“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.

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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…

The evidence for far-future earth

This one’s pretty basic.There are several hints that the pokéverse is actually a far-future earth rather than its own universe or an alt-reality. As of now there are three main things I think are worth discussing.

The mention of actual places

In episode 1.9, “The School of Hard Knocks,” Misty has a daydream about how much she loves Paris. This one is the weakest because I think this mention of real-world places happens infrequently, and also because there could be an alt-version of Paris if the pokéverse is simply an alternate universe (AU), roughly parallel to our own except with pocket monsters. On a Compelling scale of 1-10, 10 being “Super compelling,” I give it 6/10.

Noah’s ark

This one is weird. In episode 1.16, when the gang is adrift on a raft, we get this exchange.

Brock: I remember the story of Noah, who, when he had to find dry land, sent a bird to find it and return with a branch.

Ash: What a great idea! We’re gonna do the same thing as Noah!

Okay, wow, we get a casual reference to Judeo-Christian lore from Brock, the font of random wisdoms. This bit of evidence is pretty hard to explain away. I guess we could write it off as another possible AU, except that I’m pretty sure elemental creatures being very clearly not mythological would have changed how world religions developed, especially if they’ve been used by/as companions to humans throughout history. I know that later in the series we get creation myths and a creator-deity, but as of season one those things don’t exist, and I’ve never seen those eps/films, so I’m going to say that the existence of Noah is extremely compelling evidence that the pokéverse is far-future earth. I give it a score of 8/10.

“A dream-eating tapir” 

A final bit of evidence is in episode 1.27, “Hypno’s Nap Time,” when Ash whips out his Pokédex to get a description of a drowzee. The ‘dex description tells us that drowzee is a species “Descended from a dream-eating tapir.”

Two possibilities–one, “a dream-eating tapir” refers to one specific, unique dream-Drowzee_OOOOHHHYEAHeating tapir whose babies became a whole line of pokémon. This is… possible, I guess?

More likely, though, “a dream-eating tapir” refers to “a species of dream-eating tapirs.” This would indicate that pokémon, in their present state, evolved from more recognizable species that had begun to develop special powers. In this scenario, drowzee is descended from a species of tapir with powers who, in turn, is descended from the less powerful but still adorbs tapirs in our own world; this would explain, too, why there are so few real-world critters–they’re all the observed evolutionary progressions of species that we have around us now. While the ancestral forebears of pokémon aren’t around anymore (except for a few primary consumers like fish, insects, and worms), humans have cataloged and still remember those ancient species, which is why they sometimes refer back to them when describing or naming ‘mon.

This is at least as compelling a piece of evidence as the reference to Noah–it establishes that humans in this world know how pokémon have evolved over time and establishes that some are descended from species we have here. It loses a point or two because of grammatical ambiguity and because, well, tapirs in our world don’t eat dreams. (That we know of, I guess…). Take off another point for the fact that I guess it could still be an alt-world with alt-evolutionary development. Score for this bit of evidence is 7/10.1

As you may or may not know, later seasons of the show will begin to build up a mythology of the universe that spans from creation and the primordial world to the present day. A creator-pokémon and various minor deity or demiurge-like ‘mon pop up, and legends of pre-human earth begin to become important. This doesn’t disqualify the pokéverse as a far-future earth, since mythologies and religions change. It is interesting to see, though, how much narrower and less fantasy the series is at this point. I’ll have to keep an eye out for if and when the series starts to pull away from its affiliation with the real world. Will they mention Paris or America again? Will we get more references to Judeo-Christian or other religious narratives? We shall see!

1. (This gets some sub-conscious bonus points because in a few seasons we’ll find out that there’s another psychic-type, tapir-esque pokémon called munna, perhaps an evolutionary cousin of drowzee and descended from that common ancestral tapir. This doesn’t really count for the same reason that I’m not factoring in the creator-deity pokémon Arceus–it doesn’t exist as of ep. 1.27.)

“You can hardly see any sky”–Reading space in Kanto

New thing, just fyi–I’m going to start putting the main conclusions in bold at the end of each long-form post as a sort of TL;DR.

I’ve talked before about the faux-wilderness space of Kanto. The hardship of a badge-collecting journey is a form of education–remember how the private school, Pokémon Tech, is an accepted substitute for the badges? It may also be a test of a trainer’s worthiness. That said, Kanto’s rugged land is engineered to be challenging but accessible, a rigorous way of learning to be a trainer that’s open to all.

Hop Hop Hop Town, an interpretive dance

What about the cities, though? There are some interesting visuals of Ash, Brock, Misty, and Pikachu in urban space that frame Kanto’s cities as more confusing than the rugged space in between them.

To get us oriented and showcase some cool maps I found, here’s Kanto with all the locations in the anime (and from the games, I think) marked.1

Kanto_Map_Anime

A little clearer but slightly less gorgeous is this roadmap created by a user of Serebii.net.

Kanto Roadmap, found here: http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?427120-Kanto-Anime-Road-Map

source found here

There’s a lot of space between and around the cities. This makes sense–the faux-wilderness serves as a standing reserve for wild ‘mon, like pastureland for lightly-tended livestock.

