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01 April 2019 by VegettoEX
During their industry panel at Otakon 2009, FUNimation representative Adam Sheehan noted that the following special announcement was “not what you think” (Jump Super Anime Tour Special? Kai?). Moments later, fans were treated to the news that FUNimation would be re-releasing the entirety of the Dragon Ball Z TV series with the “Dragon Box” masters from Japan.
The company has come a long way since 1994 when President and CEO Gen Fukunaga’s uncle helped get the startup company the sub-license to distribute the Dragon Ball franchise in North America. Few licensed anime can say that they have made the transition from an edited, dubbed-only, TV-broadcast-only show to a Japanese-remastered, “hardcore”-targeted complete home release. FUNimation is certainly no longer the company they were fifteen years prior (no doubt in part due to the removal of previously-key employees such as Barry Watson) — they have evolved from the despised to the beloved, and from distributing a meager four properties to having the largest market share, now dictating and disrupting the entire domestic industry.
FUNimation’s release of the “Dragon Box”, and announcing said intentions a mere two months after the completion of their faux-“remastered” debacle, proves this point more than anything else. One has to wonder what ulterior motives may be at play; releasing a “Dragon Box” version of the series just to satisfy a certain sector of fans cannot be enough of a reason. FUNimation, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the publicly-traded Navarre Corporation, is in the business of making money. Risks may be taken, but the ultimate goal is and always will be to turn a profit. It was naturally assumed that after a DVD release of their “orange bricks”, the internally-produced 1080p masters would be re-purposed for a Blu-ray release to double-dip and cash in to bring in the largest gain with the smallest amount of effort. What changed so that this logic no longer made the most business sense? Was it the release of Dragon Ball Kai in Japan, itself a “refreshed” version of the show in high-definition? Did the license fee for the “Dragon Box” masters (perhaps also due to Kai) reach a point that it became viable and potentially profitable for FUNimation to release them?
Whatever the reason, North American fans are finally being treated to what can most truthfully be defined as the “definitive” version and treatment of the series. We have spoken and written extensively about the history of FUNimation’s releases over the last decade and a half. For in-depth coverage and critical analysis of how this all came to be and just why it matters to us, be sure to read our blowout feature first. The background information from our feature combined with this otherwise review-only page should provide you with all the knowledge and history you need to make an informed and educated decision.
So is it true? Did it really happen? Were our dreams and wishes truly fulfilled? Or was there the one, obligatory, major factor in a FUNimation Dragon Ball Z release that prevents it from being everything it could be?
|Release Date:||17 November 2009|
|Contents:||Dragon Ball Z TV Episodes 1-42|
The majority of this review will be written and presented from the perspective of what it is to most North American consumers: another release of the Dragon Ball Z TV series on DVD (and in the case of some episodes, for the fourth time). Where appropriate, comparisons to Japanese products (such as the “Dragon Box” sets and single-disc DVDs whose masters they are based on) will be made for purely educational purposes. What a Japanese release did or did not also provide will not be held against the new American product; it will be analyzed and weighed on its own merits and pitfalls.
Since it first began in syndication on North American television in 1996, the Dragon Ball Z TV series has been constantly re-run (occasionally also in raw Japanese and Spanish courtesy of the International Channel and Telemundo) and re-released on home VHS and DVD. By now, anyone who is interested more-or-less has an idea of how this early part of the story goes:
If you are reading this review, chances are you already know all that and skipped down ahead. That’s fine! You probably also have long-standing opinions on the content of the 42 episodes contained within this box set and no review will change your stubborn thoughts… but in the interest of complete dissection, we will go ahead anyway.
To keep this section (relatively) short, I will simply go on record as saying that the first arc of the Dragon Ball Z TV series is easily one of my favorites. The characters still have a quasi-rounded, younger design to them, and the ultra-beefy SSJ designs have not yet come into effect… though you could argue that Goku’s Kaiō-Ken 4X, non-walkable form is as beefy as they come. Characters genuinely develop over the span of 30-odd episodes. Filler material, while prevalent, still has not reached the ridiculous levels of later storylines; episodes such as the ones with Gohan and the robot and the dinosaur friends are actually endearing. Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score goes through its own transformation, using some elements from the later parts of the first TV series while mixing in memorable new motifs that would last the remainder of the series. The animation quality takes a dive at times (such as Goku’s long neck while training on Kaiō’s planet), but jumps right back up when appropriate — Goku’s battle with Vegeta is comparable to the movies’ animation at key moments.
