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.

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Ep. 14-16–Mobile and Modifiable ‘Mon 2: Evolution as violation, evolution as empowering

This post is a little less dark, a lot less heavy with theory. Maybe more fun? Idk, hashtag sorrynotsorry for the theory bits, I love that magiCrap.

Anyway. Today it’s about unstable and evolving bodies. Pokémon bodies are inherently unstable, capable of/subject to sudden changes of form and abilities. Like really fast, really crazy puberty, basically? Evolution is like if awkward Neville became hot Neville between the first and second movie. It’s one more way pokémon bodies are vulnerable to being changed and rendered into tools against their will, yet it’s also a potentially empowering capability that might allow pokémon to escape certain forms of human control.

Modifiable Bodies–Manipulation

In episode 14 Ash finally arrives at Vermilion City and challenges his third gym, determined to win a badge in pitched combat. The leader, Surge, is extremely harsh–we see a lot of pokémon being rushed to the ER after a battle.1 Ash challenges Surge and finds that Surge battles with a raichu, the evolved form of Pikachu. Surge laughs at Ash for bringing “a baby pokémon” to the battle, says that “electric pokémon are only useful once they’ve learned all their electric attacks,” and scoffs that Ash should’ve made Pikachu evolve as soon as he caught it.

Pikachu is badly defeated and hurt–not in body, Brock says, but in his “spirit.” This is where the good stuff starts. Vermilion’s Nurse Joy offers Ash a thunderstone. Exposing Pikachu to the stone will “make Pikachu evolve into a raichu;” but as Brock cautions, evolution will change Pikachu and, after the transformation, “Pikachu will never be the same.” The fact that we know Ash’s companion as Pikachu (rather than some other nickname) draws attention to what’s really at stake–evolution is a change in identity. They don’t clarify exactly how drastic a change it is, but I’m speculating it’s akin to the regeneration of the Doctor, in which basic memories and skills remain but personality, particular areas of strength, and preferences undergo dramatic alterations.

Agh, it’s been ages, but just watching this gif hurts my heart. I miss 11. 😦

And then, suddenly, I’m back on Team Ash, because despite how eager both Ash and Pikachu were to defeat Surge, Ash tells Pikachu, “I don’t want to force you to evolve if you’d be happier staying the way you are now.” He holds out the stone–and Pikachu bats it away with his tail, just like he rejected the pokéball in the first episode. (Very nice visual parallel, writers. Poképoints for you all.)

Pikachu continues to value his material self, satisfied with his embodied identity, the Fat Amy of Ash’s team (but with fewer needless body shaming jokes made at his expense). Ash supports him–and not only out of nettled pride, which would be disappointing, but also, it seems, very real affection for who Pikachu is. It’s a move consistent with Pikachu’s character development and the themes I’ve been tracking, and it’s a moment that, with small but very real emotional stakes, forces Ash to decide and to show us what he most values.2

It also starts to nuance battling a little bit. We’ve gotten some advice on type advantage (don’t fight ground-types with electric, e.g.), but now Ash and Pikachu have to find a strategy to defeat an objectively stronger opponent. With Brock’s help they realize that pokémon who are evolved at a young age have weaknesses in other areas–in this case, Surge’s raichu sacrificed speed for brute power. Pikachu’s ultimate victory shows that battling can be more of an art than the beat-downs we’ve seen so far. Upping evasion to wear down a stronger opponent is a legitimate strategy in the games, too, which is a nice touch.

Pikachu’s win also puts into perspective the narrowly avoided, needless, irreversible change of a beloved character. I say change, but I think it would’ve been more like a loss, because in this episode evolution is discussed in fairly aggressive, negative terms. Ash’s choice is whether to “make” or “force” Pikachu to evolve or not, words that draw attention to the power Ash could exercise over Pikachu’s body if he chose. Although most pokémon evolve on their own, some bodies are more vulnerable to rendering than others–not just rendering from material to immaterial but rendering on a genetic level from one identity to another. This sort of power is deeply sinister, creepy, manipulative, even worse than the way Ash electrocuted Pikachu way back when. Evolution can be a violation.

