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This is a long one, and it’s more theoretical than the others have been, but I think it might be my favorite so far. I had less time to work on the blog this week, so if there are places where the logic is difficult to trace, point it out, ask a question, disprove a point. I will digitally and literally like any comments you can offer. Except spam. Or trolls. Or something pro-Oak. Anyway. Let’s start exploring!
In episodes 8 and 9 we see Ash learning what constitutes a “good trainer.” Here I analyze some of the discourse that constructs and informs the idea of what a “good trainer” actually is. Before we really get into it, some theoretical background: A discourse is a set of ideas and vocabulary used to talk about an important concept (e.g., gender, humanity/animality, race, childhood, etc.1) Discourse both describes and constructs our thoughts about a concept. Discourse often determines what we consider to be true and possible because if we don’t have the ideas or the words to talk about something different from what we know, it’s hard to believe that it’s possible. In eps. 8 & 9, the ideas and vocabulary (discourse) of what makes a “good trainer” are used to justify some pretty shoddy treatment and conception of pokémon.
Difference—All you have to do is care
In episode 8, “The Path to the Pokémon League,” Ash encounters A.J. A.J. trains “savage pokémon” and Ash calls him “the wild pokémon trainer.” I don’t think he uses pokéballs at all. Instead he controls his ‘mon through intense training, using a whip (well, a whip crack) to time his pokémons’ attacks precisely.
A.J. is harsh. After soundly defeating Ash, we hear him yell at Sandshrew like a drill sergeant, saying “you call that a win?!” All his pokémon wear a metal straight jacket/shackle combo called a “strength intensifier.” He makes his sandshrew train in a swimming pool, although sandshrews are weakened by water. As A.J. proudly tells Ash, “we live by the rule ‘no pain, no gain’!” Ash, furious, counters with his own philosophy that “A great trainer should make friends with his pokémon!” A.J.’s defense is: “I ask no more of Sandshrew than I do of myself—the very best.”
When Sandshrew goes missing, A.J. panics. We see in flashbacks how much he and Sandshrew have been through together in their quest to “be the greatest,” as A.J. says. A series of shenanigans later (Team Rocket steals Sandshrew instead of Pikachu, A.J. and Sandshrew beat them up and earn their 100th win), A.J. and Sandshrew’s happy reunion convinces Ash that A.J. is good people. He is, Misty tells us, “Tough but cool.” Brock says earlier in the episode that “A.J. is tough, but as you can see he cares deeply for his pokémon.”
This episode is very much an “Ash learns a lesson” tale. A.J. is immediately “othered” by his southern U.S. accent (i.e., negatively set apart as unsophisticated and cruel); his whip is scary; the way he yells at his pokémon is disturbing. In the end, though, A.J. and Sandshrew teach Ash that, as the narrator sums up for us, “there are many paths that lead to the Pokémon League.” It’s a lesson about not making snap judgments. In the end A.J. goes off to start his journey with Sandshrew walking by his side, a parallel to the way that Ash and Pikachu travel together. Whoa, TWIST—they’re actually more similar than they are different!
I love a good “don’t judge people with stigmatized and exaggerated accents” story, but yikes. Unlike the episode where Ash learns empathy from Brock, here Ash learns that it’s okay to use restraints, to micromanage your pokémon’s lives and time, to harshly acclimate them to their fears and weaknesses as long as you do it to make them (and yourself) stronger and as long as you really care.
Giselle and the Importance of Experience
As a contrast to A.J.’s overly involved and hands-on style, in “The School of Hard Knocks” we meet Giselle who is skilled in book learnin’. She attends Pokémon Technical, a training school for the rich that guarantees its graduates entrance into the Pokémon League. The brochure says it’s for trainers who want to challenge the League “without having to travel on difficult badge collecting journeys.”
Giselle has extensive knowledge of pokémon factoids and has trained on a simulator that looks almost exactly like the video games. (This is hilarious and maybe complicated and therefore for another time.) 2 Still, Ash and Pikachu are able to defeat Giselle’s cubone even though, as a ground type, cubone has an immediate advantage because he’s immune to electrical attacks. Giselle is surprised because “none of the textbooks” indicate that pikachus can win without electrical attacks.
The moral of this episode is that Ash and Pikachu win because they’ve taken that hard journey and engaged more directly with pokémon. As Misty, goddess of wisdom and rage, tells us sagely, “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real life.” No substitute for the real thing, people. 3
Discourse–Collapsing body boundaries through discourse, problematizing the discourse through bodies
These episodes are really important! How so, you ask? Well, hold onto your butterfrees, friends, because we’re about to get speculative and theoretical! Let’s closely examine the discourse of pokémon training and battling as shown in these episodes.
First off, grammatical analysis! On this blog I’ve deviated from the standards of the franchise and used an S indicate plurals. I’ve also capitalized the names of pokémon (Pikachu, as in Ash’s) but not the general species (pikachu, as in some rando electrical mouse). But in Kanto (and most of our world), the singular/plural is the same and the general species name is capitalized. This makes it hard to differentiate the categorical and the individual. The word Pikachu could refer to to a single pokémon, a group of pokémon of the same type, or even Ash’s specific pokémon. It’d be like having a sheep named Sheep.
This grammatical quirk makes the individuality of pokémon difficult to talk about and difficult to think about. The individual and the categorical are referred to with the same word, and I’m going to go so far as to suggest that it enables (or at least correlates with) the idea of the pokémon as an extension of the trainer. There’s evidence for this when A.J. makes a grammatically strange statement explaining how he and Sandshrew began their journey: “We promised to do whatever it took to become the greatest pokémon trainer of all time.” A.J. here erases the difference between himself and Sandshrew by collapsing we into one thing, “the greatest trainer.” He does so naturally, easily, and the statement is supposed to sound positive, inspiring, even. It shows A.J.’s conviction. And on the surface it sounds nice, right? It could be love that motivates this erasure of difference—the linguistic parallel to Ash’s willingness to throw his own body between Pikachu and a flock of angry spearows.
