Welcome back, all and sundry! (Unlike Oak, I don’t force anyone to announce their gender or identify with the normative, binary stereotypes of Boy/Girl. Ugh, Oak is the worst, amiright?)
Before we begin, I’d like to point any Tumblr users to Pokécology’s new Tumblr, which is a delightful mishmash of stuff I find and sometimes create with my artisinal MS Paint skills (developed over decades on the classic desktops we all remember with a nostalgia we cannot resist but which we know to be false). St. Francis of of Assissi preaching to the taillow, an ad for McMonalds, various fab. screenshots of Jesse and James— all fun things, so check it out if you like fun things.
Now, to business. I want to focus exclusively on episode 5, because it is a legitimately rich and complex episode and because ep. 4 was full of weedles. I’m not a huge fan of weedles. (I am, though, a huge fan of this gif which I didn’t make but wish I had because who needs a Ph.D. when you can combine my fav. scene from Spongebob with weedle for a reference pun? No one, is who.)
Today I’ll be paying some deserved attention to Brock’s uniquely performed masculinity (not directly ecocritical, but whatever) as well as exploring the treatment of pokémon bodies. It has only taken five episodes to convince me that, if I ever get my wish and wake up in pokémon world, I will immediately become an anti-battling activist and run a shelter for abandoned/maimed/rejected pokémon because this world is messed up. Let’s begin!
Brock and Kanto’s Pervasive Ethos of Competition
Brock is a stony and intimidating, seemingly cold gym leader, scoffing at Ash’s inexperience and starting their battle with a scornful “let’s get this over with.” We quickly learn, though, that he is also a nurturing and parental figure. He does the dishes and mends his siblings’ torn dresses, all while wearing a frilly apron. (It probably belonged to his dead mom. Think about that. He wears his dead mother’s apron while he does chores. Oh, my broken heart.)
Brock has assumed a parental role because his father left to become a trainer. An excellent battler, what he wants most is to become a breeder– he tells Ash he wants to travel with him so he can eventually “become the world’s best breeder.”
(Cultural takeaways are: there are pokémon-centric occupations apart from trainer, professor, or health care provider; leaving to become a trainer isn’t only something that children do as a kind of excessively violent gap year; and there’s an underlying “culture of engagement” in which travel and direct experience is equated with learning– more on this later?)
I always loved Brock, loved that there were other things you could do with pokémon, and pretty early on in my pokémania I decided that I would rather be a breeder than a battler. I love that we get a serious main male character who is not typically masculine but also not really camp (cough, James, cough). That the first gym leader we meet, a tough and intimidating battler who uses the massive and rock-skinned onix, turns out to be the character who has, arguably, the tenderest heart of anyone in the Indigo League seasons is just so wonderful. The tough Brock that we first met doesn’t disappear in the future, but he is nuanced. Brock as a male character is able to perform his masculinity in the way Ash is attempting, but he would rather design blends of pokéchow to feed the baby ‘mon he wants to breed. I love the relationship between Brock and Ash, too, as Brock begins to play the part of friend and mentor. If Ash and Misty act like close-in-age siblings, Brock is the perfect older brother. (Much as my younger siblings would, I am sure, describe me.) I also love that Brock is non-white. Yay, some casual diversity in our main characters!
What I love a lot less, though, is that while Brock would rather raise pokémon as a breeder instead of a fighter, his desire to be a breeder is still expressed in terms of “being the best.” Even breeding is discussed in competitive terms, which indicates that Ash’s entire cultural milieu is saturated with the rhetoric of competition/mastery. This is the kind of twisted attitude that, no doubt, drove breeders to discover the abomination that is HSOWA. →
The question is: does Brock’s desire to express his mastery in a tender, nurturing way undermine the paradigm of combative competition or simply reproduce it? Should we be troubled that every aspect of Kanto society is permeated with this narrative of competition and domination? I’m deeply bothered by this, not so much because I think Brock’s intentions are bad, but because I think that in this culture the rhetoric of “being the best” is inherently toxic. In part it’s because in this same episode, that same desire drives Ash to what is unquestionably, undeniably abuse in an attempt to win his first badge.
Ash and Appropriating and Invading the Pokémon Body
By the end of this episode, Ash has gone further than just stepping into the ring himself. After Pikachu is soundly defeated by Brock’s onix, Ash tapes wires to Pikachu’s cheeks, hooks him up to a disused hydroelectric wheel, and manually generates electricity by using the wheel like a stairmaster. The electricity overwhelms Pikachu, who makes disturbing, pained mewling sounds– but it also supercharges Pikachu’s powers.
