(Dis)embodiment of the Uncanny, pt. 2

Photo 2015-06-27, 8 53 31 PM

The ghost/Sabrina arc, eps. 20 and then 22-24, has a pretty tight thematic focus. It introduces ghosts and the gloriously creepy Sabrina. Ghosts are a thematic counterpoint to Sabrina’s overpowering domination of others’ minds and bodies. Haunter, disembodied himself, is the only character who can help make Sabrina less psychotic and socially isolated. Today I’m going to explore what Sabrina’s deal is and why/how Haunter, as a ghost, is able to help her work through some issues and make her less, erm… murdery.

Sabrina is messed up

A powerful psychic, Sabrina can sense Ash and co.’s intention to challenge her even before they arrive in Saffron City. She can also control mind and matter with her telekinesis. Her battling strategy has three steps–dominate, manipulate, and destroy. Actually, that’s pretty much how she relates to others in general.

We learn that when very young, Sabrina became obsessed with developing her psychic abilities. At the same time, she struggled with her inability to relate to others in a healthy way. Eventually she suffered some destructive, disassociative episode in which she psychically destroyed her home, turned her mother into a small cloth doll (her father escaped, being a psychic himself), and mentally split herself into two beings. Part of her personality now manifests in a small, doll-like apparition that’s basically a horror-movie child (see gif on the right). Sabrina’s gym leader alter-ego is usually silent, a tall, imposing woman, who, if I was making a live action reboot, would be played by Aubrey Plaza or Canada’s own Natasha Negovanlis. Her doll-self would be played by that demonic robot baby from the last Twilight movie.1

Sabrina is now isolated. Her gym hosts a cadre of would-be psychics who worship her as a remote, frightening master. Yet Sabrina wants to relate to others. The problem is that she can only do so through the aggressive paradigm of battling. In episode 22 Ash and Pikachu challenge Sabrina; her kadabra psychically dominates Pikachu, redirecting his attacks, making him dance, then brutally slamming him against the floor and the ceiling Photo 2015-06-28, 3 05 10 AMuntil Ash forfeits. As punishment Sabrina then shrinks Ash, Brock, and Misty and teleports them into her toy city. Her doll-self chases them down a street until they’re cornered. When the doll-Sabrina rolls a large ball toward them, Misty sums it up–“We’re gonna get squashed!” This is pretty much how Sabrina operates in all areas of her life–domination (redirecting Pikachu’s attacks, trapping Ash/Brock/Misty in the gym), manipulation (making Pikachu dance, shrinking the humans), and finally destruction (beating on Pikachu, nearly squashing the humans). Ash and co. are only saved by Sabrina’s psychic father, who teleports them out. Later, though, after Ash fails to defeat Sabrina a second time, she turns Brock and Misty into cloth dolls and stores them away in her toy city. She very literally objectifies others, using them as toy-friends.

And here’s where we get the hint that this is the only way she knows how to relate to people. Brock, able to speak to Sabrina psychically in doll form, tells her she has to turn them back into humans. Doll-Sabrina says, “If I change you back you’ll just run away from me. You have to stay as dolls!” Sabrina wants friends/playmates, but she doesn’t know how to relate to something she can’t dominate.

There are some nice visual parallels that suggests Sabrina relates to other humans in the same way her kadabra dominates in the arena.

Here’s Ash feeling intimidated by Sabrina …Photo 2015-06-28, 2 53 21 AMAnd here’s Pikachu squaring off against Kadabra. Note the similar composition of the scene.Photo 2015-06-28, 3 11 37 AM

So once again we find a character who is socially crippled by the competitive ethos of Kanto. Even her relationship to pokémon is based on complete domination–as her father tells Ash, “You can’t control a psychic pokémon without using telekinesis.” Sabrina fuses herself mentally with her kadabra not in an intimate partnership but to better “control” it. 2 She doesn’t just transgress boundaries of self/other (as Ash does when he electrocutes Pikachu in, what, episode 3?); Sabrina simply destroys them. In her practice of combative mastery, Sabrina makes herself into a god.Photo 2015-06-27, 9 07 23 PM Her gym looks, as Brock remarks, more like a temple, and her (really creepy) medical-masked lackey bows before her throne to announce her challengers. With a temple-like gym and a toy town populated by literally objectified humans, Sabrina performs a grossly exaggerated form of the mastery Kanto so destructively venerates.

Haunter

Which is why Haunter as a ghostly ally is so vital (pun intended) to Ash’s victory. We already talked about how ghosts trouble human expectations. And because Haunter doesn’t have a body, in theory he can’t be controlled in the same way Kadabra controls Pikachu.

The problem is that when Ash arrives to battle Sabrina in ep. 24, Haunter disappears. Ash must flee, leaving Brock and Misty as dolls. Ash finds Haunter and convinces him to come along and challenge Sabrina a third time. But Haunter yet again disappears as the battle begins. Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash, remember; the ghost ‘mon is a shifty, unstable ally. In the first few minutes, Brock even suggests that Haunter may be sinister, saying to Ash, “Maybe Haunter’s the one controlling you.” Even if Haunter isn’t plotting Ash’s destruction, he is certainly not taking the arena very seriously.

Without Haunter, Ash and Pikachu don’t have much of a chance… But in the middle of a pretty grim battle, Haunter reappears in the arena. The rules are one on one, and Pikachu has already been declared the combatant; but as Sabrina’s father (Ash’s temporary mentor) points out, because Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash and wasn’t declared a combatant, “Haunter is just playing around on its own.” Haunter isn’t technically breaking the rules.

Haunter is being a typical ghost, entering into human cultural space/situation in a way that is unexpected and that defamiliarizes the expected tropes/rules. The arena is also the only space Sabrina seems to be comfortable interacting with others. Haunter, coming to her in a way that’s not illegal but is surprising, is outside of Sabrina’s control without being outside her comprehension. Haunter meets her halfway. And my favorite part of this whole arc is that Haunter doesn’t come to fight. After all, that would be against the rules. Haunter may meet Sabrina on her own turf, but it’s on Haunter’s terms–it does a comedy routine. (A pretty dumb comedy routine, to be honest, with a few ridiculous faces and tricks.) By coming to Sabrina in a space of battle but with humor rather than aggression, Haunter offers her a different way of relating to others.

Haunter gets through to Sabrina, who cracks a smile and then an uncontrollable laugh. Because of their psychic link, Kadabra also collapses with laughter, making him unable to battle. Ash wins, Brock, Misty, and Sabrina’s mother are restored to original size and form, and Haunter stays with Sabrina as her creepy buddy, and all things considered, it’s a happy ending.3

This arc is weird. Gym leaders can obviously do whatever they want, and the ghosts and Sabrina’s TK powers show us that Kanto isn’t just a sci-fi world but also a fantasy. What I like, though, is the thematic consistency and, honestly, Sabrina’s arc. Sabrina has issues. Haunter seems to get that. It accepts that Sabrina has a space in which she feels comfortable, but gently refuses to accept the destructive way she acts toward others in that space. By extension, Haunter also rejects the paradigm of mastery that we’ve seen destroy several families (Misty’s and Brock’s). Haunter models a more positive form of relationship, too, and it’s kind of nice, honestly. Once again Ash aligns himself, however unintentionally, with a ‘mon who defies Kanto’s traditional narratives of pokémon training.

That’s it for the ghosts! Or… iiiis it? I leave you with a link to some beautiful and suitably eerie artistic imaginings of Haunter if it was crossbred with various other ‘mon.

1. Misty could be played by Chloe Grace-Moretz, Brock by Donald Glover, and I honestly can’t think of anyone who would work as Ash, partly because there are so few young Asian actors and partly because Ash is just so ridiculously irritating he may have no real-life counterpart.

When Sabrina’s father says that only TKs can “control” psychic ‘mon, it may be his own ideological bias showing–i.e., the assumption that control is better than a more equal form of relationships between trainer/trainee. This would speaks loads to Sabrina’s background, maybe explain some of why she turned out so scary. It may also indicate that psychics in Kanto, as a rule, primarily use their powers to control. Most likely it’s a bit of both.

3. 2. Well, except for Team Rocket, who plunged several stories to the street below after Haunter startled them and made them laugh themselves off the edge of a window cleaning platform. At the end of the episode they’re still stuck in deep, Rocket-shaped holes in the sidewalk, which are being filled in by a cement mixer as Team Rocket splutter and call for someone to save them. This is actually really horrific. They’re drowning in cement, crying for help, and we’re supposed to be okay with that just because they’re “bad guys?” Good lord, non-grievable subjects much?

