“What is Ash even trying to say?”–more on the discourse of goodness

Ep. 1.42. Ash and the gang arrive in the windswept and dusty ghost town of Dark City. Streets abandoned, furtive citizens warily peeking through their windows, afraid of the dreaded… pokémon trainers!

In Dark City there are two gangs brawling for the chance to become an official gym. The residents of Dark City are now suspicious of trainers in general. In defending themselves (and condemning the Yas and Kaz gangs), Ash, Brock, and Misty are forced to articulate what really defines “good” and “bad” trainers. The show has really danced around this, claiming that there’s a difference while actually showing that, often, there really isn’t anything separating the good from the bad except for how good one is at describing selfishness in a way that makes it sound okay. When he’s explicitly asked how to be a good trainer, can Ash give an answer?

Motives

Ash seems to get the gangs’ desire to become official gyms. As Ash himself says, “Becoming an official gym is a big honor.” The issue isn’t the motivation but the way that the gangs are endangering the town and causing property damage. Misty tsks and says that their battling is “more like a streetfight!” An issue of methods, not motives?

Later, though, the boss of the Yas gang asks, “What faster way of making money is there in today’s world than by becoming an official pokémon gym?” Eschewing the sanitized discourse of honor and prestige is crossing a line, and Ash practically yells, “Pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money!” Fair enough, but what are they, then? It isn’t clear, since the weighty discussion of the ethics and Photo 2015-08-30, 1 30 15 PMcultural value of bloodsport is interrupted by a battle involving ketchup and pikachu tears.

The real difference

And you know what? I get it. Street battles are dangerous. The thugs all have big, scary ‘mon who cause a lot of damage, but honestly, the battle between the gangs, when we really see it, doesn’t look that different from any other battle, just… slightly less controlled? The battle’s real difference from sanctioned contests is that it damages houses and scares civilians. Ash may claim that the gang members “don’t have the right to be called pokémon trainers after what [they] made [their ‘mon] do;” but what is that, exactly? How are the gangs’ pokémon any worse off than Pikachu was after that battle with Lt. Surge? Battling, even in an official gym, can be brutal. Physical pain can’t be the line they’re crossing.

Photo 2015-09-03, 9 59 24 PMAsh, Brock, and Misty are also upset because their own reputations are threatened. When they see a street fight, Brock frets, “If this keeps up, people will think all pokémon trainers are dangerous!” Later a gang member tries to recruit Ash and co., and Ash worries that their “reputation as pokémon trainers” will be damaged. “Bad” trainers threaten to undermine the institution and put all trainers in a bad light.

In the end a mysterious, masked figure who’s been skulking around turns out to be a Nurse Joy who’s “the inspector from the official Pokémon League.” She, too, condemns the gangs’ “street fighting” and tells them that their only chance of becoming true trainers is to turn to Ash for advice. BUT, when asked, explicitly, what makes someone a good trainer, Ash seizes up and stammers unconvincing nonsense:

Ash: Well… you see… pokémon are really our friends so … we’ve gotta be kind to them.

Kaz Leader: But what about pokémon battles?

Ash: Of course, you fight them as hard as you can, with all your strength, trying to win…

Yas Leader: With all your strength? Isn’t that the same as fighting?

Ash: No, no, not at all… sure you try to win but you don’t try to beat each other!

Brock: Ha, what is Ash trying to say anyway?
Misty: I don’t think he knows himself!

Ash: Now first, you’ll have to fix everything you broke in this town!

In the end, then, there isn’t really a visible difference between the kind of fighting that’s “good” and the kind of fighting that’s “bad.” Instead, it’s when the gangs become productive members of the community that Brock declares “they’ve had a Photo 2015-09-03, 9 56 01 PMchange of heart and decided to become true pokémon trainers.”

So while Ash says that “pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money,” his best piece of advice to the gang leaders is to use their pokémon as literal tools in the service of Dark City’s wider community. Harm to pokémon was never the issue. Using non-human bodies for reasons that are too openly selfish and unregulated threatens the human community and is therefore “bad.” Good trainers are also good citizens, in line with the regulations of the League and the best interests of Kanto’s economy. The League is, more explicitly than ever, an economic institution, and the discourse of battling serves Kanto’s economy. 

Endnotes: What’s the show saying?

So what’s the “message” takeaway? The anime is ostensibly about friendship, living with difference, navigating tricky relationships, learning. In cases like this, though, actually thinking through the implications of the show (and let’s be honest, I didn’t even have to go very deep), we see first that the “official” discourse–that battling increases friendship, that battling isn’t violent but interactive, that “good” fighting is about learning and “bad” fighting is about winning, that “good” trainers don’t “use” their ‘mon–is pretty hollow, and that there isn’t much difference between “good” and “bad,” at least not for the bodies being used as tools. Non-human bodies are used for entertainment and economic gain, and you can change the language and context all you like, but that material reality is the same even if the human attitude toward it isn’t.

Pokémon as a show, then, is either about how discourse shapes the world, is inescapable, and can blind even otherwise decent people to harmful and enabling contradictions in social institutions and narratives (the cynical/honest reading); or, about how our attitudes justify the means. To put it another way, Pokémon as a show is either about how non-human bodies and needs are erased/ignored/abstracted by discourse; or about how our intentions justify those bodies’ treatment, regardless of how close it comes to forms of treatment deemed, in other contexts, cruelty. 

The moral: when writing a plot that hinges on what makes good guys good and bad guys bad, maybe address the fact that your protagonists are set up as the authority on good/bad but can’t articulate the difference. It’s a weird, gaping hole. The hinge of the plot of the episode is left hanging. Basically, I’m ruining my own childhood. Yay?

