The Saiyan Saga: Everything Changes: Dragon Ball Z Kai Retrospective Arc by Arc

By: Jre Best

The First Episode

Dragon Ball Z Kai has one of the oddest beginnings to a show you can find. In the first two minutes you are thrown into the middle of a huge battle in space with someone who looks a lot like Goku fighting a whole army. Your main character, Goku, is a baby being looked over by aliens before being shot into space. And a tiny purple alien destroys not just the man who shares a resemblance to our main character but an entire planet. The man is revealed to be Goku’s father, he starts to have premonitions about his son’s future, battling the tiny purple alien for the honor of this alien race that we just saw get destroyed. And as if that isn’t enough for you we then get a full narrated recap of Original Dragon Ball. All this is done in a little over six minutes and that includes the show’s opening. 

The funniest part about this is everything I have just described to you was added to Kai to make this show more newcomer friendly. The opening uses footage from the Bardock Special that stars Goku’s dad the titular Bardock and remastered footage from the original Dragon Ball anime to help get everybody up to speed for the events of Z. What’s most surprising is that it kind of works. In what’s a rarity for the show the exposition is absolutely airtight, hardly wasting a single word or shot creating an opening that is dense with literal and visual exposition while still manages to maintain it’s watchability. 

Dragon Ball Z is unmistakably a sequel but it’s story is hyper-focused on radically changing the status-quo as opposed to establishing it. The way it so confidently changes every aspect of the series feels almost like it’s challenging its fans to reject it. In the latter half of Dragon Ball Goku has already gone from being a pint-sized kid to a young adult with him even getting married by the end, but in Z Goku’s not just an adult he’s a father. Our first glimpse of Goku in the present is when Chi-Chi sends him to look for their son, Son Gohan, in the woods. 

It’s actually quite an effective introduction/re-introduction to the two main characters of the whole series. Gohan is innocently playing in the woods much like his father used to, but unlike his father, he lacks familiarity with the environment and ends up getting himself into some real danger, stuck on a log in a river rapidly heading towards a waterfall. Goku on his flying cloud Nimbus sees his son in danger and immediately steps into action to save him but is cut off by the river flowing into a cave he can’t get into. Goku has to travel around the mountain to try and catch Gohan as he falls down the waterfall however when he actually gets around to the devious cataract Gohan finds himself clinging to a branch above it somehow with no real explanation. Gohan finding himself in danger, Goku racing to save him but forces outside his control preventing him from doing so, making Gohan to find a way to save himself will become a repeated pattern with these characters for the rest of the series and we are showing a glimpse of it in their first scene together. 

While the first scene introduces our main characters, the second introduces us to a whole new type of antagonist. In what’s almost assuredly a tip of the hat to Superman’s origin story to acknowledge the new, more Man of Steel inspired directions Z will go in, we see a farmer inspecting an alien pod that landed from the sky. Instead of a baby Kal-El a full-grown man emerges, sporting a wild mane of hair, some device over his left eye which you’ll come to know as a scouter, a set of bizarre-looking armor, and most notably a monkey tail like Goku and Gohans. Clearly some kind of an alien using his Scouter to measure the farmers “power level” before swiftly killing him. He’s looking for someone named “Kakarot”. His Scouter picks up someone with a “decent” power level and he starts flying in that direction beginning his search for this Kakarot. However, he just finds Piccolo, the main antagonist of the last major arc, the strongest villain we’ve seen up to this point. Even people who are just starting with Kai would know that he’s a big deal because he was so focused on in the recap of Original Dragon Ball. But our invader isn’t impressed by him at all, mocking him to his face saying his “power level” is nowhere close to his and completely brushing off one of Piccolo’s attacks. In the middle of his beratement of Piccolo he completely switches his attention to a bigger power level his Scouter picks up miles away. The only other one on the planet bigger than Piccolo’s. He’s confident it’s Kakarot and starts to fly towards it. And at this point anyone who’s been paying attention will start to think: the only person we know who is stronger than Piccolo is Goku. Is this “Kakarot” Goku? 

