Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Outcast of Digimon - Digimon Frontier Review

April 7th, 2002. A week after what many consider to be the best Digimon series, "Digimon Tamers", came to end. As per tradition up to this point, a new Digimon series would take it's place in what seemed like an endless cycle of Digimon.

Something strange happened with the fourth TV Anime season of Digimon, "Digimon Frontier". Many fans raised their eyebrows to the entire concept of the series. It was a (arguably) radically different change from what we'd experienced up to this point; and fans weren't sure whether this was a welcome change or not.

Frontier is generally the most polarizing Digimon series when it comes to opinions on it, perhaps only rivaled by the notorious "Digimon Adventure 02". Many hate the series, yet many love it and claim this hate is unfair and unwarranted. Is there any truth to this, is the large fan backlash to Frontier something that it doesn't deserve? Is the series itself something that is worth the time of the many Digimon fans that devoted their time to the franchise? Is it just plain bad? Well, as someone who has come fresh off of a rewatch, let's take a look. Beware as spoilers for the series will follow!
Digimon Frontier isn't conceptually different from the other series; It focuses a group of children as they journey into the Digimon World, meeting many Digimon among the way, defeating bad guys and saving the world. The differences comes in the execution and is the main thing fans seem to be divided on with Digimon Frontier (And also probably the reason it gets the most backlash.). In this series there are no partner Digimon - The Chosen Children of this series instead undergo "Spirit Evolution" and Evolve into Digimon themselves. Whether this is a good or bad thing or not is something I'll get into a bit later.

Let's talk about the series plot. Here is a brief summary of the lore behind the series and a brief overview of the plot from Wikimon:

"In ancient times, the Digital World was wracked by a major conflict between human-type and beast-type Digimon. Lucemon appeared and brought the war to an end, leading to a period of peace. Lucemon, however became corrupted by power, resulting in him becoming a tyrannical dictator. To combat this, Warrior Ten were able to defeat Lucemon and imprisoned him in the "Dark Area" deep within the center of the Digital World. After this they were separated into two spirits each, likely due to the injuries they sustained during the battle.

The Digital World was in danger of perishing. A world governed by the 3 Great Angel Digimon. But one of them, Cherubimon, revolted. The balance of the Digital World was destroyed, and it began to disintegrate. The 10 legendary warriors, who in ancient times had saved the Digital World in exchange for their own lives, no longer existed. In this most dangerous time, the spirits of the legendary warriors are presenting a new power to the inhabitants of a different world...the Real World. A group of human children enter the Digital World and themselves become Digimon, embarking on a journey of battle and adventure."

It's not the most exciting thing in the world, but it's also not really boring either. It's a fairly standard plot. There are a couple of things I'd like to talk about from what you've just read though.

The first is this - "The balance of the Digital World was destroyed, and it began to disintegrate."
The Digital World as it appears during the Opening Credits.
 This series has a very interesting Digital World. As you can see in the picture above, the world itself is full of holes. This is something that continues to grow throughout the series and actually creates some real tension and a sense of danger, especially during the series later act. Visually, as the Chosen Children travel through this world it appears no different to any other Digital World, it has the same typical areas you'd expect, aside from the occasional hole in the world. But there is another interesting point to the Digital World in Frontier, Trailmon. The Digital World of Frontier is covered in railroad tracks and Digimon known as "Trailmon" are used for transportation. The Digital World also has an established hierarchy with the Three Great Angels standing on top - It's an interesting and unique take on the Digital World and is definitely one of Frontier's strong points. 

With something good comes something bad. After telling you about what I thought was one of the better parts of Frontier, I must now tell you something I am not a fan of - The cast and the problems surrounding them. 

The primary 5 "Chosen Children"
Starting off with the most glaring issue, the one that usually makes or breaks this series for most people; No partner Digimon. That's right. As mentioned earlier the Chosen Children of this series Evolve into Digimon themselves using "Legendary Spirits". Now whether or not this is up your ally is your opinion and I won't fault you for that, but it does have both it's upsides and downsides.