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.

(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?

(Dis)embodiement of the Uncanny, pt. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

this right here is the definition of chagrin

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

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

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

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

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

Horsea ruins everything

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

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

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

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

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

Bye bye Butterfree–is Butterfree going to die?!

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

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

whoa, many dance, much sexy, so courtship

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes: The venonat/butterfree truther movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ep. 10 — Ecotage!: Environmental extremism and the reinstitution of a natural order

Today we’re back to considering how the people of Kanto think of the world around them, what we might call “Nature.” A few posts ago, I speculated that Kanto’s wilderness may in fact be more or less a large, intentionally rugged park. The strongest evidence for this includes the way Ash and friends can travel on well-maintained footpaths even through fragile ecosystems like Mt. Moon. Episode ten, “Bulbasaur and the Secret Village,” seems to support this speculation. In this episode we encounter Melanie, who’s desperately trying to create a space that is inaccessible to other humans and maybe trying to restore a “natural order”—i.e., a non-human space—for the pokémon in that area. In the end, her goals are hard to suss out, but I’ll offer a few speculations anyway.

BulbasaurDefender

“You shall not harm this poor turnip today!”

In episode ten Ash and co. get lost. Not dangerously lost in the woods, though, more like, not sure if they’re on the right road. Misty attempts to catch an oddish and her starmie beats it up, but it’s saved by a bulbasaur who leaps from the bushes to fight off the attacking trainers and ‘mon and disappears back into the undergrowth.

BulbasaurPuff

He comes in all badass and then makes this face. This is why he’s my fav.

Later a rope bridge1 snaps, dumping Brock in a dangerously rocky river; then Ash and Misty fall into a pit trap and later get scooped up in one of those net traps that hang you from trees. Scoop nets? Tree traps? The ewok special? (I did a good amount of googling to find the technical term, but no joy, so I’m going with “an ewok scoopy-net dangle trap.” Ooo, ooo, band name!) Brock shows up to rescue them and they discover that the traps were set by Melanie, a young woman who’s created a haven for weak and abandoned pokémon. The traps keep trainers out of the village and give the pokémon a place to rest.  The bulbasaur is a volunteer who fights off trainers that get too close. Ash, Misty, and Brock all seem to understand, and Misty agrees that “Only bad guys try to capture sick pokémon!” imageMelanie is kind but also the most dangerous character we’ve encountered. Team Rocket is more sinister and malevolent, but Melanie is the only one who’s actively sought to harm anyone. Her drastic measures underscore her desperation to create a place where no other humans can safely come.

A few other things mark her as an environmental extremist. She rehabilitates the wounded pokémon but doesn’t use manufactured medication (i.e., potions) and she says she “isn’t qualified to be a pokémon doctor.” Instead she makes medicine from local plants. Living alone, administering herbal medication to wild pokémon in as remote a location as you can find in Kanto, Melanie is obviously a marginal figure.

I think what she’s doing is attempting to (re?)create a human/pokémon divide and maybe a nature/culture divide as well. She tries to make the village inaccessible. Kanto’s pseudo-wilderness offers no resistance even to fairly ill-equipped pre-teens, so Melanie has set primitive traps to simulate a degree of inaccessibility. She (literally) undermines the easily-entered faux-wilderness by subversively making the most obvious elements of human control/infrastructure–roads and bridges–unsafe and unreliable.

Like Seymour, Melanie proves that there are alternative ways of coexisting with pokémon than we’ve seen so far. She lives with and cares for them but never expresses ownership. She catches no pokémon, and they respond by actively seeking out her company. It’s clear that even wild pokémon respond well to peaceful, caring humans.

Melanie, though, is uncomfortable with the way she’s changed the ecology of the region. She wants the pokémon under her care to leave her because her own role in their ecosystem isn’t “natural” and the haven she has set up is disrupting their development. In the end, when she suggests that Bulbasaur go away with Ash, she explains that because of her and Bulbasaur, “it’s too safe here. [The pokémon] don’t want to return to the outside world.”

Here’s where I really start to lose a sense of what Melanie is doing. I get that she’s a wildlife rehabilitator, caring for creatures but making sure they return to where they came from. As she explains it: “I think it’s important that all of them return to the wild. That’s where pokémon belong…” If she stopped there I’d be happy, but she goes on: “…and hopefully someday they’ll find good trainers like you.” Melanie seems deeply determined that no trainers should come to her village because pokémon should have a place to be safe from humans, yet we know that she doesn’t think of “the wild” as a place free from humans. She says that pokémon belong in “the wild” so that they can grow strong and then “find good trainers,” so when she says “the wild” she means a place where there’s competition, conflict, and the potential to be caught.

So let’s puzzle this out. Does she just want to protect them when they’re weak? But wouldn’t being caught while injured lead to quicker medical care? Maybe pokémon are in danger of being killed in conflicts with over-zealous or cruel trainers, but then why not just put up “no catching” signs and run a legitimate shelter? Melanie seems to be squatting, and she’s secretive and reckless about her methods. She is definitely operating outside the norm, outside of what she sees as socially acceptable, practicing a sort of ecotage. Maybe her desperate secrecy is telling us that most trainers would use her kindness as a way to access weak prey, and she’s desperate for there to be somewhere for weak pokémon to go, even only temporarily. This would hint at a dark side of training culture.

