The Pokémon V. Digimon debate was the "Batman V. Superman" of 1998. Bloodlines were drawn on the playground. You were either down with Ash and his crew or you were loyal to the DigiDestined. There was no inbetween. You couldn't be Switzerland.
Being a fan of "Digimon" always felt like you were a member of an underground rebellion. Throughout its brief run on American TV, the franchise was stuck under the shadow of its heavily marketed, and very lucrative, counterpart. Sure, liking "Digimon" may not have been ~ cool ~ at the time, but that didn't deter my affection for it. It was like a shiny piece of coal, and only I could see its potential. I was ride or die for that show.
"Digimon" was my first fandom, and I fell hard. I demanded McDonald's Happy Meals for dinner because I wanted all of the Digimon collectable cards. (I remember pulling out a mint-condition Yamato Ishida card and swooning and drooling -- swooling? -- into my french fries.) I dragged my mom to "Pokémon: The First Movie" only so that I could see the two-minute "Digimon: The Movie" trailer on the big screen. It was magical. I cancelled plans so that I could watch every new episode. At the height of my obsession, I begged my mom to record an episode -- "Kabuterimon's Electro Shocker" -- because I knew I wasn't going to make it home by 4:30 p.m. (Life before DVRs was a real drag.) So she recorded it... on a cassette tape.
I listened to that cassette tape over and over again in my room. I followed along to each and every word, visualizing the epic battle between Izzy's Kabuterimon and the mind-controlled Andromon. I could see it so clearly in my head. That's just the kind of show "Digimon" was. Its narrative was indomitable.
With the theatrical release of the exciting first chapter of "Digimon Adventure tri.," a direct, six-part sequel to "Digimon Adventure," this week in Japan on Nov. 21, I think it's finally time we, as a sophisticated society, stop lying to ourselves and admit once and for all that "Digimon" was the far superior show.
"Digimon Adventure" was often seen as a "Pokémon" copycat. Created a little over a year after "Pokémon," "Digimon" followed a group of kids -- Taichi "Tai" Kamiya, Yamato "Matt" Ishida, Sora Takenouchi, Koushiro "Izzy" Izumi, Mimi Tachikawa, Joe Kido and Takeru "T.K." Takaishi -- who were plucked from their Summer Camp and (literally) thrown into the Digital World. There, they each befriend an adorable inhabitant, known as Digimon (short for Digital Monsters) and eventually set off on a mission to save both the Digital World and the Real World.
Right off the bat, the stakes were higher in "Digimon." The entire premise of "Pokémon" is Ash Ketchum's quest to become the (very) best Pokémon Master in the world. To do that, he must catch them (read: Pokémon) all. Why would you watch an entire show dedicated to collecting (and enslaving, if we're being perfectly honest) Pokémon when you could actually watch a series with a narrative structure? "Digimon" was my first foray into serialized television and story arcs.
Not to mention that in "Digimon," the Digital Monsters themselves could contribute to the story because they could actually talk, unlike their Pokémon counterparts. For that reason alone, the Digimon were better and more interesting characters with clear and understandable motivations. They had hopes and fears and dreams of a brighter future in the Digital World, ones that they could communicate to their human partners. They were complex characters.
Also, in the Digital World, Divolution wasn't permanent, and that's a huge deal in terms of storytelling. "Pokémon," for example, was limited by its own mythology. In the seminal "Pokémon" episode "Electric Shock Showdown," it's revealed that evolution is permanent for Pokémon, which is why lovable little Pocket Monster Pikachu has remained relatively the same for the last 15 years. He has yet to evolve -- and I mean that literally and figuratively -- into a more interesting character. He's the perpetual underdog.
Meanwhile, Digimon were able to devolve back into their lower forms whenever they ran out of energy. For example, Tai's dinosaur-like Digimon, Agumon, has several Digivolved forms, including Greymon, a much larger fully-grown dinosaur, and MetalGreymon, a large armored and winged dinosaur. Usually after a big fight, he'd devolve back into Koromon, his In-Training form. These were all things the Digimon could digisplain to their humans. They had a say in things.
And then there were the bad guys. I firmly believe that the strength of a show is determined by its antagonists. What's a Chosen One to do without a Big Bad that challenges him or her? Maybe it's something I picked up from watching years of Digimon. The villains in the Digital World were absolutely terrifying. Compared to devilish Digimon like the Dark Masters and Myotismon, who were all powerful, worthy adversaries to the DigiDestined, the Rocket Trio of "Pokémon" -- Jessie, James and Meowth -- were total jokes. They were comedic foils whose sole purpose in the story was to make kids laugh. That's all well and good, but where was the drama?
Meanwhile, "Digimon" introduced a villain like Puppetmon, who psychologically tormented the DigiDestined for multiple episodes. That s--t was dark for a children's anime.
The battles in "Digimon" were life and death, and it was always known that death in the Digital World would also result in similar consequences in the Real World. That's a lot to handle for a group of 11-year-old kids, and it wasn't always easy. We watched characters come to terms with their own mortality and make some harrowing decisions. Therein lied the show's greatest strength: it challenged you. It didn't treat you like a kid.
When Angemon died, I cried. I cried for T.K. I cried for Angemon. I cried because I was just so sad. I had never been that emotionally affected by a show before. (Those tears paled in comparison to the time Wizardmon sacrificed himself for Kari and Gatomon. I'm pretty sure there's still a scar where that death pierced my heart.)
Unlike "Pokémon," story lines weren't resolved in 22 minutes. There were cliffhangers. Characters would be separated for episodes at a time. There was romantic tension. (Don't even get me started on the complexities of the Tai-Sora-Matt love triangle.) There was a beginning, a middle and even an end, which is something "Pokémon" still hasn't accomplished.
"Digimon" allowed the DigiDestined to grow up, to live out their own destinies. Some got married and had kids, some became successful entrepreneurs and authors, but most importantly, they were all allowed to move past their childhood adventures. That's what makes "Digimon" so special to me. Although I will probably never accept Sorato as a legit ship, I'm happy that these characters that I loved got their own happy endings. It was a satisfying end to an incredible journey. But that doesn't mean I'm not longing for more.
Whereas "Pokémon" is still considered a cultural phenomenon, for most '90s kids, "Digimon Adventure" is nothing more than a foggy footnote in their subconscious. That is, until now.
"Digimon Adventure tri." takes place six years after the events of "Digimon Adventure" and three years after "Digimon Adventure 02." Tai, now 17, reunites with his friends and their Digimon partners to face a new threat that rises from the Digital World known as Alphamon.
And just like that, I feel like a 12-year-old kid again, ready to grab my Digivice and head into battle. I can only hope my hair looks as fabulous as Mimi's when I do.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pokémon World, Ash is still trying to catch them all while being constantly berated by Pikachu. Yawn.