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 Pokémon 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.
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
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.
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
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.)
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? I 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).
– 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.