Dragon Ball is without a doubt one of the most popular manga and anime series in history. The story of Son Goku’s journeys and adventures in the fantasy world created by Akira Toriyama has attracted a global following that still enjoys those stories, both old and new. The original Dragon Ball Z anime ran from 1989 to 1996, with a remastered version, Dragon Ball Kai, running from 2009 to 2011, and again from 2014 and 2015. Today, we are going to bring you a list of the main differences between these two versions.
Differences Between Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai:
- New soundtrack
- New openings and endings
- Voice actors
- Visual differences
- Aspect ratio
- Global presence
- Two-part series
- Original dialogues
- No fillers
Dragon Ball (Japanese: ドラゴンボール, Hepburn: Doragon Bōru) is a Japanese media franchise created by Akira Toriyama back in 1984. The initial manga, written and illustrated by Toriyama, was serialized from 1984 to 1995. Dragon Ball’s initial inspiration was the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, as well as modern Hong Kong martial arts films.
The series follows the adventures of the protagonist, Son Goku, from his childhood through adulthood as he trains in martial arts. He initially spends his childhood far from any civilization until he meets a teen girl named Bulma, who encourages him to join her quest in exploring the world in search of the seven orbs known as the Dragon Balls, which summon the wish-granting dragon, Shenlong, when gathered.
Along his journey, Goku makes several other friends, such as Krilin, Master Roshi, Oolong and others, becomes a family man, discovers his alien heritage, and battles a wide variety of villains, many of whom also seek the Dragon Balls.
The manga was adapted into two anime series – Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, which together were broadcast in Japan from 1986 to 1996. Additionally, the franchise spanned 20 animated feature films and three television specials, as well as two anime sequel series titled Dragon Ball GT (1996–1997) and Dragon Ball Super (2015–2018).
A short introduction
Dragon Ball Z, unlike its predecessor Dragon Ball, is solely an anime that originally ran from 1989 to 1996. It wasn’t based on a separate manga, but rather on the latter 325 chapters of the original 519-chapter Dragon Ball manga written by Akira Toriyama. Z follows Son Goku as an adult and his adventures and fights to save the world from a variety of different threats. The new foes Goku and his friends have faced include aliens (Frieza), androids (Cell) and magical creatures (Majin Buu). Although Z focused on Goku’s adult life, there are parallels between his childhood story explored in Dragon Ball and the story of his son, Gohan, in Dragon Ball Z.
Dragon Ball Z was immensely popular, probably even more than the original Dragon Ball anime and it is still hailed as one of the best shōnen series ever. Due to its immense popularity, Toei Animation relaunched the series in 2009, on its 20th anniversary. But, DBZ wasn’t just re-aired, it was fully remastered and renamed Dragon Ball Kai, with the remastered series also being different from the original series in several aspects, all of which we are going to list and explain for you in the following paragraphs.
The differences between Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai
Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai are basically the same anime. They follow the same characters and the same narratives, with Kai being a remastered version of the original DBZ anime. Still, there are quite a few differences between them and we are going to list them for you:
1. New soundtrack
The original Dragon Ball Z anime had a very distinct soundtrack that became very popular among the fans, both the original Japanese version and the version made for Western markets. The original Japanese music for Dragon Ball Z was composed by Shunsuke Kikuchi and the orchestral sound created by Kikuchi and his collaborators has become one of the best-known elements of the original Japanese version of Dragon Ball Z. When the show was sold to the United States, the dubbed version had a metal-inspired soundtrack composed by Bruce Faulconer. Although it was different from the original, it also became a memorable part of the show’s airing in the West.
When Dragon Ball Kai started airing, Toei Animation decided to use a completely new soundtrack instead of remastering the old one. Kenji Yamamoto composed the majority of the soundtrack while collaborating with other musicians such as the members of the band Dragon Soul. The soundtrack was also lauded by critics and compared to a motion picture soundtrack, being much more epic and a lot more serious than the original soundtrack composed by Kikuchi. Toei had to change the soundtrack once more due to Yamamoto’s music infringing on the rights of unknown third parties, thus the music for The Final Chapters was changed and a score composed by Norihito Sumitomo was used.
2. New openings and endings
Toei Animation also decided to change the original opening (OP) and ending (ED) songs and use completely new songs for the Kai version.
The original Dragon Ball Z anime had a total of two openings and two ending songs. For the first 199 episodes, the opening song was “Cha-La Head-Cha-La” performed by Hironobu Kageyama. The second opening theme, used up until the series finale at episode 291, was “We Gotta Power” also performed by Kageyama. The first ending, used for the first 199 episodes, was the song “Detekoi Tobikiri Zenkai Power!” (でてこいとびきりZENKAIパワー!, “Come Out, Incredible Full Power!”) performed by MANNA. The second ending theme used for the remaining episodes was “Bokutachi wa Tenshi Datta” (僕達は天使だった, “We Were Angels”) performed by Kageyama.
