Digimon Adventure and the Internet

So I’m only about halfway through my rewatch of Digimon Adventure 01 but watching it now, as an adult that grew up through the internet, it feels like so much more is coming to the forefront that Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children, the upcoming The Boy and the Beast) wanted to communicate. Probably the most important episode in the series, the one which acts as the entire thesis of the series, and the one I want to focus on here, is episode 21, ‘Home Away From Home’, which was actually directed by Hosoda himself, who also directed the movies Digimon Adventure and Our War Game!

Episode 21 makes direct allusions to the first movie (which acted as a series pilot), both in Kairi’s debut in the tv series and through Hosoda’s powerful and iconic visual style. The sudden and drastic jump in animation quality is actually a bit jarring, but ends up working towards emphasizing the differences between the ‘digital world’ and the ‘real world’. The colour palette usually used in the series is typical, highly saturated, and cartoonlike.

With E21, Hosoda creates strong visual contrasts. The colour palette has been significantly muted, using colder colours and sharp lighting to create emotional separation and tension. Taichi has been flung back into the real world, and is taken aback by the, ironically enough, unreality of it. Does he return to help his friends in the digital world? Does he stay here at home? What responsibilities does he have towards himself and others?

I say E21 is the thesis of the series because it most directly confronts what previous episodes consider for a few minutes at best: what does it mean to be a person in digital contexts? How do our bodies relate to online communication, and what responsibilities do we retain?

Here, in 2016, we’re still figuring out how to combat online harassment. Our technologies are not neutral–Twitter’s weak blocking/reporting functions, for instance, are directly political because they value profit and brand engagement over providing protections for those most likely to be harassed (women, LGBT+ people, people of colour, etc). I don’t know if Digimon Adventure 01, having premiered in 1999, was the first series to consider the internet’s growing importance and impact, but it’s certainly impressive how it does it within the context of a children’s show.

That’s Adventure 01‘s greatest strength, really. It used the template of the Monster Collection genre to hone in on the personal stories of its characters and the impact of their interpersonal conflicts and relationships. The titular Digimon are ciphers for personal development. An example: Matt, the Cool Kid, the Lone Wolf, the kid who martyrs and burdens himself to protect his brother, develops a stronger sense of love, empathy, and self-care through Gabumon. The latter’s patience and compassion teaches Matt balance, and what friendship truly entails: loving relationships that empower everyone involved.

Returning to E21: Adventure 01 and Hosoda took the internet seriously. They took online relationships seriously. The digital world and the real world are layered over each other, inseparable and intricately tied together. Our actions online have impact in our day-to-day lives. Like the cartoony colour palette of the previous 20 episodes, and the subsequent return to that palette after Tai and Koramon return to File Island, the structures of our internet abodes work to create a sense of play, of unreality, and freedom from consequence. Logging out and returning to the “real world” can be a surreal experience that we have to reconcile to make peace with ourselves.

Digimon, as a franchise, started off as a humble spin-off of the Tamagotchi. These were virtual pets that you fed, trained, cleaned, and played with. They were fake, simply a few kilobytes and pixels. But like our Tamagotchis, our Neopets, and so on, their emotional impact was real. We bonded with them, assigned them value, mourned our losses. “Realness” is irrelevant. We behave in accordance. We reach our Ultimate potential through love and compassion and patience and a will to understand. We take each other seriously.