Dragon Ball Z was one of the seminal titles of the anime explosion in the U.S. Most Americans first saw the show when it aired on Toonami in the late ’90s and early 2000s. For any young kid, it was an action-packed show of heroes and fantastic powers. The anime adaptations of Akira Toriyama‘s manga Dragon Ball went through several different English dubs during the ’90s and early 2000s before it finally settled on the Funimation cast that has lasted since. Dragon Ball has had a long weird saga of many alternate versions. Some were highly professional and still beloved. Some are bad beyond belief. Others are just plain weird.
If you were watching Dragon Ball Z from around 1998 to 2001, you will have noticed that as the episodes progressed, the characters voices slowly changed. The Saiyan Prince Vegeta went from Brian Drummond’s rasp to the Mid-Atlantic arrogance of Christopher Sabat. Most kids watching had no idea the cast had changed from the Canada-based Ocean Group to Funimation‘s in-house voice actors based in Texas. We also had no idea we were watching a show older than we were — and this was just the latest of many versions.
The show came out during a transition period in anime imports. Japanese cartoons were becoming big business in the West. Today, kids can watch the latest subtitled version of any anime series in a matter of hours, if not minutes. But 20 years ago, things were a lot more complicated. Here, we review all seven of the known English Dragon Ball dubs.
Harmony Gold Dub
Today Harmony Gold are a largely defunct company mostly existing to ruin the lives of Macross fans. But when the original Dragon Ball anime ended to switch over to Dragon Ball Z, Harmony Gold was one of the biggest anime importers around. They were the ones that created Robotech, a Frankenstein’s monster of three different anime series, including the first Macross series. For some reason splicing together two or three shows into one was Harmony Gold’s standard operating procedure. Faithfully adapting anime was not really much of a concern in the ’80s.
Harmony Gold briefly bought the rights to Dragon Ball to release in the United States in 1989. This was the very first dub of the series and the first time Dragon Ball was ever shown on American television. However, the series was a failure. Harmony Gold could only find a small sporadic release on local stations, only able to air a few episodes before giving up. Nobody is exactly sure how many episodes were dubbed or even when they aired. We do know Harmony Gold dubbed over the first and third Dragon Ball movies and edited them together into a single film as a kind of pilot. We also know that for some reason Goku was renamed “Zero”, Bulma was renamed “Lena”, and in an inspired decision, Korin was renamed “Whiskers the Wonder Cat”.
For all intents and purposes, most of the Harmony Gold dub has been lost to history. Considering Harmony Gold’s treatment of Macross, we can probably count ourselves lucky that this project failed.
Ocean Group Dub
Funimation was founded in 1994 by Japanese businessman Gen Fukunaga, whose uncle was a producer at Toei, the company who created the Dragon Ball anime. Dragon Ball was Funimation’s first big get, but the company was still small. At first, it relied on partners to get television distribution and had to outsource voice acting. Originally, Funimation joined with BLT Productions to produce the first 13 episodes of Dragon Ball. But much like the Harmony Gold attempt, these received poor ratings. Funimation decided the more action-packed sequel, Dragon Ball Z, would be more marketable. To produce these, they partnered with Saban Entertainment (the company that Americanized Super Sentai into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers).
For much of the ’90s, Funimation relied on Canadian studio, Ocean Group, to complete its voice acting. For American kids who grew up in the ’90s, this would be the dub they first knew when they were introduced to Dragon Ball Z. For example, this is where “Over 9000!” came from. Saban did a lot of editing to the episodes, inserting their own music, like the still-awesome opening song, “Rock the Dragon“. All references to death were covered up by claiming characters were being sent “to another dimension”. Somehow Brian Drummond’s Vegeta and Pauline Newstone’s Frieza actually managed to sell clunky dialog like this.
Only 53 episodes of the Ocean Group Dragon Ball Z were dubbed before Funimation switched to in-house talent. Ocean Group took over the dubs again at episode 108 after AB Groupe contracted them for a Canadian and European release. This second half is often called “the Westwood Dub” to distinguish it from the earlier version. They managed to mostly finish the series, albeit quickly and a bit sloppily. Goku’s voice actor Peter Kelamis left and was replaced by Kirby Morrow halfway through, for example.
