Before I even get this entry under way, I’m posting a link to an article that was published on Popmatters.com all the way back in 2001.
I’m referencing this as a springboard of sorts, though not to agree or disagree with the tangents that the author takes with it, or to even address any of the observations or conclusions she comes to. No, I’m throwing it out there for simply existing at all, because finding any “mainstream” — in the general sense of what’s on the Internet, I mean — outlet like this willing to devote a feature to such an easily-dismissible show as Digimon, much less actually letting the writer take it seriously (and personally), is a tiny miracle given the punching bag-treatment that it endured so long from both “serious” anime fans as well as a dismissive public. It also validates my past fondness for the series, which I privately harbored with a small sense of shame during the years it aired while I was in college.
For those of you who may have been unemployed or in college over the last two years or so, you can skip the next paragraph. You all doubtlessly spent many an aimless afternoon with Digimon reruns.
Ah, vindication. Unless Ms. Schwartz was suggesting that Digimon was a turn of the century precursor to the stoner favorite Yo Gabba Gabba!, then there was nothing out of the ordinary about me spending my decidedly aimless afternoons with the series, which despite being a bit more complex and sophisticated than Pokemon — which it was doomed to be labeled a mere imitation of — was still a cartoon aimed at viewers half my age. A staple of the late Fox Kids weekday afternoon lineup, Digimon usually aired at 3:30 or 4:00 CST, if I remember correctly, that part of the day when I was finished with classes and content to loaf around until dinner at 5:00 rather than take the time to study or do anything productive. My friends and roommates were usually away during this time, so I found myself regularly settling down to watch the show throughout my 2nd and 3rd years of school. Occasionally a friend of roommate would appear and watch with me, during which time I likely played it off my enjoyment of the show as ironic. Little did they know that it was a ritual that I actually looked forward to.
I remember this strange obsession beginning during the autumn break of my 2nd year. It was a lonely afternoon at home with the house to myself, and I was brooding over the questionable decisions I’d made that lead me to the academic and social quagmire that I now found myself firmly stuck in at college. I turned on the TV out of sheer boredom, or at least to find something else to focus on instead. I came across a strange cartoon featuring a group of kids and small monsters walking through a forest. I’d seen promos for it before, but it didn’t look at all like the loud and violent cartoon that it was being pitched as. I think I tuned in at around the 5-minute mark in this clip, and I struggled to make any sense of the scene that followed. It was strange to come across a kids’ show with so much dialog, and where for several minutes, nothing much seemed to be happening at all. Characters walk, talk, discuss subjects incomprehensible to anyone just tuning in, come across a bank of phone booths on the beach (which are never actually explained), and sit down in the sand to talk some more. Scenes like this would be less common as the series progressed, but at this time I found it oddly intriguing. The character designs were simple but drawn in a cheap but colorful style far removed from the more dark and detailed anime I’d been able to watch up to this point. If the lushly-illustrated Ghost in the Shell and Akira were buttermilk pancakes and eggs benedict, then Digimon was the visual equivalent of bargain bag brand Froot Loops. I knew I really shouldn’t be watching this or letting myself get caught up in it, but I couldn’t turn it off. And as it turned out, this was the first of several episodes being aired that afternoon. I watched another hour’s worth and was hooked.
At the time I was still discovering anime, as my exposure to anime had been mostly limited to the slim pickings at Blockbuster Video (mostly movies). I was privvy to how elite anime fans scoffed at the series — out of a need to bolster and reaffirm their personal identities as truly cultured and discerning otaku, I would later go on to assume — but I wasn’t the least bit concerned as to how well it held up next to the best anime of the day or what my fondness for it said about me. Watching it was a welcome escape from the increasingly boring and disappointing routine that college had lapsed into, and probably satisfied a certain longing I was beginning to feel for childish things as the semesters ground on. More importantly, it would whet my appetite for more anime, not so much as a gateway title as one that would eventually push me to go all-in as a fully fledged fan.
Looking back, I’m not sure exactly what it was that made the series so great, or for that matter, if it was even half as good as I remember it being. A quick summation of the original plot of Digimon Adventure: seven children meet at summer camp, only to find themselves suddenly transported to a strange new world. There, they’re greeted by a band of pint-sized creatures called Digimon, who quickly bond with the kids and vow to protect them from the larger, less-friendly Digimon of the Digital World. Their respective bonds form a kind of psychic symbiosis, allowing the Digimon to “Digivolve” into higher and more powerful forms. This proves crucial as the kids face increasingly powerful enemies in the both the Digital World and eventually back home on Earth. Their battle to survive and eventually defend their own world brings them closer to both each other and their Digimon, not to mention forcing them to grow up fast and face up to each of their own individual shortcomings in the process. I’m not sure if Digimon Adventure really brought anything original to the table, but I did admire its scope — OMG, it’s more than just “a monster of the week” series! — and the relative respect that it seemed to have for its (young) audience.
