West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (2023)

Dragonball Evolutionmarked a very painful creative point in my life.Tohave something with my name on it as the writer be so globally reviled is gut wrenching. To receive hate mail from all over the world is heartbreaking.” – Ben Ramsey.

Disclaimer:The following does not reflect the opinion of Otaku Netizen Reviews as an organization. This is also not a slander to anyone who enjoyed the movie. This is purely made to expand on the views onDragonball: Evolution.

20thCentury Fox acquired Dragon Ball’s film rights in 2002. After so many closed doors and fans demanding the movie to see the light of day. It was a ticking bomb. Stephen Chow gained respect and traction as a director with titles like Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer and CJ7. Being an all-time fan of Dragon Ball, he decided to be involved in a great production to bring the beloved characters and epic adventure to life. In the end, Stephen Chow rejected the responsibility as a director but still was somewhat involved with the movie, as we see in the title card sequence.

Seven years later into production, in 2009Dragonball: Evolutionmade its debut in theaters. It spawned hate from fans of the TVshow, it sullied Chow’s reputation, the director James Wong went onto doing TV Series and stunned Ben Ramsey’s career as a writer, as a film-maker and his dream to have his name in gigantic banners everywhere.

Fans and film addicts have taken the movie apart time and time again and it gained the reputation of being the worst movie adaptation ever.

The hate for the movie was so big after so many years that in 2016Ben Ramsey released a public apologytaking all the blame because he was only after that big green dollar sign… but was he really the one to blame?

Anime Adaptations by Hollywood are a Liability

Anime has a large fan-base. It’s larger than you might think. Genres are almost infinitely growing and evolving, mixing and intertwining. In my experience, people who like animations and don’t like Anime is because it’s either a huge culture shock that they don’t understand it completely or they haven’t found the perfect introductory series… or they are simply not interested in changing their minds.

The categories in Anime are extensive. There is enough variety, styles, stories; numerous types of villains and main characters… to say that there isn’t one Anime they could like it almost seems like a false statement (as an example, my mother hates Anime… but she loved Heidi and Astroboy. My aunt doesn’t understand the appeal of Anime, either… but she loves Candy Candy).

To make matters more complicated, the Anime fanbase ranges from kids to adults and it doesn’t know boundaries of education, sex, gender, economic background, race, nationality or political views. This leaves the Netizen Anime Community to be so diverse that no one can agree whether an Anime was good or bad unanimously. Some take it more seriously than others, some simply will preach “Garbage!” and others will put a series on a pedestal. That’s how diverse and opinionated the fan-base is.

Regardless of the agreements or disagreements on Anime shows within the community there is one thing Anime fans will unite against: Hollywood.

Maybe I am speaking for everybody, but I have only confirmed it with my friends and acquaintances when they are trying to rationalize about why they like Anime, the reason always come down to: Japanese media has always different to offer, different from independent films, different from foreign movies, different from whatever the West has to offer.

For Anime lovers, Hollywood seems like a sinister, greedy, heartless villain that does anything to get what he wants: money… and in many ways, Hollywood is a money machine; a money machine that keeps actors, producers, writers, makeup artists, costume artists, directors, theaters andmany other departments employed.

If we are talking about exploitation for money, the Anime industryis worse.I am not even counting how tyrannical theMangaka lifestyle is.One must think that Anime and Manga fans have compassion of a Manga artist, producer or animator’s life of work, thus respecting their decisions of where to take the story, keeping in mind the amount struggles and pressures the artist’s have, right? Wrong, we are merciless. If we don’t like it, we will be the first ones to jump with our claws out and teeth exposed. (Look at my review of Shigatsu Kimi no Uso, for example.)

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (1)

Although we may be very vocal if we don’t like a Manga or Anime, there is a pattern that is impossible to ignore every time Hollywood wants to take a little piece of the Japanese media/industry: if it doesn’t fit our expectations we will become sworn enemies.

I will speak for myself: I don’t like when aMangaartist’s creation is being disrespected even if I am not fond of their creations. I am always conscious of their work and effort behind the sheets as the people who want to bring food to their table and still are doing what they love. I try to keep in mind that behind the animation, there are people trying to make a living and create something beautiful in the most horrible conditions.

