Aquagaze and Irothtin love Digimon. Zigg has never watched Digimon. 16 years after the original Digimon Adventure started airing, can it hold up to Aqua and Iro’s preteen memories? Can it convert Zigg, seeing it for the first time? Can anyone stop the power of evil Elvis in a onesie?
This Time… Etemon Arc (Digimon Adventure episodes 14-20)
Aqua remembers… While Myotismon will always remain the villain who shaped my memories of Digimon, coming face to face with Etemon once again has left me doubting my usually pretty solid recollection. I always associated the character with Digimon‘s transcendence from ‘that show that is just Pokémon only the monsters can talk’ into something a bit meatier. He was the guy who hunted the DigiDestined to the ends of the earth in his bizarre truck and killed nice Digimon left and right, hiding a monstrous psyche behind his goofy exterior that would force the children to unlock their Crests in some magnificent epiphany. Turns out, none of that is even remotely true. My scrambled memories may have everything to do with the fact that I, as with many other shows, may have watched Digimon completely out of order, missing episodes here and there, picking them up during reruns or even watching the entire first half of the show after the second half. I just couldn’t afford watching a show at the same Digi-time, on the same Digi-channel every day, especially not when said show aired during the mere one-and-a-half hour between waking up and leaving for school. It’s a blessing, then, that this rewatch is helping me reconstruct my memories. Usually for the better, yet in this case, it’s for the worse.
Iro remembers… this arc being way longer. I definitely remember crazy Elvis-impersonator monkey-man. But really, I was surprised at how short and how mediocre the Etemon chunk of the show is. It probably felt longer than it actually was because it’s just not as good as the previous or the next arcs. That said, I still think Tai’s character arc is decent stuff for a kids show, as is the lesson that courage is not the same thing as recklessness.
Anyway, I promised Zigg I’d tell a new bizarre Digimon anecdote with each of these posts. There was one time I went to Universal Studios Hollywood because they were holding a Digimon-themed festival day, complete with Disneyland-style entertainers in big Agumon suits and stuff. I remember going into one of the sound stages where they had set up a giant projector to play episodes of the show, and they had a big area to teach kids how to actually play the trading card game we all collected. They’d punched holes into all of the cards so the kids wouldn’t take them, and I was really mad that there was a hole in a foil HerculesKabuterimon, even though everybody as a kid had a foil HerculesKabuterimon for some reason. I still have the event’s promotional Goldramon card in a box somewhere, and those go for like $100 on Ebay nowadays.
Zigg’s Thoughts… It’s pretty amazing how everything that Digimon Adventure got right in its first arc it botches pretty badly in this follow-up one. I guess that’s testament to the pressure of constantly producing a year’s worth of anime, but it really does feel like whoever was meant to be supervising this section of the show got distracted and wandered off. The result is a storyline that’s not only way too rushed but is unsatisfactory in almost every regard.
Let’s talk about the pacing first because it’s probably the most important issue with this storyline. I really enjoyed the relaxed, meandering pace of the Devimon arc, because it gave us some time to grow close to the characters and get an idea of the Digital World without too much pressure being put on us from outside sources. The very first thing this arc does is introduce a mysterious McGuffin – Tags and Crests – which in my mind automatically impedes that kind of organic plot growth. Still, having an object to quest after should in theory give us stronger structure and more unique challenges to overcome. Except we don’t get that either. In fact, the crests are laughably easy to find and almost without fail appear totally by chance. I’ve no idea if they were a corporately mandated inclusion but it definitely feels like they were, because even calling their inclusion ‘half-arsed’ is generous. The fact that we’ve also only got six episode to find seven tags and seven crests mean that there’s no sense of discovery or effort – the tags appear so fast that they feel obligatory.
It’s not just in the quest that the writing falls flat in this arc though. Perhaps the biggest issue of all is that Etemon himself is an utter joke, and not always in a good way either. He’s not intimidating or scary despite his prodigious power (which is only really demonstrated in the final episode) and although his ‘Dark Network’ sounds like a neat concept for a villain it’s not really exploited at all except as a McGuffin to draw him in for the final battle. Perhaps the character was meant to be played for humour, and he’s more successful in this regard, but he’s still not really laugh-out-loud (except in the English dub, which cannily casts him as an out-and-out Elvis impersonator to great effect). Put simply, he’s got ‘filler villain’ written all over him and I can’t say I either particularly cheered his destruction or was sad to see him go. He’s just sort of there.
Animation QUALITY also becomes a major issue in this arc, and I’m not entirely sure why. The show has had a whole mix of directors and head animators up to this point, so it’s certainly not a switch from one concerted style to another. Perhaps the team just really phoned in this arc? Regardless, while the Devimon arc was maybe overly static, it at least looked good in the still shot. Here characters are frequently misshapen or off model, backgrounds are largely dull and even the fights seem underwhelming. The strength of the show was always good art design but even that’s squandered here. The animation of the sea in episode 14 in particular is just some of the most laughably bad stuff I’ve seen in ages. In addition, there’s also the CGI evolution of MetalGreymon, which I’m sure looked extremely cool at the time but in retrospect is a laughably dated choice.
So is there anything I like about the Etemon arc? Well yes actually. Though the writing only really makes one stab for real relevance, it’s an important one – we begin to focus on Tai as the leader of this group. Though I enjoyed the fairly even billing the ensemble got in the Devimon arc it’s clear that to go further with character development you’ve got to focus in tightly. The SkullGreymon episode is a great example of this – we the audience (especially the children) have been conditioned to expect a sweet powerup regardless of what happens, but instead Tai gets actual consequences to his assholery, and consequences that don’t only hurt him but actually hurt his friend even more. It’s a great swerve and one which adds considerably to both characters. Likewise, I’m a huge fan of Tai’s sudden, crushing realisation of mortality in the final few episodes. It’s very common and very easy for shonen shows to write their characters as fearless daredevils (because it’s just cooler that way) but having Tai be seized by a very real (and to the many young people watching, very alien) fear of death makes his triumph over it all the more heartfelt. That’s basic character writing 101, but it’s enjoyable to see the story execute well even on simple ideas such as this, and it’s nice it ties back into the ultimate evolution thread from earlier.
This second arc of Adventure is certainly a letdown compared to the first, and it’s frustrating they followed up on a huge new story opportunity with something as half-hearted as this. Crucially though, it’s still fun to hang with these characters and the world retains a considerable amount of surreal charm (desert cruise ship anyone?). So I’m still invested, although I’m hoping things pick up sooner rather than later.