said, this early part of the series does a good job working with their budget. They seem to have three styles of animation: Really low budget, regular, and extra sexy. Most of the series is, predictably, animated in 'regular' style. It isn't fantastic, but it isn't offensive either. It tells the story, and has aged reasonably well. Really low budget animation seems to be saved for filler. Be it filler episodes or filler sequences, when the viewer doesn't really need to be paying attention is when they whip out their cheapest animation. Extra Sexy tends to be used for important episodes; like Arale vs Blue and Goku's rematch against Tao Pai Pai. These episodes are gorgeous, even if they still show their age.
So overall, I have to give the animation a Great. Even when they cheap out in these episodes, it's usually during a sequence that the viewer cares about less.
Can I tell you guys a secret? I love Shunsuke Kikuchi's score. So instead of reviewing the music as a whole (which gets a Super Great Plus Fantastic, breaking my own three part scale rules), I'm going to direct you to some of my favorite pieces introduced during these episodes.
and a handful of unreleased BGM, like Bora and Upa's theme.
Anyway, that's my review. Uh, seeya!