Digimon has a new movie coming out this year. Did you know that? Do you even care?
Perhaps surprisingly, there are people who care quite a lot. The same week Pokémon Go hit the app store—increasing the market value of Nintendo by over $7.5 billion in just two days—the loyal Digimon community has been discussing possible plot twists that may be revealed in Digimon Adventure tri: Confession, which is the third film in a six-part series based off the original TV show.
For a small, dedicated following of Digimon fans, this series is a cause for celebration 15 years in the making. But compared to the 15 million people who have reportedly downloaded Pokémon Go this week, you have to wonder how Digimon is feeling right now. They’re the Garfunkel to Pokémon’s Simon, the Luigi to their Mario, the guy from Wham who isn’t George Michael to George Michael. It can’t be easy.
A decade ago, kids were having full-blown arguments about which of the two franchises was better. Most would pick a camp, hunker down, and hope their side would outdo the other. But what made someone side with Team Ash or Team Tai, with Pikachu or Patamon?
No matter your allegiance, it’s most likely that your first exposure to the world of virtual critters was Pokémon. In the mid-nineties, the pocket-monsters hemmed in, flanked, and then deftly assailed our hearts, minds, and parents’ bank accounts. They secured our attention with a four-pronged attack: a series of video games, a collectible card game, an animated TV series, and a range of toys. Starting with their Gameboy game in 1996, the Pokémon juggernaut was built to include multiple points of entry that fed into a devious product-purchasing cycle. Like the video game? We made a TV show about that! Like the show? You can play along using these cards! Like the card game? We made a bunch of toys based on the characters! Like the toys? We made a sho—Mom? Dad? Why are you crying? Why are you clutching your wallets?
And then there’s Digimon. If Pokémon was a laser beam of concentrated consistency, Digimon was a fire hose with nobody holding it, often flailing about dousing anything but its target, and wasting a lot of its output (and money). But a lot of people still enjoyed playing in its chaotic wake.
Digimon was always behind the (poke)ball. In 1997, a year after the first Pokémon games were released, the Digimon enterprise began with a series of Tamagotchi-like toys that could be joined up to battle one another. The US marketing team went in for audiences hard, cynically clamoring for a piece of the Pokémon pie. But those who were satisfied with their initial serving of pocket monsters were less likely to add an entirely different digital monster to their plate.
After moderate success, Digimon released its first TV series, Digimon Adventure, two years later. Instead of relying upon the repetitive, undying confection that was—and still is—Pokémon’s narrative, Digimon prioritized ongoing story arcs and character development. It had a cast of diverse, interesting characters who changed over the seasons, instead of the ubiquitous lineup of Ash, Misty, Brock, and their associated misfits.
Children’s television in Japan was (and still is) often more grizzly than the super-safe, saccharine content seen on Western screens at the time, such as ongoing serials like Naruto and One Piece, which regularly dealt with mortality and moral grayness. While both TV shows had anime hearts, Pokémon’s hyper-colored glibness appealed to a larger international audience than its more intense Digimon counterpart.
So when this well-considered children’s program was taken from the Japanese market and into the US, it was jammed onto Fox Kids network where it was surrounded by (mostly) B-Grade, easily digestible garbage. Unlike the Pokémon TV show, where you could skip the entire arc of Cerulean City and still get the gist of what was happening in Lavender Town, Digimon required diligent viewing. For the American kids who were used to coming home from school and binging on show after mindless show, the complex plot lines made it less likely for them to stay interested.
But some people did stick it out, and these fans still exist today, every bit as rabid as Pokémon Go players. As one die-hard explained to me, “Digimon has always been a great representation of the real problems that children face: [They had] instances of children dealing with the divorce of their parents, children who find out that they’re adopted but haven’t been outright told by their parents, loss of family members, [and] strained emotions during puberty”. Digimon as a universe explored real-life consequences, and that’s what captured the minds of many kids. But a majority of the US market appeared to be looking for escapism, not a reflection of reality.
Digimon made some other odd choices that may have shortened its reach, such as marketing to a male-skewed audience even though their human roster featured twice as many females as Pokémon. Yet Digimon struggled to seamlessly insert its viewers into its world. And herein lies another crucial difference: In Pokémon, humans live and work alongside Pokémon, whereas the world of Digimon is separate to our own. In Pokémon, anyone—“Even YOU, kid!” to paraphrase the professor at the start of Pokémon Go—can hit the road and engage in what is effectively state-sanctioned cockfighting. They make us feel that Rattata are all around us, and we’re only ever one Pidgey away from a Pidgeotto. In this way, engaging with the Pokémon world makes us feel like muggles who have been allowed into Hogwarts for the day (which is probably also where Mewtwo is hiding).
Digimon may not have seen the continuous commercial success that Pokémon has, but it still has a loyal fan base that is keeping the dream alive. Along with the Japanese release of the third installation of their six-part cinematic continuation, Digimon is also bringing out the English-dubbed version of the first movie, Digimon Adventure tri: Reunion, in September. It goes beyond the big screen: Last year the latest Digimon video game, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth for PS Vita, sold 76,760 copies in its opening week in Japan, which made it the third highest-selling title for the week. And a petition demanding a localized re-release of Digimon Re:Digitiz on the Nintendo 3DS currently has 65,000 signatures.
People love Digimon. Less people, yes, but still a good number of them. It’s janky and inconsistent, but it has soul and depth. Pokémon and Digimon were never equal opponents, but they’ve also long since stopped trying to be. Because they capture different parts of our hearts, there’s room for them both in there.
So I’ll see you at the cinema this September–even if no one else turns up. But not before I’ve run around the mall hoping to catch enough Magikarp to evolve into a Gyrados.