Life Goes On – Digimon Adventure tri. 2: Determination

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What was originally supposed to be a review of the second Digimon Adventure tri. movie has now taken on a different context with the passing of Digimon singer Wada Kouji at the age of 42 after a long battle with cancer. While his voice was absent in the English dub of Digimon, many fans around the world came to know his distinct, powerful voice across multiple works, and in many ways his songs have defined and encapsulated the swirl of emotions and memories that Digimon brings. In listening to Wada’s tri. renditions of “Butter-fly” and now “Seven,” the softness in his voice comes across not simply as the melancholy of growing up, but also Wada’s last push to make his voice heard, similar to Freddie Mercury in “These Are the Days of Our Lives” before succumbing to AIDS.

Although Wada’s unfortunate passing does not any direct impact on the story of Digimon Adventure tri. 2: Determination, it does cast an interesting light given the primary focus of the second film. What do we as people do with our lives? What does it mean to be an adult? How do we handle the challenges that life throws at us? How can we continue to be the Biggest Dreamer?

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Determination, like Reunion, places great emphasis on character exploration, with greater attention on how difficult it can be to both aim for and avoid conformity as we get older. In particular, the film puts the spotlight on worrywart Kido Joe and Tachikawa Mimi. Just like in the last film, Joe has been actively ignoring the call of the Digimon because he’s more concerned with trying to get into a good college. Mimi has to deal with the fact that her aggressive attitude and individuality (implied to be a product of both her personality and her time spent in the US) rubs her classmates the wrong way.

Though overall decent, I find this second film to be weaker than the first one, mostly because the pacing feels stiff and that not quite enough was done to explore Joe and Mimi’s conflicts. The comedy, including seeing Gomamon cook instant ramen for Joe, and even the bath house hijinks (including a brief steamy moment between Takeru and Hikari) are all wecome and keep the film just light-hearted enough, but the story’s progression still feels quite uneven. However, one potential point against the film, namely that it focuses on boring ol’ Joe, is something I see as a point of contention. I think that Joe’s story is something that can be hard for some to relate to while others will connect more immediately to his plight, and that the extent to which Determination resonates with viewers can therefore vary tremendously.

Given that Joe’s choices are between studying for college entrance exams or helping to save the world the choice should be “obvious,” but it’s clear that Joe is trying his hardest to become a responsible adult. After all, he’s supposed to be the responsible one, and the fact that this pressure seems to come not so much from his parents but from society as a whole and his own expectations for doing what’s best makes his inability to improve his test scores despite all of the work he’s put into it feel that much more devastating. Joe is essentially struggling between doing the right thing and doing the right thing, and the fact that he cares so much about both is what makes it a conflict in the first place.

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By comparison, I think Mimi’s troubles are easier to understand, but both her and Joe have to confront what it means to live and exist among others, when one is increasingly expected to fall into line. Mimi also pushes through her problems with greater determination than Joe, but that also comes down to their differences in personality. That’s not to say Mimi doesn’t struggle in this film herself, or that her concerns are any less important or difficult to deal with, but if there’s one thing Mimi doesn’t lack, it’s confidence.

I think what made Digimon and Wada Kouji such powerful presences in many children’s lives is the sense of discovery and (of course) adventure that they conveyed. Determination plays with these feelings, asking whether or not they should be left in the past or should be carried into the future even as we become adults. It’s a simple yet profound fight that many must go through, and I’m confident that the next film will deliver hope to all those who believe their childhoods have long since disappeared beyond memory.

You can watch Digimon Adventure tri. on Crunchyroll.

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[Apartment 507] A Tribute to Digimon Singer Wada Kouji

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I’ve written a short, personal post about the late Wada Kouji over at Apartment 507. Wada was the singer of many beloved Digimon songs over the years, and had an unmistakable voice.

