ANIME REVIEW: Dragon Ball Super Universe Survival Arc (Ep. 77-131)


Goku’s latest adventure has him and the Z Fighters against the best fighters in all of the Dragon Ball Multiverse in a battle royale tournament. Can Goku’s team win and save their universe from destruction?


 

The following is a transcript of the video review version, which you may view here.

Well, it’s been weeks since the last episode of Dragon Ball Super made its broadcast back in Japan. Normally, I would give my thoughts on the Universe Survival Arc as a whole shortly after the final episode, but I didn’t. In part because these first few months of 2018 have been quite busy for me. But more so because I want to give my thoughts once the hype over the franchise has waned.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, and I’m saying it again – the Dragon Ball franchise is the anime counterpart to the WWE. Both are hugely popular domestically and abroad, and one of those “too big to fail” entities or whatever. And both IPs have their ‘smarks’ – fanbases that very passionately and even aggressively defend these properties even if they turn crappy at times. Think the Steven Universe or Rick & Morty bases. I assume you are aware of their reputations.

Case in point – 2018’s Wrestlemania is perhaps the biggest event the WWE has ever done. It’s also probably one of the worst Wrestlemanias out there. I will not elaborate on that. Regardless of anyone’s thoughts on Wrestlemania, Vince McMahon gets to swim in a pool full of money afterward.

With respect to people like Geekdom101, SethTheProgrammer, and other Dragon Ball aficionados, it’s a bit hard to take their thoughts on the franchise seriously without the possibility of them being smarks. To put it in my case, I am a fan of Dragon Ball, no doubt. But I want to critique Dragon Ball Super from an anime viewer’s perspective, able to compare it to others like ‘My Hero Academia’, ‘Devilman CryBaby’, and even ‘Your Name’. It’s hard for me to do that kind of review when fanboyism tends to get in the way, with the unyielding assertion that Dragon Ball Super is the No.1 anime of all time.

And believe me, I have met a LOT of people who have that particular kind of mentality. These people will not hesitate to call you a piece of garbage over any criticism of Dragon Ball, no matter how constructive.

This is why I chose to take my time to process and review the Universal Survival arc of Dragon Ball Super. With the series now over and no new Dragon Ball anime is coming until the new film comes out in late 2018, it’s as good time as ever to finally give my thoughts. That way, less chance the fanboys wished they had Mastered Ultra Instinct, so they can get to my house and beat the living crap out of me for whatever I said of the franchise.

Another to consider is that much of what we’ve seen throughout the Universal Survival arc may or may not have been part of Akira Toriyama’s outline of the DBS narrative. We can argue all day about whether or not anyone who is in the Tournament of Power is capable of destroying multiverses or what have you. Unless the outline for DBS is released to the public for us to fully analyze on what is supposed to happen, whatever we see throughout this arc shouldn’t be taken too seriously or literally for that reason. And that applies pretty much to the entire Dragon Ball Superseries.

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When in the Universe Survival arc, we are introduced to the Tournament of Power, as well as the rules of how the tournament works, one of the comments I said in the many Dragon Ball groups on social media is that I was hoping it would create a level playing field for all combatants involved. In other words, I was hoping with the tournament, guys like Tenshinhan and Muten-Roshi would be able to fight as well as Goku and Vegeta. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Instead, the Tournament of Power just shows how irrelevant the supporting cast is when compared to Goku and Vegeta, thanks to the astronomical power difference between them. It also tries to introduce many of the participants the fanbase won’t give two cents about, due to the time constraints of the series. What I mean is in shows like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, despite its huge cast of characters, we at least get to know about them and give us a good reason to get their attention. But in the Tournament of Power, can you name all the participants from the top of your head other than Ribrianne, Aniraza, and the teams from Universes 6, and 11? I rest my case.

“So what?” you might say. “Goku is the protagonist, therefore it’s HIS show.” I agree Goku is the main character. But what makes a really good narrative is that the supporting cast is there to contribute in making the narrative interesting, and doesn’t have to fall over the main character’s shoulders. This is why works like Lord of The Rings, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Justice League, the Avengers, Adventure Time, Attack on Titan, Gurren Lagann, and many others like it are among the pantheon of the most remembered tales of fiction in human history. You remember a good portion of the characters in these tales because they have done something to their respective narratives that affect the overall story, thus making them very memorable. There’s only a handful or even less of that in the case of Dragon Ball Super.