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(Dis)embodiement of the Uncanny, pt. 1

The pokéverse is just weird. If it was slightly weirder it’d be easier to accept–immersive fantasy with some odd elements is more familiar ground than a world with slight, never explicit elements of magic. There’s a run of episodes, though, that underscores how Kanto is a bizarre mix of hyper-technological and bizarrely mystical elements. Today I want to talk about ghosts.

Ghosts and ghost pokémon–is there a difference? 
It’s clear that pokémon are accepted as a part of the “natural” world. There’s educational institutions built up around studying pokémon–Oak is a professor, implying higher ed., and we saw Pokémon Tech. in an earlier ep.
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In episodes 20 and 23, though, when Ash, Misty, and Brock encounter ghost pokémon and their reaction to them is immediate fear, that signals that ghost pokémon are different from other kinds. I assumed that “ghost pokémon” as a category was figurative and that there was a biological explanation for their “ghostliness.” But these episodes make me wonder whether that’s really the case, because they make it clear that the pokéverse has a spiritual element that exists outside of what we’d call “natural.”
In episode 20, an entity the gang initially believes is a human ghost turns out to be a ghastly. A mysterious crone says the stone Maiden on a local cliff is the remnant of a woman whose love went off to war and never returned. Once a year at the spring festival her spirit emerges to… use her forlorn beauty to attract rando dudes, I guess? Brock and James, entranced, sleepwalk to the cliff and are dragged into the air. When Ash, Misty, and Jessie try to intervene, they’re all attacked by a flock of flying skulls that turn out to be, TWIST, the ghastly. The ghastly’s been taking the form of the ghostly Maiden, the crone, and the skulls (using hypnosis, I think, although this isn’t super clear). Ghastly is nearly impossible to fight, shape-shifting into what its opponent fears most. It’s alternately incredibly creepy and imageabsurd (the ghastly petrifies the snake-like ekans and the poison-spewing koffing by turning into an enormous mongoose in a gas mask). The ghastly retreats, but only because sunrise is coming.
There’s another twist, though–one of the last scenes is Ghastly bidding farewell to the actual ghost of the Maiden. They’re bffs, and she thanks the ghastly for reminding people of her story. Ghastly replies (in a posh, male British accent), “I enjoy keeping alive all the old legends people have forgotten over the years.” He also reassures the Maiden that he’ll continue to keep an eye out for her dead lover, intoning, “I am a ghost pokémon, and perhaps one day I’ll meet the man you love.”
Um, okay, what

So, what’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious–ghosts are real. Weird.

Ghastly in particular seems invested in human culture. It spends a lot of time masquerading as that old lady and as the ghostly Maiden to keep the tradition alive. There doesn’t seem to be a biological explanation for this. Unless it somehow feeds off belief (and there’s no indication it does), it seems that the ghastly simply enjoys acting like a classic ghost–i.e., a haunting presence, a fragment of an unresolved (and, oddly, human) past. The authentic ghostly Maiden seems to be more passive and bound to her final resting place. The way that ghastly performs the role of the Maiden on her behalf makes her story alive and unstable.
At the start of the episode Ash and co. attend an open air auction (this show is so weird) where someone’s selling a stylized painting of the stone Maiden, setting up the theme of retelling old stories. James and Brock, seeing the painting and the ghostly Maiden, are in love. They, like the artist, fetishize this female figure (she’s never named, just called the “Maiden”), seeing her as ethereally beautiful, an artistic subject to be mooned over. Ghastly, by assuming the role of the Maiden and playing out her plot every year, troubles this fetishizing view,  making the figure of the Maiden far more creepy and less virginal/desirable than Brock, James, and the unnamed painter want to think.
And don’t forget that Ghastly also knows the actual Maiden who is simply, honestly heartbroken in her separation from her lover. The layers–what people want to perceive, what Ghastly shows them, and the truth at the heart of the story–all contrast and overlap in a way that not only keeps the story alive and unfinished but also keeps it from solidifying into any one version. It becomes a piece of enduring but uncanny folklore, the kind of really good traditional story that endures even across cultural shifts in our own world.
Um, okay, what–pt. 2

This leads me to the second strangest and most important characteristic of ghostly ‘mon–that they don’t fit. They’re uncanny, shifting, gaseous. They’re incomprehensible, as we see in episode 23. Traveling to Lavender Town, Ash finds a haunter and a gengar, ghastly’s later evolutionary stages, and when he whips out his pokédex it can tell him only that “Ghost pokémon are in a vapor form. Their true nature is shrouded in mystery.” Confronted with haunter and gengar specifically, the ‘dex simply IDs them, notes that they’re “gasous pokémon,” and says, “no further information available.” If the Pokédex, representative of all academic, codified (and misleadingly coercive?) pokémon knowledge, has no further info, there has to be a culture-wide ignorance about these ‘mon. This fits with the way the ghastly enjoys inhabiting folk tales–maybe they’re deemed “ghostly” because they’re too elusive for more academic, skeptical research to get hard info on them.

But honestly, I’m not sold on the idea that they are definitely pokémon at all. I’d always assumed that ghost pokémon were gaseous beings, somehow manipulating the charges of atoms/molecules to maintain a form and interact with physical surroundings; but that ghastly talks to a human spirit, and the ghosts in Lavender aren’t any more animalian than the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak.For example, Ash “dies” and comes back to life in ep. 20 after the ghosts, who love to watch slapstick comedy on their television, drop a chandelier on Ash and Pikachu.1 To their chagrin they can’t revive them. Instead, they pull Ash’s and Pikachu’s transparent,

image

this right here is the definition of chagrin

floating spirits from their bodies. Ash, Pikachu, and the ghosts spend a few minutes playing tricks on Misty and Brock and flying around giggling incessantly. Ash does return to his body in the end, but the way they can manipulate Ash’s soul/spirit/astral form doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen any other ‘mon do.

The second reason I’m hesitant to believe they should be called pokémon is that when Ash leaves with Haunter as his companion, Ash doesn’t catch Haunter. I’m not sure he even could; after all, it’s gaseous, so a pokéball would just fly through it. I’d’ve said that a pokémon was a creature that was containable in a pokéball, imageso are we sure that these ghost “pokémon” should be in the same order of beings as critters like pidgey? Maybe they’re really more like non-human spirits rather than non-human animals. Is “pokémon” just a really flexible term that applies to elementally powerful non-humans? Our own term, “animal,” is no less rigorous, so this is possible.

 I love that I can’t settle the question. The viewer, like the characters, remains uncertain as to how to categorize the ghosts. The ambiguity here seems purposeful rather than sloppy, shrouding the ghosts in a general mystery that’s never fully resolved.
All of this–the way ghost pokémon defy categorization, control, and reliable perception–will come back in the next post, because these characteristics tie episodes 20-24 together. Ash seeks out a ghost pokémon because he needs to fight Sabrina, the telekinetic gym leader who herself transgresses categories but does so in order to place others under her control. Ghosts, with their slippery, shifting nature, are the only ones that can face her. But that, dear readers, is for next week.
1. Similar to the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak, these ghosts are inhabiting a human-centric trope and performing a narrative in a way that’s darker and creepier than humans would expect. This is a little different from repeating a local folktale, but it’s essentially the same thing–bringing to life human tropes and then defamiliarizing them in a way that’s scary and dangerous.

Further speculation on Kanto’s ecological management and butterfree breeding cycles

It’s a long to-do list for today’s post! This Tuesday I revise a theory, speculate on Butterfree’s impending death (?), and talk about the Venonat Truther Movement.

Horsea ruins everything

Way back when, I spent a post speculating on why trainers might have a rule that “only bad guys try to catch sick pokémon.” It’s made pretty clear in that episode that trying to catch sick or exhausted or hurt pokémon was a pretty jerk move to pull, and Team Rocket were the villains of that episode for trying. My thoughts were that not catching weak pokémon would keep them out of the captive breeding pool and result in better, stronger battling pokémon.

The problem is, Misty catches a horsea in episode 19 precisely because it’s hurt. She says that she needs to catch it and get it to a Pokémon Center. This makes sense to me–it would be more compassionate to catch injured pokémon so that they could be treated, and my confusion as to why you shouldn’t prompted a post and a theory I was happy with.

Now, though, I just don’t even know what to do. When Misty catches Horsea she doesn’t know why it’s injured, she just sees that it is. Later we find that it’s probably from the construction work occurring on the reef offshore, and this might explain her interference–after all, human intervention already injured it–but she doesn’t know that when she catches Horsea.