Ash and co are always overjoyed when they reach a city, often because they’ve been wandering lost for weeks. “Lost,” though, not in the sense that they were wandering the woods fearing for their lives, but rather in the sense of being unsure of exactly what footpaths they were on. Although when they reach Vermilion they haven’t “had anything decent to eat for three days,” they still seem to have had something. Vermilion offers them a wash, some food, and a place to sleep that isn’t the ground, but they don’t seem to have been in real danger.

Reaching “civilization,” though, doesn’t solve their problem of being lost. In fact, visually, the urban spaces are far more dizzying and overwhelming than their timeimage wandering. First, here’s a visual comparison of two scenes in which the characters are “lost.”

The images show Ash, Misty, and Brock in Hop Hop Hop Town (a suburb of Celadon) and on their journey en route to Vermilion. Notice how they look at least as confused in Hop Hop Hop as they did in the forest. In both images Brock is studying the map, the others looking vaguely confused.

The perspective is different, too. While the characters seem small from an overhead view, it also gives a sense of depth to the forest and a sense of space. In the city, note the frequent use of low perspective and the claustrophobic feel of the background to create a sense of the looming surroundings. The scenery of the urban spaces is far more overwhelming and, paradoxically, limited than any forest we’ve seen. imageIn fact, the first dialogue in ep. 1.27 (spoken along with the top image in the collection at the left) is about how lost they feel, even though they’ve just left Celadon and are obviously on a main road.

Ash: I feel like the buildings are closing in on us.

Misty: Yeah, and they’re all so tall you can hardly see any sky.

Usually, in our world, when urban space is described as claustrophobic, it’s also easily navigable. You feel trapped and isolated, but usually you know how to get around, with street signs and subways and taxis. The wilderness, in contrast, is huge and free from social constraints and refreshing, but also, in this binary, prone to swallowing you up in its un-navigable vastness. This isn’t how it goes in Kanto, though.

Something else troubles this familiar contrast of city and nature, because in Kanto the rural space is where Ash acquires the non-human bodies he uses to win badges. The wilderness is a place of acquisition, which is the opposite of how we in our world conceive of wilderness vs. urban space. Usually when contrasted with human space/society/cities, our world’s idea of wilderness is of freedom from The System, from consumerism and human desires, a return to simpler living. (This is, of course, a social fiction, as in our own world everything is a commodity, but I digress…)

The city is still a place of advertisement and consumerism in Kanto, but look at these pictures of advertisements from ep. 1.28, “Pokemon Fashion Flash.” imageNote all of the pokémon images used. We’ve seen similar advertising and pokémon-branded products before, including Cerulean coffee and Mt. Moon spring water. It all refers back to pokémon bodies, explicitly, and those bodies are acquired outside the city.

The fact that urban advertisements so clearly, consistently refer to pokémon bodies, and the fact that Ash often feels pressure to continue his travels in order to catch more pokémon (and feels like a failure when he’s told how few he’s acquired in comparison to Gary), indicates that in Kanto, nature is a place where consumerism happens. In Kanto, “Nature” is not a place to escape capitalism but where you go to get the materials (bodies) you need to participate in the competitive system. Bodies and nature are explicitly thought of as capital. We see this in the way Ash evaluates each new location based on what bodies if offers him.2 The cities, in contrast, are places where the characters go to refresh themselves for a short time before returning to the hard work of their training journey. The cities offer food and rest but are confusing, more human but no more navigable than the accessible wilderness where Ash and co. spend most of their time. 

Bonus: real-world application

So this time I actually think this reflects in a significant way on our own world’s ideas of human and non-human space. I mentioned before how everything is commodified, and you only have to look at the kerfuffle surrounding drought-stricken B.C.’s sale of water to Nestle to realize that oil, water, trees, everything is bought and sold all the time.

We still like to think of “Nature” as a place where we can get away from the ravages of capitalism and consumerist drive, though. It’s nice to imagine, fantasize that this is possible. We maintain this social fiction that there are non-human spaces, but we do so less and less as the century progresses. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding the recent creation of the world’s largest marine reserve back in September of 2014. The project’s motivation was presented, not as a desire to protect our nonhuman neighbors from our own avarice (which should be an end in itself) but, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “a responsibility to make sure. . . the future has the same ocean to serve it. Not to be abused, but to preserve and utilize” (“Marine Reserve”). Protecting this area of the Pacific must be justified as protecting a commodity or a product.

I would suggest that as the permanence of the world as we know it becomes more uncertain, and the rarity and value of natural commodities rise accordingly, our culture is more explicitly beginning to talk about water, animal bodies, oil, etc. as things with an inherent value, a price tag. Nature, in our world’s increasingly neoliberal paradigm of thought, is becoming more explicitly, as in Kanto, a place made up not of significant non-human others, but of capital and commodity. Kanto’s somewhat flipped idea of urban and rural is our own world’s logical next step.

1. The map is official game artwork, and the locations are added by this forum user whose angsty profile indicates an early teen, but whose much-appreciated thoroughness and consistency of image edits suggests someone of greater years and wisdom, so Arceus bless you, mysterious stranger on a now-defunct forum.

