Luke: For many of us, some of our earliest experiences with anime involved the popular ‘monster taming’ genre. Series such as Pokemon, Digimon and even Monster Rancher captured our imagination all those years ago. While many monster taming series have come and gone, there has always been two mainstays in the genre – Pokemon and Digimon. Today we (Frank Inglese, Kane Bugeja and I) will reflect on this anime genre and explore its current presence in the anime industry as well as where we feel it is heading. So to start things off, how do you guys feel about this genre as it stands now? Is it as strong as ever or do you feel that it has seen a significant decline in quality over the years?
Frank: It’s safe to say that the sub-genre is still going strong, not strong enough to be dominating the market but strong enough to be keep afloat by, let’s say, two major franchises; Pokemon and Digimon. Pokemon has set the West in flames, that’s for sure, and I think it’s still as strong as it was years ago. Digimon seems to have dropped off the radar in the West, for the most part, but is still going “hella strong” in it’s birth country Japan. There have been many series’ since Pokemon and Digimon that really haven’t done the sub-genre justice, shows like; Monsuno and Dinosaur King which, let’s be entirely honest, are just terrible. An awesome example of this is Devil Survivor 2 which started as a game but has recently become an anime and it is good. Real good. Exactly what this genre needed and aimed at an older audience too!
Kane: The genre itself is still doing fairly well. I don’t think that there has been any significant decline, as much as there hasn’t been too much of an improvement. Whilst the games themselves are, in my opinion, as good as they ever were, the series tend to be lacking The genre still seems dead set on appealing to the same demographic as always, fair enough it’s what they know, but I feel like they’re missing out on a whole group: the original fans. They seem to be working on the same level as they were years ago, introducing young people to the series rather than trying to keep the ones they already have. There have been some attempts at a more mature story, such as the darker Digimon Tamers series, though there was never a full commitment to these ideas. One example is the trailer for Pokemon Black and White 2, which featured a more intense anime experience. This would make an awesome series. Though as of yet nothing more has come of this.
L: While I agree that it has still got some kick left in it, for me personally coming from a time where we had brilliant series such as Monster Rancher, the original Digimon Adventure and even Digimon Tamers, I can’t help but feel that today’s offerings don’t exactly measure up.
It is interesting that you mention Devil Survivor 2 though as I think its an interesting take on the genre. By that I mean it feels like a monster taming series that isn’t exactly trying to be one. It seems to be a more action thriller with monster taming aspects. It is also of course not targeted directly towards children.
Maybe I’m showing my age here but I feel that brilliant kids series like Monster Rancher are becoming few and far between. One thing I loved about Monster Rancher was the way it dealt with heavier themes like death in an intelligent and thoughtful way. It seems that some of these newer series like Dinosaur King are far too dumbed down. Do you guys feel that this is an issue with the current crop of monster taming shows?
F: This is what draws me towards Digimon. See I’m currently watching the latest series; Digimon Xros Wars or Digimon Fusion in English, and I like it a whole bunch. While it still has the childish themes like friendship and love it deals with death very well and by very well I mean it addresses it and it really doesn’t sugar-coat it. Now this isn’t every episode but the fact that it happens once or twice means that this isn’t just a cop-out series that’s in it for the money, it’s still here to tell a story!
You watch a lot of these early morning, Saturday cartoon types like Monsuno; the voice acting isn’t great, the animation isn’t great, the story isn’t great, the whole thing isn’t great. I still believe Pokemon does this, I honestly do, but Pokemon has won my respect through the games that have come out of it so I don’t put a great deal of negative light on the anime/cartoon. It’s also series like Pokemon and Digimon that have the most incredible lore, undertones and backstory that these new series’ just don’t, for example: the X-Antibody (Please go and look it up) in Digimon which does NOT get brought up a whole bunch but it’s there and it is a big chunk of Digimon history and it’s what is lacking in this day and age, in this genre.