In the majority of cases, we tend to be very protective of Japanese media and that is why whenever there is a change in laws and regulations to be more in tune with the Western civilization, we are the first ones holding our cyber-banners (for example, censorship that’s influenced by western religion, values, priorities is not welcomed in the Anime community). In other words, we like our Anime like it is.

Whenever the West tries to capitalize on Japanese Media – knowing that we will get famous actors playing the roles that don’t resemble our favorite character, changes in the script in their attempt to appeal teenagers or kids, the addition of guns and explosions and chase scenes to make it more “entertaining” among other factors – , as a community, we can be behave irrationally negative and destructive.

That’s not even counting the debates that Social Justice Warriors theme that have found their way into the community giving birth of an specific type Anime fan who contradicts itself all the time. And decides to hate on the safe Western adaptation (still call it whitewashing) and yet, criticize heavily the original source because Japanese traditions, laws and attitudes doesn’t line up with their Western ideology. (Yes, I also think some traditions and laws are outdated and some are morally dubious, but that’s for the Japanese to figure out and to better as a society, not by Western pressure. History has shown us time and time again what happens when the West tries to “free” countries by pressure, but I digress).

My point boils down to people rejecting the West’s movie machine due to their attempts at localizing the script. The issue is that Hollywood tries make the characters sympathizing to the American values to attract more people who are not interested in Anime. That’s why we get “the normal, plain guy from a high school somewhere in Oregon discovers…” this happens in every single version they have made of international movies, not only from Manga and Anime.

It’s because of these limitations that Hollywood is not infiltrating the Anime community as much as comic books have; their adaptations will always be at a disadvantage. Sure, Japanese live action movies, sometimes, may be really bad but fans know what they are: pieces of publicity for the original material, in other cases, a tribute.

Hollywood productions don’t come off that way. The people with the money don’t understand what makes Anime special and Hollywood has very few professionals interested in it as well.Their main goal is to sell to bring back the revenue stream by injecting the stories with different elements to make the media more marketable and in line with the types of movies it is accustomed to (Death Note was the prime example of that).

The issue with their point of view is that is not the wide general audience Hollywood has to impress the most; it’s the Anime fans’ expectation and our expectations are high and niche. So niche, in fact, Hollywood has to balance things on the opposite sides: making money and leaving the producers and director the creative control to make something the Anime community will ultimately hate; or, gaining respect from the Anime community and approval of the original author that will not get back the money that was invested due to their niche market.

As Raoul and Eric from the Phantom of the Opera said to Christine in the final showdown, “Either way you choose you cannot win.”

Do Not Mix your Fantasy With My Science-Fiction

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (4)

There is one final thing the West has to balance out with Anime and Manga, unfortunately, it has to do with something more subjective than Picasso’s paintings:Western science-fiction has to lean more towards science and lessen the fiction, otherwise it’s fantasy… but not in all cases, of course, Star Wars is more science-fiction than fantasy, apparently.When science fiction has an everyday setting, then it becomes problematic. Westerners do not appreciate it if the basis has more fiction than science.

The sci-fi movieLucystarring Scarlet Johansson was the prime example of it. You don’t have to look further that to scroll down the comments in review sites: “idiotic plot, not innovative, not enough fact-checking, it’s antagonistically unintelligent, you will feel like your own IQ levels are dropping as rapidly as you watch it, a cheap thrill masquerading as a philosophical discussion, ‘it’s a pseudo-sci-fi philosophy, the meaning of humanity depends on how cool something looks onscreen’, etc.” Not far behind, the movieLimitlessstarring Bradley Cooper with almost the same kind of plot got the same kind of reviews.

To be honest, I liked both of these movies… if you take them just as they are: fiction. Also, the plots for both of the movies are not far from being an Anime/Manga-like story (specifically those written for young adults).

