Eps. 1-3, Cat and Mouse: Pikachu and Meowth as liminal, parallel figures

How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text or the Annotated Episodes page, where I highlight the most important or hilarious bits. (Especially, for ep. 2, the sass between Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy.)


Before we move on, I want to talk about the pokémon  characters of the first three episodes, specifically Pikachu and Meowth. Both are liminal–that is, both blur boundaries and categories and are set apart from other pokémon. They’re liminal in different ways, however, and the very different ways they reject the usual pokémon-human dynamic sets up a rivalry between them.

Pikachu

The first pokémon Ash encounters refuses to act in the way Ash has seen pokémon represented. Pikachu rejects both Ash’s affection and his mastery. He straight up just whacks the pokéball away, creating a potentially embarrassing moment for Ash (Who’s already standing in front of a bunch of neighbors wearing PJs.).

In fact, Pikachu is actually violent, albeit in a way that’s more “I’m done with your shit” than it is dangerous. Pikachu also refuses to battle a Pidgey and is a total passive-aggressive, sassy little jerk when Ash tries to catch it anyway, sitting in a tree and laughing like an evil furby.  This is just truly wonderful because 1, it reinforces the idea that Ash is unprepared to exercise the practices of mastery he so desperately wants to… um…. master. 2, Pikachu is completely hilarious about it. He’s a total honey badger in this first episode; he may, at some point, have been caught (by Oak? That would be interesting, caught by the dynastic poké-patriarch, raised by the marginalized Ash) but he is refusing the basic terms of the trainer-pokémon contract. He travels outside of his pokéball, refusing to be made storable/transportable/summonable, and he openly ridicules the human attempting to order him around.

The refusal of the pokéball is very significant, as I think the way that Pikachu very clearly values his own, physical body is one of the most important aspects of the character. This is a part of Pikachu’s character even after he accepts Ash as a companion and trainer (but not master) by the end of ep. 2– while I’ve forgotten many of the episodes since I was 8, I have always vividly remembered the ep. in which Pikachu refuses to evolve. I’ll unpack this more when we discuss pokéball tech and pokémon bodies, but I’m saving this for the episode where Ash catches krabby.

The takeaway is this: Pikachu is immediately, actively negotiating his relationship to Ash, establishing more of a partner dynamic. In ep. 2 he signals to Ash to generate power using Misty’s bike and pedal-powered bike light. This is Pikachu’s first battle alongside Ash (unless you count the fight against the spearow flock); here, Pikachu gives the orders.

This first battle stands out all the more when we remember that earlier in the episode we see the Pokémon Centre keeps pikachus to generate power by running on a specially made treadmill, used as a “Pikapower source.” The pikachus run and somehow this allows the machine to draw electricity from them. Here humans are using pokémon bodies not only in sport but also as a part of the infrastructure. (Flagging it.)

Pikachu takes note of this and then rejects and upends that model of subjugation when he asks Ash to generate power that is then amplified by Pikachu and the other pikas. Much as the humans used the pikachus’ bodies and powers as a resource, Pikachu here draws on human labor to attack not only enemy pokémon but also enemy humans. (Flagging this: The Rockets as an exception to the no-violence-against-humans rule?) It’s an inversion of the earlier use of pikachus, a subversive act that alters the usual dynamic of a battle without rejecting it outright. It makes Ash a participant and makes Pikachu a partner.

Becoming the Top Cat:  reappropriating the pokémon sign

In episode 2 we meet the faaabulous Team Rocket! (Sidebar: I like that James’s voice isn’t as over-the-top as it’ll get in later episodes; it makes him a little less silly and a lot more sinister. Regardless, we still get some just beautiful moments of pure mean girling. Flagging it: does everyone stay sassy, or is it just these early ones?)

When we’re introduced to Meowth it’s immediately established that he’s not just a pokémon owned by Jesse and James but a member of the gang. He insists, “I’m the top cat!” and Jesse and James agree. Meowth assumes the position of the criminal mastermind. He speaks English, doesn’t really battle other pokémon, he’s part of a human gang; we don’t really know much about him or pokémon linguistics yet, so he comes as more of a surprise than an immediately noticeable anomaly. What’s pretty clear is that he doesn’t have a pokéball and seems to be uncaught. He’s self-domesticated, and maybe this allows him to dictate the terms of his companionship with Jesse and James in a stereotypically feline way. As a clever and ambitious criminal Meowth is doubly marginalized– he is uncaught but also not wild, and he works alongside humans in their illegal ventures.

