Kanto’s hippie commune?

Today’s question: Is this weird town a place where we see some dramatic class divide or a hippy commune village of people who espouse some pretty deep ecology-type ideology? Maybe both? Let’s find out!

Photo 2015-08-25, 9 09 19 PM

One of the ways they try to wake it up is by getting their noblest ‘mon to kiss it. This is Team Rockets’ arbok/weezing…

In episode 1.41 Ash, Brock, Misty, and Pikachu find themselves in a small village that seems to be facing famine because their irrigation ditches have mysteriously run dry! After struggling deep into the woods through thick, thorny vines, they find that the massive, bear-like snorlax seems to be blocking the water flow! They spend a lot of time trying to wake it up, and when they do they find it’s the thorns that were clogging the irrigation channels. Snorlax saves the day by eating all the thorns and trundling off to sleep elsewhere.

This episode stands out not only because of that nightmarish kissyface from TR’s ‘mon, but also because this village is suffering from a fairly basic agricultural issue that, in Kanto’s hyper-tech society, seems like it shouldn’t be an issue. Why can’t they teleport food? Or at the very least, order supplies from elsewhere?

I wondered at first if this was somehow a glimpse of class divide. Maybe there’s a sort of peasant class, farmers who do some grunt work but don’t get a lot of technological support. This is, I guess, an option, but the degree of difference between cities we’ve seen, that have teleportation tiles and hi-tech pokémon centers, is pretty striking. Even developing nations have internet.

The way space is presented changes, too. Before Ash and the gang head up the river to find the source of the clog, the mayor (or whatever) of the town warns, “No one dares go upstream anymore. You never know what you might find!” Since when do we find inaccessible and uncertain space in Kanto? Maybe, though, it’s because no one in this town seems to have a pokémon. Ash and the others have a hard time struggling through the vines, but with their ‘mon it isn’t really that difficult for them to find snorlax.

And visually, the village doesn’t look like the cluster of of peasant hovels you’d Photo 2015-08-25, 9 15 26 PMexpect from people who are afraid to go upstream and for whom irrigation failure spells disaster. Look at this town–it’s bigger and nicer than Pallet!

The key to our mystery and the hero of the episode are one and the same. For answers we must turn to…

The Old Hippie!

Who doesn’t love hippie references in 1990s Japaense animation?? The Old Hippie plays his flute along the road, trading melodies for  munchies and money. Later, though, the gang finds out that his flute is actually a special flute with the power to energize or wake up pokémon. In the end we find out that that’s actually his “job,” sort of. He says that the snorlax is actually his, and he wakes it up once a month so it can eat 900 lbs. of food and get some exercise before sleeping for several more weeks. He even has a little timer that tells him when to wake up other snorlaxes in the area. He’s basically a shepherd, of sorts, but with seemingly fewer returns.

Maybe, then, this village isn’t a place where peasants are ignored by the rest of Kanto society; maybe it’s an intentional/alternative community. No one in the town seems to “own” pokémon. Even the hippie who claims snorlax as his doesn’t really exploit or Photo 2015-08-25, 9 02 06 PMeven transport it (at most he uses it to graze on the vines and control their growth). This community, then, may intentionally eschew the kinds of technology and human/nonhuman ecology that are so important elsewhere.

There is still a kind of inequality in play, even in this case. Regardless of whether the community is intentionally rejecting the use of tech and ‘mon that we see elsewhere, it seems to have a dramatically limiting effect on their lives. Not only is “upstream” a vaguely threatening place (and, as we’ve seen, wild ‘mon can be dangerous, esp. when traveling off the beaten path), but they lose the ability to travel through certain places. Using their pokémon the gang can find snorlax, but the villagers seemed to have some difficulty.1  There is little or no support for those who reject the form of ecology so prevalent in Kanto society. If you don’t want to capture and use pokémon, or if you don’t want the problematic use of certain forms of technology, you have no choice but to live in a fairly precarious state in which the failure of an irrigation ditch threatens famine.

1. The fact that the hippie flute player can, presumably, travel to where his diff. snorlaxes slumber is one of the many weird contradictions in the ep. Another bizarre bit is where Team Rocket and Ash get really competitive about who can get to the hippie first, because they both really want to wake snorlax… even though the hippie is going to the same place regardless of who gets to him first? Or when they try to get their noblest ‘mon to kiss Snorlax into wakefulness. It’s all pretty bananas, basically. 

