Digimon is a series that has sort of fallen off the radar. Commercially, it simply died. Some blame is cast on the seemingly directionless videogame attempts, which held some success on their own merits, but ultimately couldn’t make the push to be truly great; while others put blame on the television series itself. Many who do not enjoy–or never tried to watch–the show, flog it with remarks of being a knockoff series, trying to pick up on some of Pokemon‘s popularity. While this isn’t true (the time frames don’t make sense, and Digimon is more inspired by Tomogachi than anything), it’s certainly understandable why people would believe these things.
But Digimon is its own sort of animal. I’ve always loved the series, what with its new cast of characters every season, historic lore, unique setting, awesome creature design, and even ties with the real world. But since Netflix put the first few seasons up, I was thinking that maybe it was time to steel myself for a harsh, objective look at the series, now that I am older and can better separate myself from the feelings I’ve long since tied to the characters and stories within. I will be tackling primarily the first season, but will address the whole of the series in some regards, as there will be some foundation that needs to be laid out. That being said, this particular article will be longer than the ones which succeed it. Digimon, consider the gauntlet thrown down.
SPOILER WARNING: IN ORDER TO DO PROPER JUSTICE, I’M GOING TO TAKE AS MANY ASPECTS OF THE SERIES INTO ACCOUNT AS POSSIBLE, INCLUDING AN UNRAVELING OF MOST OF THE NARRATIVE. THIS WILL INEVITABLY LEAD TO SPOILERS, NOT ONLY FOR SEASON 1, BUT ALSO SOME LIGHT ONES FOR THE FRANCHISE AS A WHOLE.
Before I actually delve into the plot, pacing, and all of that jazz, I want to take an overarching, fundamental look at the Digimon universe.
When approaching Digimon, there are two worlds to be mindful of–the Digital World and the Real World (sometimes called the Human World). Appearance-wise, the Real World looks as you might suspect. Modern day Japan is the primary location (albeit over a decade removed because of the year in which the series started), but some other countries are shown briefly, such as France and America.
The Digital World, however, does not only function on its own devices, but also aesthetically looks different. Everything–the sky, the water, the land–is riddled with stippling of white or black, as if the design artist decided to just flick paint all over it. This factor, alone, causes a great distinction for the Digital World. History of the Digital World is revealed through gradually revealing of the story, discovering desolate locations, and otherwise learning information from some of the more knowledgeable characters, such as Gennai.
But, more than anything else, the Digital World is a fragile existence, made that much more so by events in the story. Its very fabric and nature can be subject to the whims of more powerful digital forces, most highly evidenced by the influence of the Dark Masters in the last quarter of the series, who turn the entire world into a spiral of four divisions: cityscape, sea, desolation, and woodland. To add further character to the environments, there are traces of the industrial/electronic/digital ages strewn about the otherwise natural world. Large network cables will snake out of mountains, or giant electrical outlets will be sitting in the middle of a forest, or gears will churn inside of rocks. In an early episode, the main characters find a lineup of telephone call-boxes, which, when dialed, lead to detached and non-sequential dialogue, vaguely resemblant of a conversation a person might have with a telemarketer… a shadow of the Real World, left entirely unexplained. This sort of advert bravery is one of the strongest and most edgy parts of Digimon. In placing all of these oddities, the show has a subtle and haunting sense of mystery and strangeness, knowing exactly where to draw the line before those things become a frustration or off-putting.
Digivolution is the quintessential fighting paradigm of the series. It is one of the series coolest aspects, as well as one of the most irritating. Irritating because it’s half-baked, with some rules that are very specific, and others that are either subjective or left up to you as the viewer to figure out. On top of this, there is another layer of complication when you consider that the rules for Digivolving are pointedly different for the protagonists. For example, any Digimon, whether a main character or not, is unable to Digivolve unless they have consumed enough food and have enough energy. In the case of most Digimon, this isn’t a problem, since Digivolution is a one-and-done deal. You transform from Rookie level to Champion, or Champion to Ultimate, and you’re done. But the main Digimon have a dual convenience/inconvenience of being able to revert back to their Rookie forms. This means if they’re fighting a higher level Digimon and need to respond in kind, they’ll usually Digivolve to meet the challenge. Most of the time you just assume they’re full of food and rearing to go, but in times of plot convenience, they simply aren’t.
