Friday, 2 September 2011

Classic Friday: "Tamers"

I'm happy to report that I've found a couple of older articles I HAD saved to my hard-drive before the old site died. Which means Classic Friday can still exist for about a month or so.

I also mentioned a few week's back that I'm planning on writing a list of my favourite cartoons. Well, here's one of 'em:

Digimon Tamers Review

by Alex Hill

“Digimon Tamers” is my favourite kind of show, filled with colour and imagination without talking down to its audience. It refuses to reduce itself to anything simple or banal. It is about as good as hyperactive television aimed at pre-teen boys can get. It saw a less exaggerated attempt at planet Earth than we’re accustomed to, and then included monsters and talking bunnies on top of that. And it works! It doesn’t meander or make every episode a variation of the same script. It leads us to a Digital World that is no longer benign, but an unforgiving wilderness where a group of spunky kids could get themselves killed.

In a district of Japan, we meet “Takato”(Brian Beacock). A boy of humour and creativity who finds himself biting off more than he can chew. He’s an easy-going kid, not without insecurities, uncertainties and fears. He’s not allowed to have pets, and now he has to conceal a big, loveable lizard pal. Beacock handles this material with surprising dignity. Many companies have tried to make a character “the kids can relate to”. They should look to Takato and take notes.

When he is overwhelmed, a boy named Henry kindly teaches him the ropes, since he has a Digimon partner that keeps his hands full as well(”Momentai” will never, ever leave my head thanks to Terriermon). Dave Wittenberg plays Henry as a boy with a past, with complexities, with self-conflicts. He gave him a soul, one that does the best it can to make sense out of things, and maintain peace in the middle of giant monster fights.

And as for the Digimon themselves? Sadly, Tamers is not connected to the first two seasons aside from the basic concept. Not a lot of returning faces this time, I’m afraid. But Guilmon, Terriermon, Renamon and company are vastly charismatic, interesting creatures. Multi-faceted and believable, I notice even their growly taunts during battle are approached with more respect than seasons previous. 

And no longer are we plagued by vile rock music that you wouldn’t hear on any self-respecting radio station. This might be why there’s never been an official U.S. soundtrack, a crying shame since the orchestral accompaniment in the English version is worthy of a full release. It was actually uncommon for me to cringe during the fight scenes, which in the past I skipped or had to endure to get to the “good parts”.

Once more the monsters announce who they are, and what they are about to become in gloriously animated transformations. My heart races a little whenever that happens. I never want to go back to seeing the character just spinning in place, and then POOF!-ing into existence as a bigger, spiker version of itself. And now the human partners can actually contribute to the battles with card-based enhancements, although these are phased out once a particularly pants-crapping twist to the formula comes into play.

The show has been leading to this from the start. At first relying on emotional bonds, the concept has slowly edged toward cementing a more concrete connection between Human and Digimon partners. The journey is complete. Let the bells ring out, and the banners fly!

Directed by Yukio Kaizawa and written by Chiaki J. Konaka(Neon Genesis Evangelion, and a Cthulu Mythos contributor), the show raises the stakes and plunges the characters into darker territory than the likes of Ben 10 or the X-Men. But it does not lose its warmth or charm. The dialogue was localized into English by a rotating roster of anime veterans, with Steve Blum, Adele Lim, Terry Lei-O’Malley and Seth Walther providing the brunt of the effort. Never has writing in a Saturday Morning Cartoon packed such a gut-punch. It doesn’t pull those punches, and I bet my generation was ushered closer to maturity because of it.

If any show would have made sense to be edited to “protect the children”(some devastating scenes made it through uncut), it would be Tamers. There are no doubts, this could not have been easy material to bring to an American audience. I can only imagine the panic that came from the higher-ups. The English actors and localization team team took the hard road, and conquered it. They didn’t patronize the material out of some imagined fear that we couldn’t handle it. Children’s stories are supposed to be scary and exciting, damn it!

Amazing that a show intended for a younger audience not only pays close attention to the adults surrounding the main cast’s lives, but also refrains from making them caricatures. The adults on the sidelines aren’t all walking jokes who wrongly misinterpret their children. Even the bit parts have depth to them. They have good days and bad days, and give off the suggestion of a history. They go through the motions, as humans do. 

It feels like they could have a life outside of these events.  The show’s lead writer even released a short-story about them, because they were as interesting as the starring players in other stories. And for once, they aren’t completely worthless in the good fight compared to the destined super-powered children. In what is the single darkest show geared towards youngin’s I can recall, it has a message of optimism: All of us can do our part. Every one of us matters.

Not even the antagonists are all they seem. There is more to them than just meaningless animated violence. One in particular begins as a cynical nuisance, and is warped by inner weakness. By the time the show is over we are amazed at how much we care about him, in spite of vicious acts of cruelty he commits prior. Not everyone can afford redemption, but I cheered on this fallen-angel’s attempts to rise again. None of the villains, not even the all-consuming hive-mind entity are without motivations. “Tamers” makes the case that evil is not a state of being, but crimes against each other that we are all capable of inflicting. That is no easy argument to make.

The pacing is further evidence of the incredible faith Toei and Saban/Bandai had in its viewers. In the other seasons, we would rush through episodes to get to the transformation scenes, where we’re introduced to the new action figure of the week. The first two seasons are plagued by an excessive recycling of these transformation demos to save time and budget. But when the main character first gets a partner Digimon in Tamers, it takes its’ time. It tackles the subject as if these characters inhabit a real place with serious risks. Many episodes pass before we see one of these critters evolve to their more powerful forms. What remarkable patience, and it makes great use of the time it frees up to convince us to care for these personalities.

A lot of this show involves the characters carefully considering their plan of action, and getting to know each other. Because there aren’t six or eight “main” characters to juggle, we spend more and more time getting to know the cast that’s there. When the battles eventually do occur, we care about Takato and Henry, and their partner Digimon possibly more than any other team of Digidestined before them. Their friendship is critical to why Tamers works for me. How about that? A children’s show with lasers and robots that’s about its characters.
There are low points to this series. I found it demeaning to the first two seasons that they are treated as nothing but merchandise. The ending never really felt like it brought anything new or conclusive to the table. And in a main cast of only three(3) human personalities, the primary female representative is the worst character in the whole series. The worst ever. Worse than this guy.

But there is a commitment here that we didn’t always get from Fox Kids or YTV or Jetix, and we barely get it now. A commitment to the intelligence of a younger audience. The concept Tamers is based on is certainly as preposterous as any Saturday Morning Cartoon. That makes it no less a challenging and interesting depiction of young lives, in the face of their dreams colliding with their nightmares. There is a scene where a 12-year old boy openly admits his feelings for a girl, and not once did I feel the urge to do a pessimistic air-wank motion with my hand in protest. Can you honestly name another children’s anime about colourful monster buddies that could pull that off? Here is a show with something to say, and it says it unashamedly.



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