by Joseph Walter
Shows like Voltron and Robotech would go through major edits and storyline changes, for example.
Anime made its first major splash in the early 90s with hits like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, and those shows also went through some serious changes, but on a lesser scale than Robotech's stitching together multiple, separate series into one, giant epic.
DBZ and Sailor Moon faced edits for sexuality or violence, but perhaps their most memorable changes came in the form of the total replacement of their original musical scores. Why the producers felt that music, of all things, needed to be changed is certainly baffling, but change them they did.
Sailor Moon's brand new score actually turned out to be superior (at least in my opinion) to its original Japanese, and I hunger for a full soundtrack release.
DBZ's musical changes, on the other hand, were met with far more controversy and are still heated topics of debate between fans even today, so I wanted to put all the major players out there and discuss the strengths and weaknesses regarding each version of the score.
While I won't be declaring a "winner," per se, I'm hoping that, at the very least, each score will get some kind of appreciation by the time we're done. Anyway, let's get started by first clicking the "Read More" break and then discussing our main players!
*Note: All analyses are based on my viewing of the series with all versions of the soundtrack, and listening to the available albums.
For the first US run of Dragon Ball Z, produced by Saban, the score was created by Ron Wasserman, who is best known for his work on Power Rangers. While Shuki Levy stills the credit (as always), Wasserman's classic sounds give him a way, and you can hear the porto-versions of scores for Zeo, Teknoman and other Saban works. Instead of an orchestra, Wasserman employs a keyboard, and uses a variety of sounds, some based on real instruments, and others purely synthetic.
Lastly, and most famously (or controversially), the second (and most popular) run of Dragon Ball Z, this time produced by Funimation, hired Bruce Falcouner and his team of composers. Most well-known to American fans, Falcouner and co. created heavily atmospheric, even industrial, tunes for the series.
Part One: The Theme Songs
Click the titles of each song to give them a listen!
Bonus: We Gotta Power
Of course, this leaves Cha-La Head Cha-La as my number one, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether it's in Spanish, Japanese, or making brief appearances in Battle of Gods or the abysmal Resurrection F, I just love this song and want to sing along to it.
It nails the right atmosphere, manages to be catchy, cool and nostalgic, and it just screams Dragon Ball Z. The composition just sucks you right in and forces you to jam along with it. When you hear this piece, you know you're in for a treat.
Part Two: The General Feel
Kikuchi's score uses live musicians, and occasionally rather unique instruments. There's an overall sense of dread that permeates the earlier portion of the series, up until the first appearance of Future Trunks. There's also a sense of minimalism, and it works to great effect. Despite this, humorous or light-hearted moments are treated well and not in a cheesy way. He also has a knack for stirring up drama for big fights or the action itself, and it's mostly done as classily as possible. His music may be simple, but it drags you in and is composed in a way where your imagination is allowed to take root. To sum this style up into one sentence, I'd say that Kikuchi's score is about setting a tone.
Wasserman's score is, in many ways, the exact opposite. Using a wide-array of synthetic interests, the scope of Wasserman's compositions is immediately apparent. We get everything from steel drums, hefty strings and lots (and lots) of percussion. Wasserman's score creates a unique world and atmosphere, and its generally ever-present nature enraptures you in this luscious environment. As we'll see with Faulconer's work, Wasserman does a fair bit of "cartooning" or "Mickey Mousing," which is when the music is slave to whatever action is on screen. Do we see a tropical beach house? Play steel drums. A bad guy appears? Immediate tonal shift to a sinister sounding guitar. Regardless of this, Wasserman's work is mesmerizing as its own microcosm. In a nutshell, this score is almost exclusively about telling a story.
Faulconer Productions' score is, by far, the most all-encompassing. Dictated to have music to accompany essentially every single moment of screen time, the composers were forced to create enormous amounts of music. This high-pressure situation resulted in music that oftentimes feels a little too atmospheric when compared to Kikuchi or Wasserman, but it also has a feel that's absolutely its own. Featuring almost nothing but techo/industrial influenced synthetic sounds, the score creates a hypnotic world of its own that manages to tell a story without the visuals to accompany it. Whether you can actually imagine what's going on is another story all together, though, as Faulconer Productions does the most cartooning of any of the previous composers, with the same kind of tonal shifts that Wasserman produced. It's also the opposite of Kikuchi, where nothing is left to the imagination, which is something Wasserman also pioneered. In short, this score is heavy on atmosphere.
Part Three: Cohesion and Motifs
All three have their own ideas regarding motifs, general thematic cohesion and how to employ them, and you might be surprised by just how different their approaches are.
1. Kikuchi's Motifs, and the infamous "bad Guy Theme."
This descending and sinister theme is used constantly throughout the earlier part of the series to let you know that, shockingly, someone is evil, and it plays constantly during combat and stand-offs. It's best heard in its initial forms in the score for Dead Zone, such as its first appearance at :48 - 1:44, or the expanded rendition at 2:39 - 3:01. It shows up again in a retooled version during the music that accompanies the combat sequences in the movie, starting at 3:31, which really puts the menace of the descending notes at the forefront, backed by a greatly increased pace.
