I’ll be honest—when I first encountered Digimon Adventure during its original US broadcast, I had the same response as a lot of kids: “what a ripoff!” While the animation was eye-catching, it seemed like a much slower-paced story than I was used to, you had to follow it closely to know what was happening, and the monster designs weren’t always cute—sometimes they were downright scary. But I gave it a chance, because back then we didn’t have Crunchyroll or Cartoon Hangover. We didn’t have much choice—we just hunkered down in front of the TV every Saturday morning, scarfing down a bowl of sugary cereal and dutifully watched whatever cartoons happened to be on the air.
But the series grew on me. As I got a little older, I started to want bigger, more complex stories with well developed characters and genuine stakes. And one of those stories happened to be Digimon Adventure.
YESSSSSS digimon had an over-arching storyline that connected from episode to episode, characters had personalities and GROWTH (T_T lol i had so many arguments with my best friend about how digimon was better than pokemon.
— Kris Mukai (@krismukai) June 4, 2018
For the uninitiated, Digimon Adventure is a series about everyday kids who get sucked into the digital world, befriend digital monsters, and fight alongside them to defeat forces threatening reality itself. It was different from That Other Monster Pet Show in a number of ways. The most obvious was that the monsters didn’t just come out to fight, otherwise living out their days in pocket prisons. Here they were constant companions who spoke, joked around, and played with the human characters.
In That Other Show, everyone constantly talked about friendship and trust with their monsters—but the action mainly involved capturing and then pitting them against each other for fun. In Digimon, there was no acquisitive, competitive element—it wasn’t about catching them all and using them to dominate one’s rivals. Maybe that’s why it never caught on to quite the same degree in the US as That Other Show—it didn’t have that addictive hook.
What it did have was heart. In a landscape of children’s cartoons that were primarily episodic comedies, Digimon presented a story that dealt with the rawness of preadolescent emotions in an honest, direct way. You could identify with the characters, and not just because they came from the “real world”, but because they were truthful in their flaws and failings. The fantasy here wasn’t so much going on an adventure as it was having understanding, caring companions who would stick with you through the good and bad.
…and have a connection to me no matter what, no matter how dumb or unworthy I felt, was a magnetic, comforting idea. I remember wishing so fervently that a Digimon would come out of my screen, I desperately wanted it to actually happen. I tried to make myself believe it could.
— magnolia (@MagnoliaPearl) June 5, 2018
There are too many touching moments of friendship, sacrifice, and struggle in the series to recount them all, but one in particular has stuck in my brain. One of the kids, Matt Ishida, begins the series as a stereotypical lone wolf with a protective side when it comes to his younger brother T.K. He constantly butts heads with Tai, the group’s defacto leader, and ends up getting separated from his companions.
Wandering into a dark cave with only his Digimon Gabumon accompanying him, Matt despairs over his failures as a brother and a friend. Pushed to voice his feelings by Gabumon, he explains that he fled from attachments after his parents’ divorce, preferring solitude and refusing to let anyone see him express vulnerability. Gabumon just listens, tells him to cry if he wants to, and embraces him, saying that he’s felt lonely before too. The cave vanishes, and Matt goes on to help his friends out of similar emotional traps.
This was totally wild. Earnest, if fleeting, discussion of family separation, isolation, and emotional pain was not common material for cartoons at the time. Today, kids blessedly have access to more and more television that treats them as people, that tells them that it’s okay to make mistakes or be upset sometimes, and that celebrates difference. It wasn’t quite that way in the late ’90s.
Maybe that’s why Digimon Adventure still seems to mean so much to people who grew up with it. I’ve shared some of the responses I got to my Tweet asking about people’s thoughts and feelings on the series, but they’re only a small selection of the huge volume of replies I received—over eighty.
Unlike other shows, I feel like it focused more on the characters and I loved how the kids grew up along their digimon, it was so easy to relate to them! I wanted to be friends with the digidestined. I resonated the most with Hikari and Takeru as I am a younger sibling too.
— Gabi 10% 🇵🇪 (@yamineftis) June 6, 2018
If you’ve never checked the show out before, give it a shot—the entire run of Digimon Adventure is available now, with an excellent—and unusual for the time—localization that preserves most of the original names and locations. If you grew up with the show but haven’t followed the franchise since, then take a peek at Digimon Adventure tri, a direct sequel to Adventure which revisits the original characters six years later. And take a page from Matt: if you feel like crying when the grown-up kids reunite with their Digimon friends, then go ahead and cry.