I want to talk about the Rocket balloon, which is shaped like a giant meowth head.  It’s another tacky poképroduct and a trademark of the Rockets. How do we read the balloon in relation to Meowth? Meowth isn’t dumb, and he must have noticed the overwhelming amount of pokémon merch and the way pokémon images are used as commodities. Brazenly using a meowth balloon, he reappropriates his own image, reclaims it, embraces the representation and attempts to redefine it. (It’s a nice pun, too—Meowth’s ambition is established at the same time we see that he literally has a big head. Visual pun!  )

Reappropriating the kitsch objectification of his species, Meowth redeploys the empty, generic representation of meowths to instead represent Meowth.

Meowth doesn’t reject out of hand the human-pokémon dynamic, however, as Meowth and the gang become obsessed with stealing and then mastering Pikachu.  If Meowth and the gang successfully capture Pikachu, Meowth will appropriate another typically human power, that of owning (or at least controlling) a pokémon.

Meowth’s weirdness is deepened by his desire to capture Pikachu. It’s partly motivated, I think, by Meowth’s desire to define or discover exactly what power he has.

Not sure what ep. this is from, but episode two is foreshadowing it!

This is set up after the Rockets are defeated in ep. 2. Jessie grumbles, “Great! A cat losing to a mouse,” to which Meowth protests, “That Pikachu is no ordinary Pikachu!” Meowth’s and Pikachu’s relationship is somehow “unnatural.” Normative modes of battling don’t apply here. Meowth in his self-domestication has lost the ability to be mastered, perhaps, but also to assert mastery through battling. He has more freedom than Pikachu, arguably, but how much power he is able to exercise isn’t clear. Maybe for Meowth’s choices to be truly validated, he needs to eventually assume mastery over other pokémon in the same way humans do?


Bonus: A few more words about my nemesis, Prof. Oak:

So I forgot about this, but Gary says explicitly, “It’s good to have a grandfather in the Pokémon business, isn’t it?” He’s just rubbing our noses in his privilege, not even subtly… Which wouldn’t be as bad if Oak wasn’t also a terrible human person. Dumbledore Oak is not. (Well, maybe this Dumbledore.) I like that Ash isn’t immediately being mentored by the classic “old white wizard” type figure because it undermines that trope we’ve seen more and more since this aired. Instead, Oak allows Ash to hug a semi-feral electric Pokémon knowing full well that Ash could be zapped. (And believe me, he knows, because when pre-zapped Ash says that Pikachu is the best Oak just mutters , “You’ll see.”) Seriously, Oak is like those bitter, shrivel-souled profs that try to thin the herd of their first-year students in the first few weeks. Look at his face in this gif. Stare into those cold, dead eyes. I bet he has tenure and there are dozen of much more competent young post-docs working at McMonalds just to pay off their loans.


Flagged:

  • How often and how do we see ‘mon being used as renewable resources/part of the infrastructure?
  • Rockets as an exception to the rule against trained ‘mon attacking humans?
  • Do the chars. keep their sass?
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Eps. 1-3: Environmental Mediation and Engagement– Pokommodification, Ash as a transgressive figure, and PokePrivilege

There’s a lot to say about Ash as a character. I’ll write an entirely different post about the Pokémon characters in the first three episodes, but for now, let’s jump into what we’re shown of Ash.

(How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text.)


The Mediation of Merchandise 

Wow, okay, from the first we get a lot of imagery of commodification of Pokémon Pokommodification. (Pun train! Hoothoot!)