While the series spins off in a new direction and would not return to its slapstick and adventurous roots for nearly 200 episodes, it is at its best in this storyline. The viewers are thrust into a whole new universe just as Goku is, and we can feel the same excitement and apprehension battling each other within our blood.
We have all discussed this part of the series so many times since its original airing. In lieu of any further (needless) generalizations, but to still celebrate this part of the storyline to its fullest extent, I present to you, from the first Dragon Ball Z story arc, and because everyone loves a good list, my…
There are of course other emotional moments throughout the story arc. Goku’s death, Bulma sobbing at Kame House, Goku’s plea for Kuririn to let Vegeta live… the list goes on and on. Toriyama’s ability to write by the seat of his pants may not be at the climax of talent just yet (as it will be during the Cell arc), but he knows how to effectively tug at your heart more than he ever has before.
At this point, it should be fairly obvious that I have a deep love and appreciation for this part of the series. It was, after all, the first animation for the series I ever saw. To finally see a North American release treat this segment with the respect it deserves evokes feelings of relief and content that are nigh near indescribable.
I love the entirety of the franchise, and I do believe it is best experienced from the very beginning. Dragon Ball Z is not the beginning. Without a prior knowledge of characters like Tenshinhan and just how dire the situation with Piccolo Daimaō was, there is certainly something lost with an immediate jump into Dragon Ball Z. Can do you do it? Sure. Is that how most North American fans did it? Sure. You owe it to yourself to discover the wonder that is the rest of the series that came before it, though.
For the first time in North America, Dragon Ball Z has truly received its “complete” packaging in terms of content. Each episode’s respective opening theme (with corresponding credits) is included. Each next-episode preview is included, a first for Dragon Ball Z (though it had previously been included on the Dragon Ball GT original single-disc releases). As with prior releases, eyecatches are included to mark the commercial breaks. For fans that remember the VHS fansub days pre- and early-FUNimation, to finally have this style of complete packaging is a nostalgic trip like none other.
Perhaps the only gripe we can make with regard to the actual content within this set is that it ends in such a strange area with Episode 042. This is purely motivated by dividing the 291-episode series into something logical, though. It just sucks to end in the middle of the absolutely atrocious “Fake Namek” filler arc.
We can look past that minor issue, though…!
This is the best-looking release that Dragon Ball Z has ever, and probably ever will, receive in North America. What else can be said about it? Review over, folks! Thanks for tuning in!
OK, but seriously…
Though we noted we would not dive too heavily into background due to our extensive feature, a little refresher may be in order. Beginning in 2003, Toei (in conjunction with Pony Canyon) began releasing the entirety of the Dragon Ball franchise on DVD in what they called “Dragon Box” sets. These were limited-edition boxes that could only be purchased via a pre-order program (although retailer sites like Amazon Japan and CDJapan would allow foreign purchasers the ability to obtain them). Unlike anything that had come before with the series, the companies went back to the original 16mm prints (the genuine “masters”, so-to-speak, held in cold storage for preservation) for their remastering process. As opposed to what FUNimation and some European rights-holders had received, these were genuine first-run masters; licensees are always given some type of multi-generational master to work from, which itself leads to at least some minute loss of quality (while not being as bad as a VHS-to-VHS copy, think of it in that respect).
FUNimation has certainly received a generational-copy of “the” Dragon Box masters, but a 2nd or 3rd generational modern copy of a careful remastering is in a completely different league than a 5th or 6th generational copy from fifteen years ago.
In terms of previous FUNimation releases of the series, the Dragon Box “wins” by leaps and bounds:
FUNimation’s first masters were much closer to their true selves, but heavily pushed toward the blue spectrum; greens became blues, while blues themselves became blacks. The “orange bricks” blurred and smoothed away the details and pushed the saturation even further. The Dragon Box master restores the original color scheme and full detail in all areas without compromise.