It's how this motif evolves throughout the the series that makes it so awesome, however. During the battles with Frieza, we get to hear this theme used frequently, considering that this tyrant is the ultimate villain. As this horribly evil character goes through terrifying metamorphoses, we get the greatest, most ominous version of the piece (:00 - :31) that the series would ever be graced with. Elongated, drawn-out and otherwise completely re-tooled, this version, oozes with extreme menace.
Also, in a clever transformation of the theme's meaning, when Goku becomes a Super Saiyan and begins to lay waste to the increasingly battered and helpless Frieza, Kikuchi uses this ultimate version of the Bad Guy Theme for Goku. And it's absolutely brilliant.
When you hear that theme, you know shit's about to go down.
Kikuchi also has other themes he likes to reuse that are unique to certain characters or situations, such as Vegeta's theme, which is kind of an odd, spacey, stern and spooky piece that one YouTube commenter referred to as a "wet fart." (for the record, I like it.)
Another great piece is the theme that plays when Goku arrives on Namek. It's a simple march that slowly builds into something angelic and hopeful, and it perfectly captures the cathartic moment of Goku's long-awaited arrival, and the salvation he will bring to our heroes. It's used later (also perfectly) when Gohan becomes a Super Saiyan for the first time, but the initial use of this theme is the definitive one in my eyes.
Lastly, Kikuchi's Piccolo theme is awesome, but we've got a whole section dedicated to the Piccolo themes of all versions of the score, so hang tight.
Overall, Kikuchi's cohesion is on point, and never feels like he's going in divergent directions or using a ghost composer. His use of motifs and themes are great, too..... except for halfway through the series. By the time the androids roll around, there's very little in the use of motifs, and it's rather disappointing.
2. Ron WASSERMAn's Heroic Theme
A strongpoint, however, is that it's all very Ron. You can tell it's him, the same way you can identify his work on other shows he's composed for (even if it says Shuki Levy did the work... because he most definitely did not, most of the time.)
There's certainly a sense of cohesion, but the overall listening experience is one of a frenzy. The battle music (which, as you can imagine, accompanies the majority of the show) is frenetic and difficult to follow, and it's very far from an enjoyable listening experience on its own. It can be cognitively interesting because of the various styles but, still, as stand-alone work divorced from image, it can be hard to swallow.
There's one thing that Wasserman does better than Kikuchi and Faulconer Productions, however, and that's his core motif.
As far as I can tell, there is only one major piece of theme music in Ron's composition, but it's brilliantly developed and used throughout his limited episode count.
It's heroic and powerful, easily adapted to multiple situations, and ties everything, musically and thematically, together.
The best, most basic example of this theme is in the piece "Gohan's Metamorphosis" from :15 - :32, or in "Gohan's Hidden Powers," where it can be heard from 4:36 - 5:01.
Although it may seem like I'm ragging on Ron here, I genuinely think his work on DBZ is fantastic in context. It's got a style all its own, and has a cohesive array of sounds. The heroic theme at the core of the entire body of work is something I hummed repeatedly while playing with my DBZ action figures as a kid, and it still stands well on its own legs. Another great element of Wasserman's score is the use of synthetic choirs and exciting percussion.
When compared to Kikuchi or Faulconer, Wasserman's work has a one-of-a-kind sound, despite the varied styles, and it fits the material incredibly well... it's just not that fun to listen to without the show to go with it.
3. The operatic Approach of Bruce Faulconer
In a complete departure from Kikuchi while following the footsteps of Wasserman, Bruce Faulconer productions chose to produce a largely atmospheric work, with a focus on electronica, hard rock, and occasionally industrial elements. "Mickey Mousing" to a greater degree than Ron Wasserman, Faulconer and his team made sure every humorous moment had some kind of dopey music, and every hard-hitting moment of action had exciting music. Well, as mentioned before, they actually made sure that every moment of everything had something, as per the command of their bosses. Did they think kids couldn't handle silence or something? Well, if they thought they couldn't handle Kikuchi, I guess it's not a surprise...
Anyway, where Kikuchi had a few themes that he used increasingly sparingly, and Ron Wasserman had a singular main theme that he adapted to fit situations as necessary, Faulconer took a more Star Wars-like approach by crafting a a series of disparate themes to be used at the appropriate times.
Some of the most beloved among these songs are Vegeta's Super Saiyan theme, complete with the "Piano of Death," which famously played during Vegeta's Final Flash against Perfect Cell (Trunks: "Father, stop this!!" Krillin: "it's too late, Trunks. The piano has already started...")
Vegeta is also blessed with another awesome cue, appropriately titled "Vegeta's Theme." This hard-rock piece has an appropriate air of regality in it with the inclusion of orchestra chimes. It typically plays during scene of Vegeta being a total bad-ass (big surprise), but was also employed for emotional sequences that tug at the heart strings and conjure nostalgia, such as Vegeta sacrificing himself in the Buu Saga.
An example of a heroic theme that does evolve is the one for Gohan's anger, entitled... uh..."Gohan Angers." Truly tapping into the emotions of the character and the viewer, we get "Gohan Angers," "Gohan Angers 2," and the incredible climax, "Gohan Powers Up."