In the first few minutes of ep. 1, we see that Ash’s room is filled with random Pokecrap. The merch that Ash has ranges from kind of cute—Snorlax beanbag chair—to really chintzy—a voltorb that opens up into a clock with a spring-bobble pidgey cuckoo, which makes no sense at all and is the kind of crap you get for nephews you don’t like. Ash very literally buys into the Pokémon obsession, which (as someone with a plush woobat hanging three feet away) I get. It’s interesting, though, that there is very clearly an in-world industry of IMG_8569Pokémon merch not dissimilar to the industry we see in our world*.  This is clearly not presented as product placement for real-world merch– I’m pretty sure they never made a poliwhirl pencil sharpener or a glass zubat mobile. So the toys are there to signal… what, that Ash, like the viewers, loves Pokémon and Pokémon  toys? Or can we read it as a sign that Ash’s society is heavily invested in Pokemon as entertainment objects, that Pokémon have been turned into commodities in the entertainment industry (and, I’m suspecting, the food industry, the energy industry, the tourism industry– we’ll see). Ash is at a remove from real Pokémon, something that becomes abundantly clear through his vast knowledge gaps. Ash surrounds himself withPokémon simulacra as he hopes/waits to encounter actual Pokémon. The result is that he has no idea how to interact with living Pokémon. CeciNestPasUnPidgey

Another way we know immediately that Ash has engaged with Pokémon  primarily through media representations—the first shots of the first episode directly mirror the grey, pre-game scenes of the Gen I games, then turn to full color, exciting shots of what seems to be an actual and immediate fight, and then fade again into the flickering grey of a television screen as we pull back to find that Ash is watching a televised battle. What’s more, some of  this battle makes up the theme song footage of the show’s first season. This draws our attention immediately to the fact that Ash, like us, is watching  filtered, fictionalized representations of Pokemon, even though Ash (unlike the viewers) plans to dedicate his early years to interacting with the real thing. (Some of us also planned this, settled for literature instead. Pokesigh) His rote memorization of his choice of starters, also learned through an educational broadcast (maybe some kind of MOOC that Oak teaches?) is obviously the excitement of the inexperienced.

Educational Mediation– Oak and Pokedex

I’m gonna say up front that I think Prof. Oak is hella shady. A lot of information and power is given by Oak and for various reasons  I’m somewhat suspicious of him as an objective source of information. (More on this later.) When Ash receives a Pokédex from Oak in the first episode and then begins to rely on it for information, I’m immediately wary. For one, it’s apparently an identification device registered to Ash and only Ash, although Ash himself isn’t aware of this. (We see this in episode 2 where Ash basically gets asked for papers at a police checkpoint.  Flagging this, what is up with the political situation that they’d both allow a ten year old to wander, sans guardian, but also demand to see his papers?)

Worse, though, the ‘dex is simply more mediation that gives Ash information about Pokémon that is highly questionable. For example, when Pikachu comes under attack from a spearow after Ash throws a rock, the ‘dex explains that “Wild Pokémon tend to be jealous of human trained Pokémon.” Let’s unpack this:

Actually, no, you know what, I straight up call bullshit, because Ash just threw a rock at the spearow. The spearow is not jealous, it’s angry, possibly frightened, and we know (because the Pokédex told us moments before) that humans have to weaken wild Pokémon by using their own Pokémon. Wild Pokémon aren’t jealous, it’s just that the real threat to the spearow is not Ash but the Pokémon Ash is (in theory) controlling. Do wild Pokémon follow the “battle rules” that you don’t attack people but instead displace aggression onto Pokémon proxies? If so, then human-Pokémon interactions have drastically influenced the behavior of wild Pokémon. (I know that there’ll be instances of Pokémon attacking humans directly, but I’m flagging this as a running concern–do wild Pokémon usually ignore humans and focus on the domesticated Pokémon?)

Transgressing Boundaries, Ritual Aggression, and Ash’s Revolutionary Potential

smdh

Ash’s inexperience is clear even after he actually gets a Pokemon. Just like he doesn’t get why that spearow is attacking Pikachu, he tries to use his jacket to weaken and catch a pidgey after Pikachu won’t obey him. Spoilers: doesn’t work.

