In the 90s and early 2000s, a new kind of craze erupted among children. Nintendo's prized Pokemon series of video games had received a highly popular anime adaptation, and kids everywhere were buying into the hype train of collectible cards, tazos, and just about everything Pokemon-branded. I was a silly kid around the time this craze had hit its peak, which I'll probably assume was when Pokemon: The First Movie released, but something else struck me in the sea of the Pokemon pop culture phenomenon. A little show reared up on K-TV's early morning block called Digimon... and for arguments sake, many viewed it as a Pokemon clone. I'm here to tell you why it's so much better.
It's easy to look at Digimon as riding off the coattails of success that the Pokemon series captured in the market, and for all intents and purposes, it probably did. The similarities were uncanny: the show focused on some prepubescent children co-existing with a world overrun by monsters that could evolve into greater, more powerful forms, and each child formed a strong connection to their beloved monsters. While I will admit that the Pokemon anime captured my imagination in more ways than one, Digimon surpassed it on one very simple, yet quintessential merit: it had a plot.
Digimon as a collective whole spans multiple standalone seasons, each focusing on a new group of children who are transported to the Digital World, a world outside of our own inhabited by digital monsters. Each group of children would go on to be known as the DigiDestined - those destined to save the Digital World from numerous prophetic, impending dooms. For many nostalgic fans, the first season of Digimon is the iconic one. Featuring staple characters like Tai, Matt, Izzy, and of course, the delightful orange dinosaur, Agumon, it has made quite an impact on pop culture - enough that it produced its own movie which went on to give Pokemon: The First Movie a run for its money in the lifetime sales department. That also goes to show that, with everything predominantly focused on Pokemon all the time, Digimon had miraculously managed to carve an identity for itself in the crowded anime market - each passing idea evidently trying to capitalize off the success of Nintendo's crowning jewel.
What Pokemon lacked in, Digimon went way above and beyond the call of duty. The first season alone, comprising of around 50 episodes, had an admittedly captivating story that introduced new villains in individual arcs. Best of all, these villains (who were actually Digimon and not human) ticked all the boxes for compelling antagonists. The first notable antagonist, Devimon, was a brooding devil-like creature shrouded in darkness with all the heady, ferocious determination of a Batman villain. The show then moved on to the equally brilliant Dark Masters, who all outpaced Devimon in the "pure, unhinged evil" category. Yes, it was some dark subject matter for a children's television show, but that's exactly what separated Digimon from the pack. We'll jump straight into the third (and without a shadow of the doubt, the best) season of the series, because nobody really wants to remember season 2.
The third season, Digimon Tamers, took the meta approach to its setting. Set in our own world instead of some fantastical alternative realm, Digimon is a popular television show and card game that has caused children to buy into the trend from all corners of the globe. Takato is another goggle-wearing protagonist in this world who often fantasizes about creating his own Digimon and living in the world of the series (like any kid would have). This is, until his wish comes true and he accidentally manifests his own Digimon drawing into the real world. Surprised by this, he soon learns that Digimon do, in fact, exist and pose a danger to society in ways that previous seasons didn't really tackle all that well. This all seems pretty safe, right? Why does it warrant any attention above the first season? For one fact: Digimon Tamers was written exclusively by Chiaki J. Konaka, the writer behind Serial Experiments Lain... (if you're familiar with that show, you can already see where my point is going).
Digimon Tamers is far more adult than it had any right to be, and all for the better. Instead of putting an emphasis on the Digimon and their fantastic powers, Tamers subdues the fantasy violence in favour of exploring the inner workings of its characters - specifically how co-existing with bizarre, incomprehensible creatures from another universe could have serious and dire ramifications on one's psyche, especially that of a child. Throughout the season, we see that deep-rooted anguish and psychological torment manifest through certain characters, yet somehow also manages to weave in social problems and risque subject matter, ranging from neglect and abuse to mental instability and illness - and this is a kids show! Somehow, it makes a very strong argument for itself too. Digimon Tamers had a profound, extraordinary message about overcoming one's innate fears and troubling personal issues through bonding, friendship, love, and understanding of one another. It didn't sacrifice any of the charm and wit of the series, but found an interesting way to explore greater themes and ideologies because of its outstanding writing.
There's a lot more facets to explore about Digimon, but I chose to focus on the first and third seasons since they're generally regarded as the best in the series. Personally, I do have my gripes with Digimon too. Rewatching it a few months ago, its flaws became more apparent. The plot is often at the mercy of some bizarre filler episodes and arcs that seem to go absolutely nowhere except to pad out the 50-episode mark. It creates numerous, problematic pacing issues, especially in the first and second seasons. Though, if you really ask me, the third season, Digimon Tamers, is the one I highly recommend without hesitation (you don't need to watch the previous two seasons to understand it). It doesn't suffer from any of those nagging issues, and tells a far grander story that both kids and adults can relate to. It's dark subject matter coupled with some grizzly moments of unease and general creepiness is what elevates Tamers above your usual kids anime involving adorable monsters beating each other to death.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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