The slightest dip in visual fidelity from the Japanese releases is almost negligible. Certain absurdly hardcore and enthusiastic fans may bring a valid argument to the table that the colors are not necessarily 100% accurate to the original productions from 1989, but for all intents and purposes, this is how the show is supposed to look.
Dragon Box enthusiasts have, since their original release, spoken endlessly about how amazing the footage looks in motion. I would be lying if I did not say I feel a bit of vindication reading so many comments from North American consumers, now getting their own taste with FUNimation’s Dragon Box release, conceding with the exact same conclusion. While it is true that FUNimation’s “orange brick” sets also gained a new, progressive transfer from a film master, all of the additional alterations affected the footage in a way that just does not happen with the Dragon Box masters. It is something that a YouTube encode simply cannot convey.
It was a minor point of contention among fans leading up to its release that FUNimation’s Dragon Box discs would contain seven episodes each. While this is semi-standard in the North American anime market in today’s world, the fact that the Dragon Boxes’ main selling point was the video quality brought about some apprehension. With the Japanese discs containing only six episodes and one audio track each, would the addition of an extra episode and extra audio track compromise the video quality in a discernible and impactful way?
For reference’s sake, the original Japanese DVDs ran with a video bitrate hovering around 6 to 7.5 Mbps. FUNimation’s discs hover around 4 to 5 Mbps. Without comparing the video streams on a frame-by-frame level, your casual viewing experience between the two will essentially be identical.
The video framing is ever-so-slightly different from the R2 DVD releases. FUNimation’s Dragon Box does away with the ~4 pixel left-and-right black buffer present in some episodes on the R2s, but instead has a ~1-2 pixel buffer at the very top of the frame. The placement of the frame also seems to be shifted down by a couple pixels. It is all very minor and hardly affects the viewing experience, but it is worth pointing out.
(lossy image comparison for demonstration-purposes only; hover over above image)
Our forum member james039 pointed out to us that a minor difference between what is marketed as “NTSC-J” and standard American releases is a 10% brightness difference due to the way the signals are transferred and presented on the final video hardware. Sure enough, applying a 10% brightness increase to a frame captured from an R2 source brings it to near-identical with the R1 release.
The DVD menu system is a stylistic (yet redrawn) carbon-copy of the original Japanese menus, with the obvious changes in episode counts and English text. The menus are also still images, as opposed to the Japanese motion menus with an actual scene playing in the background. Much to our delight, tunes from Shunsuke Kikuchi’s original score play over top the menus. While the show itself is indeed the correct 4:3 aspect ratio, the menus will adjust to display anamorphically on widescreen displays, an update from the Japanese release. The discs auto-play to the main menu (other than included FUNimation trailers, rather than directly into the episodes), and are automatically set to the Japanese language track with its corresponding subtitles.
The one consistent menu from disc-to-disc is the “Setup” screen, which essentially takes the place of the “Story Mode” menu item from the Japanese Dragon Box discs (a feature known as “Marathon Mode” in prior FUNimation releases). This does mean that no “Marathon Mode” is present on the FUNimation Dragon Box discs; “Play All” will literally play each episode with all of its included opening and ending themes, recaps, eyecatches, and previews.
Video quality is not the only aspect that benefits from the Dragon Box masters. Though still clearly a mono soundtrack from 1989, the Japanese track gets a noticeable bump in fidelity from FUNimation’s previous masters. Similar to the video, Toei and Pony Canyon went back to genuine audio masters for the series, which are carried over to their North American counterparts. Despite being maxed out on the Japanese releases at 448 kbps (though needlessly encoded into a stereo track), FUNimation has opted for a 96 kbps truly-mono encode. This is satisfactory, and essentially half the overhead given to a stereo audio track on other FUNimation releases (which makes sense, given that “mono” is only a single audio channel stream, while a stereo track transports two distinct channels). While acceptable, there is at least the potential for an ever-so-slight hit to the audio quality on FUNimation’s release due to this minor downgrade. As noted earlier, this audio track is played by default (with its corresponding subtitle track) without the need for any adjustments in the setup menu of the disc.
