Ep. 26–Empathy, cross-dressing, and stench-plants

Let’s check back in on Ash as our protagonist. If you recall, very early on I noted that Ash faced a choice to imitate the total domination of non-humans that Kanto media seems to push or to continue to choose unconventional, less socially acceptable, potentially more open relationships to non-humans. I’ve also noted that Ash can be kind of sexist.

This arc of development makes sense, since Pokémon is, at its heart, about living amidst extreme and abundant difference. Sometimes the difference creates conflict. The show’s underlying message is that empathy, developed through first-hand experience, is how one navigates this difference. We see this with the Sabrina arc, ultimately about how a non-human learned to relate to an unstable young woman no one else could or wanted to deal with. Episode 1.26, in which Ash is explicitly called out on his lack of empathy, is a good place to check back in with our main character. Does Ash actually learn anything?

Misogyny

Episode 26 starts, more or less, with Ash being a sexist jerk. Arriving in Celadon City, “the great metropolis,” Brock and Misty are curious about the city’s famous perfume industry. Well, okay, Misty and Pikachu are into the perfume.1 Brock wants to stare at the parfumiers (gross Brock is back). Ash thinks that it’s a boring tourist activity, but instead of going off and doing his own thing, he bursts into the store and basically yells that Misty shouldn’t buy the perfume:

Perfume’s just a waste of money, and it stinks! … All perfumes are a rip off, because all they do is turn guys into zombies. Like this! [Points to Brock, who’s still ogling.]

So, to clarify, Ash hates perfume because “it’s a waste of money” (a very subjective opinion) and because he blames the perfume for Brock’s male gaze (instead of, say, Brock’s tendency to objectify and/or fethishize women).

What might otherwise have just been a way to humorously show Ash’s immaturity becomes more of a “thing” later in the episode when his insult to the parfumiers prevents him from fulfilling his glory-quest. Celadon gym, it turns out, is run by the very women he just insulted. The manager and inventor of Celadon’s best perfumes is the gym leader, Erica, who specializes in grass-type ‘mon. Erica and her parfumier/trainer bffs refuse to allow Ash to enter the gym because of his childish, insulting behavior in their shop.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket is trying to steal  the valuable perfume formula. They’re rebuffed by Erica’s gloom, a pokémon based on a corpse flower, whose main defense is a debilitating smell. They agree to help Ash get into the gym, Photo 2015-07-04, 9 00 55 PMhoping to use Ash’s battle with Erica as a cover for their own thieving. Ash, after a brief side eye, goes along with their plan which, in a lovely little twist, is to dress Ash up like a very girly girl. When he declares he can now “show [Erica] who’s the boss around here,” Jesse warns him that “That doesn’t sound very lady-like!” That is, Ash must perform a stereotypical mode of femininity similar to the one he so vocally despised in the perfume shop. Will this lead to Ash learning to be more understanding?

Empathy

image

Erica’s gym

Let’s all take a second to enjoy Erica’s gym, unlike any we’ve seen before. It’s a series of indoor biospheres, like a really homey botanical gardens. We see one of Erica’s entourage leading a little cluster of grass ‘mon in pok-aerobics while Erica tells a story about a prehistoric omanyte. Her gym aligns well LeftRightLeftwith my theory of gyms being centers of ecological control and imitation. Erica, though, does so not to display power but to create, in the ultra-urban space of Celadon, an open, inviting green space. When “Ashley” is enrolled in a “training class”, we see that the gym is a place of community engagement, an eco-cultural hub that actively works to create a safe space of interspecies interaction and to keep out those who aren’t respectful of others–people like Ash.

Her desire to foster understanding even of much-maligned ‘mon is inspired by the backstory of her own gloom. Erica’s gloom has been with her since she was a child, when it rescued her from a threatening grimer. She has since dedicated her life to understanding and living with grass-type ‘mon. Sure, she battles, but she also takes her perfume inspiration from them, taking what is usually a very human cultural practice and involving the non-human source of that decoration much more visibly and explicitly in the process. That is, Erica doesn’t just use grass-types but seems to work with them.2

When the Ashley disguise fails, Ash gets his battle with Erica. Her opinion of his battling technique is that he “lacks empathy” with his ‘mon. Her gloom’s stench attack is threatening to utterly defeat Ash and his team when everything goes wrong. Team Rocket, nabbing a vial of something from the secret safe, makes a big scene and blasts their way out of the gym, setting the place on fire. Gloom is trapped inside, and Ash rushes in to save it. When he finds Gloom, he hesitates, fearing Gloom’s stench will overwhelm him; leaping across a wall of flame anyway, he finds thatPhoto 2015-07-03, 2 26 11 AM Gloom isn’t stenching. Gloom must feel safe. So… has Ash demonstrated empathy through earning Gloom’s trust?

