Ah, the good old days. Muscular men and bizarre lizard monsters facing off against each other for no good reason, posturing, powering up and trading punches, until a hundred episodes later (if you were lucky), the fight might just have ended. It was brainless, it was fairly ugly, and it was to inspire a near endless stream of copycats, but for many fans, Dragonball Z was to become the secret shame that they would carry with them as their introduction to the anime world.
It is at this point, of course, that I have to admit that I too spent a portion of my early anime days watching Dragonball Z (and later GT and the original). As I stared at men and monsters endlessly trading blows against backgrounds not unlike those coloured with those hideous shades made from mixing all the spare paints together, I knew there was a callous futility to those tediously protracted battles, but even so, I had to keep watching. It was the soap opera of anime- awful and never-ending, but nonetheless possessed of an odd power to make you keep watching. After all, even if nothing had happened in this episode or the ones before it, you just never knew what might occur in the “next exciting episode of Dragonball Z”. Would Goku finally defeat his opponent? Perhaps a secondary character might attempt to fight and inevitably lose? Was it time for yet another transformation? The only way to find out was to keep on watching.
The Rules of Engagement, aka making sure a fight lasts at least one hundred episodes
Although most people aren’t even aware of it, there are actually quite a few villains seeking to fly around causing random violence and destruction. Although some claim it is for the sake of lofty goals like immortality, or simply because they were programmed to fight, most of us know the true reason behind their actions- they are driven to such extremes of aggression after realising just how ugly they are compared to everyone else.
Fortunately, the one thing you can count on with such villains is that they like to take things at a measured pace, making sure to proceed slowly and perhaps just rough up a few generics before they make a serious attempt on the lives of the named characters. This enables our heroes to get in sufficient training, for as everyone knows, training arcs are the key to success. In a mere three days, the average hero can learn the techniques that took his superiors upwards of ten years to master. Illogical? Not at all- this is the power of Destiny. With Destiny on his side, the hero can attain power levels and transformations above and beyond the ‘ultimate power’ he harnessed in the last arc, defying even continuity itself in his quest to become the strongest man in the galaxy.
Sadly, for the characters not so blessed with Destiny, lesser power levels are all they can aspire to. Whether they are allies, anti-heroes, or rivals turned friends, no supporting character can ever reach the heights achieved by Goku himself. They may have unique attacks of their own that they spent months perfecting, but it is to no avail- they can only ever be the warm up acts before the main battle begins.
Such warm-ups are of course important in stretching the episode count, however, and it is only in due time that the hero himself can step into the ring. By this point, the villain has been allowed to power up to his ultimate form- a move which may seem unwise when the fate of a planet is at stake, but since he is willing to stand and wait whilst the heroes transform, it is only fair.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the main fight can finally proceed, although it would be unwise to rush things at this point. There may well be more transformations (and in some cases fusions) to come on both sides, numerous plot establishing flashbacks and frequent check-ins on the exploits of the supporting characters. Some of them may have been killed, of course, but this is nothing to fear in the DBZ universe, where the afterlife is just another location in the universe (it should be noted at this point that in the edited dub, HELL becomes HFIL- Home For Infinite Losers), and where the seven dragonballs can be used to wish anyone back to life.
Finally, many episodes later, when only a morbid desire to see how it all pans out has kept you going, the end finally appears on the horizon. Goku will invariably start assembling his Genki Dama/Spirit Bomb attack, a ball of energy which requires several episodes to create with our hero standing motionless all the while. Luckily, whatever allies remain do their utmost to distract the villain during these vital hours, and finally the attack can be launched and the latest threat to the universe vaporised. Even the normal laws of physics do not seem to apply in these fraught times; for example, during a fight between Goku and the lizard-like Frieza, the planet they were on was set to explode with five minutes- a period of time which somehow translated to around ten episodes.
Like that aging aunt who sits in the corner and tries to tempt children with cheap sweets, Dragonball Z is an unavoidable part of the anime world. Whether you continue to embrace it, or look back on it with a mix of nostalgia and embarrassment, for better or worse, it exists, and it did set many an anime fan on the road to discovering better things.