There are also some problems with addressing the levels of Digimon in the series, which could probably be chalked up as nothing more than translation errors. The standard pattern for a Digimon’s lifespan, assuming they don’t die somewhere along the way, goes as such:
I re-emphasize, this is the STANDARD pattern. All of you familiar with the series can put down your “OBJECTION” fingers. I’ll get around to Mega level and whatnot later. Now is also a good time to clarify: I reviewed the English version of the series. I know the forms are coined differently in Japanese, but not enough people are familiar with them for it to matter.
The problems with Digivolution arise when a character appears, and one of the protagonists will mention that Digimon’s level, and be completely incorrect. For example, Angemon is the Champion level of T.K.’s partner Digimon, but at one point in the series, he is referred to as the “fully Digivolved form” of his particular Digivolution line. In other words, he’s called an Ultimate Digimon, the highest natural level a Digimon can reach without breaking the rules. But he’s not an Ultimate–he’s a Champion, even if his strength suggests otherwise. This happens a few times with other Digimon, further complicating the already tricky web that is Digivolution.
As stated earlier, I’ll get around to Mega/Warp Digivolution, and Dark Digivolution, as they are instrumental plot devices, just not now. If anybody is reading this and already feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry. You do not need to completely understand these things to appreciate the series, I’m just bearing down on the fine details for sake of exhaustive study.
Now to start delving into the actual narrative. In short, it’s the tale of seven kids who are off at summer camp when they find mysterious items known as “Digivice” which steal them away into the aforementioned Digital World, where they meet their partner Digimon and must battle to solve various, strange happenstances occurring there (which frequently involves defeating a malicious Digimon threat). I should inform the layman now that Digimon, unlike Pokemon, have distinct personalities and voices and intentions. These are not pets. They are talking, plotting, empathizing creatures with all the intellect and emotion of a human character (in most cases), so they should not be treated the same as Pokemon (or many other fictional cartoon monsters) in that regard. They are their own characters. This being said, I feel it will also be beneficial to name the central protagonists of the story for future reference, as well as their partner Digimon. Again, I will be using their English names.
Tai > Agumon
Matt > Gabumon
Sora > Biyomon
Izzy > Tentomon
Mimi > Palmon
Joe > Gomamon
T.K. > Patamon
Kari > Gatomon (later added in the third arc of the season)
If the idea of them all having ‘mon’ at the end of their names is a turn-off, that makes sense. However, when watching the series, this feeling fades pretty quickly. Not only that, but the idea of remembering all those laborious names is scarier than actually remembering them. The names are said pretty frequently, so it’s not too much trouble.
Those first seven quickly find their Digimon partners and, after a short union, are immediately confronted with an enemy that they must fend off. The next several episodes are arguably the worst in the series, exhibiting a very rinse-and-repeat, episodic agenda which serve to do nothing more than familiarize you with the characters and present situations which prompt all of the currently Rookie Digimon to reach their Champion forms. This is accomplished by exploring the many atmospheres of File Island, one of the most important locations in the Digital World, and a place currently dominated by a wicked, Champion-level enemy named Devimon, who is corrupting good Digimon with an array of items known as the Black Gears. Here the protagonists, aptly known as the Digidestined, fight, Digivolve, and otherwise gain allies who might later aid them in their efforts to bring peace to the turbulence of this digital land.
There is also a piece of major foreshadowing during these early episodes. When the gang stops in a mansion to rest, Patamon, T.K.’s partner Digimon, makes special mention of one of the trappings. He looks at a painting of an angel, and marvels over the divine creature portrayed. This is substantial because Devimon, the first entity to truly challenge the Digidestined, is finally beaten when Patamon undergoes his belated Champion Digivolution into Angemon, an angel-like figure to contrast Devimon’s demon-like character. There’s a very clear Christian parallel, with the results of the angel slaying the demon, but at the cost of resetting his lifespan back to the time Angemon was an egg.
This ends, what I unofficially consider, the first arc of the season: the Devimon arc. What comes after is the Etemon arc, the shortest number of episodes, thankfully, considering how blindingly annoying Etemon can be. Where Devimon was a sinister, unforgiving adversary of dark temperament and devil-like qualities, Etemon is an anthropomorphic puppet-monkey with the wits of a brick and the swashbuckling diction of Elvis Presley (literal, not a joke). However, Etemon is an Ultimate Digimon, fully-Digivolved, and technically superior to Devimon in terms of power and control.
In order to combat this new threat, the Digidestined learn of some individualized relics known as Crests, which are representative of particular virtues or morals, and act as keys for further Digivolution (and conveniently, character development). Each Crest is tied to one of the Digidestined, and acts as a symbol of both their greatest strength and most difficult struggle. So the party goes in search of these items, and Tai, the self-appointed leader of the Digidestined, is the first to obtain his: the Crest of Courage. So, what happens next? Obviously the series will do the same exact thing as it did with Devimon, right? Approach the enemy, allegedly with courage (you know, since that’s what the Crest is all about), Digivolve to Ultimate, and take care of business.
