Kanto’s hippie commune?

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

Photo 2015-08-25, 9 09 19 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Hippie!

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

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

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

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

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Different spaces

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

Mt. Moon

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

Ep. 1.10, Melanie’s Rehabilitation Clinic

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

Ep. 1.31, Diglett Terraces

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

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

Misty: Beautiful gardens made by these little guys!

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

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

Ep. 1.33, Laramie Ranch

image

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

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

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

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

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

Ep. 1.34, the National Pokémon Reserve

by Marinko Milosevski, found at Marinkoillustration.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hop Hop Hop Town, an interpretive dance

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

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

Kanto_Map_Anime

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

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

source found here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: real-world application

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Voice of the apokélypse–communication and alterity in episode 19 and beyond

A single, belated update this week. I’ve got my ongoing Ph.D. reading (did you know Leonard Cohen a) is Canadian and b) pre-music career, wrote a novel in which there is depressing sex on nearly every page?) and I’m also prepping a paper for submission to a journal, so things are busy.

To business! Today I’m pointing out that though there does seem to be a cultural divide between the categories of “human” and “nonhuman,” people in the pokéverse continually blur and trouble this divide through friendships with/ownership of pokémon. Episode 19 is the first time that one of the dominating concepts–that pokémon training allows you to access new experiences/relationships/empathy–is shown to be pretty obviously true. Yet the way that communication is only achieved by domination and ownership makes the message more complicated than the way it’s presented.

A bit of theory lite.

Ep. 19 is particularly concerned with inter-species conversations, and Sherryl Vint can help us here. Vint writes about inter-species communication in sci-fi and how shared language does not always bridge difference. She points us to a well-known Wittgenstein quote: “If a lion could talk we could not understand him.” Vint explains that “this is because language is integrally tied to a form of life, produced by concrete and embodied experience that varies among species.” Basically, different bodies result in different subjectivities. The mind of a cnidarian-cephalopod (Tentacruel) and that of a human pokémon trainer are irreducibly alien to each other.1 They can’t even think all of the same thoughts. Sharing a language won’t fix problems of communication caused by radical alterity. Instead, “truly communicating with an animal other is about facing a consciousness that is beyond ours” (Vint 68). Ecocritical scholar Timothy Morton explains that while we can’t get rid of the perspective that entraps us in our own subjective existence, by acknowledging “irreducible otherness” (151) that entrapping first-person perspective can “be made to vibrate, in such a way that does not strengthen its aggressive resolve. . . but that dissolves its form, however momentarily” (168). Admitting that there’s an undissolvable difference between us allows us to at least begin to grasp what that difference may mean. 

Reading degrees of difference in the show

Difference is established from the start of ep. 19–Nastina’s view of the tentacools is that they’re “useless,” an obstacle or a challenge that must be eradicated. The reef is a prime development site, and the tentacools are not, in Nastina’s view, a part of it but extraneous flotsam to be cleared away. What matters to Nastina is profits. The Swarm, in contrast, have been defending their territory, something they consider to be “theirs.” The tentacools/Tentacruel aren’t aligned exclusively with the non-human, either, since the Swarm consider any pokémon who help the humans to be enemies. Basically, everyone wants different things and has very different ideas about the world.

When Misty climbs a tower and apologizes to Tentacruel, acknowledging that humanity is at fault, that admission of guilt prompts the Swarm to withdraw. An acknowledgement of different needs, moralities and perspectives enables a truce. Not a peace–as I mentioned last week, Tentacruel warns that it will have its eye out for human incursion. But this is, I think, Morton’s “vibrating I.” The way the conflict ends is, for Pokémon, fairly subtle, as the difference is never re/dissolved completely. Instead Tentacruel realizes that humans might be capable of change and empathy; Misty and the others acknowledge that non-humans have needs and claims that conflict with and take precedence over human ends. It’s a moment of connection and communication.