Advertisements

The Function of the Pokémon Center

Today we’re talking about the weird space of the Pokémon Center! Although ostensibly a place that works to heal the damage done to pokémon bodies in battle, what does it mean that the PC actually enables continued battling? What indications are there of state control? What sort of social interaction occurs in a PC?

Free healthcare (because they use unpaid labor?)

Pokémon Centers not only provide free healthcare but also free food and lodging for traveling trainers. This implies either some sort of state involvement or subsidy or funding from the Pokémon League. It’s easy to see why–free healthcare allows more trainers to participate in the money-generating battle circuit. I’m imagespeculating that the PC’s only cost is supplies, since labor is probably free; the Nurse Joys are probably clones engineered for work in the PCs and probably aren’t paid (or at least not very much). The Joys are assisted by pokémon (usually, in Kanto, chansies), and since pokémon have no legal rights they’re most likely considered service animals who are authorized to administer medicine.

PCs allow the govt. and/or League to shape the culture of battling, because Nurse Joys enforce certain rules and manage the movement of trainers. For example, when Ash and Brock clash with a trainer who abandoned his charmander in ep. 1.11, Nurse Joy intervenes: “You know the rules— pokémon are never to be used in personal fights. It’s disrespectful to the pokémon and their trainers!” Here Joy enforces not only the way trainers use their ‘mon but also how they think about that use–i.e., she shapes the discourse of battling. Battling is codified not only by League rules but also by personal codes of honor and self-discipline. This sanitizes the practice of blood sports–implying that battling isn’t self-serving but a respectful art or interaction–in ways not dissimilar to the bullshit ideas of art, respect, and bravery that get trotted out by fans of bullfights.

There’s also an 11 p.m. curfew for trainers who sleep in the PC. When Ash tries to dash out of a PC before curfew back in 1.20, Nurse Joy scolds him about his health. Add this to the way that the Joys tell each other about trainers they encounter, so that a few mention that they’ve heard of Ash from their cousin/sister/whatever in another city–they’re less like Big Brother and more like Big Mother, overseeing the movement and health of trainers. Any battling trainer must visit the center, ensuring that nearly all trainers are influenced by the PCs. The Joys, and by extension all Pokémon Centers, enforce League rules, regulate the health of non-humans and the movements of their human trainers, and shape the discourse of battling. It would be interesting to know who controls the centers, the government or the ambiguous but presumably private League, and therefore who is exerting the forms of control exercised by/in the PCs.

Aesthetics

Okay, so if we buy into the idea that the PC is essentially a space in which control is exerted over trainers and their ‘mon and the economic system of battling as a whole, what does it mean that the PCs consistently blend into their surroundings? Unlike gyms, in which the leaders showcase control over a specific environment and the ‘mon that live in them, PCs blend in and aren’t uniform (well, apart from the cloned healthcare professionals and their standard issue chansy).

Again, working off the assumption that PCs are centers of control, maybe it’s another way Kanto hides/makes invisible mechanisms of environmental control. We rarely see power generators or urban centers. Much of Kanto is populated sparsely, if at all, and somehow the necessary highways, power generators, and waste treatment plants are hidden. Outside of Gringey City, most of these apparatuses of power are invisible. The PC, Beachfront PCby blending in with local architectural aesthetics, also hides its status as a mechanism of external control. This is potentially more sinister than, say, a brutalist architectural design in that it’s harder for Ash and co. to realize the way the PC supports a problematic system. However, I’m willing to let this slide, because I’m just really delighted by the beach-house style PC. It’s adorable and I love it.

As a social space

There isn’t as much to say about the social space of the center, because percentage-wise the characters don’t spend a lot of time there. It’s clear, though, that different socioeconomic classes encounter one another in the PCs, because fairly often, only Ash, Brock, and Misty have to sleep over at a center and they’re the only ones there. Presumably the other trainers we see in a PC during the day have the money to pay for lodgings. This is a big point in PCs’ favor, since they seem to legitimately offer poorer trainers like Ash opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Final note

Nerd that I am, I would very much like to know who controls PCs. The League obviously profits from battling and branding. The trainers who battle essentially work to generate revenue for the League by battling, maintaining the battling fanbase that keeps the industry of poképrodcuts™ going. Sure, free healthcare is great, but Ash doesn’t seem to be making money from battling, even though trainers like him are a big part of the system that generates the League’s profits. Like, okay, I know the show isn’t going to give us figures for revenue generated, but I wish the technical aspects of the League came up more. Who is profiting and how, and what they do to keep those profits coming in, would be helpful in our attempt to think about how the PC functions in a specifically economic context.

