(Dis)embodiment of the Uncanny, pt. 2

Photo 2015-06-27, 8 53 31 PM

The ghost/Sabrina arc, eps. 20 and then 22-24, has a pretty tight thematic focus. It introduces ghosts and the gloriously creepy Sabrina. Ghosts are a thematic counterpoint to Sabrina’s overpowering domination of others’ minds and bodies. Haunter, disembodied himself, is the only character who can help make Sabrina less psychotic and socially isolated. Today I’m going to explore what Sabrina’s deal is and why/how Haunter, as a ghost, is able to help her work through some issues and make her less, erm… murdery.

Sabrina is messed up

A powerful psychic, Sabrina can sense Ash and co.’s intention to challenge her even before they arrive in Saffron City. She can also control mind and matter with her telekinesis. Her battling strategy has three steps–dominate, manipulate, and destroy. Actually, that’s pretty much how she relates to others in general.

We learn that when very young, Sabrina became obsessed with developing her psychic abilities. At the same time, she struggled with her inability to relate to others in a healthy way. Eventually she suffered some destructive, disassociative episode in which she psychically destroyed her home, turned her mother into a small cloth doll (her father escaped, being a psychic himself), and mentally split herself into two beings. Part of her personality now manifests in a small, doll-like apparition that’s basically a horror-movie child (see gif on the right). Sabrina’s gym leader alter-ego is usually silent, a tall, imposing woman, who, if I was making a live action reboot, would be played by Aubrey Plaza or Canada’s own Natasha Negovanlis. Her doll-self would be played by that demonic robot baby from the last Twilight movie.1

Sabrina is now isolated. Her gym hosts a cadre of would-be psychics who worship her as a remote, frightening master. Yet Sabrina wants to relate to others. The problem is that she can only do so through the aggressive paradigm of battling. In episode 22 Ash and Pikachu challenge Sabrina; her kadabra psychically dominates Pikachu, redirecting his attacks, making him dance, then brutally slamming him against the floor and the ceiling Photo 2015-06-28, 3 05 10 AMuntil Ash forfeits. As punishment Sabrina then shrinks Ash, Brock, and Misty and teleports them into her toy city. Her doll-self chases them down a street until they’re cornered. When the doll-Sabrina rolls a large ball toward them, Misty sums it up–“We’re gonna get squashed!” This is pretty much how Sabrina operates in all areas of her life–domination (redirecting Pikachu’s attacks, trapping Ash/Brock/Misty in the gym), manipulation (making Pikachu dance, shrinking the humans), and finally destruction (beating on Pikachu, nearly squashing the humans). Ash and co. are only saved by Sabrina’s psychic father, who teleports them out. Later, though, after Ash fails to defeat Sabrina a second time, she turns Brock and Misty into cloth dolls and stores them away in her toy city. She very literally objectifies others, using them as toy-friends.

And here’s where we get the hint that this is the only way she knows how to relate to people. Brock, able to speak to Sabrina psychically in doll form, tells her she has to turn them back into humans. Doll-Sabrina says, “If I change you back you’ll just run away from me. You have to stay as dolls!” Sabrina wants friends/playmates, but she doesn’t know how to relate to something she can’t dominate.

There are some nice visual parallels that suggests Sabrina relates to other humans in the same way her kadabra dominates in the arena.

Here’s Ash feeling intimidated by Sabrina …Photo 2015-06-28, 2 53 21 AMAnd here’s Pikachu squaring off against Kadabra. Note the similar composition of the scene.Photo 2015-06-28, 3 11 37 AM

So once again we find a character who is socially crippled by the competitive ethos of Kanto. Even her relationship to pokémon is based on complete domination–as her father tells Ash, “You can’t control a psychic pokémon without using telekinesis.” Sabrina fuses herself mentally with her kadabra not in an intimate partnership but to better “control” it. 2 She doesn’t just transgress boundaries of self/other (as Ash does when he electrocutes Pikachu in, what, episode 3?); Sabrina simply destroys them. In her practice of combative mastery, Sabrina makes herself into a god.Photo 2015-06-27, 9 07 23 PM Her gym looks, as Brock remarks, more like a temple, and her (really creepy) medical-masked lackey bows before her throne to announce her challengers. With a temple-like gym and a toy town populated by literally objectified humans, Sabrina performs a grossly exaggerated form of the mastery Kanto so destructively venerates.