Later (episode 3), with Pikachu and a newly captured pidgeotto too weak to fight, Ash attempts to fight Team Rocket himself to avoid sending a weakened caterpie to battle ekans and koffing. Although it’s been established that Team Rocket doesn’t follow the rules (“The Pokémon League rules say only one at a time,” protests Ash– so there’s a governing body regulating ritualized bloodsports?!), even James laughs and literally flicks Ash off, scornfully informing Ash and the viewers that “In Pokémon battles, only the Pokémon can fight each other.”

This. Right here. This. This makes me so excited, because this is Ash’s biggest failing, that he doesn’t “get” how Pokémon training really works, and his ignorance prevents him from performing the human-Pokémon dynamic that’s been modeled for him. It’s this ignorance, then, that ultimately makes him a transgressive character.

Leave Pikachu alone!

He keeps keeps crossing the line, and this provokes ridicule from others; but crossing the line and leaping into danger himself  is what earns him Pikachu’s respect in the first ep. In contrast to his highly mediated, self-distancing obsession with Pokémon merch and TV shows, his first moves as a trainer all involve throwing himself over the boundary of How Things Are Done. Sure, okay, part of this is throwing rocks at birds and trying to catch them in his clothing, but it’s also shielding Pikachu from spearow attacks with his own body or trying to physically fight off adult criminals himself rather than sending out his poor concussed caterpie. What many take as a sign of Ash’s total ignorance is a much more direct engagement with his world than most of Ash’s peers are willing to attempt. (He starts off on foot, after all; cf. Gary Oak, who travels by car.) They may be more savvy about how to actually participate in the discourse and practices of Pokémon training, but none of them are as willing to actually enter into “the world of Pokémon” as whole-heartedly, whole-bodily as Ash is.

Indeed, in a tightly controlled cultural arena (literally), Ash is willing to transgress cultural codes. I’m going to call it now, Ash is a potentially dangerous and revolutionary figure. Listen, I know we don’t end up in season 13 following Ash’s struggles as the hunted leader of a violently Marxist revolution fighting against both the Pokémon  Yakuza and a totalitarian government as he takes a stand for Pokémon personhood** (writing that sentence made me so excited)– BUT, Ash is immediately breaking rules, both out of compassion and due to his inability to perform the type of control/mastery/competitive competence that will make one “the best.”

And I don’t want to overstate the point– Ash still has a driving desire to be a master. He’s totally gobbling up what the media’s been serving. While the side of the good/evil line Ash belongs on is never really in doubt– he’s not only young and non-threatening but also essentially good-hearted and, for a ten year old, compassionate– there exists in my head and heart a darker, more nuanced version of the show in which Ash is a more conflicted character (a Potter Sorting Hat type deal) whose disregard for/ignorance of the rules could go either way, fueling his ambition and making him a dangerous power-seeker or causing him to question a system that he has, til now, accepted uncritically. These ideas are here in the show, they’re just never really made that dark and complex. Probably audience concerns, but when I was watching first season Saturday morning reruns, I’d’ve loved that stuff, so… 

The Oak Dynasty, Privilege, and Gender(?)

One of the reasons I’m suspicious of Oak is the subtle hints of his privileged position. Not just him, but the structure of the society as a whole seems tinged with privilege. Power comes from Oak in the form of starter ‘mon, in the form of knowledge, in the form of technology. Gary obviously knows more about Pokémon than Ash and, as I mentioned, he leaves by car, which implies greater wealth. The Oaks are obviously a Pokémon dynasty who are thriving within the structure of things and who embody the competence and mastery Ash desires. It’s nepotism, guys and gals, plain and simple. 

Unlike Oak/Gary, Ash is immediately associated with women, living with his mother

Ash's house

Ash’s lonely, lonely house

in a small house on what looks like the very edge of town. (Flagging it: Is Ash’s association with women, as opposed to the Prof Oak/Gary pairing, a theme? If so, what is the implication?) Ash may be a marginalized figure– Gary demands Ash address him with an honorific, saying, “Mr. Gary to you. Show some respect!” (This was the reason we all named him BUTT in the Gen I games. Mr. Butt. Lolz.)

Ash: You aren’t afraid of an itty bitty Caterpie in a pokéball are you?

