From watching this show as a bright-eyed seven-year old, to more recently – and slightly shamefully – as my twenty-three-year old self, the one thing which consistently struck me was the depth of character which underpinned this largely dismissed series. I’ve written about similar themes before, as some of you may know, but, keeping nineties nostalgia alive, the fact remains that for nothing more than ‘a kids show’ Digimon undeniably went above and beyond in presenting rounded, complex characters, and in exploring their individual journeys, doubts and triumphs within the greater arc of the story. Therefore, whether it was Tai’s evolution from hot-headed punk to responsible leader; Sora’s realization that not all relationships are perfect, and that her mother does love her; or Joe’s personal growth from neurotic hypochondriac to a bit of a hero, each of these stories carried their own resonance translatable to both children and adults alike (and twenty-three-year old writers who doggedly refuse to grow up). Loving Adventure so much then, I was admittedly sceptical of 2.0 and the potential ‘curse of the sequel’ it represented. Watching it for the first time recently though, I was pleasantly surprised.
As with any follow up, a fair amount of parallels are drawn between the original characters and their regenerations. The most obvious example of this being when TK’s first view of Davis automatically morphs him into Tai, creating an explicit link which is carried throughout the show. This doubling is also further reflected in the nature of the dual digi-eggs the three new members receive, which establish them as a curious blend of the team’s previous initiates. Yet, even despite all of this, 2.0’s characters still retain enough individuality to be considered in their own right; a fact which is endorsed by keeping the old team around as mentors instead of foisting them out the back door. And, in an ironic way, the very credit ‘2.0’ could equally refer to the second reincarnation of the Digidestined, or the split story focus between the new and old teams. Yet, for all the parallels that ARE made, there is one which seemingly goes completely unacknowledged, and which is perhaps the most profound and poignant mirroring across the entire two series: the trials of Matt and Ken.
Now, admittedly, Ken is an odd element from the start (and I kind of love him for it). The Digivice he received and the time that he received it should have placed him as part of the original team, probably as a figure close to TK and Kari’s age. But it didn’t. Furthermore, his actions later in the Digital World are directly responsible for the creation of the new Digidestined team, the new-old style of Digivolving and the culmination of the advanced D3 terminal. Like I said, he’s an odd, complex element. Yet his and Matt’s personal journeys share a striking similarity, and in a way, Ken represents an extreme possibility of what Matt himself had the potential to become without a brother to protect, or with a few more insidious words from Cherrymon.
For each of these characters, their trials and eventual evolution revolves around friendship. Both loner types, they must learn, first and foremost, how to operate as part of a team and, perhaps more difficultly, to accept and define themselves in relation to it. Introspective and brooding, they represent a much darker, slightly misguided element among the cohesive, with both becoming temporary and sustained aggressors towards their teams respectively. And both being manipulated by outside forces to this effect. They are the characters who possess the most self-doubt and insecurity, for reasons which will be explored, making their struggles deeply personal and quietly private against the backdrop of the wider story. Indeed, it is only ever Gabumon and Wormmon who are really privy to their partners’ inner turmoil in the wonderfully powerful cave scene, or Ken’s one-man efforts to absolve his mistakes. And it is these relationships with their Digimon partners (both of whom support them in unconscionable actions) which seem to provide the vital foundation platform for their better-late-than-never assimilations into their teams. They need the example of that single, stable relationship to work from, which is only really given to them in the Digital World.
Recurrent throughout 2.0 is the theme of TK and Davis’ rivalry being reflective of Tai and Matt’s, and while TK might be the closest physical link to Matt within the current team, I still think this is ignoring the obvious, overwhelming parallel. Davis and Ken’s early rivalry is far closer to the mark; even the way they fight is physically reminiscent of Tai and Matt (the tumble over the cliff anyone? A slap is as good as a punch and just as rude). But the thing which really drives home this point is the strength of their succeeding friendship, which we always knew was at the heart of Tai and Matt’s animosity anyway. Despite resolving their differences, TK and Davis never have anything like approaching Davis’ friendship with Ken. And these two partnerships: the leader and his right-hand man, become the core power dynamics of each series, culminating in two mega, DNA synthesized Digivolutions: Omnimon and Impeildramon, who outclass all other ‘mon without trying. So if we know for a fact that Tai and Davis share considerable doubling characteristics, then where does this leave Matt and Ken? Yeah, exactly what I’m driving at.
