Aquagaze and Irothtin love Digimon with the kind of fervour only childhood afternoons in front of the the television can inspire. Zigg has never watched Digimon and mentally refers to it as ‘that Pokemon knockoff with the terrible theme song’. 16 years after the original Digimon Adventure started airing, can it hold up to Aqua and Iro’s preteen memories? Can it convert Zigg, (theoretically) a grown man seeing it for the first time? Can anyone work out why gloves are so popular in this universe?
This Time… Devimon Arc (Digimon Adventure episodes 1-13)
Aqua remembers… Haha, joke’s on you, Zigg! I actually watched Digimon on mornings! Anyway, most of my good memories aren’t from this arc just yet, mostly because I only started watching the show vigourously a few episodes in. My first introduction to Digimon came courtesy of my neighbor, with whom I stayed after school as long as my parents weren’t home. In the midst of the Pokémania, he suddenly turned on the TV to watch this ‘Digimon‘ show. It was the episode where Joe goes off on his own to climb Infinity Mountain. I watched along expecting to see Joe throwing Digiballs to catch new friends and battling an ineffective duo of evil buffoons hell-bent on stealing Gomamon and using him for their own gain, to a point where I remember believing Unimon, the Digimon of the week, actually being a bizarre flying contraption the villains used to get around in, akin to Team Rocket’s Magikarp submarine. So yeah, turned out I had to give Digimon a bit more credit there. While Pokémon always remained my one true love, I soon came to prefer the Digimon anime’s stronger arc plot and well-developed characters. For now.
Iro remembers… I actually did watch this every day after school, starting from the very first episode and continuing until midway through Digimon Tamers. I got way more into it than I ever did for the Pokémon anime, buying all sorts of dumb merchandise. Once, Taco Bell had a toy promotion involving weird little metal card things that had characters from the show on them, leading my brother and I to eat Taco Bell for lunch for a week straight (I don’t think I’ve ever been back to Taco Bell since). I have to say, rewatching it in Japanese fifteen years later has shown me that Digimon Adventure is… basically how I remember it. As an adult I can notice stuff like the overuse of stock footage and otherwise limited animation, but the story fundamentals that made me fall in love with the cast (and thus, look forward to Digimon Adventure Tri) are still there.
Zigg’s Thoughts: I’m always incredibly wary of people extolling the virtues of their favourite kids TV show because 99% of that time those virtues are entirely the product of rose-tinted goggles. Even those shows that do have genuine quality in them tend to be somewhat overhyped in retrospect. With that said, Iro and Aquagaze are two of the best critics I know and my interest in Digimon was definitely piqued after the enjoyable Digimon Adventure Tri, so I decided I’d come back to see what the fuss was about. That turned out to be a good choice, as despite several issues this is still a quality piece of entertainment that I had a lot of fun with.
In my mind what sets this first arc apart from many other children’s shows is the time spent on character development, and the subsequent relatively slow pace of the story. That’s hard to believe from the breakneck first episode, which barely bothers to name the characters before hurling them into parts unknown, but the writing is good at teasing out more details as we go along, and by the end of the arc we have a pretty fully fledged image of who these kids are in our mind. What’s especially impressive to me is how the writers present a sense of unity and ensemble to the cast which ensures they all feel important and have meaningful roles. While Tai is ostensibly the main character, all of the kids have their part and in fact get pretty equal screentime, and all get to develop and show off distinctive character traits which make them unique. Even then the script avoids the classic trip of pigeonholing them into their pre-assigned roles. For example, Sora and Mimi clearly operate the classic ‘tomboy and girly girl’ pairing but the show is careful never to push it too far, so Sora still gets moments of femininity and Mimi isn’t portrayed as an utter airhead.
This first arc also has a very drifting, unusually unfocused structure and while that’s normally something I’d criticise I think here it helps a lot. The hazy, meandering plot only adds to the impression of complete disorientation and the fact that the audience is not primed in any way about what’s happening means we get to experience the weirdness of the Digital World alongside the characters. There’s a streak of delightful surrealism here that I absolutely didn’t expect, augmented by the beautiful watercolour backgrounds for areas such as the Baby Village or the jungle. I especially appreciate the fact that the story manages to find a plausible way to split the team for a while, which both gives us a more in-depth look at individual characters and a chance to see how they operate in pairs you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be put in. So Tai and Matt fight, the energetic Mimi is frustrated by the methodical Izzy, and the sceptic Joe bounces off the naturally upbeat Sora. The fact that TK gets his own episode is great too, as it shows how the story is determined to push him out of tagalong status and ultimately make him the main hero of this first arc at least.
Despite being created (as most children’s cartoons are) as an advert to sell product, I actually found the commercial intrusions into this arc almost invisible. Perhaps that’s because the thing that’s being shilled is so abstract (it’s hard to draw a direct line between this show and the primitive tamagotchi-esque trinkets it was advertising) but it’s mostly because the Digimon themselves are such rounded characters they really do feel like an essential component of the show rather than a mandated addition. Some of them have more prominent personality traits than others (Palmon and Piyomon are a little underdeveloped) but they all work well to complement each other and the children that they’re paired with. Their evolutions are generally pretty cool and while the obligatory unveiling of super forms does become a slight drag, the writers are smart enough to hold back the genuinely awesome debut of Angemon as a rousing climactic moment. In short, as opposed to tagalongs they feel very much like core cast members and that’s great.
So is it an unqualified thumbs up? Not quite. While having a very loose, open structure does wonders for our character development time, it does give this first arc a rather uneven structure, with lots of lazy monster of the week antics followed by extremely rushed bursts of storytelling. This particularly hurts Devimon, who isn’t on screen for anything close to enough time to be a credible threat. It doesn’t help that he looks like a teenager who went shopping at Hot Topic either. In general the back half of the arc feels overloaded and everything wraps up just a bit too fast, though maybe that’s an unavoidable consequence of the long, leisurely opening. My other big complaint is, predictably, the animation. The art and character designs are excellent but I’m not particularly sold on the monster designs aside from the main Digimon, and there’s a lot of reused stock footage, still frames and just very limited movement. It’s certainly not awful, especially by the standards of 90’s kids anime, but I’d have liked to see something a bit more fully realised.
Overall though this first chunk of Digimon Adventure was really a delight. It’s got all the energy and cool factor of a kids cartoon, but with a surprising level of good writing and enjoyable character development to make it a blast for all ages. Looking forward to seeing more.