Zachary's 5 Favorite Anime Pt.2

Last time, I discussed a show that turned the magical girl formula on its head. This time, I’m gonna tackle a show that turned a marketing vehicle on its head. That’s right, today’s entry is Digimon Tamers, aka “that weird show about monsters from that weird writer who may actually be a monster himself”!

For those who are somewhat new to this, here’s my piece explaining everything. We good?

Anyway, I’m not a big Shonen fan. As I’ve said before, I have nothing against the genre, but I often find it drags for hundreds of episodes with pointless filler or drawn-out story-arcs. Still, there are exceptions, two of which are on this list. Digimon Tamers, the third iteration of the Digimon TV franchise, is one of them, a fact helped by it being linked to a series I have strong nostalgic ties to. It’s also one of the few shows from my childhood that holds up. Considering my relationship with its head writer, Chiaki J. Konaka, is pretty hit-or-miss, I find that interesting. But a good show’s a good show, so I won’t fault it.

It takes place in Japan during the early-21st Century, a time when Digimon was still the hit craze. Not surprisingly, the show itself acknowledges this, with our starting protagonist, Takato Matsuki, as a 10 year-old kid obsessed with the cards and video games. He’s given a chance to live his fantasies when, as if out of the blue, he’s given a mysterious blue card (pardon the pun) that transforms his card reader into a Digivice (or D-Arc) and his rough doodles into a Digimon named Guilmon. But Takato’s not alone, as not only are there other kids with Digimon, but Digimon are running rampant despite the efforts of a shady corporation, led by a shady man named Yamaki, to eradicate them.

Serious confession time: of all the entries, Digimon Tamers remains my most-frequently watched. It’s not like I’m being a blind fanboy, but there’s something compelling about it that other seasons can’t seem to replicate. I’m unsure what it is either, but it was enough to complicate my retrospective series and force me to break that season’s analysis in-two. And chances are I’ll watch it again at some point.

There are two components that make it stand out, one from the greater franchise and the other from the writer’s other works. For the former, it’s how seriously it takes its material. Even when stacked against the four iterations that comprise Digimon: Digital Monsters, there’s something special about it; Digimon Adventure was silly in spite of being more than the sum of its parts, while Digimon Frontier was childish and Digimon Zero-Two was…well, the less said about that one, the better. But Digimon Tamers didn’t fool around, and while it had its share of entertainment, at the same time it went beyond the call of duty and made a simple premise dark and subversive. Whether or not that worked out in its favour is entirely up for debate, but I find it hard to forget.

The latter is that this particular work of Konaka’s is more kid-friendly than his usual affair. I say that relatively, I still think Digimon Tamers is a little too mature for its target audience, but I think that actually works out in its favour; see, I find Konaka’s work too slow and atmospheric, even if it’s good. This makes it hard to watch in long spurts, hence my frustrations with Ghost Hound and Serial Experiments Lain, but Digimon Tamers is the bizarre exception because it’s not nearly as slow. Because of this, I’ve easily marathoned the show in a week, which isn’t something I can say for Konaka’s other, shorter works. That doesn’t mean the show isn’t still slow at parts, but I’m well-enough into it by then that I can forgive that.

It also plays to genre and franchise conventions quite well. It mostly takes place in Japan, a big stretch from other seasons, and it uses the Digimon aspect as a meta-feature. It portrays the kids as real kids, highlights the dangers as real dangers, and even remedies two of the franchise’s biggest flaws, the lack of weighty consequences for death and the Leomon trope, in a single scene that simultaneously kicks off the final, and arguably best-written, arc. Plus, it’s cool to see how everything would work in a real-life setting, even if it gets to be a little creepy and unsettling. I didn’t quite appreciate this when it first aired, but I respect in hindsight.

I also think the technical facets are fascinating. Toei Animation isn’t known for high-quality production value. They frequently skimp on budget detail to save money and time, and boy does it show! This iteration may not look as bad as its predecessors, but the characters are stiff, the background detail pasty and blurry, the dialogue hammy and the fight scenes remarkably unimpressive (at least, by most action standards.) And the animation quality is consistently inconsistent, with the characters frequently going off-model and devolving into ugly blobs depending on whether or not the staff had a budget that day.

And yet, Konaka and crew worked wonders. Not to say that prior seasons didn’t, Digimon Adventure in particular had plenty of great moments, but not to the same extent as Digimon Tamers. The show has atmospheric direction, creepy imagery, heavy themes, excellent dialogue and fights that, surprisingly, are pretty inventive given limitations. The voice acting is also great, especially the English dub, which, though dated, has a lot of effort put into it for a kid’s anime. Everything meshes together, in other words.

That’s not to say the show is without faults. For one, the whole “meta-marketing” aspect sometimes gets in the way. The individual arcs feel disjointed, and while the show does eventually get to its point, it’s not until its final arc that everything makes sense. Considering the underlying theme of the show, of how reality and fiction don’t exactly mesh, doesn't connect right away, you’re left with a first arc that feels like set-up for the first-half of the show, a second arc that’s fun to watch, but not all that deep and a third arc that doesn’t serve much of purpose other than to set up the finale. Not to mention, two episodes, 26 and 31, that barely serve a purpose at-okay, more the former than the latter.

The show also has the inclusion of Ryo Akiyama, and anyone who’s followed my retrospective knows I don’t think so highly of him. It’s not even that he’s terrible or useless, but he’s not fleshed-out, is introduced with no build-up, disappears and reappears frequently without warning and is overpowered because “why not?”. He, apparently, was a studio mandate from Toei Animation, which’d be fine…if he were interesting. But he’s not, and that is enough to make me hate him.

And finally, the execution. Being a Konaka show, the writing follows a lot of recycled tropes and archetypes that, while executed better than his other stuff, still feel pretty cliché. Among these are the doughy-eyed, gung-ho lead, the stern, contemplative wing-man, the distant loner with family issues, the stand-alone, workaholic boss who’s dating his top employee, the out-of-nowhere scares and the long stretches of build-up. The show tackles the idea that evil is largely based on misguided perceptions of right and wrong, something I admire, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fly by kids’ heads.

Still, I can’t fault this show for being good in spite of its flaws. If you want a marketing vehicle that’s also a fascinating meta-study, give Digimon Tamers a shot. It gets an…

Two down, three to go! What could possibly be higher up than a magical girl subversion and a toy vehicle subversion? Here’s your hint of the day: all that jazz.


  1. So...could a fellow who never paid any attention to Digimon [but who has been aware of its existence for years] go into this one cold and get anything out of it?

    And're not reviewing "Cowboy Bebop", are you? Because I'm simultaneously a True Believer and a heretic when it comes to that show, in that I really, really like it, yet have some sharp criticisms to make of it as well.

    1. I guess so? It kinda assumes you have some pre-knowledge of what it's rebooting prior, but it's also designed to work solo. Think "Marvel Netflix Originals" in that regard: enjoyable on their own, but also keep in mind some of the background from the movies while going in.

      As for the answer? You'll have to wait until Tuesday for that one...


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