Perhaps the most definitive factor which parallels Matt and Ken is their fractured family environments, which they are directly affected by prior to the series. Matt’s parents are divorced, something which he feels at least partly responsible for, leaving him and TK to be raised apart and with little contact (assumedly this also goes for the estranged parents too). Ken’s family, by comparison, are in a protracted cycle of grief following the death of their eldest son, and the brother Ken saw knocked down. Already feeling overshadowed and insignificant before this point, Ken believes that his childish wish to see Sam ‘disappear’ effectively signed his own brother’s death warrant. In this sense then, both characters have a lot to deal with before they even set foot into the Digital World [especially in comparison to someone like Mimi’s happy and fulfilled life] and their fractured family structures have a proportional impact on how they respond to this world.
Confused, hurt and generally defensive over his parent’s split, Matt is initially closed off to any kind of relationship – even, and perhaps especially, towards his brother. By his own later admission, he considered that ‘if his family didn’t want him then he would just keep to himself and not tell anyone what he was thinking.’ This is pretty much the state of mind in which he first encounters the Digital Wold, and in which we first encounter him. He subsequently strikes out early as a lone wolf on the periphery of the group, not really getting involved except to counter one of Tai’s more harebrained schemes, and trying, but not really succeeding, to restore his and TK’s bond. [Note, even mid-way through the season, how easy it is for Demidevimon to convince TK of Matt’s negative opinion of him, because they still haven’t managed to make a strong, meaningful connection at this point]. In fact, it is not until Matt finally admits to himself that he does want and deserve friendship, and that he, heartbreakingly, ‘hates being alone,’ that he is able to make any substantial progress with either the team or with his brother. Exactly as with Ken, he is the element which consistently holds himself back, and he is the obstacle he has to overcome. Both characters struggle with an inner darkness, whether it is in the form of a void or vast ocean, and central to their personal growth is learning to recognise, confront and overwhelm that blackness. Once Matt achieves this, we see the beautiful moment of his reunion with Tai and the rekindling of the -aptly assigned – Crest of Friendship.
Ken, by comparison, enters the Digital World alone, and with an uncertain perception of what it actually is. The basic thing that he recognises though is that it is something exclusively his own, something he is the centre of, and he uses it as an escape from the grief and guilt of his home-life. Like Matt, he strikes out early as a lone wolf, except that this is played into a whole different league. Influenced by the dark spore, and undoubtedly also by what he has experienced as the result of Sam’s death, he becomes a violent, volatile oppressor who single-handedly enslaves the Digimon race. As I said before, Ken is an extreme example of what Matt had the potential to become, had he given in to the lure of his own darkness. Eventually defeated by Davis and the team, and losing his own partner into the deal, Ken cannot even conceive of becoming one of the Digidestined (as he was originally chosen to be), nor of accepting their help either. As with Matt there is almost an intermingled sense of pride and fear towards letting anyone in. The later restoration of Wormmon (baby form: Leafmon), as with Gabumon’s words in Matt’s dark cave, brings a solid, positive stop to his actions and an appreciation of everything he’s done. Given a second chance – which is, importantly, denied to him in the real world where death is permanent – he begins to rediscover the kindness and gentleness represented by his Crest, and represented by his own true nature before the rooting of the dark spore’s influence – something which needed grief, pain and anger to feed off and perpetuate.
