Saturday 7 April 2018

Anime REVIEW: Dragon Ball Super

Dragon Ball Super
Dragon Ball Super is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

In 2013 Toei Animation shocked fans with Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods - a brand-new feature film that not only directly followed on from Dragon Ball Z, but was also written by creator Akira Toriyama himself. Its success led to Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F' two years later - a direct sequel reviving the franchise's most popular villain and again written by Toriyama. There was no denying that Dragon Ball had well and truly returned, but it wasn't until Dragon Ball Super was announced that it really sunk in. Running for an impressive 131 episodes, this was the first proper Dragon Ball series since Dragon Ball GT all the way back in 1996. And with the advent of simulcasting in its absence, one of the most popular anime franchises on the planet could now reach a worldwide audience faster than ever before.

Goku & Vegeta Beerus & Whis

It's been four years since Son Goku defeated Majin Buu and returned peace to the world, and since then the world's strongest warrior hasn't had much in the way of a fight. Things change when the God of Destruction Beerus arrives on Earth with his attendant Whis, seeking out the legendary "Super Saiyan God" that might actually be able to test him in battle. This challenge from the gods spurs Goku and Vegeta to aim for even greater heights, training under the tutelage of Whis as they seek to master these Super Saiyan God powers.

From then on it's rarely a dull moment, as Earth's strongest fighters face new threats from resurrected evils, alternate universes, and parallel timelines – culminating in the tournament to end all tournaments. Whoever wins gets a wish from the all-powerful Super Dragon Balls, while the losers face erasure from reality itself.


Even if Battle of Gods and Resurrection 'F' hadn't reignited Dragon Ball in the public eye so successfully, it's fair to say that the hype surrounding Dragon Ball Super would have still been palpable. For so many fans of a certain generation Dragon Ball wasn't just a franchise that acted as their gateway drug to anime, it was a show that had potentially helped define their childhoods. Even in the 18 years without a new show the franchise never truly went away, kept alive through video games, merchandise and most importantly of all the fandom. However despite all this anticipation it certainly wasn't plain sailing from the get-go, and even now that the show has finished Super's biggest hurdle remains its very beginning.

Although the two movies were still relatively fresh in people's minds, Super opens with recaps of both Battle of Gods and Resurrection 'F' – fleshed out and restructured into fully fledged arcs. The retellings certainly had the potential to expand on some of the elements the movie glossed over for the sake of time (Beerus and Whis' origins or Frieza's post-revival training for example), but instead what fans were treated to were horrendously bloated renditions that not only added very little of value but also had none of the original's flare or impact. Perhaps even worse was the animation quality, with episode five particularly immediately drawing criticism from fans worldwide. While the arcs do have some moments worth acknowledging, such as the slice of life downtime episodes that lead into them or the brief return of Captain Ginyu, on the whole these are 27 episodes that were done far better elsewhere. Even if there's some good in there, it isn't hard to see why some fans stay adamant new viewers just skip these episodes altogether.

BulmaFuture Trunks

However once this chunk of the series is the out of the way things do begin to pick up pretty quickly. By this point both Beerus and Whis have integrated themselves into the cast sublimely, and its time to move onto much bigger things. And of course in true Dragon Ball style, this comes in the form of a tournament arc. While it wouldn't be until much later that Universe 6 truly showed what it had to offer, their initial introduction comes still brings immediate potential. Alternate universe equivalents of Saiyans and Frieza sound pretty basic on paper, but with it's the development of the established characters that come with it that really make them shine. Just like in both Z and GT Vegeta continues to be the best developed main cast member, and in addition to his growing family ties a lot of this development stems from this burgeoning relationship with the Universe 6 Saiyan Cabba. Meanwhile Goku finds a worthy adversary in the undeniably cool bounty hunter Hit, and Beerus gets a new rival to squabble with in the form of his Universe 6 counterpart and brother Champa. For a tournament arc with minimally low stakes this batch of episodes prove to be a whole lot of fun, combining some nice fight sequences with a whole bunch of memorable new characters and a better glimpse into the new things Super has to offer.

The real point where Dragon Ball Super really begins to hit its stride though is the Future Trunks Saga, which as its name suggests sees the alternate future version of Trunks return for help against a new enemy far worse than the Androids. Relying on a returning character whose story felt done (not to mention with a different/wrong hair colour, as many were quick to point out) seemed like a move primarily built on fan service, but to Toriyama's credit it was definitely much more than that. Forget the Android and Cell Sagas, this arc is future Trunks defining moment - properly bringing the audience into his ravaged future against a villain that ranks up there with Dragon Ball's very best. Zamasu and Goku Black are the perfect team, with the mystery behind the latter quickly clearing up that it's not quite as simple as "evil Goku". As well as being captivating and charismatic villains in their own right, their motivations also serve as an interesting counterpoint to the consequences of Trunks' time-meddling and the cast's new foray into the realm of the gods. One of the big pleasures of the arc is also how much it highlights Bulma, who's remained a core character since the very beginning. The untimely death of voice actress Hiromi Tsuru during the show's run was devastating, but at least Dragon Ball Super brought Bulma to the forefront once more so that her legacy can shine brighter than ever.

