#1 Akira Toriyama’s art
Akira Toriyama is one of the grandmasters of the manga world. The man has been publishing some of the greatest hits of the industry for over 3 decades now and pioneered many of the stylistic tropes that would become commonplace in later shounen manga. And even though its artstyle served to inspire so many others, Dragon Ball Z Kai still feels wholly original today.
The look & feel of its characters and world are unmistakable. Every named character is masterfully crafted with a meticulous design and strong concepts. The orange-clad, spikey-haired protagonists are of course a staple of the franchise, but they are far from the only string to Toriyama’s bow. The man can design fascinating alien species, he can draw cool teenagers in hip clothes, goofy cartoon animal-people, and warriors with all kinds of different builds. I was constantly looking forward to new characters, just to see what else Toriyama could come up with.
And all these cool characters inhabit Dragon Ball’s fascinating world. While ostensibly set on Earth, the setting is a strange mix of futuristic sci-fi cities contrasted against raging wildernesses filled with dinosaurs and other monsters. It’s like humanity advanced way into the future, even as the world around them remained stuck in the prehistoric era.
#2 Immense stakes
The story follows the exploits of Dragon Ball protagonist Goku. Now an adult with a family, Goku still practices martial arts alongside many of his old friends and former rivals. This changes when he one day meets his brother Raditz, who reveals that he and Goku are from an alien race of intergalactic warriors called the Saiyans. Their home planet was lost years ago, so what few Saiyans remain now work as conquering mercenaries.
When Goku refuses to join them in their evil deeds, he finds himself entirely outclassed by his brother. His enemy is so strong that nothing on Earth could even compare to it. Goku and his allies need to pull out all the stops and employ every trick, just to stand a tiny chance of winning. It’s a short intro that lasts only a few episodes, but it’s a thrilling vertical slice of what the series is all about.
Every subsequent villain throughout the anime’s story is powerful on an even greater scale, making those that came before them look like child’s play. Every new story arc puts the stakes through the roof, as the heroes need to get even stronger to prevent ever-greater calamities. Raditz is nowhere near as strong a fighter as Vegeta, who in turn pales in comparison to the planet-destroying Frieza. And by the end of Frieza’s arc you’re not even halfway through the show yet!
#3 Amazing action scenes
With these leaps in power also come fight scenes that get increasingly apocalyptic. What starts as a martial arts anime with some magic turns into a show where fighters smash each other through mountains and magical blasts create island-sized craters. Not long after, entire planets are put at risk whenever the heroes and villains clash.
The scope is certainly impressive, but the choreography also lives up to the hype. Fight scenes are fast-paced and full of awesome moments, which are backed up by crunchy audio and fantastic voice work. The battles are also made very memorable thanks to the many iconic moments within them, which even applies to the tiniest of skirmishes. Goku’s first time entering his Super Saiyan state, Yajirobe’s one redeeming act of heroism in the battle with Vegeta, or even just a series of awesome moves. I actually watched a bit of Dragon Ball Z as a kid and wasn’t sure what it was anymore, but I still perfectly recalled some of its fantastic action scenes. Getting to see those here again, now within their proper context, was very exciting.
And you better believe that Dragon Ball Z Kai will gladly fill up a dozen episodes with back-to-back combat. It infuses story bits into these fights or adds short interludes to keep the plot moving without having to interrupt the action for too long. When shit hits the fan, you could really be in for hours of near non-stop action. It’s absurd, but the strong directing and writing keep these long battles dynamic enough to prevent them from ever getting dull.
Dragon Ball Z originally aired from 1989 to 1996, totaling a respectable 291 episodes. Though it was a smash hit that would remain beloved for years, the anime has also been remembered for its vast amount of filler. Kai would start releasing in 2009 and, among other improvements, served mainly to trim the excess fat from the series.
I had the pleasure of watching Kai alongside a devout Dragon Ball Z fan, who repeatedly expressed his appreciation for how Kai cut down on filler. Entire arcs were slowed down by inconsequential side-adventures, which were neither canon with the manga nor particularly interesting on their own. Thanks to Kai, the plot now moves at a steady pace without trivial distractions. It keeps the story focused, which made it a lot easier for a newbie like myself to appreciate it as well.
Dragon Ball Z Kai is still quite lengthy, but if you have avoided the original series after hearing horror stories about characters needing 10 episodes to power up an attack, endless side-stories, and constant flashbacks, then this de-fillered alternative is exactly what you need.
#5 Passage of time
An impressive feat that Dragon Ball Z Kai pulls off is having its cast age gradually across the story, without relying on a singular timeskip. It’s already a sequel to the original Dragon Ball set several years later, but it also keeps moving time forward as it goes.
This is most visible in Goku’s son Gohan. He starts off as a timid crybaby, a spoiled little kid who can’t handle any hardship at all. As battles with villains are interrupted by years of training or long journeys, you really get to see him grow up physically and mentally. The same goes for the adult characters, who change as years go by, form relationships, even become parents.
It helps endear these characters, as well as put their growth into perspective. A surprisingly emotional detail for a series about spikey-haired muscle men beating the crap out of aliens.