If we accept that trainers are, by and large, terrible people, maybe she’s trying to send away pokémon because too many would attract more trainers and the authorities. A human-free space for the injured is better than nothing, even if she has to send away the healthy so that her haven can continue to exist. 

If she’s just worried about her presence disrupting this area’s ecology, it’s already way too late. By caring for weakened pokémon she’s saving some that might be eaten or die of illness. The fact that she has to care for non-native pokémon, too, makes it clear that the ecosystem is already compromised by human trainers injuring and releasing pokémon in the area. Some of these pokémon are potentially-invasive species, like the staryu we see in the village. 2 She wants the pokémon she cares for to go back to “the wild,” but since there’s no ecosystem that hasn’t been changed by humans, why not allow the pokémon to live in a place changed into a refuge instead of a scary world full of flying pokéballs? Maybe she’s just Yellowstoning? 3

Whatever the reason, her sending Bulbasaur with Ash is confusing. I guess we can’t read her as being opposed to ownership of pokémon absolutely, although she has strong feelings about something, as evidenced by her deadly bridge trap. Melanie, what do you actually believe in? Are you the Kanto equivalent of a crazy hermit cat lady who feeds three dozen feral cats and doesn’t own shoes?! I don’t want to blame this on the writers because taking Pokémon unusually seriously is sort of my whole thing… but it feels like an excuse to get Ash another member for his team.

I still like her as a character—she’s definitely an environmental extremist, and I think she and Seymour the Scientist should team up, maybe hook up, and be eco-activists together.4

So, to sum up: even “the wild,” the closest we’ve gotten to a concept of “nature” like our culture has, is still a place where trainers are. Environmental extremists and alternative communities are a thing in Kanto, though. Melanie and Seymour are both strange characters who live on the margins of society alongside pokémon and refuse to catch or battle them out of a respect for pokémons’ own lives, desires, and social arrangements.

Bonus: Brock’s unconventional masculinity, cont. 

I just want to point out that in this episode Brock’s unconventional masculinity is again a quietly present theme. Brock falls into the river and is swept away, and we see in a flashback how Melanie rescues him, grabbing his hand and pulling him from the water. Later we know Brock likes her because Ash, seeing him watching Melanie as she cares for the pokémon, teases him, and he blushes. He’s shy about it, doesn’t want her to hear and doesn’t want to talk about it with Ash and Misty. The way Brock is rescued, paired with his shy and subtle admiration of Melanie, is sweet, and it’s nice that we’re getting more of Brock being a complex male character. It almost makes up for that gross comment about the high schooler (see annotation for episode 9). Not quite, but almost.

1. What is up with anime worlds and rope bridges? They’re in half the anime I’ve watched. (Which is, granted, like, four.) If I go hiking in Japan am I going to have to cross half a dozen of these deathtraps?

2. Although apparently able to survive out of water for a least a moderate amount of time, staryus live on the ocean floor or in estuaries. It must’ve been released nearby, because the nearest ocean is in Vermilion, a place we don’t see for another, like, four or five eps.

3. I definitely made this up, but it’s a thing now. Yellowstone, v.- to consciously alter an ecosystem in an attempt to restore it to an earlier state, or to mitigate the damage being done by others, and to do so by making as little impact as possible outside of targeted own efforts. E.g., reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone to restore an earlier ecosystem while reducing other forms of human impact, thus allowing the park’s “Natural processes [to] operate in an ecological context . . . . less subject to human alteration than most others.” 

4. More adventures in Google: I looked to see if there was any fanfiction with Seymour and Melanie, and didn’t find any. I did find one fanfic that, advertising the pairings it contains, listed “Ash/Large Harem (30 girls).”  

. . . . . . . . . . .

 BertStare 

Anyway, I’m calling dibs on any “Melanie and Seymour become eco terrorists” plots, no one else write one! I even doodled a cover. (Haha, look at that crazy-impossible shading on Melanie. Such artistic statement!)Moonrise!

It’ll be like The East but with more pokémon and less Brit Marling, which is a shame because she’s a stellar actress. Her voice is actually vaguely similar to the voice of the actor who plays Melanie. Coincidence, or fate?! 

Ep. 8 & 9 — Tough but cool: Difference, discourse, and what it means to be a “good trainer.”

Guys and gallades, we have a new banner! It’s a commission from the wonderful Caity Hall! Look at more of her work on deviantartstorenvy, and even Instagram. That’s me! There I am! With an eevee and a dedenne! It’s basically what I would see if I looked in the Mirror of Erised.

*sigh*


This is a long one, and it’s more theoretical than the others have been, but I think it might be my favorite so far.  I had less time to work on the blog this week, so if there are places where the logic is difficult to trace, point it out, ask a question, disprove a point. I will digitally and literally like any comments you can offer. Except spam. Or trolls. Or something pro-Oak. Anyway. Let’s start exploring!

In episodes 8 and 9 we see Ash learning what constitutes a “good trainer.”  Here I analyze some of the discourse that constructs and informs the idea of what a “good trainer” actually is. Before we really get into it, some theoretical background: A discourse is a set of ideas and vocabulary used to talk about an important concept (e.g., gender, humanity/animality, race, childhood, etc.1) Discourse both describes and constructs our thoughts about a concept. Discourse often determines what we consider to be true and possible because if we don’t have the ideas or the words to talk about something different from what we know, it’s hard to believe that it’s possible. In eps. 8 & 9, the ideas and vocabulary (discourse) of what makes a “good trainer” are used to justify some pretty shoddy treatment and conception of pokémon.

