October 22, 2021

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Digimon in the Modern Era

Digimon in the Modern Era

In its over two decades of existence, Digimon as a franchise has seen a wide array of iterations, especially in the past six years, so today we’ll be taking a look at the most recent anime entries for this beloved franchise to see what worked and what didn’t.

We’ll begin with the most publicized Digimon anime of the past decade, Digimon Adventure tri. Tri is a series of six films, often broken up into four or five episodes a piece, to celebrate the franchise’s 15th anniversary. After so many years away, it finally takes us back to the original DigiDestined crew in their high school years to see what it’s like for our chosen heroes to have to deal with saving the world and navigating high school life at the same time. It also introduces a new pair to the group, Meiko and Meicomon, who eventually become crucial to the story’s main narrative. The prospect of seeing the characters we know and love grow up even further is a strong idea and has tons of potential for an engaging story, and Tri does accomplish this at least in the beginning, with how Tai is forced to confront the physical damage that the Digimon do to his city every time they fight and how dangerous it is for everyone around them.

However, as the story pushes forward, it very quickly comes crashing down on itself until all that’s left is a lethargic death march towards a painful conclusion. So what happened to lead it so far astray? Well you see, while Tri is very good at coming up with interesting themes and ideas to expound upon, it doesn’t actually conclude those ideas. Drifting away from a group of friends, being unable to let go of the past, having to think about your future and the sacrifices you need to make to achieve your dream – all of these are interesting ideas that are perfect for a Digimon story to explore, but each one gets dropped before it reaches a satisfying conclusion in favor of an ever-complexifying plot and enough technobabble to make Serial Experiments Lain sound simple by comparison.

More direct plot points also get completely abandoned by the end of the series. The first film opens on the 2nd generation DigiDestined being defeated and kidnapped, and they remain comatose for the entire rest of the series and contribute nothing to the story aside from being lifeless bodies that need to be rescued. You’d think that they would end up doing something, but they completely disappear from the story after that, so why have them be in this story at all? It just feels like a slap in the face to gen 2 fans who were rightfully expecting them to be more relevant to the story.

Even when it does come to a conclusion on one of the many ideas it brings up, the “message” that it tries to convey is so nonsensical that it actively makes the story worse. The second film focuses heavily on the idea of Mimi running a cheerleader café for the school festival and how the rest of her class thinks that she’s too controlling with her idea and didn’t stop to consider what everyone else wanted, which is factually untrue. When asked for ideas, Mimi was the ONLY student to come up with something and everyone else didn’t seem to care at all, but for some reason the story treats Mimi as though she was in the wrong and forces an apology out of her, completely souring whatever idea the story was going for.

Then of course there are those two new characters I mentioned, who just so happen to be the driving force behind the main plot. About halfway through the series, it’s discovered that Meicomon’s data has been corrupted and has the potential to destroy the entire digital world, thus causing massive destruction in the real world, and so the DigiDestined are tasked with stopping him. Basically they have to put down Old Yeller, and this could have been a strong emotional throughline if A) it had gotten significantly more narrative and emotional focus than it did since these are brand new characters and we need more time to become as invested in them as we are in the other DigiDestined, and B) it wasn’t surrounded by a deluge of made-up sci-fi nonsense so I could stay awake through more than two scenes at a time.

Perhaps the most disappointing way that Tri fails though is in what it perceives to be “mature storytelling.” Because the DigiDestined are nearing the end of high school, the story seems to think that this gives it license to be a bit edgier with its content. Human characters actually die, Digimon death effects are colored red to resemble blood, Gennai does…this. All of this serves to make Tri appear more mature, but because the content is shallower than its predecessors it doesn’t do much outside of brief shock value. This is the same franchise that had an entry written by Chiaki Konaka after all, but even without comparing it to Tamers, Tri comes off as weaker across the board and completely fails to deliver on anything it initially sets up.

Meanwhile in the TV realm, 2016 saw the premiere of Digimon Universe: App Monsters, a brand new story entirely disconnected from the core DigiDestined cast. Whereas in previous Digimon stories the monsters have mostly just been a random assortment of cool designs, App Monsters hones in on the central idea of phone apps and creates designs and attack concepts based around them. Messaging, navigation, media streaming, and even video game apps lend to more thematically cohesive and technologically-themed designs that, on the whole, still feel like Digimon.