Our last major scene of reintroduction we see is Bulma arriving at Kame House in her unmistakably Toriyama aircraft. The crew we followed in Original Dragon Ball are having some sort of reunion. So while any other first episode would take its time introducing all the members of the supporting cast, slowly establishing a few character traits for the audience to latch onto before later episodes get to expand upon them, Z doesn’t do that at all. Since, again, this scene was originally written with the expectation that the audience is already familiar with these characters. Bulma shows up at the house. Krillin, Master Roshi and his talking turtle are all already familiar with her. No grand introductions, hell, Bulma’s the only person in the scene whose name is said. They ask about other supporting characters that aren’t there like Yamcha, Launch and Tien refer to previous relationships in group dynamics that a new viewer would be totally oblivious to. 

After a little time Goku and Gohan show up and since Goku failed to mention that he had become a father since the last time he spoke to everyone proper introductions are given. One might think that if Z was written with the intention of being the actual starting point of the series this would have been our first glimpse of the supporting cast. Not to say how it’s handled in the show proper is poor, in fact it actually captures the feeling of a reunion very well even upon a first watch. As a kid when I was first watching this I didn’t notice how bizarrely the show introduces itself. I didn’t need to be told who Krillin was and why he’s here; he’s just one part of this group of friends, and just like any friend group they have their own history, in jokes, and ways they behave around each other. While it may not be the traditional or recommended way to introduce a supporting cast it’s pretty refreshing to just be thrown into a group that already has an entertaining familiar group dynamic, it feels natural. The only thing that stood out to me as odd when I first watched this was the groups worry over why Gohan still had his tail and Goku’s confusion over why that’s an issue; since I didn’t know Goku had lost his tail and if it does something bad why are they keeping it a secret from Goku? Goku fills us in on a few important details, how Gohan wears the four-star Dragon Ball on his hat as an homage to his grandfather, and how he’s not allowed to give Gohan any martial arts training because of Chi-Chi. But the leisurely tone continues for a little while at least until our mystery invader finally finds who he’s looking for.

Goku senses the power of our mysterious long-haired assailant coming directly toward them. He lands in immediately recognizing and berating Goku calling him Kakarot. He says that Goku looks just like their father. He’s confused saying Goku’s mission was to kill every creature on the Earth. When Krillin tries to get him to leave, he responds by immediately batting the tiny monk halfway across the island using just his tail, ending our first episode.

The first episode of Dragon Ball Z Kai is an unconventional classic. You’ve heard me say how unusual it is more than a fair share of times already but I put so much emphasis on it because of how truly abnormal it is especially put in context with how successful the show would become internationally. I’m sure many of you didn’t even need the full recap I provided. That’s how iconic the first episode of Dragon Ball is. In that way, it could be compared to Star Wars A New Hope or even the first Spider-Man movie in terms of culturally ubiquitous beginning stories. But this is much more impressive when you consider the opening to Dragon Ball Z was designed to be a reintroduction/status quo change to existing fans unlike the other two examples. But it’s structured so perfectly that it’s easy for anybody to get swept up in it. 

Goku and Gohan’s small adventure in the forest does a great job of introducing our two likable main characters. Setting up tons of potential character development for Gohan and something that isn’t talked about much, it does a great job of making Goku interesting. How many leads in action series are husbands with a kid, most of the time it’s avoided as to not make the main character feel too old but this episode actually leans into Goku’s age and newfound position as a father. It makes him feel very different in a good way. 

Everything with our supporting cast is also wonderfully done. One of the common trademarks of Shonen battle manga that Dragon Ball helped pioneer was the increasingly large supporting cast. At this point in the series Dragon Ball had already grown a substantially large supporting cast to the point where not all of them get to come back in Z. So picking which characters would be here at the start of this arc and how to reintroduce them must have been a much harder choice then it might initially seem. Do you try and reintroduce everybody at once? Only the fan favorites? Maybe exclude them entirely and only focus on your new stuff and worry about them later? Instead Toriyama took a simple approach pairing back the cast to a small manageable level and only using the characters that make the most sense. Bulma, Krillin, and Master Roshi and the Turtle if you want to count him, Goku’s closest friends. But as to not neglect the rest of the cast you have the characters that are there talk about them as to let you, the audience, know that there is more to come, even though, in Lanch’s case, there isn’t. It’s all done very casually, which gives the show’s charm and gets the audience more invested more than any exposition about their time together ever could. Properly introducing your supporting cast is something many battle Shounen have an issue with now, instead of focusing on charming interactions or interesting relationships, AKA what makes a Supporting Cast so great, they seem to feel this need to explain every single thing about a character before they let them have fun being a part of the ensemble. There’s merit to that for sure, but if you ask me I much prefer Dragon Ball giving me a chance to sample what I’m in for and leaving the character studies for later. 

