If you were born in the mid-to late-nineties, there’s a pretty good chance that Digimon Digital Monsters was a part of your childhood. Whilst the first series was a little bit before my time, with Adventure 02 and Tamers being what I remember the most, Digimon is still a franchise I was absolutely obsessed with when I was younger, so naturally, I was quite excited to learn it was coming to DVD in the UK. However, when I had tried to revisit anime from my childhood before, such as Shaman King and Yu-Gi-Oh GX, I found they had not stood the test of time, which made me a bit apprehensive about going back to Digimon. So, does it hold up? Unfortunately, not really.
In case you’re not aware, Digimon Digital Monsters is about a group of 7 kids who, whilst at a summer camp, are transported to the Digital World, a strange land inhabited by creatures known as Digimon. The children soon befriend a group of Digimon who keep them out of harm’s way, before discovering that they are the Digidestined, prophesied to save the Digital World from evil Digimon.
The biggest flaw with Digimon that makes it a tough sell to anyone who wasn’t fond of it growing up, is that it absolutely did not need to be 54 episodes long. I honestly feel that you could halve the number of episodes and, if it was rewritten slightly, you could still tell the same story with very little of value being lost. There are story arcs here that could easily have been reduced down to an episode or two, but are instead needlessly stretched over several episodes for no real reason. The best example for this comes quite early on when the Digidestined are searching for their crests, which allow them to further evolve their Digimon. The way this is handled is to give one or two crests out over five or so separate episodes. I think that probably could be justified if the writers used these crests, which represent attributes such as hope and love, to flesh out the characters and have the episodes be about the kids demonstrating said attributes to gain the crests. Rather than do that, though, the characters just simply stumble upon these crests in most cases, which essentially makes the episodes themselves feel like filler. The writers easily could have had everyone find these crests in a single episode, yet it took five, which makes it incredibly frustrating to watch when they’re not doing anything that interesting. And it’s not even the only time it happens. This time-wasting is definitely not helped by the fact that the story in the first half of the series is essentially aimless, consisting of the group just wandering through the Digital World, with the real story not really kicking in until more than halfway into its run. That being said, once it does reach that point, the show improves dramatically, with it feeling a lot more focused due to the story actually introducing goals that the group can work toward as opposed to showing them meandering around as in the earlier episodes.
On top of being far too long for the story it’s telling, Digimon also quickly becomes formulaic. After the initial few episodes, it settles into a groove of having each episode’s plot boil down to having an evil Digimon threatening the group, which is defeated at the end when one or more of the Digimon Digivolve. Whilst this isn’t necessarily true of every episode, and this does improve as it goes on, the ones that differ from this formula are too few, and it gets tiresome quickly. What is especially irritating is when this formula is shoehorned into episodes that don’t even need it. For example, there is a pretty great episode that tried to break away from the familiarity of the rest and could have served as a nice break from all the action, yet it still felt the need to end with a totally out of place fight sequence. Despite there being a multitude of story arcs, they all feel the same on a basic level, and kind-of blend together after a while, which left me wanting far more variety.
Going by all I’ve said so far, you could be forgiven for thinking that I really didn’t like Digimon, but fortunately it redeems itself with its characterization. Even though, much like with the story, it’s not until halfway through the show that it really does anything with its cast; once it gets there, it fleshes them out a surprising amount. This is done by giving a lot of the characters real-life issues, such as Matt and TK’s parents being divorced and the impact that has on their relationship, Izzy discovering he’s adopted, and Joe dealing with pressure from his parents to become a doctor, even if it’s not what he really wants. What I love about this is that these are problems I imagine quite a few kids could probably relate to in real life, and for an anime aimed at children to tackle some fairly mature subject matter, considering its audience, is quite admirable. The only real problem with this is that only about half the characters are given these kinds of issues, with Tai, Kari, Mimi and Sora feeling a fair bit less interesting as a result, even if all of the characters do receive development in one way or another.
Whilst Digimon handles its protagonists really well, unfortunately, the villains don’t come across nearly as satisfactorily in comparison. There are a whole host of different villains over the course of the different arcs, but not a single one of them ever felt more than a plain, stock villain. They all were just evil for the sake of being evil, and they all only wanted world domination. If the villains were more varied, it could have easily stopped the story feeling quite so repetitive, but instead they just just add to the tedium.
Digimon is animated by anime behemoth Toei (who also created other hit franchises such as One Piece, Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh) and is about on a par with what you’d expect from a Toei show. It’s nothing amazing, quality-wise, but given the length of the series, has aged far better than I would have expected, some dated-looking CGI aside.
Manga’s release of Digimon Season 1 only contains the English dub, and whilst it’s not the best dub I’ve ever heard, it’s definitely head-and-shoulders above some of the other English dubs being put out around the same time by 4Kids. Some of the voice acting occasionally sounds a little bit stilted, the biggest offender being Michael Reisz as Matt, but the general quality is pretty good. The only snag I thought the dub encountered was with Apocalymon who, although a dark character, is given some quite silly and out-of-place sounding lines.
Music-wise, Digimon succumbs to what a lot of long-running shows do, in that, whilst not inherently bad, the music gets very overused, and by the time you’ve finished, you’re sick of hearing the same handful of songs over and over again. By far the biggest offender is the insert song ‘Hey Digimon’, which, aside from being a pretty bad insert song (it sounds like a Barenaked Ladies knock-off) is completely out-of-place when paired with the intense action on screen. This song is used in nearly every single episode in the latter half of the show and quickly becomes infuriatingly annoying. However, when it comes to the opening of the series, I’m not sure there’s much to say. Digimon Digital Monsters is up there with the first Pokemon opening in terms of iconic 90s openings, and is every bit as much of an earworm now as it was back then, although it does wear out its welcome rather quickly.
In terms of extras, Digimon Season 1 is about as barebones as you can get, with the only extra being the original Japanese OP and ED. When it comes to the quality of the release itself, I did have one issue, and that is that the chapter markers are quite scattershot. Instead of being able to skip the opening via skipping to the next chapter, as you might expect, it instead will take you to 5 or 6 minutes into the episode, which is quite an annoyance. Some of the episodes also seem to be taken from TV broadcasts, with the American TV age rating appearing in the top left corner of the screen, although it’s only there for a few seconds at the beginning, so it’s no deal-breaker.
If you were a fan of Digimon back in the day, you’d probably get something out of revisiting the series, but otherwise I think it’s pretty hard to recommend Digimon Season 1 to anyone other than children, mostly down to just how repetitive it can be, especially in its first half.