Unlike DBZ, Kai had a total of two different openings and four different endings used throughout the series, with both runs using one OP and two EDs each. Takayoshi Tanimoro performed the first OP and ED, “Dragon Soul” and “Yeah! Break! Care! Break!”; the ending was used for the first 54 episodes, while the OP remained the same during the initial run of 98 episodes. The second ending, used until episode 98, was “Kokoro no Hane” (心の羽根, “Wings of the Heart”) performed by Team Dragon, a unit of the idol girl group AKB48. The subsequent airing’s opening was “Kuu•Zen•Zetsu•Go” (空•前•絶•後) by Dragon Soul. The first ending song is “Haikei, Tsuratsusutora” (拝啓、ツラツストラ, “Dear Zarathustra”) by Good Morning America, and the second was “Junjō” (純情, “Pure Heart”) by Leo Ieiri, which ran from episode 112 to 123.
A lot can happen in 20 years. People’s careers change, they grow older and some, sadly, passed away in that time. The time span between the premieres of Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai was exactly 20 years, so it’s not unnatural that some things changed in the lives of the voice actors. We’re only going to discuss the original Japanese cast, not the cast of the American dub.
In Japan, some of the original voice actors had already retired by the time Kai was ordered and aired. Others, unfortunately, had long since passed away. This is why several recasts had to be made and this is what changed:
|Character||Previous voice actor||New voice actor|
|Tien Shinhan||Hirotaka Suzuoki||Hikaru Midorikawa|
|Jeice||Kazumi Tanaka||Daisuke Kishio|
|Nappa||Shozo Iizuka||Tetsu Inada|
|Dende||Tomiko Suzuki||Aya Hirano|
|Captain Ginyu||Hideyuki Hori||Katsuyuki Konishi|
4. Visual differences
And while Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai are essentially the same show, some visual changes have been made. Namely, both DBZ and Kai remained the lighthearted, half-comical anime that focused more on the characters than on the plot and profound themes. This is why it was easy to keep most of the elements the same, and why Kai really does feel just like an improved version of Dragon Ball Z, rather than a completely different show. Still, with the advancement of technology and the changes in perception – the 90s were far more liberal in terms of what you could show in an anime – some visual changes were made to Kai.
The original Dragon Ball Z anime had a lot more contrast and saturation than Kai. This is why it might seem to people that DBZ was darker, but it’s not a question of the tone of the show, but rather the visual elements. Kai opted for a brighter and clearer picture, which resulted in a visually lighter appearance. You may prefer one or the other, but this difference doesn’t really change anything about the show so you can pick whichever you prefer.
When Dragon Ball Z initially aired, it was a long and epic saga of Son Goku that heavily relied on his experiences as a child, as they were presented in the likewise long Dragon Ball anime. Dragon Ball Z did not only rely on the original anime, but it also featured narrative elements from the show very much, which prolonged its duration significantly, but also connected it to its very important narrative roots.
With Kai, Toei Animation wanted to be faster and to move much quicker between the narrative arcs. This is why they have not only removed the filler content, but also any connection to the original Dragon Ball anime whatsoever. There are no flashbacks, no digressions – just pure Dragon Ball Kai. This was done to move the plot forward faster than during the original series, which resulted in Kai being incomplete continuity-wise.
6. Aspect ratio
Due to the development of technology, the original aspect ratio was changed to fit modern television sets. The original Dragon Ball Z anime was aired during a time when all televisions used the 16:9 aspect ratio, so the original anime was adapted to that standard. When the original series was released on Blu-ray in 2014, Toei Animations made a sneaky move to adapt the aspect ratio by cropping the original 16:9 panels so that they would fit the modern 4:3 aspect ratio. This was a crappy move, actually, since it’s not really good to just crop the show so that you can get the aspect ratio you wanted and it wasn’t really welcomed by the fans.
So, when Kai was prepared for home media distribution, Toei Animation used the original footage and remastered it in HD, but also changed the original aspect ratio from 16:9 to 4:3. This was a true adaptation, as there was no cropping involved, so that Kai became a 4:3 HD series adapted for all modern televisions, which mostly use that same ratio.
