Dragon Ball Super: Broly

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Blown away.10
10

Dragon Ball Super: Broly debuts under different circumstances and expectations than its preceding theatrical features Battle of Gods and Resurrection ‘F’. Battle of Gods came at a time when Dragon Ball had been dormant as a franchise for nearly two decades, and the novelty of a new theatrical Dragon Ball feature coming out after all that time made it feel special, like a reunion with old friends. Resurrection ‘F’ took advantage of the good vibes generated by Battle of Gods and was heavily promoted as an event film. Its massive success proved there was still an audience hungry for more Dragon Ball anime. It’s been three years since then, and a lot has changed. The Dragon Ball franchise is undergoing an exciting multimedia renaissance with a large swath of new and successful projects in the spheres of tabletop, gaming, manga, and at the center of it all – the Dragon Ball Super anime. Fans are no longer lacking for Dragon Ball content, and some may have even had their fill of it.

With this in mind, it feels like Broly has been designed to be as crowd-pleasing as possible, even more than its predecessors, to strengthen fans’ interest in the franchise. I mean that literally; Naohiro Shintani’s new character designs were heavily pushed in the film’s early marketing, long before the reveal of its titular villain. Tadayoshi Yamamuro’s previous character designs for the franchise have been stiff and over-detailed, using too many lines and blocky shapes to represent musculature, clothing, and hair. These designs were time-consuming and tedious to draw, making them harder to animate well, especially under the time-sensitive constraints of anime television and film production. In contrast, Shintani’s designs immediately stuck out for their simplicity. His smooth, round shapes and sparse but carefully placed lines show a refined understanding of anatomy and how the human body moves, knowing how to represent a lot with little. This simplicity also helps individual animators more easily incorporate their own flourishes, playing around with form and construction in ways that allow for more expressive character animation and smoother action choreography. Unlike Yamamuro’s stiff action figure-esque character models, Shintani’s designs are malleable and flexible, allowing his team of animators to make the most out of their skills and deliver their best work.

As a result, Broly is a spectacle that takes the franchise to a whole new level of visual prowess; Dragon Ball’s art and animation have never looked this good. Kazuma Kurosawa, Masato Mitsuka, and Tatsuya Nagamine’s storyboards are brilliantly staged and incredibly atmospheric, ringing out the most emotion of every scene and making every moment pop with impact. The combination of excellent boards and exploitative character designs give the animators a lot to work with. Even dialogue driven-scenes are imbued with energy thanks to bouncy character acting, where even limited movement is made more alive with a careful balance of subtle nuances and over-the-top expressions. The centerpiece of the film is the fight with Broly itself, a fifty-minute thrill ride that flies by faster than its runtime. Despite its length, the fight keeps itself interesting by constantly moving in unique ways, with characters flying across the screen with insane speed and delivering blows with painful impact. The exaggeration of characters’ bodies and rough inkiness of the lines characterize the raw energy each combatant brings to the fight, while never devolving into movement for its own sake. The film was marketed with the tagline “the story of the Saiyan warrior race is told through combat,” and sure enough, the personalities of all three Saiyans are communicated uniquely by how they move and fight. For instance, Broly’s wild, indiscriminate brawling is contrasted with the aggressive but deliberate precision of Vegeta’s techniques and Goku’s relaxed, playful martial arts. How the characters fight changes as the battle progresses and they’re forced to adapt to new situations, with Broly’s technique becoming more focused and Goku becoming more desperate, among other characteristics. The fight in this film isn’t just action for action’s sake; it’s telling the story, embodying the interiority of the characters and reflecting their emotional development.

