Dragon Ball: The Path to Power (1996 – Dir: Shigeyasu Yamauchi): A Cartoon Review

(Writer’s note: I’d originally written this around the end of March 2024, but a technical issue with the site meant I wasn’t able to upload this in time. I’d posted it on my personal blog until that had been cleared up, with the hope that I might be able to write something else in the meantime. That hasn’t happened, and I haven’t written anything substantial since. I feel I should at least put this review where it was supposed to go, then maybe I’ll find the nerve to start writing again. Hopefully. In the meantime, please remember that this was written just weeks after it was publicly announced that Akira Toriyama had passed away.)

It’s hard for me to find the words, and even the feelings, to talk about the recent passing of Akira Toriyama. Although I only know him for Dragon Ball and his character designs in various video games, his work spans too many mediums and generations to concisely summarize. He’s touched the lives of all kinds of people, directly and indirectly, and countless numbers have expressed their joys, their sorrows, their experiences in remembrance of what he was able to do across his far too short life.

There’s a lot about myself that wouldn’t be there if not for Toriyama, but I don’t know how to express it. Certainly not in a way that feels sincere and uncompromised, without feeling self-conscious at the weight of emotion expressed by what feels like the rest of the universe. It’s not hit me as hard; maybe it’s not even quite hit me beyond a quiet sort of melancholy.

I’m not sure, but I’d like to try and express something, in my own weird way of commiseration. So let’s talk about Dragon Ball: Path to Power, a film I ended up watching the day after I learned about Toriyama’s death.

Released during the beginning of Dragon Ball GT, Path to Power was a theatrical film intended to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the animated TV series. It does this by retelling the very first story arc, introducing Goku, Blooma and the others as they travel the land in search of magical wish-granting objects called Dragon Balls. In truth, the movie’s more of a remix, mashing up most of the main cast and many famous scenes with the villains and some of the setpieces from the Red Ribbon Army arc.

I’ve never watched the first Dragon Ball TV series, so this was my first time experiencing the beginning in animated form. Unlike most of the DB films, I’d only seen brief clips of this during my early days in the fandom. The most exposure I had came from the video review put out by MistareFusion in 2022 as part of their excellent Dragon Ball Dissection series, and I admit that plenty of what they said was on my mind while I was watching this.

It’s a decent enough film, though I get the impression that viewers are already meant to know these characters and this story, because everything moves at a blazing clip and doesn’t take the time to establish much. The idea of combining the two early “Dragon Ball hunt” storylines for a tidier film could work, but I think the way they’re mashed up here comes off a bit inelegant. Most of the cast is introduced very quickly, only giving the most general impression before they end up being dragged along for the rest of the film, often lacking the substance they originally had.

Yamcha and Oolong have this problem, but the villains are especially obvious with most of them having one or two brief scenes before being ushered off. Colonel (née General) Blue’s basically an extended cameo you wouldn’t notice if it weren’t for the original series. The way scenes are scored and paced often reminded me of watching a flashback, where minor bits have been chopped out to get to the essential bits and emotions.

It’s like watching someone’s half-forgotten memory of Dragon Ball, with some of the details lost to time and replaced by equally vague memories of other famous Dragon Ball scenes (“a friend of Goku’s dies and he screams so loudly it shatters the earth, right? yeah, I think that’s what happened next”). Memories tend to be more rooted in emotions than logic, and I’d say that fits with how everything’s presented. The film begins with a hazy greyscale overview of the mountains, as if it’s struggling to recall how the story began before it confidently bursts into colour.

There’s a strong use of colours to paint the mood of each scene, and there’s all sorts of striking shots. I particularly love the brief shot of the Dragon Radar submerged in sand following an attack by the Red Ribbon Army, which feels oddly bittersweet in light of how this ended up being the final theatrical movie in the original anime run. Even something as universally famous as Dragon Ball is being swallowed up by the sands of time.

I feel the film’s at its best when it stops to breathe for a bit, to linger on details that make the characters feel more than just their famous catchphrases and personality bullet points. I like the scene where Goku and Ha-chan have a snowball fight, that almost magical dawn by the beachside when Goku’s slowly waking up, and when the gang find a Dragon Ball in a field of flowers.

A big part of the wonder I experience comes from Akihito Tokunaga’s score. Now, I tend to consider Shunsuke Kikuchi’s music in Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z to be “the sound of Dragon Ball“, in the same way folks would consider John Williams’ music for Star Wars to define that series. But I’m always up for hearing other composers take up the baton if they’ve got something equally compelling to offer, and Tokunaga absolutely does that.

Its mix of synth and Chinese instruments, orchestra and even the odd bit of choir result in a score that’s very distinctly of its time, and distinct from Kikuchi’s work in a manner I really enjoy. I especially dig the little recurring melody that plays in the first 20-30 minutes (based on “Hitori ja Nai”, the first ending theme for Dragon Ball GT), and the climax has some ace tunes that nail those heightened emotions the overall film’s going for.

Appealing to emotion is something I find Path to Power is generally good at, and I wish I got more swept up in that rather than how rushed and sometimes flimsy its story becomes. I can’t say it’s my favourite of the Dragon Ball movies, or even one I particularly enjoy, though I do respect how hard the production goes. It’s not something I could recommend to people looking to get into the series, but perhaps I can suggest it to fellow DB fans.

If you’re wanting to look back on what Dragon Ball was, even through the imperfect memories of someone trying to recall and embellish what Dragon Ball meant to them, it’s worth a watch. For me, that feels like a fitting enough way to honor Toriyama’s passing.

In memory of Akira Toriyama, 1955-2024.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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