Maybe because Horsea approaches Misty and the others, it’s alright to catch it? I’m not sure why this would be, because it would still allow injured pokémon into the battling community, but discursive cultural control isn’t flawless and sometimes weird exceptions come up, so I could see this being plausible. Pity may sometimes trump the attitude of “avoid the sickies.” None of them hesitates, though; Misty just seems sad to see that a pokémon (a cute one, at least) is injured. Maybe she breaks the “rule” because of how cute she thinks it is?

The only other thing I can think is that maybe it’s a matter of different environments? Would it make any sense if marine pokémon were treated differently? I only suggest this because the ocean seems to be a very different environment, less altered/controlled by humans than mainland Kanto. This may explain why they’re less wary of disturbing ecological rhythms in the ocean than they are in the probably-recreated mainland ecosystems? This honestly doesn’t really make sense, because there’s no reason that you’d want the weaker water pokémon in the battling circuit. Maybe pokémon like horsea are simply not as commonly owned and encountered by trainers, not only because they live under the ocean (presumably in kelp or seagrass beds) but also because most battling takes place on land so they would be harder to train.1

Bye bye Butterfree–is Butterfree going to die?!

In episode 21 we learn that trainers often release their butterfrees at a certain time of year. If you don’t release them, Brock says, they won’t ever breed.

It’s hard to tell how important a trainer’s choice is for the population of butterfrees, partly because it’s unclear how prevalent a practice this is. It doesn’t look like all of the butterfrees migrating are released, andimage it obviously isn’t a required practice (Ash didn’t know about it). Presumably it’s a voluntary thing, sort of like planting milkweed in your yard for monarchs, and therefore releasing captive butterfrees can’t be necessary for the health of the population. If anything, captive-raised butterfrees would interfere with the competition-based courtship rituals butterfrees practice. We learn that butterfrees do aerial dances and displays, and a trained, battling butterfree would have a strength advantage over untrained butterfrees. But Ash’s butterfree struggles to attract attention from a shiny female (although later he earns her love by stopping Team Rocket’s plan to capture the migrating butterfrees en masse), which does imply that there are other factors (flexibility? scent? wing patterns?).

whoa, many dance, much sexy, so courtship

It’s difficult to get a sense of what releasing a butterfree means, too. Brock says that if Ash’s butterfree doesn’t go now it’ll never breed, and that implies that death is a factor with butterfrees just as it is with monarch butterflies.

We could interpret Brock’s statement to mean that Butterfree has only one chance to breed. Maybe butterfrees only breed within their own generation/migration group. Or maybe they need to breed in their first season to maintain fertility. Butterfrees are a strange insectoid-mammalian critter, so it might make sense that their reproduction is unusual.

Alternately, maybe butterfrees have a cyclical lifespan and die at the end of the breeding season. Some monarch butterflies migrate south to breed and then die.2 The return migration goes in stages and isn’t completed by any one generation. Instead the first goes south, breeds, lays eggs. These hatch and pupate and emerge as butterflies and then fly a certain distance north to breed/lay again, and so on until there’s a population back where it all started who makes one long journey south once again. The point is, it all ends in death after a migration. So is the reason unreleased butterfrees won’t breed that they die and only have this one chance? Is death inevitable for Butterfree in the next few months?

It would be nice to know if this is just a choice between sexy freedom and celibate captivity, or if it’s more about how Butterfree and Ash want to spend the last months of Butterfree’s life. Or actually, less about what Ash wants, since Ash tells Butterfree that he hopes to meet him again someday. If we assume that Butterfree is going to his death, this line would have an ironic knife-twist to it, and Ash’s ignorance would be, for once, more poignant naivete than obnoxious immaturity.

Listen, maybe the concept of non-human persons with fairly complex subjectivities living by different rhythms and having a predictable deathdate is a bit heavy in a show obviously geared for pre- and early teens. (Many cartoons can and do handle really heavy themes in beautiful, funny, touching ways, but Pokémon has never tried to be one of those cartoons.) Nevertheless, Brock’s hint that there’s something else going on is too dramatic to ignore but too vague to fully understand. What does Brock know that Ash doesn’t?! (Haha, just kidding, the amount of knowledge Brock knows that Ash doesn’t could and does fill several Kanto libraries.)

To sum up, my meticulously speculated theory about the discourse of not catching sick pokémon is troubled by episode 19. On the bright side, in ep. 21 we see that many trainers are far more ecologically aware than Ash is. It’s doubtful that all the trainers releasing butterfrees are pokémon battlers, and maybe raising caterpies/metapods/butterfrees is a hobby. It may even be done in schools, not unlike the way many classrooms raise butterflies in our own world. The fact that these ‘mon get released at the start of the season makes this a fairly positive human-pokémon interaction. There’s more going on in Kanto than we see following Ash’s very specific journey, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Endnotes: The venonat/butterfree truther movement

As you may or may not (but should) know, a caterpie evolves into a metapod which evolves into a butterfree. Here’s a visual refresher, pulled from deviantart user 42production’s site:

It’s not an unusual progression; all of these ‘mon are pretty clearly based on a corresponding real-world insect’s life cycle.

BUT, many have pointed out that there is an alternate evolution line that would make more sense. Namely, metapod should not evolve into butterfree but rather into venomoth. Gasp! Behold, the visual evidence!

There’s no other evidence for this, not that I can find, but just look at the second image below drawing literal parallels between the eerie similarities in this proposed alternate evolution. I’ve seen speculation that this was the original version, but the final evolutions were later switched because butterfree’s design is cuter, more relatable, and since Ash was, in the anime, going to spend a lot of time with a ‘mon it should be one that VenonatTrutherswould sell more merch or be generally more likable.

I like venomoth more than butterfree, at least design-wise, and apart from my sense of aesthetic continuity I really wish his caterpie had ended up as a venomoth. I like it so much that this is how it goes in my headcanon and sometimes I forget that it isn’t like this in real life. Someday at a big conference for pokémon professors I’m going to slip up and be so embarrassed, you don’t even know.

1. Seriously, Brock pulls a dubious move when he makes his gym more or less inaccessible to trainers who want to use ‘mon that require water to battle, esp. because his own rock-type team would have been weak to water-type opponents. His prerogative, I guess, and it’s not impossible to get around–just use a squirtle/wartortle/blastoise–but still, dirty pool, Brock.

2. They die regardless of whether they breed or not, as I found when my family kept a crippled monarch in an old gerbil cage one summer.

Voice of the apokélypse–communication and alterity in episode 19 and beyond

A single, belated update this week. I’ve got my ongoing Ph.D. reading (did you know Leonard Cohen a) is Canadian and b) pre-music career, wrote a novel in which there is depressing sex on nearly every page?) and I’m also prepping a paper for submission to a journal, so things are busy.

To business! Today I’m pointing out that though there does seem to be a cultural divide between the categories of “human” and “nonhuman,” people in the pokéverse continually blur and trouble this divide through friendships with/ownership of pokémon. Episode 19 is the first time that one of the dominating concepts–that pokémon training allows you to access new experiences/relationships/empathy–is shown to be pretty obviously true. Yet the way that communication is only achieved by domination and ownership makes the message more complicated than the way it’s presented.

A bit of theory lite.

Ep. 19 is particularly concerned with inter-species conversations, and Sherryl Vint can help us here. Vint writes about inter-species communication in sci-fi and how shared language does not always bridge difference. She points us to a well-known Wittgenstein quote: “If a lion could talk we could not understand him.” Vint explains that “this is because language is integrally tied to a form of life, produced by concrete and embodied experience that varies among species.” Basically, different bodies result in different subjectivities. The mind of a cnidarian-cephalopod (Tentacruel) and that of a human pokémon trainer are irreducibly alien to each other.1 They can’t even think all of the same thoughts. Sharing a language won’t fix problems of communication caused by radical alterity. Instead, “truly communicating with an animal other is about facing a consciousness that is beyond ours” (Vint 68). Ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton explains that while we can’t get rid of the perspective that entraps us in our own subjective existence, by acknowledging “irreducible otherness” (151) that entrapping first-person perspective can “be made to vibrate, in such a way that does not strengthen its aggressive resolve. . . but that dissolves its form, however momentarily” (168). Admitting that there’s an undissolvable difference between us allows us to at least begin to grasp what that difference may mean. 

