What happens when you let the guy who wrote Serial Experiments Lain write for Digimon?
What’s the Story?
Takato is a huge fan of Digimon, he loves the TV show and playing the card game with his friends. He spends his days dreaming about what it would be like to actually have his own Digimon, even going so far as to design his partner. One day he finds a mysterious blue card in amongst his trading cards and after swiping it through his card reader finds that the Digimon he created, Guilmon, has come to life in the real world. However he’s about to find out that being a Digimon Tamer isn’t so easy, between differing views with his fellow tamers, a never ending hoard of Digimon causing havoc in our world and a secret government organisation, life is about to get very complicated for the newest Tamer. And that’s only the start, bring the tissues people, you’ll need them.
And we’re finally here, my favourite series of Digimon (and the last one I watched as a kid). Don’t get me wrong Adventure will always hold a special place in my heart and I will always adore it, but for me this is the series where Digimon hit its peak. Everything came together, the storytelling and character development reached another level, the villains are a whole new plane of creepy and threatening and my god the trauma this series inflicts on its characters. This series basically takes all the bits I loved about Adventure, the sense of fun, the surreal Digital World, the unfolding sense of mystery and that spirit of, well, adventure and ties it to a dark sci-fi thriller. I love it! Also there’s no tonally inappropriate insert songs and bad puns to deflate the tension (though there’s plenty of bad jokes, but I kind of love those too. A lot of the comments from the teachers and other adults that have obviously been added for the dub are kind of hilarious, if silly).
There are several themes to this season, but personally I think one of the most important is that of consequences. Every act in this series has a consequence, whether that’s a good or a bad thing tends to be up to the character and what they can make of it. For example Takato wishes for a Digimon all this own and like most boys his age he makes it big and powerful, which tends to make Guilmon hard to hide. Also there’s the fact that Guilmon is like a wilful puppy in the beginning and can’t help but get himself into trouble. Now in any other show this would lead to wacky ‘hide the pet from the parent’ style hijinks, but not this series. No we see Takato panic and nearly break down when he worries over what will happen to Guilmon. We get another example later on when Guilmon first digivolves and we spend an entire episode trying to get him to de-digivolve so that they can hide him again. This is something that has never cropped up in a series before (or since to my knowledge), usually whoever’s digivolved for the episode reverts back to their rookie form for narrative convenience by the time the end credits roll, but not here.
This series also likes to explore the question of what if Digimon actually were real. What would it be like to actually own a monster that could take out a tank if it wanted to, which for a kid like me was a brilliant concept (I mean I am so Takato in this scenario, if I dug through some of the boxes at the bottom of my wardrobe I’m sure I’d find my own Digimon designs, as well as Pokemon and Yugioh and the little comic strips I used to do). It adds to the maturity and of the characters as this time have a whole heap of new problems to deal with other than just the usual monster-of-the-week. I also like that the characters all have their own differing moral philosophy, Takato is very much about how awesome it is to have a Digimon and can sometimes get carried away with that, while at the same time not wanting to actually hurt anyone. Rika sees Digimon as just data and is only concerned with being the very best (at first, I’ll come back to this point). Henry on the other hand is a pacifist at heart, he’s seen his partner get hurt in the past and is determined that he will never fight again, but eventually learns that there are times when you have to.
I like the differing perspectives of the cast and how they clash and this even applies to the villains as well. It’s mentioned several times in the show (and yet another sign how the Digimon franchise, and this season in particular, refuses to talk down to its audience), that good and evil are a matter of perspective. Many of the early series villains turn out to be allies later down the line and that is mostly down to changing perspective. Outside of the very last villain of the series it could be argued that none of the early villains are truly evil. Oh none of them are all that nice by any stretch and they definitely do some evil things, but most of that is down to their own prejudices. Yamaki believes that Digimon are abominations and should be wiped from our world, while the Sovereign and the Devas believe that humans are a danger to them and need to be eradicated. Neither are good, but as their viewpoints are proved wrong again and again until eventually they change and provide some invaluable help in defeating the ‘True Enemy’ (the D-Reaper by the way wins the award for creepiest Digimon baddie of all time, especially the Jeri D-Reaper clone. I still have nightmares about that thing).
The only possible complaint I have about this season is that it’s a little slow to start. The series isn’t much concerned with its monster-of-the-week format at the start, especially as it’s having so much fun exploring its concept of ‘what if Digimon were real’. It makes a lot of the first half of the series feel a bit like a slice of life series with occasional monster fights. However where that works in this series’ favour is that it gives us time to actually explore our cast and we get a pretty solid dig into both the Tamers and their Digimon partners (who are more than just compliments/contrasts to their partners and actually have fully formed personalities of their own). The characters, especially the main three develop so much across the series. Rika goes from being closed off and always up for a fight to someone who’s heart is open to everyone and is eager to give up fighting for good. Henry goes from someone who’s controlled and restrained, always carrying the weight of the world and will blame himself for every little thing that goes wrong to someone who’s more willing to accept help from others and knows when he has to fight. Takato goes from a hapless newbie, always worrying and doubting himself to a gallant knight, driven and capable and who will never give up.
Though if we’re talking about arcs, then Impmon’s arc has to be the greatest arc in all of Digimon (and I will fight anyone who says otherwise). He goes from annoying mischief maker and angry tsundere to a power mad psycho and murderer all the way back round to tragic hero begging for forgiveness. Seriously that scene where he begs Jeri to let him save her is just heartbreaking (that may just be my favourite scene in all of Digimon, which probably says something about me). And don’t even get me started on Jeri, what this show puts that poor girl through is nothing short of horrific. Then again so much of the Jeri/D-Reaper part of this season is straight out of a horror anime and credit were credit is due the English dub of this manages to put such a lot of that a cross without being cut or censored in any way (well, not any way that I’d expect from the time this was made).
I still find it amazing that for a season that starts off so happy and joyful, despite its occasional stab at the feels, turns into such an apocalyptic and dark series. The final arc feels like one long gruelling battle, there’s such a sense of dread and just how outmatched our heroes are. A lot of this backed up by the fact that in this series we know that there is actual death, yeah there’s no return to a digiegg and get reborn here, you die you stay dead and we get to see it on screen (poor Leomon). Of course that just makes it all the more epic and joyful when the Tamers finally do win, though even that comes with a bittersweet twist of the knife. At least the series ends on a hopeful note.
I could talk about this series all day and probably a few more besides, but I’ll leave it here for now. Digimon Tamers is my favourite Digimon series, for me every element just clicks into place perfectly. From the deeper character arcs to a story that builds and builds to a dramatic finale and isn’t afraid to throw in tougher and more complex subjects than you’d expect of a show aimed at selling toys to kids. It’s has just the right balance of hope, joy and emotional trauma. I still get sucked into it watching it now and it gets me in the feels every time. If you’re going to watch only one Digimon series, watch this one.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.