“What is Ash even trying to say?”–more on the discourse of goodness

Ep. 1.42. Ash and the gang arrive in the windswept and dusty ghost town of Dark City. Streets abandoned, furtive citizens warily peeking through their windows, afraid of the dreaded… pokémon trainers!

In Dark City there are two gangs brawling for the chance to become an official gym. The residents of Dark City are now suspicious of trainers in general. In defending themselves (and condemning the Yas and Kaz gangs), Ash, Brock, and Misty are forced to articulate what really defines “good” and “bad” trainers. The show has really danced around this, claiming that there’s a difference while actually showing that, often, there really isn’t anything separating the good from the bad except for how good one is at describing selfishness in a way that makes it sound okay. When he’s explicitly asked how to be a good trainer, can Ash give an answer?

Motives

Ash seems to get the gangs’ desire to become official gyms. As Ash himself says, “Becoming an official gym is a big honor.” The issue isn’t the motivation but the way that the gangs are endangering the town and causing property damage. Misty tsks and says that their battling is “more like a streetfight!” An issue of methods, not motives?

Later, though, the boss of the Yas gang asks, “What faster way of making money is there in today’s world than by becoming an official pokémon gym?” Eschewing the sanitized discourse of honor and prestige is crossing a line, and Ash practically yells, “Pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money!” Fair enough, but what are they, then? It isn’t clear, since the weighty discussion of the ethics and Photo 2015-08-30, 1 30 15 PMcultural value of bloodsport is interrupted by a battle involving ketchup and pikachu tears.

The real difference

And you know what? I get it. Street battles are dangerous. The thugs all have big, scary ‘mon who cause a lot of damage, but honestly, the battle between the gangs, when we really see it, doesn’t look that different from any other battle, just… slightly less controlled? The battle’s real difference from sanctioned contests is that it damages houses and scares civilians. Ash may claim that the gang members “don’t have the right to be called pokémon trainers after what [they] made [their ‘mon] do;” but what is that, exactly? How are the gangs’ pokémon any worse off than Pikachu was after that battle with Lt. Surge? Battling, even in an official gym, can be brutal. Physical pain can’t be the line they’re crossing.

Photo 2015-09-03, 9 59 24 PMAsh, Brock, and Misty are also upset because their own reputations are threatened. When they see a street fight, Brock frets, “If this keeps up, people will think all pokémon trainers are dangerous!” Later a gang member tries to recruit Ash and co., and Ash worries that their “reputation as pokémon trainers” will be damaged. “Bad” trainers threaten to undermine the institution and put all trainers in a bad light.

In the end a mysterious, masked figure who’s been skulking around turns out to be a Nurse Joy who’s “the inspector from the official Pokémon League.” She, too, condemns the gangs’ “street fighting” and tells them that their only chance of becoming true trainers is to turn to Ash for advice. BUT, when asked, explicitly, what makes someone a good trainer, Ash seizes up and stammers unconvincing nonsense:

Ash: Well… you see… pokémon are really our friends so … we’ve gotta be kind to them.

Kaz Leader: But what about pokémon battles?

Ash: Of course, you fight them as hard as you can, with all your strength, trying to win…

Yas Leader: With all your strength? Isn’t that the same as fighting?

Ash: No, no, not at all… sure you try to win but you don’t try to beat each other!

Brock: Ha, what is Ash trying to say anyway?
Misty: I don’t think he knows himself!

Ash: Now first, you’ll have to fix everything you broke in this town!

In the end, then, there isn’t really a visible difference between the kind of fighting that’s “good” and the kind of fighting that’s “bad.” Instead, it’s when the gangs become productive members of the community that Brock declares “they’ve had a Photo 2015-09-03, 9 56 01 PMchange of heart and decided to become true pokémon trainers.”

So while Ash says that “pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money,” his best piece of advice to the gang leaders is to use their pokémon as literal tools in the service of Dark City’s wider community. Harm to pokémon was never the issue. Using non-human bodies for reasons that are too openly selfish and unregulated threatens the human community and is therefore “bad.” Good trainers are also good citizens, in line with the regulations of the League and the best interests of Kanto’s economy. The League is, more explicitly than ever, an economic institution, and the discourse of battling serves Kanto’s economy. 

Endnotes: What’s the show saying?

