DRAGON BALL Z is a show that even non-anime watchers will remember fondly from their childhood. The signature screams during the hour-long ‘power-up’ sequences, the bright energy blasts, and the dedication to the finer points of whoop-ass make the show a classic, and a damn good one at that. However, those memories are very quickly becoming boons I only attribute to the older series, DRAGON BALL. When that particular anime arc ended in 1996, there was tremendous viewership capital left over. Like most popular franchises, this meant an inevitable sequel, several movies, sporadic reboots, and a (godawful) live-action adaptation. I’ll mostly be talking about the state of the anime following the conclusion of DRAGON BALL Z and working through the reasons why it has become an abject slap in the face to longtime fans.
Plot spoilers ahead for DRAGON BALL Z and DRAGON BALL SUPER
DRAGON BALL SUPER enjoyed moderate success by essentially riding the coattails of the Battle of Gods film. That movie experienced excellent international success and grossed $50,353,002 worldwide and introduced a new transformation for the franchise’s main character, Son Goku. His new Super Saiyan God form granted him the power to fight on equal footing with heavenly opponents. DRAGON BALL SUPER coasted along with this movie’s popularity. Before I get into details, I want to emphasize that I don’t think the DRAGON BALL franchise should end. But, if a series is aiming for longevity and fan retention, there are some basic areas that need to remain consistent for future arcs to work.
Poor Animation Quality
Modern standards of animation quality are decently high now, but DRAGON BALL Z already proved that high standards were always reachable. The movies preceding SUPER had incredible quality, so it’s quite strange for the beginning of the series (which was essentially just Battle of Gods broken into episode-long chunks) was such a huge drop in quality. I can forgive poor drawing for non-important scenes, but if Super Saiyan 3 Goku is fighting a literal God of Destruction, half the frames shouldn’t be this:
Or this (a personal favorite):
The bigger issue with this is that half of DRAGON BALL is the visual experience. A fight isn’t good if it doesn’t look good, and that makes it pretty hard to be on board with the series as a whole. On top of that, there’s plenty of sakuga within the show too. Sakuga essentially describes a moment where animation quality radically increases to emphasize a few moments of an episode. Movements turn fluid, expressions sharpen, and shading grows detailed. Because the moments of sakuga are so incredible, there’s a huge gap between standard quality and amazing quality.
Granted, single episodes of anime can cost upwards of $100,000, so it’s understandable that not every scene will be crisp. But I would much rather see fewer sakuga moments if it meant a general increase in animation quality for the entire show.
Next up is a portion of the show that’s more annoying than it is terrible. Inconsistencies aren’t new to DRAGON BALL, but they’re usually minor or cosmetic. Older inconsistencies were things like a shirt changing color, or minor conflicts in dialogue. SUPER’s inconsistencies break basic, long-established facts.
Trunks Brief, Bulma and Vegeta’s son from the future, has always had purple hair in the anime, despite his mother’s hair being blue and his father’s hair being black. This traces back to an error decades ago when Bulma’s purple hair was mistakenly colored blue for the anime. In an attempt to rectify that earlier mistake, series author Akira Toriyama had Trunks drawn with blue hair in DRAGON BALL SUPER. One little problem—the younger version of himself still has purple hair, and the two are in several scenes together.
Back in DRAGON BALL Z, Goku and Vegeta used the potara fusion to become an incredibly powerful single entity. The two each donned an earring given to them by gods and became one. Vegito, the result, was a permanent transformation that could not be normally reversed. This detail was important to distinguish potara from other forms of fusion. However, SUPER creates a 15-minute time limit that pacifies the most powerful transformation in the series. Suddenly, a technique that traded your identity for incredible power is meaningless. Not only does this confuse fans who are aware of the technique, it disposes an official DRAGON BALL Z rule just for fanservice and to showcase a good fight. DRAGON BALL SUPER does things like this and takes away the meaningful qualities of the previous series to lazily create better fights.
Lazy Character Creation
Following the arc with Trunks, the Tournament of Power saga began, introducing a few new Saiyans from a different universe. One, in particular, draws from a movie released outside of the series. Kale, also referred to as the ‘female Broly’ due to her similarity to the main villain of the DRAGON BALL Z movie Broly – the Legendary Super Saiyan, is a dangerous crossover. While I was as excited as anyone else to finally see female Super Saiyans (and strong ones at that) grace the stage of the Tournament of Power, I was annoyed at how lazy the rebranding was.
For those unfamiliar with how anime usually flows, there is the canon story, including the plot of the manga, and non-canon story, including filler episodes and movies. Broly had three movies but was not canon in the slightest. So for a character to essentially be him with lipstick poses three big problems for the series.
For one, it means that one of the first female Saiyans is just a copy-paste of someone else. There was some obvious effort to parallel another Saiyan from Kale’s universe, Cabba, with Vegeta. The other female Saiyan, Caulifla, also shares some similarities with Goku. Seeing as Goku and Vegeta are literally the only two living full-blooded Saiyans left in existence, there’s nobody else to parallel, and Kale should have been her own character.
