Note: Review copy supplied by Manga Entertainment
Title: Digimon Tamers
Anime Studio: Toei Animation
Publisher: Manga Entertainment
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi
Released: September 24th 2018
Running Time: 1275 minutes
Takato Matsuki, Rika Nonaka, and Henry Wong are children who, on one fateful day, received real Digimon, unlike the imaginary ones in the card game they play. Each of the children, or ‘Digimon Tamers’, have their different views on how Digimon should be treated. But when other Digimon begin to appear around Japan, they must put aside their differences to fend off both the digital intruders and those who seek to destroy all Digimon!
Originally released in 2001, Tamers signalled a change in tact for the Digimon franchise. The changes were such that it’s hard to write a comprehensive review without referencing the older seasons and offering comparisons, so that’s what I shall be doing here throughout the piece. The two previous anime seasons had been linked by recurring cast members and a shared universe, and the tone was such that the shows were clearly kid orientated, with the English dub in particular full of corny jokes alongside the monster-fighting action. When it came to Tamers, things took a very different turn.
The hiring of Chiaki J Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain) to write the series was a brave one, and it certainly paid off here. While the original two seasons didn’t shy away from some darker themes – I’m looking at you broken homes, and Wizardmon’s fate – Tamers takes things to a new level. For one, the human characters are put through the wringer in many respects. We have feelings of disconnect from parents, rage, the question of what affords something the classification of being alive, and the long-term effects of blaming yourself for the death of a loved one. And it doesn’t just stop with the flesh and blood characters either. Traditionally, Digimon didn’t suffer permanent deaths, they were simply reborn. Here, death means either being absorbed by the one that defeated you or fading into nothingness. Then there are the different struggles to connect with their Tamers, the harsh reality of their world set against the childlike views of some of the characters … this was, and still is, the Digimon season that dealt with the most adult themes. What makes that so incredible is that everything is still presented in a way that is entirely child appropriate. It’s dark and moody, but somehow still a family title.
Part of that is possible due to the story having a sense of disconnect from the original two seasons. You see, this makes it clear very early on that the events of the original Adventure and Zero Two were in fact just anime in this world. That allows things to move away from the pre-established universe rules and in doing so gives Konaka ample space to put his stamp on the story uninhibited. If that shift in continuity feels like it disrespects the original tales though, fret not. Check out the backstory for Tamers character Ryo presented in the Wonderswan games and then watch the finale to Digimon Xros Wars: The Young Hunters Who Leapt Through Time. It’s all linked through a dimensional hopping extravaganza. This was the first season of the anime to play into the side material in this way, and that is something that I really think is worthy of praise, as it helped flesh out the franchise and push it beyond the more repetitious seasonal arcs of the other big monster show for kids, Pokémon.
So, with all that darkness floating around the story, how do the characters hold up in comparison to the lovable eight chosen children of the original run? Well, remarkably well. The human children do retain a focus on one particular character trait, but it never feels like they’re one-dimensional. That is something that is aided by the series initially only featuring three tamers. What that means is that it jumps around a lot less than the first two seasons, and allows the leads to grow in smaller steps, fleshing them out more than adequately as the story progresses. Once it comes time to introduce the other tamers, we’re already then well acquainted with Takato, Rika and Henry, and can relax into learning about these new additions without fear of the key three being left behind in terms of development.
The same rings true for most, but not all, of the children’s partner Digimon, with each sharing the journey of development with their tamer. By far the most fascinating of these stories belongs to Renamon and Impmon. For the famous yellow fox, we see her transition from being a loyal partner that focuses on strength in the same way as her partner Rika does, to cementing a much stronger bond with her tamer. It’s a tale that features some twists and turns that ultimately benefit both characters but also has a subtle moment or two that may be easy to miss. For example, though her Digivolution to Kyubimon comes when Renamon and Rika finally start to share a true bond, the link isn’t as strong as that shared by Takato and Guilmon or Henry and Terriermon, and as a result Kyubimon actually seems weaker than the technically-lower-level Renamon in battle. Meanwhile, Impmon’s feelings of inadequacy and the backstory with his tamers sees the little mischief-maker cycle through wise-mouthed minor villain to a murderous bad guy before launching him off down the road to redemption. The interactions between Impmon and Renamon were also worthy of note because they led to plenty of people shipping the two.
Of course, I did say that not all the partner Digimon get the same chance to shine, and that’s true. Neither Guardromon nor Marine Angemon really adds much other than playing off Kazu and Kenta’s character types. And Leomon? Well, he does get to get Leomon’d, as you’d expect, but his main purpose in the story seems to be to act as a tool to set off Jeri’s descent into depression and self-loathing. Then there’s Alice and Dobermon who only turn up for such a brief time that they lack the chance of creating a real impact. Given how much the story crams in, it’s understandable that some characters get pushed aside in favour of the more important stuff, but it is a bit of a shame.
One area where Tamers excels is during battles. Taking on board what the producers learned in working with the action scenes in Adventure and Zero Two, Tamers ramps things up a little, and the fights actually feel even more exciting than in those two seasons. Yes, part of that is down to the aforementioned perma-death factor, but everything feels a lot smoother here, and the action is a lot more varied than in the original two seasons, where set-pieces tended to rely heavily on the battling Digimon’s special moves. Not only does Tamers feature a lot of back-to-basics combat, such as Renamon slashing her claws across the face of her opponents, but the addition of the card system means that various upgrades can be run mid-battle, adding a new dimension to the various assaults.
Historically, Digimon has suffered a lot of cuts and alterations when it comes to the dubbed version of the shows. Some of these are understandable given the target audience, but others were primarily to add some humour to the proceedings. To my knowledge, Tamers actually had the least changes of any of the seasons. The obvious changes were the theme song change from the awesome Biggest Dreamer by Koji Wada to a slight reworking of the familiar theme from the dub of seasons one and two and the slight alteration of some names. The subbed version also includes some references to alcohol and smoking, all of which were altered. The bigger cuts amount to a few seconds of footage such as Beelzemon and Gargomon pulling guns on the children and Renamon slashing Gargomon’s eyes. Which leads me to my one big disappointment with the release: it’s a single language release. With the changes being so minor, it shouldn’t have been too unfeasible to include both the subbed and dubbed tracks here, so my assumption is that it came down to licensing costs. If I want to get picky, the inclusion of the two Tamers movies would also have been nice, but I wasn’t really expecting them to be present. The dub is a decent one though, and the lack of thematic changes means that the story can be enjoyed as it was meant to be regardless.
In all though, this is an easy recommendation. I’ve stated many times before that Digimon Tamers is my favourite anime of all time and seeing it finally get a complete UK release is something magical for me. The story feels far more grown-up, the action is great, and the dub is one of the most faithful in the franchise. If Digimon Adventure looked too much like a kids’ show, or your own kids simply want something more mature to watch, Digimon Tamers is for you. Be warned though, if you’re like my family, it may mean that nothing else in the franchise measures up going forward. Tamers is, and always has been, Digimon at its best. 5 out of 5.