This was one of the first anime I ever watched, back when I was barely even learning what “anime” was. I’ve had recent cause to look back at those days, and those first anime that came to me mixed with other cartoons and kids shows. Thus my relatively recent reviews of Ronin Warriors, Medabots, Tenchi Muyo, and now this. Each of them remains, in their way, enchanting, but what I find to appreciate about them as an adult is very different from when I was a child. I still laugh at Medabots, I enjoy the nostalgia of Ronin Warriors, and I have fond memories of Tenchi Muyo, but this one, like Power Rangers, I seem to have outgrown to the point of annoyance. It remains a precious childhood memory, but the entire texture of it is very much geared towards children. That goes into everything from the plot, to the pacing, to the characters, to the themes, to the dialogue, and so on and forth.
Monster Rancher follows Genki, a roller-blading young boy who loves monsters and tackles everything with the enthusiasm of a hyper-active youth, as he is transported into the world of monsters (back before the isekai trope was so overused). Accompanying the girl Holly and her eyeball-monster friend, Suezo, they set out to find the legendary Phoenix monster, to defeat the evil Mu and save all the monsters from evil. Along the way, they gather up a cute penguin-like monster called Mochi, the wolf-like Tyger of the Wind, the stone monster called Golem, and the clever Hare, becoming a family as they journey on towards their unknown destination, and a desperate confrontation.
They make friends wherever they go, both humans and monsters of all types, including the mandatory redeemed villains, in this case the alluring Pixie and her golem-like bodyguard, Big Blue, and generally leave rekindled hope and a renewed fighting spirit in their wake. Each episode has them tackling a new enemy of fearsome ability, learning valuable lessons as they fight for their lives, though they remain exactly as they have always been.
Yes, there are similarities to various other kids shows of the day, and since. Unique monsters with special attacks, villains who pop up each in turn, each with some scheme, and every adventure ends in their triumph even as the final battle looms ever closer, with some valuable moral to the story. Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Digimon, Medabots, Cardcaptor Sakura… take your pick. It’s how a huge swathe of the kids shows were in the days of my childhood, and many of them still are, especially when they’re as closely connected to video games and card games as Monster Rancher. So it doesn’t really stand out from the pack that much. But it was still pretty fun, as a kid, to watch Tyger and Hare always fighting, Golem being so strong and steady, Suezo always complaining, Mocchi being cute, and so on.
It felt so epic and action-filled, seeing these monsters duke it out, seeing the heroes evade traps and overcome their enemies, even seeing the normal, everyday things of their life on the road. The episode with Holly’s birthday, the scene where they’re all fighting over spaghetti and meatballs, the episode where they all get conned into buying crappy products, Golem’s fear of water, and, of course, Suezo always getting tossed skyward to scout around followed by an inevitable crash to the ground. Most shows in those days hardly bothered with things like showing the characters obtaining their dinner, but this one made fun out of it.
And, of course, confrontations between heroes and the villains they had some previous connection to added a good deal of suspense. With one episode every week, it could be every bit as tense as watching Tommy the Green Ranger beating the other Power Rangers for five days straight after school. I was devastated when Golem’s new soulmate, Undine, died in a fire to pay for her transgressions against him and his friends.
Now, I find Genki’s relentless lack of volume control to be a bit annoying, and he comes off as little more than an obnoxious loudmouth whose roller blades really shouldn’t work that well in the wilderness. The dialogue is very basic, and the routines are completely repetitive as the villains always twirl their metaphorical mustache when the latest minion goes out because this one will easily defeat the heroes – who are going about almost identical days every day – when all the previous minions have already failed. The setup is so simplistic, formulaic, and outdated now, with everyone being either clearly good or clearly bad, such that they’re actually called “the baddies,” and monsters coming from compact discs. And, of course, the “I am your father” trope.
The journey continues with every episode, and whatever has happened before is almost entirely irrelevant to what happens next, right up until the conclusion where everything just gets thrown together all at once.
That’s the first major arc of the show, lasting about fifty episodes. The last two dozen are even more cobbled together, with just a few nods here and there to the threads of the previous season. I was a bit put out that they didn’t have Golem go back to Undine at all, as if she were just forgotten, and out of all the baddies who are now redeemed and good, the one we don’t see again is the one that was most present in the first portion of the show: Pixie.
On which note, I keep saying that this show is entirely meant for kids. But Pixie and the other female monsters like her really push that particular envelope. Out of everything they could have done with this anime to give a parent cause to be wary of it, why, why, oh why did it have to be scantily-clad, voluptuous devil women?
In fairness, you won’t find me siding with the people who scream bloody murder every time we see a sexy woman wearing fairly little. But the older I become, and the more I see all things sexual on blatant display at every turn, the more I must acknowledge that they have a point. As people, and especially as kids, we tend to accept what is presented to us as normal. As we grow, we see the material change a bit, little by little, until we find that the entire image has changed with shocking speed.
How many times have we watched something which would not have been lessened if it had less gore, blood, sex, and nudity? The Witcher. Game of Thrones. Black Sails. Deadpool. Kingsman. These don’t come out of nowhere, and neither does our acceptance of them. It begins with one thing that pushes the envelope a little, and then another that pushes it a little more, and then another, and another. And the new generation grows up seeing and accepting far more degenerate things than we did, because of what we grew up seeing and accepting.
I have to wonder how different our world would be if Monster Rancher, Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, and others had never presented to children, as “normal,” the sight of a curvy woman wearing what amounts to little more than a bikini.
Super props, though, to the voice actress who not only gave as the deep, sultry tones of Pixie and her various kin, but also the adorable squeaking of Mocchi. Indeed, if there is one point which this anime does not lack on, it is the voice acting. It’s regrettable that they had such childlike dialogue to work with most of the time, but they did their job very well. As did everyone else involved behind the scenes. It’s not easy to make an anime based on a video game series, and this one was probably better than most.
I’ve just… reached some point in my development as an adult where it’s mostly annoying to me. Even nostalgia can dampen that only so much.
I mean, always knew that some parts of it were actually pretty stupid. I especially recall one of the earlier episodes, with a breaking dam. Everyone in the village downstream of it evacuates, and they even manage to cobble together a secondary dam to divert most of the water away from the village itself, until all that’s being threatened, really is an empty field of flowers. But the heroes lead the entire village into risking nigh-certain death, holding the strained secondary dam up with their own hands, just for a few flowers. Even as a kid, I knew that was just insane.
But it didn’t annoy me before. Now it does.
So, I suppose I can recommend Monster Rancher exclusively for children, with a parental advisory about Pixie’s immodest manner of dress. For a kid, it’s a hilarious fantasy adventure as good monsters journey across the land and fight to stop bad monsters from doing bad things. It has tender moments, and tragedies, and laughter, and action, but most of all, it’s fun. For the kids.
Rating: 7 stars out of 10.