I’m a perfectionist. Being a perfectionist isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being unhappy with your work when it isn’t. Sometimes you have to ignore that impulse and just release your creation to the world. Sometimes though, you get a second chance. George Lucas epitomises this phenomena. Audiences didn’t appreciate it when Lucas revised Star Wars. Long time fans lashed out at him when he released the special edition movies. Japanese fans of Dragon Ball Z had a similar reaction when the special edition version of the show, called Dragon Ball Z Kai came out. I haven’t watched the Japanese subtitled version of the shows so I can’t judge that version of Kai. But I did watch the English dub. And it is the best Dragon Ball Z to date.
Dragon Ball Z Kai was created as the definitive animated version of Dragon Ball Z, Akira Toriyama director’s cut. It’s definitive in the sense that it mirrors the manga. Most of what the producers removed was filler, scenes that were not in the manga. Filler scenes are a common feature of anime adapted from ongoing manga series. They let Dragonball Z’s producer ensure that the manga’s author (Toriyama) had the time to create enough material for the producer to adapt into new anime episodes. Most manga adaptations had some filler but Dragon Ball Z was notorious for using it.
The filler removed from Dragonball Z took two forms. One type of filler lengthens episodes without changing the stories. The show is undeniably better off without this. For example the main good guy or main bad guy would boast about how powerful he was and how no one could defeat him. Or the characters would spend half an episode “powering up”, concentrating their power. Even if it didn’t affect the story, this type of filler was boring to watch. Cutting these scenes improved the flow of the show. The new version seems lightning fast by comparison.
The second type of scenes the producers removed were filler arcs, the absence of these stories might anger fans of the old series but I think it ultimately improves the show. Filler arcs are stories that did not appear in the manga. Since the manga was not completed when the anime producers wrote them, their stories didn’t contribute to the main story line. The main characters in the show couldn’t die or gain new abilities in these arcs because the anime producers didn’t want an outcome that conflicted with what happened in the manga. Some fans may miss these scenes because they show a less serious side of the characters. For example the original series includes several filler episodes exploring the high school life of the main character’s son. I feel nostalgic when I watch these kind of scenes, but ultimately their removal strengthens the show. Now every scene moves the central plot along.
But even if the show is better, should the producers have modified the original classic? In the case of Star Wars many fans said no. The digital effects in the special edition movies were better than the analogue models used in the original films. Still, something is always lost when you go back and update a classic. I suspect many people will feel that Dragon Ball Z Kai butchered a classic that was better left alone. All I know is that if I were recommending Dragon Ball Z to a new fan I’d tell them to avoid the original and go straight to Kai. They might miss some side quests but they’d have a much better chance of getting through the entire series.
Putting aside Dragon Ball Z, do other anime series merit the Kai treatment? Similar shonen series like Bleach and Naruto use filler scenes that don’t come from the manga. In a way Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a show that received the Kai treatment. In that case the producers created a show from scratch rather than use animation from the original Full Metal Alchemist. By all accounts Brotherhood was a huge success. Film adaptations of anime series are another way to create a Kai-like version of a show. I think most new series, including Bleach, are already fast paced enough that a Kai version wouldn’t add much. But as long as a perfectionist anime creator is involved with a show there will always be the possibility of a special edition.