K: One thing that is often overlooked is the Pokedex entries in the Pokemon games. Those things are intense. Descriptions of cute little Pokemon that eat souls and others that are literally made of malice. Dark stuff, but it doesn’t really get explored. I’m not saying get rid of the series there is now, just add another. One that is free to explore all of the in depth stories that can’t be done in a children’s show. Even Monsuno, like Frank mentioned. It might not be the best show, but it has some more sinister elements, regarding DNA and the definition of life. That alone is a show, but to cater to the demographic that will make the most money, through merchandising, they can’t work on it. It just seems like a missed chance.
Though I’ll give them credit in their attempts. Pokemon seems to be pushing what they can do within the confines they set themselves. Frank mentioned in a previous article the return of Charizard. That’s something that connects to the original fans, it draws them back in, even if only to a slight degree. The character himself and the rivalry with Dragonite is more mature than other aspects. Dragonite itself defies Pokemon by being angry, not as an inherent nature, but as a unique personality. Though this will never reach the severity of the Pokemon manga, it’s nice to see an attempt.
L: That really does beg the question though, should these series be more mature or should they touch upon mature subjects in a way that children can understand and even learn from? I feel that this was definitely an advantage of Monster Rancher and Digimon, even Pokemon touched on these types of topics from time to time. It seems that these kinds of thoughtful series have left the genre, leaving only the two extreme opposites – too kiddy (Dinosaur King) or too mature (Devil Survivor 2). Do you guys feel that the monster taming genre needs to find a middle ground again? I know I certainly feel that way.
F: I, personally, think that Pokemon and Digimon and all the good ones like it need something more that will appeal to their most long-running fans; us. Those of us that grew up with it and still love it are now, in a way, being pushed away from it because of it’s immature direction but there are many many levels to work with. I assume there are reasons why the people at Bandai and GameFreak haven’t released something a bit more mature, surely they are aware of their former audience and that’s why I don’t complain as much as I could be; there must be a reason behind it. I just this generation needs to cut the crap with it’s gimmick-filled, crappy, Pokemon ripoffs. If the days of the “Monster Tamer” are nearly over, just let it die with dignity, don’t force it into an early grave for a quick buck or for the sake of a passing fad.
K: I agree and with the reason why I reckon it’s to do with outside interference. I think the problem is it really isn’t given the chance sometimes. It might be a small thing, but gambling in the Pokemon games. There isn’t a Game Corner anymore. Now I personally never used it when I played the games but, I don’t know, it’s like not having the option seems unfair. Parental control got in and attacked an element of the game that has been there since day one and replaced it with what, some crappy chance game where you may win or lose. Note to everyone, that’s called gambling. Putting a smiley face on a slot machine does nothing, but people still had to complain.
Though Pokemon seems to do alright by forcing players to think. The older players can read into a situation far better than the younger ones and build a story. Take N from Black and White. He has a dark past, they glaze over it but it is there. A creepy room, twisted step dad, all the makings of a deep plot.
Digimon Data Squad added older protagonists for the first time. That lasted for all of one season before they reverted. Though again, Xros Wars (or Fusion as it was dubbed in the West) has dark elements. I agree that there needs to be a middle ground, but the series need some ground to stand on without it being chipped away by outside parties. It’s like these series have to hide their true elements behind a mask of childishness, either due to fear of losing support or public backlash.
L: At the end of the day, money talks. It is really that plain and simple. What makes money is what gets made. Unfortunately that means that there has often been a disparity between what the anime could convey and what it is actually allowed to. These series are of course marketed towards kids and as we head towards are world governed by political correctness it is difficult for the genuinely thoughtful and intelligent kids series to make it through production.
While some of us may have packed away our monster friends in the closet of our minds years ago, there is still hope for the genre with mainstays like Digimon and Pokemon still going strong and several upstart series that look promising. Our monsters haven’t run away, they are just evolving. It is up to you whether you close that closet door or evolve with them.