Perhaps the most incredible trick pulled off by the film’s animation is its ability to make transformations feel fresh again. The likes of Super Saiyan and Super Saiyan Blue have become bog-standard over the years due to overuse and repetition making them feel less special. In Broly, every transformation is built-up with loving fanfare and presented with bombastic aplomb. The long, meticulous rotations around characters as their aura swells around them makes their increase in power feel like an event. Color is played with to marvelous effect, like Vegeta briefly turning green before exploding into a golden yellow or Goku’s hair and pupils turning white a la Ultra Instinct before his aura rescinds into his body and bursts out into a brilliant blue. The manipulation of color to communicate the dramatic weight of the power increase imbues gravitas and an aura of mysticism to the transformations, evoking the best qualities of Dragon Ball’s most iconic transformation sequences. This is further emphasized by the exaggeration and distortion of characters’ bodies during their transformations, especially their eyes. Drawing upon a defining quirk of the original Super Saiyan transformation, eyes are especially emphasized and exaggerated in this film to communicate the intensity of characters’ emotions and pain. This is especially true of Broly, whose pupils are the first signals of the changes in his character, stretched into ovals and glowing yellow when he’s channeling the power of a Great Ape, and literally breaking apart and exploding when he erupts into his iconic Legendary Super Saiyan form. The weight placed on transformations in this film makes every moment in the fight feel like a game-changing event, adding to the momentum of the scene and the escalating emotions of the characters, communicating a satisfying sense of progression.

This emotional context isn’t just reflected in the traditional character animation but in all aspects of the artistry. CG models and backgrounds are used to great effect, seamlessly integrated with cel-shading that looks so close to the traditionally animated sections that they’re almost indistinguishable. The film’s CG imagery allows for some creative camera effects and incredibly stunning visuals, especially during a portion of the fight that takes place in a glass-like world between time and space reminiscent of Hit’s time dimension from the series. Beyond the animation, the layouts themselves are beautifully constructed and enhanced with gorgeous color design. The transformation of the daylight-lit icy tundra into the fiery rocky hellscape it becomes, the length of the battle highlighted by the gradual transition from day to night and dawn, provides an impactful sense of progression and time that’s often sorely lacking in modern Dragon Ball fights. The exhaustion of the fight and satisfaction of the victory is heightened by the sense of struggle communicated by the battle-torn landscape and a concrete sense of time. While the battle with Broly is the peak of the film’s artistry, the entire film is full of efficient and emotionally-evocative visual storytelling, from the ominous pink and purple hues that signal Freeza’s arrival on Planet Vegeta to the hazardous yellows and browns that characterize Planet Vampa’s hostile environment, among other brilliant scenes.

All this beautiful imagery is complimented by an incredible score by Norihito Sumitomo, which communicates an ambiance and ominousness to scenes that makes this film feel cinematically dramatic in a way no other Dragon Ball film has before. At the same time his score also captures the exhilaration of watching the series, channeling the enthusiasm of fans through songs chanting characters’ names to underscore when the tide of battle is turning in their favor in the hype-est way possible. This combination of elements presents the fight like a sporting event akin to boxing or professional wrestling, in which the crowd is privy to both the baby-face and heel’s stories, and are rooting for both and delighted by the blow-by-blow all the way through. Suffice to say, the film is remarkably creative and flawlessly executed at every level of its production. No other Dragon Ball film, with the exception of 1996’s The Path to Power, is as consistently and effectively precise in its filmmaking from start to finish. Nagamine’s direction and Shintani’s animation supervision have given this film an aesthetic makeover that the franchise has long needed to truly embrace the modern era, and represents a bolder animator-driven future for the franchise.

The film’s artistic innovations are inarguable, but the recycling of past characters and stories leaves room for concern. While shedding Yamamuro’s designs for Shintani’s was a step forward, the decision to bring back DBZ’s fan-favorite movie villain Broly among other familiar elements certainly feels like playing it safe. Not content to settle for his gender-swapped alternate universe counterpart Kale, Akira Toriyama seems to have been encouraged by the franchise’s handlers to retool the legendary Super Saiyan himself and bring him into the main story. It’s easy to look at the content of this movie with a cynical eye, scrutinizing how the narrative so conveniently incorporates popular characters and story elements from the franchise. In many ways, Broly represents a creative crossroads for the series; it wants to change the face of Dragon Ball while cautiously reusing familiar stories and characters.

