Another story arc has come and gone in front of our very eyes, True Believers. If you never saw my last couple reviews, "Dragon Ball, the Goku era (episodes 1 - 81)" and "Tenshinhan Saga/22nd Tenka-ichi Budokai (episodes 82 - 101)". If you're curious how my rating system works, see the beginning of the first review. All right, enough intro, let's cut this bird open.
Piccolo Daimao Saga
Rating: Good (2 out of 3)
We open with our hero, Son Goku, holding the lifeless corpse of his best friend Kuririn. The only clue is the symbol of a foe Muten Roshi fought against long ago - the symbol of Piccolo Daimao. Piccolo Daimao once terrorized the world with his children, the Demon Clan, until Roshi's master, Mutaito, gave his life to seal the Demon Lord away forever. Or so was thought. With Piccolo returned, and Kuririn's blood on his hands, our team of heroes is immediately torn asunder. Goku goes after Kuririn's killer and never returns. Yamcha is recovering from his Budokai loss. Lunch, Bulma, Oolong, and Puar are completely out of their league. This leaves the mission of removing Piccolo Daimao up to Tenshinhan, Chaozu, and Muten Roshi.
It's a fantastic way to stack the deck against our heroes. Removing Goku from the core group is a truly intelligent story telling move, as it allows Roshi to take on the mantle of protagonist, and pass it on to Tenshinhan when the old master meets his fate against Piccolo. We get a lot of development into Roshi (and Tsuru Sen'nin) from the flash backs from their past, fighting against Piccolo along side Mutaito. But particularly, I enjoy how Roshi and Ten develop into a Master and Pupil dynamic, as it streamlines so perfectly from their match in the last story arc.
When Roshi dies, Tenshinhan comes into his own as a character, and explains his motives for the rest of the series (Z included) so perfectly in episode 117; "Don't misunderstand me. I don't want to defeat him and save the world and everyone else just to look good. As a martial artist, I'll never be satisfied until I bring him down. That's all." He's a really great character, and his role in this arc shows him off at his best.
Then, we have Piccolo Daimao himself. He's a fantastic villain for many reasons. I love that he's actively afraid for his life, even after attaining his "ultimate form" (gaining his youth back). The Denshi Jar and the Mafuba represent a real threat to him, and he'll pay any cost to take out those who might possess the skill to shut him away. Unlike a lot of shonen villains, he isn't looking for a fight. His gaining his youth back seems mostly for vanity - true, he seeks the power he once had, but he goes to great lengths to eliminate anyone who might stand up to his full power. Searching out the Dragon Balls, murdering all the world's most prominent martial artists, all while keeping himself hidden in Pilaf's aircraft until the right moment... He's a General with many not-to-scale figures on a map. He's calculating and cunning. He's wicked and vile, yes, but he seems to harbor genuine feelings for his children (though that is most likely due to the fact that they are an extension of himself, and not true empathy). But most of all, he's effective.
He almost did every single thing right. He would have won. But he didn't count on Son Goku.
Goku's role in this story is fucking phenomenal. He gets his ass kicked, a lot. By Tambourine, by Piccolo Daimao, and even meets Yajirobe, who rivals him in strength. The whole time Goku and Yajirobe are adventuring together is great. Like the last story arc, filler is used really effectively here. Though there are a handful of moments that work better in the manga, this is mostly due to animation (more on that later...) Goku and Yajirobe getting the Super Sacred Water is not one of them. I loved their Odd Couple dynamic, and it makes me appreciate Yajirobe more as a character for the later parts of the series (the Saiyan Saga, specifically).
Goku himself is a total champ. He loses over and over in this arc, but refuses to give up. It's this type of perseverance that is the reason why I love the shonen genre so much, and Goku is the prototype protagonist for a reason. Goku has a reason for never giving up; His immense love for Kuririn and Kame Sen'nin. The moment when Goku finally defeats Piccolo, and tears form in his eyes as he tells his dearest friends that he avenged them, is such a wonderful, genuine moment. I can't get over how much I love it.
A final thought on the characters of this arc - there is no main character regulated to "comic relief" in this arc, save Pilaf Co. All the heroes have their moments of absolute seriousness, with jokes that are part of the plot. It's a good dynamic, and shows how much Toriyama has grown as a storyteller since the beginning of DB.
So what don't I like about this story? Not a whole lot, truthfully. The pacing is mostly good, though it does suffer slightly from filler. As I said before though, most of the filler is very well done. If I was just rating the story, I'd have given this Saga a "Great" 3 out of 3 rating... But I'm not just rating the story.
Overall, the fights in this Saga are good, but they aren't perfect. It definitely has its memorable sequences, but pound-for-pound it doesn't hold up to how well the action in the Tenshinhan Saga was portrayed. This Saga does see the introduction of very important elements in the classic "DBZ"-style of fighting; particularly, Auras, Ki, and Ki detection. While all of these had their place at various points before this arc, Akira Toriyama begins to use them more liberally this time around.
5. Goku vs Piccolo Daimao
4. Goku vs Yajirobe
3. Goku vs Piccolo Daimao, rematch
2. Muten Roshi vs Piccolo Daimao
1. Piccolo Daimao vs King Castle Army
The animation in this Saga is rough. Unlike the entirety of the series up to this point, the series directors didn't seem to know how to best use their budget. Their highest quality animation is only used in a few episodes, and each of them seems pretty random. Episode 104, Episode 112, Episode 117, and Episode 119. The first two are almost 100% exposition, the third is nearly all filler, and the final is the Drum episode. That's right, Drum's fight gets a better grade of animation than Goku vs Piccolo. They use their mid-grade stuff in various points (like Goku's final attack on Piccolo Daimao), but the really sexy stuff they couldn't stop using during the Tenshinhan Saga, and used throughout the Red Ribbon Army and 21st Budokai, was scarcely seen in this pretty important part of the story.
And it has a negative effect on the story. Moments in the manga that were jaw dropping, pants crapping scenes turned into low budget, slightly-off-model forgettable moments. It's a real drag, because the story here is so good. But this is budget TV, so I guess you win some, you lose some.
There's a whole slew of new music cues written for this portion of the series. Piccolo Daimao no Kyoufu and Kamesennin Saigo no Mafuba are solid collections, if you want to listen for yourself. Most of the music in this Saga is very ominous and low tempo, as you'd expect by the story. There are no new Insert Songs, which is a major bummer. And the lack of "Makafushigi Adventure" as Goku's main theme feels pretty bleak - though I suppose that's what they're were aiming for. Overall, the music is still quality, but it lacks anything to really set it apart from any other point in the series.
To sum things up: This story arc is fantastic in the manga. Indeed, you could argue that it's the best story arc. But the anime adaption loses a lot of opportunities to push it that extra mile. I can't help but compare it to the Tenshinhan Saga, which is the perfect example of an anime staff doing everything right. I wouldn't go so far as to say this arc is a polar opposite - a lot of the anime only stuff is still very good - but it lacks the extra love and care it deserved. In short, go read the manga.