This communication can happen in the first place through the mediation of trained pokémon as translators between humans and uncaught pokémon. We’ve seen Pikachu act as the group’s “translator” already, like when they meet Charmander.2 Meowth translates for Team Rocket, too. This allows the human characters to communicate with strange ‘mon and even enter into new kinds of relationships–Team Rocket’s brief alliance with the Squirtle Squad, for example, and Charmander’s abandonment and eventual loyalty to Ash, are both enabled by the humans’ companion pokémon. In this episode, we see Ash’s ‘mon perform a similar role when Pikachu leaps on the back of Pidgeotto and delivers an impassioned speech on humanity’s behalf.

imageThis scene is particularly weird and important. So many characters cross their categorical boundaries that most end up in some confused middle ground of existence. First, by using Meowth as a translator, the Swarm is mimicking the way humans use pokémon. This confuses the human/pokémon dichotomy, usually clearly marked by who is using whom. Tentacruel and the Swarm here cross that line, using Meowth’s body so that they can clearly confront the humans in English.

Even when Pikachu confronts Tentacruel, and Tentacruel responds with its own booming, gravelly voice rather than Meowth’s English, the communication is not simply between two beings firmly occupying the same category. Tentacruel has already drawn a line in the sand and sees Pikachu, with his sympathy for humans, as an enemy. Remember how wild pokémon have hostility towards captive ‘mon? In being used by/aligned with humans, the identity of a pokémon is made queer–that is, a pokémon is made to occupy several (possibly conflicting) categories at once. Pikachu no longer fits neatly into an identifiable category. Pikachu alone can’t convince Tentacruel to show mercy, and Misty must intervene as well.

Yet the same relationship that makes a pokémon ambiguously aligned also makes the alignment of “trainer” queer as well. Misty intercedes for humanity, true; but earlier she expressed her rage on behalf of the reef’s non-human inhabitants. Prompted by a friendship with Horsea, she advocates for the tentacools even before they attack. Misty has already shown that she does not automatically place human ends before pokémons’ well-being, that she is prompted to think outside of her own human-embodied perspective.

We see a more explicit participation of the human in the non-human a few episodes (1.21) later, when we find out that trainers who raise caterpies/metapod/butterfree make a sort of pilgrimage every year during what Brock calls “the Season of Love.” “They come at this time every year,” he explains knowledgeably, “to release their butterfree.”

imageThis is really interesting. Voluntarily releasing a pokémon into the wild so that the breeding cycle can continue outside of human control is probably the most positive interaction with pokémon we’ve seen, for one thing. Humans here play an active role in the lives not only of individual butterfree but the species as a whole, participating in the ecological rhythms of the non-human world. 3 They do so by catching, raising, and then releasing butterfree, overseeing their lifecycle probably from the caterpie stage on. Humans don’t only participate through butterfree but also fit their human desires to them; releasing a butterfree into which you put time and energy is a sort of sacrifice. This isn’t concerned with speech, but there is a mediation. As humans form a relationship to their butterfree, those butterfree allow them to be a part of a non-human lifecycle.

In each of these examples we see the “vibration” of the subjectivity and category of the characters. This can be incredibly positive and actually does lead to understanding and coexistence, however uneasy. The problem is that I cannot get past that what enables this is the domination of a whole class of beings by another. It doesn’t matter how nice Ash is to Pikachu, the fact remains that Pikachu was at one point forcibly made the captive of humanity. Even the way the Swarm communicates is through the psychic domination of Meowth. As I noted before, they use Meowth for his body–his speech organs beings (curiously) more suited to human speech than the cnidarian-cephalopodic anatomy. This is no different than the way humans use pokémon bodies for their own ends. Someone must be controlled, dominated, or owned for these communications to take place. Is understanding impossible without this violation of autonomy and agency?

I don’t have an answer. I leave that to you all as weekend homework. I do want to end with a suspicion I had about…

Endnotes: anti-semitic imagery in tentacruel’s design

Look at it–it’s got a huge, hooked pincer-nose, and its pokédex description talks about its many hidden, grabby tentacles and how it can catch up to “eighty prey” at a time. Add that to what Brock says in the episode, that “tentacool are known as the gangsters of the sea,” and how Ash quips that “Tentacruel must be their gang leader,” and I immediately got suspicious. Hook-nosed; elusive leader of an unseen cabal; covered in those “jewels” on the top of its dome; grasping and greedy with its many secretive, stretching tentacles; explicitly presented as Nastina’s economic enemy; these are all fairly common anti-semitic tropes. I looked into it and can’t find anything out there about tentacruel as a racialized cahracter. There are other pokémon that are problematic (see the large-lipped, dark-faced Jynx, best known for that episode in which we learn that they’re the manual laborers who assist Santa and yes this is a real thing and oh my willikers am I looking forward to talking about that one). I bring this up because if there are anti-semitic stereotypes at play in the tentacruel design, a discussion of the Other and of crossing categorical boundaries becomes far more complex. But because I can’t find anything about it anywhere, I’m ignoring it for now. For the record, when I watched ep. 19 I happened to be reading a novel about a Jewish Canadian after WWII, so this stuff was on my mind. I also really, really love that there’s a ‘mon that’s got cephalopodic characteristics (and octillery is very boring, do not get me started), and I like tentacruel a lot more after ep. 19; but after I considered anti-semitic stereotypes it was a “can’t be unseen” type thing. Thoughts?

