Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball is one of the modern age’s most enduring properties. It is one of the few anime that has reached mainstream status and is an instant moneymaker worldwide. Even today, the franchise is just as lively as ever. Both Battle of Gods and especially Resurrection F made bank in movie theaters, even in America. The upcoming Broly movie is already shattering pre-order records. Dragon Ball Super crashed Crunchyroll’s servers every Saturday night and is the only anime to air on current day Cartoon Network/Adult Swim outside of Toonami, soon to be an hour at that once The Cleveland Show leaves the network. The video games, particularly Xenoverse 2 and FighterZ, have sold millions of copies, with Xenoverse 2 selling over 500,000 copies on the Nintendo Switch, which is a year after the other versions were released. Heck, it’s one of the few franchises to actually get their video games dubbed.
One of the more beloved aspects of the fandom, however, isn’t even owned by Toriyama, Toei, or Funimation. That would be Team Four Star’s Dragon Ball Z Abridged. For those who don’t know, Abridged Series take an existing property (typically anime), cuts down a lot of the filler, injects a lot of comedy breaking the fourth wall or poking fun at series conventions, and truncates multiple episodes down to about 15-18 minutes. While gag dubs had existed long before, this specific version of the genre was created by Little Kuriboh over 10 years ago with his Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series (which is close to wrapping up Season 4), but Team Four Star’s Dragon Ball Z Abridged has elevated the genre to an artform, culminating in one special moment that took an iconic moment of the original show and made it greater.
Starting with late Season 2, Team Four Star started to wean off the random comedic moments and fourth wall breaks and devoted more of the script into character humor. More importantly, however, is that they also started to emphasize the drama of the original too. Freeza wasn’t just a joke character, he was legitimately terrifying and Little Kuriboh’s voice work as the space tyrant emphasized just how powerful Freeza actually is. When Freeza returned as a cyborg, the script doubled down on how scared the other characters were and their resignation that they were going to die. Trunks was played completely straight, worried about the terror of the Androids/Cyborgs and hammering in just how tortured his soul is. Cell was introduced like a horror movie villain and even with his flirting with Goku, it’s quite clear that he intends to massacre everyone and enjoys torturing the other characters.
That came to a head in Part 1 of Episode 60 of the series, which chronicles Gohan’s fight against Cell. Now, in the original show, one of the most iconic moments was when Gohan snapped and finally gained control over his Rage Boosts, becoming the ascended Super Saiyan 2. Even back in the day when the dub was stuck on the Ginyu Force fight and we had to make do with Real Player or Quicktime clips, one of the things fans wanted to see on television more than any other was Gohan going Super Saiyan 2. It is at the top of many fandom’s “Favorite Dragon Ball Moments” lists.
It’s easy to see why, too. Because most English-speaking audiences were introduced to the series by way of Z, instead of the original Dragon Ball, Gohan became the viewpoint character for the audience. Goku was the hero, but Gohan was the main character, mostly because Goku was always sidelined for one reason or another in order to preserve drama. People grew attached as the kid went from bookish student to hearty fighter, trying his best to fight against people significantly stronger than him. They enjoyed as he became braver as he became older, becoming a major part of the Z Fighters despite not fighting as much (Fun fact: After his rage attack against Form 3 Freeza, Gohan doesn’t fight another bad guy until Perfect Cell) or being as fight-crazy as Goku or Vegeta.
When Gohan stepped up against Cell, it was a momentous shift in the narrative. It was the first time in the entirety of the Dragon Ball franchise that a character other than Goku was allowed to fight the Big Bad. While Gohan was instrumental in defeating Vegeta a few arcs prior, it was Goku that provided most of the damage and Yajirobe and Krillin that provided the signature blows. Here, it was all Gohan. Seeing his friends tortured and about to be killed, urged on by what remains of Android 16, Gohan finally exploded and became what the fans wanted him to be: The Hero of the Story.
But enough describing the moment, how did Team Four Star make it better? First, let’s look at how the proper series handled it. Here’s a handy video of the original Japanese version, the original dub version, and the dubbed version of Dragon Ball Z Kai (which uses the same music as the Japanese version of Kai).
The original Japanese version played a song known as “Day of Destiny ~Spirit vs. Spirit~” when Gohan transformed. The original dub, which replaced all the music with new tracks created by Bruce Falconer, played an entirely new track, complete with a lot of extra lines by Gohan and the Narrator. Kai is faithful to the original in terms of dialog, but the music used was recycled from stock background music of the original instead of bringing back “Spirit vs. Spirit.” Oddly enough, the “English dub with Japanese music” track on the Orange Boxes also cut out this song, leaving only the sound effects. I’m not sure if that also happened on the Blu-rays or Dragon Boxes. Point is, most dub-only fans have never seen an English-speaking Gohan transform to the tune of “Spirit vs. Spirit”
That’s where Team Four Star comes in, with Episode 60 Part 1:
Now, before I start talking about what this parody series did right, I should reflect my view on the series as a whole. Many, many people, including other writers for Gizmodo sites like iO9 and Kotaku, have expressed that they prefer the Abridged version of the show more than the original, even Kai.
It is a sentiment that I do not share with those people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love DBZ Abridged. I like Team Four Star. I watch their gaming content and their Anime FMK show on their side channel Four Star Bento. But I view DBZ Abridged as a different interpretation of the same story with its own strengths and weaknesses in comparison to the original. Kinda like when a TV show or movie gets rebooted/remade.
