Episode 12 — The social and legal status of pokémon in Kanto

In eps. 10-12 the show offers three different  ways pokémon can be hurt or endangered by human carelessness. Ep. 12 specially shows us how pokémon might fit into Kanto society from a legal standpoint.

The weird social space of the Squirtle Squad

The Squirtle Squad is a gang of rabble-rousing squirtles that have all have been deserted by their trainers so, as Officer Jenny says, “they just run wild and play tricks on the whole town.” Officer Jenny says (mournfully) that “It’s really kind of sad because if they had somebody to care about them, they wouldn’t have turned out to be as bad as they are.” She makes them sound like troubled, fatherless youths.

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The most adorable menaces to society

The Squad occupy a strange social space–they vandalize and steal food from shops and are basically low-level criminals. Formerly domesticated, they still hang around town but they aren’t owned or controlled. They’re a marginalized and disenfranchised little group, acting outside of human control but within human society. If you took the flippant rowdiness and vigilante-ism of the teenage mutant ninja turtles and mixed it with the counter-cultural idgaf-ness of Banksey, you’d get the Squirtle Squad.1

In the end, after teaming up with the Rockets, kidnapping Ash and the gang, and then being betrayed by the Rockets, the squirtles end up on the right side of the law. When Ash shields the head squirtle from a “flashblast” bomb dropped by Team Rocket, Ash’s bravery wins them over. The Squirtle Squad helps to put out the forest fire started by Team Rocket’s bombs, win the friendship of the town, and are appointed town firefighters (complete with a uniform). image

This is where it gets a little weird, because officially appointing nonhumans as town firefighters complicates what we’ve been exploring for the last few posts– namely, the status of pokémon in Kanto society. Does being officially appointed make them legal persons? If yes, is catching/training legal slavery?

For help, let’s turn to precedents in our own world.

Nonhuman animals in Western legal history 

Murderous sow and her piglets on trial. She was found guilty, apparently, but the piglets were acquitted.

Okay, that title is a little grand and ambitious. More specifically I want to briefly, simplistically discuss nonhuman animals on trial in the middle ages.

In Europe animals were put on trial for “crimes” against humans up until the Enlightenment. A lot of weird cultural stuff is going on there, too much for me to reliably try to explain, but there are a few ways that these trials inform an understanding of how non-humans interact with human legal institutions.

First, putting an animal on trial might imply that the animal is part of a moral order. This doesn’t mean that they were fully autonomous persons under the law, or even that they were seen as moral beings, but it solidified the idea that nonhumans, too, were created inside of a natural order of creation (specifically a judeo-Christian paradigm, so “natural order” in huge scare quotes). Trials tried to determine nonhuman animals’ place in this natural order. Potentially, such legal proceedings more firmly established human dominance over an animal that had acted in a way dangerous to humans (pigs had a not-uncommon habit of eating unwatched human infants, apparently).2 This way of approaching animal trials isn’t that different from the way wolves are described as crafty/noble/dangerous enemies in 19th century writing. Describing animals as criminals or enemies frames them, not as creatures acting out of their own needs and outside of arbitrary, human-created law, but instead as enemy combatants or rebels against a universal order. It doesn’t necessarily make them persons–writers describe a wolf’s behavior (preying on livestock) as instinctual while simultaneously describing that behavior as part of an ongoing conflict between humans and wolves– but it does make humans’ extermination of wolves all part of what “naturally” happens in such conflicts. Legally considering the category of “animal” in this context covers over the motives, goals, attitudes, and effects, and general social/ecological/material realities of what humans do to animals by focusing instead on the supposed spiritual/moral/ideological significance.

Still, animal trials can also be seen as positive. In An Environmental History of the Middle Ages, John Aberth writes that although in the middle ages non-human animals weren’t counted as persons, they “did have certain rights” (232). While bringing a pig before the court sometimes sanctioned some pretty horrific animal cruelty, it also created the possibility that some animal actions would be found justified and unpunishable (pests eating a crop, for example) because creatures have a right to thrive and pursue their own animal needs, regardless of what is convenient for humans. In other words, sometimes an animal trial makes room in the human system for non-human actions, forcing humans to reconsider their own limitations.

We find slightly different examples of non-humans receiving official, legal status in human society in the 21st century, too. Companion animals come to mind, although those are made official as the guides/helpers/instruments of their human owners. In Cuba several stray dogs are “employed” by state institutions. From the Huffington Post:

“More than a dozen state institutions ranging from Cuba’s Central Bank to a public toilet have taken street dogs under their wings in recent years, assigning them official IDs and housing and granting them year-round medical care and protection from the city dogcatcher.”

Recently one of these “guard dogs” received an award for stopping an attempted theft of an air conditioner. While the status of these dogs isn’t always as delightful as it sounds–apparently their “official” status is sometimes revoked by officials who, presumably, have no soul–this is an interesting way of helping some strays by giving them some form of government “employment.” Their job doesn’t make them persons but does make a space for animals within an otherwise human-centric system.

