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? Could this schmuck director actually have a future in this industry?
This Time… Mamoru Hosoda Arc (Digimon Adventure: Born of Koromon and Digimon Adventure episode 21 )
Aqua remembers… An episode has to be really damn good to characterize your memory of an entire show, but that is exactly what Mamoru Hosada’s one episode of Digimon Adventure did. My image of Digimon up to now has always been constructed by muted colours, strange digital effects and a warm, melancholy atmosphere as much as it has been by the titular monsters and songs about how they are the champions. Imagine my surprise when it turns out only a single episode of the original show actually lived up to my nostalgia. Was it disappointing? Maybe. I can’t help but feel a bit curious about what Digimon would have looked like if Hosoda had had as big an influence on it as, for instance, Kunihiko Ikuhara and Junichi Sato had on Sailor Moon. But most of all, this cold shower of sorts made me appreciate Hosoda’s work all the more. For an ambitious director to put his everything into a mere kids’ show is one of the most heartwarming, humble efforts I can imagine. The suits at Toei might have thought the kids wouldn’t even notice. But I certainly did.
Iro remembers… This was the first time I’ve seen the Born of Koromon OVA since I saw the English-dubbed Digimon: The Movie, which awkwardly stitched it together with Our War Game! (at least also by Hosoda) and that other Adventure 02 movie nobody cares about. It’s really a pity that Hosoda didn’t do much else for Digimon, since his three episodes feel like the pinnacle of the show. As Aquagaze said as we were watching together, the way the show looks and feels over episode 21’s runtime is how we remember it being, surreal and emotional and action-packed all at once. As for this post’s dumb anecdote, I saw Digimon: The Movie in theaters. This normally wouldn’t be so strange, but Fox was trying to push their bizarre new show at the time, leading to this unskippable short before the actual feature. Even as a kid I thought it was dumb as hell.
Zigg’s Thoughts… It’s always fascinating to see the humble beginnings of a great director, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s work on Lupin III and Sherlock Hound, or Mamoru Oshii’s Urusei Yatsura productions. Hosoda was by no means an industry novice by the time he came to Digimon – he’d worked on a fair bit of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, and even wrote an episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena – but this ‘film’ and the subsequent TV episode were the first times he’d headed a production, so it was a big test for a young up and comer. What’s so interesting to see today is that these two chunks of the show are absolutely obviously the work of someone outside of the regular loop of TV production, both stylistically and tonally. While they don’t necessarily exhibit what would become Hosoda’s signature style, there’s enough individuality here to begin to see elements of his directorial flair break through, and that alone makes them both important episodes and, crucially, some of the best chunks of what Digimon Adventure has to offer.
We’ll start with the Born of Koromon OVA. because it’s arguably the more important of the two, and certainly the more distinctive. Like many shows of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, TV Digimon has a very mass market look – sharp, clean character designs that ahave wide appeal, are simple and are easy to reproduce. In contrast, Born of Koromon looks like a throwback relic of the 80’s – all soft lines, blobby characters and a muted, pastel palette. There’s a flow and elasticity to the animation that just isn’t present in the regular show, with a natural, hand-drawn feel to the resulting sequences. Look at Koromon fighting Meeko or Tai’s dad returning home drunk – both are delightful examples of naturalistic movement you just don’t see in the TV series. There’s a richness to the look and feel of the OVA that justifies its status as something more than just an ‘episode #0’.
Thematically as well, Hosoda skews away from the show to establish his own themes and mood. One of the smartest decisions the OVA takes is to make the entire scenario basically a monologue. Sure, Kari talks a little, as does Koromon, but really this is practically Tai talking to himself for 20 minutes (bar a few lines of narration at the beginning and end). It has the potential to be disastrous but it actually works incredibly well, effectively conveying the dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness atmosphere that Hosoda seems to be going for. Unlike the show which (like all kid’s shows basically) is obsessed with the minutiae of powerups, different forms and different plot devices, Hosoda really goes out of his way to explain nothing here, with no justifications given for Koromon’s presence, nor his departure. In a sense that’s the OVA’s biggest weakness since it’s very arbitrary and can feel a little unsatisfying, but it’s also a great way to make the entire event seem that much more surreal, so it’s a tossup. As someone who’s always cared less about plot tightness than mood and tone, I’m completely ok with it.
