Looking back at Dragon Ball: Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return! (Part Two)

Last time on Cartoon Milk, I wrote about the 2008 Dragon Ball short film Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return!, as a way of celebrating its 15th anniversary. I had written quite a lot of thoughts, but in trying to make for a more coherent article, I ended up with a review that left out much of those thoughts. I still wanted to talk about them, and I felt it was best to create a separate article so they could exist without creating clutter.

Unlike the first article, this one is presented as a series of disparate thoughts, since I wrote these independently of each other. That was why I couldn’t make these fit into that original review, since they lacked that throughline which usually comes from writing everything in linear order. I hope this will be an interesting addendum of sorts.

Thought 1: The Dragon (Production) Team Assembles!!

I talked previously about how Yo! Son Goku was a chance for the audience to meet with the cast of Dragon Ball once more, well over a decade after it had ended. In a way, that extended not just to the characters, but also the cast and crew that made the series what it was. Of course, there’s the ability to hear the voice actors performing these iconic roles once again; Masako Nozawa, Hiromi Tsuru, Mayumi Tanaka, Toshio Furukawa, Ryō Horikawa, and so many others.

What makes this poignant in hindsight is that while there have been a lot of Dragon Ball productions made after this film, the reality of DB as something that started back in the mid 80s means that with the passage of time, more and more of the original actors pass away. This had already happened for the voices of Kame-sennin and Tenshinhan, Kōhei Miyauchi (d. 1995) and Hirotaka Suzuoki (d. 1996) respectively. But future productions have had to deal with loss of actors such as Hiromi Tsuru (Blooma, d. 2017), Daisuke Gōri (Mr. Satan, d. 2011) and Jōji Yanami (the narrator/Kaio, retired 2015, d. 2021).

For this short film, pretty much everyone who was around for the original run of the series was able to come back and provide even a handful of lines, and that makes it resonate much more strongly. This is accentuated by the use of the background music by Shunsuke Kikuchi, who composed for the original Dragon Ball/Dragon Ball Z series and movies. Kikuchi’s music played an enormous role in creating the vibes of animated Dragon Ball, and I’d argue his work defines the series in the same way that something like John Williams’ music defines Star Wars. Many composers have done fine work on the series, but this reunion wouldn’t sound right without Kikuchi.

While not as widely discussed, it’s important to also note that much of the film’s production crew is made of people who had worked on Dragon Ball during its heyday. The film was directed by Yoshihiro Ueda, who had directed over 100 episodes of the anime, and written by Takao Koyama, who served the role of series composition for Dragon Ball Z and wrote all 13 DBZ movies.

In terms of animation, it was supervised animation by Tadayoshi Yamamuro (formerly of Shindo Pro), who’d taken on that role for the latter day Z movies and several episodes of the TV series. The key animation staff features many veterans of the series across its various animation studios, such as Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru and Takeo Ide (Toei), Toshiyuki Kanno and Yukio Ebisawa (Studio Live), Naoki Tate and Kazuya Hisada (Seigasha), Yūji Hakamada (Studio Carpenter), and countless others.

Wherever you look, old names turn up. The editing was done by Shin’ichi Fukumitsu, who had edited every single Dragon Ball movie up until that point, and Hidenori Arai returned to handle the sound effects as he had done for all of the original Dragon Ball anime run. Though I never watched Dragon Ball Super, I’m aware that Arai didn’t return for that series and the sound effects work doesn’t quite hit the same way as a result. That’s not to say it’s bad, but like with everything else, it feels right that the Dragon Ball reunion film has so many people from its past production coming back alongside the characters.

Thought 2: A forgotten interlude

Despite all my talk about it being a reunion film, that aspect of Yo! Son Goku is perhaps harder to appreciate if you weren’t there at the time, since it ended up preceding a revival of the series that carries through to this day.

Only months after its premiere, a re-edited version of the Z TV series called Dragon Ball Kai would start airing in March 2009, and ran with international success from 2009 to 2011 and then 2014 to 2015. If you were looking for new animated content, a pair of video game tie-in OVAs, Plan To Eradicate the Super Saiyans and Episode of Bardock, came out in 2010 and 2012. Elsewhere, the popular Dragon Ball Heroes arcade game received many manga adaptations over the years and eventually a web anime series in the late 2010s.

While all of that is admittedly promotional fluff, the same can’t be said for the 2013 movie Battle of Gods, a full length feature that introduced a lot of new concepts to the series which were soon followed up in the 2015 movie Resurrection F. These movies were retold shortly after in the aforementioned Dragon Ball Super TV series, which would go on to tell its own stories and eventually receive two standalone films in 2018 and 2022. All the while, a manga version of Super has been consistently running since 2015. (That’s not even getting into Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, a Toriyama-penned prequel manga whose main character occasionally pops up in Super-era stories.)

