Ep. 8 & 9 — Tough but cool: Difference, discourse, and what it means to be a “good trainer.”

Guys and gallades, we have a new banner! It’s a commission from the wonderful Caity Hall! Look at more of her work on deviantartstorenvy, and even Instagram. That’s me! There I am! With an eevee and a dedenne! It’s basically what I would see if I looked in the Mirror of Erised.

*sigh*


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.”

image

A.J., Ash, and… Pikachu? You… you okay, buddy?

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 imagethat 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.”

As an academic and an aspiring educator who works primarily with the written word, I looooove me some anti-intellectual subtext. -_-

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.

These are all pikachu, Pikachu, and pikachu at the same time.

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.

imagePikachu 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.

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Some speculation on Kanto’s environmental management

A quick word before we begin– Recently on Tumblr there’s been a fantastic explosion of art that imagines cross-bred pokémon with characteristics of both parents. Some even imagine what sort of ecosystem would lead to such cross-breeds. It’s exactly the sort of thinking that prompted this blog, and it’s all beautiful, so even if you don’t follow Pokécology’s Tumblr, the art is worth looking at.


Okay, now to business! At this point, I feel like I’ve seen enough of the show to start thinking about how it presents space/environment. By the end, I want to consider the possibility that all of Kanto is basically a huge, Hunger Games type arena.1 

Also, a final note on terminology [tangent warning]— I use the term “environment” as a shorthand, but I don’t love it. It’s a single, monolithic and reductive concept. “The environment” and “nature” are human concepts, flexible and deployed in different ways but always, inescapably a simplification of what they claim to label. When I say environment, what I mean is really the interaction of living things with each other and their nonliving surroundings. “The environment” is a complex, restless, explosively irreducible web of interactions. What really defines a place or a region or a biome are those interactions between living things and the place they live. That is, “the environment” is nothing more than interconnected ecosystems. Place is not really what we mean when we say “environment,” but rather what happens in that place. So when I talk about control over “environment,” what I mean is control over those things that live there and how they interact. Make sense? Good! Now down to business.

Environments encountered, environments simulated; or, Squirtles all the way down? 

The first character to indicate that, yeah, maybe just catching creatures willy nilly in your relentless lust for bloodsports is maybe not environmentally responsible behavior?

To get from Viridian to Pewter Ash and Misty follow an unpaved road and then pass through/around Mt. Moon as they go to Cerulean, meeting the delightful Seymour the Scientist. 2 It’s rough going in place– rope bridges and footpaths. Is all of this undeveloped space left alone to be huge wildlife corridors or parks?  We have no indication that there is any regulation of what pokémon can be caught or where, so it isn’t strictly regulated. Eventually I think we see Pokémon Rangers, but here and now Ash is free to roam and potentially disrupt any ecosystem he enters, so maybe it’s more like a game reserve?

At this point, it really struck me that the vast tracts of undeveloped land in a world technologically advanced enough to have pokéballs, teleporters, and free health/law enforcement run by clones have to be intentional.

Brad O’Farrell writes in his article about the similarities between Kanto (and other regions) and real places. All of Kanto, he says, is based on Tokyo, but with some significant differences:

[Kanto’s] map isn’t based on present-day Tokyo, it’s based on the pre-sprawl Tokyo of the 1960s. The towns that are connected by forests and rivers in the Pokemon world are connected by concrete and bullet trains in our world. The fantasy of this world is not just that humans and Pokemon live side by side, but that the golden age of Japan never ended. This world is in a state of tranquility while its real-life counterpart was in a state of upheaval.

Is it that Kanto represents a pre-development glory or a far-future or alternate development? We know that there are terrifyingly powerful kinds of tech. in Ash’s world, and Cerulean City is definitely an urban hub, albeit a smallish one. Large population centers require power, waste disposal, water treatment; so where is the visible infrastructure? All I can think is that Kanto’s technology is so advanced that control over the environment is made invisible. The tech. is so advanced that it can recreate the rivers, forests, mountains that connect cities while still enabling large urban centers to exist.

They’re all just magikarps in a tank. Metaphorically speaking.

Just as pokémon are mediated by merchandise and television, I think that even the environment of Kanto might be all mediation, just squirtles all the way down. There’s no “real” wilderness left. Kanto isn’t a past golden age that never ended, it’s so post-tech-explosion that they’ve recreated wilderness-like spaces. There’s support for this theory in the (mostly) well-maintained footpaths that go through the areas Ash travels. This isn’t wilderness at all but managed space, cultivated for pokémon, yes, but also for traveling trainers. This would make all of Kanto a vast, Hunger Games-style arena that supports/enables the industry and culture of pokémon training. While such tracts of land allow more space for pokémon to live, they also serve as a way to maintain breeding populations of pokémon for trainers to battle and catch. No area is undisturbed– human populations may be clustered and concentrated in the urban spaces, but trainers still have access even to the fragile ecosystem of Mt. Moon.

Art by ChuzOr

Think, too, about the kind of spaces we’ve seen in the two gyms. Brock has an entire boulder field he can conceal or conjure at will. Even more sophisticated and elaborate is the aquarium in the Cerulean Gym. (Question: Do the swim performances happen in the same water that the coral and fish live in? Because that would neither be responsible fish care nor sanitary pool conditions.)