Secondly, this breaks precedent with all of DRAGON BALL Z. If movie characters start encroaching on the main story line, it makes it difficult to keep track of what’s canon. Finally, it’s just plain lazy. DRAGON BALL SUPER has fantastic fights, but what really makes the show worth watching is the meaningful fights that lead to character development. Slapping an old character on to a new one invalidates all of that. Fights and characters really need to make sense in the context of the story.
Zero Power Scaling
The context of the characters is, by far, the most irredeemable factor of DRAGON BALL SUPER’s downfall. Power scaling is essentially the dynamic and relative strength of each character. Generally, in an action-focused anime, main characters continuously get stronger, so villains have to as well. So as not to upset that balance, side characters will get stronger, but never stronger than a protagonist, and certainly never stronger than the main villain. This is the reason why someone like Piccolo, someone who has been around since Goku’s teenage years, consistently gets strong, but not too strong. Lesser involved side characters, like Yamcha, are still predictably weak even against the weakest enemies.
Here’s the problem with DRAGON BALL SUPER. Goku and Vegeta obtained a powerful transformation called Super Saiyan Blue. This form combines the power of a god with the body of a Saiyan. It’s way too powerful. It takes Goku and Vegeta into a league far beyond every other character in DRAGON BALL history because all they did in the series for years was train with a god while everyone led normal lives. So when DRAGON BALL SUPER attempts to bring back old characters like Android 17 and 18, they have no choice but to retroactively create some reason why these normally weak characters can suddenly keep up with Goku and Vegeta.
Remember that whenever the main characters of an anime get strong, their enemies have to as well. Logically, this means the best enemies of the latest SUPER arc are at or near Goku’s power level. But the entire anime can’t be 100% Goku and Vegeta fights, so how is this problem rectified?
Weak Plot Design
The answer is pretty blunt. It can’t be. Given the current tournament structure ( a free-for-all) and plot, there is no way to include multiple characters without making Goku seem uncharacteristically weak compared to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the characters are flawed, it just means the plot should have been something else. Hundreds of anime have found ways to deal with power scaling and accepted alternatives that aren’t avoidable. Eventually, the main character gets so powerful that only they can face a certain enemy, and that’s fine. It just means that weaker characters need to fight weaker enemies.
DRAGON BALL SUPER could have structured the Tournament of Power like a classic bracket, where stronger universes fought weaker ones in the first rounds, moving up until only one is left standing. When you have dozens of new enemies, most need to be strong. If you’re only fighting one other universe each time, there are fewer outrageously strong people to worry about. Goku and Vegeta can take the stronger ones, while other characters take on who they can handle.
Writers could’ve used something as simple as a time skip to account for increases in power. Give the Z fighters a year to prepare for this tournament. The earth literally has a room in this series where you can get a year of training done in a day. Instead of making Krillin way stronger than he should be, pop him in that room for a bit and find some way to keep him there for several days.
As things are now, the plot is trying to be extreme in a way that just isn’t possible. An 80 warrior free-for-all simply isn’t compatible with the kinds of characters DRAGON BALL SUPER has to work with.
Lack of Meaningful Combat
What this all boils down to is more or less a subversion of the basic things that make DRAGON BALL as great a franchise as it is. The most incredible fights are when characters radically surpass their limits for a reason beyond just plot. In DRAGON BALL Z, Gohan had to abandon his docile nature to defeat Cell, learning that it’s okay to release his anger to protect those he loves. Goku had to sacrifice himself twice to guarantee the safety of the earth. Even Vegeta had to abandon his pride during his final act against Majin Buu, embracing his son for only a second time and detonating himself with his own life force. Every character always has a trait that needs to be tossed aside before they’re able to become truly powerful.
With DRAGON BALL SUPER, I found myself struggling to justify every little inconsistency. I would hear an explanation within an episode, then see that very explanation invalidated seconds later. Goku would act strategic one moment, then waste time sparring with someone a second later. Because of this, everything seems pointless, especially since this arc doesn’t leave any room for varying options. There are only two outcomes, win and everyone lives or lose and everyone dies. Nobody can sacrifice themselves for someone else because nobody is in danger until everyone loses. It robs the fights of any complexity and reduces the story to a slug fest where characters look nice but aren’t doing much.
Hope For DRAGON BALL’S Comeback
It’s super important that future arcs are different from what we’ve seen. I wouldn’t mind seeing creative ways to interact with these new characters. The odds that at the end of this tournament every losing universe will actually get destroyed are low. After all, who else would there be to fight? Maybe, later on, we’ll have some drama with other worlds. What’s stopping Vegeta from finally realizing his identity as a Saiyan prince, and reigning in Universe 6? Who’s to say there aren’t some Rogue angels out there needing to be stopped? Or that having two copies of Zeno, king of everything, won’t cause problems? There’s a lot to work with, and I do think that with some more careful focus on story, things can improve.
At this point, I don’t think I’ll ever stop watching. I have too much respect for the old series to completely give up on it. But even fan favorites deserve criticism. Honestly, if the DRAGON BALL fan base decides to stop making excuses for sloppy mistakes, maybe things will go back to the original quality. The roots are all there, and Akira Toriyama has spun gold from crumbs before. As of now, he’s mostly acting in an advisory role, and could possibly take control and make some improvements. Here’s hoping the coming weeks will bring that spark I remember from my childhood.
Featured image from Saiyanisland.