On February 2nd Navarre Corporation let it slip that their subsidiary, FUNimation Entertainment, had acquired the North American license to Dragon Ball Kai. With a less than clear explanation on what this new property was for new viewers, we figured it was time to get the facts straight. What is Dragon Ball Kai and where does it come from?
On April 5, 2009, Dragon Ball Kai premiered that morning in Japan, just three weeks before Dragon Ball Z‘s twentieth anniversary. For any who hadn’t kept up with the internet or Weekly JUMP buzz, Dragon Ball Kai‘s purpose was made clear in the opening title card of the first thirteen episodes: Dragon Ball Kai is the twentieth anniversary “Akira Toriyama Cut” of Dragon Ball Z. But what does that mean, exactly?
Dragon Ball Z was adapted from chapters #195-519 of Mr. Toriyama’s weekly Dragon Ball comic. However, since Mr. Toriyama only drew fifteen or so pages a week, Toei Animation’s adaptation faced a constant struggle to stay far enough behind the comic so that there would enough material for a new episode the following week. To deal with this issue, Toei Animation often created their own subplots (or full blown story arcs and episodes) with characters that the original story didn’t include so as to lessen the number of pages they adapted from the comic per episode. This often led to the tension of the story being disrupted or lengthened, often to silly degrees. Dragon Ball Kai was conceptualized to fix these pacing issues. As of this writing, Dragon Ball Kai has condensed the first 122 episodes of Dragon Ball Z into its first 57.
While re-editing Dragon Ball Z‘s film to more closely follow the comic (almost panel-for-panel when the adapted material wasn’t altered to allow for different subplots), Toei Animation produced completely new animation for the opening and ending themes, title cards, and eyecatches. These gorgeous new pieces of animation were created in the same vein as recent video game openings and television commercials, bringing the Dragon Ball characters into the 21st century’s digital animation age. To try and spruce up a few shots in each Kai episode Toei began digitally tracing over shots and scenes, “refreshing” them as the marketing likes to call it. These “reanimated” scenes (done partially to deal with the broadcast cropping of the series) kept their 1980s and 1990s art style despite now being “digitally animated.” The quality of these “new” scenes often vary, from being less detailed and poorly composed to respectable renewals of the twenty-plus year old art. Editing of these new scenes often prove troublesome as frames bleed together to create a ghosting effect as the characters move at fast speeds.
In addition to re-editing and “refreshing” the animation, Dragon Ball Kai brought modern music into the mix. Whereas Shunsuke Kikuchi gave Dragon Ball Z a classical and martial arts film feel, Dragon Ball video game composer Kenji Yamamoto sought to give Kai a score befitting of its modern look and faster, harder-hitting pace. New blood was also brought in for the vocal themes. Takayoshi Tanimoto performs Dragon Soul and Yeah! Break! Care! Break!, the opening and first ending theme respectively. Insert songs (songs created for being played within the show itself) were produced as well, including vocal themes for the Ginyu Special Force, Freeza, and Vegeta (performed by Vegeta’s voice actor, Ryo Horikawa).
Original cast members who were available returned for their fourth weekly series, save those who had passed. For Dragon Ball Kai Muten-Roshi and Tenshinhan were now played by Masaharu Sato and Hikaru Midorikawa respectively (both already members of the Dragon Ball family due to roles in Dragon Ball Z), due to the deaths of their original actors. With the recent passing of Mr. Daisuke Gori during production on Kai, Ryozaburo Otomo (Dragon Ball Z‘s Dabra) took over the roles of Gyuumao, Porunga and King Cold. Curiously, some roles whose actors were still alive were recast despite each actor having recently recorded video games as these characters (including Kenji Utsumi’s Reacoom, despite returning to voice Shen Long for Kai). No explanation has yet been given for these recasts.
Earlier we mentioned that Dragon Ball Kai was cropped for widescreen; this is due to the recent change in Japanese broadcast laws. With Japan pushing the transition to widescreen and high definition, broadcasters were forced to begin producing content in 16:9 widescreen. Some shows that reused stock footage (like One Piece) would either have to reanimate these scenes entirely, or add a border to the sides to fill out the anamorphic picture. To avoid the tacky look of borders on the side of the screen for an entire twenty-four minute episode, Toei Animation chose to crop their existing 4:3 footage into 16:9. The screenshots below demonstrate the difference between the original 4:3 picture (left) and the cropped 16:9 picture (right):
Toei Animation dug out their film prints (or an existing digital scan) and cropped each shot selectively, making sure to minimize the loss of important animation as much as possible. The “reanimated” shots helped make this easier by extending the sides of the frames, thus giving the widescreen transition team more material to work with in ensuring the viewer would not be taken out of the moment by a missing head, mouth flap, or arm. A few slip-ups are noticeable early on in the series, but this is essentially irrelevant to us western fans.
Toei’s domestic home video release of Dragon Ball Kai is seeing a release on both DVD and Blu-ray with the original 4:3 picture. In February of this year Happinet updated their Dragon Ball section with information that Dragon Ball Kai was planned for at least 99 episodes to be released across thirty-three DVDs and eight Blu-ray box sets.
Special thanks to our friend Heath “Hujio” Cutler for providing us with the screen shots.
Coming on Monday: part 2, which will discuss Kai’s arrival in the United States! Stay tuned.