The Japanese mono track is significantly quieter than would otherwise be expected, even compared to the R2 releases. This does not affect the quality in any way, but you will need to turn up your stereo louder than you think. Unlike the Japanese release, FUNimation’s Dragon Box encodes the mono track in a single-channel format. The R2 releases encode the audio as a 2.0-channel stereo track (with both channels having the same “mono” sound). This is neither a positive nor a negative; the only thing to be aware of is that some surround receivers may push out a single-channel mono track exclusively to the central-channel speaker. If this occurs and you wish to have the track “separated” and identically sent to the left and right front channels, be sure to research and adjust your receiver’s settings appropriately. This is rare, as most receivers will indeed spit the mono track to the left and right front speakers.
Similar to the Japanese releases, the master audio for the opening and ending themes is significantly clearer than the standard episode audio. It can actually be a little jarring going back and forth in audio quality.
Minor adjustments have been made over time to FUNimation’s subtitle font and display, and the Dragon Box carries on this tradition. Perhaps the biggest update is the addition of romanized song lyrics at the top of the opening and closing themes, in addition to the standard translation at the bottom. Those who have not already memorized the lyrics provided here on the website can sing along karaoke-style in the comfort of their own living room.
FUNimation’s English dub, presented in a single audio track combined with the original Japanese score, is encoded in 5.1 surround at 384 kbps which is standard for their releases. It was confirmed shortly prior to the set’s release that an English dub’s inclusion at all was an “afterthought”, and that the only English audio track included would be the one from the “orange bricks” that contained the original Japanese musical score. FUNimation’s English dub, as aired on Cartoon Network with a fully-replaced musical score, is not available on these discs. The FUNimation dub loyalists and their (valid or otherwise) arguments over the necessity of or desires for this track have been deemed irrelevant by the company. For the first time in fifteen years, the dub crowd has not been directly catered to. While no fan has a “right” (cue “entitlement complex” discussion here) to their favorite version of the show, we accept and acknowledge that a vocal sub-group of fans, those that are educated about the “orange brick” debacle and still wish to view the series in its intended way, have not received their “definitive” version.
It may go without saying that we at Daizenshuu EX fully applaud this decision. It is no secret that we have little interest in FUNimation’s self-described “reversioning” of the show, and have always geared our content, discussions, and output at the single version of the show that can be and is enjoyed worldwide: the original Japanese version. We live in an era where FUNimation has “rescued” several properties from prior licensors and re-dubbed them with faithful voice casts, accurate translations, and the original Japanese score; one need look no further than One Piece (previously distributed by 4Kids Entertainment) and the upcoming re-do of Initial D (formerly distributed by Tokyopop). A “reversioned” show with a replaced musical score is a relic of domestic anime industry past, a time in the mid-1990s when it was assumed that children were unable to mentally deal with any reference to a show’s Japanese origin. To some degree, it almost seems to be to one’s personal detriment to continue being a fan of this type of “reversioning” once you realize it was specifically created to cater to the lower-than-lowest-common-denominator. FUNimation’s recent re-release of the Dragon Ball GT TV series, complete with a newly-optional English dub with the original Japanese score (including newly-dubbed versions of the opening and closing themes) was perhaps a precursor to this purist direction for the company and their treatment of the franchise. Up until this point, the Dragon Ball franchise (and specifically Z) had been FUNimation’s only property with this heavy-“reversioning” production. For the first time ever, this is no longer the case.
It may not fully make up for the plethora of mistakes and questionable performances in their English dub (and the original Japanese score does, at times, contrast harshly for what was otherwise intended for FUNimation’s replaced musical score), but the effort and intent goes a long way. It shows how the industry has changed, and how the management and staffing changes at the company have not only made them more profitable, but a key player in a larger, publicly-traded corporation (Navarre). Funny how simply treating the show as-is could result in a continued and dedicated fanbase.
The original Japanese R2 DVDs tend to have somewhere in the range of 400-500 MB available disc space left (containing six episodes and one audio track). Given that there is roughly 1 to 1.5 GB still available on FUNimation’s discs, and assuming that all remaining discs will be near-identical in their contents and production methods, a slight increase to the video and/or audio bitrate allocation would have been nice. For us, this is hardly a deal-breaker. The Japanese discs were, after all, essentially just thrown into a “max” encoder with less compression than was truly necessary.