Audiences who have grown with Japanese media, have learned to accept everything that is out of our realm of reality and possibility. Magic, chi, chakra, spirits, alchemy, flashy power attacks, change of appearances due to new acquired powers, bringing the death to life because of some holy power, characters that fly, the use of mechanic suits, futuristic settings, futuristic gadgets, time travel, the use of cyborgs, androids, etc., get thrown around so easily that the lines between fantasy and science-fiction becomes blurry… and we like it that way.

It’s the biggest clash of audiences.

There are too many elements working against the success from these types of stories trying to appeal a wider audience or by focusing the scripts to appeal a younger generation whenfictionhas an almost different kind of meaning in the Anime community.

For westerners who are not familiar with Japanese media, Anime is too much like fantasy not science-fiction. The people with the big money see Anime the same way. Withall the examples that we have had over the years of failed adaptations we can assume that the people who provide the money seeAnimeas the lesser media.Japanese animation and adaptations made in the West have neither gained traction nor respect because of these blurred lines. They don’t understand much about it and its worse when it comes to the crazy things that Anime proposes without much explanation and sometimes with an air of entitlement.

How does this tie everything up with Dragonball: Evolution, you ask?

Well, thingsbecome messier when on top of everything we have discussed, big shots are dealing with nostalgia. The constant dismissal of the author’s input is telling on how little Hollywood thought of Dragonball and the fandom at the time; without grasping the concept that Dragonball was regarded as the beloved childhood TV show for the 90s and 2000s generations.

When you are messing with nostalgia, it can punch back hard… and it did.

Essence and Dragon Ball evolution

If you have been following the blog, you might have read and noticed that I bring up the essence ofMangaandAnimevery often, but what exactly do I mean by that? I go by the original meaning, “the basic or most important idea or quality of something”, however, I go a little further than that: the essence of a story is what makes the tale worth telling. What makes Anime different than Western cartoons? What makesMangadifferent than Comics? What makes Dragonball, Dragonball?

We can criticize the cinematography, the CGI and the modifications thatDragonball: Evolutionmade to resemble a plot, but almost everything that makes the Anime and theMangaspecial was there:

Fighting? Check.

Unearthly powers? Check.

Power-ups? Check.

A powerful villain? Check.

Various Characters? Check.

Ridiculous fighting? Check.

The absurdity of the plot? Check.

The underestimation and mocking attitude the people in suits had towards the Anime community and the author; the character’s portrayal and awful acting given by competent actors were a few reasons as to why Dragonball: Evolution was a failure, indeed, but there was one bigger problem: Goku.

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (5)

For western media who enjoy making hero stories it’s very difficult to accept Goku as a main character, let alone a hero considering his traits; make one person in charge to make a script without being acquainted to the story, a director who just got interested in the original source material without knowing the impact the series had, include actors who never saw even one episode of the series and the result is a disaster.

It’s easy to misunderstand Goku’s character and lump him into a pool of heroes who do things for justice and love, while the original character is just one oblivious lovable character who likes to fight. To make matters even more confusing, even the Dragonball fandom has its own debate about it, not sure what to make of Goku’s character when his dark side begins to show.

What we know for sure is that hero label was slapped onto him later and during the dubbing process in an attempt to localize the translation for the US. People who grew up with the Japanese version know that Goku is far from being an example of heroic icon and closer to the fact that he is just a martial arts otaku.

According to Akira Toriyama, in an interview done in 1997 withWired Japan, it was never his intention to portray Goku as a hero, most of those episodes in the Anime where we see Goku fighting for his friends, were due to a misunderstanding of his character as a whole.

Son Goku was not supposed to be good or bad, a fighter for righteousness or an anti-hero; it’s safe to assume that Akira Toriyama was just trying to create a main character obsessed with fighting without thinking about the consequences of his acts and decisions (which became more obvious during Dragon Ball Super spawning a heated debate from shippers and fans of heroic Goku).

In Toriyama’s own words:

“I’ve always been dissatisfied with the ‘righteous hero’-type portrayal they gave him. I guess I couldn’t quite get them to grasp the elements of ‘poison’ that slip in and out of sight among the shadows.” Akira Toriyama. Wired Japan,1997.