7. Global presence
The two shows also had a very different global impact. Namely, believe it or not, the original Dragon Ball Z anime wasn’t actually the global phenomenon it is today. Dragon Ball is so popular around the world today that this fact seems completely ridiculous. But it isn’t. Namely, when Dragon Ball Z first came out in Japan, Toriyama’s work was mostly overlooked and wasn’t popular at all. The same happened in China. On the other hand, the North and South American dubs were well-received and became an instant success during their premier runs. Europe was very similar to other Western markets, with a large fan base in Germany, which aired a dubbed version of the anime series on RTLII.
As for Dragon Ball Kai – the anime was an instant success from the very start. Namely, when Kai premiered, 20 years after the original series, Dragon Ball had already become a global phenomenon with people around the world constantly revisiting Toriyama’s work and the original anime series. With Kai being remastered for newer audiences, it is natural that the show became an instant success, riding on the fame of the whole franchise, which had already been well-established by 2009.
8. Two-part series
The original Dragon Ball Z anime ran from 1989 until 1996. It was split in a total of 9 seasons, consisting of 291 episodes, which was a truly amazing run. The series aired as a complete unit, without long pauses, but also with a lot of filler content to compensate for the lack of original manga material between episodes. This is a common practice with long-running anime shows that have hundreds of episodes. Dragon Ball Z adapted all of Toriyama’s stories and concluded the whole narrative with a complete tale from start to finish.
When Dragon Ball Kai started airing in 2009, not only did it have just 98 episodes that formed part of four seasons, but it ended in 2011, after just two years. This was a substantial decrease in duration and the number of episodes. The catch was that the original run (2009-2011) never adapted all of the stories, while at the same time removing the filler content, which led to such a notable decrease in content. These 98 episodes ended by concluding the “Cell Saga” and it was not intended for Kai to adapt the rest. But, after a few years, it was announced that Kai would return, adapting the remaining “Majin Buu” and “Evil Buu” sagas. Thus, Kai aired another three seasons from 2014 to 2015, concluding the whole series with a total of 159 episodes.
The 1990s were a great period for anime, since censorship was so minimal that a lot of mature content made its way into children shows. Those who’ve seen Dragon Ball will certainly remember seeing kid Goku completely naked (butt and penis included), but also a lot of blood and brutal moves. This tradition continued with Dragon Ball Z, which was full of violent and graphic content not – potentially – adequate for a child. There were also some other, social issues, with one notable example being Mr. Popo, who was initially designed in a way that he resembled blackface, which was completely normal back at the time.
But, a lot has changed in 20 years and different social and censorship standards have arisen, changing some of the liberal rules from the early days. As you can see in the picture above, the controversial Mr. Popo was changed from being black to being blue as to avoid any further confusion. Likewise, the graphic violence was toned down, with a lot of blood being “deleted” from scenes, as well as scenes involving strong graphic violence.
10. Original dialogues
Fans of Dragon Ball Z might not like this, but the original anime wasn’t all that faithful to the source material, especially when it comes to dialogues. Although the writers didn’t actually change a lot while adapting the original dialogues written by Toriyama, the changes were still important, despite not being completely sincere.
As for Kai, the writers decided to focus more on the original manga dialogues than on their own ideas. Kai was in that aspect far more authentic when compared to the original DBZ anime and its relationship to the original manga. This isn’t all that common in the world of anime – Fullmetal Alchemist fans will certainly relate – but it has been done and we think that it is better to follow the original manga material as written by Toriyama than to leave Earth in danger.
11. No fillers
Last but not least, the final difference lies within the “realm of fillers”. As we know very well, filler episodes and content are not that uncommon in long-standing anime, but since Kai was a remake of the original Dragon Ball Z anime, it was a bit strange to see so much content being removed from the series, with it being just a remake and all, but you couldn’t actually do anything about it. Toei Animation made its decision and it was done.
Dragon Ball Kai removed not only the filler arcs, but also a lot of individual episodes that could be considered as filler content. Toei Animation wanted a dynamic, fast-paced series that would quickly finish with its main storyline, so all the filler content had to go, and it eventually did. This is, actually, why we advise you to watch the original series first and then return to Kai later on if you want to revise the complete story, but with a reduced narrative.
As for the main similarities, you can expect to see most of the same scenes in both versions, there were hardly any changes during the dubbing process and most of the main voice actors returned. This wraps up our overview of the whole series.
There you have it. As you can see, the differences, although numerous, aren’t that big, so you can enjoy each iteration without doubts. Whether you want to experience the original feel of the series, or you want a remastered perspective is up to you, but what we definitely advise you to do is to watch the whole series, including Dragon Ball and the DBZ sequels, from start to finish, because it is truly a great and memorable experience.
And that’s it for today. We hope you had fun reading this and that we helped solve this dilemma for you. See you next time and don’t forget to follow us!