1. There’s a truly bizarre, I think brilliant book called Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Vilém Flusser. It’s a “fable” tracing the evolutionary/biological differences between humans and the vampire squid and trying to imagine the different subjectivities. Some of the conclusions revolve around the development in a spiral/coil rather than from fours to vertical, and utterly different relationships to epistemology and psychology. Sample quote:

Its tentacles, analogous to our hands, are digestive organs. Whereas our method of comprehension is active–we perambulate a static and established world–its method is passive. . . it takes in a world that is rushing past it. We comprehend what we happen upon, and it comprehends what happens upon it. Whereas we have ‘problems,’ things in our way, it has ‘impressions.’ . . . Culture is therefore, for it, an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities, that is, a critique of impressions. . . a discriminating and critical injection of the world into the bosom of the subject. (39)

2. The implication is that humans who are familiar with a pokémon can understand its pokéspeech or its gestures. This is true in our own world, more or less, with our companion animals’ body language and noises. When I was about eight I was very good at predicting whether my dog would stop for a pee or a poo, just by observing his body language when he started sniffing around. I called the different stances “poo stanza two” and “pee stanza three,” because I enjoyed rhymes and also I thought that “stanza” meant “stance.”

3. I wonder if any pokémon have evolved (in the slower sense of the word) so that their life cycle depends on or at least makes room for human intervention? Maybe this is how we explain pokémon that only evolve when traded?

Ep. 19–Apokélyptic visions: Capitalism, apocalyptic fantasies, and the pokéverse

Monday was World Ocean Day. If I’d been more aware I would’ve timed this post to coincide, because today we’re talking about eco-catastrophe and episode 19, in which a monster rises from the depths of the sea to visit his Cthulhic revenge upon the humans who have polluted his watery home. It’s very exciting.

This ep. is the first time we see humans and the non-human world coming into conflict in a way that we recognize as a nature/culture divide. I’m going to start with a section on apocalypse narrative (skip if you don’t want to read about capitalism and Latour) and then think about the episode through this lens (skip if you don’t like Pokémon, hahaha, jk, everyone likes the ‘mon).

Theoretical Background–Latour, the two natures, and apocalyptic yearnings

Searching for “apocalypse” on my university’s library website yields a melange of biblical/medieval scholarship and postmodern ecocrit. stuff. This initially strange mix emphasizes, as Karen Renner suggests, that in all apocalyptic stories we “detect collective beliefs about what makes contemporary life unsatisfying” (Renner 205). Narratives of eco-catastrophe and the more Biblical, end-of-times stories do the same cultural work—in both genres another, often “purer” world explodes disastrously into the mundane and reveals fundamental truths about human existence.

In contemporary apocalypse there’s often a particular construction of the non-human that comes into conflict with the dominating paradigm of human society–i.e., capitalism. Bruno Latour talks about the “two natures” we live in. The first is “the natural world” and the second is capitalism. Capitalism, Latour tells us, is “our ‘second nature’—in the sense of that to which we are fully habituated and which has been totally naturalized” (Latour 1). We’ve been “naturalized” because contemporary capitalism seems as given, as ambient as the environment; indeed, more so, because the “first nature” has started to become unstable, literally melting away before capitalism’s unstoppable consumption. The inescapable nature of capitalism is something that we all struggle with: “Why is it that when we are asked or summoned to combat capitalism, we feel, I feel so helpless? . . . on the one hand, [we have] binding necessities from which there is no escape and a feeling of revolt against them that often results in helplessness; on the other, boundless possibilities coupled with a total indifference for their long-term consequences” (3).

