Editor’s Note: This piece took third place for The Larry L. Stewart Prize For Critical Essay On Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who entered this year!
Recently, Pokémon was recently added to Netflix. This was met with much fanfare and many reposts. Pokémon fans started crawling out of the woodwork and tons of my friends (read: Facebook people of varying levels of acquaintance) started rewatching it. Personally, I was nonplussed. I was always more into the games than the show as a kid. But when it came to Saturday morning cartoons, Digimon was my jam. In order to follow the trend but still be a contrarian hipster, I decided to rewatch my favorite season of Digimon, season 3 (also known as Digimon Tamers).
My friends were all immediately dismissive. “Digimon is a ripoff of Pokémon,” they all decried. I mean, it’s totally derivative in many ways, but calling Digimon a ripoff does it a large disservice. Yes, both shows are about kids and their toyetic monster friends. But the Digimon can talk, each character only gets one, and so on and so forth. However, I think the largest difference lies thematically. Digimon is about growing up, while Pokémon is about staying a kid forever.
Before I get into the meaty, interesting, and self-indulgent parts of this post, I want to stress that one theme isn’t inherently better than the other. There’s a certain charm in an extended childhood. Why do you think everyone is so excited to rewatch Pokémon? As for Digimon, it’s a classic coming of age tale, which never goes out of style.
One of the largest differences between these shows is that Pokémon is largely episodic while Digimon is largely serialized. Sure, Ash has an overarching goal and sometimes the problems he causes take more than one episode to fix, but all-in-all his adventures are very contained. He’s not going to apply a previous solution to a new problem (he doesn’t even remember that electric attacks don’t affect ground from one episode to the next). Digimon starts with a monster of the week formula, but quickly ends up as an epic quest to save two worlds. Takato and company learn from their mistakes and rarely make the same one twice. When they find a better way to do things, you bet they’ll do it over and over again.
But Ash’s seeming inability to learn is just a symptom of a larger problem – severe mental disability he’s a static character. He retains nothing of what he’s learned from one episode to the next. Whenever one of his Pokémon gets too powerful, be it Butterfree, Pidgeot, or Primape, Ash finds a reason to give it away or release it. Characters like Brock and Misty end up a bit more nuanced than Mr. Ketchum, but their most significant growth results in them leaving the show. Both Brock and Misty have real life (adult) responsibilities as gym leaders and family members that cause them to leave Ash’s journey. Ash doesn’t mature, and he also doesn’t take on new responsibilities beyond new Pokémon. This extends to the responsibility that comes with success. At the end of each season, Ash takes on the local Pokémon League Championships. Each season, he comes up short. Becoming league champion would be too much success for the character, and would invoke too much change.
The main characters of Tamers, however, all have clearly defined and nuanced character arcs. All of the main characters change drastically throughout the story. Takato goes from a naïve child to a responsible leader, pacifist Henry learns to fight for what he believes in, and Rika transforms from a battle-hungry ice queen into the heart of the team. Each new stage of digivolution coincides with character growth for that tamer. When they confront their true selves, they evolve both figuratively and eventually literally, with their defining character moments unlocking the final stage of their Digimon’s evolution – wherein the tamer and Digimon fuse into one (fully realized) being.
Finally, the stakes in Digimon are simply higher than those in Pokémon. That’s not to say that stuff doesn’t get real in Kanto. Cities are threatened, Pokémon are kidnapped, and Pikachus are mega punched. But due to the episodic nature of the show, these problems are dealt with quickly and are forgotten within an episode or two. In Digimon, the world’s potential end hangs over every episode, heavy and bleak. Leomon (a main character) is betrayed and killed by a former friend. Upon witnessing Leomon’s death, Takato totally loses it and forces his parter Guilomon to digivolve before he is ready, causing him to transform into a brutal parody of a Digimon – berserk and grotesque. Upon seeing Guilmon’s transformation, Takato acknowledges what he did to his friend Guilmon. This allows him to access the final stage of evolution, where tamer and Digimon become one. This represents the final stage of Takato’s growth and self-realization. He even chooses to spare the murderer (who later attempts suicide and eventually sets off on a long redemption arc), when he easily could have destroyed him like so many enemies before. High stakes drive Takato and his friends to become new and better people while Ash and company meander in emotional circles.
Obviously, I like Tamers much more than Pokémon. I find a deep character arc much more compelling than the continued adventures of someone static, and dismissing Digimon out of hand as a Pokémon ripoff is doing yourself a significant disservice. Pokémon is charming and safe. You can hop in on almost any episode, and you won’t have trouble figuring out what’s going on, and that’s a large part of the appeal. The monsters may be different, but Ash is going to be a kid adventurer forever. Takato’s adventures may be shorter, but they’ll always have a greater depth that will always appeal to me. Eternal youth would be nice, but I’d rather grow up.