Fortunately, Akira Toriyama retools these disparate elements in a way that breathes life into these old ideas. His interpretation of Broly only resembles previous incarnations of the character in appearance. Gone is the violence-hungry muscle-bound brute motivated to kill because Goku cried too much as a kid, and in his place is a gentle child traumatized by an abusive father whose cruel disciplinarianism has emotionally stunted him.  For all intents and purposes, this Broly is a new character and the film’s true protagonist. As opposed to reveling in Broly’s intimidating physical appearance and battle prowess, our heroes empathize with Broly, recognizing that he isn’t fighting because he wants to, but because that’s all he knows. Broly has been groomed as a tool for revenge and forced to fight since he was a child, but like many child abuse victims, has been manipulated into a codependent relationship, believing that his father loves and needs him and that he must obey his whims to receive his validation. It becomes clear that he isn’t violent by nature, but forces himself to fight in order to avoid being punished and rejected, suppressing his consciousness to escape the pain he’s going through and venting his frustrations through his fists. He doesn’t fight to inflict pain on others, but to escape from his own. This makes him a very different opponent than any Goku and Vegeta have faced before.

Previous Dragon Ball stories have culminated in fights that either set out to prove who the stronger person is, stop a bad guy from doing a bad thing, or save the world. Never has there been a fight in Dragon Ball that’s been so emotionally invested in saving the life of a single person, much less the very person our heroes are fighting. Broly might be stronger, but he’s also more vulnerable and in desperate need of help, making the goal of the fight less about his defeat but about his rescue and rehabilitation. Dragon Ball’s told redemption stories before, but never with as much compassion and empathy as it shows towards Broly and his heartbreaking history. I don’t think there’s ever been a fight in Dragon Ball in which I’ve been so invested in the safety of Goku’s opponent, and the fact that Toriyama could reinvent a previously one-note meme like Broly into one of the most compelling and human characters in the franchise is perhaps even more spectacular than the film’s visual spectacles.

Besides Broly, the film also adapts the Dragon Ball Minus prequel chapter in its first half-hour, superseding Bardock: The Father of Goku in series canon. While Bardock’s story isn’t directly relevant to Broly’s, this material helps contrast Goku and Broly’s upbringings, the influence of their parents, and the nature vs. nurture theme of the film. Goku’s kind-hearted nature reflects Bardock’s redemptive act of sacrifice; both father and son make an effort to save someone’s life at the risk of their own. Even though Goku doesn’t remember his father, the desire to help others is an integral part of Goku’s character and who he is as a person. While Bardock dies in vain defending his planet, his one selfless act saves his son, allowing him to not only become the legendary Super Saiyan that would avenge the Saiyans, but become the savior of the entire universe.

Bardock’s self-sacrificing nature stands in sharp contrast to Paragus’s abusiveness. He sees his son not as a living person, but as a tool for his own political prestige and revenge. Whereas Bardock risks his life to save his son, Paragus is willing to sacrifice his son to preserve his own. Both Bardock and Paragus thought of Saiyans as a warrior race, selfish and power-hungry, strength being all that mattered in their society. Goku was born with a weak power level and considered worthless by the standards of Saiyan society, whereas Broly was seen as freakishly powerful and an uncontrollable monster. In spite of this, both Saiyans grew up to be incredibly strong and kind-hearted; only their personal happiness and the reasons for which they fight differ. By contrasting Bardock and Paragus, the film posits that people’s personalities aren’t predestined, but one’s environment and parental influences can have a major role in their emotional development. It’s not a perfect thesis, since the most important parental influence in Goku’s life isn’t Bardock but the likes of Grandpa Gohan and Master Roshi, but the thematic parallels drawn between both characters enhance the emotional stakes of the film’s story, and tying it into the series lore gives the proceedings an added oomph of dramatic weight.

That being said, the Minus material still comes with its drawbacks. Rewriting Bardock from being an unrepentant cold-hearted killer and turning him into a selfless man who unquestionably loves his kid works in context with the film but robs the character of his original appeal. More unfortunate is how the story changes the circumstances of Goku’s arrival on earth. Instead of being sent there by the Saiyans to conquer the planet because he’s weak, he’s sent there by his parents to protect him because they love him. The irony of Goku becoming the hero of the planet he was sent to destroy, and of him being a low-class warrior that through effort became stronger than most Saiyan elites and the first Super Saiyan, is a defining part of his character arc in the original manga. Goku was not born powerful or predestined for greatness, he made his own destiny, in defiance of what others thought of him. Dragon Ball Minus is aptly named, because changing Goku’s origins in this way subtracts a lot of what made it so special originally.