Ash is now confusing physical boundaries between his body and Pikachu’s. He transfers his own physical energy, technologically converted and transmitted, into Pikachu’s body. Ash is making literal the unspoken way that trainers see pokémon as extensions or embodiments of their own skill.1 We know he sees Pikachu in this way because of the way he talks about battling after his loss to Brock. Ash says, “Brock’s way better than me. I could never enter a League match if I can’t beat him,” and later, “I’m gonna get a badge all by myself using the pokemon I’m training.” To Ash, at least, pokémon are proxies. By thinking of battling in this way, Ash is abstracting his very immediate, real pokémon bodies into representations or symbols that evoke no more empathy from him than that crappy merch. that filled his room.
So Ash trudges on the water wheel, sweating, and he hears Pikachu’s pained cries of pain, he calls, “If I can take this, you can take it Pikachu!” The next shot is a close-up of Pikachu’s face:
I think Ash intends the words to be encouraging, but using a stairmaster (basically) is not the same as being hooked up to a a hydroelectric generator and electrocuted. This is undeinably abuse. By seeing the pokémon as tools to display his competence, Ash ignores the pain that Pikachu feels while battling and while “training.”
And again, let’s be clear: Ash is using his body to alter Pikachu’s body, motivated by a desire for battle prowess. He acts not only by acting on Pikachu’s body (giving orders, practicing battle moves) but also within it. Moreover, the purpose of the pain Ash inflicts on Pikachu is to inflict more powerful, painful attacks on other pokémon. It’s a bizarrely literal displaced aggression in which Ash imbues Pikachu’s body with his aggression so that Pikachu can exercise Ash’s competitve will on other pokémon who are, in turn, the proxies of the gym leader Ash wants to defeat. There’s a lot going on here, and this will definitely come up again.
I speculated in my first post that some of the themes of the first three eps would, in a more mature show, set up Ash as a figure of moral ambiguity with two potential paths– that of a dangerous, potentially destructive competitor or a revolutionary figure who defies the normative way of seeing pokémon as battle tools. This episode makes me think that this is not actually a stretch. During the electrocution, how can we not be troubled? If you have any empathy (and it’s Pikachu, in his especially cute and chubby days– even Brock says that he’s “in [his] cutest stage”), this scene is disturbing. Sure, Pikachu ends up okay (he comes back in ready to win like he’s in a professional Smash Bros. tournament), but that doesn’t change the fact that Ash abuses his pokémon to make it stronger. 2
Ultimately, though, Ash does land on the side of empathy. As Pikachu is frying a water-soaked Onix, Brock’s 10 siblings3 try to stop Ash because they want to save Brock the pain of seeing his Onix endure more punishment. Ash has a flashback to when Brock called off their first battle and sent Ash away, and he realizes Brock held back for Pikachu’s sake. Ash then stops the battle, saying he feels that the fire sprinklers, set off by his overpowered Pika’s attacks, gave him an unfair advantage. Is Ash trying to navigate machismo codes of battle and avoid admitting he didn’t want to cause further pain by instead citing a code of honor? We did just see him realize how Brock empathizes even with pokémon he doesn’t own. I want to believe that Ash is bothered by the pain experienced by pokémon and holds back, not out of a desire to win fairly but because he realizes empathy and skilled training are not exclusive. (Although some point in some season Ash is in some twisted gym where he has to feel all the pain of the pokémon in the ring, and when I get there I will definitely experience a touch of schadenfreude.)
Basically, to sum up: In this episode we see Ash being a bit of a psychopath. We also see him learn from Brock, a trainer he respects, that maybe there is a way to be both a competent trainer and an an actively empathetic and caring person. The moral: Brock is the best and Ash is a figure we’re justified in questioning.
2. So, Pikachu is an elemental creature, but this method of training is like forcing a single sled dog to pull five people for five miles. Or maybe waterboarding a squirtle? It’s a shite thing to do Ash. Ash, you are being a psychopath, Ash, stop taking advice from supersketch rando beardy guys, Ash what are you even doing? SMDH Ash, Ash you’re pretty damn close to going on my list Ash the only other person on that list is Oak you do not want to be on that list Ash. ↩
3. I honestly don’t know if I should flag this and pay attention to “reproductive rights in Kanto culture”, or just assume Brock’s parents wanted 11 kids? But then, the father left Brock’s family so I’m guessing he wasn’t too keen on it, but maybe it’s a weird blended family situation like a Kanto Brady Bunch, except all the kids look like mini-Brocks, even the girls, soooo? I also wonder if we’re getting a parallel between training and parenting, since Brock’s father failed as a parent and as a trainer. I’ll watch out for explicitly parental language in training advice/instruction/rules.↩