Everything involving our new and old villains is fantastic, teasing the changes to come. As stated before, the prologue recapping the Bardock Special and OG Dragon Ball is about as perfect as it can be, given its length, giving new viewers just enough information to prepare them for the rest of the episode. The long-haired space invader, Raditz being Goku’s brother, is handled so well. A perfect combination of new and old, from his introduction, to the way he speaks and his use of a Scouter he brings a totally different science fiction tinged aesthetic to the series. But those old elements of Dragon Ball are still there, his design still clearly conveys that he is some kind of martial artist and he possesses a tail just like Goku used to. Raditz’s appearance represents Dragon Ball’s biggest step into science fiction and the heightened stakes that will come to define Dragon Ball Z. This is done partly by Raditz’s complete one-upmanship of Piccolo starting a bit of a Dragon Ball tradition. How do you convey how dangerous the new villain is? By having him completely trivialize the power of the previous big bad. Bonus points if the old villain becomes a good guy after that.

Raditz Changes Everything

From this point on we’re pretty much done with the play by play and will be moving through the saga at a much faster pace, but it is important to go over what’s revealed in the second episode. The exposition Raditz drops changes the series forever. So much so that the fact that he’s Goku’s brother is by far the least important thing revealed. In a reveal that’s somewhat undermined by Kai’s prologue, it turns out Goku isn’t just some monkey boy with mysterious origins, but one of the last surviving members of a warrior race named the Saiyans. A vicious power-hungry mercenary people who would travel the galaxies and wipe out the populations of planets for the profit and sport of it. What we saw at the top of the show was their wholesale destruction. Curiously enough, Raditz’s story is inconsistent with what we saw since the planet was wiped out by a meteor instead of the alien you saw do it. The only Saiyan that survived was off-planet, so, including Goku, there are only four full-blooded Saiyans in existence. Like Superman, Goku was sent away to Earth right before his planet was destroyed but unlike the Man of Steel his mission upon landing was to wipe out the whole population of Earth. Fortunately for us Goku ended up hitting his head on something hard repressing his instinctual violent tendency. 

Raditz is only here to get Goku’s help conquering a planet he and the other Saiyans have their eye on. Of course, Goku refuses and Raditz resorts to taking a hostage to get what he wants. Kidnapping Gohan with Goku’s ransom being a hundred dead “earthlings” by the next day. Everything seems hopeless. It’s made clear that Goku is no match for Raditz’s power, that is until Piccolo shows up. He comes proposing a temporary alliance acknowledging the classic dilemma: neither of them alone can stop Raditz but together? They might just have a shot. 

This interaction with Raditz truly does change the entire series. It’s a huge retcon and while Goku previously had a pretty light backstory make no mistake it’s still a tremendously risky move to reveal the protagonist of your massively popular comic is actually a part of an evil alien race years into it. And again think about how the status quo has already been messed with here, the time jump, the child, the evil brother, even old Dragon Ball tropes like the previous villain working with joining the heroes with Piccolo and to top it all off this Superman inspired new backstory. A part of me wonders if a total sea change like this could be done as successfully in the modern-day. I think in a lot of ways with the rise of social media making fans’ opinions and particularly fandom backlash much harder to ignore, audiences who would have previously just accepted the twist they were given or quietly dropped the series because of it can now immediately voice their objection and if there are enough like-minded people to share it can seem like the whole fandoms turned against you even if it’s only a small minority. Granted, I don’t think a status quo change of this magnitude with something as popular as Dragon Ball has occurred since the rise of social media so I could be totally wrong but I’m not sure Dragon Ball Z could have started like this nowadays. 

The only close examples that even come to mind are things like the true identities of Snoke and The Mandarin from Star Wars The Last Jedi and Iron Man 3. However, those are different not just because they’re sequels to huge movie franchises and the latter being partly an adaptation of a decades-old comic character. But both are almost anti-twist meant as a way to surprise a savvy audience that expected a big reveal they already knew the answer to going in. Both were kind of deflating half-jokes at a specific type of fan which is part of the reason online discussions of those films got so heated so quickly. 