However, some content from Minus is improved when contrasted with other material presented in the film, mostly due to the Saiyans being retconned as more sociable and considerate of their fellows than was depicted in previous material. Both Paragus and Vegeta are proud of their progenies, showing that Bardock isn’t the only Saiyan with parental affections. Paragus’ short-lived companion Beets is sympathetic to his plight and helps aid in his rescue of Broly, showing that other Saiyans can be selfless. More importantly, Broly’s childlike innocence is similar to Goku’s, showing that he’s not the only Saiyan that’s kind-hearted. While these retcons to the Saiyans’ bloodthirsty and selfish nature are disappointing in their own way, they do help Goku’s revised origins feel less out of place.

Moreover, the changes made to Bardock’s character actually make him less of an outlier among his fellow Saiyans. He’s no longer particularly strong, he doesn’t easily plow his way through hundreds of men like in the original special, nor does he confront Freeza in this interpretation. The only thing that sets Bardock apart from other Saiyans is that he guessed what Freeza was doing and decided to save his son. While this might disappoint fans of Bardock’s previous characterization, the fact that his father wasn’t special among the Saiyans actually helps Goku’s character arc; he isn’t special because of who his father was or why he was spared, but because of the choices he made and who he grew up to be. While Goku is the only Saiyan that is intentionally spared from Planet Vegeta’s destruction, he is still sent to Earth because its inhabitants were weak and underdeveloped, and he’s still perceived as a low-class weakling and insignificant by Vegeta, Raditz, and the surviving Saiyans, making his story still one of defying the expectations of his birth. It’s not as satisfying as the original context for Goku being sent to earth, but there are enough nuances to Goku’s backstory in this film that preserve the integrity of his character arc in the grand scheme of the series.

Regardless of how you feel about Goku’s backstory, his characterization is at its finest in this movie. Many modern Dragon Ball stories have written Goku as so stubbornly battle-hungry that he’ll put innocent lives in danger without remorse, a betrayal of his heroic characterization in the manga. In Broly, Goku’s kind-hearted nature shines as he non-violently stops Broly and tries to talk him down from fighting, consoling him that he doesn’t have to. Later, Goku extends a helping hand to Broly, and while he jokes about wanting to fight him again it’s made clear that he wanted to check in on his health and deliver helpful supplies first and foremost. Goku’s characterization in this movie is the truest to his original manga characterization since Battle of Gods; someone who enjoys a good battle, but is still considerate of the well-being of others, fighting to protect his home and stand up for the innocent.

The film also depicts Goku’s growth as a character in satisfying ways. Whereas he used to vehemently deny his Saiyan heritage and consider himself only as an Earthling, Goku permits Broly to call him “Kakkarot.” While Vegeta has always strictly called Goku by his Saiyan name, Goku has always refused to call himself by it, insisting that Goku was his only name. Seeing Goku not only address himself as “Kakkarot,” but tell someone else to call him by it, shows that he has truly taken ownership of his Saiyan origins. This moment helps validate the inclusion of his backstory in the film, as it underscores what Bardock and Gine wanted for Goku; to live a happy life on another planet, but never forget where he came from. While Goku will probably never remember or meet his parents, the fact he’s embraced his Saiyan heritage as a part of his identity means he acknowledges that they had an integral part in shaping the person who he’s become.

Goku’s development doesn’t end there; while he’s embraced his Saiyan identity, he’s also grown out of some of the negative influences it’s had on his personality in recent stories. A recurring theme in Resurrection ‘F’ and Dragon Ball Super was that Goku and Vegeta would be much stronger fighters if they worked together, and that refusing to team up is hindering their growth and costing them winnable battles. The Tournament of Power helped both Goku and Vegeta realize they have to embrace teamwork in order to take on stronger foes, demonstrated best in the film when Vegeta intervenes in Goku’s battle with Broly. Vegeta has stubbornly refused to fight side by side by Goku for a long time, but in this film, he readily acknowledges when teamwork is needed to win the day and jumps in without complaint. Resurrection ‘F’ ended with Goku and Vegeta scoffing at the idea of fighting together, agreeing they’ll never do it, so it’s satisfying to see how much they’ve matured since then. Goku and Vegeta have realized that there’s more at stake in a battle than their egos, and demonstrate that they’ll no longer hesitate to work together when their home and loved ones are on the line. While the bulk of the character development in Broly belongs to its titular character, it’s refreshing to see Goku and Vegeta’s character growth from the series presented in small but meaningful ways.