Cary Wolfe goes so far as to suggest that ecological thought “in the postmodern moment operates as a genuinely utopian figure for a longed-for ‘outside’ to global capitalism” (Wolfe 30)–utopian because not only are we all helpless before capitalism, but we are also all guilty. The production of the goods and food we consume often results in unethical treatment of disadvantaged labor forces and contributes to environmental degradation. It’s unavoidable, and with our very existence we are culpable. To really find a utopia, then, we must first burn capitalism to the ground. Or, rather, someone from outside must do so, some fantasy manifestation of the eucatastrophic destroyer of worlds–think Godzilla or Ponyo. Preferably Ponyo.

When an outside force of nature is used, it isn’t simply as the only hammer able to smash the snowglobe of capitalism; often it’s our narrative penance for harming the environment. When nature hits us back we get what we deserve, we pay for our sins, and then we are free to fight it. We’re able to hate nature again without a guilty conscience, to feel like gladiators rather than all-consuming, global bullies. There are no guilty hearts after the deluge, only heroes, because in the post-apocalypse you’re a hero for simply being alive (well, alive and also not a cannibal). This automatic heroism mirrors the culpability we helplessly accumulate for simply existing in the capitalist pre-apocalypse.

Okay, so what has all of this to do with our friend Ash and his chubby thunder god of a companion? Let us see, dear reader.

The Apokélypse

In episode 18 Ash and friends arrive in a resort town and find out that the hideous Nastina

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the plan. . .

wants to exterminate tentacool that are attacking construction crews working on an off-shore hotel being built over the tentacools’ reef. This infuriates Misty, who says that Nastina is “disrespecting the ocean”; Team Rocket, though, leap at the chance to collect the bounty. Somewhat inexplicably, when the barrel of TR’s tranquilizer spills onto a single tentacool rather than all of them, that tentacool evolves into a tentacruel and also grows to

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. . . the result. That did, indeed, escalate quickly.

ridiculously massive proportions. The tentacruel obliterates the offshore construction site, rides a tsunami onto shore, and begins systematically destroying the city. Thousands of tentacools follow to blow up what their kaiju leader hasn’t already. They mind-control Meowth, using his ability to speak English to announce their intention to destroy all humans (very Independence Day). In the end, Pikachu and Misty convince Tentacruel that humanity has learned its lesson, and Nastina and Team Rocket both get a paddlin’ from mama Tentacruel who then, having caused death and billions of dollars of damage to beachfront resort property, withdraws beneath the waves with an ominous warning.

Nastina is explicitly a villainous capitalist. Her greed for further profits is as explicit as her hedonistic wealth (she surrounds herself with pretty young men and tables of rich food and sets the reward for the extermination job at “a million bucks!”). She hates the tentacools, not only because they disrupt and resist her efforts to develop (and destroy) their reef but also because they simply aren’t useful. “I don’t know why such despicable creatures exist,” she rasps; “You can’t even eat them! They’re disgusting and they’re hurting my profits!”

This episode uses another trope of apocalypse fantasies in the way that the faceless swarm of tentacools is ultimately centralized in a single massive enemy. In just a few seconds the threat morphs from this

Photo 2015-06-09, 9 42 41 PMto thisimage

This is a trope of apocalyptic escapism. The issues we’re anxious about (post-nuclear national trauma, pre-environmental collapse) are condensed from a faceless multitude into a single entity that can be fought and talked to. In contrast to the debilitating, pervasive ethos of capitalism (here embodied in Nastina’s insatiable development of the resort that overspills terrestrial boundaries), Tentacruel’s accelerated growth is immediate. Terrifying it may be, but at least there’s a single enemy to defeat rather than a systemic construct or discourse. The smaller tenacools are still an issue, as they follow in their leader’s wake. A Photo 2015-06-04, 2 22 27 AMsingle tentacool is the voice of the swarm, speaking through Meowth. Even then, though, it speaks for all of the swarm. The tentacled menace acts with a legitimately creepy, single will (a hive mind or a psychic link?). The body (Tentacruel) holds the voice (Meowth), effectively making what could be a hydra-like threat into a single entity.

