Digimon, First Season
Apparently the guys at THEM did a review of this title and got huge piles of hate-mail. Naturally I've got to be in that. Even if borrowing tapes from the children's section of the local video store is a touch embarrassing. Then again, since this is a `challenger' to Pokemon for market dominance it's a title worth taking a look at.
I should mention that I, by and large, do not fall within the target audience. I'm no longer a child and I rather doubt many readers of this page are either. As a result I'm looking at this title as an anime fan wondering whether this latest effort has something to offer outside of its genre. If you want to know what kids think of this show then you'll have to find one and ask for yourself.
Seven kids are at camp when weird things start happening in our world. They don't really have time to worry about that though, because they get narrowly missed by miniature meteors. These turn out to be small electronic devices about the size of a large watch. Once again they don't have much time to wonder who's throwing merchandise at them before they are slurped into a strange alternate world. A world in which they each meet a digimon (digital monster) who will be their companion.
Which is a good thing really, because this world is a lot more aggressive and monster filled than the rather gentle world of Pokemon. The digimon seem helpless to save their human companions, but a combination of the kids and the devices they found earlier allow the digimon to evolve into more powerful forms. These forms having considerably more power to fight the dangers of the island. And they'll need it, for there is powerful evil in the digiworld, evil that these kids (the digidestined) are prophesied to defeat. True or not it means that all the evil digimon of this world would like to see the kids dead, so they must fight for their lives as well as to protect the good digimon of digiworld.
It certainly is an interesting title, with a considerably different design from Pokemon. One thing that must be mentioned right away though is that each show credits one or two (or even three) writers with the English version. This doesn't sound like the translation team so I suspect these versions might have been quite drastically re-written for the American audience. What changes that may have led to I can't even begin to guess.
The basic structure is to have the seven kids all of whom have a fairly obvious `behaviour' to represent their personality. They're supposed to also represent a character trait, but you'd have to be fairly generous to accept the connection. As an example let's consider Tai, the nominal leader, who is supposed to represent courage but basically just comes across as a gung-ho hothead. He's got a marshmallow puffball with teeth called Koromon who almost immediately and permanently transforms into a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex with a `pepper-breath' attack called Agumon. Fairly soon after he gains the ability to temporarily change into a huge attack form called Greymon and there's another form even later in the show. Mind you he's got the simplest personality, the least disagreeable elements (there's also a whiner and a female airhead) and one of the most sensible monsters.
The main difference between this and Pokemon is that it's very much focused on combat and the combat is more serious. A large number of the evil digimon, or mind-controlled good digimon, have quite lethal looking attacks. Lots of spikes, huge muscles, missiles and energy weapons decorate the various creatures. And when digimon fight they try to get killing blows, even if for one reason or another there's a low number of actual deaths. This combines quite well with the largely continuous story. There are active opponents in this world, powerful and obvious enemies, and the kids must explore and understand this dangerous and rather surreal world. The ability of the digimon to digivolve is as much to keep them capable of winning the battles they must fight as it is an end in itself.
Which is why it comes as quite a surprise that the monsters themselves seem sort of, um, crappy. Sure Tai's digimon is alright, but consider Mimi's situation. She's the spoilt female always whining about wanting to go shopping, get her hair done or having just broken a nail. You can hear the feminists in the audience breaking down into tears, and the fact she's supposed to represent `sincerity' doesn't really help. In any case she gets a walking onion called Tanemon as a pet. It evolves into a weird green plant thing, with a flower on the head and long purple claws which looks downright odd. It has one attack `poison ivy' in which it's claws attack like vines, almost always to no effect. It can evolve into Togemon which basically looks like a huge cactus with boxing gloves and a `needle attack'. Watching a show in which a cactus has a boxing match with a huge evil teddy bear digimon (complete with `heart attack') left me wondering whether to laugh, cry or scream. It's really, really, silly.
Those who adored the clever `game' elements of pokemon will also find them absent here. The kids have minimal power of their own. Each has a single digimon which has one attack (plus hand to hand) for each form. Each digimon is clever and capable enough to fight it out with any enemy. As a result there's no strategy, tactics or interaction during combat. Just a lot of `named' attacks which really don't look that impressive. There's no `training' either with higher forms being attained by finding more bits of merchandise. One of the digimon works a bit differently, Angemon, who basically acts as a deus ex machina to let the kids win the `final battle'.
So is it watchable? well, yeah, as long as you can cope with the silly looking monsters and simplified dialogue. The group of kids is reasonable enough to be interested in finding out what happens. Watching the monsters grow into more powerful forms is always a bit of fun. And most importantly finding out what all the sprinkled `digi' terms actually refer to generates a sense of mystery. I'm actually quite interested myself to find out why there is a `digital world' full of `digital monsters'. However there's also a lot of negative elements. The character work is pretty simplistic, the monsters are derivative or silly, the world design is sort of sloppy leading to some pretty stupid stories and the fights aren't that interesting. Kids might well enjoy it, but as anime or something that goes outside the kodomo genre I have significant doubts as to the value of this title. It really feels a bit like a fast knock-off, which is weird, because given the money and the market it wouldn't seem to be difficult to come up with something cooler than this.
The production values are also dramatically unimpressive. As mentioned the monsters look pretty crappy, lots of weird design there. The backgrounds as well are minimal and the actual animation itself has been done to a tight budget. The kids look alright, but the style is fairly `non anime'. You know those `sorta' anime figures you see on breakfast cereal boxes? It looks like that, a sort of cartoony, universal look. The fights themselves are fairly simple, not much movement and quite a lot of energy beams and targets being `knocked' over like big cardboard cut-outs. There's some computer animation for the `digivolving' which you will quickly get tired of. The voices are reasonable, considering some of the dialogue and names. The theme-song is an electronic track with chanted lyrics that is sufficiently catchy but I didn't notice much in the way of ambient music.