Digimon‘s still alive and kicking, and 2020 has made for one of the franchise’s best years since its early days. Not only did we get the adultish oriented Last Evolution Kizuna movie which does a great job of aging up your childhood friends meaningfully, we now have a reboot of the original series that’s occasionally quite good. Despite not being as strong a franchise as its most obvious competitor, myriad reasons manifest its more subtle longevity.
Why it was so special? Perpetually, Digimon nostalgics will point to the first three seasons and their emotionally resonant character-driven stories and willingness to tread into complicated territory as for. But there’s one whole dimension of Digimon that never gets taken seriously enough. In addition to the shows’ charming cast and themes of friendship, the franchise wouldn’t have been the same without its often out-of-this-world Digimon monster design.
We’re not sure which irony-addled Facebook meme-page creator whipped this one together, but not only was it just as funny years ago as it is now, but it hits the nail on Digimon monster design philosophy’s head. While their aesthetics differ, the be-all-end-all Pokemon, the sadly abandoned Monster Rancher, and even the likes of Dragon Quest take a similar and delightfully simple approach to their character design. Slime? Perfect. Pikachu? An icon up there with Mickey Mouse. Suezo? No comment. With so many anime, games, and toy-lines churning out one monster after another, it was necessary for Digimon to find a way to visually stand apart. Its anime’s storytelling would later seal the deal, but when first envisioned as a Tamagotchi-a-like in 1997, it needed some hook. After all, 7-to-11-year-old kids needed some reason to buy an LCD Digimon toy instead of a brand spanking new Tamagotchi, which were all the rage.
According to designer Kenji Watanabe, who’s been making Digimon for a long time, he intentionally employed an American comics influence on those early Digimon monster designs. You can clearly see that in the bolder inkwork found in the franchise’s early illustrations; Ogremon, for example, screams Todd MacFarlene. American comics in the mid to late 90s were dominated by excess. Unnecessary spikes, belts, and pouches were adorned by all your favorite super-heroes circa 1996, and those who used weapons were essentially bringing grenade launchers to knife fights. Normally not given much restriction, the Digimon design team decided to go wild with those influences, forming a Digimon aesthetic a little creepier and more out there than Pocket Monsters. A couple of years later, when Digimon Adventure finally started airing (the first of many Digital Monster TV series to come) nothing was off the table when needing to round out the Digimon roster.
There sure aren’t any pocket creatures who look like Angewoman. Part of a set with Angemon and HolyAngemon (renamed MagnaAngemon in English adaptations of Digimon) she’s clearly based on biblical angels, complete with the seraphic wings to deity up the look. However, this Digimon Monster design isn’t just a cool take on an angel; it’s a quote-unquote a ‘sexy’ take on an angel. Her appearance wasn’t so extreme in Digimon Adventure as it was in Adventure Tri pictured above, but the very idea that your cuddly little cat best friend can temporarily evolve into a humanoid god figure who’s also tantalizing is at the very least extreme. This over-sexualization in kids material is actually also consistent with its 90s comics influences, which feature all sorts of over-contorted female bodies in the tightest of spandex because apparently, a man with spider powers fighting goblins isn’t enough. Digimon designer Kagemaru Hineko talked about creating ‘sexy’ Digimon, adding she found bringing out that appeal in digital monsters ‘really interesting’, which might explain the intensity. She didn’t just draw sexy though.
Long time designer Kenji Watanabe eventually brought Kagemaru Himeno onto the Digimons Monster design team to help design cute Digimon. Previous to the series, she created shojo manga and even did some work making Pokemon cards. Behind the scenes, you’ll find the same people on both teams earning a paycheck. Her first contribution to Digimon was for the ‘X-Antibody’ form of one Mamemon, which has an adorable squeezy face amongst its spikey fists and flame tattoos. Of course, the franchise has tons of conventionally cute monster designs like Agumon’s in-training form Koromon or Angewoman’s rookie form Salumon. Those designs are a little vaguer, often lumpy and simplistic, without striking features that make Pokemon so distinct. On the other hand, Pokemon could never match that delightful insanity of ‘X-Antibody’ Mamemon. Channeling in equal parts Kirby and Final Fantasy X, it’s exactly because nobody could tell you what the hell makes this thing Himeno designed so kick-ass.
The rejection of marketable perfection and design standards might have prevented Digimon from being as financially successful as its competitor, but it carved an all too important niche. Kagemaru Himeno has stated that Digimon are ‘what boys’ dreams are made of… they all… look fearsome, and sometimes a little sexy too.’ While I reject that only boys’ dreams look like this, the spirit of her statement strikes exactly at the heart of Digimon monster design. Not only can anything be a Digimon, but previously unfathomable combinations of absolutely anything can also be Digimon. The anime and toy producers allowed the design time to work with a limited restriction philosophy and that lead to all sorts of incredible results, many of which mirror a more professional version of what an elementary student might sketch on the back of their notebook. You had Digimon that were essentially talking stuffed animals, and you had leather-bound hell demons brandishing Devil May Cry style guns all in the same place. Sometimes you had these pudding sweet little creatures brandishing those very same Devil May Cry guns.
Digimon the anime was about friendship, and Digimon the monster design philosophy is about letting your imagination run on methamphetamines. Put these two core elements together and you come to understand that in Digimon, all of your wildest dreams are your real imaginary best friends, and fans still have these friendships. Romantic, isn’t it?