In my opinion, the franchise wouldn’t really come into its own until the second series, Digimon Adventure 02, a continuation of the original series which finds a new generation (er, a scant three years younger than the original cast) taking the reigns and teaming up with a new group of Digimon to defend the Digital World, and once again, the Earth, from new threats. I found the characters to be more well-rounded this time around, a little less stereotypically “typed” and more sympathetic, and the plot just more interesting overall. This time around the protagonists can enter and leave the Digital World at will, resulting in more scenes in the surprisingly well-rendered real world — which I always preferred anyway, no disrespect toward to the creators’ often whimsical and imaginative efforts in inventing the Digital World — and more interesting conflicts involving both human and non-human characters. Digimon was still a kids’ anime, and an often frustratingly Americanized one at that, but it was during this season that I latched onto it with a naive devotion that I’ve rarely felt since, consuming anything about the series that I could find online, including mounds of fanfiction (a guilty pleasure that I kept all to myself, and for good reason).
This season also saw the release of the Digimon: The Movie, a truly strange re-edit of three different Digimon movies from Japan. Arriving over a year after the blockbuster success of Pokemon: The First Movie, Digimon: The Movie failed to fill seats (doing less than $10 million in business) or do much to build the Digimon brand, which was already beginning to wane in America. The film was a near-incomprehensible mess, patched together in a loose fashion with a late 90s pop music soundtrack thrown on top and a bizarre opening sequence featuring characters from another Fox Kids cartoon (that unfortunately remains intact on the English dub-only DVD release). I bought a ticket for an afternoon showing during its second week, and watched it by myself in an empty theater. Whether this was one of the highest or lowest points of my life, I’m not sure, but I look back on it as one of the defining experiences of my budding otakudom.
I don’t know if it was my favorite, but I’d have to say that the third series, Digimon Tamers, was probably the creative peak of the franchise. Its characters were the most complex and fully-realized yet, its action scenes more convincingly set up and better orchestrated than ever, and its story inventive and emotional enough to overcome the cheap, commercial foundation that the series was rooted in. The story takes place in a world much like our own, where “Digimon” is a popular card game (whether it’s also an anime, I cannot recall). When real Digimon begin appearing throughout Tokyo, no one’s more thrilled than the three children who find themselves partnered with their own personal Digimon. But being a real-life Digimon “tamer” is nothing compared to the game, as each child and their Digimon quickly find out. As expected, most episodes culminate in battle scenes, but there’s a greater emphasis on the real consequences of such violence, leading to unexpectedly complex moral territory. Past seasons attempted to touch on the themes of loss and death, but they look sentimental and trite compared to the depths to which Tamers dares to go in both separating and killing off characters. Not what anyone expected from a franchise which, only two years earlier, was constantly tossed aside as “a Pokemon rip-off.” “Gotta catch ’em all,” this wasn’t. Tamers also tackled the question that past seasons had dodged: what are Digimon? The answer is complex and intriguing, and takes Tamers to some of the most emotional scenes that Saturday morning TV has ever seen.
Thanks to the decline and eventual end of Fox Kids, I missed out on most of the 4th season, Digimon Frontier. I liked what little I was able to see, but unfortunately I was without cable during its run. Season five is a mystery to me, and a cruel irony of sorts: I don’t have much desire to see Digimon Data Squad (because of the character designs or my dwindling interest, I’m not sure), but as of now it’s the only season available on DVD in America. Overall, aside from a few VHS tapes (!) collecting a handful of episodes from the first season, the first four seasons of Digimon were never released in America. Meanwhile, nearly every other kids’ anime that hit it big in the West, from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh to Dragonball, has received DVD treatments several times over. Why Bandai was unable or unwilling to do the same with Digimon during its heyday or today is a mystery to me as well as countless other spurned fans, although I’m sure they have their reasons.
But overall, Digimon always seemed to me like it was never given the kind of truly strong push here in America that it needed to reach its potential. Either by arriving on our shores too early for anyone to really know what to do with it, or perhaps too late, its presence in the popular consciousness of kids, anime fans, and the media in general always seemed second-rate. It spawned quite a few video games, but to my knowledge, these had little to do with the series itself and were a mild success at best. The movie came and went from screens within a fortnight, DVD sales were literally nonexistent, and merchandise ended up in closeout sales and bargain bins. It presses on somewhere out there on cable TV, but in our 500-channel world, what doesn’t? Did it change anything, and would anime be any different today if it had never existed? I’m not sure.
Still, my time spent with this show was formative to my evolution as an anime fan, and I say this not as someone who watched it as a wide-eyed, impressionable child, but as a young adult who was still rolling his eyes at most other anime shows on TV at the time (discerningly, I thought at the time, but quite idiotically, I’ll now admit in hindsight). Maybe I was bored with life, craving an adventure of my own, and was happy to experience one in half-hour chunks every day. Maybe I admired the independence and freedom of the characters, who moved through their world(s) of their own accord, making tough choices on their own, unencumbered by responsibilities, rules, or authority figures (ie. the opposite of life on a stodgy Christian college campus). Or maybe I just wanted to feel like a kid again. Maybe I still do?
Adventure 02 is now streaming with subtitles. A new season finally debuts in Japan. Other bloggers have recently reminisced about the franchise, all perhaps suggesting that Digimon, even in 2010, is far from dead. All this makes me both nostalgic and hopeful for the future, a future where the series undergoes a reissue and eventual renaissance and is no longer treated like a doormat for incoming fans. Hopefully it also involves me kicking back in a leather armchair with some scotch and enjoying the complete series on Blu-ray.