That said, the actual writing for this series is…not great. It falls into the standard monster-of-the-week format that Toei is quite experienced with, but whereas its magical girl properties like Precure are carried by endearing characters and a strong chemistry amongst the main cast, App Monsters struggles to do much at all with those concepts. Aside from character introductions, most of the screen time is dedicated to the intrigue of whatever new Digimon takes the stage in a given episode, along with some fairly lackluster comedy. It does attempt some deeper character writing occasionally, but nowhere near enough to make this series less of a grind considering that the plot-centric writing isn’t particularly interesting either. I did appreciate in the beginning that a lot of the battle strategy was tied into clever app-centric ideas, like how they have to disorient the Navigation app or just straight-up ignore the Messaging app, but once the Digimon gain more powerful forms the strategy devolves into just using super moves all the time, making the battles almost unbearably boring, and Wataru Takagi‘s extreme overacting as this show’s version of the Digivice almost made me mute the sound entirely *sound clips*. It does occasionally chime in with ideas that are just plain cool, like the giant Megazord Digimon striking an Ibari pose and using Guts’s Dragon Slayer to defeat a giant comet, but these moments are very few and far between.

App Monsters also has some of the worst “messages” I’ve seen in a long time. While I don’t expect a children’s show to convey particularly complex morals – though that is certainly more than welcome – I at least expect them to make sense. App Monsters is very clearly trying to convey a message in many of its episodes, but these messages are often oversimplified to the point of looping right back around to just flat-out wrong, chief among them being “criticism of bad game design that causes a game to completely bomb in sales should just be ignored by developers because opinions I guess,” and “reviewing something without actually experiencing it is ok actually because it makes the reviewer happy.” It took all the way up until episode 30 for it to produce a message that wasn’t completely bonkers, and by that point it had lost pretty much all of my goodwill.

It isn’t a particularly good-looking series either. While the Digimon designs are fairly interesting, the human characters are a bit overdesigned, and the typical animation work for them feels very plastic and artificial. Ironically, the moments where the show looks the most fun is when the animation is at its jankiest. Episodes 11 and 32, both of which featured the work of veteran Toei animator Masahiro Naoi, have noticeably different art direction than the rest of the series and they are all the better for it, with 11 having stronger lighting choices and 32 having much more expressive character art that, while very rough around the edges, has a much more charming and organic feel than the usual, more synthetic style. I know we talk about bad CG a lot with this medium, but “open mouth anime face staring blankly into the void” is just as immersion-breaking for me as any unfinished CG render. Speaking of which…wow, these are certainly CG models. While they look fine in motion, it is incredibly jarring whenever they stand next to anything animated in 2D, and that lack of cohesion amongst different elements is a solid metaphor for this series overall. I could see this one being enjoyed by a much younger audience, but it will definitely leave the adult crowd high and dry.

Jumping ahead to the present day, we have the most recent Digimon anime, Digimon Adventure: 2020, a reboot of the original series, which, considering its circumstances, is an extremely rare phenomenon. While anime remakes are definitely much more common than they used to be, the vast majority of them are adaptations of manga whose original anime caught up to the source material and either ended early or went in an entirely different direction, but Digimon as an anime, much like Pokémon, is its own original story. A straight remake wouldn’t really make sense since it’d pretty much just be a visual upgrade, and so the new series has gone for the reboot route instead. While the characters and a few general plot points remain the same, the story itself is mostly brand new, giving the anime a chance to create an entirely new Digimon story lightly flavored with nostalgia. New character conflicts, new spins on old enemies, new environments and themes to explore. The possibilities for a new, enthralling Digimon story seem endless.

Of course, that would require Digimon 2020 to actually have a compelling story, which brings us to the unfortunate reality of this reboot. While its animation prowess is far and away the most impressive from any TV entry thus far, the story itself is one of the most hollow experiences I’ve had all year. Aside from Matt learning to make friends and trust in other people, most of the episodes after its three-part introduction, which turned out to be a reinterpretation of Our War Game, boil down to following the same formula over and over again with nary a new idea in sight. Find bad Digimon, sometimes find good Digimon that need rescuing, do those two things, rinse and repeat. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the characters were strong enough to carry these episodic stories, but the characters themselves are incredibly sterile and lifeless. There’s no depth, no interesting quirks, no chemistry – no anything really. Whereas the originals were bratty, stubborn, and often emotionally-broken children that butted heads constantly, the 2020 characters are about as one-dimensional and lacking in personal conflicts as you can possibly get, again barring that brief bit of Matt doing his best Sasuke impression.

To show you what I mean, let’s compare the episode of Digimon 2020 where Piyomon finally unlocks her evolution into Garudamon to the same episode in the original series, with both instances being triggered by a display of love from Sora. In the original, DemiDevimon sows seeds of doubt in Sora’s mind as to her potential to love others, with Sora’s negative memories of her mother amplifying this, and so Sora is manipulated into thinking that she is incapable of embodying the crest that she was given, sending her spiraling into depression. Fortunately, her friends are there to tell her their own experiences with her and how she truly cares for other people, and with Piyomon putting her life on the line to protect her, Sora is finally able to unlock the crest’s power and push Piyomon to the next level.

