The premise of Digimon — children teaming up with digital, evolving creatures to save both the digital and physical dimensions — is entirely rooted in the “sucked into a virtual world” trope, one that stretches back through fiction to Alice In Wonderland, and probably even further. This history ties the trope inextricably to dreams. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for instance, has as much to do with the way we unconsciously navigate through intangible windows and tabs inside web browsers as it does with our subconscious tumbling through the REM state. The Internet itself once only existed as a dream: a tiny seed of an idea inside the minds of inventors who were restricted by the technologies of their time. The world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, scribbled out the code for a general-purpose computer in 1843, which she imagined in action could “weave algebraic patterns just as the Jacoquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” Even before it existed, the Internet was something surreal and romantic.
This technoromaticsm so sorely missing from Western animation at present exploded onto cinema screens at the turn of the new millenium in Hosoda’s feature-length Digimon adaptation — a time when websites still looked like word documents filled with blocky, Times New Roman hyperlinks and we still spelt “email” with a hyphen. To bring out the true beauty of the ‘Net, Hosoda had to take a big imaginative leap. The second story in The Digimon Movie‘s triptych structure follows a few of the original “Digi-destined,” now in their teen years, as they re-team with their old Digi-pals to take on their most difficult challenge yet: a Digimon virus. As Tai and Izzy essentially re-enact WarGames in Tai’s mom’s apartment, their Digimon are sent hurtling through the ‘Net to take out the threat. The Internet that Hosoda shows us is not a crowded city filled with paid-for cameos from sentient, corporate logos, but one with filled with different textures, dimensions, open spaces, clean lines and repeating, convulsing patterns. Lines of code run like the tracks of a rollercoaster or flow like babbling rivers. Tai and Izzy’s voices bounce around the walls like an echo chamber. It’s a virtual space that feels both endlessly open yet intimately private at once. There’s no top or bottom, no beginning middle or end. And, as the virus type, Keramon gulps up data by the terabyte to evolve all the way to the Mega level in a matter of hours, the reality of the virtual space proves to be a living character, continually evolving — much like a Digimon — to suit the needs of the user, with trap doors appearing in the middle of nowhere and IMs and email messages plastering the walls like wallpaper.
Hosoda later recycled both the narrative structure and visual concepts he explored in The Digimon Movie for 2009’s Summer Wars, which saw the threat of nuclear annihilation averted by a gaming-savvy teen, his plucky, animal avatar and the fastest typing fingers in the world. In both movies, humans have a symbiotic relationship with technology, rather than one of just user and service provider. In an interview for “The Digimon Movie Book” in 2001, Hosoda explained how the thin veil between the physical and digital worlds informed his depiction. “Digimon are just next to us. So is the Digital World. That’s why I didn’t represent it in an exaggerated fashion.” The Digimon Movie also collapses this veil. Just like Alice falling into Wonderland, Tai (and Matt) miraculously will themselves into the Internet by the strength of their bond with their injured Digimon, while Izzy is able to harvest fan mail as power boosters — the digital equivalent of prayers offered at the alter of a god — funnelling the collective hopes of people around the world into one single stroke of Omnimon’s sword: the Vaccine vs. the Virus.
Drawing these parallels between the digital, the spiritual and the metaphysical alludes to a naive vision we once had that the Internet could be a utopian network; a unified hive mind stripped of the inequalities that come bound with our physical bodies. Perhaps it’s no great surprise that today, the toxicity of Internet culture, the dominance of consumer capitalism assaulting our eyes and PayPal wallets with pop-up ads and the pollution of our Web with garbage content produces such hectic and unimaginative depictions of the Internet in Western filmmaking. At least Digimon fans can continue to rest safe in the knowledge that Mamoru Hosoda’s contribution to the franchise remains as bold and unique now as it did back in 2000.
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