How ‘Digimon’ helped me reconnect with my fandom roots

Today marks the release of Digimon Adventure Tri, a series of six new films created to celebrate the anniversary of the anime series. To mark the occasion, our editor shares why Digimon has a special place in her fandom heart.

For the first time in several hours, I checked the time. I checked it again, and winced. It was late, even for a college student; one of my roommates/best friends and I were wrapped up in a swell of blankets, looking like a double-headed Jabba the Hut. Except instead of alien women in “sexy” slave garb, we were surrounded by Hot Cheetos and scattered class readings.

We locked eyes for a moment, and then I pressed play on the next episode.

When I was in middle school, my family moved houses from one side of town to the other. Our new next-door neighbor, Stephanie, was a girl my younger sister’s age, and we began to hang out together regularly. Her older brother, already in high school, liked anime, so it was Stephanie who casually introduced me and my sis to the wildly-popular ninja anime Naruto. The rest was history, the ensuing years full of binge-watching and -reading series after series, obsessively hunting for new scanlated (scanned and translated) releases and fan works.

All of this exacerbated a pre-existing condition; my earliest fan fixation had been on the Lord of the Rings books and movies. In order to create a LOTR fan graphics website, I’d learned how to code and use Photoshop. I also began writing fanfiction at the same time. (Somewhere out there, a LOTR/Survivor AU quietly collects dust.) By diving into the blossoming world of fan work, I found a special kind of creative outlet and an online community that embraced what I had been made to perceive as my intractable, undesirable weirdness. I had not yet understood that some teenagers can just be mean and petty about everything.

When I entered high school, I was suddenly supposed to get “serious.” My parents effectively placed a moratorium on my so-called strange hobbies and interests. I continued on for as long as I could — creeping down the stairs at midnight to boot up the family desktop to watch just one more episode, work on Photoshop creating vector desktop wallpapers for the now-defunct, or search for updated fanfics about my OTPs. But going to sleep at 4 am (!) and waking up at 6:30 am isn’t sustainable, and little by little, I let up, pouring my energy instead into music (both as a listener and as a classical performer) and school.

College meant a flight across the country to a city I knew nothing about and a campus that seemed, at least on the surface, to lack all of the nerdy or geeky accoutrements that I’d leaned on before to get by. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I thought were the normal social skills that I’d always lacked and was in dire need of, like how to take a shot of hard liquor, walk in 5” heels and a skintight dress across uneven sidewalks, and stay mute while college boys chatted me up after I claimed to be deeply passionate about whatever the hell they were talking about.

It was a bit of a mess, and I was a bit of a mess, but at least I could still talk to people about music, movies, and TV. But what I didn’t talk about, for a long time, were the deep obsessions I had with anime and other “weird” interests. Part of this was due to a long-running insecurity about my appearance – I had this idea that I wasn’t pretty enough to get people, especially boys, to pay attention to my own passions. And part of this was because I wanted to finally be traditionally cool, in an “I’m chill and normal!” way, whatever that was. This didn’t last very long, and eventually, I fell in with a group of people who didn’t judge me for the things I like. But the deep dive back into the fan life had yet to come.

I don’t remember how this originally came up, but my junior year roommate Daniella and I were talking about anime, and we came to realize that we’d both really liked the show Digimon as kids. What I didn’t tell her was that I mainly knew about the show through its iconic American-version theme song, its proximity to the much more popular Pokémon, and a childhood crush on the character Matt (that sleeveless turtleneck … swoon). In contrast, she’d watched multiple seasons of the show and remembered much of it. So when she suggested that we watch the show together, I accepted. Episodes were 20 minutes long, and there couldn’t be too many in a season, right?

To me, it was going to be some silly fun: Alright, let’s see how my childhood has aged, and perhaps I’d get to know one of my good friends better. But, it didn’t feel like a joke; we’d cuddle up on the couch together and watch what were supposed to be middle schoolers go on strange, sometimes silly, adventures. I got totally sucked into the story: When Agumon first evolved (sorry, “Digivolved”), we both whooped as though we were at a football game; when Matt leaves the group right before its greatest challenge, she comforted me in my distraught state. We’d spend night after night watching the show and quoting its lines back to each other. (“Why do you get all the pizza? While I get the crust?!”)

One season done? There were four more to go, but according to Daniella, only two more were worth watching; the third one was traumatic enough that I didn’t have the heart to move forward, anyway. All in all, not counting the movies (which, of course, we watched too), we watched 155 episodes: Just around 52 hours of animated adventures in the digital world.

We didn’t stop with Digimon; next up were rewatches of Fullmetal Alchemist (my personal favorite) and its remake, then Neon Genesis Evangelion. I started reading and then watching the monster hit (pun intended) Attack on Titan; then to cap it all off, Daniella introduced me to Homestuck, which has the most labyrinthine fandom on the Internet. (And provided me the material for one of my first freelance stories.) Even the “appropriate” things I’d like before, like the show Mad Men, gained new intensity under the fandom lens.

At first, it was terrifying to stray from all that gave me cool cred, to embrace this strangeness. But the more I did so, the more I realized that I’d never actually had that cool cred in the first place. And that was not just okay, it was actually better for me.

Digimon was the wormhole back to my middle school worldview, of sincerity and joy through storytelling. And now, I’m happily stuck back at the nexus of many of my favorite things: Animation, untraditional storytelling, and East Asian culture. While it’s strange to try to carve out my “legitimate” career without sacrificing my still fringe (at least for America) interests, I’m willing to try this time, and I’m a lot happier and authentic to myself for it.

There’s a new Digimon (film!) series coming out soon. And you better bet I’ll be watching.

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Image courtesy of Toei Animation.