Monday, August 4, 2014

Great Balls of Ire: DRAGON BALL Z: BATTLE OF GODS


Seeing Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods having never seen Dragon Ball before is like tuning in to a big game for a sport you don’t follow. I should know. That’s what happened to me. This new animated feature film is only the latest extension of the long-running manga and anime series set in a universe of extraterrestrial warriors known as the Saiyans who do battle with fighting creatures of magical destructive properties. The manga Dragon Ball was first released in Japan in 1985, spawning TV series, video games, and feature films in the years since. And I’ve not seen a single one. It was popular enough when I was growing up. By catching a minute here or there on Cartoon Network while I waited for the shows I actually watched, I have a vague familiarity with what the series looked and sounded like.

From that point of view, Battle of the Gods, the first movie in the series to get a theatrical release in 17 years, is indecipherable in the details, making it a fans-only proposition. But the plot is so simple that I could at least understand the broad strokes of the story by Yûsuke Watanabe and original manga author Akira Toriyama. A flying purple cat rabbit person thing named Lord Beerus wakes up after a 39-year-slumber and determines he’s had a vision that he’ll do battle with a Super Saiyan God. Off he flies to Earth where he’ll determine who this God is and beat him up. Once he arrives, he discovers a bunch of Dragon Ball characters having a birthday party. On his way there, he knocked their friend Goku unconscious with only three blows! (And he was on power level Super Saiyan Three! Whatever that means.) Lots of fretting about Beerus happens because he’s a legendary God of Destruction. It’s best not to provoke him, I suppose.

The bulk of the movie involves the gathered Saiyans trying not to insult Lord Beerus so he doesn’t freak out and destroy the planet. It’s a long hangout with characters I don’t know, but I’m sure fans will be happy to see them all again. They play bingo, eat pudding, make fun of each other, make pronouncements, and tiptoe around their powerfully destructive party-crasher’s delicate feelings. Beerus’ assistant – a thin guy carrying a staff and wearing a glowing neon hoop around his neck – takes advantage of the sushi bar. A bunch of scheming homunculi cause trouble. Eventually, though, Beerus flips out and does battle with the heroes for about twenty minutes in hectic, lovingly stylized anime outbursts that run through all the screaming and posing and whirling colors you’d expect.

Director Masahiro Hosoda makes sure it’s all very loud and overworked, characters hollering in even non-action scenes, goofy sound effects pushing the lightly cartoony tone that clashes with the end-of-the-world stakes that never quite feel serious. It’s a small movie for something so apparently epic. Magic swirls, worlds are threatened, a birthday party is ruined. There are some winks, characters making commentary about their own situations. I particularly liked Lord Beerus discussing the length of his trip – “It was about the length of an average anime episode.”

Because it doesn’t take itself too seriously despite being clearly devoted to fan service, I didn’t mind so much that it was largely incomprehensible to a newbie. I liked seeing hand-drawn animation, an unfortunately dying art on the theatrical screen. That was enough to make it not entirely a lost cause for me. But with its thin plot and tangle of character interactions, it plays exactly like an overlong episode of a show I don’t watch. That is what it is. The look of it is appealing, with a variety of creatures and humans drawn in exaggerated anime style – big eyes, broad expressions – racing about getting into petty conflicts that threaten to tick off Beerus before the climactic explosion of combat.

I imagine fans will be pleased. The press notes tell me it’s “one of the most successful anime brands of all time.” I must say the movie makes me a tad curious to explore it further, if only to see what kind of series full of magic, monsters, and mayhem returns to theaters with a story that wakes a God of Destruction for the purpose of having him stand uninvited around a birthday party making the guests vaguely uneasy.

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