This wobbly dance between light and darkness, his obliviousness and his innocent nature is what makes Dragon Ball special. Goku is the essence that keeps the story together, even if he remains unchanged in attitude and devoid of development, is his drive for training and his passion of battle that makes us cheer for his victory and appreciate his friends a little more.

It seems that James Wong (the movie director) and the entire production team took the parts from Dragon Ball Z that made the franchise a legendary show, but left out the central most important factor that made this Manga and Anime be a worldwide sensation: Goku…

But why?

Hollywood’s Greatest Fear

In my opinion, there are two factors that stuns Hollywood for making a great adaptation: for the studios it’s selling poorly, for the creators and artists is not to be taken seriously by the industry.

We already know theconsequences of being Hollywood’s joke: it means Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Winona Rider, Paris Hilton, Shia Labeouff, Rob Schneider, Charlie Sheen’s tier level of celebrities. Sure, they have the ability to evolve, change and come back stronger than ever (as Britney did), however, their image is forever tainted (Britney is still regarded as mentally frail and about to erupt at any moment, for example).

For filmmakers is not any better: examples of this are how Adam Sandler, Mel Gibson, Michael Bay, Uwe Boll and Tim Burton have become memes for the Netizen over the years. They are not respected enough because of their line of work or personal decisions that put them in the spot.

Now that we are talking about Tim Burton, comics have had a great movie evolution in Hollywood in the last decade. It’s a niche that has expanded and is now respected and something to look forward to. The Manga industry is treated differently, it may be respected by its fans, though as a profession is still widely misunderstood even in Japan. Anime, as an industry has had its fare share of criticism as well.

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (6)

Doing a movie about martial arts with visible powers, with a weird protagonist, a weird storyline in an unknown world, must be really hard for directors to come to terms with, when are asked to do something with it; especially if the plot is convoluted, exaggerated and yet simple to explain.

You can see this fear of “not being taken seriously” if you read any interview with the production team because of the over the top story, characters and setting they were dealing with. I found two clear examples of this from the actors:

Chow Yun-Fat (Master Roshi)had this to say at the time:“I think [director James Wong] did a very good job to balance the East and West. They know the audiences in West or Europe don’t accept this kind of over-the-top humor, you know. Maybe it’s not very suitablefor R-rating(Maybe he meant to say PG, though).”

Except Dragon Ball is PG-13 everywhere (even if parents complain about it, it is); it was accepted regardless of the humor and has been had been a success without the need to balance the East and the West because, (*Dun, dun, dun.*) Dragon Ball doesn’t take place anywhere in our world.

Jamie Chung (Chi-Chi) said thiswhen fans instantly noticed Goku’s distinctive hair had disappeared from the poster:

I mean you can’t make it look ridiculous” … “When you’re doing close-up shots, and he’s wearing a two- foot wig, it just looks ridiculous on film. It’s so different from something that’s from a cartoon to something that’s filming something on film. It’s a completely different world, and it was a huge challenge for James, and I feel like he really overcame.’

Except, at the time, it took five minutes to research YouTube to come across fans incosplaydoing crazy stunts and messing with Adobe After Effects to get a result that was praised in the community with wigs and all.

Changes that are made based on scrapping iconic imagery because “it looks ridiculous” or to tone down the comedy because it “may not be suitable” for a certain demographics are red flags that tells us the production team was concerned of being silly, when Dragon Ball doesn’t care about being silly when necessary.

It was Not All Ben Ramsey’s Fault

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that I think it’s unfair to shove all the blame onto the scriptwriter. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of research in Google so you can sense and almost taste the level of disinterest from everyone involved. Even Stephen Chow passed the opportunity to direct the film and included a dubious excuse not to.

Justin Chatwin said this in an interview done byCinema.comwhen asked if he was a fan of the franchise:

“Not really, but I immersed myself in the comic book world after I won this role. I made sure I watched all the Dragonball cartoons and movies – and I researched the comics.”

It was a convincing response, except he contradicts himself later in the same interview by saying:

“The movie is different in a number of ways. The cartoon was about a guy who was already a hero and a developed warrior. But our movie is about a regular guy who finds his way in life – as well as his fate and his destiny.”