Fortunately, the series starts to change direction a little at this point, for the better. Tai has always demonstrated valor and bravery, so his inheritance of the Crest of Courage would make him the most worthy of taking down Etemon. Not only does Tai realize this, but, to him, it’s more than the best option. It’s the only option. Enter first substantial character progression. With the danger of Etemon encroaching upon him and his friends, Tai taps into his inner tyrant and demands that the entire party’s food supply be siphoned to Agumon, so that he will have enough energy to Digivolve in the heat of battle. But when Etemon sends an enemy Digimon to attack the Digidestined, this strategy fails. Knowing that Digimon also transform in response to protecting their human partner, as demonstrated earlier in the series, Tai intentionally throws himself into the fray, nearly getting himself killed and forcing Agumon to Digivolve before he’s ready. This results in an evil, Dark Digivolution, leading to Ultimate-level Skullgreymon–a mindless, feral killing machine which obliterates the enemy without a thought and almost crushes all of the Digidestined, including Tai himself. When finally he runs out of energy, Skullgreymon de-Digivolves back into his in-training form, and Tai realizes that something went very, very wrong.
In the following episodes, the Digidestined continue to search for their respective Crests, while Tai reflects and laments on his inconsiderate demands of both his team and Agumon. Young and naive, he wasn’t willing to ask for help, and thus shouldered the entire burden himself. The fear of failure, combined with his misplaced sense of responsibility, led to him disrespecting his friends and almost losing his partner. Eventually, Tai must prove himself courageous by recognizing his fear of failure and moving forward regardless of that fear. When the Digidestined next face Etemon and his hair-brained antics, Agumon is able to surpass himself, and, together with Tai, unlock the ability to fully Digivolve, creating the “correct” Ultimate of Agumon–Metalgreymon. Metalgreymon promptly annihilates Etemon, but the defeat ushers a new rift in the Digital World: a vacuum which sucks in both Tai and Agumon, returning them, without explanation, to the Real World.
Thus begins the most…off-kilter episode of the entire series. For one episode only, the series received a different art director–the one tasked with making the Digimon movie. There is an obvious increase in budget capacity, as every movement is smoother, the artistic guidance is more dynamic, and the color palette is softer and slightly more realistic. In the episode, Tai finds himself back at home with Koromon (Agumon’s In-Training form), where they see Kari, Tai’s younger sister. Kari is a reserved, kind-hearted soul who somehow knows Koromon. When Tai tries to contact Izzy, he’s met with a broken, static message, warning him to stay away and not return to the Digital World where time seems to move more quickly. Before he gets any answers to these confusing developments, Tai seesthat Digimon are beginning to fade in and out of existence, causing destruction before they vanish. On the city streets, Tai and Koromon do battle with an old enemy–a subject of Devimon named Ogremon. Despite his very intimidating form and destructive influence on the material world, none of the passerby humans seem to notice his presence. Eventually, a beam cuts through the sky, beckoning Tai and Agumon back to the Digital World where things are worse than ever before. Torn between his friends and his sister, Tai chooses to go back, knowing that the answer for the dangers in the Real World must lie in the Digital World.
Finally we reach the third arc, where Digimon finally starts to find its bearings and cuts out a lot of its previous inhibitions. Tai and Agumon must now reunite with their team, which is scattered and in disarray without a leader. Piece by piece, the group reunites as they continue the search for their Crests. Matt and Izzy each find theirs, and undergo a personal metamorphosis similar to Tai to master those Crests (Friendship and Knowledge, respectively) and reach Ultimate level. All the while, Sora is sinking into a passive-aggressive depression, intentionally hiding in the shadows while still trying to be useful to her friends. Even more so, an ominous new threat seems to be gathering together powerful Digimon forces from around the Digital World in a plot to lay siege to the Real World.
This new enemy is an Ultimate Digimon named Myotismon, and, unlike Etemon, he’s not interested in pulling punches or making a display of himself. Eventually, Myotismon finds a way into the Real World and brings a small army through with him, including his right-hand–a Champion Digimon named Gatomon. His plan? Destroy a foreshadowed “eighth child” to the Digidestined and rule both the Digital and Real Worlds as its king. This is the longest arc in the series, so it would be severely laborious to detail every aspect of it, but just so you get an idea of the gravity of stuff that goes down, here’s a compressed list:
1. Myotismon preys on humans in the night, when his power is greatest. Unlike during Tai’s earlier excursion, humans can now see and interact with the Digimon who have come over from the Digital World.