I’m not sure, because Ash doesn’t seem to have learned to be more respectful of women, and he never had any particular animosity toward Gloom. Erica clearly grants him the rainbow badge out of gratitude. We don’t get the sense that Ash has significantly changed. After all, he’s always been brave and willing to risk his own safety to save others. This self-sacrifice is noble but not necessarily based on empathy. Instead, in this episode we see Ash dismiss certain kinds of “femininity” and then perform (read: appropriate) them for his own ends, later casting them aside as a “stupid costume” as soon as it’s no longer useful. Since he was never particularly prejudiced against Gloom, rescuing the stinky shrub doesn’t show change. In fact, when he emerges from the flames with Gloom, he’s wearing his “battle outfit”–cap turned backwards, game face on. He’s an okayish person, but on his own terms, in his own way.

I think we have to accept that Ash will always act on his own terms. He’s consistently rude about accepting help/advice, he’s reluctant to admit his own faults. If “empathy” is what Ash learns, it’s not empathy through flexibility. Early on I mentioned how Ash’s willingness to do things his own way was an ambiguous trait, potentially making him either a really positive or a really flawed character. I don’t think that’s going to change. Ash is always going to be a basically decent but flawed character. With Brock and Ash both being characters that are coded good but still relate to Others (i.e., pokémon and females) in problematic ways, maybe the thesis of the show so far is hashtag YesAllMen, or at least YesAllTrainers?

1. Once again I’m just going to take a moment to appreciate, deeply, how overwhelmingly Pikachu adores Misty. He loves her, he follows her around, he goes out of his way to avoid coming into conflict with her. He seems to really like Ash, too, but once again, my ideal spin-off series would by Misty and Pikachu just running off to be bffs in some small, seaside town, leaving Ash and Brock to bro around being offensive.

2. The reward for beating Erica is the rainbow badge–fittingly, I watched this ep. around the time when the SCOTUS legalized gay marriage. The parallel may not be intentional, but the rainbow as a symbol of prismatic coexistence certainly aligns with the ethos of Erica’s gym.

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

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

BulbasaurDefender

“You shall not harm this poor turnip today!”

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

BulbasaurPuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus: Brock’s unconventional masculinity, cont. 

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . . . . . . .

 BertStare 

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

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

Ep. 7– Misty

Welcome back! This time we’re briefly touching on Misty, femininity, body-shaming, and the competitive drive in Kanto family dynamics.

Quick summary: Ash and co. arrive in Cerulean. Ash goes to the gym to challenge the leader, finds it’s three young women who are more into synchronized swimming than battling, realizes Misty is their younger sister, battles Misty, stops Team Rocket, gets a badge because of course he does, everything is handed to Ash, the end.

Misty

he may have imprinted on humans?

Who doesn’t love a good synchronized swimming team? I guess?

Misty’s sisters are much better at the performing arts than the art of battle. They run a synchronized swimming show which, apparently, fills a lot of seats, and let me tell you, Pikachu is into it in a big way. It’s kind of weird. Ash doesn’t get it.1

Misty doesn’t get it any more than Ash, apparently, because we find out she left “to become a great pokémon trainer.” Her sisters tease her, saying that she’s not one of “the Sensational Sisters” (crappy swim team name) but “the runt.” They also laugh at her because 1, she’s only been gone a few weeks, and 2, she’s not as beautiful as they are. They’re actually really mean. Sample dialogue–

Lily: Misty, you left here pretending you wanted to become a Pokémon trainer because you couldn’t compare with us. Because we’re obviously much more talented and beautiful than you are!
Ash: Uh-oh.
Misty: That wasn’t the reason!
Daisy: Well then, I guess, like, you came back because you couldn’t make it as a Pokémon trainer.
Misty: … The only reason I’m here is because he wanted to come!
Daisy: Well, he’s totally not someone I’d choose for a boyfriend – but you’re no prize yourself!

God, no wonder she left. I can’t help but wonder how much Misty is driven by the twisted and emotionally abusive body-shaming she gets from her sisters. Misty clearly admits she’s trying to prove something to them: “If I battle [Ash], that’ll prove I’m not a quitter and I’m just as good a trainer as you three!” I’m not convinced that Misty actually feels inferior to her sisters, but she does want to make them realize that she isn’t.