Modifiable Bodies–Empowerment 

I talked in the last post about how the incessant conversions of pokémon bodies (from material to immaterial, e.g.) might make humans see pokémon as bodies that exist to be acted on and altered. The idea of pokémon becomes less of a being, a person, and more a process or malleable substance that can just be rendered into a stronger being, a little bundle of portable energy, or even food for the sake of humans, and in general people don’t find this problematic or unusual because it happens so often.

In episode 15 James is tricked into buying a magikarp. It’s a pyramid scheme–the (racialized, Mexican-accented stereotype) swindler explains that magikarp lay huge clutches ofPhoto 2015-05-28, 12 19 13 PM eggs, so James can breed more and sell them to people who could breed their own and sell those. James falls for it, then realizes that Magikarp is useless as a battling ‘mon.3 Later, adrift on a raft after a shipwreck, Team Rocket and Ash’s gang consider eating Magikarp. They stare hungrily at her and Ash and Brock fantasize about all the things she could be made into.

The really creepy thing, though, is Photo 2015-05-28, 12 18 10 PMthat in fantasies Magikarp still has her head and tail. We don’t just see “food,” we see magikarp-as-food. This is why I think that the changeable bodies of pokémon may create a certain lack of empathy in people’s minds–even the compassionate Brock can easily imagine turning Magikarp into food while still clearly thinking of her as a pokémon, despite the fact that we have clearly seen that pokémon are persons with complex subjectivities.

After they realize they can’t really eat Magikarp (“The moment of tooth!” cries Meowth as he bites down on her, only to find his teeth chipped against her bony plates), James kicks and berates her for being completely useless. James’s abuse is the final straw, the catalyst needed for her spectacular and disastrous and magnificent evolution.

It’s honestly quite wonderful. The poor magikarp, sold as a baby machine, dismissed as useless, nearly eaten, physically beaten, has within herself the power to become something seriously terrifying, the fearsome and glorious gyarados. Evolution isn’t necessarily something that can be done at will–Magikarp probably would’ve become a draconian goddess of the depths long before now if she could have. It is, though, something that Magikarp does, not something that someone does to her. The unstable form of her own body is here an empowering potential that allows her to escape an abusive situation and take her own revenge on her own terms. You go, li’l fish. 

Ultimately, the implication of evolving bodies is that there is a deep ambiguity in any relationship with pokémon. Almost all are capable of a drastic change in power and form and identity. This sometimes opens pokémon to further control and violation; but it also, potentially, disrupts the power exercised over a seemingly “useless” pokémon like Magikarp. She has the dangerous, lurking potential to become too powerful to control, to instead turn the tables on humans.

So maybe pokémon bodies still resist. Even in a world in which control over bodies is nearly inescapable, this instability makes human control uncertain.

1. The ‘mon we see are all pretty weak battling pokémon. Who challenges a strong electric-type gym with a pidgey or a rattata? I’m all for courage and underdogs and whatnot, but fighting a raichu with a friggin’ pidgey is just irresponsible.

2. Also worth noting is that Ash is learning a lot more by negative examples, defining himself against other trainers, than he does from positive examples. In explicitly trying to not be like Team Rocket, Damien (who abandoned Charmander in ep. 11), and Surge, Ash is becoming more compassionate. Is this another indicator that people in Kanto are actually kind of shitty in general? Brock and Misty are cool; but the nicest people we’ve met have actually been completely outside the battling culture (Seymour and Melanie).

3. A sample in-game Pokédex entry for magikarp says that it “is a pathetic excuse for a Pokémon that is only capable of flopping and splashing. This behavior prompted scientists to undertake research into it” (X). In an earlier game we’re told it’s so weak that “no one knows why it has managed to survive” (Diamond). First, those scientists studying magikarp need to come up with a better justification of their research if they want to get any research grants; second, note that the phrasing isn’t “HOW it has managed to survive” but “why.” Magikarp is really harshly dismissed because of its inability to battle. For this reason alone I’ve always kind of liked it. Not all ‘mon need to be warriors, you know? Idk, I like magikarp, I think they’re kind of pretty and they have nice fish mustaches. The first shiny I encountered was a magikarp I found while fishing for a feebas in some cave lake back in Diamond. I still have her, though she’s evolved since way back then.