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That being said, there are a select few of supporting characters who really DO stand out from the rest. Take Android 17, for example. He’s pretty much the tournament’s MVP as he is able to stand up to even against Toppo and Jiren – two who are very powerful even by Goku and Vegeta’s standards. 17 also doesn’t have any kind of power boost like the others. So him taking on Goku’s SSB form in the early episodes is no fluke. 17 IS that powerful.

Some say 17’s performance in the Tournament of Power is a tribute to Super Android 17 from Dragon Ball GT. Super 17 from that series is quite a tough cookie that even Goku struggled to defeat him in his Super Saiyan 4 form. I am not sure if that’s true. But I do wonder what kind of training did 17 had gone through to be this strong without a need for a power-up form. Goku should’ve probably trained under 17 than with Whis.

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Ribrianne is another stand out character, mainly because how much everyone hates her. I find her interesting because Goku did struggle to take her out despite the power difference. This is because Ribrianne doesn’t fight like a typical martial artist, which shows a fundamental flaw in Goku where he is used to fighting against other martial artists, but not with everyone else who use different methods of combat. In other words, if we pit Goku against, say, the X-Men’s Onslaught. Goku overwhelms Onslaught physically. But Goku won’t be able to withstand Onslaught’s psychic abilities because he’s never faced someone with that caliber of power throughout Dragon Ball’s narrative.

There are only two things I did not like about Ribrianne. One is that in her exit, the Toei writers try to present her as a villain for the sake of making the audience hate her and cheer when Android 18 knocks her off. Basically turning her into a bad girl for its own sake and not give a meaningful constructive way of getting her eliminated. Another is that Ribrianne and Roshi did not get to interact, let alone fight one another. It would’ve been a VERY interesting matchup given the personas of the two. It’s sad it couldn’t happen because today’s atmosphere isn’t like 20 years ago if you know what I mean.

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And then we have Kale and Caulifla. The duo was revealed in interviews to be NOT part of Toriyama’s outline at all and were the creation of the Toei writers. Yet Toriyama liked them so much he gave his seal of approval, and it shows. Fans love the duo. The interactions between Goku and Caulifla show they actually have great chemistry together, I would’ve wished Toriyama rewrite the canon history of Dragon Ball so Goku and Caulifla became a couple, or at least Caulifla being Goku’s apprentice in place of Uub.

Obviously, that is not going to happen. But at least Toei should consider doing a Dragon Ball spin-off series with Kale and Caulifla as protagonists. The two are a hit with the fans and since it’s set in Universe 6, it has little to no bearing on whatever happens with Goku and the gang. Toei can re-apply their now overused Power-Up Trope without worrying about making Kale and Caulifla too powerful because they are a long ways before they can match Goku’s. Plus this would make history as the first female protagonists of a Dragon Ball franchise. I was gonna say first Dragon Ball spin-off, but ‘Jaco The Patrolman’ already took that title.

With regards to the Power-Up Trope, you probably are aware that I am very vocal against it being used in Dragon Ball because it’s been done repeatedly to death in the franchise it’s not as cool anymore as it once was. I also blame the Power-Up Trope for alienating much of the supporting cast because they can’t be relevant anymore when they couldn’t catch up to Goku and Vegeta in power scaling. Looking back at the fight between Goku and Krillin when the former went Super Saiyan Blue, it’s more to do with attempting to make Krillin relevant as a team member when fighting strong opponents than having to do with Goku’s Ki control. I’ve said it before that it makes no sense for Goku to go SSB and then LOWER his power level to match Krillin’s when he can do that already in base form.

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This leads us to Goku’s Ultra Instinct. By the end of DBS, Goku admits he has no idea how to activate Ultra Instinct at will and sees the whole thing as an accident, despite having done so a total of 3 times. So for the time being, he is stuck with using the Super Saiyan Blue form and combining it with the Kaioh-ken as his max power. I would say Toei, and probably even Toriyama himself realized the trope has now taken them to a dead-end corner and something must be done if the franchise is to continue.

Imagine this scenario and I will probably issue this as a challenge for every die-hard Dragon Ball fan out there. Let’s say Goku has reached a point he has become just as powerful as The One Above All in Marvel Comics. How do you continue the story from that point forward with the Power-Up Trope still in play? How could you create a villain whose power is above omnipotence? And how do you make Goku surpass that? Then rinse and repeat?

I hate to say this, but DC Comics has done a far better job with how they handle Superman than Toei, Shueisha, and Toriyama handle Goku. Superman is an extremely powerful character, yet struggles to take down many of his adversaries. By all accounts, Superman should have no problem taking down Lex Luthor. Yet, Superman had plenty of trouble taking Luthor down because DC has managed to create scenarios that give Luthor a way to fight Superman at a near level playing field. Almost nothing like that exists in Dragon Ball Super.

