We've reached the end of Dragon Ball, the first of four TV series' in the Dragon Ball franchise. But before we move on, we've got a story arc to review! The other arc reviews can be found ... "Dragon Ball, the Goku era (episodes 1 - 81)" "Tenshinhan Saga/22nd Tenka-ichi Budokai (episodes 82 - 101)" and Piccolo Daimao Saga (DB episodes 102 - 123) - info on my 1, 2, 3 rating system can be found at the beginning of the first review. Engine tuned, let's start 'er up.
Piccolo Jr. Saga
Rating: Great (3 out of 3)
Piccolo Daimao has been beaten by Son Goku, but the cost of victory was heavy. Seeking to revive those lives lost at the hands of the Demon Lord, Goku travels to the Upper World, the Heavenly Realm, in search of Kami... the deity who created the Dragon Balls. There he learns two secrets about Piccolo - that Kami and Piccolo were once a single being, bound to the same fate, and that Piccolo left his life essence in his last offspring... Piccolo Junior. In order to defeat Piccolo, once and for all, Kami has Goku remain in the Heavenly Realm for three years of training. Under the tutelage of Mr. Popo, Kami's assistant, Son Goku prepares to clash with Piccolo at the 23rd Tenka-ichi Budokai. The very fate of the world depends on our hero's victory.
The Saga is split into three distinct arcs, two of which are (more or less) filler. The first (Heavenly Training, episodes 124 - 132) is the mostly filler arc concerning Goku's training under Mr. Popo, with updates about the goings on of the rest of the cast. This section was definitely my favorite part of the entire Saga, and some of the very best 'filler' (I hesitate to even call it that) I've ever seen in manga-to-anime serializations. I think part of it had to do with Goku's struggle. He wasn't instantly great, or even that good, at the style of fighting Mr. Popo was trying to teach him. He works his hands to the bone trying to conquer the concepts of looking inward, spiritual focus, and measured movement (to use the series' terms, 'quiet like the sky, quicker than lightning')... and when the mini arc ends, he's still not that great at them. It helps put in perspective just who Goku is as both a person and a fighter, up to this point. He's a savant, certainly, but ultimately doesn't know what he's doing. He just does it. Learning to control his mind and body in harmony launches him into the next step of his evolution as a person, and in strength... to Dragon Ball Z and on.
The second arc (23rd Tenka-ichi Budokai, episodes 133 - 148) is the canon story, directly adapted from the manga. Three years after Piccolo Daimao's defeat, Kuririn and the others are revived by Shen Long and headed for the Tenka-ichi Budokai to see how they've all advanced over the years. But among them are three strong fighters bearing grudges against Son Goku... Tao Pai Pai, Gyumao's daughter Chichi, and Piccolo's reincarnation.
Let's face it, this part of the story is just fucking cool. The familiar Dragon Ball-style of martial arts (slap stick blended with well-choreographed action and superhuman spectacle) has shed its proverbial skin, and in its place is a proto Dragon Ball Z-style. Not only is the main cast grown up, as we know them in DBZ, they're also beginning to fight like they do in DBZ. Kuririn is quick, ki wielding, and creative; Tenshinhan is brash but powerful; Piccolo is deadly, tactical, and without mercy; Goku is unrelenting and full of surprises; and Yamcha is Yamcha, for better or worse. The matches flow purposefully, and without distraction. The plot is rapid, and the stakes continuously climbing. And the final battle between Goku and Piccolo is some of Akira Toriyama's best work. The overall experience of this Budokai isn't quite as satisfying as the 22nd (Tenshinhan Saga), but it couldn't be. The series was outgrowing things like rules and ring outs, and it shows. That said, what a great finale for the Tenka-ichi Budokai.
The third, and final arc (Wedding Dress, episodes 149 - 153) is another filler tale. Gyumao wants to give Chichi and Goku a proper wedding celebrating, and gives Chichi her mother's wedding gown. But a magic fire ignites around Mt. Frypan, sealing Gyumao and the dress inside... and perilously close to death. Goku and Chichi must go on an adventure to put the flames out... an adventure that takes them around the globe and back again! It's a really fun story, with some interesting twists and uncannily clever writing for this type of filler arc. Some episodes are definitely better than others, but the eventual full-circle conclusion makes this an improved send off to Dragon Ball than merely engaging in the five year time skip immediately after the 23rd Budokai. And in only 5 episodes, what have you got to lose?
As I said above, the fights in this Saga are powerful and exciting. They're definitely a cut above the individual fights of most of Dragon Ball, with the exception of the Tenshinhan Saga (which remain, in my view, the best blend of action and storytelling in the series). For folks who don't like the slapstick of early DB, and prefer to start with Raditz's arrival at the beginning of DBZ, you're doing yourself a massive disservice by not backtracking just a bit. For all intents and purposes of popular culture, these fights are Dragon Ball Z. But that's why I prefer to call the whole of DB/Z simply 'Dragon Ball', and watch/read all of it!
But enough of my gabbing! TOP SEVEN FIGHTS, GO!
7. Drunk Kuririn vs Paoru
6. Kami vs Piccolo
5. Goku vs Tenshinhan
4. Tenshinhan vs Tao Pai Pai
3. Goku vs Mutaito
2. Kuririn vs Piccolo
1. Goku vs Piccolo
With a special honorable mention to Yamcha vs the mountain god,
because only in filler is Yamcha the most useful character.
We have a pretty big improvement on the dismal animation of the Piccolo Daimao Saga. We're still looking at budget TV, so the animation isn't (and never will be) anything to get too excited about. But unlike the Daimao era, the directors seem to have a sense of what episodes to put their money into. Like most things in this Saga, if you compare the animation directly to the Tenshinhan episodes, these will come off slightly worse. But compared to the rest of the series, we're looking at fairly high quality, well produced episodes. Some of the special effects used in the high powered fights feel dated, and would almost certainly be scrapped were they Kai-ified... but for the time, I imagine these episodes must have been mind blowing.
That said, there are still moments where Toriyama's original manga version of a scene is poorly translated. These are definitely fewer than in the last Saga, but they're there and it's worth note that they are. Guess it goes to show, kids, if you only watch the anime, you're missing out.
The music in this Saga relies heavily on music cues written for the (at this point) three feature films combined with a whole bunch of new cues written specifically for these episodes. Many of these cues are collected in the following tracks: Son Gokuu no Gyakushuu, Haran no Tenka-ichi Budokai, and In'en no Taiketsu! Gokuu to Piccolo. As usual, Shunsuke Kikuchi does not disappoint with the show's score. Insert Songs are still, most unfortunately, as lacking as they were in the last Saga. It's a shame that Goku and Chichi's romance Image Song didn't get played (Hatsukoi wa Kumo ni Notte - translated "First Love, Riding in the Clouds"). It's perhaps more disappointing that Mezase Tenka-ichi wasn't reprised during the final battle of this Tenka-ichi Budokai. A well-placed Makafushigi Adventure or Romantic Ageru Yo wouldn't have been amiss, either. But you can't have everything.
To sum it all up: The Piccolo Jr. Saga is a great way to end this part of the series. Exactly why Toei Animation wanted to stop production of Dragon Ball, and rebrand the series from this point forward is mostly a mystery. I have my own speculations, but they're just that so I won't go into them. But from the stand point of this Saga, Raditz's arrival seems the only next logical step in the world Akira Toriyama has been building. But we'll talk about that next time... Seeya!