I mentioned in the last post that a culture of competition had affected Brock’s life– his desire to be a breeder and his father’s absence. Here we see that there’s some pretty toxic sibling rivalry behind Misty’s drive to be a trainer. They tease her because she can’t even compete when it comes to their swimming, and she leaves to be a trainer. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time on either Brock’s or Misty’s family issues, and we aren’t obviously meant to consider how battling has affected the characters’ home lives; but any consideration at all leads us to realize that the culture of competition has created lasting scars in two out of the three families we’ve encountered.

Also, I think we could read Misty’s desire to prove herself specifically at battling as motivated by her sisters’ mean girling. Unable to perform (attain? model?) the normative beauty standards mastered by her sisters, Misty instead seeks social standing/worth, not in the way she presents her own body, but the way she controls the bodies of others (i.e., pokémon). This also supports the idea that in this world there’s often an extension of a trainer’s social self (social standing, self worth, professional aspirations) into their pokémon– literally, in Ash’s case (see the last post), more metaphorically in Misty and Brock’s.

PikachuDelight

Pikachu, on the other hand, is still *really* into the whole thing

And here’s where it gets even sadder. So when we finally get to see Misty battle Ash, she’s good. It’s more satisfying because Ash has been sexist from the start of the episode. He assumes the town’s gym leader is a man several times and is shocked when it’s three sisters (see the picture of that moment of discovery that girls can be in positions of power, too). Later, when Misty sends out Staryu and the Pokédex tells him that many people use the cores of staryus as jewelry, Ash quips, “Just like a girl to show off her jewelry.” It’s misogynistic (that subtext of scorn and disgust is just, ugh, I cannot even, Ash) as well as obliviously mean, since Ash just saw the way Misty is put down by her sisters. It’s also completely unwarranted as, in the end, that “girl” has a better handle on strategy and does objectively better than Ash, and you’re pretty close to going on my list Ash you do not want to be on that list.

Ash’s attitude toward Misty as “a girl” (not “the girl,” not “my friend who happens to be a girl,” but the dismissive, reductive, generalizing, stereotyping, erasing, nearly-dehumanizing category) underscores Misty’s motivations and choices. As ostensibly as this episode follows Ash, Misty is the star(yu). The pokémon Misty controls are not cute, either– staryu/starmie are faceless and fight like spiked and demented frisbees. Misty’s training style is… professional? Utilitarian? She’s a good trainer, but not as emotionally engaged with her pokémon (that we can see) as Ash. She doesn’t have Pikachu as her cute little friend, and Misty seems to be (purposefully?) avoiding coded-feminine markers in the same way she scorns synchronized swimming. Misty has been constantly reminded  that she can’t be what her sisters define as the “best kind” of girl– beauty queen performer. She has decided to perform her gender in such a way as to escape the paradigm/category in which she would judged as “a girl” and evaluated in comparison to her sisters. And still Ash continues to see her as “a girl.”2

Conclusion: Misty is pretty complex, and her temper makes sense– she prob. has some baggage from living with her terrible sisters who bombard her with body-shaming for years. She and Pikachu actually have a lot in common– both react pretty violently to irritations, (maybe) both have painful pasts– and Pikachu loves her so, so much. He misses her when she isn’t with them at the beginning, his little eyes light up when she comes back to battle Ash, and he refuses to battle against her because she’s his friend. I’d love an alternate series where she and Pikachu just take off together and live in Fuschia City and help each other heal and maybe run a bike rental service. Pokémon indie flick meets Studio Ghibli film. Somebody make that, please. Or do a comic? I’d settle for a comic.

And that’s it! Thoughts? Something to add/nuance/correct about my framing of  bodies/gender politics? Do comment.

1. I’m pretty sure he actually says “I don’t get it.” I might start a counter, because I think he says that a lot. I wanted a video, but if you google “Ash I don’t get it supercut,” instead of a humorous video of Ash being repetitively clueless, you get a bizarrely high number of hits for a Supercuts in Ohio. So cool, maybe this blog is filling *some* kind of void, I guess? UPDATE: Ash actually says “I can’t understand it,” but sadly that phrase doesn’t turn up any funny videos, either.

2. When my sister was little she couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound so she talked about “Ass Ketchum.” Little did she know how right she was. href=”#ref2″>;↩

Ep. 5, Acting on and through bodies

BoyOrGirl

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

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

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

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

Brock and Kanto’s Pervasive Ethos of Competition 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural ideology was badly poisoned!

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

Ash and Appropriating and Invading the Pokémon Body

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

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

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

Pika Pain. 😦

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

PikaPiKA

who’s ready for a pika pounding?

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

PikaPounding

Awwwww, but also, Ahhhhh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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