The Squirtle Squad, then, find a more settled place within human society. Abandoned and marginalized, their recognition by the local government renegotiates their relationship to humans. Much like Cuba’s stray dogs, the Squad are given a job and some security. Is human dominance re-established? The uniforms might imply that it is, although I suppose the Squad could revert to criminals at any time. It’s nice that they aren’t farmed out to trainers, too, but instead taken in as employees. (Depending on how Marxist-sympathetic you are, this might be disappointing; truth be told, I kind of enjoyed them as anarchistic ne’er do wells rather than as tools of The Man.)

Bonus: A Caveat

I want to be careful about forcing pokémon into a category of either “nonhuman persons” or “nonhuman animals” because, while I’m taking the U.S. dub as my primary text for reasons of convenience, it is a Japanese franchise that is informed by non-Western worldviews.3 This is all conjecture from watching the very few anime I’ve seen, so grain of salt and all that, BUT: I think that pokémon may be part of a trope in Japanese media in which human and non-human animals coexist alongside a separate order of beings altogether. Sometimes they’re spirits, sometimes they’re semi-physical beings that aren’t quite alive but aren’t dead. Often they 1, aren’t visible to most people, 2, don’t fit into the category of human or non-human, and 3, are feared, used, and/or abused by humans. In the two specific anime I’ve linked to, the protagonist often has a more empathetic understanding and connection to these beings than most of his peers.

Pokémon does something not dissimilar, but pokémon are visible to all, and while Ash is unconventional in his methods, he doesn’t seem to have or be forming attitudes that are drastically different from most of his peers’.

Still, while as a franchise Pokémon may not quite fit in with this trope of an alt-category of beings, pokémon as creatures may occupy a special status in Kanto’s own “natural order.” I might flag this and keep an eye out in future episodes for any indication of how ‘mon might be compared to animals.


Flagged: Where do pokémon fit? Are they in the same category as human/non-human animals, or are they something else entirely? If pokémon are in their own category, how is that described and does that description justify the way humans see pokémon as things you can catch and train and own?

1. I really want to read the Squirtle Squad’s style as an allusion to the Beatles, because, I mean, look at ’em.image 

More than a little uncanny, no? 

2. Remembering the last post I wrote about spoken motives vs. the function of a cultural idea, executing violent domesticated nonhumans removes especially violent creatures from the gene pool, possibly resulting in a less murderous breed of pig. This isn’t the ostensible reason animal trials were held, but it is one potential function or effect of executing baby-eating hogs. Also, FFS medieval peeps, maybe don’t leave your babies where roaming, hungry pigs can get at them.

3. I tried to explain object-like pokémon like trubbish and klefki to my partner and why they make more sense in an animistic culture than the living/dead binary we have in the West. Being less nerdy and not having been raised to take sentient ice cream cones for granted, I’m not sure she appreciated it. See also: Tsukumogami

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Eps. 1-3, Cat and Mouse: Pikachu and Meowth as liminal, parallel figures

How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text or the Annotated Episodes page, where I highlight the most important or hilarious bits. (Especially, for ep. 2, the sass between Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy.)


Before we move on, I want to talk about the pokémon  characters of the first three episodes, specifically Pikachu and Meowth. Both are liminal–that is, both blur boundaries and categories and are set apart from other pokémon. They’re liminal in different ways, however, and the very different ways they reject the usual pokémon-human dynamic sets up a rivalry between them.

Pikachu

The first pokémon Ash encounters refuses to act in the way Ash has seen pokémon represented. Pikachu rejects both Ash’s affection and his mastery. He straight up just whacks the pokéball away, creating a potentially embarrassing moment for Ash (Who’s already standing in front of a bunch of neighbors wearing PJs.).

In fact, Pikachu is actually violent, albeit in a way that’s more “I’m done with your shit” than it is dangerous. Pikachu also refuses to battle a Pidgey and is a total passive-aggressive, sassy little jerk when Ash tries to catch it anyway, sitting in a tree and laughing like an evil furby.  This is just truly wonderful because 1, it reinforces the idea that Ash is unprepared to exercise the practices of mastery he so desperately wants to… um…. master. 2, Pikachu is completely hilarious about it. He’s a total honey badger in this first episode; he may, at some point, have been caught (by Oak? That would be interesting, caught by the dynastic poké-patriarch, raised by the marginalized Ash) but he is refusing the basic terms of the trainer-pokémon contract. He travels outside of his pokéball, refusing to be made storable/transportable/summonable, and he openly ridicules the human attempting to order him around.

The refusal of the pokéball is very significant, as I think the way that Pikachu very clearly values his own, physical body is one of the most important aspects of the character. This is a part of Pikachu’s character even after he accepts Ash as a companion and trainer (but not master) by the end of ep. 2– while I’ve forgotten many of the episodes since I was 8, I have always vividly remembered the ep. in which Pikachu refuses to evolve. I’ll unpack this more when we discuss pokéball tech and pokémon bodies, but I’m saving this for the episode where Ash catches krabby.

The takeaway is this: Pikachu is immediately, actively negotiating his relationship to Ash, establishing more of a partner dynamic. In ep. 2 he signals to Ash to generate power using Misty’s bike and pedal-powered bike light. This is Pikachu’s first battle alongside Ash (unless you count the fight against the spearow flock); here, Pikachu gives the orders.

