Let me set the stage. We've followed Goku's ascendency to Super Sayian (at the time where this level was the be-all-end-all transformation), in order to defeat Frieza and save the inhabitants of Namek. His fate is left ambiguous as the planet explodes. While waiting for him to return, the Z Fighters deal with the shenaniganry of a little imp named Garlic Jr, and his evil vampire mist. Though, after he's taken out, they finally kick back with some semblance of a normal life. But before the first commercial break, the cosmos shovels a whole lot of nonsense in their faces with the resurrection of Frieza by his even more powerful father, King Cold. Someone so massive, and so terrifying, that we haven't heard a single mention of him before this episode. But after Cold runs Frieza through the Six Million Dollar Man treatment, they head to earth to take their revenge on Goku.
However, as the duo land on Earth, set on destroying everything in sight, so that Goku's mind would instantly shatter upon seeing everything he loved being laid waste. But before any of the Z Fighters can get a punch in, edgewise, Cold and Frieza are confronted by a mysterious youth, claiming to know all about them, transforming into a Super Saiyan, and annihilating them so completely, it's downright comic. When Goku finally does arrive home, the youth reveals himself to be Trunks, the son of Vegeta and Bluma (if the Capsule Corp logo, blue hair and Vegeta face didn't give the game away already). He has traveled from the future to save Goku from a rampant heart virus (which doesn't seem to affect anyone else except Goku), some three years later. He also drops a major spoiler that a handful of genocidal androids would also appear around that time with a big old bone to pick with him. After some more exposition dumping, laying out the trajectory of the series' next major narrative arc, Trunks departs in his time machine. We know we'll see him again, and fairly soon, if the timeline keeps its present pace, but for now, this kickass character disappears as quickly as he arrived.
Now, like many kids in the US, who grew up watching anime in the 1990s, one of my very first experiences was through Dragon Ball Z. It played on Cartoon Network's Toonami block, and occasionally I saw VHS copies for sale in video stores, though I grew up mainly in a suburban/rural area, so our selection of anime was severely limited, even on the best days. And when I saw these episodes, especially after so much investment with the Frieza Saga, this absolutely blew my eleven-year-old mind. And when Tom told me that there was a “movie” that was going to air called The History of Trunks, I was hyped. When it aired, Trunks immediately became my favorite character in the series, going down, in my mind, as the greatest OVA in DBZ history. It was a foolhardy attitude which I carried into adulthood, even though I hadn't watched it since that original experience, and I eventually fell off watching Goku's continued ascendency into mythological memehood well before Dragon Ball Super managed to actually get moving. So, I felt, after all of these years, I needed to go back and determine how the OVA legitimately holds up.
So, as I assume y'all have seen the OVA, I won't be walking through every minute detail. But these are the broad strokes:
Because Goku's death was the result of “natural causes,” he was ineligible for revival via the Dragon Balls, and the Earth quickly ran out of its stock of deus ex machina machines (the Z Fighters). Though I'd argue that natural causes are often attributed to old age, not a virus turning your organs into pulped sewage -- but I digress, since as soon as Piccolo is murdered, the Dragon Balls are rendered inoperable anyway. After a timeskip of thirteen years, we see young boy Trunks repeatedly bucking against Bulma's attempts to travel into the past to save Goku, easily swayed by the internalized hero complex parading about him in the form of a grown-up Gohan, who seems to enjoy cosplaying as his dearly deceased dad. Their efforts to down the androids always end in failure, with Gohan continually losing chunks off his body until he is finally Real Deathed (Altered Carbon). This loss is the final push which sends Trunks into his Super Saiyan state, and after one more disastrous fight with the androids which nearly claims his own life, he submits to his mom's wishes, and travels into the past to rescue Sun Wukong.