Mood and tone are also the overriding strengths of Hosoda’s TV episode, which is the very definition of a ‘bottle episode’: an episode segmented off from the main story and that has little bearing on the ongoing narrative. OK, that’s not strictly true, but this is definitely an episode that’s deliberately designed to feel out of step with the rest of the show so far. It’s a brilliant subversion of expectations, because you’d expect an episode about Tai returning home to be a familiar, joyous experience. Instead, Hosoda and writer Reiko Yoshida (who collaborated with Hosoda on all his Digimon works and went on to write, among many other things, K-ON!) deliberately work to make Tai an outcast, a stranger in a strange land. This makes a lot of sense because, well, that’s kind of how the viewer feels too right? Bar two minutes of footage, all of the time we’ve spent in with this show has been in the Digital World and we’ve come to think of that as the show’s status quo. By returning to the ‘real’ world, the viewers have been thrown into an environment wholly unfamiliar to them. In a sense, it’s the same for Tai, who’s spent weeks acclimatizing to the Digital World and a small pool of friends, and now is catapulted back to the big city.
Hosoda emphasises the sense of isolation and uncertainty through his visuals, which play with colour and form in clever, understated ways. Unlike the vibrant, fresh Digital World, everything in the real world is heavily undersaturated, and punctured with cool blues and greys, while strong natural greens and reds are almost completely absent. The Yagami apartment is permanently cast in strong shadows and harsh sunlight, with its meticulously detailed appliances a far cry from the soft watercolour backgrounds of previous episodes. Probably because of consistency, Hosoda keeps to the TV style here, but it’s crisper, smarter and on more on model than any other episode (particularly the preceding run of awfully animated episodes) and the atmosphere and lighting are leagues ahead of any other episode. It’s the best Digimon has looked to this date, and I’d be surprised if it ever looks any better. It’s not just visually that the message of isolation is sent either – Hosoda basically excludes all other human characters from the show for large parts of the episode, making this venture back to reality much more lonely than the raucous group effort of the Digital World. In fact, it’s a trick Hosoda uses in both this episode and Born of Koromon – by excluding the adult characters, he makes this children’s world that much more of a dreamlike state.
The final element which connects the two works is of course our introduction to Tai’s little sister, Hikari Yagami. She’s something of a new style of character for the show, as despite the personality types on display we haven’t really had a quiet, distant character yet, and Kari is definitely both. There’s a sense of other-worldliness about her that fits perfectly into these two stories, particularly in Born of Koromon where her speaking time is deliberately cut down and she communicates mostly (and adorably) through her whistle. There’s not too much character development for her here, due to limited screentime, but it’s clear that she’s an exceptionally kind, generous and understanding young girl, one who takes in Koromon unhesitatingly and speaks incredibly warmly of Tai and what he’s done for her. Impressions of her are aided hugely by Kae Araki’s wonderfully soft-voiced performance, which conveys both childlike innocence and a certain sadness which is in fitting with the tone of the stories being told. The scene where Kari and Tai say goodbye is without a doubt the strongest scene in the series so far, and both visually and thematically it’s a mini-masterpiece, with Hosoda’s visual storytelling and the music perfectly complimenting what feels like a major turning point in the show. That sudden grab of the arm gets me every time.
I could write for days about how wonderful these chunks of the show are, and it just goes to show the difference that a skilled director can make to a production. Hosoda would go on to bigger and better things, but he’s got no reason to be ashamed of his first works – they shine just as bright today as they did when he first created them.
- Hosoda did direct one more canonical piece of DIgimon Adventure, the aforementioned Our War Game! movie/OVA which takes place after the end of the regular series.
- Sources can’t agree on the title of the standalone OVA – while it’s mostly just called Digimon Adventure, Born of Koromon both sounds cooler and helps prevent confusion with the titular series.
- Both Agumon and Greymon are way bigger in the OVA. Why? Who cares! The English dub actually credited this Agumon as ‘Big Agumon’.
- It’s seemingly left deliberately ambiguous as to whether the Koromon in the OVA is the same Koromon who later meets Tai. It seems unlikely though given 4 years in the real world would be an eternity in the Digital World.
- Given the lushness of both of these titles I’d be interested to know if Hosoda did any of the storyboarding or key animation himself.