Haunter

Which is why Haunter as a ghostly ally is so vital (pun intended) to Ash’s victory. We already talked about how ghosts trouble human expectations. And because Haunter doesn’t have a body, in theory he can’t be controlled in the same way Kadabra controls Pikachu.

The problem is that when Ash arrives to battle Sabrina in ep. 24, Haunter disappears. Ash must flee, leaving Brock and Misty as dolls. Ash finds Haunter and convinces him to come along and challenge Sabrina a third time. But Haunter yet again disappears as the battle begins. Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash, remember; the ghost ‘mon is a shifty, unstable ally. In the first few minutes, Brock even suggests that Haunter may be sinister, saying to Ash, “Maybe Haunter’s the one controlling you.” Even if Haunter isn’t plotting Ash’s destruction, he is certainly not taking the arena very seriously.

Without Haunter, Ash and Pikachu don’t have much of a chance… But in the middle of a pretty grim battle, Haunter reappears in the arena. The rules are one on one, and Pikachu has already been declared the combatant; but as Sabrina’s father (Ash’s temporary mentor) points out, because Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash and wasn’t declared a combatant, “Haunter is just playing around on its own.” Haunter isn’t technically breaking the rules.

Haunter is being a typical ghost, entering into human cultural space/situation in a way that is unexpected and that defamiliarizes the expected tropes/rules. The arena is also the only space Sabrina seems to be comfortable interacting with others. Haunter, coming to her in a way that’s not illegal but is surprising, is outside of Sabrina’s control without being outside her comprehension. Haunter meets her halfway. And my favorite part of this whole arc is that Haunter doesn’t come to fight. After all, that would be against the rules. Haunter may meet Sabrina on her own turf, but it’s on Haunter’s terms–it does a comedy routine. (A pretty dumb comedy routine, to be honest, with a few ridiculous faces and tricks.) By coming to Sabrina in a space of battle but with humor rather than aggression, Haunter offers her a different way of relating to others.

Haunter gets through to Sabrina, who cracks a smile and then an uncontrollable laugh. Because of their psychic link, Kadabra also collapses with laughter, making him unable to battle. Ash wins, Brock, Misty, and Sabrina’s mother are restored to original size and form, and Haunter stays with Sabrina as her creepy buddy, and all things considered, it’s a happy ending.3

This arc is weird. Gym leaders can obviously do whatever they want, and the ghosts and Sabrina’s TK powers show us that Kanto isn’t just a sci-fi world but also a fantasy. What I like, though, is the thematic consistency and, honestly, Sabrina’s arc. Sabrina has issues. Haunter seems to get that. It accepts that Sabrina has a space in which she feels comfortable, but gently refuses to accept the destructive way she acts toward others in that space. By extension, Haunter also rejects the paradigm of mastery that we’ve seen destroy several families (Misty’s and Brock’s). Haunter models a more positive form of relationship, too, and it’s kind of nice, honestly. Once again Ash aligns himself, however unintentionally, with a ‘mon who defies Kanto’s traditional narratives of pokémon training.

That’s it for the ghosts! Or… iiiis it? I leave you with a link to some beautiful and suitably eerie artistic imaginings of Haunter if it was crossbred with various other ‘mon.

1. Misty could be played by Chloe Grace-Moretz, Brock by Donald Glover, and I honestly can’t think of anyone who would work as Ash, partly because there are so few young Asian actors and partly because Ash is just so ridiculously irritating he may have no real-life counterpart.

When Sabrina’s father says that only TKs can “control” psychic ‘mon, it may be his own ideological bias showing–i.e., the assumption that control is better than a more equal form of relationships between trainer/trainee. This would speaks loads to Sabrina’s background, maybe explain some of why she turned out so scary. It may also indicate that psychics in Kanto, as a rule, primarily use their powers to control. Most likely it’s a bit of both.