The extra disc space does, however, give the educated and unambivalent FUNimation-dub-and-music loyalists plenty to complain about. If their “perfect” and “definitive” product was compromised by the removal of that particular audio track, and the additional space was not put to use by bumping up the bitrate on either the existing video or audio, is there any particular reason FUNimation could or did not include it?
The available disc space is one aspect of the argument, but it does not take into account the fact that audio and video bitrate are actually a shared component in the DVD specification, and must fit within a certain ceiling limit. Yes, it is technically possible to include a third audio track (as seen with the “orange brick” sets); however, that has the potential to push the video and audio bitrates down even further, and more importantly, push them down in cases where they are most necessary. For comparison’s sake, the “orange brick” sets did include three audio tracks along with seven episodes per disc. The video bitrate allocation suffers slightly for this: while it typically hovers around 4.5 to 5 Mbps in-episode, it can dip to nearly 3 Mbps. The 5.1 dub audio track is encoded at 448 kbps, the dub broadcast at 192 kbps stereo, and the Japanese track actually at 192 kbps as (strangely) stereo.
In the end, yes, there is technically space. Should the included audio and video be compromised at all to include it, though? FUNimation appears to have played it on the safe side and kept it to two audio tracks to allow the video to peak where it needs to. Quite frankly, the broadcast audio track does not seem like it would fit in with this product at all, though its inclusion would not appear to be an overly-technical-detriment to the rest of the inclusions. Us, though? We can’t complain about it not being there.
At the end of the day, the content and presentation of this set is not for everyone. It is for the fans that have never been directly catered to in the last fifteen years. It is for the fans that have been there for the whole ride. It is for the fans that have spoken their minds with educated viewpoints and their wallets. It is for the fans who deeply care about the series in a way that borders on self-admitted insanity. We are happy to be a part of that crowd.
Since their initial announcement, FUNimation has stated that the goal with their own version of the Dragon Box was to bring North American audiences what the Japanese had… or at least as close to it as they could feasibly provide. Mock-ups displayed immediately after their Otakon 2009 panel showed just that: miniaturized versions of the original Japanese packaging.
The final product is near-identical to the early mock-ups, and indeed a close approximation to the original Japanese style packaging.
Perhaps the only real difference is the way in which the DVDs, themselves, are stacked within the casing. “Stacked” is the best way to describe it, as the atop-each-other style previously seen in the “orange bricks” has been carried over, presumably to save vertical space. Each side of the DVD-holding “book” holds three discs each, with one disc across from two stacked-discs:
The discs are imprinted with a character image that corresponds to the content of that disc (in order: Goku, Piccolo, Gohan, Kaiō, Nappa, Vegeta). It is unfortunate that the discs themselves do not state exactly which episodes are on them; however, as all discs have seven episodes, basic math gets the job done.
A minor issue cropping up for many buyers is the lack of proper adhesive or construction at the bottom of the box. A closer look at the box reveals that it is actually coated in printed paper, rather than printed directly onto the box itself. This paper seems to globally be pulling away from the bottom of everyone’s boxes in a very specific area. While it is not that major of an issue, the fact that it seems to be happening with every single box is a disappointment.
Perhaps the most exciting detail included with overall package was the “Dragonbook”. Originally announced as 80 pages, the final product comes in at a modest 48 pages. While it acts as a general episode guide for the set, it also contains a wealth of meta-information relating to the series and its production. We also, for the first time in a FUNimation product other than Japanese-track subtitles, have official spellings of names such as “Tenshinhan” and “Kuririn”, as well as attack names written in Japanese alongside their accurate translations.
The “Dragonbook” is broken down into several sections:
There are a couple strange inconsistencies throughout the book, such as the use of both “Saibamen” and “Saibaiman”. Many character name misspellings (not dub spellings, but rather flat-out wrong letters transposed) are also spread throughout the book. There are also several instances of “(?)” after particular phrases, which would at first appear to be leftover translation notes that made it into the final product, but are actually carried over from the original Japanese printing.
The book is a wonderful inclusion, and we look forward to each subsequent one with the following box sets, which will presumably carry through with the additional columns and episode guides from the original Japanese books.
