Dragonball is perhaps one of the most iconic franchises not only in anime history but in pop culture as a whole.
Ever since the series first enraptured young readers of Shonen Jump, back in 1984, the series has gone from strength to strength, reaching well outside of the shores of Japan, to become a global juggernaut.
Many modern-day Dragonball fans in the west had their first exposure to the series thanks to the sequel series Dragonball Z which follows protagonist Goku as he becomes an adult and faces more dangerous, and even intergalactic, threats.
Dragonball still continues to this day, through its second sequel series Dragonball Super, so it is a testament to its quality that it has been able to live on as well as it has.
However, if you are a new fan, or someone looking to get into the Dragonball franchise for the first time, you may find yourself quite overwhelmed by the number of sequels, remakes, and spin-offs the series has spawned.
Where are you supposed to start with Dragonball Z, and most importantly, which version of it are you meant to watch? Dragonball Z or Dragonball Kai?
Prepare to have this question answered once and for all, as we explore the difference between the two shows.
A Brief Introduction, What Is Dragonball Z?
In its record-breaking tenure in the pages of Shonen Jump magazine, Dragonball has seen a fair number of changing character arcs and storylines. As part of this, occasionally, the series skips forward in time and ages its central cast up.
This is where Dragonball Z comes in. Dragonball Z starts by introducing an older and wiser version of protagonist Son Goku, who has aged five years since readers last caught up with him.
This part of the Dragonball story onward is what the western world received as Dragonball Z, which explores Goku dealing with several truths about his heritage, and raising a family, all while trying to stop the Earth from exploding at the hands of super-powered villains!
This version of the series quickly became iconic in the west, as it already had done in Japan, causing it to sky-rocket throughout the World.
This version of the series also ran concurrently with the manga of the same name, which was still being published weekly in the pages of Shonen Jump.
Unfortunately, because manga is often slower-paced than anime, this leads to a problem that plagues numerous anime series every generation. When an anime series catches up to its source material, it soon finds that it has no more new material to adapt.
When this happens, studios have two choices. First, they can choose to put the anime series on hold, until the story advances in the manga, or, secondly, they can choose to insert filler content, which is newly created material made specifically for the anime.
The second option is the route that Dragonball Z took in its adaptation of the material, so for every few episodes of canonical content, there were a few filler episodes to account for them.
Unfortunately, Dragonball Z has gained quite a notorious reputation online for its occasional pacing issues. Animation studio Toei Animation, to avoid having to create too much filler content, opted to drag moments of the show out to fill time.
This has led to infamous instances such as a character stating that a certain event will take place in five minutes within the story, only for this event to then take five episodes for it to happen!
This slow pacing can be quite a deal-breaker for many fans and has made this version of the anime more difficult to recommend over the original manga.
What Is Dragonball Kai?
To put it very simply, Dragonball Kai is a shortened version of Dragonball Z that seeks to eliminate unnecessary padding and filler. Dragonball Kai first aired on Fuji TV in April 2009, all the way until March of 2011.
The series cut down the length of the original Dragonball Z, which stood at around 291 episodes, to a clean and simple 167 episodes, effectively half of its original length!
Dragonball Kai doesn’t just cut down on existing content, however, as it does have a few new shiny bells and whistles, such as its newly animated opening and closing credits sequences which give the series a whole new lease of life.
As well as shortening the series for the sake of storytelling efficiency, Dragonball Kai also sought to update the original work to better suit HD televisions and blu ray players.
This upscaling looks fantastic and allows colors to pop, and characters to become even sharper than before. As well as adapting Dragonball Z to suit modern technology and video quality, Dragonball Kai also updates the series to fit with our modern sensibilities.
Infamous side-character Mr. Popo, who has previously been depicted as a jet black character with red lips, is now presented as a bright blue character with yellow lips. This is to avoid any potential harmful racial stereotypes.
Originally, Dragonball Kai only reached up to a certain point in the series, before it was unceremoniously canceled for unknown reasons. Luckily, the series would then be picked up again to adapt the rest of the material all the way up until its original intended ending.
Which Version Of The Series Should I Watch?
The answer to this question will largely depend on your personal preferences and tastes. If you want to experience Dragonball Z at its highest quality, and at its most efficient pace, then Dragonball Kai is almost certainly the way to go.
This version of the series makes it easier to experience one of the most beloved stories of all time, without committing large chunks of your time to it.
However, if you want to get a full Dragonball Z experience, then Dragonball Kai does have a few serious drawbacks.
If you are a purist, and you want to experience the series as it was originally intended, then you would definitely want to stick with Dragonball Z as its pacing flaws and filler episodes would be considered to be part of the experience of enjoying the show.
As well as this, by watching Dragonball Kai, and skipping out on filler content, then you may risk missing out on some well-beloved fan-favorite episodes!
One very popular filler episode follows protagonist Goku and side character Piccolo attending a driving school, to earn their driver’s licenses.
This is definitely a more lighthearted episode, considering how dark Dragonball Z can get, but unlike some filler, this episode is high quality, and full of unique laughs and moments. Who wouldn’t want to see the stoic Piccolo wearing a bright blue cap and a shirt that says ‘Postboy’?
If you want the purest experience, stick with Dragonball Z, if this is not a concern for you, and you just want to experience the absolute best of the story, then go for Dragonball Kai, which presents the series in a crisp and undiluted form.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Did They Call It Dragon Ball Z Kai?
The series earned this name because of the meaning that the word ‘Kai’ holds. ‘Kai’ refers to something being altered or updated in some way, which this version of the series is!
Can I Skip The First Dragon Ball?
The original Dragonball, which explores the origin of its cast of characters can be skipped if you so wish. Dragonball Z is easy to pick up from the beginning, with only minor information needed from the prior series.
If you want to experience the series in chronological order, then you might want to consider watching the original Dragonball.