But wait, what’s that sound? . . . . . .
Sorry, boys and kirlias, it is time to stomp on those warm fuzzies and start callin’ some bullshit, because this identification is how A.J. justifies emotional and physical abuse of his kidnapped, gladiatorial, glory-grabbing tools. To requote, A.J. defends his methods by saying “I only expect of them what I expect of myself—the best.” (Ash did this, too, when he justified his electrocution of Pikachu with “If I can take it you can take it.”) Problem is: it is the pokémon who do the fighting, wear the restraints, are burned, bitten, zapped, leveled up and then made to fight harder. A.J. is just holding the whip.
So, to sum up so far: some weird grammatical slipperiness works in conjunction with the idea that pokémon are extensions of the trainer to justify abusive methods. This is where ep. 9 comes in. Experience is a major legitimizing concept of Ash’s world (e.g., “A simulation’s one thing, but this is real”). If you can say that you yourself participated and met the same demands you set for your pokémon, this also supports the idea that pokémon become an extension of the trainer–we becomes one. Ash enacts this phsyically by using his own strength to pump electricity into Pikachu. With A.J., training, even harsh training, becomes a form of self-care, because a good trainer and his pokémon are a single entity and both work toward the same goal.
But other concepts take away pokémon’s individuality as well in less aggressive, ostensibly caring ways. Giselle says that “pokémon are only as strong as the trainer that raises them.” This puts the burden of responsibility (for pokémons’ safety and their prowess in battle) on the trainer but also denies that pokémon have active agency, ability, and desire apart from their trainer. Again we find that we collapses into one, with the trainer being the central element in the equation. It’s couched here in terms that take blame off of the pokémon, so it seems well-intentioned; but again, it denies that pokémon have the ability to really, autonomously share and participate in (or resist) battling culture.
BUT, have hope– Pikachu undermines this discourse with the simple fact of his own pudgy body. Yes, though some have said Pikachu is an unremarkable mascot for the franchise,4 Pikachu here earns his place as the only pokémon my mother can recognize by name.
Pikachu is able to refuse a battle in ep. 8 because he rejects the pokéball and can’t be de/rematerialized at will by Ash. Pikachu is motivated by self-preservation as much as loyalty to (or fear of) his trainer. Pair his healthy fear of pain with his ability to improvise against Giselle’s cubone (reversing cubone’s skull mask and throwing the bone back for a knock out) and we find the “pokémon are an extension of the trainer” a difficult position to maintain. Misty draws attention to this when she points out that it wasn’t Ash’s skill that won the battle against Giselle. Even then, though, she calls it “just kind of a fluke.” Pikachu’s own role in the victory is ignored because the discourse of training insists that trainers battle and win, not pokémon. Misty’s conclusion is that if Ash’s (lack of) directions didn’t win the battle, it must’ve been an accident.
Ash’s inexperience makes Pikachu’s improvisation possible. A.J., in contrast, wouldn’t tolerate Pikachu’s kind of behavior even from his bff Sandshrew, no matter how much he actually cares. Ash’s inability to master others is exciting and positive because Pikachu’s undirected victory creates cracks in the discourse and opens up potential for change and negotiation with the ideas that dominate Kanto culture and reduce pokémon to the role of tools. I just wish that Ash would start to realize this, really question the discourse directly and actually take his own path.
1. Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault’s definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” It’s important to note, too, that discourse is never dominating; there are always places where it is in conflict with competing discourses and ideas. Discourse is also not from any one, hegemonic source, but is instead a pervasive cultural approach created by socioeconomic, historical, and religious influences all in cooperation or tension with each other. An emergent property of a culture, maybe? Whatever. Back to the pocket monsters.↩
2. We also learn that they have a concept of “levels” in Kanto, just like the video games. This has to be difficult— I suppose it’s like the breed standards for show dogs? If the pokémon can perform certain “tricks,” as one student calls them, they’re counted as being a certain level? But it would be so subjective; it’s not like a pokémon earns a quantifiable number of exp. points in a battle, so… yikes. The League must need loads of by-laws and spreadsheets and style guides to keep track of these things, and maybe some actual level tests, maybe like a skill-scalable obstacle course but geared for different species and types… Someone’s full-time job must be League Inspector or Judge, and the regulation committee meetings must be endless nightmares. Also, would gym leaders announce their pokémons’ level on the sign? Do they use pokémon fitted to the level of the challenging trainer? Brock was able to judge Pikachu’s strength at a glance back when he first met Ash, so does a gym leader have to be able to sum up the strength of any given pokémon? I kind of like that idea, actually. It would nuance the gym leaders, make them more impressive, because as of now we don’t have any idea of what it takes to be a gym leader. (Brock and Misty don’t seem to have challenged any gyms; maybe they can’t, as leaders? Point is, we don’t know why they’re especially qualified.)↩
3. I just realized that this moral is foreshadowed at the beginning of the episode when Brock “advertises” for “100% Cerulean Coffee.” No joke— he looks right out of the screen and gives a product plug. Referencing the more obviously manipulative discourse of “authenticity” that’s used in marketing actually draws attention to the way that the discourse of authentic training might not itself be infallible, as I’ll discuss in the second section. Happy accident or cynically genius show writers?↩
4. And, fun fact, clefairy was originally intended to represent the games, but Pikachu’s popularity in the anime changed everyone’s minds before they were released.↩