Growing Up in a World of Monsters – Digimon Adventure tri. 1: Reunion

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Digimon Adventure, known around the world as simply Digimon, is an anime that helped to define a certain generation of fans. For many, it was either the anime, or the the other anime, relative to its thematic rival, Pokemon. Where Pokemon was about traveling in a world where monsters and humans co-exist, and the stakes were generally about winning tournaments, Digimon was about traveling to an alternate digital world of monsters and saving the world. Where Pokemon generally had a core cast of three, Digimon had over twice that amount. Perhaps most important for our purposes, where Pokemon‘s characters seem to remain eternally young, Digimon‘s characters would age.

This brings us to Digimon Adventure tri., a direct sequel to the original two Digimon anime. Taking place with its main cast now older and in high school, main character Yagami Taichi (Taichi Kamiya in English) and the others have long since lost contact with their old Digimon friends as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Suddenly, Digimon start appearing in the real world, prompting the old team to reunite with the Digital World.

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Digimon Adventure tri. is very intentionally a more mature series than its prequels, though not in the sense that it’s supposed to be “darker.” Rather, between the more subdued character designs, a general aesthetic that’s closer to the Hosoda Mamoru-directed Digimon movies than the TV series, a new version of its beloved theme song Butterfly featuring hints of melancholy, and just the portrayal of the subtle turbulence that comes with being of high school age, Digimon Adventure tri. is aimed towards the young fans who are now adults themselves (or close to it). The series says, “We’ve grown up with you, and we know what it’s like.”

For example, Kido Joe, the straight-laced and responsible one, is now being consumed by college entrance exams, and Taichi himself feels like he can no longer charge ahead like he used to when he was the de facto team leader of the Chosen Ones (“DigiDestined”). This is not to say that the new series is a total downer, stripped of any of the joy and wonder of the original anime. What I think they’re going for, instead, is a kind of rediscovery of those simpler and more magical times, while grounding that kind of experience in the process of becoming adults.

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Digimon Adventure tri. actively works to maintain a strong connection with the original series, and a lot of attention is paid to continuity as a result. Whereas Taichi and the older kids have their original DigiVices, the portable tools based on the original hand-held Digimon virtual pet, the younger Hikari and Takeru (“TK”) have different ones, a nod to their continued battles in Digimon Adventure 02. Somewhat similarly, the story is set very intentionally not in 2015 but somewhere in the mid-2000s, as reflected in the technology. Most cell phones are flip phones with number pads, and no smart phones are in sight. It’s not like failing to do these things would have made it a worse series, but it shows that, to a large extent, Digimon Adventure tri. aims to evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for both for the franchise itself and for those who know what it’s like to be a teenager.

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There are a couple of notes that I feel the need to point out for the die-hard fans (I know you’re still out there). First, if you watched this series dubbed in English (or perhaps other languages, I’m not sure), the lack of dialogue and constant banter might seem unusual or even off-putting. The original Japanese versions of Digimon had a lot more “dead air,” that is to say long moments of silence, and adding music or dialogue to fill space is an old American television tactic that you could also see in the dub for Pokemon. Digimon Adventure tri. uses even larger periods of silence and its unsteady atmosphere (perhaps all the better to convey that feeling of becoming adults), so it’s something to expect going in.

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Second, you should know that the plains of the shipping wars are revived and more serious than ever. While the previous series had some hints of romance (or maybe more if you count the controversial time-skip ending of Digimon Adventure 02), relationships are nearly front and center in Digimon Adventure tri. There’s a clear love triangle between Taichi, Sora, and Yamato (probably the site of the most fierce battles). Koushirou (“Izzy”) clearly has a powerful crush on Mimi. Takeru and Hikari tease each other about their mutual popularity among the opposite sex. If you had any stake in these old battles, the series might very well draw you in like honey.

As of this first movie (split into 4 episodes on Crunchyroll), it’s clear that Digimon Adventure tri. won’t give viewers the same experience as the original anime from over a decade ago. Unlike Pokemon, which tries its best to maintain the same constant feel (though to be fair there have been subtle changes in that series over the years), Digimon Adventure tri. wants you to know that the characters have grown, that their inner and outer (and perhaps even digital) worlds have changed as a result, and it’s inviting you back to take a look. The next film/batch of episodes won’t be out until March 2016, so you’ll have plenty of time to catch up.