That said, among all the film’s characters, Freeza is easily its highlight. Narratively, he’s the film’s most important character; the antagonist of both the past and present-day sections, he’s the common link between all three Saiyans’ pasts and responsible for the lives they lived as a consequence of his evils. He walks the line between menacing and hilarious, able to flip between both extremes within the space of a single scene. Though far outclassed by his Super Saiyan foes, Freeza’s threat is never diminished by Broly as it was in Resurrection ‘F’. While his motives are petty, what’s at risk with the universe at his mercy is abundantly clear, and his fearsome tyranny is sold by the fear he stokes in his subordinates and our protagonists’ consternation of his treacherous nature. Freeza’s role in the franchise has shifted from being its Darkseid to its Lex Luthor; he’s no longer an untouchable demagogue so powerful he simply couldn’t be bothered to fight our heroes, but instead a nemesis forced to use his wits instead of might to take down his impossibly stronger adversary, remaining dangerous because of his persistence and willingness to exploit any possible opportunity to destroy his hated enemies. There are definitely ethical questions to be raised regarding why Goku and Vegeta don’t simply kill Freeza, considering they know full well of the threat he poses to the universe, and scenes showing his armada conquering alien worlds don’t help their case. That said, it’s clear that Freeza’s role in the series is far from finished, and this moral quandary is something that can be explored in future stories. Broly depicts Freeza adjusting to his new role flawlessly and perfectly justifies his resurrection and continued prominence in the franchise.

In addition to being a fantastic antagonist, Freeza brings with him a newly reformed Freeza Force, introducing several compelling new characters into the franchise. Cheelai and Lemo are quickly endearing as authority-defying ne’er-do-wells with hearts of gold, standing up for Broly after witnessing him being abused, and risking their lives to save his. They become a surrogate family to him, helping him talk through his emotional issues in a way he can’t with his father. They’re resourceful, witty, and have several charming quirks that make them fun additions to the cast, like Cheelai’s “ok” hand gestures and Lemo’s pragmatic approach to dangerous situations. Besides them, we’re also introduced to Freeza’s new right-hand henchmen Kikono and Berryblue. Despite both apparently being longtime attendants to the tyrant, the contrast in how they talk to him is intriguing. While Kikono is a nervous toady quick to praise and please his boss, Berryblue isn’t afraid to tease and belittle him. Freeza has killed his minions for even the most trivial of slights, so for him to tolerate Berryblue’s mockery is intriguing, implying her position among his forces is irreplaceable. While these new characters don’t dominate the film, they’re memorable and stand out in every scene they appear. It’s unusual for Dragon Ball to introduce and focus on so many non-combatant characters, and the film’s ability to utilize these new characters usefully to progress its story is commendable, opening up the possibility of other non-combatants having similarly meaningful roles in future stories. Moreover, these characters left so strong an impression that I want to see more of them, which is a promising takeaway for a series that is far from over. 

That’s perhaps Dragon Ball Super: Broly’s greatest strength; for as exhaustingly thrilling as it is, it opens up so many new doors for the franchise that you can’t help but want to see more. I’ve enjoyed the previous two theatrical features, but left both feeling content with their stories and not really thinking about the possibilities beyond. In contrast, Broly is satisfyingly inconclusive, presenting itself as the start of a much bigger story waiting to be told. So many details about the series’ lore are still left open for exploration, including Bardock’s path to redemption, how King Cold originally enslaved the Saiyans, and Beerus’ role in sanctioning Planet Vegeta’s destruction among many other unanswered questions. At the same time, the film presents many new story opportunities for Goku, Broly, and their companions in the future as they continue to grow stronger and await another confrontation with Freeza. Broly proves that Dragon Ball is far from done. Much like Goku, it’s continually seeking ways to better itself, reaching for new artistic heights while always aspiring for a level further beyond. Like a blizzard, it’ll blow you away.

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