Dragon Ball Z has begun with a doozy. And now that I'm done with the first storyline, let's have a review! If you're interested, here are my previous "Saga" reviews: Dragon Ball, the Goku era (DB episodes 1 - 81), Tenshinhan Saga/22nd Tenka-ichi Budokai (DB episodes 82 - 101), Piccolo Daimao Saga (DB episodes 102 - 123), and Piccolo Junior/23rd Tenka-ichi Budokai (DB episodes 124 - 153). If you're curious about how my rating system works, check out the beginning of the Goku era review. Now then, let's rock this dragon!!!
Rating: Good (2 out of 3)
Five years after Goku won the 23rd Tenka-ichi Budokai, having defeated the son of Piccolo Daimao, peace has been restored to life on Earth. But an alien from deep space arrives as Goku, and his young son Gohan, visit his friends at Kame House - an alien who happens to be Goku's brother, Raditz! All right, I'll level with you, this part of the story is just fucking cool. Especially coming directly from Dragon Ball. With the revelation that Goku, himself, was the first villain of Dragon Ball, the whole series is turned on its head. Not only that, but Raditz can utterly dominate Goku and Piccolo, providing excellent tension and drama. Goku dies to kill Raditz, and we learn that Raditz ain't shit compared to his allies that are on their way. This part of the story works, and it works well. It's fairly concise, even though the first episode is kind of a giant bore.
Speaking of giant bores, our heroes need to train for a year in order to face the Saiyans. A lot of training. 15 episodes of training, in fact. Unlike the filler training arc which filled the gap between Piccolo Daimao and Piccolo Junior (which was brilliant), this filler segment overstays its welcome by roughly 10 episodes. Dragon Ball Z episode 15, for example, shouldn't exist at all. There's some good filler episodes and moments sprinkled throughout here, but nothing on par with the last two filler arcs of Dragon Ball (training for the 23rd Budokai, and Goku and Chichi's adventure after the Budokai, respectively). The few canon segments of this block of episode stand out like diamonds in a turd. Particularly, things relating to Kaio-sama and Kami-sama.
Then the Saiyans Vegeta and Nappa arrive on Earth, and Goku is stuck having to race back over Serpentine road as Nappa slaughters his friends. There's virtually no plot at this point in the story, other than the loose b-story of Vegeta and Nappa's desire for the Dragon Balls. I say b-story, because it isn't made clear if that's their only motive or not, given how they seemed to have come to sell Earth as well. If it weren't for the incredible fight scenes and character drama of Goku's friends being picked off like flies, there would be almost nothing to talk about. That said, every time a character dies, the viewer feels it wholly, unlike later in DBZ (which we'll get to in due time...) Yamcha, Chaozu, Tenshinhan, and Piccolo's deaths are each tragic in their own ways.
Goku arrives and beats up Nappa, Vegeta kills Nappa, Goku fights Vegeta, Vegeta turns Oozaru and smashes Goku, Kuririn, Gohan, and Yajirobe fight Vegeta in Goku's place, Oozaru Gohan smashes Vegeta, and Goku lets Vegeta escape into space. Despite being essentially one long fight (everyone vs. Vegeta), this part of the series is awesome. The situation feels truly desperate, and our heroes victories never seem to last long against Vegeta. Again, there's not much going on story wise, it's just one long fight. But it's the sort of fight which defines the Shonen genre, when it is at its best.
Story-wise, this Saga is all over the place. There isn't a -lot- of story to be had, and most of the character development is weak. Gohan and Piccolo get the only real development, which could have been executed better. (Again, I point to the last Saga of DB. Or even the whole second half of DB.) 36 episodes seems like a long time to do a story which could have been more concisely done in 17 - 26 episodes (DBKai's Saiyan Saga is only 17 episodes, and the Saban/FUNimation syndicated version is 26 episodes - both of which have vastly superior pacing.) Indeed, it is a story which has so little... story.
That said, the fight scenes are really, really cool.
As I commented before, the real reason to watch this Saga is for the fight scenes. While not quite up to the standard set by the Tenshinhan and Piccolo Jr. Sagas' fight scenes (boy, I sure love me some Tenka-ichis, don't I?), there's some real gems in here. And possibly the most iconic fight scene of the whole series!
We're nerds and we love lists, so let's rank 'em!
7. Kuririn vs Saibaimen
6. Gohan vs Nappa
5. Nappa vs Tenshinhan
4. Goku vs Nappa
3. Goku and Piccolo vs. Raditz.
2. Vegeta vs. Kuririn, Gohan, and Yajirobe
The animation during this Saga is pretty great. There's the odd episodes that looks like crap, but never during moments when it matters. For instance, I took more screencaps of this Saga than any other so far, which is largely to do with how well it is drawn. (Though it is also because I've become much less conservative with what shots I take since starting the blog last year.) All-in-all, not much to say about it. It's good, even if it has aged.
The music during this Saga is wonderful. Shunsuke Kikuchi manages to out do himself with cues like "Sayonara Senshi-tachi", "Kaibutsu Freezer VS Densetsu no Suupa Saiya-jin", and the soundtrack to the first DBZ movie, "Return My Gohan", which is used throughout the latter half of the story. The much anticipated return of the Insert Song comes around during this Saga as well, with the Koji Kaya fronted "Shura-Iro No Senshi", played during episode 20. And finally, a new Opening and Ending theme premiere at the start of Dragon Ball Z - with Hironobu Kageyama making his DB debut with the eternally awesome "Cha La Head Cha La". Seriously folks, the music is the highlight of this Saga. Check it out.
To sum things up: Dragon Ball Z's first major storyline, the Saiyan Saga, has its highs and lows. Overall it's a pleasant use of your viewing time, but I can't help but feel like Dragon Ball's best days are behind it. However, with quality music, typically well drawn animation, and fun and exciting fight scenes, I'm sure I'll have no problem hanging in for the long haul.