As for that guilt all humans share, Tentacruel declares war on the whole human race and makes it clear (with a rather scoldy tone) that this fate is one humans deserve. “Now,” the swarm-Meowth proclaims, “we’re going to destroy your world, your home, as you so foolishly tried to destroy ours, and none of you has the right to complain about it.” Misty seems to accept this, in the end–

Misty: Please listen… We humans understand that we’ve hurt you. We won’t destroy your homes anymore!
Tentacruel: If this happens again we will not stop. Remember this well! […]
Misty: Goodbye, Tentacruel. [quietly] We’ll remember.

Yet although humans are at fault, they aren’t the only ones. Earlier Misty justly accused Tentacruel as well, shouting, “What you’re doing is wrong because it hurts pokémon and humans!” Tentacruel’s rage is justified–we are not supposed to like Nastina–but Tentacruel goes so far as to lose our sympathy. The humans can justifiably fight back because they paid for their faults. It’s okay once again to commit acts of violence against the non-human. As in most escapist apocalyptic fantasies, the destructive waters and fires of the deluge wash away  human civilization and human guilt.

Latour’s piece is an unexpectedly effective lecture to read alongside this episode. The show also plays around with a couple major tropes we see in apocalyptic disaster films, even more popular now than they were back in the ’90s. From a worldbuilding standpoint, this ep. shows that there’s still some resistance to human domination of the environment. While I’m sticking with my theory that all the land has been technologically recreated and controlled by humans, the ocean seems to resist human dominion. Tentacruel relents but remains a watchful elemental protector of the oceans.

Endnotes: A minor speculation
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There’s a very strange final scene in which we see Nastina, thrown into the distance by Tentacruel, crash through some sort of wooden structure under construction, landing next to an identical woman. This new woman quips (in a voice identical to Nastina’s), “You shouldn’t drop in on me like this,” to which Nastina responds, “I thought that’s what cousins are for!”

This scene isn’t as frighteningly out of nowhere as it seems. The woman in pink is from the previous, unaired episode eighteen.1 Here’s the thing, though–all the nurse Joys are ginger, identical, and improbably refer to each other as cousins (or non-twin sisters). Unless Kanto’s humans have some pretty bananas genes and also issues with incest, there has to be a connection, right? Are Nastina and her “cousin” reject Joy-clones? The episode goes out of its way to remark on how grotesquely ugly Nastina is; abnormally short with exaggerated features and stiff, gnarly hair, Nastina seems almost malformed. She’s also quite spry, so it doesn’t seem to be the fault of age. Maybe she actually is malformed, a cast-off from a bad batch of cloned Joys. She may even be an earlier experimental model. Perhaps cloned Joys age quickly and are hidden away on island towns and kept comfortable in their last days? (Also apparently given access to heavy weaponry?) It’s total speculation, but just like the Mewtwo bas relief on Bill’s lighthouse door, it’s too strange a coincidence to just ignore.

And that’s it! On Tuesday I’ll return to this episode. Until then, I’m off to play Pokémon Snap for the first time and spend my Friday night monitoring a large local bat population. Your weekend probably won’t top mine, but don’t let that stop you trying!

Cited
Latour, Bruno. On Some of the Affects of Capitalism
Renner, Karen J. “The Appeal of the Apocalypse.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 23:3 (2012)

Further/Suggested Reading
Canavan, Gary. “Après Nous, le Déluge.”
Solnit, Rebecca. “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence.”

To be fair, the episode looks really weird, not because of the fake breasts but the way TR is making a bikini-wearing Misty cry.

1. Episode 18 was banned in the west and is not available through Netflix. The reason is that James disguises himself as an absurdly booby, bikini-clad beach hottie to enter a female beauty contest because reasons. Misty, apparently, also undergoes further body-shaming as part of the plot, although I don’t think this factored into the ban because a cut-down version was eventually aired, sans cross dressing scene (inserted below). I guess gender fluidity is too much for kids, but these other episodes with a tighter focus on bloodsports, not infrequently featuring adults brandishing guns at children and non-humans, are perfectly fine?

Ep. 10 (again) — Speculations about population management and the paradigm of ownership

I’m sticking with episode ten for one last post. What does it tell us about pokémon and Kanto’s ecosystems? Also, I’m not sure that the people of this world have the concept that some pokémon want to remain free.

Why shouldn’t you catch sick pokémon?