2. He also unceremoniously murders several of his own comrades–some for legitimate reasons, others because they simply get on his nerves.
3. The Digidestined each unlock their Ultimate forms, with the exception of T.K. and Patamon, who never ascend past Champion-level Angemon.
4. Tai suffers from a failed-brother complex, being unable to protect Kari from Myotismon. Matt and T.K. reflect on their broken household and the divorce of their parents, with Matt also failing to fulfill the trust his teammates put in him. Sora tries to remedy a fragmented relationship with her mother and struggles to understand what it means to receive love from somebody, as well as give it away. Joe questions his sense of self, purpose, and general belongingness, clashing with his father’s idealism and expectations for his future. Mimi’s flippant and quasi-pacifistic personality is dragged into a situation where she must not only be honest with herself, but also must accept her role as a crutch for others to lean on (despite arguably being the weakest member of the Digidestined and having the weakest partner Digimon). Izzy confronts his parents about his being adopted–something he only knew by eavesdropping on them as a child–and what it means to have a family, even if not by blood. Gatomon questions her loyalty to Myotismon, and remembers broken memories of a life where she was beaten and mistreated by the dark lord himself. She recalls memories of long-spanning isolation, waiting for somebody to save her from her loneliness.
5. Hundreds of human children are enslaved, interrogated, and threatened under the pretext of death if they do not comply with Myotismon’s demands.
6. Phantomon, Myotismon’s crackdown specialist, leads the operation to capture any and all humans that would oppose his efforts, putting them in a comatose state or eliminating them entirely.
7. Wizardmon, a turn-coat who defects from Myotismon’s ranks, brings together unlikely comrades behind the back of his ex-master, only to meet a vicious end by being torn apart by Myotismon’s bats.
8. Kari officially becomes a Digidestined, and Gatomon reaches her fully-Digivolved form of Angewoman, who is able to pierce the heart of Myotismon, banishing him from the realm of mortals.
That, however, is not the end of the arc. It is important now that I discuss something called “Mega Level” Digimon. Mega Digivolution is my personal favorite level, but not just because it is higher than Ultimate. Any Digimon, through effort (or, in the case of Digidestined, character empowerment), can obtain Ultimate level. It is a natural achievement, reserved for the best and most experienced.
However, a level exists beyond that, which can be reached only through risky, questionable, and inconsistent methods that may not apply to other Digimon. For Myotismon, this means slowly rebuilding himself, gathering strength from consuming darkness, and waiting until the “Time of the Beast” which is 6:06:06 P.M. At that moment, Venomyotismon becomes the first Mega Digimon to enter the story, and the Digidestined are in a tussle on how to proceed against such a titanic adversary.
Acting on a prophecy, however, Tai and Matt are chosen to be impaled by angelic arrows from their sibling’s Digimon partners. Again, this process would only work for those two (none of the other Digidestined reach Mega for the rest of the series, as they never figure out how), and their respective Digimon of Agumon and Gabumon “Warp Digivolve” from Rookie level all the way to Mega. With Wargreymon and Metalgarurumon now at the ready, the Digidestined are able to finally trounce Venomyotismon and conclude the second-to-last arc of the series.
With Venomyotismon’s defeat, the Digidestined realize something. They straight-up abandoned the Digital World in a time of crisis, and, because time goes by much faster there, some serious problems have unfolded in their absence. Four very powerful Digimon were brought together and united under a common goal of perverting the fabric of the Digital World. These four are known as the Dark Masters, and through time and the aid of another, yet unrecognized force, they are all given more than enough time to reach Mega level. Their influence on the Digital World is so powerful that it literally breaks apart and reforms into a massive shape known as Spiral Mountain. Beyond that, they are damaging the boundaries which separate the Real World and Digital World, threatening to meld each of them together. With this, the Digidestined must leave their families behind and again return to the treacherous Digital World.
Upon arrival, they find many of their allies are under oppression or have fallen victim to the power of the Dark Masters, each of whom control one of the four domains of Spiral Mountain. As the Digidestined set out to vanquish this new threat, many of their friends fall in battle. Normally, Digimon who die are eventually resurrected at Primary Village (though, they aren’t quite the same, and it could take years for them to reach the same level as when they passed away), but the Dark Masters have corrupted the Village, making rebirth impossible.