He either got confused by the Dragon ball timeline or maybe he just watched Dragonball Z. And, oh, is that… a condescending attitude I am getting?

Chow Yun- Fat:I saw some pictures but I had the challenge of not having seen all the cartoons and the comic books. But based on the script, I think Master Roshi is a very funny guy, full of humor and he can master the super power.”

Not even Chow Yun-Fat was interested in researching a bit more and decided to play the same role Hollywood shoved onto his plate for several years (the wise eccentric old Asian man).

James Wong said this regarding the movie at the time:This movie is really about a teenage boy’s journey into becoming the person he was meant to be, or the hero he needs to be the save the world.”

This has nothing to do with Goku; it is not what Goku stands for. Of course, Wong didn’t made the time to research and decided to put his feet in the turbulent waters without looking.

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (7)

Jamie Chung also commented:“We really want people to enjoy the movie for what it really is and to come in with an open mind and to understand where James Wong was trying to come from. Regardless of whether or not the fans will agree with it, they will be entertained.”

What? Did we miss something of what it really was? Condescending attitude again? Where was James Wong trying to come from? Also, having “open mind” never came into negotiation from the fans and less from the original author.

“At the time of the Hollywood movie, the live-action Dragon Ball, the script had too little of a grasp on the world and its characteristics, and on top of that, it had a conventional content that I couldn’t find interesting, so I cautioned them, and suggested changes; but in spite of that, they seemed to have a strange confidence, and didn’t really listen to me. What came out in the end was a movie I couldn’t really call a Dragon Ball that lived up to my(and our)expectations.”Akira Toriyama, 2017.

The script for a Hollywood Dragon Ball movie adaptation was passed around since 2002, almost as if no one was willing to take the risk; and why would they? No one wanted to be the laughing stock and reveal the shame of being involved in a production based on a cartoon with senseless fighting. No one ever questioned the script; and how could they? No one knew the original story and no one took the time check it out; was there any reason to? It was not the actors’ and actresses’ job to fact-check it.

Hollywood has worked hard to tear the label of “greedy, money machine” with a dark side for a while. If there is one production in which this “dark side” comes out in the open, it’s this one. I can almost see the big guys in their brand suits, rings on every finger, with money in their hands gathered on a round table drinking their scotch and discussing about how to capitalize on a franchise. The conclusion of the meeting: take advantage of people in need of a big pay, “Why would anyone care? The audience is very limited and it’s Anime. There are weirder things proposed and we are not going to get that money back anyways.”

I guess I am reaching too much, but what I am trying to get at is that a movie is never a one person’s task, unless you are totally independent on a basement trying to make an amateur film. It doesn’t work that way.

We hear about it all the time: actors, producers, directors in every department are known to confront the film director with observations, notes and advice to better the script; of course, the ultimate decision lies in the film director of what goes and what stays, but judging by the attitude of everyone involved inDragonball: Evolution,there was almost no intervention between the script and the final product.

In the end, James Wong never made a statement ever again since. Stephen Chow tried to shake it off quickly but his name still appears in the credits. The actors moved onto other things… and Ben Ramsey, after seven years of being scorned and hated, was the only one to admit his fault. And, yes it was, but not entirely.

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (8)
A High School love… are we sure this is Dragon Ball?

Taking in consideration Toriyama’s disposition to help combined with the inability to make changes in the script, the whole situation strikes me as odd, almost patronizing that I dare and say that it was not a direct decision from Ramsey… I could be wrong, though.

They may have had a level of advice to see what is profitable in the West and it’s understandable that always listening to the original author may not be a wise choice when it comes to adaptation; but when the original source material is visual, and the author claims that “it had a conventional content that I couldn’t find interesting”, it is time to listen; although I am pretty sure that the listening was to be made from the higher-ups.

DragonBall: Evolution‘s Greatest Cinema Sin

Maybe you have seen that sometimes I am rude or too extreme in my point of views (and many times I come off as nitpicky) but I can assure you that it only comes from a place of love and care for Japanese media. I am conscious of the fact that it’s not easy to make adaptations of Asian media and I want to stress that I do not know if the changes that I would make to the adaptations would be a better product. In fact, I am sure they would not be a better product.