Reading degrees of difference in the show

Difference is established from the start of ep. 19–Nastina’s view of the tentacools is that they’re “useless,” an obstacle or a challenge that must be eradicated. The reef is a prime development site, and the tentacools are not, in Nastina’s view, a part of it but extraneous flotsam to be cleared away. What matters to Nastina is profits. The Swarm, in contrast, have been defending their territory, something they consider to be “theirs.” The tentacools/Tentacruel aren’t aligned exclusively with the non-human, either, since the Swarm consider any pokémon who help the humans to be enemies. Basically, everyone wants different things and has very different ideas about the world.

When Misty climbs a tower and apologizes to Tentacruel, acknowledging that humanity is at fault, that admission of guilt prompts the Swarm to withdraw. An acknowledgement of different needs, moralities and perspectives enables a truce. Not a peace–as I mentioned last week, Tentacruel warns that it will have its eye out for human incursion. But this is, I think, Morton’s “vibrating I.” The way the conflict ends is, for Pokémon, fairly subtle, as the difference is never re/dissolved completely. Instead Tentacruel realizes that humans might be capable of change and empathy; Misty and the others acknowledge that non-humans have needs and claims that conflict with and take precedence over human ends. It’s a moment of connection and communication.

This communication can happen in the first place through the mediation of trained pokémon as translators between humans and uncaught pokémon. We’ve seen Pikachu act as the group’s “translator” already, like when they meet Charmander.2 Meowth translates for Team Rocket, too. This allows the human characters to communicate with strange ‘mon and even enter into new kinds of relationships–Team Rocket’s brief alliance with the Squirtle Squad, for example, and Charmander’s abandonment and eventual loyalty to Ash, are both enabled by the humans’ companion pokémon. In this episode, we see Ash’s ‘mon perform a similar role when Pikachu leaps on the back of Pidgeotto and delivers an impassioned speech on humanity’s behalf.

imageThis scene is particularly weird and important. So many characters cross their categorical boundaries that most end up in some confused middle ground of existence. First, by using Meowth as a translator, the Swarm is mimicking the way humans use pokémon. This confuses the human/pokémon dichotomy, usually clearly marked by who is using whom. Tentacruel and the Swarm here cross that line, using Meowth’s body so that they can clearly confront the humans in English.

Even when Pikachu confronts Tentacruel, and Tentacruel responds with its own booming, gravelly voice rather than Meowth’s English, the communication is not simply between two beings firmly occupying the same category. Tentacruel has already drawn a line in the sand and sees Pikachu, with his sympathy for humans, as an enemy. Remember how wild pokémon have hostility towards captive ‘mon? In being used by/aligned with humans, the identity of a pokémon is made queer–that is, a pokémon is made to occupy several (possibly conflicting) categories at once. Pikachu no longer fits neatly into an identifiable category. Pikachu alone can’t convince Tentacruel to show mercy, and Misty must intervene as well.

Yet the same relationship that makes a pokémon ambiguously aligned also makes the alignment of “trainer” queer as well. Misty intercedes for humanity, true; but earlier she expressed her rage on behalf of the reef’s non-human inhabitants. Prompted by a friendship with Horsea, she advocates for the tentacools even before they attack. Misty has already shown that she does not automatically place human ends before pokémons’ well-being, that she is prompted to think outside of her own human-embodied perspective.

We see a more explicit participation of the human in the non-human a few episodes (1.21) later, when we find out that trainers who raise caterpies/metapod/butterfree make a sort of pilgrimage every year during what Brock calls “the Season of Love.” “They come at this time every year,” he explains knowledgeably, “to release their butterfree.”

imageThis is really interesting. Voluntarily releasing a pokémon into the wild so that the breeding cycle can continue outside of human control is probably the most positive interaction with pokémon we’ve seen, for one thing. Humans here play an active role in the lives not only of individual butterfree but the species as a whole, participating in the ecological rhythms of the non-human world. 3 They do so by catching, raising, and then releasing butterfree, overseeing their lifecycle probably from the caterpie stage on. Humans don’t only participate through butterfree but also fit their human desires to them; releasing a butterfree into which you put time and energy is a sort of sacrifice. This isn’t concerned with speech, but there is a mediation. As humans form a relationship to their butterfree, those butterfree allow them to be a part of a non-human lifecycle.

In each of these examples we see the “vibration” of the subjectivity and category of the characters. This can be incredibly positive and actually does lead to understanding and coexistence, however uneasy. The problem is that I cannot get past that what enables this is the domination of a whole class of beings by another. It doesn’t matter how nice Ash is to Pikachu, the fact remains that Pikachu was at one point forcibly made the captive of humanity. Even the way the Swarm communicates is through the psychic domination of Meowth. As I noted before, they use Meowth for his body–his speech organs beings (curiously) more suited to human speech than the cnidarian-cephalopodic anatomy. This is no different than the way humans use pokémon bodies for their own ends. Someone must be controlled, dominated, or owned for these communications to take place. Is understanding impossible without this violation of autonomy and agency?

I don’t have an answer. I leave that to you all as weekend homework. I do want to end with a suspicion I had about…

Endnotes: anti-semitic imagery in tentacruel’s design

Look at it–it’s got a huge, hooked pincer-nose, and its pokédex description talks about its many hidden, grabby tentacles and how it can catch up to “eighty prey” at a time. Add that to what Brock says in the episode, that “tentacool are known as the gangsters of the sea,” and how Ash quips that “Tentacruel must be their gang leader,” and I immediately got suspicious. Hook-nosed; elusive leader of an unseen cabal; covered in those “jewels” on the top of its dome; grasping and greedy with its many secretive, stretching tentacles; explicitly presented as Nastina’s economic enemy; these are all fairly common anti-semitic tropes. I looked into it and can’t find anything out there about tentacruel as a racialized cahracter. There are other pokémon that are problematic (see the large-lipped, dark-faced Jynx, best known for that episode in which we learn that they’re the manual laborers who assist Santa and yes this is a real thing and oh my willikers am I looking forward to talking about that one). I bring this up because if there are anti-semitic stereotypes at play in the tentacruel design, a discussion of the Other and of crossing categorical boundaries becomes far more complex. But because I can’t find anything about it anywhere, I’m ignoring it for now. For the record, when I watched ep. 19 I happened to be reading a novel about a Jewish Canadian after WWII, so this stuff was on my mind. I also really, really love that there’s a ‘mon that’s got cephalopodic characteristics (and octillery is very boring, do not get me started), and I like tentacruel a lot more after ep. 19; but after I considered anti-semitic stereotypes it was a “can’t be unseen” type thing. Thoughts?

1. There’s a truly bizarre, I think brilliant book called Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Vilém Flusser. It’s a “fable” tracing the evolutionary/biological differences between humans and the vampire squid and trying to imagine the different subjectivities. Some of the conclusions revolve around the development in a spiral/coil rather than from fours to vertical, and utterly different relationships to epistemology and psychology. Sample quote:

Its tentacles, analogous to our hands, are digestive organs. Whereas our method of comprehension is active–we perambulate a static and established world–its method is passive. . . it takes in a world that is rushing past it. We comprehend what we happen upon, and it comprehends what happens upon it. Whereas we have ‘problems,’ things in our way, it has ‘impressions.’ . . . Culture is therefore, for it, an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities, that is, a critique of impressions. . . a discriminating and critical injection of the world into the bosom of the subject. (39)

2. The implication is that humans who are familiar with a pokémon can understand its pokéspeech or its gestures. This is true in our own world, more or less, with our companion animals’ body language and noises. When I was about eight I was very good at predicting whether my dog would stop for a pee or a poo, just by observing his body language when he started sniffing around. I called the different stances “poo stanza two” and “pee stanza three,” because I enjoyed rhymes and also I thought that “stanza” meant “stance.”

3. I wonder if any pokémon have evolved (in the slower sense of the word) so that their life cycle depends on or at least makes room for human intervention? Maybe this is how we explain pokémon that only evolve when traded?

Ep. 19–Apokélyptic visions: Capitalism, apocalyptic fantasies, and the pokéverse

Monday was World Ocean Day. If I’d been more aware I would’ve timed this post to coincide, because today we’re talking about eco-catastrophe and episode 19, in which a monster rises from the depths of the sea to visit his Cthulhic revenge upon the humans who have polluted his watery home. It’s very exciting.

This ep. is the first time we see humans and the non-human world coming into conflict in a way that we recognize as a nature/culture divide. I’m going to start with a section on apocalypse narrative (skip if you don’t want to read about capitalism and Latour) and then think about the episode through this lens (skip if you don’t like Pokémon, hahaha, jk, everyone likes the ‘mon).