“Tomo mama kangaskhan!” – the validity of hybrid identity

You know, this episode should’ve been really good. It should’ve been really interesting and potentially powerful. Just goes to show you how wackiness isn’t always good, and voice acting is really important. Also maybe shows that I’m getting old in the soul? Anyway, this episode was really annoying but I should probably talk about it, so let’s get this over with.

The gang arrives in a protected reserve and encounters a herd of the massive, bipedal, armored marsupial ‘mon called kangaskhan. They’re known as “the parent pokémon” because of their pouches, which always seem to contain a baby. Team Rocket shows up to tries and nab a bunch of ’em because they are Very Bad People. Despite the fact that the Officer Jenny who patrols the reserve carries an actual rifle (yikes), it takes this spiky haired, leopard-skin-clad minidude with a boomerang to literally swing in and save the day. It’s Tomo, the human raised by pokémon–the pokéverse’s version of Tarzan, apparently. (The boomerang is a nice touch, though, since the Australian-ness it evokes goes well with the marsupial pouch of kangaskhans.)

Who is this mysterious stranger-child who rides away in a kangaskhan pouch and can communicate with his herd? The question is answered when these weird ass people emerge from the bush and announce that they’re looking for their long-lost son, Tommy! (COINCIDENCE? UNFORTUNATELY NOT!) Tomo is actually Tommy, a child lost when his wilderness lovin’, freaky lookin’ dad DROPPED HIM OUT OF A HELICOPTER.

Our gang of ecologically irresponsible do-gooders joins the search for Tomo/Tommy and, when they find him, his parents try to explain the situation to the child who one, doesn’t remember them and two, seems to be a lot safer with the non-humans who never dangle him out of helicopters geez frickin’ louise why would he ever go with his “real” parents?

Tomo has difficulty distinguishing humans from non-humans and asks Misty, “You people or pokémon?” He must have encountered humans, i.e. “people,” and… somehow he has learned the discourse of species and humanism well enough to know that “people” and “pokémon” are different categories. He doesn’t know humans well enough to recognize them right off, and that isn’t surprising, since his dad looks like a ditto transformation gone wrong and also wears animal-print clothing and also a Hitler ‘stache. I really don’t blame Tomo for being confused. Photo 2015-08-04, 9 36 32 PMLook at this guy:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  um . . . . . . . . . .

Now I really want to watch Tarzan.

Again, Tomo/Tommy has difficulty recalling his parents. When Misty prompts him to try and remember his parents from before, all he can think of is time spent with his herd–sleeping in the pouch, carried across the plains, lulled to sleep as the herd sings a pokémon song. As he thinks about the family he’s grown up with, his dad hits him really hard over the head with a log and chirps, “We’ll just take him home and start from scratch.” This man should not be a parent.

The blow to the head seems to jog Tomo’s memory, because he clutches his head in existential (and probably literal) pain and shrills in his annoying voice: “Tomo mama kangaskhan. But this lady Tomo mama too. … Tomo head feel bad!”

His crisis/concussion is interrupted by Team Rocket, formulaic defeat of the villains happens, the bad parents see how much their son cares about his adoptive family and crash their helicopter to help defeat TR and protect the herd. Then they decide to put on tiger skins and live with the herd so that Tomo/Tommy can be with his kangaskhan family: “Let Mama and Papa join your family, Tommy,” his terrible father asks. The next day Ash and co. wave goodbye to the family, who respond by shouting, “Kangas kangas kangas-khan!”

Look, this episode is really annoying, largely because of Tommy’s voice and stilted speech (and also because of that Hitler-stached father), but there’s something weird and maybe Freudian going on. Notably, the human parents accept, even affirm Tomo/Tommy’s partial non-humanity. They sacrifice not only the trappings of humanity (i.e., what makes them appear to Tomo as “people”), putting on animal flesh and speaking animal language, but also a part of their parental status. They’re in the pouch with Tomo/Tommy and his adoptive poké-sibling, the cradling pouch meant for the children of “the parental pokémon.” They’ve given up part of their authority and joined the larger community, the herd, of non-humans that their child loves.