Though still preferring to operate alone after this point, with Wormmon as his exterior conscience, he nevertheless gradually begins to interact with the team through their shared goal of destroying Control Spires (and, more personally for him, absolving his mistakes one towering monstrosity at a time). These interactions are initially tense and full of suspicion, with only Davis really recognising anything positive in him, or being willing to see it. Yet each time they are drawn to work together marks a small milestone which eventually builds to Ken’s integration into the group – something he will not yield to anyway until he feels like he deserves it. As with Matt, again, he places a lot of emphasis on personal honour and integrity which, at times, can be an equal crutch or cane to both of them. When he does finally join the group, he is still held back by the guilt over his actions as the Digimon Emperor, which exits at least partway entwined with his guilt and grief over Sam. This comes to a head during Daemon’s induced visions, which trap each character in a ‘world’ based off their strongest desire, and Ken’s most potent desire is to be punished for his crimes (with rampant religious imagery). Yet physically seeing this, and seeing his brother, who is at the heart of his darkness anyway, makes him realize that he is not that person anymore; he has moved forward and made good choices which put him far away from that shadow of himself. This realization allows Davis and the others to reach him, and allows him later, with their support, to confront the Dark Ocean once and for all, lock Daemon inside there, and not be consumed by it.
Therefore, though their stories follow different trajectories and timescales their elements are irrefutable the same. Both characters journeys are about coming to terms with themselves, and improving their family dynamics, whether this be with brothers or with parents. And of the six sibling relationships represented on the show, Matt/TK’s and Sam/Ken’s are by far the most poignant.
A lot of Matt’s self-doubt is tied up in the fact of how he treats or fails to treat TK, and how TK responds to this. In fact, his whole rivalry with Tai, which Cherrymon seizes upon, is based on the premise that Tai is a better older brother to TK than him, and that TK responds to Tai far more readily who treats him as an adult, rather than the child Matt sees him as. As Gabumon reminds him though, whatever Tai might be he is not TK’s real brother, and as much as TK got himself out of one situation (are we counting how many he got himself in?) he still is just a kid, and he still needs someone to consider him as such and look out for him. Tai might criticize Matt’s older-brothering style, but in reality he does the exact same thing with Kari, and just look at the guilt he feels when he fails her. Thank god he’s a lovable hypocrite.
Similarly, though the older/younger brother roles are reversed, much of Ken’s self-doubt stems (initially at least) from his failure to meet Sam’s standards. Though this is perhaps an unrealistic expectation anyway as Sam is defiantly a fair few years older than him. He feels largely overshadowed by his brother’s genius, which their parents actively and sycophantically flaunt, yet there also seems to be a genuine want for Sam’s affection in him, which, as his brother grows older, is met with an increasingly sharp temper. [Note the way Sam slaps the Digivice from his hand and looms over him, then compare this to Ken’s general behaviour as the Digimon Emperor, particularly the way and means for which he uses the whip]. After Sam’s death, this need to meet his brother’s standards morphs with a possible survivor’s guilt until Ken becomes a carbon reincarnation of Sam himself, helped along by the influence of the dark spore. In the real world, he becomes a credible overnight genius, excelling in both intellectual and physical arts; in the Digital World he takes this a step further still by becoming the absolute image of his brother, and taking on many of his mannerisms. Rather than escaping the fact of Sam’s death in this parallel data-world, his digital self-representation reinforces just how central his brother’s loss is to everything he does, how central it is to his own identity. And if you really want to get profound, you could say his appearance is the forced exteriorising of his grief, which, while not removing it from him entirely, at least allows him, for a limited time, not to have to feel it.
Both of these instances then, in different acute ways, demonstrate the consequences of less-than-perfect family and sibling relationships which Matt and Ken are significantly impacted by. This is a theme which is explored in reference to other characters as well, such as Sora, Joe and Izzy, but never to the extent of the mirroring and parallel that is seen between Matt and Ken, and which places them, undeniably, as Digimon’s most powerful and most unexplored paradigm.
So, there you have it.
My reasons for why Matt and Ken are similar, which you are free to agree with or reject.
When I sat down to write this post, I had a lot of ideas about how it would turn out. Ultimately, it didn’t meet any of them, and I had no intention for it to be this long. I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with it, but I don’t know what to do to change it either, so them’s the breaks. Nothing’s a perfect art and sometimes you just have to settle with what you’ve got.