Theoretical Background–Latour, the two natures, and apocalyptic yearnings

Searching for “apocalypse” on my university’s library website yields a melange of biblical/medieval scholarship and postmodern ecocrit. stuff. This initially strange mix emphasizes, as Karen Renner suggests, that in all apocalyptic stories we “detect collective beliefs about what makes contemporary life unsatisfying” (Renner 205). Narratives of eco-catastrophe and the more Biblical, end-of-times stories do the same cultural work—in both genres another, often “purer” world explodes disastrously into the mundane and reveals fundamental truths about human existence.

In contemporary apocalypse there’s often a particular construction of the non-human that comes into conflict with the dominating paradigm of human society–i.e., capitalism. Bruno Latour talks about the “two natures” we live in. The first is “the natural world” and the second is capitalism. Capitalism, Latour tells us, is “our ‘second nature’—in the sense of that to which we are fully habituated and which has been totally naturalized” (Latour 1). We’ve been “naturalized” because contemporary capitalism seems as given, as ambient as the environment; indeed, more so, because the “first nature” has started to become unstable, literally melting away before capitalism’s unstoppable consumption. The inescapable nature of capitalism is something that we all struggle with: “Why is it that when we are asked or summoned to combat capitalism, we feel, I feel so helpless? . . . on the one hand, [we have] binding necessities from which there is no escape and a feeling of revolt against them that often results in helplessness; on the other, boundless possibilities coupled with a total indifference for their long-term consequences” (3).

Cary Wolfe goes so far as to suggest that ecological thought “in the postmodern moment operates as a genuinely utopian figure for a longed-for ‘outside’ to global capitalism” (Wolfe 30)–utopian because not only are we all helpless before capitalism, but we are also all guilty. The production of the goods and food we consume often results in unethical treatment of disadvantaged labor forces and contributes to environmental degradation. It’s unavoidable, and with our very existence we are culpable. To really find a utopia, then, we must first burn capitalism to the ground. Or, rather, someone from outside must do so, some fantasy manifestation of the eucatastrophic destroyer of worlds–think Godzilla or Ponyo. Preferably Ponyo.

When an outside force of nature is used, it isn’t simply as the only hammer able to smash the snowglobe of capitalism; often it’s our narrative penance for harming the environment. When nature hits us back we get what we deserve, we pay for our sins, and then we are free to fight it. We’re able to hate nature again without a guilty conscience, to feel like gladiators rather than all-consuming, global bullies. There are no guilty hearts after the deluge, only heroes, because in the post-apocalypse you’re a hero for simply being alive (well, alive and also not a cannibal). This automatic heroism mirrors the culpability we helplessly accumulate for simply existing in the capitalist pre-apocalypse.

Okay, so what has all of this to do with our friend Ash and his chubby thunder god of a companion? Let us see, dear reader.

The Apokélypse

In episode 18 Ash and friends arrive in a resort town and find out that the hideous Nastina

Photo 2015-06-09, 9 32 03 PM

the plan. . .

wants to exterminate tentacool that are attacking construction crews working on an off-shore hotel being built over the tentacools’ reef. This infuriates Misty, who says that Nastina is “disrespecting the ocean”; Team Rocket, though, leap at the chance to collect the bounty. Somewhat inexplicably, when the barrel of TR’s tranquilizer spills onto a single tentacool rather than all of them, that tentacool evolves into a tentacruel and also grows to

Photo 2015-06-04, 2 33 03 AM

. . . the result. That did, indeed, escalate quickly.

ridiculously massive proportions. The tentacruel obliterates the offshore construction site, rides a tsunami onto shore, and begins systematically destroying the city. Thousands of tentacools follow to blow up what their kaiju leader hasn’t already. They mind-control Meowth, using his ability to speak English to announce their intention to destroy all humans (very Independence Day). In the end, Pikachu and Misty convince Tentacruel that humanity has learned its lesson, and Nastina and Team Rocket both get a paddlin’ from mama Tentacruel who then, having caused death and billions of dollars of damage to beachfront resort property, withdraws beneath the waves with an ominous warning.

Nastina is explicitly a villainous capitalist. Her greed for further profits is as explicit as her hedonistic wealth (she surrounds herself with pretty young men and tables of rich food and sets the reward for the extermination job at “a million bucks!”). She hates the tentacools, not only because they disrupt and resist her efforts to develop (and destroy) their reef but also because they simply aren’t useful. “I don’t know why such despicable creatures exist,” she rasps; “You can’t even eat them! They’re disgusting and they’re hurting my profits!”

This episode uses another trope of apocalypse fantasies in the way that the faceless swarm of tentacools is ultimately centralized in a single massive enemy. In just a few seconds the threat morphs from this

Photo 2015-06-09, 9 42 41 PMto thisimage

This is a trope of apocalyptic escapism. The issues we’re anxious about (post-nuclear national trauma, pre-environmental collapse) are condensed from a faceless multitude into a single entity that can be fought and talked to. In contrast to the debilitating, pervasive ethos of capitalism (here embodied in Nastina’s insatiable development of the resort that overspills terrestrial boundaries), Tentacruel’s accelerated growth is immediate. Terrifying it may be, but at least there’s a single enemy to defeat rather than a systemic construct or discourse. The smaller tenacools are still an issue, as they follow in their leader’s wake. A Photo 2015-06-04, 2 22 27 AMsingle tentacool is the voice of the swarm, speaking through Meowth. Even then, though, it speaks for all of the swarm. The tentacled menace acts with a legitimately creepy, single will (a hive mind or a psychic link?). The body (Tentacruel) holds the voice (Meowth), effectively making what could be a hydra-like threat into a single entity.

As for that guilt all humans share, Tentacruel declares war on the whole human race and makes it clear (with a rather scoldy tone) that this fate is one humans deserve. “Now,” the swarm-Meowth proclaims, “we’re going to destroy your world, your home, as you so foolishly tried to destroy ours, and none of you has the right to complain about it.” Misty seems to accept this, in the end–

Misty: Please listen… We humans understand that we’ve hurt you. We won’t destroy your homes anymore!
Tentacruel: If this happens again we will not stop. Remember this well! […]
Misty: Goodbye, Tentacruel. [quietly] We’ll remember.

Yet although humans are at fault, they aren’t the only ones. Earlier Misty justly accused Tentacruel as well, shouting, “What you’re doing is wrong because it hurts pokémon and humans!” Tentacruel’s rage is justified–we are not supposed to like Nastina–but Tentacruel goes so far as to lose our sympathy. The humans can justifiably fight back because they paid for their faults. It’s okay once again to commit acts of violence against the non-human. As in most escapist apocalyptic fantasies, the destructive waters and fires of the deluge wash away  human civilization and human guilt.

Latour’s piece is an unexpectedly effective lecture to read alongside this episode. The show also plays around with a couple major tropes we see in apocalyptic disaster films, even more popular now than they were back in the ’90s. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this ep. shows that there’s still some resistance to human domination of the environment. While I’m sticking with my theory that all the land has been technologically recreated and controlled by humans, the ocean seems to resist human dominion. Tentacruel relents but remains a watchful elemental protector of the oceans.

Endnotes: A minor speculation
Photo 2015-06-04, 2 29 56 AM

There’s a very strange final scene in which we see Nastina, thrown into the distance by Tentacruel, crash through some sort of wooden structure under construction, landing next to an identical woman. This new woman quips (in a voice identical to Nastina’s), “You shouldn’t drop in on me like this,” to which Nastina responds, “I thought that’s what cousins are for!”

This scene isn’t as frighteningly out of nowhere as it seems. The woman in pink is from the previous, unaired episode eighteen.1 Here’s the thing, though–all the nurse Joys are ginger, identical, and improbably refer to each other as cousins (or non-twin sisters). Unless Kanto’s humans have some pretty bananas genes and also issues with incest, there has to be a connection, right? Are Nastina and her “cousin” reject Joy-clones? The episode goes out of its way to remark on how grotesquely ugly Nastina is; abnormally short with exaggerated features and stiff, gnarly hair, Nastina seems almost malformed. She’s also quite spry, so it doesn’t seem to be the fault of age. Maybe she actually is malformed, a cast-off from a bad batch of cloned Joys. She may even be an earlier experimental model. Perhaps cloned Joys age quickly and are hidden away on island towns and kept comfortable in their last days? (Also apparently given access to heavy weaponry?) It’s total speculation, but just like the Mewtwo bas relief on Bill’s lighthouse door, it’s too strange a coincidence to just ignore.