15 years later, the modern era of Dragon Ball has lasted longer than even its original run, and that decade from the late 90s through to the late 00s where it was definitively over sometimes feels like a brief gap in production. Briefer still if you were watching the series on TV in English speaking countries, since the English dubs were being produced predominantly during that time. The gap between these localized dubs and all this new material would only have been a few years at the very most.

It can be difficult to appreciate what Yo! Son Goku offers, due to how its novelty has been worn away by the existence of newer material and how obscure it’s become. The movie was only released on DVD in 2009 as part of a very limited mail-order release, and hasn’t appeared elsewhere since – in Japan or abroad. Perhaps that’s fitting for a story that’s acknowledged in the film itself to be a tiny forgettable interlude, that it ends up being forgotten by the wider Dragon Ball fandom. I can appreciate that, but I think it’s worth remembering anyway, for all the reasons I’ve discussed up until now.

However, I also want to remember it as part of my early fandom, and what it meant to me then.

Thought 3: The first memories and the last thoughts of Yo! Son Goku

I became a fan of Dragon Ball back in 2008, thanks primarily to the PlayStation 2-era video games, and I was looking to get into the series proper. The easy place to start would surely be the original anime run, but I wasn’t able to watch them for a bunch of reasons. For a start, the shows aired on Toonami which wasn’t a programming block over here in the Ireland/UK area, but its own dedicated channel where all the major action cartoons were shown. We didn’t have Toonami in the package of channels we had, so catching it on TV wasn’t doable.

I couldn’t get it on DVD either, since Dragon Ball had no home video presence over here. Apart from a couple of films as dubbed by the mildly infamous AB Groupe, the only way you could get DB on home video was by finding imported American DVD singles which were all but region-free, however few of them appeared in the odd charity shop or gaming store. There wouldn’t even be a major home release until 2012, when Manga Entertainment started re-releasing the very infamous Orange Brick boxsets that FUNimation had churned out.

So that leaves piracy, friend to all, as the only option left. But that wasn’t much help with the rubbish family laptop and our newly acquired but deeply banjaxed potato internet, where it was a serious hassle to watch even a couple of short YouTube videos nevermind a cartoon that went on for hundreds of episodes. Heck, where would you even go to watch them? I was a naive cherub and didn’t wander outside of YouTube for fear of stumbling across anything that I wouldn’t be able to delete quickly enough before someone saw it.

Apart from the movies. Although I watched a handful of episodes online (even catching the first few fansubbed episodes of Dragon Ball Kai when that started airing), my exposure to the animated side of Dragon Ball was kept solely to the 13 Z-era movies. I don’t believe I saw all of them; I have no recollection of the first two, the Bojack film, or the Broli sequels; but I do have memories of putting watching them on YouTube via my sister’s laptop (probably while everyone was up above in the living room watching Lost yet again).

After that, my experience with Dragon Ball was primarily the manga and whatever video games I could pick up or emulate, but it was during this time that I was able to watch Yo! Son Goku and His Friends Return! It must’ve been shortly after it had just come out, which was quite the novelty for me since the series had been finished for over a decade by the time I became a fan. This was the first new DB thing to be released after I got into the series, and getting to see it so soon was especially cool.

What I remember most strongly is how nostalgic it felt, which is rather strange since I’d only seen the movies and this was my first time watching anything of Dragon Ball in Japanese. Of course, it was the only language the movie was available in, so I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. But I watched and played Dragon Ball in English; I had no familiarity with the actors playing these roles and I was only vaguely aware of a few music cues from Shunsuke Kikuchi’s legendary score via a handful of AMVs. 

And yet, through those elements that were largely alien to me, I got to feel that sense of reuniting with these characters even though I was still getting to know them. Perhaps being aware in a general sense of how long it had been since the TV series ended allowed me to appreciate that from an intellectual perspective, but that feeling was still very resonant thanks to the production. I feel it’s still there on this latest viewing, and can be felt if approached with the right mindset.

I hope that the many words I’ve written about this cartoon help to find such a mindset. Although I haven’t seen it again until now, the film never left me, and I always thought fondly of it. Despite its slightness, or perhaps because of its slightness, Yo! Son Goku is a cozy film that makes me smile.

Special thanks to the excellent Dragon Ball fansite Kanzenshuu, whose animation staff database allowed me to more thoroughly catalogue the production staff as discussed above: https://www.kanzenshuu.com/animation-production/database/

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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