Digimon in Translation | Adventure #1

WE HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE ISLAND………FILE ISLAND!!!

I have a confession to make: I’ve never watched through Digimon, my favorite childhood anime, in its native Japanese before. Considering how far those digital monsters have continued to follow me throughout my adult life, that’s pretty weird. Digimon was so formative for me at such a young age that I garnered a reputation as a super-fan in the 2010’s, purely because I couldn’t shut up about it online, whether or not I actually knew what I was talking about. I wrote thousands of words about the franchise’s ups and downs, I burned my own DVDs from VHS rips of episodes in EP mode and designed ugly sleeves for them, I produced English covers of the Japanese theme songs, and I pumped out many hours of video analysis about the anime’s first three seasons in the old Blip.TV days. But apart from the numerous short clips I’ve checked out over the years, and watching all of Adventure’s modern updates like Tri and Last Evolution Kizuna in Japanese first, the version of Digimon Adventure I would always revisit was Saban’s re-scored and re-written edit for the Fox Kids block. I just never made the time to close that particular gap between my days watching dubbed cartoons as a kid and my years studying anime as an adult. Generally, if I felt like watching Digimon again in my 20’s, it was because I was sad or sick or otherwise in need of nostalgic comfort food, so I would gravitate to the corny voices and bad puns I grew up with.

This year, after enjoying Toei’s latest attempt to conclude the ‘90s Digimon Adventure with a theatrical exclamation point, and getting a taste of the Adventure-with-a-colon reboot they’re making for today’s kids who watch anime on their smartphones, I’ve got digital monsters on the brain again. I’d been away from the digital world for long enough that it only just occurred to me; I finally know enough Japanese to understand most of what’s happening in a show like Digimon Adventure without subtitles. (I still have subs available for when I do need them, but Tentomon’s Kansai-ben is one of just a few lingering comprehension hurdles.) Instead of returning to the same old well of nostalgia in this ceaselessly brutal 2020, I’ve decided to open myself up to reevaluating this piece of my childhood in a brand-new light. Perhaps by comparing the English and Japanese versions, my appreciation for Digimon’s story and characters will evolve or—dare I say it—digivolve?

Anyway, I hope these posts will serve as a useful reference for Digimon fans curious about the most notable differences between two beloved versions of a TV show that may have been produced to sell toys, but changed a lot of little lives for the better along the way. Digimon in Translation won’t be a painstaking encyclopedia of every altered detail in every episode. (If it was, half of every writeup would be stuff like, “This shot was originally silent, but the dub added in a joke about pizza.”) Rather, it’ll be a more personal overview of how I see both versions side-by-side, with a focus on anything that significantly changes the context of a scene, along with any changes that just make me laugh out loud or scratch my stubble in confusion. There’ll be more than enough weird dialogue to sift through without getting into the weeds of three-word line changes, trust me.

Since there are many character name differences between versions, I’ll be using both of everyone’s names interchangeably, depending on which version of the character I happen to be referencing, with an (S) for Japanese sub or a (D) for English dub added for context. I hope that’ll make things less confusing? I guess we’ll find out together. There are also overall tone trends to Saban’s localization of Adventure that I don’t want to harp on repeatedly. As a general rule, like many cartoons of its day, the Digimon Dub is terrified of silence, so there are lots of extra gag lines thrown in to fill space that ultimately don’t affect the story. Near the start of the Dub in particular, when it was trying too hard to impress, all the kids were a little snottier and snarkier than originally intended, like they’re ready to flip their baseball caps backwards after every new dig, usually at Mimi’s expense. In Japanese, the kids are largely polite to each other, so the faint dickish edge to their English dialogue is worth noting, even if the changes remain slight enough to keep the characters the same at heart—except maybe Matt/Yamato, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Speaking of snark, these posts are bound to get acerbic at times, so I should make one thing clear: I love the English Digimon dub. It still has plenty of issues that you wouldn’t find in kids’ anime dubs of today, but I think the team did a fine job localizing Adventure compared to many of its contemporaries that have aged with far less charm, and if I ever get to Digimon Tamers and beyond, I know the quality and fidelity will just keep improving. The totally radical ‘90s artifacts I’m sure to unearth in my comparisons are just a product of their time, and every once in a while, these dub changes can pepper more fun flavor into an initially straightforward scene. But it’s high time I experience a story that made such a big impact on me in its original Japanese form, from start to finish. I’m excited to fall in love with Digimon Adventure all over again.

Alright, enough prefacing, let’s get straight into episode one! The Sub version kicks off with a third-person narrator dryly explaining that radical climate changes are beginning to have a major impact on the earth. (Buddy, you don’t know the half of it.) In the Dub, this narrator is replaced by Tai himself, who’s much more nonchalant and colorful with his descriptions of global mayhem, before clarifying that he had no idea any of this was happening while he was dozing off at summer camp. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. (Don’t we all wish 2020 was in hindsight right now?)

Moving on, you can see that the kids originally got more detailed name plates showing their school and grade. For whatever reason, the Dub chose to erase any info pertaining to the kids’ exact ages or grades in school, not just in this episode, but for the rest of the series to follow. I don’t get this at all. That’s context I definitely would have appreciated as a kid, making it easier for me to compare myself directly to the kids who were older or younger than me. Anyway, the Dub fills this narration gap with Tai razzing everybody instead, our first introduction to Saban’s efforts to cool-ify these kids. They all casually pick on each other in these early episodes, but if I pointed out every little extra insult in the script, we’d be here all day.

When a mighty unseasonal blizzard throws their camp into chaos, Jou (S) is the first to tell everyone that they should leave the cabin and find a camp counselor right away, only to be undercut by Mimi’s enthusiasm for a snow day. Joe (D), however, is just worried about catching a cold, which is not as strong of a choice, though it does lean more into Tai (D)’s prior assertion that Joe is a pants-wetting weenie. Jou (S) is supposed to be more of a worrywart than a scaredy cat; it’s a subtle difference, but it matters! When the aurora borealis appears and the other kids gawk in awe, Joe doubles down on his worries about getting sick, but Matt (D) tells him they can’t miss this amazing spectacle. In the Japanese version, Jou is still talking about getting adult supervision, and Yamato (S) actually agrees with him, reinforcing his more thoughtful, protective instincts in contrast to Taichi’s reckless excitement. Nitpicks aside, this scene does a good job of introducing us to the cast’s most prominent character traits in both languages. Matt is protective of T.K., who mirrors Mimi’s childlike energy and just wants to play in the snow, while Izzy is too busy fiddling with his computer alone to even notice.

After a geyser erupts from the canyon and washes all the kids down into the Digital World, the action picks up with the appearance of Koromon, whose name does not mean “brave little warrior”, as the Dub claims. I don’t think people bought that even as kids. I mean, the “mon” at least clearly stands for monster! Koromon doesn’t feel the need to explain his name in the Japanese version, because it’s pretty straightforward. As with Koro-sensei from Assassination Classroom, “koro” just vaguely means “round”. Not much more to him than a hopping head, after all.

It is wild to me that Saban just left all the Japanese text onscreen for every new digital monster’s profile. They clearly had the ability to translate text for composite shots and not just replace still frames, because we saw them do it a few minutes ago for the kids’ intros—in Comic Sans, no less! How am I supposed to know that Kuwagamon is virus type if I can’t read katakana? Seriously though, I admire the Digimon dub’s relative preservation of its Japanese-ness compared to many of its peers from the late ‘90s. For every reference to Japanese geography or culture they excised, they did keep a surprising amount of the original context in the show. You can even see it in Izzy’s dub introduction—they do show you that his real name is Koushiro, even though no one ever calls him that again.

Speaking of which, Koushiro (S) shows up soon after, and there’s a good gag in the Japanese version where he’s relieved to find Taichi because he thought he was all alone, but Motimon interjects that Koushiro can’t be alone, because he’s here to help! Motimon is moving their relationship forward too quickly for Izzy’s (D) liking in both versions, but the Dub maybe loses the point that Motimon’s fumbling jokester personality is very different from Koromon’s bold enthusiasm. Every Digimon is unique, but with a cast this big, you gotta cram characterization into every line you can! Before Kuwagamon shows up to ruin everyone’s day, the kids try to figure out how they ended up in a tropical jungle, and both versions choose to focus on completely different information. In the Dub, Motimon tells them that they’re in “Digiworld,” so Izzy immediately starts making computer puns and analogies for the rest of the episode series, and everyone just accepts that they’re inside some kind of digital dimension going forward.

The Sub version buries the lede for much longer, because Motimon only tells the boys that they’re on “File Island.” So, the kids have various conversations later about how far “File Island” might be from Japan, if it’s near South America, things like that, because why would they assume they were on a completely different world? The Digimon never bother to clear things up, because they don’t know anything about Earth either, so nobody actually grasps that this is a Digital World until long past episode one. I like that! It’s a shame that this endearing naturalism is lost in the Dub, but on the other hand, it’s not like they’re ruining some big twist or anything; we know what show we’re watching, these are digital monsters.

Suddenly, Kuwagamon swoops in, screeching in creepy bug clicks in the Japanese version and roaring like a TIE fighter in English. I don’t really have a preference between these monster noises (who’s to say what a stag beetle that big sounds like?), but it is funny how completely different they are. Tai (D) is impressed with Koromon’s bravery when he decides to fight back, but Taichi (S) is more earnest about thanking Koromon for saving his life. Since Koromon is no match for Kuwagamon, the kids flee to Motimon’s “hiding tree”, which is explained in Japanese to be nothing but a metal pipe that projects a hologram of a tree on the outside, our next clue that this world operates on different rules from our own. That’s fine, the kids in the English version already know that this is a digital world, so they don’t need to learn about holographic trees.

After the danger dies down, the kids gather for an official introduction to their Digimon friends. In Japanese, this scene is just the monsters saying their names one by one, but in English, they’re talking about how funny and cute and cool they are, which I only mention because the choppy timing makes it sound exactly like a Burger King commercial. You can collect all 7 in your Kids Club meal! Since Mimi is the only one still missing, her disappearance turns into a dunk-fest in the Dub, while in the Sub, Jou mentions that he has something to give her. I think this is setting up something in episode 2 that I don’t remember. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is this hilarious shot where Izzy says that Mimi is probably off picking flowers—with his mouth closed, because there wasn’t supposed to be any dialogue here.

Five minutes in a fantasy world, and Izzy has already developed telepathic powers. Makes sense, he is the most likely member of this cast to become the protagonist of an isekai novel.

Of course, Mimi is being chased by that tenacious Kuwagamon, so they all flee for their lives again until their retreat takes them to the edge of a cliff. Matt (D) shouts, “Great. Anybody bring a helicopter?” and you know what, that’s a quality joke, got a chuckle out of me. (In Japanese, nobody says anything, take a shot.) Tai gets closest to the cliff’s edge to look for a safe way down when Kuwagamon charges, so Sora (D) shouts, “Watch out!” like any concerned friend would—except in Japanese, Sora (S) shouts, “Now’s our chance!” What? I have no idea what she means by this. Does Sora think the edge of a cliff is the best place to pick a fight with a giant flying monster?? Or does she think they can all get away safely if they abandon Taichi to get eaten first??? If “今のうちに!” means anything that makes sense in that shot, please enlighten me.

Once again, Koromon throws his body at the unstoppable threat, and right on cue, the Dub opts to undercut the resulting violence with a joke. Koromon (D) explains to Tai that he’s just trying to make a good impression on him, like this is a job interview for lifelong monster partner, while Koromon (S) pulls out a classic super-sincere “I have to protect you!” When his bravery inspires the other mons to join in the fray, Izzy (D) gets a wonderfully cheesy line in response: “They must be programmed for courage!” I love it, Izzy and Tentomon always get the best material. After the evolved Digimon partners save the day, Tentomon (D) even says that his powers are “pretty wizard!” Please, zoomers, I’m begging you to help us bring back “wizard” as an everyday superlative.

I forgot that “Hey Digimon” wouldn’t make its debut as the Dub battle song until further into the series, so I guess I’ll enjoy that while it lasts. I am not a “Hey Digimon” defender. You will hear no defense of “Hey Digimon” from me. I don’t plan to compare the music very often in these posts, so I’ll just say overall that I enjoy both musical scores, and they don’t diverge enough in quality to affect the material most of the time. The biggest problem with Saban’s soundtrack is just that it’s overactive at times; dubs of this era were truly terrified of losing kids’ short attention spans with any moment of silence. Anyway, “Hey Digimon” to the left, we get our first dose of “Brave Heart” in the Japanese version! This superior battle theme’s never gonna get old for me. We’re nearing the episode’s end, but it’s a lot harder to take notes with all this saltwater in my eyeballs.

As the kids tumble down from the crumbling cliff, the Narrator (S) foreshadows a time-distortion aspect of the Digital World by proclaiming this to be both the longest and shortest summer vacation of the Chosen Children’s lives. There was also a Sub-only remark from one of the tiny monsters earlier that they’ve been waiting a “long time” to meet their partners, which’ll come up more often in future episodes. Digimon Adventure certainly starts out with a bang. Looking back, I appreciate how much of the runtime is just spent, well, running from terrifying monsters. The kids are even scared of the new best friends that destiny has assigned them! All seven members of the ensemble get just enough attention to make their personalities clear, and their monsters exhibit a surprising level of individualism too. But all that dialogue is woven firmly into the action, which basically never stops, even if the show’s animation can’t possibly keep up with the peril as scripted. (Nobody who loves Digimon cares about how ugly the show looks most of the time. It’s beautiful on the inside!)

In closing, the biggest detail that stood out to me in this rewatch was that T.K. is the least weirded out by the Digital World, while Joe freaks out the most. This fits their personalities on its own, but it’s also a sly little nod to how strongly the Digital World is connected to childhood, and how quickly characters age out of it once their big adventure ends. Digimon have always had this “imaginary friend”-like quality to them that fades in power as you grow away from their world and start finding your place in human society. Right away, T.K., the youngest, has the strongest connection to his new partner, while Joe, the oldest, takes the most persuading. And he’s only in sixth grade! There’s a special kind of magic to the transience of Digimon stories, a bitter sweetness that’s always stuck with me. I’ll try to make these next 53 episodes last.


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2 thoughts on “Digimon in Translation | Adventure #1”

  1. Hey~! I love how when comparing the dub & sub you find flaws in both versions (Even if they are rare) & can find the good in both versions. I hope you continue reviewing and comparing the sub & dub. And I need to find a sub version of Digimon Adventure. Anyway, you are doing a good job, keep it up!

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  2. I grew up with the Portuguese Dub, which is a pretty direct translation from the Japanese version. It even includes the original soundtrack. I never liked the American Dub. That said… the helicopter joke was great! 😁

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