3. 2. Well, except for Team Rocket, who plunged several stories to the street below after Haunter startled them and made them laugh themselves off the edge of a window cleaning platform. At the end of the episode they’re still stuck in deep, Rocket-shaped holes in the sidewalk, which are being filled in by a cement mixer as Team Rocket splutter and call for someone to save them. This is actually really horrific. They’re drowning in cement, crying for help, and we’re supposed to be okay with that just because they’re “bad guys?” Good lord, non-grievable subjects much?

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(Dis)embodiement of the Uncanny, pt. 1

The pokéverse is just weird. If it was slightly weirder it’d be easier to accept–immersive fantasy with some odd elements is more familiar ground than a world with slight, never explicit elements of magic. There’s a run of episodes, though, that underscores how Kanto is a bizarre mix of hyper-technological and bizarrely mystical elements. Today I want to talk about ghosts.

Ghosts and ghost pokémon–is there a difference? 
It’s clear that pokémon are accepted as a part of the “natural” world. There’s educational institutions built up around studying pokémon–Oak is a professor, implying higher ed., and we saw Pokémon Tech. in an earlier ep.
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In episodes 20 and 23, though, when Ash, Misty, and Brock encounter ghost pokémon and their reaction to them is immediate fear, that signals that ghost pokémon are different from other kinds. I assumed that “ghost pokémon” as a category was figurative and that there was a biological explanation for their “ghostliness.” But these episodes make me wonder whether that’s really the case, because they make it clear that the pokéverse has a spiritual element that exists outside of what we’d call “natural.”
In episode 20, an entity the gang initially believes is a human ghost turns out to be a ghastly. A mysterious crone says the stone Maiden on a local cliff is the remnant of a woman whose love went off to war and never returned. Once a year at the spring festival her spirit emerges to… use her forlorn beauty to attract rando dudes, I guess? Brock and James, entranced, sleepwalk to the cliff and are dragged into the air. When Ash, Misty, and Jessie try to intervene, they’re all attacked by a flock of flying skulls that turn out to be, TWIST, the ghastly. The ghastly’s been taking the form of the ghostly Maiden, the crone, and the skulls (using hypnosis, I think, although this isn’t super clear). Ghastly is nearly impossible to fight, shape-shifting into what its opponent fears most. It’s alternately incredibly creepy and imageabsurd (the ghastly petrifies the snake-like ekans and the poison-spewing koffing by turning into an enormous mongoose in a gas mask). The ghastly retreats, but only because sunrise is coming.
There’s another twist, though–one of the last scenes is Ghastly bidding farewell to the actual ghost of the Maiden. They’re bffs, and she thanks the ghastly for reminding people of her story. Ghastly replies (in a posh, male British accent), “I enjoy keeping alive all the old legends people have forgotten over the years.” He also reassures the Maiden that he’ll continue to keep an eye out for her dead lover, intoning, “I am a ghost pokémon, and perhaps one day I’ll meet the man you love.”
Um, okay, what

So, what’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious–ghosts are real. Weird.

Ghastly in particular seems invested in human culture. It spends a lot of time masquerading as that old lady and as the ghostly Maiden to keep the tradition alive. There doesn’t seem to be a biological explanation for this. Unless it somehow feeds off belief (and there’s no indication it does), it seems that the ghastly simply enjoys acting like a classic ghost–i.e., a haunting presence, a fragment of an unresolved (and, oddly, human) past. The authentic ghostly Maiden seems to be more passive and bound to her final resting place. The way that ghastly performs the role of the Maiden on her behalf makes her story alive and unstable.
At the start of the episode Ash and co. attend an open air auction (this show is so weird) where someone’s selling a stylized painting of the stone Maiden, setting up the theme of retelling old stories. James and Brock, seeing the painting and the ghostly Maiden, are in love. They, like the artist, fetishize this female figure (she’s never named, just called the “Maiden”), seeing her as ethereally beautiful, an artistic subject to be mooned over. Ghastly, by assuming the role of the Maiden and playing out her plot every year, troubles this fetishizing view,  making the figure of the Maiden far more creepy and less virginal/desirable than Brock, James, and the unnamed painter want to think.
And don’t forget that Ghastly also knows the actual Maiden who is simply, honestly heartbroken in her separation from her lover. The layers–what people want to perceive, what Ghastly shows them, and the truth at the heart of the story–all contrast and overlap in a way that not only keeps the story alive and unfinished but also keeps it from solidifying into any one version. It becomes a piece of enduring but uncanny folklore, the kind of really good traditional story that endures even across cultural shifts in our own world.
Um, okay, what–pt. 2