This is kind of cool, and shows that although there’s a system of enslavement and bloodsports in place, in the pokéverse the thing that sets humans apart from non-humans isn’t some innate essence of specialness but rather, one would assume, lifestyle and power. Culture or nurture, if you will. Because nurture, not nature (essence) is what determines how someone identifies species-wise, the parents putting themselves in the (literal) position of juvenile kangaskhan makes their decision more significant. Not only is Tomo able to continue to occupy a space somewhere between kangaskhan and human, but it’s implied that his parents are doing more than just camping out to be near their son. They’re making a decision to reshape themselves, to be nurtured into new, hybrid beings.

This episode, like I said, could have been really interesting. However, I’m thinking of making a list of the best/most significant episodes as I go, and this one will not be on it because I cannot stress how irritating Tomo/Tommy and his father are. As interesting as the ep.’s implications are, it’s just not worth it? Oy.

Different spaces

It’s been an ongoing preoccupation to figure out how Kanto manages its land so that pokémon can be easily caught yet also live in a semi-wild space. Here’s a summary of the  notable, exceptional types of non-urban spaces I’ve encountered in the show as of episode 1.34. Ready for some summary of facts and speculations about what they might mean and frequent wistful statements about how it’d be nice to know more?

Mt. Moon

Ep. 1.6. Mt. Moon accessible but challenging to navigate. There aren’t any official restrictions regarding catching the pokémon that live there, but Seymour stops Ash from trying for a clefairy because the Mt. Moon ecosystem is not only delicate, supporting pokémon found nowhere else but also recently disturbed by a Team Rocket scheme. Honestly, this place should probably be a protected national park. Does the fact that it isn’t speak more to the fact that whoever runs Kanto doesn’t care, or does it indicate instead that not many trainers choose to take that difficult trek over the mountain, at least not on foot? One would speak to the culture of Kanto as a whole while the other would speak to Ash’s own choice as a trainer.

Ep. 1.10, Melanie’s Rehabilitation Clinic

Ep. 1.10. Hidden away in the forest, there are no official regulations or recognition here, either, but Melanie and Bulbasaur keep trainers away so that it’s a de facto wildlife sanctuary. The village shows that it’s possible to carve out a small safe space even in unprotected land, but not possible to hide so well that you can’t be found by determined pre-teens and villains with flying stadiums.

Ep. 1.31, Diglett Terraces

imageI haven’t written about this episode on the main blog yet, although I did a speculative post on the tumblr. In this episode the group encounters a dam construction project that is being literally undermined by mole-like digletts and dugtrios. In response to the destruction of their territory they’ve been digging terraces on the clear-cut mountain side and planting trees, as well as wrecking construction vehicles. The gang realizes how significant the digletts’/dugtrios’ role is:

Brock: Diglett plow the ground and Dugtrio plants the trees! And not just here. . . Probably all the forests in the entire world are–

Misty: Beautiful gardens made by these little guys!

Terrace agriculture has (in the real world) been used around valley rivers, to prevent soil erosion and the soil from drifting down into the river and lowering the water quality. Presumably the diglett, who are basically impossible to get rid of, are doing the same, either because they have a sophisticated understanding of agriculture or because it’s a somehow instinctual, beneficial behavior.

This space isn’t legally protected, but in the end the dam project comes to a stop because the project leader finds compassion and also because the digletts are practically unstoppable. Even the pokémon owned by human trainers refuse to fight the digletts/dugtrios because all pokémon are, deep down, back-to-earth activists who oppose large-scale land development. This is a space managed and protected solely by non-humans, not inaccessible but certainly not under full human control. However, the fact that the dam project was approved in the first place indicates a cultural disregard for the life and territory of non-human persons. 1 It shows us the ugly cost of the managed, pretty faux-wilderness that the people in this world take for granted.

Ep. 1.33, Laramie Ranch

image

Lara rides a unicorn with a mane made out of fire and when she first sees Ash, she and her flame-icorn almost kick his head in. She’s pretty bad ass, honestly.