Let's start with a downside. Digimon Partners had been an integral part of Digimon up until now, with Digimon often representing something that reflected their Tamer. Their relationships were symbolic and spurred on a Tamers character growth and development. The Digimon would grow by "Evolving" and doing the fighting and the Human would grow by developing as a character. Without a Partner, this relationship, an integral one for a Tamer, is gone. At the same time, often the Digimon partners would end up rather undeveloped themselves, mostly acting as tools for their Human Tamers development instead. Yet the Digimon still received a lot of focus themselves, leaving things feeling rather half-baked for them, they took up screentime for their own development but never really changed. Without Partners, Frontier could do away with this problem, surely this is the upside of lacking Partner Digimon, right?

Well you're right. That would be an upside and something I went into Frontier expecting. Without Partner Digimon, the relationships between the Chosen Children themselves would be more interesting, as they only had each other to spur on their growth. They could end up being an extremely well developed cast with great character arcs without having any need to focus on other things to take away from it. The problem is, this doesn't happen. For a large majority of the series, the cast remains static and nonchanging aside from very rare moments, such as growing out of the usual Protagonist and Rival quips. Infact; during the latter parts of the series the focus is shifted from the entire group to just the main 2 characters. By the end of the series, most of the characters SEEM to have grown. They had problems at the beginning and they overcame them - But the journey was unsatisfying.  Some would claim their growth is "subtle", but having characters shoved to the side then having them miracously different by the end is just frustrating.

As the series continues the focus is taken away from a majority of the cast and focused on the main two as mentioned above. This is not only detrimental to character development, but also.. just being in general. The rest of the cast effectively become cheerleaders to Takuya and Koji, who do all the fighting for them. It was a similar scenario in Digimon Adventure - Only two characters gained the ability to Evolve into their strongest forms, yet in that series, the rest of the cast was never entirely useless. It makes me wonder - WHY does the rest of the cast even exist?

To make matters worse a 6th additional cast member is introduced - In a rather interesting way. A former enemy turned villain with a plot twist, Koichi is the estranged brother of Koji. This sets up an interesting dynamic between the two and could have gone on to create tension between the cast themselves. Needless to say, it doesn't. It leads to the two being awkward around each other for a stretch of episodes, Koichi never doing anything and the two being a-okay with each other after a while. I can't feel anything here because it FEELS like nothing ever happens in a meaningful way. Koichi does have an interesting subplot later on, but it is so rushed during the last couple of episodes it lacks any real impact. 

The characters evolving into Digimon is to me of little consequence - it would have been a welcome change for Frontier if the cast had been properly utilized and developed, but they weren't, which make matters worse. I think I've said what I needed too for this section without going into too much detail (We'd be here forever if I did), so lets move on to something else, the story and it's structuring. 

DEEPEST. LORE.
We come in with the background lore established. What should we do now? We know Cherubimon is evil and we know he has to be stopped - How do we do that? The answer is to spend the first half of the series doing MoTW shenanigans! 

MoTW plots are hardly anything new to Digimon and is often a tool used during the early parts of the series when the characters are new to the Digital World and their Digimon are beginning to evolve. The problem with Frontier is that it's MoTW's are literally the same 4 Digimon, repeated each week. There are bits of plot sprinkled throughout and lots of set up for the Digital World and characters, so it's integral viewing, but it does get a bit repetitive watching the team take Grottemon down for the 6th time. The plot itself is actually rather interesting when it does happen though, between the mysterious Digimon, Duskmon who opposes the team and the overarching Great Angels plot, it does manage to come together to be enjoyable with a satisfying Takuya and Koji filled climax with Cherubimon - A satisfying ending. 