Then Ash is sort-of mentored, sort-of befriended, sort-of harassed by this rando girl whose relationship to Pokémon isn’t clear. (She’s got a goldeen, but she’s afraid of bugs? know that Misty is a member of a gym, but Ash doesn’t.) As strange as his friendship with Misty is, it’s a stark contrast to the fawning admiration the cheerleader girls lavish on Gary as he drives off to begin his journey. And honestly, some of the nicest moments come when we see that Ash and Misty’s antagonistic relationship is a sibling dynamic, with Misty’s irritation deflating when things get serious, and Ash being obnoxious but never really mean. They’re obviously comfortable together. Misty arguably has much greater grounds for demanding respect than Gary–like Gary, she is an “insider,” able to navigate the social structures with which Ash is struggling. Unlike Gary, though, Misty treats Ash as a peer, more or less. (Ash repays her by being a total sociopath, because he is ten.) As a peer, she still has greater knowledge and occasionally advises/educates Ash. The question is, will her attitude toward Pokémon  inform Ash’s development as a trainer as much as the educational tools given to him by Prof. Oak? Are we seeing two different and conflicting ways of learning?

And that’s where we are! There’s probably more to be said, but that’s what comment sections are for! Coming soon, a closer look at the liminal Pokémon figures, and reading pikachu and meowth as foils (and, I think, kindred spirits).


Flagged:

– Political situation

– Do wild ‘mon usually attack trainer’s ‘mon instead of the trainer themself?

– Is Ash consistently associated with women? Is the show saying something about gender, and if so, what?


* I bought my Pikachu wallet at Hot Topic and the really pretty cashier said “You’ll be the coolest kid in town” but she said it in a patronizing way not a flirty way so I left in shame but now I have an awesome wallet, so oh, well, it just goes to show ya stuff.

** Googling for “Pokemon legally recognized as persons” (my search history is just the best; one search is “Octopodes are massing”) yields no fanfics about said legal battle, which is good  because I’ve had one about Mr. Fuji going up against eco-social injustice in the pipes for a while, and I am stone cold serious. Fuji-san for president.

Starting out

Welcome to my earnest but playful attempt to ecocritically watch my way through the first season of the Pokémon TV series!

Basically, my mission is this: I want to watch the first season of Pokémon  and really pay attention to the way the series presents the world’s environment. As someone who reads literature and films ecocritically–that is, focusing on how something portrays environment, ecology, the border between self/other, etc– I want to systematically think through the series paying particular attention to environment. To think Pokecologically, if you will. (Or if you won’t. Can’t stop the pun train, ’cause the pun train is the fun train, hoothoot!) Anyway, this will primarily be about the TV show’s representation as opposed to the games. (Although the games may come up, or maybe get their own blogging series?)

There’s a fair amount of writing out there on the real-world cultural importance of the show, which is good stuff– see the continuously updated further reading section–but not nearly as fun as thinking about the show for the show’s sake. There’s also a lot of fan speculation/analysis about the Pokémon world. I’m not going to rely on others’ research or thoughts, though I might bring it in as I go; instead,  I’ll rely most heavily on my own observations.

As I watch, these are the questions I want to keep in mind:

– How heavily is society structured around Pokémon, and how explicitly do we see Pokémon framed or used as economic entities?

-At what points are we invited to critique the hegemonic discourse of the Pokémon world–namely, that we gotta catch ’em all and, through aggressively competitive social relationships that displace aggression onto non-human proxies, become the best, and that doing so is the most desirable way to foster friendly relationships between humans and Pokémon and also go get all the glory?

-How often do we see evidence of attempts to coexist with Pokémon (wildlife corridors, wildlife sanctuaries, environmental initiatives)?

-How is technology presented in relation to the human and non-human world?

-Are there issues of privilege–for example, how does the Pokémon world’s society treat those humans and Pokémon who are not able-bodied?

-Is there anything to be said about biopower? (Free Pokémon health care; possibly cloned police force/health care workers; the digital storage/transport of Pokémon and the 6-Pokémon  carry limit; et al.)

– Gender. What’s the ratio of male:female trainers? What careers do women typically have in that world? (I have a feeling Pokémon may actually have really positive things to say; all nurses are women, but also all police, so. We’ll see.)

Sound good? Suggestions are welcome!