2. In the image of the gang reading a map in the forest, Ash has binoculars. In this scene he uses the binoculars to scan a distant meadow for pokémon and is disappointed to see only spearow, which he seems to feel aren’t worth his time. He objectifies and evaluates all the bodies he encounters on his journey because nature is essentially a space of consumerism. This would align with the paradigm of ownership (i.e., how everyone talks about ‘mon as if they were owned or will someday be owned, seemingly lacking the concept of a happily un-owned pokémon). Each place is evaluated for what resources it offers, and how rare/strong those resources are. Basically, the wilderness is a large, exceptionally violent shopping mall.

Assorted notes and queries

Time to ponder out a few aspects of the pokéverse. Today I update, clarify, and introduce a few small, random speculations about the culture, inhabitants, and governance of Kanto. Each section is standalone, so this post is long but made of individual sections. Bite-sized, like poképuffs! Pick and choose what you like! Also, if you have questions, comments, corrections, or theories of your own and you feel like sharing, leave a comment or contact me on tumblr.

Aggression against humans

Way, way back I suggested that wild pokémon would attack trained and captive ones not out of jealousy, but because they recognized that humans were only as threatening as the pokémon that accompany them. I flagged this theory, imagespeculating that wild pokémon might not attack humans very often because their behavior had been conditioned from years of being sought and caught.

There are various ways in which this theory is disproved, but “Primeape Goes Bananas” (ep. 1.25) most conclusively shows us that wild pokémon do, indeed, attack humans. Mankey and its evolved form, primeape, are basically a cross between a cotton ball and a baboon. Both are known for being particularly aggressive, so it may be an outlier, but other pokémon–a gyarados, zubats, even the ghosts–explicitly attack humans, not just their pokémon. Pokémon behavior, then, varies widely and includes aggression against humans as well as their trained ‘mon.

Pokémon language

In ep. 1.17 we spend a lot of time with just the pokémon characters. They’ve been separated from their trainers, so they spend a lot of time talking to each other in their poké-speak. We get subtitles of what they’re saying. Most of it is normal conversations, although Ekans and Koffing, Team Rocket ‘mon, speak in ways that are coded as less Photo 2015-05-29, 2 34 10 AMintelligent (3rd person, no pronouns, etc.). Keep in mind that they’re all speaking using only the syllables that make up their species name–sucks to be, like, a spheal and have only one syllable. The fact that they can articulate complex ideas leads me to conclude that poké-speak is 1, excessively tonal in ways that we can’t always hear with our human ears, or 2, not only verbal but also somatic. That is, many animals use non-verbal communication like scent, posture, movement patterns, and colors to communicate (often complex) ideas or information. Elephants use sound, but it’s sound pitched at frequencies humans can’t hear. Pokémon may use any and all of these methods to supplement their rudimentary syllabic abilities.

There’s support for some non-verbal element in that Meowth can communicate with other pokémon, but even Ash, who understands most of his pokémon, does so with less complexity than Meowth. If scent or subtle body language are in play, it might explain why Meowth can comprehend poké-speak better than any human.

Finally, on a somewhat tangential note–the fact that pokémon can communicate with varying degrees of sophistication is taken for granted by the characters. I do think that Pikachu is more intelligent than other species–say, caterpie or magikarp. But even insectoid Butterfree had an undeniably complex personality. For, you know, a bug. All pokémon are persons and are seen as such, even if they aren’t legally protected from being caught and trained as bloodsport entertainers.

State oversight 

Back in 1.20, “Maiden’s Peak,” we discover that Pokémon Centers have curfews, strictly enforced by Nurse Joy and by a metal shutter that closes off the PC after a certain time (I want to say 11 pm?). Seeing the metal shutter descend, Ash tries to leave–Brock is still out there, staring at the rock/statue of the ghostly Maiden–but Nurse Joyce stops him, scolding him about his “bedtime,” and Ash can’t go rescue Brock.

The way Joy actively prevents Ash from leaving makes me think that the Joys aren’t just healthcare drones but also surveillance, a way to oversee and gently manage the large population of trainers. The free healthcare and overnights for traveling youngsters keeps them safe, sure, but I’ve already noticed and noted how the Nurse Joys pass on information to each other about trainers that pass through their Centers. The takeaway is that the Joys perform certain disciplinary and surveillance functions, managing not only the health of pokémon but also the activities of humans. It’s not necessarily sinister, but in light of the rather authoritarian “curfew” it’s not unproblematic, either.

Ghosts again

Speaking of ghosts, I want to more clearly articulate the difference between real-world ghosts and ghosts in Kanto. In our world, ghosts are fragments of the past with unfinished business. The fear is that the past will burst into the present again. We in the West are afraid of the past, of what we’ve done or don’t know what to do with. In Kanto/the pokéverse, though, ghosts represent an opposite movement. Ghosts move from the present into parts of the past that are supposedly stable, familiar, traditional. Slapstick and the local legend of the ghostly Maiden are reawakened and use by ghosts in unfamiliar, scary, dangerous ways. This may be a contrast between Western and Japanese cultures–although this is speculation based on no formal research, my sense is that a lot of Japanese narratives are about how tradition survives in a quickly changing present. Regardless of the real-world source, in the pokéverse ghosts (dis)embody the way the present can reawaken and defamiliarize a seemingly stable past.