Curiously, while the themes of most heroes were barely tinkered with, Faulconer and co. gave nearly every villain their own motif, which were then constantly adapted and expanded, as if to say that the main motif of each Saga (typically named after the current villain) would be that of the villain's theme, which is certainly an interesting approach.
There's also a collection of awesome stand-alone pieces, like the famous and awe-inspiring "SSJ3 Power Up" or "Gohan Fights Frieza."
Lastly, there are even a few pieces strictly composed for a specific scenario, such as "Ginyu Transformation," which are brilliantly repurposed. Where it was once the music for Ginyu transforming, it would later be the cathartic theme of Cell being obliterated by Super Saiyan 2 Gohan.
Overall, the scope of Faulconer's work cannot be overstated. He and his team produced a gargantuan amount of music for Dragon Ball Z. There are a lot of unlistenable misses, for sure, but there are also incredible gems. Regardless of the scope, it all sounds perfectly cohesive and as if it were written by one person, which isn't the case at all, making it even more impressive.
Part 4: Piccolo's Themes
1. The Japanese Version
The theme has the regality of "The Demon King," an appropriate amount of surly menace, but also an inner core of pure bad-assery... all as it should be a for a character like Piccolo.
It's also used incredibly appropriately throughout most of the series, with a stand-out, chill-inducing moment being when Piccolo faces off against Frieza.
2. The American Version
Where the Japanese version captured Piccolo's evil, villainous origins, the Faulconer approach takes a closer look at a different side of the character, namely is wisdom, tactical genius, cool, calm and collected approach, and his ability to reliably take on a villain, if only for a short while.
I get way more hyped when Kikuchi's Piccolo theme kicks in as a prelude to Piccolo beating someone's ass, so I might have to give it the edge. It's just a shame that the American version wasn't used or expanded upon as much as it could have been... though the other "Piccolo theme" (despite being more of a "Namekian Fusion" theme), "Piccolo and Nail Fuse," is pretty great, too.
Part 5: The Conclusion
My hope here was to show the most die-hard anti-Faulconer fans that there is a merit to his work, or, for fan's of either American score, that there's something worth checking out in Kikuchi's original compositions.
To close things off, I'm going to break down the best parts of each score, the worst parts, and then, finally, give you my thoughts on the three.
I'll also be giving my suggestions on the "must listen to" tracks from each soundtrack. Many are already linked throughout the article, and I have linked those that were not.
The Best Elements of Each Score:
Suggested tracks: Cha-La Head Cha-La, the two Piccolo pieces from above, and the entire score of Dead Zone (all are linked throughout the article.)
For Wasserman, I feel that the best moments of his score, if I were to totally divorce myself from nostalgia, would be the continued use of the malleable heroic theme that sits at the core of each of his pieces. He also uses a great selection of styles of instruments that somehow, someway end up creating a cohesive, one-of-a-kind experience that gives the viewer a taste of the fire, fury and frenzy of DBZ, along with the noble heart.
Suggested Tracks: The Arrival of Raditz, The World's Strongest Team and Gohan's Metamorphosis.
For Faulconer Productions, the greatest elements of their work was their ability to craft an all-encompassing atmosphere and a series of memorable and beloved themes and motifs for both heroes and villains. They also knew when and how to implement each piece at the right time, creating emotional and memorable moments that leave a far greater impact than either Wasserman or Kikuchi's scores, at least of the most part.
Suggested Tracks: SSJ3 Power Up, the Gohan Angers sequence, and Frieza vs. Spirit Bomb Part 2.
The Worst Elements of each Score:
For Wasserman, the worst aspects of his score are probably its scatter-brained and frantic/frenzied nature. It's almost impossible to listen to unless you know exactly what's going on. The action music is effective in context, but sounds like repetitious noise without the intended visuals. The various styles also have the tendency to clash, which can be unsettling if going for a straight listening experience.
Lastly, the worst part of Faulconer Production's effort has got to be the over-reliance on "Mickey Mousing," which plagues the majority of the series. Even in a great track like "Frieza vs. Spirit Bomb Part 2," the "cartooning" gets in the way. It also doesn't help that they are occasionally too atmospheric for their own good, which, like Wasserman, can really hamper a strictly music-only listening experience. Lastly, and perhaps bizarrely, the sheer volume of available music makes it difficult to wade through and find the gems amongst the muck.
When I'm watching in Japanese, I enjoy the better script and the music blends in perfectly. When listening to the Funimation version, the script suffers, but the music makes up for it. When watching the Saban dub, the script and music meld seamlessly.
Kikuchi nails the right level of menace for the villains, Wasserman nails a great, heroic presence (and his atmospheric work is far less grating than the monotony of Faulconer's crew) and Faulconer utterly nails epic moments and character themes.
If I had to choose, I'd pick Kikuchi for the movies and Frieza Saga, Wasserman for the Saiyan Saga, and Faulconer for the rest of the series (and important moments throughout.)
I hope you were able to find something to love about each score during this discussion, and I'd love to hear your thoughts below... thanks for reading!