“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.

Advertisements

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

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


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

Pikachu

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming the Top Cat:  reappropriating the pokémon sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Flagged:

  • How often and how do we see ‘mon being used as renewable resources/part of the infrastructure?
  • Rockets as an exception to the rule against trained ‘mon attacking humans?
  • Do the chars. keep their sass?