This is the first protected land we see. The Big P Pokémon Ranch is owned by the well-known Laramie family and is a private reserve protected for commercial purposes. Pokémon from the Laramie ranch are highly sought after. The heiress of the Laramie family, Lara Laramie herself, explains the ranch’s methods in a bad Forrest Gump accent: “This whole area’s a pokémon reserve. … It’s a place where it’s against the law to capture pokémon so they can grow up here naturally.” Brock says he’s heard of it as “The place where they raise lots of pokémon in the wild.”

First, the ranch gives us the most explicit evidence that battling pokémon are raised and sold to trainers, not only caught by travelers.

What’s weird is, how can ranch-raised ‘mon be “growing up naturally?” How is this “the wild?” Look at all those pokémon imagegathering around human trainers/feeders. Wild can’t mean “not cared for.” Maybe by “wild” they mean “not in pokéballs,” i.e., uncaught, unclaimed, not permanently owned. Ranch-raised pokémon are still “wild,” because wild simply means “not-yet-claimed.”

“The wild” was a concept I addressed when it came up in episode 10 and Melanie said pokémon belong “in the wild.” When she said it, she meant that the pokémon she cared for should eventually leave her. Maybe the pokémon and the Big P ranch sleep out in the fields? The pokémon on the ranch have greater freedom (and hardship, presumably?) than ‘mon who live inside a ball.

Ep. 1.34, the National Pokémon Reserve

by Marinko Milosevski, found at Marinkoillustration.com

Here the gang is looking for the Safari Zone “where wild pokemon run free, just waiting to be captured.” How this differs, exactly, from the rest of the places they’ve been on their journey, I don’t know, except that maybe it’s a place where the ‘mon are easier to catch?

Regardless, they come to a place teeming with rare and exotic pokémon. This place, though, turns out to be a protected public parkland contiguous with the Laramie ranch. 2  As soon as Ash exclaims (with a look of unbridle avarice), “Let’s start catchin’ ’em,” a cop disguised as a chancy leaps from a bush, brandishing a shotgun. Officer Jenny explains that  they’ve wandered into  “a national pokémon preservation area. It’s here for the raising and protectionimage of pokémon.” Finally we have a place set aside for pokémon. But that’s all we really get. No reason why, no explanation. Do some species of ‘mon need this protection especially, or is it a more general attempt to relieve the pressure on the reserve of valuable bodies?

Regardless, these spaces have all raised questions. I’m particularly interested in publicly protected land and land under development, and I’m hoping we get more about those kind of spaces eventually.

1. To be fair, we get a really dark vision of what will happen if the dam project continues. Namely: image  and also image

2. Which raises, for me, a lot of questions. Does the Laramie ranch  use public parkland? Do they pay the government for grazing rights? If so, how much? Alternately, are there govt. subsidies for raising ‘mon? So many questions!

The life of matter: concepts of impersonal agency in the pokéverse

After a week-long hiatus in which I tried and failed to catch up on some reading, we’re back with a little bit more about how the show is addressing the idea of difference.

Episode 1.29, “Sparks fly for Magnemite,” is another one of those episodes that has a theme but doesn’t ever clearly articulate it. It’s a weird quirk of the show; they’re obviously doing “Ash learns a lesson” type episodes, but without clean resolutions. I like it, because it doesn’t spell things out, but it can get a little confusing because it doesn’t spell things out. Episode 1.29 is exploring the way that our characters think of the agency and liveliness of inorganic matter. The two new pokémon we learn about in this episode are both “inorganic pokémon.” What the characters learn by the end of the episode is that even inorganic matter has agency–i.e., tendencies, preferences, and the ability to act in ways contrary to human desires and plans.

Gringey City

Passing through Gringey City, Ash and co. are disgusted by the pollution. It’s an industrial town with no obvious living quarters. Ash remarks that it’s a “really weird city. Lots of factories but no people.” Brock, a.k.a. Exposition Man, explains that “Pollution ruined the air and the water here.” While there, Pikachu falls ill, sparking at the cheeks and running a fever, and the city’s power shuts off because Photo 2015-07-14, 9 07 08 PMof a concentrated attack by sludge-pokémon called grimer, threatening the lives of the (disturbingly numerous) pokémon in the IC unit of the local Pokémon Center.