Oak’s lab

Oak’s lab is the coolest. We get a very brief look inside in ep. 1.25, so let’s break it down. image

Apart from being idyllically built on top of a wooded hill, backed by forests and mountains, there’s a wind turbine! This makes a lot of sense–I’m guessing that a lot of the energy in Kanto is produced in ways that are more easily integrated into the environment. I talked about Kanto being a dystopia, but there are some positive aspects of god-like technology and imageenvironmental control.

imageNext we get some closer views–here’s Oak meditating. Behind him is a pond, the same pond as in the second picture. It’s home to many pokémon, whom Oak presumably studies. This study of captive ‘mon aligns with Oak’s fairly sedentary research. Still, he seems to have a breeding population of the poliwag line (their second-stage evolution, poliwhirl, is peeking out from behind the rock), which means that they must not be too unhappy.

I was prepared to think more favorably of Oak because of all of this set-up. But then, during his meditation, the phone rings. Oak doesn’t move or even react. Then Krabby appears next to him holding a portable videophone. People, Oak has trained Ash’s krabby to be his phone butler.

imageApart from being exploitative of our crustacean-like friend, it crosses an in-world cultural line, and speaks to Oak’s character, albeit obliquely. Back in episode 11 when the gang encounters an abandoned charmander, they’re very uncomfortable about this pokémon who isn’t wild but is seemingly unattached. Although they want to help, they conclude that it would be best if its trainer cared for it. They go back for it eventually, but it’s clear that people prefer to leave other trainers’ pokémon alone if possible. It’s probably related to the pervasive paradigm of ownership–that is, trainers tend to see pokémon as either owned or things that can and will someday be owned, and have trouble talking about pokémon in any other way. Finding a pokémon who is owned but not cared for may trouble this, undermining their faith in the essential goodness of training culture. They don’t like it and aren’t sure how to handle it, and part of the solution is not interfering with others’ ‘mon and thereby culturally honoring the responsibilities and the power of ownership.

Part of Oak’s job is caring for pokémon over the six-per person limit, and allowing Krabby to roam around is sweet–yay, Krabby gets exercise! But Oak training Krabby to be his butler crosses a line. He’s interfering with another trainer’s pokémon, which we know is a no-no. Oak acts trangressively because he can–he works from a position of privilege and control, above the rest of Pallet Town (literally, up on that hill) and most of society as a whole. Oak is, in the end, still a total butt.

Ghost Coast, pt. 2

First–Pokécology is not only on Tumblr, we’re also on Instagram! There are a lot of funny, dramatic, or visually striking images I screenshot in the course of watching the show that I don’t end up using here or on Tumblr. If you’re interested in seeing more of those, along with the occasional digital doodle of my own, find us here or search Instagram for “pokecology” on your preferred mobile device.

Today you get the last section of the fanfic, because, surprise, still busy. Ugh, and in the episode I just watched Brock talks about something called “pokémonitis,” which according to him means that people think they’re pokémon; but in this case the kids are under the influence of hypnotic waves so the “-itis,” indicating inflammation, makes absolutely no sense, but Brock says it like it’s definitely a thing so I think I just have to conclude that Brock is an idiot and has been all along, which is disappointing. But then again, in the end they counter the hypnotic waves by using a dif. ‘mon to hypnotize the affected children into sleep and this causes them to emit “dream waves” which counter the hypnotic waves… which, incidentally, bounce off of mirrors, so you know what, this is just bananas and I’m putting off discussing it and thus you get more of Ghost Coast.1


The small, darkwood interior of the teahouse was nearly empty. A peeling sticker graphic on the door announced that pokémon were to be kept in their pokéballs while in the restaurant, but Fuji had waved that aside, saying, “It’s only for the health inspectors, don’t worry.” Inside, Satou had immediately noticed the wide, staring eyes of an aipom looking down on them from the rafters. They had taken seats in the back corner table looking out through the huge, floor to ceiling window. It offered a view of the entire sweep of the town in all its rainy glory. Bluff was playing with the aipom, both of them weaving through the rafters back and forth. The taillow swooped by, the wind of its wings sweeping napkins from the table, chirping exuberantly.

Satou poured another cup of tea, listening to Jiro quiz Fuji.

“And for how many generations has your family lived here?”

“Oh, we have always been here,” Fuji replied, looking fondly out of the window at the town, scattered down the hill right up to the edge of the ocean.  “Before there was a tower my ancestors built shrines and graves on that very hillside. Then a crypt, and then the tower. We were here during the first invasion. My great-great-great grandfather led the last army in east Kanto, held the town against the rebels’ ships during the last civil war. In between wars we’ve soothed the restless souls of the dead, pokémon and humans. We’ve grown gardens. My father won an award for his flowers.” He laughed. “We have the soil and the salt in our bones. But you must excuse me, I’m being rude. I love this town so much that it is hard not to sound like a maudlin poet. Tell me about Hoenn, Jiro. Where are you from?”