This first battle stands out all the more when we remember that earlier in the episode we see the Pokémon Centre keeps pikachus to generate power by running on a specially made treadmill, used as a “Pikapower source.” The pikachus run and somehow this allows the machine to draw electricity from them. Here humans are using pokémon bodies not only in sport but also as a part of the infrastructure. (Flagging it.)

Pikachu takes note of this and then rejects and upends that model of subjugation when he asks Ash to generate power that is then amplified by Pikachu and the other pikas. Much as the humans used the pikachus’ bodies and powers as a resource, Pikachu here draws on human labor to attack not only enemy pokémon but also enemy humans. (Flagging this: The Rockets as an exception to the no-violence-against-humans rule?) It’s an inversion of the earlier use of pikachus, a subversive act that alters the usual dynamic of a battle without rejecting it outright. It makes Ash a participant and makes Pikachu a partner.

Becoming the Top Cat:  reappropriating the pokémon sign

In episode 2 we meet the faaabulous Team Rocket! (Sidebar: I like that James’s voice isn’t as over-the-top as it’ll get in later episodes; it makes him a little less silly and a lot more sinister. Regardless, we still get some just beautiful moments of pure mean girling. Flagging it: does everyone stay sassy, or is it just these early ones?)

When we’re introduced to Meowth it’s immediately established that he’s not just a pokémon owned by Jesse and James but a member of the gang. He insists, “I’m the top cat!” and Jesse and James agree. Meowth assumes the position of the criminal mastermind. He speaks English, doesn’t really battle other pokémon, he’s part of a human gang; we don’t really know much about him or pokémon linguistics yet, so he comes as more of a surprise than an immediately noticeable anomaly. What’s pretty clear is that he doesn’t have a pokéball and seems to be uncaught. He’s self-domesticated, and maybe this allows him to dictate the terms of his companionship with Jesse and James in a stereotypically feline way. As a clever and ambitious criminal Meowth is doubly marginalized– he is uncaught but also not wild, and he works alongside humans in their illegal ventures.

I want to talk about the Rocket balloon, which is shaped like a giant meowth head.  It’s another tacky poképroduct and a trademark of the Rockets. How do we read the balloon in relation to Meowth? Meowth isn’t dumb, and he must have noticed the overwhelming amount of pokémon merch and the way pokémon images are used as commodities. Brazenly using a meowth balloon, he reappropriates his own image, reclaims it, embraces the representation and attempts to redefine it. (It’s a nice pun, too—Meowth’s ambition is established at the same time we see that he literally has a big head. Visual pun!  )

Reappropriating the kitsch objectification of his species, Meowth redeploys the empty, generic representation of meowths to instead represent Meowth.

Meowth doesn’t reject out of hand the human-pokémon dynamic, however, as Meowth and the gang become obsessed with stealing and then mastering Pikachu.  If Meowth and the gang successfully capture Pikachu, Meowth will appropriate another typically human power, that of owning (or at least controlling) a pokémon.

Meowth’s weirdness is deepened by his desire to capture Pikachu. It’s partly motivated, I think, by Meowth’s desire to define or discover exactly what power he has.

Not sure what ep. this is from, but episode two is foreshadowing it!

This is set up after the Rockets are defeated in ep. 2. Jessie grumbles, “Great! A cat losing to a mouse,” to which Meowth protests, “That Pikachu is no ordinary Pikachu!” Meowth’s and Pikachu’s relationship is somehow “unnatural.” Normative modes of battling don’t apply here. Meowth in his self-domestication has lost the ability to be mastered, perhaps, but also to assert mastery through battling. He has more freedom than Pikachu, arguably, but how much power he is able to exercise isn’t clear. Maybe for Meowth’s choices to be truly validated, he needs to eventually assume mastery over other pokémon in the same way humans do?


Bonus: A few more words about my nemesis, Prof. Oak:

So I forgot about this, but Gary says explicitly, “It’s good to have a grandfather in the Pokémon business, isn’t it?” He’s just rubbing our noses in his privilege, not even subtly… Which wouldn’t be as bad if Oak wasn’t also a terrible human person. Dumbledore Oak is not. (Well, maybe this Dumbledore.) I like that Ash isn’t immediately being mentored by the classic “old white wizard” type figure because it undermines that trope we’ve seen more and more since this aired. Instead, Oak allows Ash to hug a semi-feral electric Pokémon knowing full well that Ash could be zapped. (And believe me, he knows, because when pre-zapped Ash says that Pikachu is the best Oak just mutters , “You’ll see.”) Seriously, Oak is like those bitter, shrivel-souled profs that try to thin the herd of their first-year students in the first few weeks. Look at his face in this gif. Stare into those cold, dead eyes. I bet he has tenure and there are dozen of much more competent young post-docs working at McMonalds just to pay off their loans.


Flagged:

  • How often and how do we see ‘mon being used as renewable resources/part of the infrastructure?
  • Rockets as an exception to the rule against trained ‘mon attacking humans?
  • Do the chars. keep their sass?