As for the animation, there is indeed a vast improvement from the previous arcs, though some key episodes, such as Goku’s fights with Kefla and Jiren, him using Ultra Instinct, etc., were actually done domestically rather than from Toei’s Philippine branch. If there is one complaint I have with this arc’s animation, it’s how they portray Ultra Instinct. Let me explain.

The way Ultra Instinct is described and when Goku is in his Mastered form, Goku is supposed to be moving at a speed that is several times faster than Faster Than Lightspeed, or even above Quantum-level speeds. Let’s imagine as an aggregator of sorts that Goku’s Mastered Ultra Instinct allows him to move so fast he can travel around all the 12 universes of and back within a nanosecond. That sounds REALLY fast when I say it, (or when you read this review in its text form). But it’s almost impossible to portray that, visually. As a result, the way we see Goku fight in Ultra Instinct is no different than the way he normally fights.

I do not blame the animators for not portraying Ultra Instinct the way it sounds on paper. I get that it’s almost impossible to do that and we just have to take their word for it that Goku moves ultra fast. I would also think that the trouble with animating the movements of Ultra Instinct on-screen is part of the reason why Goku can’t use it again at the end of DBS – at least until the animators can figure out how to display Ultra Instinct properly.

I do miss when Dragon Ball’s fight choreography is more illustrated, seeing how each punch and kick go, how they connect, how they counter, etc. It’s mainly because these choreographies are more common in other anime like ‘My Hero Academia’ and is so well presented. Dragon Ball Super continues to stick to the usual flashes and repeated striking animations to illustrate the speed of the fight. Granted, this is what made Dragon Ball Z popular back then, and is probably used to save time on the animation process. This is even perhaps the primary reason a lot of people watch Dragon Ball Z and beyond. But for me, I guess I want something more than what we’ve got. To put it in wrestling analogy, if the flashes and repeated animation strikes in DBS is like Brock Lesnar spamming his F5 finisher in the WWE, then watching the Goku vs Krillin fight in the original Dragon Ball is like watching the final moments of AJ Styles vs Kazuchika Okada in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

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The character of Toppo and his transformation into the God of Destruction or Hakaishin has given us more insight as to whoever attains that title in the grander scale of maintaining the balance of the universe – and it’s not pretty. For Toppo to reach this particular form, he must discard everything he believes in and just have nothing but the thought of pure and absolute destruction. In other words, to be a Hakaishin, you need to be willing to destroy anything virtually without remorse. That kind of requirement means Beerus’s offer to make Goku the next God of Destruction is never going to happen because it’s completely way outside of Goku’s character. Frieza, on the other hand, is a more fitting candidate for the role, which is why he was being considered of becoming one as told in the Resurrection of F arc.

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The entire Tournament of Power is but a lead up to the eventual showdown between Goku and Jiren, which is the main event of this arc. There was a quite a debate among the fanbase as to whether or not Goku wins against Jiren as he is technically the series’ ‘final boss’. I was with the ‘Goku Loses’ camp due to a) Jiren really isn’t a villain and is more of being Goku’s opponent, and b) in spite of all the powers Goku has, if you look at all the major fights he’s in throughout the history of Dragon Ball, Goku has a horrible win-loss record. Prior to the Universe Survival arc, Goku has only won once in Dragon Ball Super, and that is against Golden Frieza back in the Resurrection of F arc.

There was even a theory that I jumped on in which Jiren’s character was the equivalent of Buddha in Journey To The West, the Chinese epic that inspired Dragon Ball. In Journey To The West, Buddha is the only one whom Sun Wukong (the basis for Son Goku) could not defeat and after losing, Wukong was punished by Buddha by being buried under a giant rock as part of the progress to learn humility in the later stories. I believed that for Goku to lose to Jiren is a way to tell the former “Hey, we all know you’re strong, but don’t get cocky because of that and remember, there are always others like you who are much stronger”.

But alas, that theory is thrown out of the window when the anime reveals how much of a big jerk Jiren is. Like Ribrianne, Jiren’s character is an attempt by Toei to make him appear as a villain to be hated by the audience, so they can cheer and get behind Goku. It’s worth noting that in the manga version, Jiren’s character is a complete opposite to his anime counterpart, which may imply his characterization isn’t part of Toriyama’s outline.

