Dragon Ball: The Road to Film 20 – Part II
You can read Part I here.
Toei Animation seems to be pooling every available resource to make Dragon Ball Super: Broly the most action-packed, visually stunning film in the franchise to date, marking the 20th Dragon Ball film. I’ve been foaming at the mouth over the project since it was first announced, and it seems as good a time as any to look at the movies and TV specials leading up to this point. I will be covering every one to date, including two OVAs. I will however, be excluding the Toriko and One Piece crossover special as it’s focus is split between two other franchises. I will also be covering each in release order rather than where it may or may not fit arc-wise. For consistency’s sake, I’ll also be using dub terminology and names across the board, despite knowing the franchise in and out in both languages. These are less reviews and more quick reflections on what we’ve had up to this point.
The World’s Strongest
(The World’s Strongest Guy)
Original release date: March 10, 1990
Oh boy, here we go. I’m not the biggest fan of most of the following. The World’s Strongest opens with Gohan and Oolong in the snowy mountains. They’re tracking Dragon Balls which seem to have gathered in one spot. Before they can make a wish, Dr. Kochin, the scientist who gathered them, summons Shenron. He wishes for the laboratory of his master Dr. Wheelo to be thawed from the icy prison it’s been trapped in for years. Bulma and Roshi are later kidnapped by the scientists, as Wheelo is looking for the world’s strongest man in order to transfer his brain into his body. Thinking Roshi is still the strongest man in the world, they test him and find out from Bulma that Goku has long since surpassed the old master. What follows is some… odd sci-fi shenanigans. We don’t jump the shark, we nuke it from orbit.
This movie is weird. It’s weird and I don’t like it. Funnily enough, it almost works as a precursor to the Androids arc. There are a handful of parallels, but if this is a rough draft, boy is it rough. While the animation’s great, the story has always felt alien to me. Dragon Ball’s transition to sci-fi was always in the broader sense. It was never B-Movie schlock. Not to say that it couldn’t work, or I don’t mind that kind of cheese, but for Dragon Ball, literally brains in a jar is a little outside the tone and direction of the series for me.
Tree of Might
(A Super Decisive Battle for Earth)
Original release date: July 7, 1990
This one is also weird. It has its moments, though. A group of space pirates have probed the Earth in order to find a suitable place to plant the Tree of Might. The tree absorbs all life and energy from a planet in order to bear its fruit, and whoever eats it is granted godlike strength. Although we’re talking Dragon Ball, so “godlike” is relative. The leader of these invaders is Turles, a surviving Saiyan who resembles Goku. Yeah, we’re going there. The explanation for this resemblance is an odd, albeit interesting note on Saiyan genetics.
When King Kai informs Goku and the Z-Warriors about the impending threat, they head to the base of the tree to confront Turles and his crew. What separates this film from the others is that the entire cast of fighters (at this time in the series) are present here, although their time to shine is miniscule at best. A wasted opportunity, given this was just before the cast would be completely sidelined and replaced with more Saiyans.
Turles himself is menacing enough, even if the “Goku, but evil” thing is low-hanging fruit and isn’t nearly as well-executed as what we would eventually get in Super. …You know, between this and the other two points I mentioned for the first two Z movies, I think Toriyama may have been more influenced by Toei than we think. Either way, this is marginally less dull than the last film, but the premise is at least a little more interesting and there are a couple of fights worth a watch.
Bardock: The Father of Goku
(A Final Solitary Battle: The Father of Z-Warrior Kakarrot, Who Challenged Freeza)
Original release date: October 17, 1990
Time for a TV special and a bit of a disclaimer. Canon has always been loose in this franchise, to the point where the term doesn’t really mean much anymore. This special and the titular Bardock were both an anime original creation that were later addressed in the manga proper, therefore accepting this special into the proper canon at the time. Since then, the special has been contradicted by the series author both in the manga via Dragon Ball Minus (a bonus story at the end of Jaco: The Galactic Patrolman) and anime-wise in the upcoming Dragon Ball Super: Broly. So this special has been hit pretty hard by the retcon axe. Regardless, this special was and still is a major entry in the franchise and most have a lot of attachment to it.
Bardock is a low-class warrior in a group of fellow Saiyans dispatched to wipe out planetary populations on behalf of the Frieza Force. He’s a ruthless killer who’s good at his job. One day, after a fresh slaughter, a survivor manages to subdue him. When he recovers, he realizes the species they were ordered to eradicate possess the genetic ability to see the future. The one who attacked Bardock transferred this ability to him as one last spiteful spit to the eye, so that he could feel the inevitability of his own destruction in spite of his precognition.
From then on, he sees disconnected moments from the future, including those in Goku’s (his son’s) life and the destruction of Planet Vegeta. Clairvoyant or not, he’s helpless to stop the onslaught of not only his own allies, but his species. This is an out and out tragedy, given this is a prequel special, you know exactly how it’ll end but twisting the knife is where it’s at its strongest. Bardock is never redeemed for his actions, having dismissed Goku for his measly power level and only displays interest in his band of fighters. At least, he is in the Japanese version. The English dub paints him a little more heroically by the end, but that doesn’t undermine the overall intent too much. Toriyama later admitted that he was a big fan of the special, despite it being so separated from his own writing style. Makes the retcons I mentioned hurt even more.
It’s almost hilarious that a made-for-television special has more reverence and tact than the six theatrical films that preceded it. Its scenes are among the most iconic in the entire franchise, and it’s often confused for one of the movies because of its quality. I count it among one of the few required viewings for even the most casual of the fanbase.
(Super Saiyan Son Goku)
Original release date: March 9, 1991
This one is less weird, more painfully derivative. Get this, we just had a film about a bunch of intergalactic travelers invading Earth with the intent on reducing it into a wasteland, led by a member of an alien race already established in the series? So take that premise and do it again. Change out the Tree of mIght with a terra-forming spaceship freezing the Earth. Then replace “Goku, but evil” with “King Piccolo, but boring”. There. You have the fourth Z film.
Believe it or not, this is almost fun compared to the last two movies. Goku and Piccolo get time to shine, there’s a cool battle with a giant, and False Super Saiyan. For context, Toei decided to jump the gun on the Super Saiyan reveal before it had been executed in the manga. Of course, Toriyama went for something very different, so this brief little preview ended up retroactively written off. We’ll run into another situation like this later on.
Bottom line is after Dead Zone, it’s a real bummer that three films in a row just really miss the mark. I understand that the original, pre-Battle of Gods films are supplementary affairs at best, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. It is interesting that this is the only film with Bruce Faulconer’s tracks from the U.S. broadcast of the series. This was also the start of licensed insert songs in a number of the films. As funny as this is to admit, this film got me into Disturbed. Man, it was a different time for anime distribution in the west.