That this ability to recreate and control environments takes place in gyms, places that best exemplify control over pokémon, might support the theory that gyms are no more than miniature recreations of the way Kanto is, as a whole, recreated and managed space. In the gyms the ability to recreate the environment (and sometimes, as in Pewter’s gym, hide it away until needed) is casually celebrated, part of both the aesthetic and the gym’s unique challenge at once.

Another piece of evidence to support the theory is the way that Ash and company take for granted that traveling on foot through a bug-strewn Viridian forest is as legitimate a way to go from place to place as Gary leaving Pallet by car. We don’t get any sense of a wilderness/civilization opposition, no nature/culture tension. It seems to be taken for granted that these spaces are meant to be accessible. So is environmental control made invisible not only physically but also conceptually? Maybe they don’t ever talk about “the environment” or address a nature/culture opposition because, in their society, there isn’t one. This can be a powerful thing– our own, real-world insistence that there is such a thing as “the environment” or “nature” allows us to abstract what is actually immeasurably complex. It allows us to think of our nonhuman neighbors, the trees behind our house, the thousands of small communities hidden in lichen and canopy, the unseen clusters of barnacles on a harbor piling, the melting sea ice, the networks of mycelium that connect fungus and forest, as one single thing to be managed and legislated.

Still, the fact that humans’ effects on the environment are invisible creates the potential for any harm done by the infrastructure that must exist to be more easily ignored. Also, if humans are actively managing and controlling what appears to us as “wilderness,” it makes Kanto’s seemingly pristine forests and mountains into an arena. It would be a representation of what space “should be”– a mediation not unlike the way the ‘dex feeds Ash information that is clearly biased. Ash and co. might take this accessible wilderness for granted because they have no conception of space that isn’t created and controlled by humans.

1. Not to undermine that chilling statement’s Very Serious Tone, but a quick look on fanfiction.net reveals about 35 crossovers of Hunger Games Pokémon, a mashup that I think would work better than the fanfic I googled up the other day in which Prof. Oak teaches “Pokémon ed” at Hogwarts during Harry’s second year. That said, Snape teaching pokémon potions is legitimately delightful and works really well in this other one I found so, props Mr. Chaos, 10 points to Pidgeyclaw. HuffleJigglypuff? 

2. Seymour legitimately cares about Mt. Moon and the very rare, enigmatic clefairy. He ends up staying there to live with them. (I’m guessing he means like extended field work. The Dian Fossey of Mt. Moon.) He also stops Ash from trying to catch them, gently indicating that it would be best for the (possibly sole remaining) population of clefairy to remain undisturbed. He also has no pokémon and is the character who most obviously sees the ecosystem and its inhabitants as valuable in themselves. So there are environmentalists in this world! Although I don’t think we’ll meet him again, I really, really like Seymour and his ridiculous rhymes. We would most definitely be friends.  

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. 

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?

Starting out

Welcome to my earnest but playful attempt to ecocritically watch my way through the first season of the Pokémon TV series!

Basically, my mission is this: I want to watch the first season of Pokémon  and really pay attention to the way the series presents the world’s environment. As someone who reads literature and films ecocritically–that is, focusing on how something portrays environment, ecology, the border between self/other, etc– I want to systematically think through the series paying particular attention to environment. To think Pokecologically, if you will. (Or if you won’t. Can’t stop the pun train, ’cause the pun train is the fun train, hoothoot!) Anyway, this will primarily be about the TV show’s representation as opposed to the games. (Although the games may come up, or maybe get their own blogging series?)

There’s a fair amount of writing out there on the real-world cultural importance of the show, which is good stuff– see the continuously updated further reading section–but not nearly as fun as thinking about the show for the show’s sake. There’s also a lot of fan speculation/analysis about the Pokémon world. I’m not going to rely on others’ research or thoughts, though I might bring it in as I go; instead,  I’ll rely most heavily on my own observations.

As I watch, these are the questions I want to keep in mind:

– How heavily is society structured around Pokémon, and how explicitly do we see Pokémon framed or used as economic entities?

-At what points are we invited to critique the hegemonic discourse of the Pokémon world–namely, that we gotta catch ’em all and, through aggressively competitive social relationships that displace aggression onto non-human proxies, become the best, and that doing so is the most desirable way to foster friendly relationships between humans and Pokémon and also go get all the glory?

-How often do we see evidence of attempts to coexist with Pokémon (wildlife corridors, wildlife sanctuaries, environmental initiatives)?

-How is technology presented in relation to the human and non-human world?

-Are there issues of privilege–for example, how does the Pokémon world’s society treat those humans and Pokémon who are not able-bodied?

-Is there anything to be said about biopower? (Free Pokémon health care; possibly cloned police force/health care workers; the digital storage/transport of Pokémon and the 6-Pokémon  carry limit; et al.)

– Gender. What’s the ratio of male:female trainers? What careers do women typically have in that world? (I have a feeling Pokémon may actually have really positive things to say; all nurses are women, but also all police, so. We’ll see.)

Sound good? Suggestions are welcome!