And that’s it! On Tuesday I’ll return to this episode. Until then, I’m off to play Pokémon Snap for the first time and spend my Friday night monitoring a large local bat population. Your weekend probably won’t top mine, but don’t let that stop you trying!

Cited
Latour, Bruno. On Some of the Affects of Capitalism
Renner, Karen J. “The Appeal of the Apocalypse.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 23:3 (2012)

Further/Suggested Reading
Canavan, Gary. “Après Nous, le Déluge.”
Solnit, Rebecca. “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”

To be fair, the episode looks really weird, not because of the fake breasts but the way TR is making a bikini-wearing Misty cry.

1. Episode 18 was banned in the west and is not available through Netflix. The reason is that James disguises himself as an absurdly booby, bikini-clad beach hottie to enter a female beauty contest because reasons. Misty, apparently, also undergoes further body-shaming as part of the plot, although I don’t think this factored into the ban because a cut-down version was eventually aired, sans cross dressing scene (inserted below). I guess gender fluidity is too much for kids, but these other episodes with a tighter focus on bloodsports, not infrequently featuring adults brandishing guns at children and non-humans, are perfectly fine?

Questing after the Tome of Shudo

This week’s post isn’t really ecocritical, not directly, and it isn’t even about the anime. Today is, instead, a bibliographical romp through internet fandom, Japanese literature, and an alternate poké-canon.

Takeshi Shudo was the lead writer for the first several seasons of Pokémon. Last week I discovered that in ’97, Shudo apparently wrote a two-volume novelization of the Pokémon anime that contradicts the canonicity1 of the show in various ways. From the sounds of it, the novels are best read as Shudo’s own particular spin on the pokéverse. His take is a little darker (he goes into some social issues caused by pokémon battling) and there’s apparently some crazy origin stories for pokémon themselves. It’s gratifying that some of my own speculations about battling’s effects on family dynamics, or my own thoughts on where pokémon fit in relation to humans and non-human animals, are also ideas that Shudo thought and wrote about. It’s also fascinating to see how the series, already flexibly manifesting in the differing canons of anime, various manga, and the video games, has (dare I say) evolved in other directions as well.

image

This is basically me when I’m playing internet detective.

The novel is only available in Japanese. It took me over half an hour of late-night internet detective work to even confirm that there really was a novel and it wasn’t all an extensive internet legend. The info out there is all pretty sketchy, sometimes either contradictory or pretty obviously lifted from another source, and doing an extensive bibliography would be a fun and insane time. Here I’m just going to offer a brief annotated bibliography of the best sources I found after a single evening of researching. I think I’ve covered the major available information out there, and it was enough to make me wish I could read Japanese. Or that there was an English translation. Or both? Regardless, I’ve ordered a copy of the first volume of Shudo’s novel, mostly because of the illustrations and also because having it on my shelf will make me feel so legit. Shudo’s novel is a major shibboleth in the fandom. I will now judge all fans by whether or not they know of Shudo’s novel. Congrats, my small audience, by reading this you now have major fan cred.!

Everything quoted from the sites is [sic] x a billion. [Author’s note]s are from me, not the author of the quoted material.

The novel (Vol. 1)Pokemon The Animation on amazon.ca and on amazon.com

Forum Threads

“The World According To Takeshi Shudo” 

– The first post in the thread gives us a translation of the prologue I’ve seen reproduced fairly often, although the original source is unclear. Here it is, copy/pasted from the post, emphases added:

It happened one night.
In the darkness, a small light shone.
Pop…
There was a small sound, like a burst in the air.
Then, a creature was born.
At that same time, in other places…
Pop…
Pop…
Pop…
Those creatures were born, one after another.
Those creatures were of all shapes and sizes.
Some of those creatures resembled ones we already knew.
But in truth, they were in many ways completely different from any creature that had ever lived in this world.
Like humans, who long ago evolved and branched off from a species of ape, every species in the world had descended from creatures that had lived here before.
But these creatures were different.
Suddenly, one night…
Pop…
Pop…
Pop…
They appeared as they are, in forms we would not recognize from our reference books.
Later, people would come to call these creatures “Pocket Monsters”.

“Why are Pokemon here in our world? Explaining this mystery would be as hard as explaining the mystery of mankind.” -From An Introduction to Pokemon Studies by Ookido Yukinari [author’s note: Prof. Oak], Professor of Pokemon Studies at Tamamushi University.

“Shudo’s Novelizations”

– Fairly random discussion of some aspects of the novel. People seem to get really excited that 10 is the legal age of adulthood in Shudo’s novel, because it would mean “canon shipping,” which I guess is important to internet people? Maybe someday someone can explain the appeal of shipping to me because I do not understand why it is such a big deal.

General info/paraphrases 

“Pokemon the Animation Prequel”

– On Satoshi/Ash: “He was a pitcher for his Baseball team reason why he is so handy with catching pokemon’s [author’s note: might also explain the baseball cap.] He never saw his father face not even in photos, for this reason Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) was bullied in school.”

– Ash’s grandfather lived with Ash and his mom; “he was a pokemon trainer also he teach the basics to satoshi starting at age 5. Satoshi develop the same love his grandfather have for pokemon including battle even thought Grandfather Sathoshi wasn’t a good trainer.”

“The facts about Pokemon world lol” 

– “The book says that ‘there is a legend that the God created this world in a week. This god ‘doodled’ some extra animals in the seventh day. Those animals were born on holiday, and they weren’t ordered to ‘be ruled by humans’ or ‘rule human’. They are Pokemon.'”

– “Pokemon are dangerous, of course. It is stated that not understanding fully about Pokemon and trying to train them is very dangerous and there are many people hurt or dead doing so.”

– “The 18th centuries, zoology became professional scientific discipline but there were some mysterious creatures that can’t be assorted, like dragons or mermaids. Then Count Tajirin of France (…of course this is from Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon…) discovered and studied Pokemon for the answer of it.

– “A gym leader is disqualified when s/he loses three times in a row. They often bribe challengers. Also it is a terrible job (cost a lot of money & the government support is not enough).”

– “When kids turn 10, they are legally treated as an adult. They have to pay tax, get arrested when they commit crime, can marry, can get a job, etc, etc. . . . Most of the males in the world try to be a Pokemon trainer, and of course, most of them utterly fail hard.. . . That’s why most of the workers are female.”

New Old School post about Team Rocket

– Some background about Team Rocket’s illegal manipulation of the pokémon market and Jesse’s first jobs: “Once, in her late teen years, she [Jesse/Musashi] had disguised herself as a anchorwoman of a national radio station. The program was ‘Popular Pokemon Top 100’… Her job was to rank some unvalued Pokemon in the top 10 list, to keep the prices of Pokemon that Team Rocket stole high. By the way, the fake Top 3 then were Shellder, Paras and Magnemite.”

“Heads up!” 

– A warning about misleading paraphrases or representations of Shudo’s novel in various blog posts. Also, it sort of hints that Ash’s mom might be abusive? Idk what that’s about.

Umeko’s tidbits

– “Compulsory education ends once children reach ten years of age, as they are then considered adults. As of the April following their tenth birthday, they may continue on to secondary education, or leave school to pursue other interests, be it Pokemon training, starting the career of their choice, or even getting married.”

“Out of Chaos” (potentially ongoing translation?)

– Discussing translation of the novel and the Japanese penchant for puns–“I’m on page 10 and already have a lot of footnotes, and that there are a lot of puns which are very near untranslatable. For example, the third chapter title of the first book is, “旅立ちの日はオニスズメ”, literally “The Day of Departure is Spearow”, but considering the word for Spearow is オニスズメ “onisuzume” comes from the words おに oni “demon” and a word that sounds like すすめ susume “an advance”, the title is more likely to mean something like, “The Day of Departure is a Demonic Advance.”

“Pocket Monsters The Animation” at an Italian poke-wiki

Translate the page into English and there’s actually a good bit of info here I didn’t see elsewhere.

– There’s some background on Oak (like he was a professor emeritus at age 25, had a rumored heartbreaking affair with an actress, and that his brothers are a police chief and mayor).

– There are also links to scans of the illustrations in the novel (here, here, here, here, and here).

Translations

Way Back Machine capture of a parallel translation

– Covers the information about Ash’s family I keep seeing paraphrased on other sites. Worth a look, if only for some of the weird garbling we get in the linguistic journey from Japanese to English by way of whatever language the translator spoke. Also, who doesn’t love a parallel translation?

