Right off the heels of Digimon Adventure: (2020) ending, Digimon Ghost Game made its much anticipated debut last night. Rather than being another reboot featuring classic characters, Ghost Game introduces a new continuity, cast, and general approach to Digimon: one rooted in horror. From a conceptual perspective it’s just the sort of fresh take many fans have been asking for, but is the finished product good?
So what’s it about?
Here’s the series’ official trailer courtesy of Crunchyroll:
Also courtesy of Cruchyroll, here’s a plot synopsis for Episode 1 – “The Sewn-Lip Man”:
On social media, rumors of a mysterious phenomenon, known as “Hologram Ghosts,” are spreading. Hiro Amanokawa, a first-year junior high school student, activates a mysterious device left behind by his father, and encounters a Digimon called Gammamon.
We’re only one episode in but already the trait that sticks out most about Ghost Game compared to all Digimon anime before it is its integral reliance on horror tropes and concepts. This is exactly the sort of shift that can help new takes on old properties succeed: one rooted in the very foundations of the franchise, but that has never been executed in this way up until now. It’s in the name, of course: Digital Monsters. Decades of cute shenanigans between human characters and their Digimon partners don’t erase the fact that this is a franchise to which the concept of monstrosity is absolutely paramount. The concept has just been varied in the manner and intensity of its presentation up until now.
With Digimon being a children’s media franchise about characters growing up into better people, it’s no surprise that the horror elements have primarily only been amped up for brief periods of dramatic effect. With that said, there have been many examples of this over the course of twenty-some years. Take for example the Lovecraftian influence apparent in Digimon Adventure 02′s Dark Ocean or Digimon Tamers’ D-Reaper arc and its tackling of grief. There is, not to mention, a whole generation of fans who will never forget the existential terror of dragging their parents to the theater and being blindsided by the Angela Anaconda short that played before Digimon: The Movie.
Digimon Ghost Game, meanwhile, applies a horror lens and setup to the nature of Digimon themselves. They are no longer merely aliens from another world with just the horror inherent to their monster status. Digimon in this series are talked about similarly to ghosts; humankind doesn’t know what they are and, in trying to make sense of them through limited human understandings, uses the sort of language typically employed to discuss paranormal phenomena and urban legends. This is a series in which Digimon actively haunt the human world, and not in the sense that Caspar or the Boo Brothers do. It’s an excellent framing, emphasizing fear of the unknown to convey the threat rogue Digimon pose.
With that said, the horror isn’t just in the series’ conceptual vocabulary; it’s very much heightened by the execution. Episode one’s villain is Clockmon, a relatively low level Digimon who’s been been a favorite of mine for years in spite of (or rather, partially because of) his silly appearance. But there’s little silly about Ghost Game’s Clockmon. Yes, he’s still the top half of a man sticking out of an alarm clock, but look at the episode title and you’ll get a sense of what the creators are doing with him: “The Sewn-Lip Man.”
There are several zooms in on Clockmon’s mouth, emphasizing that classic horrifying image common to both scarecrows and early ’00s anti-smoking ads: the stitched mouth. It’s an inherently repulsive concept due to the picture it induces in the viewer’s mind: that of one’s own skin being pierced in such an unnatural and excruciating way. Then there’s the matter of Clockmon’s attacks. He “steals time” from his victims to feed, which is visualized by scenes of people rapidly aging, with wrinkles multiplying and cheeks hollowing to the point of looking almost like corpses. It’s intense, and probably the most real the threat posed by a first episode villain has ever felt in Digimon history.
What about the protagonists?
Who, then, saves the day and stops the Sewn-Lip Man? Most of the episode is centered on Hiro, a young boy who is quickly established as being competent, hard-working, and responsible but not to the point of being a stick-in-the-mud—he’s even shown picking locks at one point. Less criminally, he’s also shown cooking for his father as if meal prep is an everyday occurrence for him, and by the end of the episode he’s a classic case of an anime child who’s apparently so upstanding he’s allowed to live entirely on his own.
The reasons for said isolation? His mother works abroad and his father disappears. The dad just up and vanishes, leaving one of this series’ Digivices behind for Hiro. After tinkering around with it for a few minutes Hiro comes face to face with a hologram version of his father and a small white dinosaur Digimon named Gammamon.
It’s a well-executed scene that does a lot of lore work in a short amount of time without feeling like it dumps too many specific or convoluted details on the viewer all at once. We learn that Hiro’s father has some sort of knowledge of Digimon but we don’t find out how or why that is. The personal and science-fiction elements are intertwined by the implication that Hiro will eventually have to track his father down in order to interrogate him for more pivotal information. Plus, mom and dad aren’t home, so the narrative is freed up to focus on the relationships between Hiro and other kids his age.
Other kids and Gammamon, that is. The little dino makes a great first impression. He’s super cute and is probably my favorite series mascot since at least Digimon Frontier. Hiro’s father instructs Hiro to treat Gammamon like a little brother, and Gammamon clearly already knows who Hiro is. There’s an affection built in since day one, as was common with the partner Digimon in the original Digimon Adventure. Though it’s still too early for Hiro and Gammamon’s relationship to have acquired much depth, it does provide the episode with some levity. This is a horror series, but it’s one that regularly sticks Gammamon on screen to remind you of just how cute a mascot (and merchandisable character) he is. And you know what? It works.
The other two human protagonists depicted in the series opening, ending, and promotional materials only make brief appearances here. Kiyoshiro seems like he’ll be the slightly older but more fearful type, ala Adventure’s Joe Kido. Ruli meanwhile seems like she’ll probably be quite daring. Their Digimon partners don’t appear in the episode proper, but here’s looking forward to their debuts and to the formation of this series’ team.
Openings and endings
What is an anime without great opening and ending credit sequences? Still watchable of course, but those things are key to bridging the gap between a series just being good and a series inducing blood-pumping, frenzied hype. So, how are Ghost Game’s themes?
The opening is quite fun. The song is “FACTION” by Wienners. Visually, the series’ horror vibe continues to be emphasized here. There’s some fun animation of long, twisting stairways, shadowy faces, and various Digimon making split-second cameos before going off screen like ghosts just barely seen in one’s peripheral vision. We get glimpses at all three lead Rookie Digimon and their Champion forms, to include the implication that Gammamon is going to have several alternate evolutions. As I wrote in my Adventure: (2020) retrospective, it’s exciting to see the anime embracing this franchise hallmark more.
The series’ first ending is less exciting, but by no means bad. The song is “Pedal” by Aiiro Apollo, and its a relatively chill wind-down from all the episode’s horror and action. The art featured is cute, although very static. The ending just consists of a few stationary images of the characters panned across for several seconds each. It’s not particularly exciting, but it does highlight the series’ more sweet and serene side.
Closing thoughts and looking forward
So, how is the episode overall? Does Ghost Game make a good first impression?
Yes, absolutely. This is a premiere that manages to fit a lot of lore and tonal information into just twenty-some minutes. We meet our core cast, learn about Hiro’s father’s connection to Digimon, have some mysteries set up, and are introduced to a whole new horror lens through which to view Digimon. This is a reinvention of the old that draws upon concepts inherent to the franchise and uses them in new ways to make something fresh and exciting. Dare I say, this is the best debut episode of a Digimon anime since Frontier or maybe even Tamers. I’m very excited to follow the series from week to week and see how it plays out.
As for next week’s preview, we see glimpses of our heroes encountering Mummymon in a museum. It sounds like a great setting for more haunted shenanigans, and it’ll be fun to see such a classic Digimon again surrounded by such fitting imagery. The only thing missing from the preview was a deep, booming voice declaring “Next time, on Digimon: Digital Monsters!”
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