For any media I am watching, I still try and remind myself that making a movieit’s a cooperative work for people love what they do and they want to capitalize on the things they like. There is nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean I am blind to errors so obvious that are impossible to ignore.

From a neutral standpointDragonball: Evolutionit’s not the worst film ever. If we think with the perspective of having more than a million dollars budget of a worldwide respected work, then yes, it is one of the worst films made.

The movie not only removed the most important trait of the franchise that kept the series together (Goku’s character), it’s also confusing, at times it tries to be deeper than it actually is, the actors visibly have no interest in their roles and the overall story feels contrived, unnatural, forced whatever adjective you want to give it, something It’s impossible to criticize Dragon Ball for (Note: not Dragon Ball Z).

Dragonball: Evolution’s greatest sin wasn’t the ambitious reliance on CGI, or the changes of details in the timeline and names of the gadgets… to me, the worst “cinema sin” that any movie production can make it’s the lack of concern and love for the original material, plus the rapid dismissal of any input to make a better creation. This is what makesDragonball: Evolutionone of the worst movies in recent history.

West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (9)

We can talk long hours to see what was wrong in every scene in the movie, the weird camera placements or compare it with the Manga and Anime; I have done that in many reviews but I am not going to for this one. In the sea of live action movies, most of us can agree thatDragonball: Evolutionis a direct insult to the author and the quintessential sign of disrespect to the audience inside and outside of the Anime community.

If anything, I wanted to bring out some of the thoughts I had about pointing fingers, because ultimately, the decisions to move forward with such production were not only in the hands of James Wong, in the poor acting of the cast, or Ben Ramsey’s script. The studios give the approval, the studios give the budget, the studios are in charge of what is marketable and what is not.

Anime was not seen as a media that could generate any type of market competition and Dragon Ball was treated as such. This was a production made by people who were just finding their way into the Hollywood scene and make a living out of it. These people were lured with a promise of a big check, taken advantage of, mocked, crucified and stripped from any respect they were so desperately trying to get.

It was a hard lesson to learn and the people involved with it paid more than what they bargained for; it is a lesson that apparently Hollywood refuses to learn given the list of adaptations scheduled for the next decade with the same kind of mentality (it is getting slowly better but to go for giants asGhost in the ShellandDeath Notewere not wise choices and less so going forNaruto,BleachandOne Piece…The big three… Oh God! Blood will be spilled!)

Dragonball: Evolutionset such a negative precedent for adaptations that when news come out that live action are released, the skepticism from the Anime community escalates and spreads fast like a cancerous debate (look at the comments in YouTube from the upcoming… actually, for any adaptation made until now).

Until the studios realize that Anime and Manga are always a liability; unless someone takes it completely to heart (as Japanese live action directors do) and understand that this media can make money without major changes; until they realize that localization may not be a good idea in many cases; unless they comprehend that Hollywood will never get far by being so scared of how people perceive actors because of how they look or directors for how preposterous the story may be… Anime adaptations will never be a success within the community or with the public.

Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead (before the fallout) and many more, had and still has people completely immersed in their worlds, committed entirely to bring the original material to life due to their love and respect for the authors. Sometimes they fail to bring back the spark but no one can really deny their dedication and it shows when people involved try new things, take risks and the actors dive in blindly.

I think, after so many failures, Anime and Manga need the same treatment.Hollywood needs to search people who are invested, people who admire, love, care and respect Japanese media.

To conclude this concertation, we can definetely say that Dragonball: Evolutionwas a snowball of bad decisions, disinterest and dread that did everything the production team wanted to avoid: being the laughing stock of the film industry. It was a sad chapter that closed the doors on every creative mind involved and dimmed the chances for the actors who were capable of giving much more. If anything, the making of this movie is a case study on its own; a case study of how a patronizing attitude, money and an “every man for himself” behavior can produce one the most hated movie in Hollywood.West in Retrospect – Dragonball: Evolution (10)

What were your thoughts about this movie? Remember to be respectful when laying out your thoughts. It is possible.

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