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 us from crying our eyes out?
This Time…Dark Masters Arc (Digimon Adventure episodes 40-54 (END))
Aqua remembers… Puppetmon. That vile motherfucker. All the other Dark Masters paled in comparison to this creepy little shit. Machinedramon was just a big, hulking monster, Piedmon was Myotismon wearing a different suit and MetalSeadramon just that same oversized snake our heroes had beaten twice over already. But Puppetmon was a whole new kind of creepy. He looked like a good time. He had a house filled with toys. He wanted to be TK’s friend. But he was also a creepy bad guy who’d stop at nothing to kill our heroes. It felt wrong. Devils, vampires, dragons, giant robots and other monstrosities getting in the DigiDestined’s way? Sure. Heck, I even accepted the pajama-wearing monkey as a villain. But for a harmless little puppet to be so vile, it just broke little old me. And to think I didn’t even watch the version where he literally shoots people. With a gun.
Iro remembers… the dub being way less edgy. It’s common enough to edit stuff out for kids, but gosh they cut or changed quite a lot of violence. When Puppetmon (Pinochimon) pulls out a .44 magnum and dum-dum bullets, proceeding to kill his henchmen with it, I lost my shit because it was just so audacious. On the other hand, some of the violence is actually shocking instead of hilariously shocking, like when Tai practically attacks Izzy while they run from Machinedramon. I grew up on stuff like Spider-Man: The Animated Series, where the hero wasn’t even allowed to punch supervillains, so it’s rather jarring to see such direct confrontation. Apart from that, MagnaAngemon/HolyAngemon is still The Coolest, and the final ending bit with the trolley car brings tears to my eyes every goddamn time.
Zigg’s Thoughts… This last section of Digimon Adventure is easily the most ambitious of the entire show, both in terms of scope and action, and also in how it attempts to create character based drama around our gang of heroes and heroines. It’s also probably the sloppiest section of the entire show, as the pace lurches back and forth, our villains are a motley crew of the memorable and the bland, and the plot pulls itself in all sorts of different directions before a very bizarre final twist. It’s clear that the creative team were maybe scrabbling a bit by this point, but it’s gratifying that they still found time to play to the strengths that the show has embraced throughout: character work, imaginative action, and monster design. Consequently, while these last dozen or so episodes may occasionally veer off track, they always come back to what we love.
One of the best aspects of this arc is that, with all of our characters fully established and fleshed out, the story can begin to dig a little more into their interpersonal relationships and undermine our expectations a little bit. The most memorable example of this is of course Matt effectively turning on Tai and the rest of the gang. We’ve already learnt that Matt is a bit of a jerk as the series has gone on, but he’s also been a reliable ally and was holding hands
and making out with Tai just a few episodes ago, so the about-face is a pretty abrupt shift for him. What’s really great about this though is that it’s not a mind control cop-out or anything like that, but instead a genuine piece of character motivation that develops his personality at the same time. Granted, Cherrymon/Jyureimon’s speech is not exactly the most compelling of all time, and Matt is an idiot for even listening to him in the first place, but this kind of psychological manipulation is such a rarity in children’s cartoons that it’s nice to see Adventure even attempt something on that level.
The fact that the show has pretty clearly seeded dissension between the two before this helps a lot, but what really makes this plotline work is how the writing emphasises that this conflict is less a result of Matt hating Tai and more a result of his own crippling insecurity in himself. That’s a pretty brave direction to take a character who up to now has largely been the bull-headed hardass of the group, but it’s also one I think a lot of children (and adults!) can relate to. It also makes him (and Gabumon, who explicitly says he’ll stand by his partner right or wrong) more sympathetic and more easily forgivable for his transgressions. It’s a shame that his redemptive arc is rather truncated, but the scene in the cave with he and Gabumon is powerful, and a reinforcement of just how integral the Digimon/Human partnership is to the fabric of the show. It’s all great stuff!
The other characters who most benefit from the looseness of this final arc are Mimi & Jo, both of whom have been somewhat periphery to the main action for a while now, but who get a chance to shine once they separate away from the main band. Mimi’s plotline is especially striking, because it does a couple of things that children’s shows don’t normally do. Firstly, it explicitly acknowledges the violence that’s being inflicted on, but also inflicted by, the DigiDestined. Indeed, there’s an awfully high bodycount in this part of the show and to its immense credit, that’s not skimmed over but instead focused on. The second thing is an even rarer concept, which is that Mimi eventually acknowledges that her decision to embrace pacificism was in fact wrong, and turns back towards actively helping her friends. I’ve always harped on about how one of the most important things you can do is let your characters make mistakes, but having your characters realise that they may not have been mistaken after all is an even tougher sell, and one which Digimon Adventure pulls off rather well. I warmed to Mimi considerably after her solo adventures, and I feel this entire segment solidifies her standing in the cast. Jo also comes off very well, as he gets to demonstrate a calmer, more caring and protective side to his personality, and finally grows into his role as the ‘dad’ of the group. The pair work surprisingly well together and having seen this it’s no surprise they decided to reunite them in Tri: Determination.