Not only do the characters have digital threats to deal with, but many also face inner conflicts which arise between the heroes themselves, including a fully-fledged showdown between Tai and Matt over the group’s leadership. Other obstacles the characters must overcome are a strange, dark energy that fills the heart with cripplingly depressive thoughts, an enemy who has a twisted (albeit childish and misguided) sense of friendship, a life-threatening sickness that befalls their youngest member, and Digimon’s equivalent of The Joker. The latter-most challenge, a Digimon named Piedmon and leader of the Dark Masters, is felled, not by either of the Digidestined’s Megas, but by T.K. and Patamon, who finally (forty episodes later) reach Ultimate form of Magnaangemon.
Upon the Dark Masters destruction, balance is returned to the Digital World, though a final threat remains: the entity responsible for creating The Dark Masters, a vile amalgamation of all Digimon who’ve perished and fail to Digivolve: Apocalymon. Apocalymon is made up of all the discarded and miserable feelings of the universe, a creature with the wrath of sorrow and loneliness. Against him, the Digidestined cannot make their Digimon Digivolve, and thus can do nothing. Eventually, they are able to find a new resolve, one that replaces the old, and through some strange and rather confusing explanations, they are able to Digivolve and ultimately find victory.
The show ends with the human children being unable to stay in the Digital World with their partner Digimon or else risk being trapped there forever. Sentimental goodbyes are shared between each pair of partners, and the credits roll as the Digidestined depart with promises of seeing their partners again and adventuring once more in the Digital World.
Whew. Okay. Let’s breathe for a second.
If you actually took the time to read that entire above segment, then you’ll know that, while there might not be any profanity, sexual themes, drug references, or topics of that nature, there’s plenty of hard content and some note-worthy violence–some of which will emotionally challenge younger (or more sensitive) audiences. See the numbered list above for some more specific examples.
As for spiritual content, there’s only those few, strict Christian references for hard evidence, and not much else. This isn’t to say that the series doesn’t present wholesome challenges and character transformations, just that the driving motives are never related to God helping the characters overcome any obstacles. Still, there are several instances of forgiveness, mercy, kindness, hope, unconditional love, and the works.
Digimon Cons and Weak Points
I never remembered humor to be one of Digimon‘s strong points, and it still isn’t. Jokes are either gaudy and forced, or they are placed poorly, causing a disillusioning of narrative tone. For example, in the midst of all of Apocalymon’s dark monologue, he makes an extremely random and uncharacteristic complaint about not getting enough cheese on his pizza, which utterly destroys the moment.
As far as animation is concerned, Digimon shows its age in several ways. There are many actions that are nothing more than still-frames, and the few good sequences (say, when a Digimon launches an attack) are recycled over and over. Speaking of recycling sequences over and over, Digivolution is painfully guilty of this, especially with rookie and champion forms. Almost every single time a Digimon Digivolves (often several times an episode) it goes through the same visuals, which might be okay if you watched the episodes as they aired on a weekly basis, but it’s maddening if you watch them one after another from Netflix. This is, without argument, the most frustrating part of the series. Though some credit must be given to the ultimate and mega levels, which have special, fully-rendered animation progressions. These, however, also grow old, eventually.
The pacing of the series is a little rough at the beginning, but finds its groove around the end of the Devimon arc. And though the dialogue can definitely be corny and filled with “uh…okay” moments, it actually holds up rather well as a whole, especially when addressing more serious material. In lieu of typical anime standards, the voice actors can tread the line of over-dramatizing their roles to the point that it makes you, as the viewer, uncomfortable. I’m not sure if that’s a negative against the series exactly, considering the medium being what it is, so I just consider it a neutrality–neither good, nor bad.
The musical score is relatively forgettable, with the exception of only a couple tracks and the main theme (mmm, that theme is awesome).
In total, Digimon failed to meet some of my expectations but exceeded in others. Rose-colored glasses helped my imagination when it came to the animation and overall pacing of the story. The dialogue and humor are patchy at best, and the music leaves much to be desired. But the actual story, as well as the setting and atmosphere, were far better than I’d remembered. Digimon executes an air of mysterious abandon, combined with playful characters who, despite their age and child-like dispositions, come off as surprisingly real.
Thank you for reading this ludicrously long review. God bless, be thankful, and always remember to smile. 🙂
VERSE OF THE DAY: Genesis 1: 20-22
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it,according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”
SONG OF THE DAY: “Time” by Tony Macalpine
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The Bottom Line
Digimon is a childhood favorite of many, and is splendid in just as many ways as it is lackluster.