I remember hearing a story back in 2003 when Robert Kirkman was pitching the original Walking Dead comic to Image Comics. At this point in Western comics, horror was seen as a dead genre so when the Walking Dead was pitched to Image, Robert concocted an elaborate lie. That after the first volume of Walking Dead the large twist would be that aliens we’re behind the zombie virus and the series would reveal itself to be some kind of a Sci-Fi action book. But that was never Kirkman’s intention and when the horror-focused first issues of Walking Dead turned into some of the best-selling indie comic books of all time, he was able to continue the series the way he initially intended. I think about that story all the time, if that twist happened does Walking Dead still become the cultural landmark it became? Or just an above average selling indie title? If it was just as successful how would people react to that twist when it happened in the show? If it had happened it would be the closest example to what happened in Dragon Ball in the west. Obviously, it didn’t but it’s interesting to think about for sure especially when it comes to fan reaction.

Piccolo’s teaming up idea was the right call, the two of them are able to beat Raditz in the first of Dragon Ball Z Kai’s wonderfully entertaining climactic fight scenes. We’ll talk about how Dragon Ball Z Kai handles its fight scenes at a later time but, for the first time out, it’s a real classic, still one of my favorite fights in the series. It’s one of the few group fights in the series and in my opinion, the only to not feel like just a series of one on one battles. The choreographies and animation are equal parts fun and impactful. The partners who can’t quite trust each other dynamic between Goku and Piccolo adds a sense of desperation. Raditz flying between confident as can be against his outmatched opponents and groveling coward as soon as the momentum of the fight shifts is just classic bully bad guy. It’s full of great set pieces like the first time we see Gohan’s explosive anger causing the first major blow to Raditz. Goku’s strategy of paralyzing Raditz by grabbing his tail so Piccolo can use the Special Beam Cannon (yes I know it’s wrong and I don’t care) only for Raditz to appeal to Goku’s humanity so he’ll let go for just a second causing Piccolo to miss and then Raditz to immediately show that he’s beyond redemption is just simple and effective character writing. And it has one of the all-time greatest endings to a fight in Dragon Ball, with Piccolo having to charge the Special Beam Cannon again and our heroes drained of almost all their energy Goku’s only resort is to lock on a full nelson hold that Raditz can’t get out of and hold them in place for Piccolo’s attack, killing both his brother and himself. Piccolo’s monologue about how he finally gets a chance to fulfill his dream to kill his rival but having gained a level of respect for him burned itself into my memory as a child. 

And in the last earth-shaking change in this Raditz arc Goku is killed. It’s often said that death in Dragon Ball is a joke or without meaning but it’s not stated how well Dragon Ball handles the scenes in which its characters pass. Sonny Strait has to be majorly commended for how he plays Krillin in this scene. The way he grieves over his friend’s death is near heartbreaking. Though of course the drama is somewhat undermined by someone talking about how they’ll be able to bring him back with the Dragon Balls which is picked up on Raditz’s Scouter and transmitted to the other Saiyans who are now almost certainly coming to earth to see what they’re talking about. Something that Raditz gloats about to our heroes till he finally dies. Our heroes including Goku in the other world have about a year to train for this Saiyan invasion. Piccolo does a little kidnapping of his own, taking Gohan and saying he’ll prepare him, as we enter our first major training arc.

The Snakes Way 

Training Arcs are pretty commonplace in Shonen action series, since most rely heavily on the theme of growth, Dragon Ball included. Coincidentally they’re an incredibly convenient framework for animes to construct filler episodes for. While Kai removes most of the training filler there are still a few episodes dedicated to relevant character growth. I’ve always been a big fan of these sort of more relaxed feeling training arcs as they give a chance to peek into these characters’ daily lives, but still have some tension because of the looming threat approaching everyone. It’s in this stretch of episodes that you get a lot of world-building and reintroduction, this is where the viewers are first introduced to Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, Mr. Popo and Kami. The most important stuff to happen during these episodes is of course concerning Goku and Gohan. 