However, my main problem with the series, and indeed my problem with a lot of Abridged series, is that the constant need for jokes undermines some of the drama present, particularly when things get serious. For example, when Krillin gets rammed by Form 2 Freeza, which is a terrifying moment in the original, it’s immediately downplayed because Team Four Star inserted the 1-Up sound effect from Super Mario Bros. and made a joke about it. There’s countless instances where a serious moment is undercut by a side character (usually Krillin or Goku) shouting a joke off camera, ruining the dramatic mood of the scene. I know that this is the nature of Abridged series and is also done to dodge copyright under the “parody” clause, but as someone who prefers a more natural flow between comedy and drama (such as in Stargate SG-1 or Atlantis), it’s often off-putting and one of the reasons I prefer the original over Abridged. Plus, a lot of the flanderizations of the characters (particularly Goku and Vegeta) can wear on me, though part of that is also the fanbase taking those flanderizations as canon and applying them to the original show.
And that’s why I consider Team Four Star’s version of Gohan’s transformation to be the definitive version of that scene. Instead of playing it for laughs, the scene is played straight. First off, the change in character motivations makes Android #16's speech hit harder. In the original, 16 talked to Gohan about how much he loves nature and that it’s OK to let go when evil threatens to destroy what you love. Unfortunately, it’s hampered a bit because Gohan has never been shown to hold back until now as well as the fact that both of them never even met until that day or interacted until that moment.
In Abridged, Gohan often feels exasperated about his father and considers Goku not being around as the ultimate crime. While he is empathetic to the other characters, Gohan often feels like he has it the hardest of the cast. He doesn’t say this outright, of course, but it’s easy to see due to how Team Four Star writes his lines, especially in Season 3. Therefore, 16's speech is about telling Gohan to mature and realize the world around him. He tells him that Dr. Gero recreated him as a killing machine for revenge (Just to note, Goku being responsible for Gero’s son’s death was Abridged-only, not canon to the main Dragon Ball canon) and that Trunks not only has to deal with all of his friends and family dead, but the constant abuse from Vegeta. Yamcha has to deal with being made fun of by the rest of the gang, Piccolo was created as the reincarnation of pure evil, and Krillin never, ever catches a lucky break. Gohan’s problems, in comparison, are overblown (especially since, when you look at it, Goku’s been there for 8.5-9 of Gohan’s 11 years) and that he needs to mature and move past it. It ties in Gohan’s character arc much cleaner than in the original’s and also strengthens the plot points brought up this season in regards to the Androids and Trunks. It allows everything to tie together as if it was planned all along.
But then the crowner comes when 16 is destroyed by Cell. Now, when Goku turned Super Saiyan for the first time, Team Four Star used the original Japanese music for that scene, but even then, it lacked the oomph necessary for such a game-changing moment. Here, what made the scene so powerful is the vocal song, “Spirit vs. Spirit.” So, instead of making their own song, they decided to make a cover version, with the added bonus of being able to sell it and make some money off of it via iTunes, Amazon, and the like.
It’s really the only song that truly fits with the scene, and the visuals reflect that. While most of the visuals are the same as the original, there are some minor rearrangements that makes the moment more impactful. The camera lingers on Cell for a few seconds longer in Abridged so that, when the chorus of the song starts, the camera cuts to the close up of Super Saiyan 2 Gohan in all his glory, before cutting once again to a stunned Cell and a lingering shot of Goku. In the original, Goku seemed in awe of Gohan’s power, but the way the scene is cut in Abridged, it makes it look like Goku is instead staring in horror about what he unleashed. Morever, the final scene has a bigger impact, too. Earlier in the episode, Cell voices his disgust that Gohan is so afraid of fighting that he begins to cry. Well, what’s that final shot? It’s Gohan, ready to fight, but with tears still going. At the end of the shot, they dry up. Cell’s wish has come true. Gohan’s stopped crying.
There are a few other minor reasons why the scene works so well here compared to the others. For one thing, the audio clarity is a lot better. Even if you prefer the original Japanese audio, listening to the original series in good quality is difficult since Toei forces Funimation to use Mono sound for the subbed version of the original series, diluting the audio clarity and giving the voices a muffled quality to them. Here, there is no such restriction, so Team Four Star composed a newer, fresher version of “Spirit vs. Spirit” complete with new English vocals sung by Paulo Cuevas. Second, even the original version had the narrator interrupt the scene with a few lines. While I do like how the original dub narrator tied in previous sagas to this moment, the scene has so much more impact with everyone in stunned silence, sending chills down one’s spine. Finally, the straight cut to black as the song ends, while some may say isn’t as good as the audio itself only being Gohan’s aura crackling, leaves a bigger impact with the viewer, emphasizing the “To be continued” portion of the story and makes the viewer even more excited for Part 2.
Now, I’m very excited for Parts 2 and 3 (with Part 2, as of this writing, premiering September 7th), especially since I have a feeling that Goku’s sacrifice is going to be especially poignant with him telling Gohan how proud he is of the kid, but that moment, where Gohan achieved his full potential, is the one that I will undoubtedly agree is pure perfection.
Update: Having watched Parts 2 and 3, I don’t think they were as strong as Part 1, but I still enjoyed them. The heartfelt moments when Goku sacrificed himself and that ended Part 3 were great. However, there were a few jokes I wasn’t a fan of. Didn’t like the Jimmy Firecracker diabetes joke in Part 2 nor Cell’s death montage in Part 3. Also, it’s kinda in character since Vegeta is a way bigger asshole in Abridged than in the show proper, but it does annoy me that they changed his V-Sign during Trunks’ goodbye to a middle finger, likewise Trunks’ response. It just felt like a change just for the sake of change and the loss of that cute moment is saddening.