In fact, there’s definitely a concerted effort to give every character an arc of some sort, though none are as major as the arcs we’ve just talked about. Tai’s protective instincts over Kari and his subsequent conflict with Izzy are great little insights into the character of all concerned and a nice look at a slightly weaker, more paranoid side of Tai. We probably needed a bit more time for it to really become a thing but they make hay with what they have, and Tai physically attacking Izzy is a memorably shocking moment. Hikari has a pair of weird possession sequences, neither of which make much sense to be honest, and are pretty much blatant deus ex machinas. TK gets to a couple of great scenes, firstly outwitting Puppetmon, then saving Kari from Piedmon, both of which show just how much he’s grown from the crybaby we knew early on in the show. And Sora gets…er, I’m not sure actually. She gets to be trapped in Matt’s cave of depression for a bit but she doesn’t get much to chew on other than that, which is a little disappointing. At least she’ll get to be the only important girl in the upcoming movie.
So with all this great character writing and development goodness, what makes this final arc so uneven? Well, it’s mostly the villains to be honest. The idea of a gang of superpowered crazies to take on the DigiDestined is compelling, but the truth is the Dark Masters are pretty underwhelming, especially after the shock of their initial appearance where they effortlessly crush our group. One of the reasons for this is that they basically never operate as a team, instead opting to remain in their own fiefdoms and fight individual battles. While it makes sense for structuring a story, it makes them dramatically less scary, despite their supposedly higher level of power.
Of the four, MetalSeadramon and MugenDramon are basically write-offs, giant hulking brutes who never really develop personalities or feel threatening beyond shows of destructive strength. Puppetmon is more successful, and at his best he nails the creepy ‘psychotic child’ vibe well, particularly in his one-on-one interactions with TK. Problem is, he eventually leans way too far to the goofy nutcase side to be intimidating when fighting the whole gang, and he’s also fatally undermined by the intrusion of MetalEtemon into his arc. Etemon wasn’t a particularly effective baddie when he first appeared, and his return apropos of pretty much nothing just upsets the mood and pace of the entire confrontation, though he does get to start and grand tradition by offing Leomon. Really, of the Dark Masters, only Piedmon comes out well – he’s got a great look and vocal performance and actually manages to inflict serious damage on the team.
Then there’s Apocalymon, which is a nice segue into talking about the other major problem with this arc – pacing. It’s very uneven, and can give the entire arc a sort of stop-start rhythm that takes a little getting used to. Part of this is of course the inevitable consequence of having four (actually five) villains each split up as a mini-boss, but even taking that into account there’s some odd choices here. Interrupting Tai and Matt’s big confrontation for a largely needless flashback episode for example, or the way Puppetmon takes longer than any of the other Dark Masters to defeat because of the sheer amount of stuff that happens during that segment. Apocalymon is the worst offender of all, a giant crazy villain who comes out of nowhere, with no build up and no motives or objectives other than ‘kill everything’. I can see why the show runners might have felt they needed to end on something more spectacular than just Piedmon, but it’s a terribly undercooked idea that nearly torpedoes the entire climax. Fortunately, Apocalymon himself is nicely creepy visually and vocally, and good writing makes the obligatory ‘believe in yourself’ sequence genuinely exciting and emotional, rather than the phone in it so often devolves into. When you’ve spent 50+ episodes doing actual character development, that’s the kind of thing that actually works.
Then of course, there’s the actual ending, which objectively, is completely ridiculous. There’s not really any reason why defeating Apocalymon would render the Digidestined unable to stay in a world that they’ve been happily hopping back and forth from (and, spoiler alert, will continue to do so in the future). The ‘now I must go’ ending is one of the most basic and lazy ways to milk drama out of your conclusion, especially when it’s pulled at the last second as it is here. Of course, none of that really matters though, because it’s amazingly heartbreaking regardless, and the show does a great job of selling the emotional impact. We even get one final moment for each of the Digimon and Children to spend together, which are gorgeous, beautiful encapsulations of who they are and how they’ve grown in their adventure. Matt and Gabumon brood with unspoken words, TK and Patamon cry but promise they’ll see each other again, it’s all achingly pitch perfect and so representative of what we’ve learnt about everyone. Even Palmon gets to pull a Mimi and be a drama queen, running away because she can’t face her problems. And yes, of course she comes back, and of course it’s wonderful beyond words. All of the criticisms of Digimon Adventure, all of the nagging doubts, they mean nothing at the end of the day. Because when that hat flies into the air, and that music kicks in, it’s as perfect a moment as has ever existed in anime.
- Sadly, in the time since we last published, two prominent members of the original Digimon Adventure cast & crew have passed away. Kouji Wada, who sung the opening for every series in the franchise and many of the notable insert songs, passed on in April, while Yuko Mizutani, who voiced Sora, left us in May, both as a result of cancer. Our thoughts are with their families.
- Iro: When the Gerbemon/Garbagemon ambush the kids in episode 44, they do the Black Tri-Stars’ Jetstream Attack from Mobile Suit Gundam. Lillymon gets to play the role of the Gundam, dodging poop missiles and blowing them up with her Flower Cannon.
- Naturally there are a number of huge cuts in the dubbed version to cover all the times Puppetmon waves firearms about.
- Contrary to what I’ve written above, MetalSeadramon is incredibly memorable in the dub, but perhaps not quite for the right reasons.
- In the Japanese version, Piedmon (and Apocalymon) are voiced by veteran voice actor Chikao Ohtsuka. Famously the voice of Doctor Robotnik, he also appeared alongside his son Akio Ohtsuka in Metal Gear Solid 4 as the pair played in-character father and son Big Boss and Solid Snake.