If you recall, in the last post I noted that Misty says something like “only bad guys would catch sick pokémon!” Makes sense on the surface. Misty and the others imply that bothering sick/stressed pokémon is somehow more cruel than catching a healthy wild one, which is why those who would dare to do such a thing are “bad guys” or “robbers.” But any time you try to catch an unwilling pokémon (as Misty does with an oddish) it’s going to be traumatic. Why are sick ones special? If anything, being caught would get them prompt medical attention from a Pokémon Center.

I don’t think it’s about the pokémon at all. I think it might be about population control, a form of Kanto biopower1 that manages the health of the wild pokémon population and ensures the health of the battling industry. There are a few ways this idea of leaving sick pokémon might accomplish this.

First, refusing to catch sick/weak ‘mon woud ensure those pokémon were not caught and treated at a Pokémon Center. This would lead to the weakest dying and, in theory, the gene pool would improve. Allowing natural selection to continue uninterrupted would makes the stock of wild pokémon stronger overall—probably better for them and better for trainers who catch them.

But, you ask, wouldn’t catching them also remove them from the gene pool? True, it would take them out of the wild population; but, we know that there are pokémon breeders because that’s Brock’s career goal. While wild pokémon power the industry/cultural institution of the traveling trainer, there must be captive-bred pokémon. For all we know, outside of traveling/battling circles, captive-bred pokémon might be more prevalent than wild-caught ones. Maybe they’re selectively bred to produce stronger battling ‘mon or for fancy color variations (the main reasons people breed pokémon in the games), or perhaps darker reasons. (Think of the captive pikachu used as emergency generators in episode 2.) Regardless, keeping weaker pokémon out of the captive pool would be in the best interests of the breeding programs.

Finally, telling trainers to leave sick and weak pokémon alone might prevent a trainer from being saddled with easy catches that won’t help them in the arena. This wouldn’t just lead to less successful trainers and, by extension, a less successful Pokémon League, but could also put greater stress on the (free) pokémon health care system.

This is all speculation, but I think that “don’t catch sick pokémon” is a weird idea when examined, and these guesses are pretty plausible, if I do say so myself.2

A Paradigm of Ownership

In episode ten we get a pretty clear idea that everyone in Kanto has a basic inability to really see pokémon as independent beings who may want to stay independent. Team Rocket’s role in this episode is to be figures of unchecked acquisition and, being excessive, they’re labeled “bad.” All they do in the end, though, is follow the possessive attitude that we see in Ash and Misty to its logical conclusion.

First off, Ash uses the word “robbers” to describe people who would come to the village and capture pokémon. The thing is, it’s already been made clear that the pokémon don’t belong to Melanie or anything else, so “robbers” is the wrong word. Still, “robber” emphasizes that people who would try to catch sick pokémon are crossing some sort of moral line (see footnote 1), at least according to Kanto society.3 It also implies that there isn’t even a word for catching pokémon that you should leave alone.

Later Melanie tells Ash how brave and helpful the wild bulbasaur is, and we see just how deeply Bulbasaur cares for his fellow pokémon. Melanie says he’s so protective that he “doesn’t like trainers,” although by the end of the ep. he comes to respect Ash. It is very clear at this point that there are some pokémon who actively want to be left alone, who exercise agency and empathy to keep other pokémon safe from humans. But instead of responding with understanding and respect, Ash’s response is to say, wistfully, “It would be great to have a pokémon like that!” In both instances, Ash seems unable to see the pokémon he meets as anything but potential possessions. It’s a sort of objectification-greed hybrid. (It’s deeply unfortunate that Bulbasaur does voluntarily join him. Ugh. Maybe Ash needs to not get everything he wants for a change?)

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What a cute little object!

More disappointingly, Misty does the same thing. Misty has already tried to catch a clearly frightened oddish. We learn it was abandoned by a trainer because it wasn’t a good battler. Misty apologizes and says, “All I think about lately is winning. I hope I’m not becoming heartless.” This is great! Score one for empathy and self-awareness! Except that just before this she tries to comfort the oddish by saying, “You just need to find a trainer who understands you.” But… why? Why does Misty insist, like Ash, on putting the pokémon in Melanie’s village back into the paradigm of trainer/pokémon, when clearly an existence outside that paradigm is possible? Oddish is with Melanie because it was abandoned and is lost. As a viewer my first assumption would be that Oddish, dumped by a jerky trainer and obviously afraid of being caught in the beginning of the show, does not want to find another trainer.