Difference—All you have to do is care

In episode 8, “The Path to the Pokémon League,” Ash encounters A.J. A.J. trains “savage pokémon” and Ash calls him “the wild pokémon trainer.” I don’t think he uses pokéballs at all. Instead he controls his ‘mon through intense training, using a whip (well, a whip crack) to time his pokémons’ attacks precisely.

A.J. is harsh. After soundly defeating Ash, we hear him yell at Sandshrew like a drill sergeant, saying “you call that a win?!” All his pokémon wear a metal straight jacket/shackle combo called a “strength intensifier.” He makes his sandshrew train in a swimming pool, although sandshrews are weakened by  water. As A.J. proudly tells Ash, “we live by the rule ‘no pain, no gain’!” Ash, furious, counters with his own philosophy that “A great trainer should make friends with his pokémon!” A.J.’s defense is: “I ask no more of Sandshrew than I do of myself—the very best.”

When Sandshrew goes missing, A.J. panics. We see in flashbacks how much he and Sandshrew have been through together in their quest to “be the greatest,” as A.J. says. A series of shenanigans later (Team Rocket steals Sandshrew instead of Pikachu, A.J. and Sandshrew beat them up and earn their 100th win), A.J. and Sandshrew’s happy reunion convinces Ash that A.J. is good people. He is, Misty tells us, “Tough but cool.” Brock says earlier in the episode that “A.J. is tough, but as you can see he cares deeply for his pokémon.”

image

A.J., Ash, and… Pikachu? You… you okay, buddy?

This episode is very much an “Ash learns a lesson” tale. A.J. is immediately “othered” by his southern U.S. accent (i.e., negatively set apart as unsophisticated and cruel); his whip is scary; the way he yells at his pokémon is disturbing. In the end, though, A.J. and Sandshrew teach Ash that, as the narrator sums up for us, “there are many paths that lead to the Pokémon League.” It’s a lesson about not making snap judgments. In the end A.J. goes off to start his journey with Sandshrew walking by his side, a parallel to the way that Ash and Pikachu travel together. Whoa, TWIST—they’re actually more similar than they are different!

I love a good “don’t judge people with stigmatized and exaggerated accents” story, but yikes. Unlike the episode where Ash learns empathy from Brock, here Ash learns that it’s okay to use restraints, to micromanage your pokémon’s lives and time, to harshly acclimate them to their fears and weaknesses as long as you do it to make them (and yourself) stronger and as long as you really care.

Giselle and the Importance of Experience

As a contrast to A.J.’s overly involved and hands-on style, in “The School of Hard Knocks” we meet Giselle who is skilled in book learnin’. She attends Pokémon Technical, a training school for the rich imagethat guarantees its graduates entrance into the Pokémon League. The brochure says it’s for trainers who want to challenge the League “without having to travel on difficult badge collecting journeys.”

As an academic and an aspiring educator who works primarily with the written word, I looooove me some anti-intellectual subtext. -_-

Giselle has extensive knowledge of pokémon factoids and has trained on a simulator that looks almost exactly like the video games. (This is hilarious and maybe complicated and therefore for another time.) 2 Still, Ash and Pikachu are able to defeat Giselle’s cubone even though, as a ground type, cubone has an immediate advantage because he’s immune to electrical attacks. Giselle is surprised because “none of the textbooks” indicate that pikachus can win without electrical attacks.

The moral of this episode is that Ash and Pikachu win because they’ve taken that hard journey and engaged more directly with pokémon. As Misty, goddess of wisdom and rage, tells us sagely, “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real life.”  No substitute for the real thing, people. 3

Discourse–Collapsing body boundaries through discourse, problematizing the discourse through bodies

These episodes are really important! How so, you ask? Well, hold onto your butterfrees, friends, because we’re about to get speculative and theoretical! Let’s closely examine the discourse of pokémon training and battling as shown in these episodes.

These are all pikachu, Pikachu, and pikachu at the same time.

First off, grammatical analysis! On this blog I’ve deviated from the standards of the franchise and used an S indicate plurals. I’ve also capitalized the names of pokémon (Pikachu, as in Ash’s) but not the general species (pikachu, as in some rando electrical mouse). But in Kanto (and most of our world), the singular/plural is the same and the general species name is capitalized. This makes it hard to differentiate the categorical and the individual. The word Pikachu could refer to to a single pokémon, a group of pokémon of the same type, or even Ash’s specific pokémon. It’d be like having a sheep named Sheep.

This grammatical quirk makes the individuality of pokémon difficult to talk about and difficult to think about. The individual and the categorical are referred to with the same word, and I’m going to go so far as to suggest that it enables (or at least correlates with) the idea of the pokémon as an extension of the trainer. There’s evidence for this when A.J. makes a grammatically strange statement explaining how he and Sandshrew began their journey: “We promised to do whatever it took to become the greatest pokémon trainer of all time.” A.J. here erases the difference between himself and Sandshrew by collapsing we into one thing, “the greatest trainer.” He does so naturally, easily, and the statement is supposed to sound positive, inspiring, even. It shows A.J.’s conviction. And on the surface it sounds nice, right? It could be love that motivates this erasure of difference—the linguistic parallel to Ash’s willingness to throw his own body between Pikachu and a flock of angry spearows.

But wait, what’s that sound? . . . . . .

Sorry, boys and kirlias, it is time to stomp on those warm fuzzies and start callin’ some bullshit, because this identification is how A.J. justifies emotional and physical abuse of his kidnapped, gladiatorial, glory-grabbing tools. To requote, A.J. defends his methods by saying “I only expect of them what I expect of myself—the best.” (Ash did this, too, when he justified his electrocution of Pikachu with “If I can take it you can take it.”) Problem is: it is the pokémon who do the fighting, wear the restraints, are burned, bitten, zapped, leveled up and then made to fight harder. A.J. is just holding the whip.

So, to sum up so far: some weird grammatical slipperiness works in conjunction with the idea that pokémon are extensions of the trainer to justify abusive methods. This is where ep. 9 comes in. Experience is a major legitimizing concept of Ash’s world (e.g., “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real”). If you can say that you yourself participated and met the same demands you set for your pokémon, this also supports the idea that pokémon become an extension of the trainer–we becomes one. Ash enacts this phsyically by using his own strength to pump electricity into Pikachu. With A.J., training, even harsh training, becomes a form of self-care, because a good trainer and his pokémon are a single entity and both work toward the same goal.

But other concepts take away pokémon’s individuality as well in less aggressive, ostensibly caring ways. Giselle says that “pokémon are only as strong as the trainer that raises them.” This puts the burden of responsibility (for pokémons’ safety and their prowess in battle) on the trainer but also denies that pokémon have active agency, ability, and desire apart from their trainer. Again we find that we collapses into one, with the trainer being the central element in the equation. It’s couched here in terms that take blame off of the pokémon, so it seems well-intentioned; but again, it denies that pokémon have the ability to really, autonomously share and participate in (or resist) battling culture.

BUT, have hope– Pikachu undermines this discourse with the simple fact of his own pudgy body. Yes, though some have said Pikachu is an unremarkable mascot for the franchise,4 Pikachu here earns his place as the only pokémon my mother can recognize by name.

imagePikachu is able to refuse a battle in ep. 8 because he rejects the pokéball and can’t be de/rematerialized at will by Ash. Pikachu is motivated by self-preservation as much as loyalty to (or fear of) his trainer. Pair his healthy fear of pain with his ability to improvise against Giselle’s cubone (reversing cubone’s skull mask and throwing the bone back for a knock out) and we find the “pokémon are an extension of the trainer” a difficult position to maintain. Misty draws attention to this when she points out that it wasn’t Ash’s skill that won the battle against Giselle. Even then, though, she calls it “just kind of a fluke.” Pikachu’s own role in the victory is ignored because the discourse of training insists that trainers battle and win, not pokémon. Misty’s conclusion is that if Ash’s (lack of) directions didn’t win the battle, it must’ve been an accident.

Ash’s inexperience makes Pikachu’s improvisation possible. A.J., in contrast, wouldn’t tolerate Pikachu’s kind of behavior even from his bff Sandshrew, no matter how much he actually cares. Ash’s inability to master others is exciting and positive because Pikachu’s undirected victory creates cracks in the discourse and opens up potential for change and negotiation with the ideas that dominate Kanto culture and reduce pokémon to the role of tools. I just wish that Ash would start to realize this, really question the discourse directly and actually take his own path.

1. Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault’s definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” It’s important to note, too, that discourse is never dominating; there are always places where it is in conflict with competing discourses and ideas. Discourse is also not from any one, hegemonic source, but is instead a pervasive cultural approach created by socioeconomic, historical, and religious influences all in cooperation or tension with each other. An emergent property of a culture, maybe? Whatever. Back to the pocket monsters.

2. We also learn that they have a concept of “levels” in Kanto, just like the video games. This has to be difficult— I suppose it’s like the breed standards for show dogs? If the pokémon can perform certain “tricks,” as one student calls them, they’re counted as being a certain level? But it would be so subjective; it’s not like a pokémon earns a quantifiable number of exp. points in a battle, so… yikes. The League must need loads of by-laws and spreadsheets and style guides to keep track of these things, and maybe some actual level tests, maybe like a skill-scalable obstacle course but geared for different species and types… Someone’s full-time job must be League Inspector or Judge, and the regulation committee meetings must be endless nightmares. Also, would gym leaders announce their pokémons’ level on the sign? Do they use pokémon fitted to the level of the challenging trainer? Brock was able to judge Pikachu’s strength at a glance back when he first met Ash, so does a gym leader have to be able to sum up the strength of any given pokémon? I kind of like that idea, actually. It would nuance the gym leaders, make them more impressive, because as of now we don’t have any idea of what it takes to be a gym leader. (Brock and Misty don’t seem to have challenged any gyms; maybe they can’t, as leaders? Point is, we don’t know why they’re especially qualified.)

3. I just realized that this moral is foreshadowed at the beginning of the episode when Brock “advertises” for “100% Cerulean Coffee.” No joke— he looks right out of the screen and gives a product plug. Referencing the more obviously manipulative discourse of “authenticity” that’s used in marketing actually draws attention to the way that the discourse of authentic training might not itself be infallible, as I’ll discuss in the second section. Happy accident or cynically genius show writers?

4. And, fun fact, clefairy was originally intended to represent the games, but Pikachu’s popularity in the anime changed everyone’s minds before they were released.

Some speculation on Kanto’s environmental management

A quick word before we begin– Recently on Tumblr there’s been a fantastic explosion of art that imagines cross-bred pokémon with characteristics of both parents. Some even imagine what sort of ecosystem would lead to such cross-breeds. It’s exactly the sort of thinking that prompted this blog, and it’s all beautiful, so even if you don’t follow Pokécology’s Tumblr, the art is worth looking at.


Okay, now to business! At this point, I feel like I’ve seen enough of the show to start thinking about how it presents space/environment. By the end, I want to consider the possibility that all of Kanto is basically a huge, Hunger Games type arena.1 

Also, a final note on terminology [tangent warning]— I use the term “environment” as a shorthand, but I don’t love it. It’s a single, monolithic and reductive concept. “The environment” and “nature” are human concepts, flexible and deployed in different ways but always, inescapably a simplification of what they claim to label. When I say environment, what I mean is really the interaction of living things with each other and their nonliving surroundings. “The environment” is a complex, restless, explosively irreducible web of interactions. What really defines a place or a region or a biome are those interactions between living things and the place they live. That is, “the environment” is nothing more than interconnected ecosystems. Place is not really what we mean when we say “environment,” but rather what happens in that place. So when I talk about control over “environment,” what I mean is control over those things that live there and how they interact. Make sense? Good! Now down to business.

Environments encountered, environments simulated; or, Squirtles all the way down? 

The first character to indicate that, yeah, maybe just catching creatures willy nilly in your relentless lust for bloodsports is maybe not environmentally responsible behavior?

To get from Viridian to Pewter Ash and Misty follow an unpaved road and then pass through/around Mt. Moon as they go to Cerulean, meeting the delightful Seymour the Scientist. 2 It’s rough going in place– rope bridges and footpaths. Is all of this undeveloped space left alone to be huge wildlife corridors or parks?  We have no indication that there is any regulation of what pokémon can be caught or where, so it isn’t strictly regulated. Eventually I think we see Pokémon Rangers, but here and now Ash is free to roam and potentially disrupt any ecosystem he enters, so maybe it’s more like a game reserve?

At this point, it really struck me that the vast tracts of undeveloped land in a world technologically advanced enough to have pokéballs, teleporters, and free health/law enforcement run by clones have to be intentional.

Brad O’Farrell writes in his article about the similarities between Kanto (and other regions) and real places. All of Kanto, he says, is based on Tokyo, but with some significant differences:

[Kanto’s] map isn’t based on present-day Tokyo, it’s based on the pre-sprawl Tokyo of the 1960s. The towns that are connected by forests and rivers in the Pokemon world are connected by concrete and bullet trains in our world. The fantasy of this world is not just that humans and Pokemon live side by side, but that the golden age of Japan never ended. This world is in a state of tranquility while its real-life counterpart was in a state of upheaval.

Is it that Kanto represents a pre-development glory or a far-future or alternate development? We know that there are terrifyingly powerful kinds of tech. in Ash’s world, and Cerulean City is definitely an urban hub, albeit a smallish one. Large population centers require power, waste disposal, water treatment; so where is the visible infrastructure? All I can think is that Kanto’s technology is so advanced that control over the environment is made invisible. The tech. is so advanced that it can recreate the rivers, forests, mountains that connect cities while still enabling large urban centers to exist.

They’re all just magikarps in a tank. Metaphorically speaking.

Just as pokémon are mediated by merchandise and television, I think that even the environment of Kanto might be all mediation, just squirtles all the way down. There’s no “real” wilderness left. Kanto isn’t a past golden age that never ended, it’s so post-tech-explosion that they’ve recreated wilderness-like spaces. There’s support for this theory in the (mostly) well-maintained footpaths that go through the areas Ash travels. This isn’t wilderness at all but managed space, cultivated for pokémon, yes, but also for traveling trainers. This would make all of Kanto a vast, Hunger Games-style arena that supports/enables the industry and culture of pokémon training. While such tracts of land allow more space for pokémon to live, they also serve as a way to maintain breeding populations of pokémon for trainers to battle and catch. No area is undisturbed– human populations may be clustered and concentrated in the urban spaces, but trainers still have access even to the fragile ecosystem of Mt. Moon.

Art by ChuzOr

Think, too, about the kind of spaces we’ve seen in the two gyms. Brock has an entire boulder field he can conceal or conjure at will. Even more sophisticated and elaborate is the aquarium in the Cerulean Gym. (Question: Do the swim performances happen in the same water that the coral and fish live in? Because that would neither be responsible fish care nor sanitary pool conditions.)

That this ability to recreate and control environments takes place in gyms, places that best exemplify control over pokémon, might support the theory that gyms are no more than miniature recreations of the way Kanto is, as a whole, recreated and managed space. In the gyms the ability to recreate the environment (and sometimes, as in Pewter’s gym, hide it away until needed) is casually celebrated, part of both the aesthetic and the gym’s unique challenge at once.

Another piece of evidence to support the theory is the way that Ash and company take for granted that traveling on foot through a bug-strewn Viridian forest is as legitimate a way to go from place to place as Gary leaving Pallet by car. We don’t get any sense of a wilderness/civilization opposition, no nature/culture tension. It seems to be taken for granted that these spaces are meant to be accessible. So is environmental control made invisible not only physically but also conceptually? Maybe they don’t ever talk about “the environment” or address a nature/culture opposition because, in their society, there isn’t one. This can be a powerful thing– our own, real-world insistence that there is such a thing as “the environment” or “nature” allows us to abstract what is actually immeasurably complex. It allows us to think of our nonhuman neighbors, the trees behind our house, the thousands of small communities hidden in lichen and canopy, the unseen clusters of barnacles on a harbor piling, the melting sea ice, the networks of mycelium that connect fungus and forest, as one single thing to be managed and legislated.

Still, the fact that humans’ effects on the environment are invisible creates the potential for any harm done by the infrastructure that must exist to be more easily ignored. Also, if humans are actively managing and controlling what appears to us as “wilderness,” it makes Kanto’s seemingly pristine forests and mountains into an arena. It would be a representation of what space “should be”– a mediation not unlike the way the ‘dex feeds Ash information that is clearly biased. Ash and co. might take this accessible wilderness for granted because they have no conception of space that isn’t created and controlled by humans.

1. Not to undermine that chilling statement’s Very Serious Tone, but a quick look on fanfiction.net reveals about 35 crossovers of Hunger Games Pokémon, a mashup that I think would work better than the fanfic I googled up the other day in which Prof. Oak teaches “Pokémon ed” at Hogwarts during Harry’s second year. That said, Snape teaching pokémon potions is legitimately delightful and works really well in this other one I found so, props Mr. Chaos, 10 points to Pidgeyclaw. HuffleJigglypuff? 

2. Seymour legitimately cares about Mt. Moon and the very rare, enigmatic clefairy. He ends up staying there to live with them. (I’m guessing he means like extended field work. The Dian Fossey of Mt. Moon.) He also stops Ash from trying to catch them, gently indicating that it would be best for the (possibly sole remaining) population of clefairy to remain undisturbed. He also has no pokémon and is the character who most obviously sees the ecosystem and its inhabitants as valuable in themselves. So there are environmentalists in this world! Although I don’t think we’ll meet him again, I really, really like Seymour and his ridiculous rhymes. We would most definitely be friends.  

Ep. 5, Acting on and through bodies

BoyOrGirl

Welcome back, all and sundry! (Unlike Oak, I don’t force anyone to announce their gender or identify with the normative, binary stereotypes of Boy/Girl. Ugh, Oak is the worst, amiright?)

Before we begin, I’d like to point any Tumblr users to Pokécology’s new Tumblr, which is a delightful mishmash of stuff I find and sometimes create with my artisinal MS Paint skills (developed over decades on the classic desktops we all remember with a nostalgia we cannot resist but which we know to be false).  St. Francis of of Assissi preaching to the taillow, an ad for McMonalds, various fab. screenshots of Jesse and James— all fun things, so check it out if you like fun things.WeedleGif

Now, to business. I want to focus exclusively on episode 5, because it is a legitimately rich and complex episode and because ep. 4 was full of weedles. I’m not a huge fan of weedles. (I am, though, a huge fan of this gif which I didn’t make but wish I had because who needs a Ph.D. when you can combine my fav. scene from Spongebob with weedle for a reference pun? No one, is who.)

Today I’ll be paying some deserved attention to Brock’s uniquely performed masculinity (not directly ecocritical, but whatever) as well as exploring the treatment of pokémon bodies. It has only taken five episodes to convince me that, if I ever get my wish and wake up in pokémon world, I will immediately become an anti-battling activist and run a shelter for abandoned/maimed/rejected pokémon because this world is messed up. Let’s begin!

Brock and Kanto’s Pervasive Ethos of Competition 

Brock is a stony and intimidating, seemingly cold gym leader, scoffing at Ash’s inexperience and starting their battle with a scornful “let’s get this over with.” We quickly learn, though, that he is also a nurturing and parental figure. He does the dishes and mends his siblings’ torn dresses, all while wearing a frilly apron. (It probably belonged to his dead mom. Think about that. He wears his dead mother’s apron while he does chores. Oh, my broken heart.)

Brock has assumed a parental role because his father left to become a trainer. An excellent battler, what he wants most is to become a breeder– he tells Ash he wants to travel with him so he can eventually “become the world’s best breeder.”
(Cultural takeaways are: there are pokémon-centric occupations apart from trainer, professor, or health care provider; leaving to become a trainer isn’t only something that children do as a kind of  excessively violent gap year; and there’s an underlying “culture of engagement” in which travel and direct experience is equated with learning– more on this later?)

The original sharer of this image captioned it “this kid has serious issues,” which makes me have sad feelings.

I always loved Brock, loved that there were other things you could do with pokémon, and pretty early on in my pokémania I decided that I would rather be a breeder than a battler. I love that we get a serious main male character who is not typically masculine but also not really camp (cough, James, cough). That the first gym leader we meet, a tough and intimidating battler who uses the massive and rock-skinned onix, turns out to be the character who has, arguably, the tenderest heart of anyone in the Indigo League seasons is just so wonderful. The tough Brock that we first met doesn’t disappear in the future, but he is nuanced. Brock as a male character is able to perform his masculinity in the way Ash is attempting, but he would rather design blends of pokéchow to feed the baby ‘mon he wants to breed. I love the relationship between Brock and Ash, too, as Brock begins to play the part of friend and mentor. If Ash and Misty act like close-in-age siblings, Brock is the perfect older brother. (Much as my younger siblings would, I am sure, describe me.) I also love that Brock is non-white. Yay, some casual diversity in our main characters!

oh what horrors we hath wrought throughout our endless quest/ to master even life itself, to be the very best. – me, just now

What I love a lot less, though, is that while Brock would rather raise pokémon as a breeder instead of a fighter, his desire to be a breeder is still expressed in terms of “being the best.” Even breeding is discussed in competitive terms, which indicates that Ash’s entire cultural milieu is saturated with the rhetoric of competition/mastery. This is the kind of twisted attitude that, no doubt, drove breeders to discover the abomination that is HSOWA. →

Cultural ideology was badly poisoned!

The question is: does Brock’s desire to express his mastery in a tender, nurturing way undermine the paradigm of combative competition or simply reproduce it? Should we be troubled that every aspect of Kanto society is permeated with this narrative of competition and domination? I’m deeply bothered by this, not so much because I think Brock’s intentions are bad, but because I think that in this culture the rhetoric of “being the best” is inherently toxic. In part it’s because in this same episode, that same desire drives Ash to what is unquestionably, undeniably abuse in an attempt to win his first badge.

Ash and Appropriating and Invading the Pokémon Body

By the end of this episode, Ash has gone further than just stepping into the ring himself. After Pikachu is soundly defeated by Brock’s onix, Ash tapes wires to Pikachu’s cheeks, hooks him up to a disused hydroelectric wheel,  and manually generates electricity by using the wheel like a stairmaster. The electricity overwhelms Pikachu, who makes disturbing, pained mewling sounds– but it also supercharges Pikachu’s powers.

Ash is now confusing physical boundaries between his body and Pikachu’s. He transfers his own physical energy, technologically converted and transmitted, into Pikachu’s body. Ash is making literal the unspoken way that trainers see pokémon as extensions or embodiments of their own skill.1 We know he sees Pikachu in this way because of the way he talks about battling after his loss to Brock. Ash says, “Brock’s way better than me. I could never enter a League match if I can’t beat him,” and later, “I’m gonna get a badge all by myself using the pokemon I’m training.” To Ash, at least, pokémon are proxies. By thinking of battling in this way, Ash is abstracting his very immediate, real pokémon bodies into representations or symbols that evoke no more empathy from him than that crappy merch. that filled his room.

So Ash trudges on the water wheel, sweating, and he hears Pikachu’s pained cries of pain, he calls, “If I can take this, you can take it Pikachu!” The next shot is a close-up of Pikachu’s face:

Pika Pain. 😦

I think Ash intends the words to be encouraging, but using a stairmaster (basically) is not the same as being hooked up to a a hydroelectric generator and electrocuted. This is undeinably abuse. By seeing the pokémon as tools to display his competence, Ash ignores the pain that Pikachu feels while battling and while “training.”

PikaPiKA

who’s ready for a pika pounding?

And again, let’s be clear: Ash is using his body to alter Pikachu’s body, motivated by a desire for battle prowess. He acts not only by acting on Pikachu’s body (giving orders, practicing battle moves) but also within it. Moreover, the purpose of the pain Ash inflicts on Pikachu is to inflict more powerful, painful attacks on other pokémon. It’s a bizarrely literal displaced aggression in which Ash imbues Pikachu’s body with his aggression so that Pikachu can exercise Ash’s competitve will on other pokémon who are, in turn, the proxies of the gym leader Ash wants to defeat. There’s a lot going on here, and this will definitely come up again.

PikaPounding

Awwwww, but also, Ahhhhh!

I speculated in my first post that some of the themes of the first three eps would, in a more mature show, set up Ash as a figure of moral ambiguity with two potential paths– that of a dangerous, potentially destructive competitor or a revolutionary figure who defies the normative way of seeing pokémon as battle tools. This episode makes me think that this is not actually a stretch. During the electrocution, how can we not be troubled? If you have any empathy (and it’s Pikachu, in his especially cute and chubby days– even Brock says that he’s “in [his] cutest stage”), this scene is disturbing. Sure, Pikachu ends up okay (he comes back in ready to win like he’s in a professional Smash Bros. tournament), but that doesn’t change the fact that Ash abuses his pokémon to make it stronger. 2

Ultimately, though, Ash does land on the side of empathy. As Pikachu is frying a water-soaked Onix, Brock’s 10 siblings3 try to stop Ash because they want to save Brock the pain of seeing his Onix endure more punishment. Ash has a flashback to when Brock called off their first battle and sent Ash away, and he realizes Brock held back for Pikachu’s sake. Ash then stops the battle, saying he feels that the fire sprinklers, set off by his overpowered Pika’s attacks, gave him an unfair advantage. Is Ash trying to navigate machismo codes of battle and avoid admitting he didn’t want to cause further pain by instead citing a code of honor? We did just see him realize how Brock empathizes even with pokémon he doesn’t own. I want to believe that Ash is bothered by the pain experienced by pokémon and holds back, not out of a desire to win fairly but because he realizes empathy and skilled training are not exclusive. (Although some point in some season Ash is in some twisted gym where he has to feel all the pain of the pokémon in the ring, and when I get there I will definitely experience a touch of schadenfreude.)

Basically, to sum up: In this episode we see Ash being a bit of a psychopath. We also see him learn from Brock, a trainer he respects, that maybe there is a way to be both a competent trainer and an an actively empathetic and caring person. The moral: Brock is the best and Ash is a figure we’re justified in questioning.

1. It reminds me of the way anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks about cock fighting in the extremely readable piece about the Balinese sport entitled “Deep Play.” 

2. So, Pikachu is an elemental creature, but this method of training is like forcing a single sled dog to pull five people for five miles. Or maybe waterboarding a squirtle? It’s a shite thing to do Ash. Ash, you are being a psychopath, Ash, stop taking advice from supersketch rando beardy guys, Ash what are you even doing? SMDH Ash, Ash you’re pretty damn close to going on my list Ash the only other person on that list is Oak you do not want to be on that list Ash.

You’d have to have a heart of *stone* not to love this picture

3. I honestly don’t know if I should flag this and pay attention to “reproductive rights in Kanto culture”, or just assume Brock’s parents wanted 11 kids? But then, the father left Brock’s family so I’m guessing he wasn’t too keen on it, but maybe it’s a weird blended family situation like a Kanto Brady Bunch, except all the kids look like mini-Brocks, even the girls, soooo? I also wonder if we’re getting a parallel between training and parenting, since Brock’s father failed as a parent and as a trainer. I’ll watch out for explicitly parental language in training advice/instruction/rules. 

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?