“Fortree City.”  Jiro beamed. He was very proud of Fortree City. Satou prepared to hear yet more about the beauties of the trees.

“Oooh.” Fuji, apparently, was suitably impressed. “Is it truly as beautiful as I have heard?”

“Only in the summer. They don’t say how cold it can get on the tourist posters.” Jiro laughed. Satou laughed, too, but only because he had heard Jiro make that weak joke at least three or four times before. “But in the summer we attract the largest number of different beautifly varieties in the entire region. And we are part of the last unbroken wildlife corridor for tropius migration.”

“We could learn from you, here in Kanto,” Mr. Fuji said, watching the pokémon in the rafters now. “The power plant to the north of us, pumping waste into the ocean. The big cities to the west putting waste into the air. The whole economy here, all of it built on blood sport, and they wonder why we encounter so many restless souls.”

Satou had wondered how long it would be before Fuji brought up his politics. There were not many anti-battling activists in Kanto, founding province of the four-champion league system. Fuji was one of the few.

The Fuji family had fought for generations to prevent any gym or battle attractions being built in Lavender Town. It was a controversial move—pokémon battles drove Kanto’s economy. The beauty contests so popular elsewhere had never really caught on here. The success of the Fuji family’s campaigns meant that Lavender would never be a rich town. The radio tower and its new jobs had lessened the flow of criticism again the Fuji name; still, even Jiro looked uncomfortable at “blood sports.” Fuji was an institution, but people preferred he keep his radicalism hidden away as much as possible. Satou himself felt a grudging admiration, smiled to himself at Jiro’s discomfort; he was no great fan of the arena himself.

“Speaking of restless souls,” Satou broke in to change the subject anyway. “Is it possible one of your ghosts may have killed this man?” He tapped the file with the coroner’s report.

“We haven’t had an unnatural death here in my living memory. This is a place where the restless come to be healed, Detective. We don’t have so many ghost pokémon because this place is cursed. We have them because it is the only place left in the region in which they feel truly safe.”

“So no strange attacks on other people or pokémon, then? No sightings of invasive or uncommon species?”

“No. There has only been… Well. It sounds very superstitious. But I have had nightmares.  . I’m no psychic, so probably it’s nothing, but in this place, with ghosts, you can’t tell, sometimes. I know this—almost every pokémon here, wild or not, they know me and I know all of them. None of them would kill. The restless souls that come here, they move on quickly. There is nothing evil about this town except what is brought here. Whatever this is, it’s new, and it doesn’t belong in Lavender.”

They left soon after, taking the street car back down the hill to Fuji’s home where they’d left Satou’s little two-seater.  They drove down to their hotel across the street from a narrow, pebbly beach. As they drove, everything, everyone looked pale, washed out, weary in the mizzle. The feeling was infectious. Over everything stood the spiked tower, the antennae blinking with red eyes along its length. Fuji was wise, Satou knew, and Satou trusted him; but this place wasn’t right. Brought or born here, something was wrong, and it seemed to have a deep hold already.

In the hallway outside their adjacent rooms, Satou and Jiro held a quick conference.

“What’s the next step, then?” Bluff was preening now, furiously smoothing feathers pushed out of place by the sea breeze. Even pulled back, Jiro’s hair looked wind-rumpled. Satou felt the same.

“Go over that report, send a copy to HQ. Ask them if there’s been any gang activity out this way. That’s probably a dead end, but you have to check, cover the bases. . . Oh, see if they have anything in the system on the victim, get them to run his name.”

They separated. Satou spent the next hour combing archived local news, looking for patterns, for any mention of the victim. It was all banal, the usual mix of determinedly optimistic and bitter tones one found in small town newspapers. It, too, was a contagious tone, and it was frustrating reading. A single unproductive hour (the biggest find being an “Our Town” blurb about the victim with the headline, “Local Hooks, Loses Golden Magikarp!”) was all he could take before he needed a shower and then a stiff drink out on the narrow, covered balcony.

He took an old blanket out with him and sat in the plastic chair the hotel set on the cramped third story veranda. There was just enough room for him to prop his legs up on the balcony railing. He’d brought a pokéball out with him, the only one he carried. It was old now, the surface of the smooth red metal crosshatched with ten years’ worth of faint silver scoring. Settling back in the chair he tossed it gently across the balcony boards.  A burst of familiar red light and a sudden frantic beating of wings as the crobat found her balance in the unsteady breeze still fitfully gusting off the sea. Her movements were so familiar to him he knew exactly how the second pair of wings would stiffen like rudders, knew even which direction she  would swoop to stretch herself. After a few sharp turns she caught the currents so that she hovered for a moment a few yards away, ears swiveling to catch her own sonar echoes. Then, after a few minutes of sharp parabolas she steadied again and drifted slowly to rest against his chest.

“Sorry about the dull afternoon, friend,” he said, running a finger across the warm velvet of her ear. She looked up at him, her claws gently hooking onto the cloth of the blanket, and then snuffled her way under the blanket herself to take his warmth. They ate together from the brownbag he’d brought with him, and then fell asleep together wrapped in the blanket, lulled by the sound of the waves and the town traffic.