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Digimon Adventure Tri’s Mature Look

Long gone are the days when Digimon tried to compete with Pokemon. Regardless of who won that war, fond memories exist for both. When a new Digimon anime that would feature the original cast but older was announced, I think it’s safe to say that many fans rejoiced at being able to see their favorite characters again. Anyone who’s seen the previews for Digimon Adventure tri., however, will notice that, even if the characters themselves are recognizable, their designs are significantly different compared to the original anime in a way that can’t just be explained by them being in high school.

Digimon had a typical yet still distinct enough style where characters had big heads, big eyes, and big hands that it carried through multiple series. In many ways it was unmistakably the way a kids’ anime was expected to look. Digimon Adventure Tri, in contrast, not only has characters with more realistic human proportions but also has a kind of looseness to the art that to an extent resembles Hosoda Mamoru’s famous Digimon films such as Our War Game. They could have easily mimicked the original style or even refined it to look more mature, so obviously this change is deliberate, but I think this change is particularly fueled by the fact that Digimon Adventure tri. is targeting the audience that watched the original Digimon Adventure all those years ago.

Essentially, I believe that the new character designs and general appearance of Digimon Adventure tri. are a way to show how the series itself has grown up just like the people who first watched Digimon Adventure. The audience has changed, the world has changed, and so too has Digimon evolved into something else. If anything, it’s grown up just a bit more slowly, as the kids who watched it then are probably in their 20s at this point, and they’re going to see Taichi, Yamato, and the rest stepping forward into adulthood.

Avoiding the Shounen Power Creep

Shounen fighting is quite possibly the world’s most popular anime and manga sub-genre. Whether it’s Saint Seiya in South America, Naruto in the US, One Piece in Japan, or Dragon Ball around the world, the idea of heroes fighting villains and getting stronger along the way is an idea just about any boy in any country can understand and get behind. But one of the common problems with shounen is the idea of the “power creep,” where newer and more powerful villains keep appearing to challenge the hero to the point that the earlier villains who once appeared legitimately threatening begin to look pathetic by comparison. Tao Pai Pai in Dragon Ball may have been one of the few capable of defeating Goku early on, but by the time Goku turns Super Saiyan 3 the assassin is little more than a distant memory.

I think all shounen fighting series creators are well aware of this danger, but only some try to circumvent it, at least temporarily. As such I’ve included a few examples of attempts to quell the Power Level beast.

The first two series of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure had some degree of power creep, but starting with the third and most popular series starring Kujou Joutarou the series became about outwitting the opponent instead of outpowering them. Here, characters were given their own power sets which changed little to none over the course of the entire series, and all advancements came from figuring out new ways to use abilities already known to the readers, instead of acquiring entirely new powers.

Hokuto no Ken saw fit to make its main hero Kenshiro already absurdly powerful. Kenshiro is not a youth who needs to learn the ways of fighting and to live up to his potential, but a man who already has received the title of master of the world’s deadliest martial art. As such, Kenshiro’s victories are generally won through willpower and using the right moves in his encyclopedic collection of head-exploding strikes. The other move Hokuto no Ken makes is to establish its main villain Raoh relatively early and make him a proper end boss, and also establishing the fact that as far as fighting ability goes, both Kenshiro and Raoh are at similar levels. Even when the series goes crazy with Kaioh and such, this is never quite a problem.

Digimon Adventure 02 saw a problem when it realized that, if left the way things were, the already powerful Angemon could just go Ultimate and leave an unfortunate stain where the evil Digimon Kaiser (Digimon Emperor in the English dub) was once standing. To get around having to make the villain more absurdly powerful than the final opponents in the first series, the concept of the “black rings,” devices which prevent digital monsters from evolving, was created. The solution was that the heroes had to find an alternate means to “power up” which, while incapable of reaching their old heights, gave them a fighting chance. Eventually they overcame the Digimon Kaiser and new villains appeared, but at least for a time the shounen power creep was stayed.

Those are three examples. Can you think of any others?