Gohan has been kidnapped to be trained by his father’s greatest enemy and it’s made clear at the start that Piccolo intends his training to be as ruthless as possible. Basically just throwing the kid into the wild, telling him to survive or die as his first test, something I wouldn’t recommend trying with your real four-year-old. Of course, the son of Goku does, shedding the skin of a scared helpless kid and developing the confidence that came so naturally to his father. Eventually he starts training with Piccolo more directly and they start to form a real bond, Gohan’s child-like innocence and willingness to treat Piccolo like a normal person softening our grinch’s heart. We also get the iconic scene of Gohan turning into a Great Ape during the full moon. Not only was this the first time many Dragon Ball fans got to see the Great Ape in action learning what the purpose of these monkey tails are but we also get to see Piccolo blow up the freaking moon, which is actually the second time this has happened in the series. Don’t ask.

Goku, on the other hand, is dead. Don’t worry he got into The Good Place. But of course with the threat of the Saiyans rapidly approaching his home he doesn’t plan on staying there too long, he knows in a year his friends will wish him back to life and he intends to spend every day of that year training to be ready. King Yemma a giant red ogre in an office uniform who assigns which souls go to the good or bad place, (Dragon Ball’s a fun series), tells Goku that he should train with King Kai but to get there he has to run the snake way, a trail that takes 6 months to traverse so, of course, with barely a second thought, Goku starts to make the trip. When he gets there King Kai proves to be an unorthodox teacher, a short blue man with cricket-like features who’s more concerned with impressing Goku with his car and jokes than training him. 

King Kai is a really good character. Dragon Ball Z Kai can sometimes feel like a series drowning in superfluous comedy characters but King Kai, at least at the start, avoids that. It helps that he considers himself a comedian so when he’s firing off jokes it feels more like the characters making an actual decision to be funny instead of just killing time. Also in this Saga they take great care to make sure his status as a master is felt, with him frequently cutting the funny business and dispensing real wisdom to Goku. He also serves as a good introduction to many things like the more cosmic side to Dragon Ball and gravity training. King Kai’s planet has gravity 10 times stronger than Earth so Goku has a hard time simply walking and has to train to adjust to this more intense gravity. This is a concept that will be revisited constantly throughout the series; it was an idea I was very fond of as a kid and now. The year the characters have to train passes and only a few episodes into Kai the Saiyans are on their way and when they arrive earlier than expected their impact cannot be understated.

The Saiyan Invasion 

Nappa and Vegeta arrive much like Raditz in small spherical pods. But unlike Raditz who initially conducts comparatively low key search for Goku and his friends, Nappa and Vegeta land right in the middle of a major city and make their presence known to everyone. Right before Nappa decides to blow up the city for fun. The time has come. The invasion has started. The Saiyans are here. 

Luckily our Heroes were able to wish Goku back to life earlier that day but he can’t properly return to Earth until he gets back to the entrance of the afterlife, which means he has to run a trail that took him six months to travel before, so he can defend his planet. All the while Piccolo, Gohan, Krillin, Tien, Yamcha, and Chiaotzu, well trained but still outmatched, need to somehow hold their own against these two impossibly strong foes while waiting for Goku. There’s a lot of memorable moments in Dragon Ball but this scenario is one of the most iconic in Shonen history. A classic desperate struggle where our heroes only hope is not to win but to just survive for long enough for our main character to get there. It’s something that’s been imitated plenty of times including within Dragon Ball itself which is something we’ll touch on in a little bit but here it works perfectly. 

The great thing about this fight is the sense of the unknown. Neither our heroes or villains have any clue on how strong either side is. The Saiyans arrogantly assume the Z Fighters will put up no fight because of their Scouters and let the confidence go to their head, particularly Nappa. What they don’t know is that the Z Fighters know how to mask their true strength. But they and the audience are still ignorant to just how powerful these Saiyans really are. So the exchanges here are almost like a game of poker, where out hereos use all the blocking and strategy they can to take their bad hand as far as they can go against their opponent who’s drawn so good he’s making stupid mistakes. 

