In the late 1990s in the United States, the latest social phenomenon that occupied the disposable income of children was “Pokémon.” With the Nintendo games and the trading cards, we weren’t hurting for products focused on Pikachu and his friends. The cartoon on WB kids was the talk of the playground. But then in 1999, a few channels over on Fox Kids a similar show hit the air, “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” Both shows shared “mon” in their names with small creatures playing a pivotal role. Both titles have massive legacies surrounding the original Japanese anime, but culturally both proved to be important to mainstream audiences in the US. With “Pokemon” as the undisputed champion of the ratings between the two, I’m here to tell you why “Digimon,” was actually more important than you realized at the time.
A Monkey- Elvis and Metal Dinosaurs
Purists will tell you all about the various seasons of “Digimon” and the different levels of success each had in the US and abroad, but for now I’m only talking about what fans would call Digimon Adventure: Series One. For a show broadcast on network television, the series showcased a complex storyline fit with humor and drama directed toward the high-end ages of its intended audience. The plot consists of seven kids who are transported to the mysterious Digital World. Once there, each is paired with a digital monster, or Digimon. Over time the group battle various evil masterminds while the storyline evolves into a maze of complex backstory and intricate lessons in sociological development. Wait, are we still talking about “Digimon” where the metal dinosaur (Metal-Greymon) blows up the Monkey who talks like Elvis (Etemon) and everyone laughs their way to the next episode? Yes, actually we are.
The group of characters is made up of archetypes common in any movie or TV show. The jock leader frequently clashes with the artsy number two. There’s a computer geek, a bookworm and a ditsy valley girl among others. The first few episodes are heavy on establishing these characteristics among the cast. There are then a number of episodes where the group resolves their insecurities, even getting power crests to accompany their growth and power their Digimon. For example Tai receives the courage crest, Izzy gets knowledge and Joe has the reliability crest. It’s all very much like the Hogwarts sorting hat.
The villains on the show get more powerful with each story arch and the good guys are just powerful enough to beat them. Much like “Dragonball Z” or other anime shows where similar formats occur, this allows the audience to progress with the characters. At the time, no other shows on Fox Kids were as complex. “Digimon” played out like an epic. When the storyline has the cast return to Earth and defend it from the evil Myotismon, the show ramps up its intensity. New supporting Digimon die more frequently, Tai’s sister is hunted by villains and the threat toward Earth is tangible. The group of random kids has established a believable connection as a team able to protect the world.
“Digimon” excelled because Fox Kids was willing to put on a show that followed the format of more adult-leaning programming. The story was continuous from each episode to the next and the characters are surprisingly well-developed. “Pokemon” was stealing the headlines at the time; but “Digimon” stole some of the core audience with the more intricate story that showcased more themes than an Orson Welles film. There were the usual suspects on Saturday morning cartoons, overcoming fear and adapting to new situations, but the more complicated themes of prejudice and sacrifice are also presented. ‘Digimon” is one of the strongest examples of anime breaking through in the United States and becoming part of mainstream media culture. Sure, it isn’t as well-known as Pokémon, which even grandparents are aware of, but it still was pretty groundbreaking at the turn of the century. The channel “Nicktoons” is currently playing reruns of “Digimon” as part of their regular programming, so set your DVRs.