1. Seriously, though, the games are far and away the best aspect of this franchise. Once I survive this season I’ll write about the games as self-contradictory procedural arguments that tell you to value relationships but ultimately encourage a form of resource-ism of the (digital) pokémon body. But then there are ways that professional competitive battlers have subverted the procedural argument of the games and stayed true to the ostensible message, winning the world championship using overlooked, little-valued pokémon. Something to look forward to. 

Ep. 26–Empathy, cross-dressing, and stench-plants

Let’s check back in on Ash as our protagonist. If you recall, very early on I noted that Ash faced a choice to imitate the total domination of non-humans that Kanto media seems to push or to continue to choose unconventional, less socially acceptable, potentially more open relationships to non-humans. I’ve also noted that Ash can be kind of sexist.

This arc of development makes sense, since Pokémon is, at its heart, about living amidst extreme and abundant difference. Sometimes the difference creates conflict. The show’s underlying message is that empathy, developed through first-hand experience, is how one navigates this difference. We see this with the Sabrina arc, ultimately about how a non-human learned to relate to an unstable young woman no one else could or wanted to deal with. Episode 1.26, in which Ash is explicitly called out on his lack of empathy, is a good place to check back in with our main character. Does Ash actually learn anything?

Misogyny

Episode 26 starts, more or less, with Ash being a sexist jerk. Arriving in Celadon City, “the great metropolis,” Brock and Misty are curious about the city’s famous perfume industry. Well, okay, Misty and Pikachu are into the perfume.1 Brock wants to stare at the parfumiers (gross Brock is back). Ash thinks that it’s a boring tourist activity, but instead of going off and doing his own thing, he bursts into the store and basically yells that Misty shouldn’t buy the perfume:

Perfume’s just a waste of money, and it stinks! … All perfumes are a rip off, because all they do is turn guys into zombies. Like this! [Points to Brock, who’s still ogling.]

So, to clarify, Ash hates perfume because “it’s a waste of money” (a very subjective opinion) and because he blames the perfume for Brock’s male gaze (instead of, say, Brock’s tendency to objectify and/or fethishize women).

What might otherwise have just been a way to humorously show Ash’s immaturity becomes more of a “thing” later in the episode when his insult to the parfumiers prevents him from fulfilling his glory-quest. Celadon gym, it turns out, is run by the very women he just insulted. The manager and inventor of Celadon’s best perfumes is the gym leader, Erica, who specializes in grass-type ‘mon. Erica and her parfumier/trainer bffs refuse to allow Ash to enter the gym because of his childish, insulting behavior in their shop.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket is trying to steal  the valuable perfume formula. They’re rebuffed by Erica’s gloom, a pokémon based on a corpse flower, whose main defense is a debilitating smell. They agree to help Ash get into the gym, Photo 2015-07-04, 9 00 55 PMhoping to use Ash’s battle with Erica as a cover for their own thieving. Ash, after a brief side eye, goes along with their plan which, in a lovely little twist, is to dress Ash up like a very girly girl. When he declares he can now “show [Erica] who’s the boss around here,” Jesse warns him that “That doesn’t sound very lady-like!” That is, Ash must perform a stereotypical mode of femininity similar to the one he so vocally despised in the perfume shop. Will this lead to Ash learning to be more understanding?

Empathy

image

Erica’s gym

Let’s all take a second to enjoy Erica’s gym, unlike any we’ve seen before. It’s a series of indoor biospheres, like a really homey botanical gardens. We see one of Erica’s entourage leading a little cluster of grass ‘mon in pok-aerobics while Erica tells a story about a prehistoric omanyte. Her gym aligns well LeftRightLeftwith my theory of gyms being centers of ecological control and imitation. Erica, though, does so not to display power but to create, in the ultra-urban space of Celadon, an open, inviting green space. When “Ashley” is enrolled in a “training class”, we see that the gym is a place of community engagement, an eco-cultural hub that actively works to create a safe space of interspecies interaction and to keep out those who aren’t respectful of others–people like Ash.

Her desire to foster understanding even of much-maligned ‘mon is inspired by the backstory of her own gloom. Erica’s gloom has been with her since she was a child, when it rescued her from a threatening grimer. She has since dedicated her life to understanding and living with grass-type ‘mon. Sure, she battles, but she also takes her perfume inspiration from them, taking what is usually a very human cultural practice and involving the non-human source of that decoration much more visibly and explicitly in the process. That is, Erica doesn’t just use grass-types but seems to work with them.2

When the Ashley disguise fails, Ash gets his battle with Erica. Her opinion of his battling technique is that he “lacks empathy” with his ‘mon. Her gloom’s stench attack is threatening to utterly defeat Ash and his team when everything goes wrong. Team Rocket, nabbing a vial of something from the secret safe, makes a big scene and blasts their way out of the gym, setting the place on fire. Gloom is trapped inside, and Ash rushes in to save it. When he finds Gloom, he hesitates, fearing Gloom’s stench will overwhelm him; leaping across a wall of flame anyway, he finds thatPhoto 2015-07-03, 2 26 11 AM Gloom isn’t stenching. Gloom must feel safe. So… has Ash demonstrated empathy through earning Gloom’s trust?

I’m not sure, because Ash doesn’t seem to have learned to be more respectful of women, and he never had any particular animosity toward Gloom. Erica clearly grants him the rainbow badge out of gratitude. We don’t get the sense that Ash has significantly changed. After all, he’s always been brave and willing to risk his own safety to save others. This self-sacrifice is noble but not necessarily based on empathy. Instead, in this episode we see Ash dismiss certain kinds of “femininity” and then perform (read: appropriate) them for his own ends, later casting them aside as a “stupid costume” as soon as it’s no longer useful. Since he was never particularly prejudiced against Gloom, rescuing the stinky shrub doesn’t show change. In fact, when he emerges from the flames with Gloom, he’s wearing his “battle outfit”–cap turned backwards, game face on. He’s an okayish person, but on his own terms, in his own way.

I think we have to accept that Ash will always act on his own terms. He’s consistently rude about accepting help/advice, he’s reluctant to admit his own faults. If “empathy” is what Ash learns, it’s not empathy through flexibility. Early on I mentioned how Ash’s willingness to do things his own way was an ambiguous trait, potentially making him either a really positive or a really flawed character. I don’t think that’s going to change. Ash is always going to be a basically decent but flawed character. With Brock and Ash both being characters that are coded good but still relate to Others (i.e., pokémon and females) in problematic ways, maybe the thesis of the show so far is hashtag YesAllMen, or at least YesAllTrainers?

1. Once again I’m just going to take a moment to appreciate, deeply, how overwhelmingly Pikachu adores Misty. He loves her, he follows her around, he goes out of his way to avoid coming into conflict with her. He seems to really like Ash, too, but once again, my ideal spin-off series would by Misty and Pikachu just running off to be bffs in some small, seaside town, leaving Ash and Brock to bro around being offensive.

2. The reward for beating Erica is the rainbow badge–fittingly, I watched this ep. around the time when the SCOTUS legalized gay marriage. The parallel may not be intentional, but the rainbow as a symbol of prismatic coexistence certainly aligns with the ethos of Erica’s gym.

Ghost Coast, pt. 1

Years ago my younger brother, grumpy from getting himself grounded, stomped downstairs, dropped a fresh college-ruled, spiral notebook in front of me, and stomped back to his room. Inside was a note, complete with a hand-penciled logo (click to enlarge):

PokemonBook

Below is the first half of what I wrote, about a dozen pages of hand-scribbled detective story thought up and written mostly in one night. I don’t know if he ever actually read it. But because reading took up a lot of my time this week (also, the post-ghost eps. are really random), and since no one is going to read the blog over the U.S. holiday anyway, I’ve decided to post it here in lieu of an analytical post. What follows is pt. 1 of the only pokémon fiction I’ve ever written.


Ch. 1–New in Town

The wind was blowing damp and heavy from the inlet to the south, gusting sporadic drives of rain. Detective Ito Satou pulled his collar up against the wind and knocked once again. It hadn’t taken them long to find the Fuji house. Although the radio tower replacing the memorial had brought more jobs and more people to the town since Satou had last been here, it was still small, and the few new houses and businesses looked out of place among the rest of the weathered town. Even the radio tower was simply an addition onto the old memorial, the tangle of modern equipment rising from the top of an ancient pagoda. Grotesque gargoyles hunched beneath the new steel spires. Even with a fresh coat of paint here and there, Lavender Town, like the rest of Kanto, felt weary. Everything here was history.

“Are you sure he’s home?” Jiro asked after a moment. Satou pulled his eyes away from the tower brooding above them. Jiro was hunched under an umbrella, and as always, he had a small taillow perched on his shoulder. Most of his coats had patches there on the left where Bluff’s small claws dug into the fabric. Jiro Tanaka was a newly minted detective, shipped over from Hoenn. He was bright enough. Young, long hair pulled back in a tail. Curious to the point of being eager. Satou thought that maybe, sometimes, Jiro’s eagerness bordered on desperation to convince himself he wanted to be here in Kanto. After Hoenn, Kanto must’ve felt backwater and provincial. And it was, a bit. Satou had lived in Kanto all his life, loved it but still knew it was small, old, unsophisticated in many ways.

“It’s the right house. He said he’d meet us here.” Satou pointed to the small plaque next to the door:

Fuji Residence
est. 1753
Kanto Historical Society Heritage Home

“Anyway, look, the lights are on, someone’s in there.” Satou knocked again, a little louder. “Mr. Fuji,” he called. “Mr. Fuji, it’s Detective Satou. From Fuchia.” They waited for a few long, wet moments. The rain drummed on Jiro’s umbrella. His taillow ruffled its feathers, puffing itself up and glaring more severely than usual out at the damp.

The door opened suddenly. A small, balding man, past middle age, stood before them to the side, beckoning them in.

“Detectives.” He greeted them in a somewhat hushed voice. “Come in, come in. I am so sorry to keep you waiting.”

They stepped over the threshold, removing their shoes on the mat. Jiro shook off the umbrella.

“You don’t mind…” Jiro gestured with his head to the taillow.

“Not at all.” Even as Mr. Fuji answered something small and fast skittered in a room somewhere nearby. “I didn’t hear you at first, I was praying over the body.”

It was a small house, floorboards smooth with the patina of great age. A few very old maps and ink drawings hung on the walls of the small foyer. But it felt like a home, even still. There was a fountain somewhere nearby, and the whole place smelled of some herb or incense, very clean and refreshing, like mint.

“No trouble, Mr. Fuji. We are honored to be here in your home.” Satou bowed, and Jiro followed his lead. “It isn’t every day one meets someone from as honored a family as yours. This is Detective Jiro Tanaka.”

“Honored, Fuji-san,” Jiro said, bowing again. He may be eager, Satou thought, but he had impeccable manners and knew when to dust off the archaisms.

“Likewise, Detective Tanaka, Detective Satou. Would either of you like tea before you begin?” Fuji wasn’t old. At most he was sixty. But his face was very deeply lined with care and with smiling. Weathered, as well. But his eyes were bright, and he moved with such grace and strength that, as he gestured them further into his home, Satou thought he looked almost ageless, like some idol in a roadside shrine, a small and unassuming god of quiet blessings.

“Thank you, but I think we’ll get started immediately, and take tea after.”

“Fine idea. We’ll have time for tea and talk later, and maybe some dinner? Come, he is laid out in the back.”

Fuji led them to the farthest room, slid open the door, and stepped aside to let them enter first. The room was dark. That herbal smell came from here, and another scent, sweeter and more spiced. The only light in the room came from two small braziers lit with bright flames. The bare flames heated small censers of scented water hanging from the rafters from, long, thin silver chains. There were pokémon in the room, too, one in each of the shadowy corners—two bellsprout, swaying gently in an intricate, slow-stepping dance—it was from them that heavier scent came. Two abra sat in the other corners, perfectly still, holding lotus positions a foot above the ground. In the middle of the room was a narrow, high table. This was old, too. Dark wood, legs carved with ancient characters and stylized figures. The body was laid out there, draped with a grey shroud. Fuji went to the table, took hold of the cloth. He rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger absently, looked up at the detectives.

“I should tell you before you look… I don’t doubt your fortitude, either of you, but this is… this is something quite different from anything I’ve seen.”

He carefully folded the shroud down.

“Oh, shit,” Jiro hissed, and then, catching himself, murmured, “Sorry, sorry.”

The body was a mottled blue and white, like all the oxygen had been pulled from the blood. The face had been deformed, the skin pulled so tight across the bones that one could see the skull frame clear beneath the flesh. The teeth and gums showed in a death-snarl. In the eyes, still wide open and bulging from the tight face, the blood vessels had burst and the sclera was a dark, wet red.

“Look at these, here,” Fuji said, motioning them to look more closely at the neck. “See, those marks. Do you have a light?”

Jiro pulled out a small pen light, very bright and white. Jiro was always very proud of his pocket gadgets, but he seemed less pleased at the chance to use one now.

“Scratches, do you think?” Jiro’s voice shook a little. From his shoulder, Bluff puffed up again, clicked her beak.

“No, look, they haven’t quite broken the skin. It looks more like a burn of some kind, like it nearly blistered.” Satou took the light, peered closer. “There are photographs of these in the coroner’s report?” Fuji himself was the coroner.

“There are. The report is quite thorough.”

Satou spent the next few minutes in a cursory examination of the rest, but it was all unremarkable from the neck down, except for the strange mottling.

“Well.” Satou sighed. “I think Detective Tanaka and I would both like some very strong tea after this rough start.”

“I thought you might.” Fuji replaced the shroud, slowly, reverently. “Do you mind going out? While there is a vigil in my home, I do not prepare any food or drink here. The restaurant near the tower is very good, and I know all of the staff. They will give us privacy to talk of official matters in peace.”

“Sounds good. Jiro? Yes? Alright.”

They rode the small street car up the sloping main road. From the car they could see clear down to the waterfront and the boardwalks over the inlet. Even in the rain there were a few brave souls out fishing. Lavender had never been a commercial port—the inlet was wide but very shallow and rocky. Locals harvested shellfish among the rocks and there were a few rare pokémon that liked the shallow, inshore waters; these, along with the memorial and some cave tours, were the main draw. Set between the mountains and the sea, Lavender had never had any space to sprawl. Satou was impressed they even had a streetcar. He supposed bikes wouldn’t work as well in a town that was built on a hill.
He glanced at the coroner’s report on the ride up, grateful to have some time to read while Jiro made awkward small talk with Fuji. The drive up, with just the two of them, had been tiring. Jiro’s stamina for making nothing-conversation was far greater than Satou’s.

The report had nothing more remarkable than what he’d seen for himself. Strangely deoxygenated blood, some evidence that suggested a sudden change in pressure; undetermined cause of death, probably heart failure or asphyxiation, officially under investigation as a murder. He had almost hoped to see evidence of radiation, but there was nothing unusual there, not that any instruments had showed, and with no trace of poison there was little to go on. And while Fuji was the spiritual leader in the community, he was also a trained medical doctor, and a good one. (Another Fuji family tradition.) If he had found nothing more of note, there was probably little that anyone else would find, no matter how many tests they had them run at the lab.

(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?