The back of the box has an extra “insert”-styled slip with temporary sticky-glue bonding it to the box. It is the same description given to retailers describing the box, its history, and its meaning to fans:
Originally produced in limited quantities in Japan, the incredibly rare Dragon Box has long been the ultimate prize for avid Dragon Ball Z collectors. Now this coveted collection has been reproduced for the first time in the United States, delivering the authentic original Dragon Ball Z experience to hard-core fans.
The battle to harness the power of the seven Dragon Balls explodes in vivid detail like never before. The Dragon Box features over 40 uncut episodes, remastered and restored frame by frame, rendering the legendary action in pristine clarity. Each episode is presented in Japanese with the complete opening and closing credits and includes the original episode previews.
Truly the essential edition for Dragon Ball Z purists, this set isn’t an addition to your archive – it is your archive. Your wish is finally granted.
The Dragon Box is here.
It’s cheesy. It’s dramatic. It’s everything we wanted to hear. Please… keep talking dirty to me.
A current FUNimation catalog pamphlet is enclosed with the box, as well as a double-sided flyer for the latest Dragon Ball video games:
For a closer look at the packaging of FUNimation’s release versus the original Japanese Dragon Box sets, check out the feature over at Kanzentai.
There are no on-disc “extras” for this first Dragon Box set from FUNimation. It is unclear if any future sets will have “extras” as seen on the original Japanese limited-edition Dragon Boxes, such as commercials, the TV specials, etc. The packaging (including the Dragonbook) are the true “extras” for this set, and are all icing on the top of the pristine-presentation of the visual and audio content.
There are a couple minor issues that have cropped up with the sets, however.
Our forum member GizmoKSX came across a high-compressed and macroblocked frame of Nappa at the end of episode five. While brief, it is viewable and slightly jarring during a normal viewing process. Interestingly enough, this identical visual flaw appears on the original Japanese R2 discs, as well. If this is the only visual flaw anyone is able to find, we really have nothing to complain about.
Anecdotal evidence across the internet seems to suggest that certain parts of the English dub audio track may be slightly out of sync with the video. We spot checked several scenes on different discs, and did not notice anything of this sort. We have near-zero familiarity with this cast’s dub of these episodes, however, so any adjustments in aspects such as vocal effects are lost on us, and we are unable to comment on any changes that may have been made.
Interestingly, a silent credit roll at the end of the discs appears to be an incorrect and inconsistent listing of production team members. Steve Franko of Video Post & Transfer of all people is listed (almost an unintentional insult at the care and respect put into the Dragon Box masters), along with at least one misspelling of Christopher Sabat’s name.
This is certainly another minor issue, but a careless and needless one.
The price of the sets is a hugely-contributing factor to our overwhelming support. For essentially a quarter of the price that the Japanese audience paid for their two gigantic Dragon Ball Z TV “Dragon Box” sets, American fans will be able to get the same 291 episodes in a video and audio format that very closely rivals the original release. Right now we do not know anything about future on-disc “extras” (such as the TV specials, commercials, other video bonuses), but considering the cost of the sets versus the content contained there-in, it is a price we are willing to pay.
Back when the first volume of the “Ultimate Uncut Edition” came out, our “Feature” at the time concluded with the following statements:
But, ya’ know, sometimes I simply want to sit back and watch these episodes fully uncut in Japanese with Steve’s translations, and just enjoy the show with a smile.
A decade later, I can finally rest.
Unfortunately, the “Ultimate Uncut Edition” was canceled after nine volumes in favor of the faux-“remastered” season sets. A release of the show that simply “was” ended up being replaced by something that no-one asked for and further divided the enthusiast fanbase.
Nearly six years after those events, we are finally being treated to a version of the show that can simply just be enjoyed. With a smile. More so than anything we have ever been given, and more than we ever hoped to receive.
Closing in on fifteen years later, I can finally rest.
(Yeah, it sounds cheesy. We’ve been along for one Hell of a ride, though!)
Dragon Box Z Volume 1 is produced and released by FUNimation for the North American market. MSRP $79.98, released 17 November 2009, contains forty-two episodes. Various episodes viewed.
For additional commentary, please listen to Episode #0198 of our podcast.
Dragon Box Z (DBZ TV) Volume 1 may be available at the following online retailers: