“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?

The Function of the Pokémon Center

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

Free healthcare (because they use unpaid labor?)

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

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

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

Aesthetics

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

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

As a social space

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

Final note

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

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.