Unfortunately they’re largely unsuccessful. The Saiyans don’t even bother fighting our heroes at first, instead using these plant-like minions called Saibamen. Despite being weak grunts they’re crafty enough to self-destruct and kill Yamcha. In Kai Yamcha dies the second episode Vegeta and Nappa are in. It comes fast; it was deeply shocking to me as a child. This character that I had just met but was a longtime friend of all the other characters I knew, that at this point was presented pretty much as an equal to everybody as a fighter was just killed out of nowhere by this no-name minion. Now of course Yamcha’s death has become one of the most enduring memes in the anime community but before I knew about any of that, this scene completely worked on me as a way of raising the sense of danger. And of course if you are a long time Dragon Ball fan you had known Yamcha for years. He had been a main character and he was killed right at the start of this fight. Of course there’s always the idea that any death in Dragon Ball can be reversed but at this point death still carries some weight and they use that weight to show you how dangerous these new villains are. From that point on the Z Fighters are a mixture of scared, enraged and in grief and the ensuing fight with Nappa plays out nearly like an 80s horror movie. Krillin destroys all the remaining Saibamen. Tien tries to attack Nappa directly but loses an arm for it. Piccolo tries to play General and direct everyone but nothing works. Their attacks bounce off him. Things become so desperate the Chiaotzu sneaks onto Nappa and blows himself up in the hopes of taking the bully with him but it doesn’t even manage to scratch his armor. This sends Tien into a mournful rage attacking Nappa with everything he has but Nappa’s just playing with him. Only through Nappa’s focus on torturing Tien are Piccolo, Krillin, and Gohan able to get their first real hits in with a sneak attack they can’t even finish because Gohan’s too traumatized by the events he’s already seen to do anything. Tien in one last act of defiance for the two friends he’s lost uses the Tri Beam, an attack he knows will kill him in the state he’s in, only able to do a small amount of damage to Nappa, and then he passes on. All the while the tiny and arrogant Prince Vegeta stands side amused by the suffering and annoyed by the posturing of Nappa. Krillin has a line here that chilled me to my core as a child.

“Tien, no you can’t be dead too, you can’t we needed you. Everyone’s dying and I don’t know how to stop it.” 

Dragon Ball Z was not the first show I watched with fighting in it. My childhood was full of shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ben 10 and I watched pretty much every superhero show I could. However it was the first to incorporate death as such a big part of itself. These people being blown up are not miscellaneous robots or nameless goons. These deaths we’re not done off screen and then talked about with words like gone, away, or destroyed if they were pushing it. No, these characters died, could they come back? Yes, but they fought, felt pain and then died and the frankness of that made an impact on me.

While Dragon Ball is known for its memorable super villains it often gives them a sidekick or group usually as a way of building suspense. “If Y is so strong and he’s only the fourth-strongest guy here then how do I have any hope of beating Y?” The Saiyans are very much using this formula. Raditz is so strong that Goku and Piccolo need to team up to beat him and even then Goku dies trying to beat him. Then Vegeta and Nappa say Raditz is so weak that he’s not even worth bringing back so the kid watching loses his mind at their potential strength. It’s not super compelling once you catch on to the trick but it’s inoffensive, basic and effective. 

Krillin cries out that none of this would be happening if Goku is there. Vegeta is intrigued by this and calls for the fighting to cease for an hour to give him a chance to show up. This is fortunate because Goku who has just gotten back from Snake Way, is back on Earth and immediately sets off for the fight. He’s not able to get there within an hour, so the fighting resumes with Nappa dominating everyone like before. Gohan is finally able to summon up the courage to attack Nappa and actually scores a significant strike against him. This enrages Nappa and he fires off a devastating energy blast at the kid. Piccolo completing his slow face turn over the saga jumps in the way sacrificing himself. Meaning himself, Kami, and therefore the Dragon Balls are gone. As Nappa closes in to finish the job on Gohan, Goku finally makes it back. And at this you finally get to see all the training Goku has done with King Kai payoff. Goku is so strong that Krillin barely recognizes him, and when Vegeta tries to use a Scouter he can’t believe the number is an astonishing 8000 (Yeah the Kai dub isn’t perfect). Nappa assumes the Scouter is just broken and continues to underestimate Goku who promptly embarrasses him showing us a glimpse at his new technique: the Kaioken. Goku beats Nappa and throws him at Vegeta’s feet. At which Vegeta throws Nappa up into the air and kills him. He’s tired of sitting on the sidelines. He wants a chance to prove his superiority to this cocky lower class Saiyan.

Goku versus Vegeta is one of the most iconic fights in fiction. Like the hallway fight in Old Boy, the finale of Kill Bill Part 1, or the rooftop fight in The Matrix it’s become a touchstone. This influence is felt in fight scenes long after it. If you haven’t seen the fight you almost assuredly seen shots of it. The staredown, the weaving through the mountains, the beam struggle, the Great Ape, Goku’s broken legs, Yajirobe showing courage for once in his life, Gohan and Krillin helping with the first Spirit Bomb! All of it is iconic and you don’t need my play by play. 

One thing I do want to touch upon is an interesting conversation I had with someone about this fight. When I was doing my rewatch of this fight in particular I was actually watching it with someone who has never seen Dragon Ball before. What’s stood out the most about this fight to them was the length of it. Now in Kai the Goku and Vegeta fight lasts roughly around four episodes which isn’t especially lengthy for the climactic fight of a Shonen arc especially in Dragon Ball. However, they did also watch the four episodes of Nappa fighting the Z Fighters and were quite exhausted by the previous two and a half hours of combat to the point where they couldn’t really get into the Goku versus Vegeta episodes. I feel like it’s easy for us anime fans to take for granted how long these fights can get for someone who is not familiar with shows like these. A lot of anime fans started watching when they were children and desperately waiting for one new episode of their favorite show every week. When consumed over the course of four weeks, an hour and 20 minute long fight scene might not seem strange at all. But in a binging world where the wait between episodes is only as long as five seconds, those hour plus long fight scenes back to back can be off-putting the people who haven’t grown up watching stuff like this. Obviously, this problem would be compounded if I wasn’t watching an edited version of the show but the big appeal is that it has faster pacing. 

As someone who is used to this it doesn’t really bother me too much in this Saga. I think both fights are different enough that the transition between one to another makes things feel fresh. Thematically they’re very different, one is a tragic last stand about showing how much our heroes are outmatched by this powerful brute. The other is a back and forth duel, an underclass lower match warrior proving himself against an overconfident classist royal. Goku and Vegeta are both some of the most charismatic characters I’ve ever seen and they’re clashing ideals is a big reason why this fight works so well. Rewatching this fight was when I knew I was writing this article series. It’s iconic, enduring, and still just as exciting today as when I first saw it a decade ago. 

Final Thoughts on the Saga

So those were my thoughts on the Saiyan Saga. When I first started thinking about this retrospective I initially thought about just combining this in the next Saga into one entry but the more I thought about it the more clear it was to me that the start of the show had a lot more under the hood than I previously thought. While the show might increase in spectacle and intensity in later sagas this might be its peak in terms of writing. All the character motivations are rock solid, Toriyama has a clear understanding of his audience’s expectations and plays with them like a veteran. It’s packed with iconic moments. The action is quite entertaining and filled with a lot of creative choreography that becomes less common as the series goes on. 

It’s not perfect, something I neglected to mention during the Goku Vegeta fight is that halfway through it Goku realizes that he was the one who killed his grandpa Gohan when he turned into a Great Ape. Which is something that you practically have no contexts to understand if you started with Z or Kai, but even if you did know about it like I did on this re-watch Goku gets over it within minutes of it being brought up making it feel practically pointless. While I actually love its implementation here “let’s wait for Goku to get here” will become a tedious trope within the series with very few good applications after this. In what becomes a common problem with Kai there’s a lot of moments where they decide to completely reanimate scenes and a lot of it looks cheap on top of visually clashing with the overall stronger looking older animation. I really wish they had just stuck with enhancing the old animation instead of feeling like they need to completely replace some of it. 

So what’s next? Our heroes at great cost were able to repel the Saiyan invaders. Choosing to show mercy, they let Vegeta escape. A lot of their friends died including Piccolo and Kami and with the Dragon Balls creator dead the Balls have become useless. But before the fight with Nappa, the Saiyans recognized Piccolo, not as a demon like everyone thought, but a member of an alien race called the Namekians. The gang theorizes that if they can get to Piccolo’s home planet they might have their own dragon balls that they can use to wish back their friends. And with Mr. Popo showing up and teaching Bulma how to pilot Kamis’s old Namekian spaceship her, Krillin and Gohan set off to get their friends back leaving a still injured Goku on Earth. Vegeta also has plans to go to Namek for a second shot at the Dragon Balls and fearful that knowledge of them has become known to the leader of the Galactic Empire Lord Frieza. Will our heroes get their friends back? Will Vegeta successfully wish for immortality? And who is this Lord Frieza? Find out next time in the next Dragon Ball Z Kai retrospective!

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