What became immediately apparent is the sense of genuine tragedy here. With the Dragon Balls no longer being a permissible path in the narrative, every choice has permanent and painful consequences. This finality is molded from years of deep-set trauma, grappling with the utter futility of any resistance against the androids. Trunks seeks to undo the damage he's experienced; not to simply “return to the way things were,” but to save everyone the pain which he sees stitched into every corner of Bulma's face, and into his very soul. Even when Trunks goes Super, he's still mercilessly pummelled by Androids 17 and 18. The gravity of how powerful these new foes are, is repeatedly punched into the faces of the audience, as much as it is into the face of Trunks.
Even then, the whole time travel mechanic is used as a last-ditch effort, and refuses to factor in the consequences to the existing timeline (Legacy of Kain, “History abhors a paradox, Raziel.”). Even before Cell's introduction, which confirms yet another alternative future, this time where his version of Trunks has already wiped out Androids 17 and 18, the possibilities that he and Bulma (as they are depicted here) inhabit a world which will remain unchanged by these time traveling actions, lays heavy on their shoulders (though, hilariously, this paradox is only directly addressed in the Team Four Star Abridged parody). But in the off-chance that this will rewrite the future, Trunks is willing to sacrifice everything left for that opportunity. Yet, he isn't a selfless hero. His drive is fueled more by personal injuries and loss, rather than the larger atrocities committed against the world.
Gohan's attitude and appearance are nearly carbon-copied from Goku, trying to be the hero that the world needs. This does actually serve as great foreshadowing for his fate in the Cell Saga, where he surpasses Goku in every way (at least, until fan and publisher pressure to shove Goku back into the narrative wrecked Gohan's chances as DBZ's new protagonist). Gohan's purpose in the OVA is that of the doomed hero; the one who fights, knowing his struggle is ultimately fruitless, and will end in his death, but he fights on anyway. His death provides the catalyst for the rest of Trunks' journey, similar to the events of the Cell Saga, where the death of Goku makes Gohan into the hero he always had the potential to be.
So, having said all of this, has The History of Trunks aged as well as my memory had me believe?
Well, as part of the larger DBZ series, it really does a lot for Trunks' characterization at this point in the narrative, while giving us the more serious implications of the approaching Android and Cell sagas. We understand the weight of what is at stake better with this alternative story, than just the normal progression we're given from Episode 118 to 125. The original soundtrack is full of crunchy baselines, screeching synthesizers and sloshy drums, and it's amazing. The English localization replaced the majority of the original compositions with tracks from the audacious Bootsy Collins with Buckethead, the glam metal band Slaughter, and the always amazing Dream Theater -- and it all works pretty damn well, so kudos all round to the musical arrangement.
However, as a stand-alone OVA, and even with the prior knowledge as to where the episode fits into the larger arc, for the most part, no, The History of Trunks hasn't aged particularly well. The pacing of the first few minutes steamrolls through the set-up so quickly, it's easy to feel a little whiplash from the stag reel of death rattles, and the split-second shifts in perspective and location. It feels so compressed that it could have easily been stretched out into two or three episodes, and we'd still have to contract sequences somewhat to get it all in.
The animation is more miss than hit, even in the more visually impressive moments of the story, and though I acknowledge that the OVA was based off a single extra chapter in the manga (which originally aired in Japan when the series was already deep into the Cell Saga), there was so much that felt so glossed over, it ultimately leaves the impression that the makers didn't carry the OVA's potential as far as they could have.
While the episode has far more detractors than I had remembered, I still thoroughly enjoyed my reexamination of this cornerstone gem in my early anime education. Additionally, I still believe that it holds a lot of value to the greater canon and overall experience of consuming Dragon Ball, but like most rediscovered things from our youth, it hardly is the world-shattering bombshell that my smooth brained younger self believed it to be. But that's alright. I'm not out here to prove that this OVA is better than any other released along with the series, or that this version of Trunks could wallop any subsequent variation of the character. Those aren't the reasons I got into DBZ. I wanted to see heroes overcoming insurmountable odds, to see how they stood up for their ideals, even in the face of utter extinction, and how they retained their humanity, even when presented with every reason to abandon it. And that's exactly what I got from The History of Trunks.
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