Goku Black & ZamasuKale & Caulifla

Finally comes the Universe Survival Saga - a saga so big that it took up over whole years' worth of episode. All of the new additions Super had made to the Dragon Ball mythos came to a head as eight universes battle it out in the tournament to end all tournaments. Universe 7's team is a spectacle in itself, as old faces return together with members you'd never expect to see working together alongside the likes of Goku. Meanwhile Universe 6 plays its full hand as it introduces the pair who are for many people Super's breakout stars by a fairly wide margin - Caulifla and Kale, the franchise's first proper female (Super) Saiyans. As well as giving Dragon Ball some sorely needed gender balance in the way of formidable fighters the pair are just an absolute joy to watch and produce many of the arc's most memorable moments. Together with the aforementioned Cabba and Hit, it just goes to show how special Universe 6 are. While the arc does have other formidable foes in the form of Universe 11's Pride Troopers and the love-powered fighters of Universe 4, our heroes' twinned universe are the only other one that you truly feel invested in. The Universe Survival Saga is Dragon Ball doing exactly what it does best in an almost non-stop fighting arc that doesn't let up for over 50 episodes. On top of a brand new opening it brings along with it a rather distinct aesthetic shift, eventually prompting some of the most impressive visuals the show has put out.

Even though Dragon Ball Super came a long, long way from that painful batch of early episodes it still had plenty of problems. Caveats like power levels and stamina are still just as inconsequential as ever, and if you thought "Planet Namek will blow up in five minutes" was bad the way time passes in the Universe Survival Arc takes it to a whole new level. Largely being the "Goku and Vegeta show" it means that other fan favourite characters don't get as much spotlight as they may deserve, so most do get at least one moment of glory at some point or another. Perhaps its greatest sin of all is that Majin Buu gets shafted from entering a tournament twice, and for the exact same reason no less (though given it happening in the Universe Survival Arc resulted in, all is forgiven there). Even Jiren - the greatest opponent Goku has ever faced, is a shallow character with a cliche backstory and minimal personality. But by the point all these flaws manifest you just don't find yourself caring, because the sheer energy the series exudes is enough to overlook them. By this point the show is running almost purely on adrenaline, as it (along with its characters) keeps pushing its limits further and further. Spectacle is at the very forefront of the show's priorities, and directors Ryota Nakamura and Tatsuya Nagamine (along with the rest of the animation team) definitely deserve recognition for the blistering action sequences of the show's final arc.

JirenUltra Instinct Goku

Of course it wouldn't be fair to praise Dragon Ball Super for the non-stop action and choreography of its later half without first commending it on just how FUN it can be. As well as channelling the high-octane visuals of Dragon Ball Z that so many of its fans fell in love with, Super also wholeheartedly embraces the sheer absurdity of the original series that many seem too quick to forget. When Dragon Ball Super wants to be dumb, it'll be dumb in the most beautiful of ways. From Vegeta's family vacation to Yamcha's crowning moment in the Universe 7 vs Universe 6 baseball game, the series features some wonderfully absurd one-off episodes between arcs to highlight just how funny it can be. Then standing tall among all of these is Dragon Ball's newest crossover with Toriyama's other popular series Dr Slump, where even the mighty Saiyans meet their match in the godlike powers of Arale Norimaki. As well as being among the funniest 20 minutes the franchise has ever put to film, its a reminder that Dragon Ball isn't just not meant to be taken seriously - it often thrives on that as well.

AraleYamcha's greatest moment

Dragon Ball Super isn't a perfect series by a long shot. It takes a while to gain momentum in both story and visuals and then even when it does has plot holes so big you could poke a planet-sized Super Dragon Ball through them. But above all these flaws Super brought back what everyone loved about the franchise and instilled new life into it. For so many fans watching the episodes each week wasn't just an experience, it was an event. Whether it was discussing the series in person or on social media to Latin America holding huge public screenings for its final episodes, suddenly the Dragon Ball fandom felt bigger and closer than ever - and it was all thanks to this. Though it was sad to see it end, you can guarantee one thing - it's unbridled success means the movie due at the end of the year won't be the last we see of Dragon Ball. Not by a long shot.


No comments: