Twelve Days of Anime #12: When Leomon’s Death Actually Mattered

Here it is, my very belated final Twelve Days of Anime post for 2014. I meant to post this three days ago, but got swept up in the madness of Christmas with my family. Happy Holidays! Also, full-series spoilers for Digimon Tamers here if the title didn’t tip you off.

DigimonTamers

I’ve been a Digimon fan since I was a little kid, but this year was the first time I sat through all of Digimon Tamers, easily the franchise’s best entry. I considered myself “too old” for it by the time Tamers aired on TV in 2001, but I wanted to see it when I got back into anime and heard how good the third installment is from my friend JesuOtaku’s videos about it. I watched it with her and another friend who had previously seen it, and learned how right I was. Tamers had Chiaki Konaka as its head writer, and he brought to it his signature head-trip sensibility and high-concept sci-fi that made Serial Experiments Lain such a classic.

Tamers established a lot of traditions for the franchise, but ironically, it did so in a way that deviated from the usual pattern. One of the main examples of this was killing off Leomon. A Leomon or some evolution of him dies in every single Digimon series (Adventure 02 was technically the exception since that story’s Leomon had already kicked it in the previous installment, but the one that proved the rule), and it’s become an inside joke in the fandom as a result. Yet, while Tamers was the one that made it a tradition, it also made it impossible to laugh at how it killed its Leomon.

Yeah, he's really popular with the furries. Why do you ask?

Yeah, he’s really popular with the furries. Why do you ask?

In Tamers, Leomon becomes the partner of Jeri Kato (Juri Katou if you’re watching the sub), a lonely, weird little girl who protagonist Takato crushes on, and who acts like a sort of third (fourth?) wheel to his Digimon card games with his friends Kazu and Kenta. She desperately wants to be a Tamer, collecting all the Digimon cards she can find to fit in with them. Jeri finally gets her wish by essentially the same method she used to win her friends: desperately following Leomon around and begging him to be her Digimon. Eventually, a Digivice falls from the sky allowing her to tame Leomon. She even shows some real potential for it, knowing when to activate powerful cards to enhance Leomon’s powers.

It doesn’t last very long, though, when series anti-hero Impmon—now in his Mega form as Beelzemon—decides to prove how evil he’s become by killing Leomon. In the world of Tamers, unlike Adventure, Digimon deaths are permanent. Jeri’s reaction to this is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series:

I didn’t cry when I watched this, because I don’t usually cry when I watch anime. But I got pretty damn close this time.

Jeri was a character I related to quite a bit, more than any other Digimon character in the three series I’ve watched from the franchise. Jeri is a lot like I was as a little girl, from her weird social tics to her lonely desperation for friends. And she responded to Leomon’s death the way I usually respond to traumatic things in my life: by withdrawing. Her friends are too busy saving the Digital World to notice her pain, so she’s taken advantage of by one of its most destructive forces, the D-Reaper. Konaka was influenced by Evangelion for many of his series’ more psychological moments, and there’s a lot of Shinji Ikari in Jeri’s depressed mumbling to herself, especially once she’s taken into the D-Reaper’s void. Fans like to talk about “Scary Jeri,” the creepy computer puppet who replaces her, and Jeri’s horrifying nightmares, but I saw her struggle here as more sad than scary. It resonated too much with my own experiences with depression.

jeri kato depressed

Digimon Tamers is not only my favorite Digimon series and one of my favorite kids’ anime (second only to Princess Tutu, where Konaka also scripted a few episodes), but among my favorite anime series of all time. A big part of my favoritism is its portrayal of Jeri and, by extension, young people struggling with depression and loneliness. All of that hinges on when it made one of the Digimon fandom’s favorite memes into a moment that actually mattered, the emotional climax of the series. Thanks, Konaka! Or, maybe…no thanks. I didn’t ask for this much emotional trauma from a monster-battling show designed to sell toys!

Anyway, thanks everyone for a really great 12 Days of Anime! It was fun to explore my engagement with the medium over the past year this way. I’ll probably have a few end-of-the-year retrospective posts, but other than that, see you in 2015!

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Twelve Days of Anime #2: How Nicholas D. Wolfwood Made Me Cry

This is the first of what will likely be two or three posts about Trigun in this series. It was one of the first anime series I completed this year, and it says something that it’s still rattling around in my mind 11 months later. So if you’re a Trigun fanatic, rev up your engines—and you know there’s only one way to do that:

(Also, this is going to include a butt-ton of spoilers for the anime series, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to keep your Trigun virginity intact, you might want to skip this post.)