In Digimon 2020, Sora helps a bunch of Digimon who have been captured by an evil Digimon because she doesn’t want to leave them behind………aaaaand that’s it. There’s no unique consequence or character moment that sets this apart from every other time that the DigiDestined have helped other Digimon. I really wish I was exaggerating when I say that that is the entire extent of Sora’s characterization, but that really is how hollow and lifeless this anime can be. I didn’t know it was possible to be this bored watching kaiju shoot missiles at each other, but Digimon 2020 found a way to make even the coolest concepts feel totally lifeless. Now if you’re just here for the stellar action animation, then you’ll probably be satisfied because this is consistently the best-looking Digimon TV anime to date; just don’t expect anything in the way of interesting characterization or plot progression. The final episode is set to premiere next week, but at this point there’s not a whole lot that can be added to course-correct one of the blandest and most unengaging Digimon stories to date.

Up to this point, it might seem like the Digimon franchise has been nothing but flops recently, but there is one project that not only lived up to the Digimon legacy, but surpassed it as well, that being Digimon: Last Evolution Kizuna, a movie from 2020 that acts as a sequel to Digimon Tri and puts a final cap on Tai and Matt’s journeys as the DigiDestined. I understand how this might seem unappealing after all the ragging I did on Tri, but Last Evolution might actually be my favorite Digimon anime to date, and you don’t even need to watch Tri to understand it. Part of this is due to the spectacular directing of Tomohisa Taguchi, who would go on to direct the criminally underappreciated Akudama Drive later that year, but even more so because Last Evolution accomplishes everything that Tri failed at.

The film takes place near the end of Tai and Matt’s college years, at a time when they are still trying to figure out what to do for their futures. At the same time, hundreds of DigiDestined across the world are slipping into comas with no known cause, and so the main DigiDestined crew has to figure out what’s going on, while also dealing with the fact that Tai and Matt’s partnerships with Agumon and Gabumon are on the verge of disappearing forever. As opposed to Tri which went in so many different directions at once that it eventually fell apart, Last Evolution takes a few related points that Tri attempted to cover, mainly growing up vs. dwelling on the past, and focuses intently just on those elements, braiding them together in ways that are both seamless and multifaceted to create a story that is narratively, thematically, and structurally satisfying.

Yet, the story never becomes overly complicated or falls back on several minutes of unengaging exposition to explain what’s going on. The core emotional throughline of Tai and Matt struggling with growing up and stressing out over possibly losing their connection to their Digimon partners is what motivates the vast majority of the film’s plot, and it excels at making this idea engaging. It’s obvious from the get-go how Tai and Matt have fallen behind their friends in regards to putting off their plans for the future, which makes for an understandable reason why they get singled out, and the film’s resolution, while very much on the bittersweet side, is exactly what these characters needed to move forward. Even when it seems as though they’re ready to give up and fall for the temptations of living their childhoods on repeat, their Digimon partners are there to remind them how strong they are and that they’ll be able to win no matter what, as well as showing just how much these characters have matured in the 20 years since this franchise first began.

This film is also one of the most aesthetically beautiful entries from the entirety of the Digimon franchise. The color design in particular is one of its standout qualities, shifting between natural, organic tones to create an immersive atmosphere, and extreme levels of contrast to heighten the tension of more suspenseful moments. The film also shows a preference for extreme wide shots throughout, most likely indicating the sheer expanse of the adult world weighing down on Tai and Matt as they struggle with their futures. And, of course, the Digimon battles are excellently choreographed and animated, crafting some truly mesmerizing and exhilarating camerawork and lighting effects. This is far and away my favorite piece of Digimon media to date, and seeing something so incredible come so late into the life of this franchise makes me very excited for what comes after.

As for the future of the Digimon anime, a new TV series titled Digimon Ghost Game will be premiering in October, and a movie tentatively titled Digimon Adventure 02 is also in production. Whether these projects will be able to recapture the spirit of Digimon that fans love so much or lose their way like so many other entries is impossible to tell, so for now, all we can do is wait and see as we look back and appreciate the great entries that this franchise has given us so far.

Thanks to all of you for watching. If you enjoyed this video, be sure to like and subscribe and follow Anime News Network on Twitter for more great anime content, and if you wanna see more from me you can check me out at Ember Reviews on YouTube and Twitter.

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