1. The game and anime universes are pretty clear that ‘mon have existed on earth for some time, to the point that the pokéverse has a creator-deity pokémon, Arceus–and, less mythically, fossilized pokémon. The games, though, seem to span a fairly sprawling multiverse, with different games taking place in different universes (as hinted at by the Delta Episode at the end of OR/AS) so I suppose Shudo’s novels might be one bizarre parallel reality? Ah, multiverses–the ultimate excuse for inconsistencies.

Ep. 14-16–Mobile and Modifiable ‘Mon 2: Evolution as violation, evolution as empowering

This post is a little less dark, a lot less heavy with theory. Maybe more fun? Idk, hashtag sorrynotsorry for the theory bits, I love that magiCrap.

Anyway. Today it’s about unstable and evolving bodies. Pokémon bodies are inherently unstable, capable of/subject to sudden changes of form and abilities. Like really fast, really crazy puberty, basically? Evolution is like if awkward Neville became hot Neville between the first and second movie. It’s one more way pokémon bodies are vulnerable to being changed and rendered into tools against their will, yet it’s also a potentially empowering capability that might allow pokémon to escape certain forms of human control.

Modifiable Bodies–Manipulation

In episode 14 Ash finally arrives at Vermilion City and challenges his third gym, determined to win a badge in pitched combat. The leader, Surge, is extremely harsh–we see a lot of pokémon being rushed to the ER after a battle.1 Ash challenges Surge and finds that Surge battles with a raichu, the evolved form of Pikachu. Surge laughs at Ash for bringing “a baby pokémon” to the battle, says that “electric pokémon are only useful once they’ve learned all their electric attacks,” and scoffs that Ash should’ve made Pikachu evolve as soon as he caught it.

Pikachu is badly defeated and hurt–not in body, Brock says, but in his “spirit.” This is where the good stuff starts. Vermilion’s Nurse Joy offers Ash a thunderstone. Exposing Pikachu to the stone will “make Pikachu evolve into a raichu;” but as Brock cautions, evolution will change Pikachu and, after the transformation, “Pikachu will never be the same.” The fact that we know Ash’s companion as Pikachu (rather than some other nickname) draws attention to what’s really at stake–evolution is a change in identity. They don’t clarify exactly how drastic a change it is, but I’m speculating it’s akin to the regeneration of the Doctor, in which basic memories and skills remain but personality, particular areas of strength, and preferences undergo dramatic alterations.

Agh, it’s been ages, but just watching this gif hurts my heart. I miss 11. 😦

And then, suddenly, I’m back on Team Ash, because despite how eager both Ash and Pikachu were to defeat Surge, Ash tells Pikachu, “I don’t want to force you to evolve if you’d be happier staying the way you are now.” He holds out the stone–and Pikachu bats it away with his tail, just like he rejected the pokéball in the first episode. (Very nice visual parallel, writers. Poképoints for you all.)

Pikachu continues to value his material self, satisfied with his embodied identity, the Fat Amy of Ash’s team (but with fewer needless body shaming jokes made at his expense). Ash supports him–and not only out of nettled pride, which would be disappointing, but also, it seems, very real affection for who Pikachu is. It’s a move consistent with Pikachu’s character development and the themes I’ve been tracking, and it’s a moment that, with small but very real emotional stakes, forces Ash to decide and to show us what he most values.2

It also starts to nuance battling a little bit. We’ve gotten some advice on type advantage (don’t fight ground-types with electric, e.g.), but now Ash and Pikachu have to find a strategy to defeat an objectively stronger opponent. With Brock’s help they realize that pokémon who are evolved at a young age have weaknesses in other areas–in this case, Surge’s raichu sacrificed speed for brute power. Pikachu’s ultimate victory shows that battling can be more of an art than the beat-downs we’ve seen so far. Upping evasion to wear down a stronger opponent is a legitimate strategy in the games, too, which is a nice touch.

Pikachu’s win also puts into perspective the narrowly avoided, needless, irreversible change of a beloved character. I say change, but I think it would’ve been more like a loss, because in this episode evolution is discussed in fairly aggressive, negative terms. Ash’s choice is whether to “make” or “force” Pikachu to evolve or not, words that draw attention to the power Ash could exercise over Pikachu’s body if he chose. Although most pokémon evolve on their own, some bodies are more vulnerable to rendering than others–not just rendering from material to immaterial but rendering on a genetic level from one identity to another. This sort of power is deeply sinister, creepy, manipulative, even worse than the way Ash electrocuted Pikachu way back when. Evolution can be a violation.

Modifiable Bodies–Empowerment 

I talked in the last post about how the incessant conversions of pokémon bodies (from material to immaterial, e.g.) might make humans see pokémon as bodies that exist to be acted on and altered. The idea of pokémon becomes less of a being, a person, and more a process or malleable substance that can just be rendered into a stronger being, a little bundle of portable energy, or even food for the sake of humans, and in general people don’t find this problematic or unusual because it happens so often.

In episode 15 James is tricked into buying a magikarp. It’s a pyramid scheme–the (racialized, Mexican-accented stereotype) swindler explains that magikarp lay huge clutches ofPhoto 2015-05-28, 12 19 13 PM eggs, so James can breed more and sell them to people who could breed their own and sell those. James falls for it, then realizes that Magikarp is useless as a battling ‘mon.3 Later, adrift on a raft after a shipwreck, Team Rocket and Ash’s gang consider eating Magikarp. They stare hungrily at her and Ash and Brock fantasize about all the things she could be made into.

The really creepy thing, though, is Photo 2015-05-28, 12 18 10 PMthat in fantasies Magikarp still has her head and tail. We don’t just see “food,” we see magikarp-as-food. This is why I think that the changeable bodies of pokémon may create a certain lack of empathy in people’s minds–even the compassionate Brock can easily imagine turning Magikarp into food while still clearly thinking of her as a pokémon, despite the fact that we have clearly seen that pokémon are persons with complex subjectivities.

After they realize they can’t really eat Magikarp (“The moment of tooth!” cries Meowth as he bites down on her, only to find his teeth chipped against her bony plates), James kicks and berates her for being completely useless. James’s abuse is the final straw, the catalyst needed for her spectacular and disastrous and magnificent evolution.

It’s honestly quite wonderful. The poor magikarp, sold as a baby machine, dismissed as useless, nearly eaten, physically beaten, has within herself the power to become something seriously terrifying, the fearsome and glorious gyarados. Evolution isn’t necessarily something that can be done at will–Magikarp probably would’ve become a draconian goddess of the depths long before now if she could have. It is, though, something that Magikarp does, not something that someone does to her. The unstable form of her own body is here an empowering potential that allows her to escape an abusive situation and take her own revenge on her own terms. You go, li’l fish. 

Ultimately, the implication of evolving bodies is that there is a deep ambiguity in any relationship with pokémon. Almost all are capable of a drastic change in power and form and identity. This sometimes opens pokémon to further control and violation; but it also, potentially, disrupts the power exercised over a seemingly “useless” pokémon like Magikarp. She has the dangerous, lurking potential to become too powerful to control, to instead turn the tables on humans.

So maybe pokémon bodies still resist. Even in a world in which control over bodies is nearly inescapable, this instability makes human control uncertain.

1. The ‘mon we see are all pretty weak battling pokémon. Who challenges a strong electric-type gym with a pidgey or a rattata? I’m all for courage and underdogs and whatnot, but fighting a raichu with a friggin’ pidgey is just irresponsible.

2. Also worth noting is that Ash is learning a lot more by negative examples, defining himself against other trainers, than he does from positive examples. In explicitly trying to not be like Team Rocket, Damien (who abandoned Charmander in ep. 11), and Surge, Ash is becoming more compassionate. Is this another indicator that people in Kanto are actually kind of shitty in general? Brock and Misty are cool; but the nicest people we’ve met have actually been completely outside the battling culture (Seymour and Melanie).

3. A sample in-game Pokédex entry for magikarp says that it “is a pathetic excuse for a Pokémon that is only capable of flopping and splashing. This behavior prompted scientists to undertake research into it” (X). In an earlier game we’re told it’s so weak that “no one knows why it has managed to survive” (Diamond). First, those scientists studying magikarp need to come up with a better justification of their research if they want to get any research grants; second, note that the phrasing isn’t “HOW it has managed to survive” but “why.” Magikarp is really harshly dismissed because of its inability to battle. For this reason alone I’ve always kind of liked it. Not all ‘mon need to be warriors, you know? Idk, I like magikarp, I think they’re kind of pretty and they have nice fish mustaches. The first shiny I encountered was a magikarp I found while fishing for a feebas in some cave lake back in Diamond. I still have her, though she’s evolved since way back then.