In any case, I do understand that the real goal is for Goku to reach out to Jiren the old saying “no man is an island”, and the two duke it out not just in the battle for survival of their respective universes, but also for their philosophies. Some say Goku has managed to actually overpower Jiren with his Mastered Ultra Instinct. I personally disagree. It’s true that in the early going, Goku was winning against Jiren. But the former is backing the latter to the corner so much, desperation kicks in and, much like how Goku unlocks Ultra-Instinct, Jiren also unlocks his hidden potential. As a result, the two are evenly matched. The reason Jiren fell to Goku isn’t that Goku was stronger. Instead, Goku had more heart and determination to take Jiren down. This is something we see in real-life competitions between evenly matched participants. It’s whoever has the strongest willpower to push as hard as they can that they actually win it.

And then there’s the point Goku brings out a ball of energy as he looks down at the fallen Jiren. Was he going to finish Jiren off? If you know Goku very well, he’s not the kind that wants a cheap win. He wants a fair, even, and clean win. Meaning Goku wants to knock Jiren off the ring when the two are at their fullest, and not when Jiren is in a much-weakened state. When the roles were reversed because Goku’s Ultra-Instinct expired and his in a much weaker state, Jiren was very reluctant to finish him off because he sees what Goku sees. Jiren too wants the same thing Goku wants – a clean win.

It is at this point Goku made his real victory, not by beating Jiren, but by making him see his point of view, that having friends do matter. Jiren noticing that Toppo is offering moral support confirms this and changes him entirely for the better. And when Jiren takes on Goku, Frieza, and Android 17, it’s when the fight really becomes one of the best featured in Dragon Ball Super, in my opinion. The 3-to-1 ratio shows just how powerful Jiren still is even in his weakened state, and other than a simple numbers game, it’s an even match, and Universe 7 wins through sheer determination and a bit of strategy than for either of them to power up to their strongest forms again.

Frieza also deserves some accolades for this tournament. Not only did he manage to make it through the end (if only by sheer dumb luck he never gets thrown out of the ring even after getting such a beating), but he does show he can be an ally to Goku and the gang. He still, of course, tells everyone that even with their victory, he will continue being the bad guy against everyone. Yet you could tell there is a very tiny spark of good in him. Whether or not that will play a role in future Dragon Ball stories remains to be seen. But if Frieza does end up becoming a member of the Z Fighters, it once again shows a key trait of Goku’s character in that he can make even the greatest of his adversaries into his comrades.

I confess that when I heard this arc is going to last over 50 episodes (which is a full year’s worth), I was really going to skip the whole thing and just watch the final episodes because the Goku vs Jiren match is what really matters and everything else isn’t. Yet the Toei guys really did a good job in keeping me glued to watching those 50+ episodes, regardless of how I think about the other characters. Like I said earlier, I didn’t like how they got rid of Ribrianne, but I did stick to watching her entire arc until the very end. I commend the Toei guys for pulling that off.

In spite of all of its flaws, the Universe Survival arc is, by far the best story arc throughout all of Dragon Ball Super. Yes, it is again mainly Goku and Vegeta in the spotlight. But the supporting cast, despite their lack of relevance, does manage to shine in their own way. This is also where Toei kicks into high gear and make the animation and even the soundtrack the best you could ever experience. Using the wrestling analogy again, the Universe Survival arc is like watching this year’s Wrestlemania, except instead of being tired and bored and chanting “This is awful!” after watching 7 hours of wrestling, in DBS’s final arc, you’ll come out with a smile and a thumbs up after going through all 50+ episodes.

Looking back at the series in general, if I were in charge of Toei, I would’ve given Dragon Ball Super 6 months or even a year longer to make. That way Toriyama has more time to provide the story with better detail and not get into all these ramblings regarding the overall narrative. It also gives time for the animators to reduce all those errors. You can only say Dragon Ball Super is the best only because it’s a Dragon Ball series and you’re a huge fan of the franchise. It’s no lie that Dragon Ball is far more popular than the other anime we’ve seen through this decade like Attack on Titan, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, or Tokyo Ghoul. But is Dragon Ball Super anywhere BETTER than those other anime? Not really. That said, it is still a well-known franchise that is worth your time seeing it in its entirety, whether you are a fan of Dragon Ball, or just diving in. The Universe Survival Arc of Dragon Ball Super, and pretty much the series overall, gets my review score of 8 out of 10.

The complete Dragon Ball Super series is available in subtitle format on Crunchyroll and FUNimation. The dub version is currently airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim in the US.


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