Digimon made quite the mark on me thanks to a volume one VHS my cousin brought over in the summer of 1999. She and I watched it again and again for the day or two she was over and then somehow I kept it.
Until recently my nostalgia had blinded me to the show’s true quality. After checking out some reviews and thinking over the various seasons more critically, I have found that the bloom has fallen off of my love for Digimon. Just a bit.
I’ll start in reverse order with Fusion. It was nigh unwatchable. I checked out the first two episodes but didn’t hang with it, because I don’t need to watch something just because it is part of a franchise I had once enjoyed. By 2014 standards, the localization is awful. Also, I appreciate the creative team wanting to go in a new direction: change the animation style; update character models; and redesign some (if not all) of the digimon as well as how they function, but I didn’t like the changes. Whether it put me off as a product of my “everything new is bad,” inflexible-old-fan bent, which I reject and renounce, or a byproduct of the combination of creative choices made, it is hard to say. I may not be in the target audience, but the same is true for other seasons of Digimon that grabbed me by the first two episodes. Fusion just didn’t feel like Digimon to me.
Digimon Savers. Wow. What to say? Again, this is a series I did not finish. I bought the first volume at Anime Expo and never bought more. I considered it, but when the time came to test out the show to see if it was worth shelling out the digidollars to get a questionable set online a few years ago, it didn’t pass. The animation changes were jarring but I got used to it. The change to Agumon was weird, but I looked past that too. The shtick with Marcus being a digimon fighting street-tough is what lost me. That’s not fair. The set up with the very shonen vibe to the cast, the seeming over-arching mystery, which was at least seeded early on, which deserves credit and the quasui-government organization of Digi-MIB seemed like a poor combination to me. Was Savers a success? I don’t know. I didn’t give it a fair chance because it seemed almost like a shallow skinning of Digimon over other more successful anime, which again doesn’t feel like Digimon.
Frontier was a departure from the familiar set up, which seemed to almost synthesize the nuts and bolts of how digivolution and digidestined-hood worked. The story wasn’t as strong overall and particularly in the end, and the characters were fairly flat. The show seemed very much like a distillation and recasting of the previous 3 seasons but it unfortunately delegitimized the crucial importance of half the cast. The villains were somewhat interesting, but perhaps given too much screen time. The show perhaps suffered from a toxic blend of high ambition, a desire to echo what had come before and poor planning. Some plot points seemed to drag on endlessly while others were dropped. The dynamic of kid and digimon as partners could have been replaced by the team dynamics between the six, but not enough meaningfully happens between them all for it to really work. The gimmick of becoming the digimon was cool though, they were basically form changing henshin heroes which may have given it more of a draw and kept me interested longer than the show merited. One more blemish for the series is that Zoe and the only female villain are portrayed very poorly. They are over-sexualized; vanity and beauty are kind of virtues to them.
Tamers is a thing of beauty. It is my favorite series. The characters are well constructed, the plot and story are well placed and the conceit of the show being a grounded, real world tale of these kids dealing with this branded intellectual property coming to life is done so well. It isn’t that the show is dark and gritty that makes it good. The tightness and consistency of all the characters and the journey they go on from dealing with a game (and dream) come true to the responsible use of power, the callousness of adulthood and how that can turn happy things sad, and even dealing with grief. So much happens; all of it matters and all of it makes sense, even the silliness in the digital world. There is plenty of humor, the tamers and digimon are so intimately connected and there is a sense of awe and wonder for most of the show. Things get dark at the end, but there is still a hopeful spirit about everything; life will go on and you can be happy even when childhood fades away.
Zero Two. Can I call it that? Confession time: I’m all dubs when it comes to early Digimon, but I had a glancing familiarity with the more subs friendly online community back in the day, so I know that the first two seasons are REALLY called Adventure and Zero Two! I would be willing to watch a subtitled simulcast of new Digimon. I have seen some of Digimon Adventure and the music is nice, but I am so used to the first two seasons with their heavy Saban treatment that I have no real desire to watch them in their original forms. Season two may be my second favorite. Davis and Ken rocked. Ken turning good and struggling with his past was so fun to watch. Older, veteran T.K. and Kari were interesting too and Codey and Yolei were enjoyable to watch. I really like the big story that continued over from season 1 and it just made Digimon feel so real and like it was a living world. The Interactions between the original team and newbies was entertaining and the torch-passing was handled well. There were issues, but it took the Digimon I loved already and expanded it.
Digimon. The one that started it all is not objectively the best, but it can be argued that it is the best because it broke into the market successfully and opened up the possibility for all the other shows to exist. What made this show a hit for me is the mix of the kids and their digimon. All are nuanced and have their idiosyncrasies. They all have an importance and weight to the story and they all go through a lot; together, separately and with their partners. The Digital world is zany and silly; there is danger all around, but the kids are always safe with their partners close by and at first there is a sense that everything will be fine. The show starts as more of a strange journey, but as it goes on the characters get tested physically (or is it digitally?) needing to defeat bigger, scarier challenges and they have to face themselves, which seemed really novel at the time. It was certainly deeper than Pokémon and the character focus episodes were probably better than most of what Power Rangers had been offering at the time. The focus episodes allowed us to get to know everyone and from relationships with them, whether we identified with them or admired them. It was a good show. It lauds having good character and embracing that in whatever form it exists in you. Family is an important factor in the show as well as helping others and struggling to overcome your own weaknesses with faith in yourself and the support of friends. There is so much good here, but there is also bad.
Seasons 1-4 don’t do a great job of handling the female characters. Mimi is sexualized by a few Digimon and even uses her prepubescent wiles a few times to get something from male digimon. Sora is sort of presented as the cold woman, unable to love in some instances. She and Biyomon have a beautiful relationship, but she also gets to be a damsel in distress in a big, unappealing way right after Mimi went Betty Boop. As mentioned before, Zoe and Ranamon are kind of treated as sex symbols/fan-service material and are at times made ineffectual, more so than any of the guys. Girls get to hold their own, but with the exception of Rika, no female character ever really gets to be in the rarefied air of having a most-powerful Digimon that can face down the big bad at series end. The girls show some cool personal strength, but guys get to do that and have warp-digivolving power beasts of destruction.
I would love to see a new Digimon series with a smaller core cast that is split between boys and girls and has a girl as leader or co-leader without the use her or any female villains for fan-service. With the news of the new Taichi at 17 series debuting Spring 2015, I am sure we won’t be getting that, but Tai is a stand-up guy and never really treated the girls unfairly (there may have been some smart ass comments in the dub, but I think it was more based on: girls have cooties), especially in season 2. Perhaps the nostalgia for Adventure will draw enough interest and the show will be good enough for Toei to move forward with another project, which will hopefully be more focused and fair-minded with the sensibilities of this era. The show can be so whimsical, charming and enchanting. It captured my imagination as a kid and if positive messages can be packaged with it, it could be another great source of entertainment to encourage all the dreamers to strive for what they want and help others to get to that next level, as well as accept help from those around them.