Man, Dragon Ball’s a bunch of bullshit. I’m trying to properly articulate how much bullshit, but every time I start to count I end up somewhere else, in some field with my pants down and more money in my pocket than I should have. The short of it is, I read all of DBZ over about a week, and I was either shaking in anger or anticipation for almost all of it.
Over the course of 520 chapters, Goku–and pretty much just Goku–fights enemies that are literally stronger than gods and intentionally makes them stronger because he’s an idiot. It’s ridiculous in a dumb way. And I’m not coming at this from a point of elitism. Of the three comics I own, one of them is the volume of Naruto when he fights Pain. I’m not above battle manga. But by the end of the series, anyone who wasn’t Gohan was either insufferable or useless. That is my state of mind when I decided to watch all the DBZ movies and write about them.
I guess I should clarify that while I think Dragon Ball is a bunch of bullshit now, I didn’t always think it. When I was younger and watched the anime, I actually really liked it. I watched from the start through the Frieza saga, and I still like some chunks of the story. Unfortunately, those points aren’t Vegeta, so they got lost in the fray. So my decision to watch the Dragon Ball Z movies was to try to recapture that, to see if in the margins the anime crew might have caught on to what I did and expanded on it. So come with me, because I’m Watching the Dragon Ball Z Movies. Please kill me.
Released in 1989 at the Toei Cartoon Festival, DBZ: The Dead Zone is the first film released with the Dragon Ball Z title. The movie itself is a prequel, taking place between the original Dragon Ball and Z proper, which is where the interesting parts of Dead Zone end. The movie opens with Goku’s son Gohan being kidnapped for the Dragon Ball he wears, instead of just taking the ball itself because that would take intelligence of some sort. So Goku gives chase to save his son from the clutches of Garlic Jr, and probably save the world, I guess.
Judging an anime tie-in isn’t the same as judging a normal movie, or even a normal tie-in. Usually, a movie tie-in would be a way to really change the status quo and add some definition to a series, some finality. Since most anime films are made without the involvement of the creator, or at least minimal involvement, you can’t really do anything definitive with it. Since everything is ultimately inconsequential, you have to rely on things the series doesn’t do, like giving the spotlight to characters that normally don’t get it, or unlikely team-ups.
At the time Dead Zone was released, DBZ was only 11 episodes in–the middle of Gohan’s training under Piccolo. DBZ was only a few months behind the manga, which is largely responsible for a lot of its filler. It also meant there was a lot of untapped potential at the time. Now that’s both a blessing and a curse. Since you’re so early into a series there are no real rules to break, but it also increases the likelihood of being redundant, since the series could establish rules that make your film obsolete.
It seems the crew behind Dead Zone were more spooked by the latter, since the film really only rehashes what had been seen in the series up to that point:
- Gohan is incredibly powerful but unrefined
- Piccolo will team up with Goku given a big enough threat
- Krillin exists
There’s little in fiction I find more depressing than lost potential, especially when the stories begin to do something interesting, only only to ignore it immediately afterward. Dead Zone’s interesting proposal was a fight scene with Chi Chi, the strongest woman on the planet at the time. Instead, Chi Chi is defeated in what I don’t think counts as a single hit, but rather some sort of nega-hit–a hit that would actively remove a hit from a previous fight with how much of a non-hit it is. It is a trend that would define not just Chi Chi, but women in Shonen forever. FOREVER.
Other than Chi Chi being downed less than one shot, I don’t have many actual issues with Dead Zone. It’s a largely inoffensive film that doesn’t do anything interesting, but doesn’t really do anything awful either. What it does do is exemplify the issues most anime films do, so in the interest of not having a shorter than expected review, I’ll take the time to talk about them in depth here so as not to repeat myself in the future.
Most films follow a simple three-act structure. For the purpose of demonstration, I’ll use the recent Avengers, but you could use practically any blockbuster for proof. The first act is largely introductions to the characters, the world, the villains, and the conflict. Avengers does this by having small kerfuffles between the leads, introducing the characters in a quick way, while also introducing Loki in a menacing way for those unfamiliar with him. Act 2 generally has the villain beginning his plan, making an attack on the heroes, or a public display of his abilities, as Loki does by attacking the Hellicarrier. Act 3 then has the heroes brushing the dirt off and attacking the villain head on, as the fight in New York in Avengers does. It’s a simple formula, one that’s effective and versatile all at once.
Now compare this to Dead Zone, which skips the introductions to the second act of the villain attacking Goku directly, and then spends the remainder of its running time in the third act assault. Dead Zone’s pacing issues are more a symptom of failure to adapt, since the actual story structure of Dead Zone is similar to that of most anime arcs. Villain attacks, good guys go beat him up, rinse and repeat. It’s also the exact story that DBZ starts with.
Another issue I’ve noticed is that the film fails at some basic mythology with the series, something I’ve seen in other anime tie-ins as well. Dead Zone opens with the villain’s crew killing Piccolo to make themselves seem tough, but much of the villains plans rely on the Dragon Balls. Now if you’ve watched Dragon Ball or seen an episode of DBZ, you know when Piccolo dies, the Dragon Balls become useless. So not only does this tell you Piccolo is alive, but it gives the impression you know more about what’s going on then the characters–never a particularly good thing to have in your story.
The final nail in the Dead Zone’s coffin is that the villain, Garlic Jr., just isn’t very interesting. He’s pretty standard as Dragon Ball villains go, a person who wants to gain immortality to take over the world. Granted, Garlic has a more involved past compared to the other DBZ baddies who just sort of exist, but nothing is really done with it. Although most shonen have problems crafting complex villains over hundreds of chapters, so expecting Dead Zone to do it in its bare-bones 40 minute run time might be expecting a bit much.
At the end of the day, Dead Zone isn’t very good, but it’s not very bad either. If you watched the Vegeta Saga and liked it, you’ll probably like this. It’s only 40 minutes, the animation is better than what the normal series got at the time, and it has Goku using his power pole, which is something he never does in DBZ proper, BUT WHAT MARRIED MAN DOES, AMIRITE? If you like Dragon Ball, or if you like Dragon Ball Z, or even if you like Dragon Ball GT (which I would capitalize for emphasis even if it wasn’t the proper way to write it), you’ll probably enjoy Dragon Ball Z: The Dead Zone. As for me, someone who is at his wits end with the series, I didn’t hate my time with it. Its issues are bigger than itself.
Article by contributor Dylan Shirley.
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