After some legitimately creepy, Alien-like action in the dark powerplant, stalked by grimer in the air vents, the gang is cornered by the violent, murderous pollution pokémon. They only survive with the help of the metallic magnemites, one of whom has taken a liking to Pikachu.

A few things are going on. While the cause of the grimers’/muk’s violence isn’t clear, their active animosity toward the humans is obvious. Grimer’s Pokédex entry says that their origin is pollution and that they’re “Born from sludge.” Perhaps it means they breed in sludge, but even their bodies are more or less sentient poison glop. The grimers, born from pollution, embody the way that the waste humans produce can escape their control and affect the world in new ways. The products of our own consumption can, in turn, try to consume us. “Inorganic” does not equal dead or even controllable.

A bit of theory

Jane Bennett might call this an example of vibrant matter. Bennett is the main thinker of the philosophy of vital materialism, outlined in her book Vibrant Matter. Vibrant materialism expands the definition of agency and life, saying that agency and a liveliness are present in any “creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” (118).1 There’s a lot of background before she gets to this point–she draws on thinkers from Lucretius (b. ca. 99 B.C.) to Spinoza (b. 1632) to Deleuze/Guatarri (contemporary scholars)–but the gist of it is that human lives interact with and are influenced by a lot of non-human elements, including inorganic elements themselves. The non-human world, even what we and the characters see as the “dead” world of stuff, is a far more active and vital force than we often understand.

The agency and desire of the inorganic in the pokéverse is brought up very explicitly when a lone magnemite shows attraction to Pikachu. Misty comments that it seems to be in love–the magnemite even blushes and orbits Pikachu like a lovesick satellite. Brock is doubtful: “If it were an animal pokémon I’d understand,” he mansplains, “but how can an inorganic pokémon fall in love with an electric rodent?”

The magnemite’s attraction is so strong that it and its fellow magnet ‘mon show up to save Pikachu and the others from the murderous grimer. Magnemite changes its mind, though, when Pikachu loses some electric charge in the battle.  Brock then has to wonder if magnemites, inorganic though they are, may be capable of desire and preference, musing, “Maybe magnemite fall in and out of love just like humans do?”2 While the grimers embody the perils of ignoring the vitality and capacities for resistance inherent in matter, the magnemites shows the possible alliances we can make with matter. Because of one magnemite’s attraction, all the magnemites came to save them. The gang owes their lives to vibrant matter.

Accepting difference

The episode is also about accepting other-ness. Brock immediately assumes that because magnemite is inorganic that it has no subjectivity. He accepts that it’s alive, but questions its ability to have intentions and desires. He has to admit, though, that just because Pikachu is warm-blooded/cute and magnemite is metallic/less expressive, magnemite is no less an agentive being than Pikachu.

Interestingly, Misty is the one who, from the first, accepted that the magnemite might have the capacity to want and to feel. Misty also was the only one able to feel pity for the tentacool/tentacruel from the start. Misty, the one who was tormented, doubted, written-off by her sisters as pretty useless and therefore unworthy of their kindness, once again shows herself to be the one most able to see the beauty and the person-ness of weird, unlikely, not-conventionally-cute others.3

TL;DR: The grimer and magnemite show us and the characters how things we sometimes think of as simply objects or dead matter can actually have tendencies, abilities, properties, or vitality that forces us to consider them in a new way. Misty seems to be the most able to see the agency of things and beings that are different.

1. One of the chapters of Bennett’s book actually discusses, at length, a recent massive power outage in the U.S., a crisis that highlighted the emergent properties of a complex system made up of things “from a quirky electron flow and a spontaneous fire to members of Congress who have a neoliberal faith in market self-regulation.”

2. Why this is in question I’m not sure, since inorganic ‘mon are obviously no less active than more familiar “animal pokémon.” Brock once ran a rock-type gym. Rock and metal are both inorganic materials, so does this imply that Brock has always assumed that his geodude and his onyx were just lumps of active granite without desires or affection? Maybe it’s just an example of the species discrimination our culture practices when we decide we can’t eat dogs but can eat pigs. 

3. This does not stop Misty from being a total butt to the psyduck she unwillingly acquired a few episodes before. She calls the poor thing “useless” more than once, yelling at it because it isn’t a very good battler. I’ll definitely call her out on this at a later point…