What is now the most famous versions of English Dragon Ball dubbing came when Funimation broke with Saban in 1999. Thanks to the show’s release on Toonami in 1998, suddenly Dragon Ball Z was making money after years of struggle. Without Saban’s backing, Funimation needed to save money, so they switched to in-house talent to dodge voice actor union fees. The new cast would attempt to copy the Ocean Group voices at first, before finally making the characters their own by the later seasons. It was a troubled start, and some fans still argue that the Ocean Group dub is superior. Saban’s music was replaced by Bruce Falconer’s score. All references to “another dimension” were quickly removed.
After finishing Dragon Ball Z, Funimation would also dub over the original Dragon Ball and the sequel series, Dragon Ball GT. All of which would air on Toonami. By 2005, Funimation decided to clean up their production and re-dub the series, fixing voice inconsistencies and script mistakes. Even the original Ocean Group episodes were redubbed (including Goku’s dad, Bardock, for some reason being called a scientist).
In 2010, Funimation performed yet another dub for the Japanese recut of the series, Dragon Ball Z Kai, this time keeping the original music. Since then, the same general Funimation cast has been coming back for the recent Dragon Ball Z theatrical films. These versions have only grown more and more faithful to the Japanese originals.
Since 2000, Sean Schemmel, Christopher Sabat, and company have been the definitive voices of Dragon Ball Z in English. The Funimation dubs are the best preserved thanks to actually having home video releases and consistent upkeep by the parent company. The Kai dubs are even still airing on Toonami today.
But Funimation’s were not the last dubs made. The story grows stranger still.
Blue Water Dub
Blue Water was the budget sister studio to the Ocean Group, both owned by Westwood Media. In the early 2000s, French company, AB Groupe, who also produced the second half of the Ocean Group dubs, produced this version as well. Blue Water was hired to dub over Dragon Ball GT and the original Dragon Ball for Canada and Europe. Rather than using the expensive actors like Brian Drummond and Kirby Morrow, Westwood and AB Groupe went for actors like Jeremiah Yurk and Roger Rhodes, obscure even among the anime community. The original Japanese Dragon Ball GT music was kept intact. This dub is not bad, but not particularly memorable either.
Much of the Blue Water Dub has disappeared thanks to this version never getting a home video release.
Between the Harmony Gold and Ocean Group dubs, the Philippines would create its own English version of Dragon Ball Z. Creative Products Corporation was the behind the dubbing and actually managed to complete the series years before their American and Canadian rivals. Not much has survived of this version, though it did air on Filipino television with some success.
Considering its origin and obscurity, this version of Dragon Ball Z is actually pretty well-acted. One assumes the worst considering the story behind it, but this dub is not terrible. The surviving sound quality, however, leaves a lot to be desired.
The Speedy Dub is the most mysterious of all known English dubs of Dragon Ball. Nobody is entirely sure who made it, or how much of the series was recorded. At some point in the ’90s in Southeast Asia, some company made English dubs of the 13 Dragon Ball Z movies along with at least a few Dragon Ball films as well. What is known is that they were distributed in Malaysia and sold on Video CD, the preferred format of that part of the world at the time. The dub is named after its distributor, Speedy Video Distributors, based out of Kuala Lumpur.
The Speedy Dub is of hilariously bad quality. Most of the voice cast seems to struggle with English, and the translation, to put it mildly, leaving much to be desired. Most Youtube clips you’ll find include subtitles because even with English dubbing, it is very hard to follow along. It is without a doubt the worst English dub of Dragon Ball.
But is it the most hilariously bad? Actually no. There is one even more ridiculous.
“Big Green” Dub
Due to a loophole in Canadian law, AB Groupe did not have to use Canadian talent when they adapted the Dragon Ball Z films in the early 2000s. They recorded a dub somewhere (probably France) with a cheap cast that was not credited. Ocean Group and Blue Water were not involved at all, which today is probably a source of relief for them. For some reason, AB Groupe decided not to use the existing English scripts of the films. Instead, they took the scripts from their earlier French dub and translated that into English. With a translation of a translation, the result was going to be interesting. And oh boy was it.
The reason this dub is called “Big Green” is because that’s the name this dub gives Piccolo. His name is Big Green. Saiyans are now Space Warriors. At the very least these name changes are descriptive. Piccolo is big and green after all. But beyond that, the dub is just a terrible collection of awkward moans and wooden dialog spoken as quickly as possible. And I’m sorry, the name “Big Green” just cannot be used seriously in dialog without eliciting laughter. “We need Big Green!” Goku has a deep masculine voice and Krillin sounds like a child. The Japanese music is kept intact if nothing else is.
If you ever need a dub that is so bad it’s good, you need Big Green.