Digimon Adventure

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

If you were a kid in the ‘90s, chances are your first anime show was either Pokémon or Digimon, and your parents would likely mix-up one with the other. To be fair, it isn’t hard to see why. For years people thought of Digimon as just a Pokémon knock-off, as both had similar names, started as video games, and had trading cards and TV shows starring young kids with weird monsters as friends. 

While Pokémon became a global sensation that culminated in a live-action movie this year, Digimon was kind of left on the sidelines. Pikachu became a pop-culture icon while Agumon was left to become just a cheaper version of Charmander. 

With the show’s first season, Digimon Adventure celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it is time to finally set the record straight, Pokémon may be superior in many ways, but Digimon was king when it came to anime shows. 

The adventures of Tai and the Digidestined, who are transported to a magical digital world to save it from a group of virus-turned-monsters that want to destroy the Digi-World and cross over into ours, is more compelling than the never-ending journey of ageless 10-year-old Ash Ketchum, 20 years later, Digimon Adventures remains one of the best adventure shows about digital monsters that will make kids and adults cheer, gasp, and cry.  

What Makes It Great

Right out of the bat, you’ll notice that unlike many children’s shows, Digimon Adventure had a detailed and weighty plot. When a group of boys and girls are transported to the Digital World, they’re there for a specific reason which gets resolved by the end of the series – with subsequent seasons exploring new characters and threats. Be advised, you will feel your heart strings being pulled by the time the season is over, and don’t be surprised if tears are shed.

These kids are in obvious danger as soon as they step into the Digital World and they know it. Even after they partner up with their Digimon companions, digital creatures who had been waiting years for them to finally show up, the kids know these are dangerous and deadly creatures. Their relationships actually evolve and develop during the course of the season, unlike other anime that is just an endless cycle with no change whatsoever. 

Like the Americanized edit of Power Rangers, Digimon Adventure had a big and diverse cast compared to many other kids shows of the time. After all, you had eight kids to choose a favorite from! And though Tai and Matt were the clear protagonists, every character had their time to shine and develop throughout the show, with arcs and backstories of their own that inform their characters and story in the show.

And when I mean the kids are in danger, I mean death follows them wherever they go. The villains in this show are terrifying for children, and even adults will appreciate the sometimes even disturbing designs of some of the more sadistic Digimon villains. And with great villains come great losses, as Digimon Adventure was not afraid to explore death and the trauma it inflicts on those who are left behind. In one episode, the character of Mimi literally makes a little graveyard for their lost friends after many side characters die sacrificing themselves for the Digidestined. Even 20 years later, some of the deaths in the show, particularly that of a certain Digimon that wears a pointy hat and a cape, hit as hard as the loss in Avengers: Endgame

Of course, this is still an adventure show with plenty of action, and Digimon Adventures doesn’t disappoint there. Being as influenced by American comics as they were by dinosaurs, the character designers created a huge variety of different Digimon that, unlike the cute-by-mandate Pokémon, vary in designs from cute to cool to terrifying. This makes for some great action scenes that always feel fresh as Digimon evolve and get new designs and powers, and new enemies take the place of old ones.

What It Brings to the Conversation

As mentioned, while there are other kids shows that deal with death in some capacity, few follow a serialized form of storytelling. Having some sort of overarching story is becoming more and more popular in animation, but even in anime having serialized shows – meaning each episode is a connected in a significant way and cliffhangers are common – is hardly the rule. This made Digimon Adventure an outlier, but also made it harder for kids to follow the story if they skipped an episode one week, as the Digidestined often split up for weeks on end, and episodes end on huge cliffhangers that get resolved the next week. On the other hand, this makes Digimon Adventure a perfect show for the streaming era, as it is hard to resist watching just one more episode to find out what happens. 

Though death is a big part of the action scenes in the show, with Digimon actually vanishing into thin air and dying when defeated in battle, Digimon Adventure also explored other very real problems through its characters. Back in the ‘90s, it wasn’t common to have kids shows handle subjects like depression, but Digimon got away with it. From having your parents’ divorce split the family, to the pressure of living up to your family’s expectations of you, to an entire episode dedicated to exploring depression and anxiety, Digimon wasn’t afraid to explore serious subjects.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

One of the biggest trends in anime of the past few years has been the rise of the “isekai” genre, which deals with a protagonist – usually a guy, usually a gamer – who gets magically transported to a fantasy land when they find that their hobby is super useful in this new world and use their previously-mocked abilities to defeat a world-ending threat. Before embarking on How Not To Summon A Demon Lord or even Sword Art Online, why not try an earlier example of isekai anime that eases the audience into many of the tropes of the genre without being overwhelming?  

Digimon Adventure starts with a simple enough premise of friendship and adventure that evolves into one of the most mature and complex ‘90s anime for kids. And if you like the first season, you’re in luck, as the Digimon Tri series continues the story of the core group of characters, and the upcoming Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna is set to finish their story early next year.

What This If You Like: Pokémon, Chronicles of Narnia, The NeverEnding Story

Digimon Adventures is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime.

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