Around the time Geeks Under Grace launched its website, I set out to review the first three seasons of Digimon.
I did not succeed.
While I managed to write up reviews for Season 1 and Season 2, clocking in an exhaustive 5,000+ words each, I was too winded to carry my enthusiasm into a review of the third season; but there is one moment in the final act of the series that I at least wanted to share, because it struck me harder as an adult viewer than it did back in elementary school:
The moment Beelzemon tries to free Jeri using the Fist of the Beast King.
Now, for some context (understanding and appreciating this scene to its fullest is difficult, even if you have watched the series), I will try to keep this explanation simple, because it’s surprisingly complex considering the target audience.
Unlike its more child-friendly competitor, Pokémon, Digimon characters regularly die in the franchise (Digimon mostly, but humans are not excluded). The most notorious death in season 3 (also known as Digimon Tamers) is the destruction of tamer Jeri’s Digimon, the brave and kind Leomon. There’s an incarnation of Leomon in every season of the show (for the layman, each season is self-contained), and so he’s always a fan-favorite. Leomon is, as his name suggests, a proud and mighty partner with a heart of gold and the fury of a lion.
When Jeri and the other tamers leave the real world to travel into the Digital World, they do so knowing they’re going to have their hands full fighting against some powerful enemies. Among these adversaries is Beelzemon, a Mega-level Digimon and former friend, now drunk on power which does not belong to him. (Yes, his name does stem from Beelzebub, lord of demons.) He’s a force to be reckoned with, and a condition of keeping his newfound power is that he must eliminate his old friends.
In his frenzy, Beelzemon tries to strike down one of the protagonists, but is prevented by Leomon, who holds him back and tries to talk some sense into the berserker Mega. Unwilling to bend to logic, Beelzemon turns his wrath upon Leomon, running the benevolent creature through with his bare hands. This forces Leomon’s body to break down into raw data (Digital death) and be absorbed into Beelzemon, adding to his strength.
This scene causes a lot of major developments, but I’m only going to focus on one: the subsequent trauma Jeri endures and how it influences the human heart. You see, Beelzemon is not the Big Bad of Digimon Tamers. That position is held by a rogue defense program known as the D-Reaper, which was originally a complex digital life form meant to hold the population of the Digital World in check, but eventually evolved beyond its intended functions. Wanting to analyze human thoughts and feelings, and sensing a compromise in the distraught Jeri, the D-Reaper takes her captive and uses her as a catalyst for further transformation. It locks Jeri in a prison of its own design and perpetuates her sorrow by feeding it back to her with sounds and images, which then gives her even more twisted thoughts (and so on, in a vicious cycle).
By the time the D-Reaper is in full-swing and laying siege upon the real world, Beelzemon has tasted humble pie a couple of times. The other tamers have tried and failed to rescue Jeri and, now vindicated by his earlier actions, Beelzemon sets out to right his wrongs by saving her from captivity in the heart of the D-Reaper. However, at this point the program has mutated so far that it is beyond even the abilities of Mega-level Digimon to destroy, and its protective shell around the girl does not falter against Beelzemon’s many attempts to crack it open.
Fortunately, while he can’t break the prison cell, Beelzemon does throttle Jeri out of her traumatic stupor, allowing her to vaguely understand that he is trying to save her. Realizing he has reached the limit of his own strength, Beelzemon raises his fist to the sky and screams “Give me the strength I need!” It is a posture which emulates that of Jeri’s late partner, Leomon, and Beelzemon cocks his body back, preparing to deliver one more blow to the D-Reaper’s defense. Drawing on the strength he absorbed when he killed Leomon, he unleashes the Fist of the Beast King, Leomon’s signature technique, and finally succeeds in blowing a hole in the prison cell. By Leomon’s power and will, Beelzemon is given a chance to do what Leomon would have wanted and save his human partner. He reaches in to save Jeri, even as the D-Reaper starts to repair the small hole from Beelzemon’s blast.
Jeri freezes. Beelzemon calls to her, begging her to hurry and allow him to complete his rescue, but she does not. Seeing Beelzemon, the monster responsible for murdering and assimilating her partner, use that partner’s very ability to set her free, jars Jeri into a panic. The dark irony of it is too much for the psychologically damaged girl to endure, and she falls back, unable to let Beelzemon help. Before long Beelzemon is forced away by the shell’s self-repair, and the D-Reaper deals a lethal blow, taking him out of the fight and denying him from ever finding the redemption he desperately desires.
Revisiting the series, I was blown away at the emotional and narrative implications of this scene. This is a children’s show. While Ash is having an existential crisis about releasing his Butterfree into the wild, Digimon is exploring the disrepair of traumatic loss, how it manipulates our psyche into pushing people away, and the fundamental need to redeem ourselves from the horrors of untamed pride and anger.
This is not an isolated moment, either. There are many times throughout Digimon where it seems the creators forgot they were developing a show intended for a twelve-year-old audience. Refer to my review of Season 2, and Ken’s intense struggle to forgive himself after literally enslaving, torturing, and slaughtering innocent Digimon for his own amusement; or Season 1, where the characters deal with everything from divorce, to learning to accept that they are lovable, to forgiving people they don’t like.
Digimon was not the end-all-be-all children’s show of its time, but I admire its willingness to explore deeper things than cool transformations, explosions, and goofball humor–an approach I wish Digimon‘s contemporaries would have emulated when they were in their prime. Digimon not only respects the intelligence of its viewers, but also works to promote deeper thoughts and feelings, and thus open the doors for understanding more complex media in the future.
Don’t misunderstand: Pokémon and many other shows hold their own special place in my heart. I simply feel like Digimon, particularly the anime, endures much more hate than it deserves, especially considering its willingness to confront hard, relatable topics. There’s plenty of complaints to be lobbied against this franchise, but Digimon can’t simply be categorized as a shounen break-in series for beginners when its narrative so obviously points to higher goals than critics suggest.
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