Ep. 13 (again)–Mobile and Modifiable ‘Mon: pokéballs and the disintegration of the pokémon body

After my playful but legitimate conspiracy theory, this post is some Very Serious doings. I want to explore how pokéballs and the technology of digitizing/dissolving bodies makes the exercise of biopower nearly inescapable in the pokéverse. The more time I spend thinking about it, the more this world becomes a techno-dystopia that has hidden all visible appartuses of control and normalized some pretty problematic practices.

In episode 13 Ash catches his seventh
pokémon, a krabby. imageThe colors and shots are dramatic—the slow-motion “battle,” seen at the right; then a tight focus on Krabby as it dematerializes and is encapsulated by Ash’s pokéball; then a final tight shot of the pokéball as it dematerializes with a blinding light, transported back to Oak’s lab.

This is a good place to think about the implications of the way pokéballs act on pokémon bodies.

Background theory of non-human bodies

Recently I read some of Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capitalin which Shukin writes about the way we use animals, physically and figuratively. Nonhuman animals are powerful symbols (e.g., the sigils of the noble houses of Westeros), and animal bodies are a literally vital aspect of most products. (It’s the same in Kanto–there’re huge industries that use pokémon bodies and images.) In our world, we constantly render the animal body into a metaphorical or actual product. Rendering, as Shukin explains it, is exercising power over bodies, making the nonhuman body into an idea or a product while hiding the messy, material origins and process of production. 1

Shukin’s project is to point out how and why rendering tries to hide the bodily origin of ideas and products. Shukin draws attention to the living bodies we use/consume because that distorts the seemingly “painless transmission” of animal-into-product/symbol. It distorts the rendering process because thinking about how and why we render bodies changes how we think of the easily-consumable idea or products we’re used to. This changes how we see things because, as essential and universal as they are, bodies, with their squishy and vulnerable materiality, terrify us–hence the popularity of body horror films like AlienThe Thing, etc. We (well, not me, but others) want to eat a hot dog without thinking about how that hot dog is the conceived, birthed, living, feeling, nurtured, slaughtered, butchered, ground fleshbits of a pig.

Yet that body was real and, when we find unprocessed, recognizable bits of a corpse (like a foot in our chicken nuggets), we see the body that was behind the product all along. We realize that something had to die and bleed before we could eat it. This scares us. Gods help the beef industry when an outbreak of mad cow disease reminds humans of that living, vulnerable, threatening otherness of the bovine body that was rendered into the ground chuck that made their Memorial Day burger.

Making it clear that all products and animal images are contingent on the body emphasizes that, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write, “bodies resist” (Commonwealth 31). Bodies resist at the most basic level by demanding a lot of work to make them into anything else, by reminding us of their otherness in unexpected ways. Shukin says that the “neoliberal fantasy” is one of transcending the undeniable, fundamental stubbornness and messiness of physical materiality; she calls it fantasy because that transcendence isn’t possible in our world.

Bringing it back to the pokéverse

In Ash’s world, though, the physicality of the body is far from fundamental, and resisting the rendering action of biopower is more difficult. In the pokéverse bodies are easily dematerialized, stored away, transported.image The close-up of Krabby as it is caught makes it clear how immaterial technology can render the body in this world. Before it disappears it becomes translucent energy and then, ultimately, loses its form altogether.

This tech, whatever it is, allows humans not only to control and carry their pokémon but to disembody them completely. It does away with many aspects of messy materiality.

I noted from the first the way the pokémon world is obsessed with not only the bodies but the images of  pokémon. The way humans think of pokémon is mediated by products and visual presentations–a discourse that presents pokémon as creatures to be loved and admired, but also used. Ash’s journey is often about the discovery that some pokémon don’t want to be controlled outright, that they attempt to act on their own terms; but I wonder if the dematerialization technology makes commodification, abstraction, and reduction of pokémon to objects more difficult to question. In Kanto everyone is rendering pokémon bodies all the time, dematerializing and reassembling them constantly. The constant disintegration/reiteration of pokémon bodies means that materiality isn’t a fundamental, shared experience that can prompt empathy–human bodies seem to remain intact, but pokémon are convertible, portable, easily storable; they are, in the end, conveniently useable. The non-human body is no longer a troublingly material fact.

image

The instrument of dematerilization is itself dematerialized

Well, I lie, because even the digital or energized signal is always dependent on the material. Somewhere there must be hardware. Somewhere, in some lab, there are pieces of physical machinery that enact these digitizations. Pokéballs are hardware; but even then, pokéballs aren’t consistently physical, as we see after Ash catches Krabby. Pokéballs can be teleported from one place to another instantly, regardless of location. Pokéballs even change size, from a conveniently portable ping pong ball during travel to a baseball during use. Even the materiality of the hardware is unstable and uncertain.

This is a way of controlling not only pokémon but interactions with those pokémon—the transfer of Krabby to Oak’s lab is automatic, so somehow the pokédex or Ash’s pokéballs are able to communicate with each other and with some machine hidden away, which is then able to transport that ball from any location. Ash is only allowed (by the League?) to have so many ‘mon with him at any point, which means that the balls are somehow registered to Ash specifically, possibly through the pokédex (which, as we learn in ep. 2, is somehow irreplaceably biolocked to him and only him). Ash and his pokémon are read and identified somehow, branded, not on their skin, but (presumably) on their genetic code. Here, bodies, at the most basic material level, are identifiable, readable, and manipulable from afar by invisible machinery.

In the end, we have to conclude that, to the pokéverse’s technology, physical bodies are nothing but sets of numbers and data to be identified, tallied, balanced, transmitted. Just as I speculated that the environment is completely controlled and created by powerful and invisible technology, so are the bodies of pokémon at the mercy of hidden mechanisms to which  physical distance seems to be no object. In Kanto, biopower is inescapable.

image

Pikachu’s ball emerges from its secret compartment

Pikachu, though… Pikachu does something exciting, as I’ve noted before. By refusing the pokéball, Pikachu resists the basic form of control. Maybe he couldn’t refuse unless Ash allowed him to—after all, he was in a pokéball in Oak’s lab; but even there he was in a special, physical storage space, maybe to keep him from breaking out? If Pikachu can come out at will, why don’t more pokémon?2  Regardless, Pikachu values the solidity and materiality of his own body, resisting battles that intimidate him and refusing to be dematerialized even when doing so would protect him from physical danger. Pikachu reminds the world that “bodies resist,” at least as long as they’re actually embodied.

On a final note, the uneasiness I’m feeling isn’t just me reading into things; Ash feels it too. Krabby’s sudden, unstoppable transportation troubles him, and he spends the next ten minutes worrying about Krabby, wanting to verify where Krabby is, that Krabby is okay, wanting to actually see Krabby once he discovers Oak has it back in Pallet. Even though Ash has, by now, lots of experience with dissolving bodies, in this case the krabby was taken without his consent, and this defamiliarizes the process, makes it more startling. When he assumes Oak has eaten Krabby, Ash shows a sudden awareness of a pokémon’s vulnerability to being broken down and rendered into something portable/usable/consumable.

Phew. Heavy stuff. I’m not sure I made even one joke in this entire post. I guess, though, dystopian Pokémon isn’t a very funny topic? Anyway, Friday we continue the theme by exploring the implications of pokémon evolution!

1. For example: Canada uses the image of the beaver to evoke assocations of Canada’s wilderness and pristine beauty; yet the beaver was the center of a huge fur trade that led to a huge ecological tole on beavers and their ecosystems, to say nothing of the displacement and oppression of Canada’s First Nations. Thinking about the actual history and material reality of the beaver in Canadian history would undermine the usual use of that image, as Shukin discusses in the first pages of her book. Regarding products, fun fact, much (most?) red lipstick gets its red coloring from the boiled and crushed chitin of the cochineal beetle. Smearing the congealed color of a boiled and squeezed bug shell on one’s face is a common practice, largely because cosmetics companies don’t talk about the source of their color.

2. So I know that in the Black and White seasons Ash’s oshawott often comes out of its ball without permission. Maybe they could but don’t? Maybe many aren’t violently opposed to being owned. Maybe the process of being dematerialized is a form of automatic domestication—Brock catches a zubat and it can take commands the first time he sends it out of the ball, which might imply that a pokémon’s body and brain are somehow altered to make them more docile and responsive to human commands? It’s all speculation, but how else would kids be able to command elemental beings more or less immediately after catching them?