Written by Tom Mcllroy on 28 Mar 2019
Distributor Manga Entertainment • Certificate PG • Price £33.25
I think it’s fair to say that I’m a little surprised, but also very excited, at how well Digimon and Pokemon have resurged back into the spotlight in recent years. I’m not an ardent fan of either - I collected the cards like everyone else, watched the original series and then occasionally caught wind of a new release here and there. However, the recent releases of Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us andthe six movies making up Digimon Adventure tri. and the announcement that a new tri. movie will be released to mark Digimon's 20th anniversary, has shown (to me at least) that there’s not just an abundance of creative energy in both of these franchises - there’s arguably a stronger fandom than ever before.
In many ways, I shouldn’t be surprised at that; the franchises are built on pretty sturdy foundations; foundations that contain so much nostalgia for so many of us. More than that, the recent film releases seem to want to actively tug on that dormant connection we all secretly have, serving almost as soft-reboots to revisit the older stories from more mature and glossy perspectives.
That being said, Digimon Tamers is very much from the franchise’s early years, having been released in 2001 - a mere two years after the original Digimon Adventure series. It has also had a pretty crazy ride in terms of licensing since then, moving around different platforms including Netflix and Crunchyroll, before finally making its physical arrival to the UK in September of last year, courtesy of Manga Entertainment.
The series’ 51 episodes are set in a world just like our own, but one that is very much separate to the other Digimon narrative universes, making it really accessible for new watchers. In this story, and a little unsurprisingly given it was released in 2001, our main characters are fans of the Digimon Trading Card Game (TCG). They’re also typical angsty elementary school students, regularly pushing back against the adults around them in that adolescent search for some autonomy and identity of their own. This cheerful slice-of-life atmosphere quickly begins to give way, however, as ‘real’ digimon - both good and bad - begin to emerge into the world, and our heroes have to quickly rise to their newfound calling as ‘digimon tamers’ in an effort to save it.
I won’t spoil anything further in case you want to check out the series yourself, but I will say off the bat that I really appreciated how accessible Tamers is. It doesn’t rely on any detailed understanding of the previous series, and the basic concepts surrounding digimon are nicely introduced early on through the trading cards motif. Again, it’s very much designed this way in order to be a route into the TCG itself but, even 18 years on, it works as a great introduction to the broader franchise too.
Now, 51 episodes is an intimidating amount of content, especially when our valuable time is being pulled in different directions by other shows, but I found Tamers to be really nicely balanced in terms of filler content. There certainly are episodes which are less consequential to the main story, but I can’t recall a single one that was completely skippable and didn’t have some sort of bearing on the themes or characters we follow. That might seem like an odd plus for this series, but having spent almost 18 hours following the wacky hijinks of our heroes, I’m glad that I can say that very little of it felt overly detoured - and that’s largely thanks to the interesting themes the show tackles.
Tamers is quite a cuddly series, and it includes a fair amount of ‘friendship moments’ that help our heroes defy the odds here and there. Yet, there’s also plenty of time dedicated to far darker topics - fear of abandonment, betrayal and neglect, and even depression all heavily influence the characters on their journey. Again, I won’t say too much, but that last one - depression - led to some really intriguing insights and quite simply some of the life lesson quotes that I’ve heard in a long time (thank you, Calumon!). If anything, I think that’s the wonderful thing about this show; it’s very cutesy and a little daft (it was selling a TCG to kids after all), but it also finds itself tastefully addressing some really profound topics that add depth and substance to its very upbeat tone.
Like all iterations of the Digimon franchise, the characters are the true focus, allowing you to forgive the more abstract and wobbly elements of the plot. As such, the cast of Tamers don’t disappoint, and the show does a great job of taking their rather run-of-the-mill personas in interesting and meaningful directions. Our main trio, for example - the happy-go-lucky Takato, the intellectual and cautious Henry, and the strong-willed but arrogant Rika - will feel familiar to many. Yet, it’s how the show constantly develops their beliefs and ethics that brings out a very compelling story. Should power be an ultimate goal? How willing should you be to use your friends and family to achieve it? How do those decisions define us? Tamers is not afraid to draw out some thoughtful answers to these questions and others, especially in the later half when the emotional tension really ramps up, all without losing that cheerful atmosphere and energy that initially invites us in.
I also want to say that I really admire the diversity of the show’s broader cast. All of the characters bring wonderfully bright designs and personalities that each get the chance to shine, and collectively add to the charm, energy and comedy that runs through each episode. A huge part of this is thanks to the voice acting, which is absolutely superb and worthy of recommending the show in itself. While I struggle to pick out specific members, I have to applaud Steven Blum’s performance as Guilmon, which I think perfectly illustrates how voice actors can command and shape whole new levels of nuance for a character; in my mind Guilmon couldn’t have sounded better any other way.
When it comes to Tamers’ animation, I’m only slightly less enthusiastic. It’s a 2001 show, a year which also saw shows like Angelic Layer, Fruits Basket, and Beyblade to pick out a few, and the animation stands pretty strong amongst these. Yes, it does feel a little stilted at times, and becomes noticeable in those moments of intense action, but I absolutely forgive that as just a reflection of the times. Much like the 4:3 ratio, you get used to it; the energy of the voice acting, coupled with the colourful character and location designs, easily smooth over the less fluid moments.
In contrast, when it comes to the show’s use of CGI, it feels a little too intrusive. I personally don’t have a problem with CGI in anime, so long as it’s used to clearly distinguish characters and their abilities from the world around them. More importantly, it has to be used consistently. Toei Animation, however, didn’t agree. It’s used really well to enhance locations and effects, but the studio also took the bizarre decision to animate some digivolutions traditionally while having others heavily use CGI. Don’t get me wrong, I think all of the digivolutions are fantastic, and they should be - they are the set pieces of the show after all. It’s just unfortunate that, while one particular digimon’s set of digivolutions are truly fantastic - all utilising CGI to enhance vibrant 2D animation - the other two’s transformations go a different creative direction, and seem clunky and out of place as a result.
While I’m on the topic of transformations, I also feel a little disappointed at how Tamers handled its trading card trope in the later episodes. Other than being a rather obvious sales tactic, it’s a really neat idea - the tamers are able to modify their digimon with battle upgrades by scanning their trading cards, offering an exciting way to shake up the regular battles and reference the other series. However, the concept largely evaporates at around the midpoint and, while there is a bit of an explanation as to why - the battles naturally transcend the power of the cards by that point - it feels odd not to have found a way to keep them relevant in a series built specifically for them. That being said, all the modifications normally changed the designs of the characters too, and I can see why creative and budget reasons might have swayed against that. Like my comment on the CGI digivolutions, I guess it’s more of an oddity for me than anything else.
Curious animation and story decisions aside, I simply can’t fault this series. Tamers takes charming and energetic characters, pairs them with equally energetic voice actors, and takes them on a journey that is quite comfortable holding that well-worn ‘friendship is everything’ theme against a far darker and complex backdrop. Sure, many shows can boast all of those, but it’s great that Digimon can claim a place amongst them, especially with so much new content on the horizon made all the more accessible thanks to this series. Whether you’re looking at the franchise with nostalgia or simply new interest, Tamers is a fun show well worth your time.
A keen gamer, photographer and podcaster, Tom is always looking for new anime and manga to explore; if you have any to suggest, give him a shout.
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