But that isn't the end. After defeating Cherubimon a new villain appears - Or doesn't appear, the new villains remains dormant for the next 10 or so episodes, his cronies, the Royal Knights Dynasmon and LordKnightmon do his bidding. 
The Royal Knights - LordKnightmon and Dynasmon
The Royal Knight arc itself is something I have a hard time deciding on whether I like or not. The Royal Knights goal is to absorb the rest of the Digital World for their master and in doing so continue to eat away at more and more of the Digital World. As characters themselves, they are a lot of fun too and are an interesting duo. The problem is they are strong. Like, real strong. So strong for the entire arc Takuya and Koji do nothing but lose to them.That's right, it's a 10 or so episode stretch of the main characters failing and losing. The arc itself does have some interesting points, showing the characters resolve and how they can have an important relationship with both Digimon and the Digital World without having partners in accepting they themselves are part Digimon, along bringing some character development for the rest of the cast. But the arc is so painstakingly boring due to the repetitive nature of the fights that it's almost unbearable to watch. 

The final villain, I will not spoil. But he appears for about 3 episodes (He beats Adventure and 02's final villains in that regards, at least!) and loses just as quickly. There isn't a lot to say; his motivations are obvious, he's boring and very cliche. On a high note however, he is voiced by Ryusei Nakao.

On to something I really like about this series - The music.
Digimon Frontier - Best Hits Parade
Digimon Frontier follows the standard of having both a good BGM and great vocal songs. It's opening theme, "FIRE!!" is performed by Wada Koji. While not as memorable as songs like "Butter-Fly" or "The Biggest Dreamer" it is still a very energetic performance. The series has two ending themes - "Innocent ~Mujaki na mama de~" also by Wada Koji and "an Endless Tale", a duet between Wada Koji and Ai Maeda.

While "Innocent ~Mujaki na mama de~" is a great song, "an Endless Tale" may just be one of my favorite Digimon songs. It is an absolutely beautiful serenade between two established Digimon singers that suits both the series and the franchise in general extremely well. Also were two Evolution themes, "With the Will", again by Wada Koji and "The last element" by Ayumi Miyazaki. These are in my personal series some of the best Evolution themes in the entire franchise and are part of what helped me get through this series on a rewatch.

On a more sullen note is the series animation. I feel like it is probably the weakest out of what we'd seen so far, with many times characters seemingly staying completely still during battle. Everything generally looks on model and the environments look great however, it's only during battles things seem to falter.
The Chosen Children and their spirits.
Bringing this to a close as it's gone on for quite a while now are my final thoughts on Frontier. Going back to earlier I said - " Is there any truth to this, is the large fan backlash to Frontier something that it doesn't deserve?". I do indeed think this is the case, Digimon Frontier DOES indeed get a lot of unwarranted backlash simply due to being different. There are many reasons to criticize Frontier, but most of those who seem to criticize it so harshly simply never watched enough to be able to properly criticize it.

On the other hand, do I think Frontier is a good series? As much as it saddens me, I don't particularly think it is. The best I can call this series is "mediocre". It's an incredibly boring, somewhat uninspired journey. There are some great moments throughout, but these are far and few between. This was to be expected, being the 4th Digimon TV anime in just as many years after all, it's only natural the franchise was starting to run out of steam.

To finish up let me state again - Digimon Frontier is definitely a series is different. But it's not bad for being different, it's bad for just some of the reasons I touched upon on this article. Digimon Frontier is however far from being the worst Digimon series though and I think if you are a Digimon fan it still deserves a watch for some interesting ideas and concepts.

Coincidentally, the Digimon series started to slow down after Digimon Frontier. In fact, I'm not sure if this is a coincidence as I've never seen any real data for it, but after Digimon Frontier Digimon stopped having yearly anime (The next series, Digimon Savers would not air until 2006, a full 3 years after Frontier). If you made it this far, thank you for reading. If you like Digimon Frontier and disagree with my points in this article, then that is great. I'm glad there are people out there who were able to find more enjoyment in the series then I was. Thanks for reading and I'll see you guys later.

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