This blogging series is supposed to be about moments–in anime, in anime fandom—even if I kinda violated the rule with the previous post being more about a gradual realization. Anyway, as soon as I read the description, I knew that I’d be talking about the death scene for my favorite Trigun character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood. It had such an impact on me when I first saw the show that I originally planned to start this blog off with a series on character deaths in my favorite TV series, and why they worked or didn’t work. I can admit now it was just an excuse to talk about this dork:

trigun_nick0042

Along with the ending of Madoka Magica, Wolfwood’s death is the only time that anime has actually made me break down in tears. And that’s from no lack of engaging with tear-jerking anime: I made it through all of Wolf’s Rain, Penguindrum, Fullmetal Alchemist, the ending of Cowboy Bebop…all without any waterworks. What is it about Wolfwood that did it for me?

I think it’s that he didn’t want to die. And moreover, he didn’t need to die.

trigun wolfwood smoking

The smoking probably would’ve eventually killed him anyway

Oh, I’m sure people will argue with me on this, but I firmly believe this. And I’m someone who can easily admit when characters I love need to die. I think Hughes’s death in FMA is a brilliant turning point and tonal shift, and can’t see how it could have been executed any other way. I think Spike Spiegel died at the end of Cowboy Bebop and it absolutely had to happen to close off his character arc and make the point Keiko Nobumoto wanted to make. And for a non-anime example: I think Don Draper needs to kick it at the end of Mad Men for similar reasons.

Wolfwood didn’t need to die. You can say he needed to be shuffled offstage to make way for Vash’s final confrontations with Legato and Knives, but I’m sure Trigun could work him in somehow or find a way to explain his absence. Heck, it does essentially work him in, since Wolfwood’s voice in Vash’s head is what pushes him along, and his giant cross-shaped gun, the Punisher, is how Vash finally triumphs over Knives. (A phrasing I think Vash would disagree with, but whatever.) What’s more, Wolfwood knows the unnecessary nature of his death, and expresses this.

The beauty of that scene is not just its exquisite direction, and use of music (I still can’t listen to “Rakuen,” Wolfwood’s theme that was used so extensively in this scene, without getting a bit blubbery). The way Wolfwood exits the world is just so human. He tries at first for serenity, to accept the inevitability of his approaching death, and muses on how he hopes to be reincarnated in a paradise where he can “live happily, with him (Vash) and the girls.” (Finally, the Milly/Wolfwood and Vash/Wolfwood shippers are united in emotional torment!) But when he takes time to really think about that dream, and how his actions in life made it impossible, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live and make things better! His “sins are so heavy,” but that’s because he’s full of regrets, regrets he could easily make right—if only he had a little more time. “I did not want to die this way!” he screams. And then he dies.

It’s so easy to write characters who go into death with an accepting smile on their faces, but I have to imagine that everyone is at least a little like Wolfwood when they’re about to meet their maker. Even if you’ve lived a long, full life, there have to be some things you wish you could’ve done when you’re stuck there, alone with your thoughts, knowing you’re reaching the end. And Wolfwood didn’t live that kind of life: his was short (remember, he’s only chronologically 17 in the manga, and the anime hints at this a few times, too), and filled with violence and misery. It feels brief to the audience, too, since as much screentime as Wolfwood’s had by this point, we only really got to know him and his backstory in this episode.

A lot of my favorite anime are those that establish characters and ideas in really small chunks. For example, in FMA, we learn everything we need to know about Sloth in the three minutes right before Edward kills her, and it’s one of the series’ most masterful moments. Madoka told us everything we needed to know about Homura and her many lives in the space of a single half-hour. FMA had a big cast, and Madoka had a short runtime, so it was necessary for them to push to pull this off. But Trigun didn’t need to do this; it only had a few major characters, some of whom still didn’t get any real backstory in the anime (like Legato) in spite of the series’ ample time to do so across its 26 episodes. It could’ve taken its time with Wolfwood, but it didn’t.

I think it works, because it just compounds the regrets the audience feels and represents the brief tragedy of his life. We barely knew him before he left us. He barely knew himself, only just then revealing to Vash his conflicted loyalties (“Knives is in Dmitri”) and firmly deciding to fully commit himself to his friends’ ideals. In that sense, if I were going to compare Wolfwood’s death to that of any other character in an anime I love, I would compare it to Lust’s in FMA. They were only just beginning their journeys of self-discovery when we lost them, and their deaths are full of regrets about that. But it isn’t that we’re cheated; that incomplete journey, that sentence fragment is the point. It adds to the emotional punch and realism of these stories, since this happens far too often to real people, too.

trigun wolfwood confessional

How can you not love that face? How can you not cry over it?

Trigun is ultimately not Wolfwood’s story, but the story of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives, two godlike beings struggling to make sense of their relationships to humanity. Vash is a Christ figure, showing how such a “man” would be burdened and tried by the world if he’d lived longer than Jesus’s 33 years. Wolfwood is the key to his bond with humanity, as Trigun’s most deliciously flawed, frustrated, human character. His death is the perfect coda to that.