By the time Digimon Tamers aired, I was growing out of cartoons, or so I thought. Tamers was an impressive feat for an after-school cartoon, a surprisingly mature, more grounded take on the Digimon series, and that's thanks in a large part to the show's best character: Rika Nonaka. Tamers was great in part thanks to the efforts of Chiaki J. Konaka, the brilliant writer behind such great anime as The Big O, Serial Experiments Lain and Texhnolyze. Konaka brought with him a strong psychological component that is rarely seen in shonen anime — that's anime aimed at boys. Generally, shonen anime features broad, familiar archetypical characters. Digimon had already tried interesting characters before, but Tamers took it to the next level.
Most anime starts off with a male protagonist who has some innate, amazing skills that sets him apart from everyone else, impressing them in some way. In a lesser anime, Rika would have been a character who was only cool to make the point of view character, Takato, seem even cooler. In Tamers, she's far more experienced than him. She already has a Digimon, Renamon, who is beyond capable of holding her own in a fight.
Rika is ruthless too, berating Renamon in the rare situation where things don't go well. In the Tamers universe, Digimon are a card game for kids to play, and she's one of the best players around. Everyone is impressed and intimidated by her.
We get portraits of Rika at home, too. She's unhappy with her life; her parents are divorced and she rarely sees her father, her mother is a model with too little time to pay attention to her daughter, yet everyone expects Rika to grow up to be a model just like her mother, though Rika is clearly more interested in fighting and beating people instead of looking pretty for a camera.
Unlike previous Digimon series, there's not even a hint of a romance for Rika. She's not there for anyone else's benefit; she wants to be the best, and with the exception of her rival, Ryo Akiyama, she is.
Rika is a fascinating contradiction as well, at least when the series opens; her wants directly opposes her needs. Takato and Henry, the show's other protagonists, don't really have remarkable goals. Rika wants to be the best, most dominant Digimon tamer there is, but what she actually needs is to get close to other people. Her fatal character flaw is this inability to connect to anyone, and this is what Konaka and the rest of the Tamers writing team dives into.
Rika's growth throughout the series starts out of the necessity of partnering up with others, but through Tamers' 51 episodes, that changes. She becomes a close friend of the other leads, acts like a big sister to Jeri Katou and even reconnects with her mum. An act of self-sacrifice in episode 39 allows her to unlock Renamon's full potential, merging the two into the incredibly powerful Sakuyamon, who is the coolest Digimon ever.
Near the end of the series, Rika relinquishes her power to fuel Justimon — Ryo's digimon — and give them a fighting chance at defeating the enemy. The Rika who started the series would never have given up her power, much less given it to Ryo. They're still rivals, but it's more of a playful rivalry. The tearful goodbye to Renamon at the end of the series is genuine; Rika's sad she's losing her partner, a far cry from the girl who only saw her Digimon as a tool for greater power.
Sure, there are better stories out there, but I've always had an affection for Digimon, and especially Rika. This girl had been hurt and abandoned by so many people that she decided she didn't need them; the series began after she'd put up a wall between herself and everyone else, and the rest of the show was about how she was able to tear down those barriers and become a healthier, happier person.
Sure, Digimon may be a kid's cartoon, but Tamers has some remarkable character development, and it's a joy to watch. Rika's my favourite protagonist in the entire series, and now I have talked myself into going back and watching it again.