And then we get Team Rocket’s deeply strange, symbolic role, which draws attention to the inconsistencies of the characters. Hoping to catch vulnerable pokémon, Team Rocket attach balloons to a stadium4 and fly it into the clearing. Then they use a super-powerful vacuum to suck the pokémon into the stadium. Oddish, interestingly, is the ‘mon that comes closest to getting caught.

image

It’s either a literalization of training OR a really weird phallic metaphor. Or both.

It’s like a weirdly literal metaphor for what all trainers do to pokémon, especially when we consider the scene when Misty tried to catch Oddish. The Rockets aren’t doing anything very different from what the protagonists did earlier.

As I hinted earlier, it’s basically just taking the culture of training to its logical conclusion, stripping it bare of all the nuances and niceties and moral scruples and approaching it with cold efficiency. (Well, okay. As efficiently as you can when you’re using helium balloons and large portable arenas of uncertain provenance.)

Maybe Team Rocket is “bad” because, by taking Kanto’s possessive attitude toward pokémon to the extreme, they reveal what it is in the end—cold and greedy. The Rockets show the dark side of using pokémon for glory and power, which endangers the entire institution, and undermines the idea of the noble quest that Ash and his peers buy into. TR is “evil” because they don’t follow the rules, but the rules  justify behavior that is, in the end, barely different from Team Rocket’s. The Rockets are to trainers what hardcore Christian fundamentalists are to the evangelical church—embarrassing, unashamed, and ultimately dangerous in the way they call attention to the potentially dark conclusions and attitudes of the institution.

1. I’m basically going to speculate on some biopolitics of Kanto. A bit of theoretical background, influenced by some overly simplified Foucault and others: biopolitics is a term for the governance that manages and controls population rather than individuals. Biopolitics focuses on the health, productivity, and management of large numbers, of demographics, of populations. Biopower, the way that biopolitical thought is exercised, often operates through discourse. Rather than force a population to follow certain rules in order to improve a population’s health, often a set of ideas and vocabulary are internalized, affecting the way a culture thinks and creating a sense of what one should do or has a duty to do. This sense of duty is seen as a moral good in itself, and people following it works in favor of The System. Discourse determines how we think of our bodies, which affects how we use them, which ultimately determines what sort of body we are able to have. As Sherryl Vint writes in Bodies of Tomorrow, “The ideas that we have about what is natural or proper for our bodies influence what our bodies can and cannot do, and preconceived ideologies will determine what science will or will not find when it looks at them” (18). Of course, ideology is never framed as “I’m telling you how to live and I have an ulterior motive,” and it isn’t “used” by any one person or group. Instead it’s often couched in religious or moral/ethical codes that are seen as ends in themselves, done because they’re The Right Thing To Do. Therefore, Misty says that you don’t catch sick pokémon simply because . . . 

2. As a side note, if you like this kind of speculation, you should check out “Meganium” by R.J. Palmer. His pieces always have some great speculative write-ups. From this particular piece [sic for the whole thing]: “Foongus [a mushroom pokemon] have only become a point of interest recently, when their pokeball-like camouflage developed. In the past two decades, Pokemon training has seen a huge surge in popularity of youths the world over, as has the littering of broken pokeballs across the country side. Pokemon have become very cautious around the appearance of a pokeball, as they do not want to be caught. It appears that Foongus has adapted this color pattern to take advantage of the natural wariness of other Pokemon species. As such, the numbers of Foongus have skyrocketed with few Pokemon eating them. There is another species of Pokemon that uses a similar camouflage in the Kanto area [voltorb/electrode] , scientists are still uncertain which species developed the trait first.”

3. This discourse might function as population management and justification of battling/pokémon catching practices. You have to draw the line somewhere. Ash is kidnapping a random creature but he can still say “at least I’m better than X”? Maybe constructing an idea of what makes a “bad trainer” allows you to justify your own practices by comparison, even if what makes them bad isn’t that different from your own actions, when you really look at it, but just culturally unacceptable.

4. Which… what? They go from clumsy pit traps to portable arenas, and I just don’t know how or why, like, what sort of organized crime is this, even?

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?! 

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.