This leads me to the second strangest and most important characteristic of ghostly ‘mon–that they don’t fit. They’re uncanny, shifting, gaseous. They’re incomprehensible, as we see in episode 23. Traveling to Lavender Town, Ash finds a haunter and a gengar, ghastly’s later evolutionary stages, and when he whips out his pokédex it can tell him only that “Ghost pokémon are in a vapor form. Their true nature is shrouded in mystery.” Confronted with haunter and gengar specifically, the ‘dex simply IDs them, notes that they’re “gasous pokémon,” and says, “no further information available.” If the Pokédex, representative of all academic, codified (and misleadingly coercive?) pokémon knowledge, has no further info, there has to be a culture-wide ignorance about these ‘mon. This fits with the way the ghastly enjoys inhabiting folk tales–maybe they’re deemed “ghostly” because they’re too elusive for more academic, skeptical research to get hard info on them.

But honestly, I’m not sold on the idea that they are definitely pokémon at all. I’d always assumed that ghost pokémon were gaseous beings, somehow manipulating the charges of atoms/molecules to maintain a form and interact with physical surroundings; but that ghastly talks to a human spirit, and the ghosts in Lavender aren’t any more animalian than the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak.For example, Ash “dies” and comes back to life in ep. 20 after the ghosts, who love to watch slapstick comedy on their television, drop a chandelier on Ash and Pikachu.1 To their chagrin they can’t revive them. Instead, they pull Ash’s and Pikachu’s transparent,

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this right here is the definition of chagrin

floating spirits from their bodies. Ash, Pikachu, and the ghosts spend a few minutes playing tricks on Misty and Brock and flying around giggling incessantly. Ash does return to his body in the end, but the way they can manipulate Ash’s soul/spirit/astral form doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen any other ‘mon do.

The second reason I’m hesitant to believe they should be called pokémon is that when Ash leaves with Haunter as his companion, Ash doesn’t catch Haunter. I’m not sure he even could; after all, it’s gaseous, so a pokéball would just fly through it. I’d’ve said that a pokémon was a creature that was containable in a pokéball, imageso are we sure that these ghost “pokémon” should be in the same order of beings as critters like pidgey? Maybe they’re really more like non-human spirits rather than non-human animals. Is “pokémon” just a really flexible term that applies to elementally powerful non-humans? Our own term, “animal,” is no less rigorous, so this is possible.

 I love that I can’t settle the question. The viewer, like the characters, remains uncertain as to how to categorize the ghosts. The ambiguity here seems purposeful rather than sloppy, shrouding the ghosts in a general mystery that’s never fully resolved.
All of this–the way ghost pokémon defy categorization, control, and reliable perception–will come back in the next post, because these characteristics tie episodes 20-24 together. Ash seeks out a ghost pokémon because he needs to fight Sabrina, the telekinetic gym leader who herself transgresses categories but does so in order to place others under her control. Ghosts, with their slippery, shifting nature, are the only ones that can face her. But that, dear readers, is for next week.
1. Similar to the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak, these ghosts are inhabiting a human-centric trope and performing a narrative in a way that’s darker and creepier than humans would expect. This is a little different from repeating a local folktale, but it’s essentially the same thing–bringing to life human tropes and then defamiliarizing them in a way that’s scary and dangerous.