So what’s the “message” takeaway? The anime is ostensibly about friendship, living with difference, navigating tricky relationships, learning. In cases like this, though, actually thinking through the implications of the show (and let’s be honest, I didn’t even have to go very deep), we see first that the “official” discourse–that battling increases friendship, that battling isn’t violent but interactive, that “good” fighting is about learning and “bad” fighting is about winning, that “good” trainers don’t “use” their ‘mon–is pretty hollow, and that there isn’t much difference between “good” and “bad,” at least not for the bodies being used as tools. Non-human bodies are used for entertainment and economic gain, and you can change the language and context all you like, but that material reality is the same even if the human attitude toward it isn’t.

Pokémon as a show, then, is either about how discourse shapes the world, is inescapable, and can blind even otherwise decent people to harmful and enabling contradictions in social institutions and narratives (the cynical/honest reading); or, about how our attitudes justify the means. To put it another way, Pokémon as a show is either about how non-human bodies and needs are erased/ignored/abstracted by discourse; or about how our intentions justify those bodies’ treatment, regardless of how close it comes to forms of treatment deemed, in other contexts, cruelty. 

The moral: when writing a plot that hinges on what makes good guys good and bad guys bad, maybe address the fact that your protagonists are set up as the authority on good/bad but can’t articulate the difference. It’s a weird, gaping hole. The hinge of the plot of the episode is left hanging. Basically, I’m ruining my own childhood. Yay?

Assorted notes and queries

Time to ponder out a few aspects of the pokéverse. Today I update, clarify, and introduce a few small, random speculations about the culture, inhabitants, and governance of Kanto. Each section is standalone, so this post is long but made of individual sections. Bite-sized, like poképuffs! Pick and choose what you like! Also, if you have questions, comments, corrections, or theories of your own and you feel like sharing, leave a comment or contact me on tumblr.

Aggression against humans

Way, way back I suggested that wild pokémon would attack trained and captive ones not out of jealousy, but because they recognized that humans were only as threatening as the pokémon that accompany them. I flagged this theory, imagespeculating that wild pokémon might not attack humans very often because their behavior had been conditioned from years of being sought and caught.

There are various ways in which this theory is disproved, but “Primeape Goes Bananas” (ep. 1.25) most conclusively shows us that wild pokémon do, indeed, attack humans. Mankey and its evolved form, primeape, are basically a cross between a cotton ball and a baboon. Both are known for being particularly aggressive, so it may be an outlier, but other pokémon–a gyarados, zubats, even the ghosts–explicitly attack humans, not just their pokémon. Pokémon behavior, then, varies widely and includes aggression against humans as well as their trained ‘mon.

Pokémon language

In ep. 1.17 we spend a lot of time with just the pokémon characters. They’ve been separated from their trainers, so they spend a lot of time talking to each other in their poké-speak. We get subtitles of what they’re saying. Most of it is normal conversations, although Ekans and Koffing, Team Rocket ‘mon, speak in ways that are coded as less Photo 2015-05-29, 2 34 10 AMintelligent (3rd person, no pronouns, etc.). Keep in mind that they’re all speaking using only the syllables that make up their species name–sucks to be, like, a spheal and have only one syllable. The fact that they can articulate complex ideas leads me to conclude that poké-speak is 1, excessively tonal in ways that we can’t always hear with our human ears, or 2, not only verbal but also somatic. That is, many animals use non-verbal communication like scent, posture, movement patterns, and colors to communicate (often complex) ideas or information. Elephants use sound, but it’s sound pitched at frequencies humans can’t hear. Pokémon may use any and all of these methods to supplement their rudimentary syllabic abilities.

There’s support for some non-verbal element in that Meowth can communicate with other pokémon, but even Ash, who understands most of his pokémon, does so with less complexity than Meowth. If scent or subtle body language are in play, it might explain why Meowth can comprehend poké-speak better than any human.

Finally, on a somewhat tangential note–the fact that pokémon can communicate with varying degrees of sophistication is taken for granted by the characters. I do think that Pikachu is more intelligent than other species–say, caterpie or magikarp. But even insectoid Butterfree had an undeniably complex personality. For, you know, a bug. All pokémon are persons and are seen as such, even if they aren’t legally protected from being caught and trained as bloodsport entertainers.

State oversight 

Back in 1.20, “Maiden’s Peak,” we discover that Pokémon Centers have curfews, strictly enforced by Nurse Joy and by a metal shutter that closes off the PC after a certain time (I want to say 11 pm?). Seeing the metal shutter descend, Ash tries to leave–Brock is still out there, staring at the rock/statue of the ghostly Maiden–but Nurse Joyce stops him, scolding him about his “bedtime,” and Ash can’t go rescue Brock.

The way Joy actively prevents Ash from leaving makes me think that the Joys aren’t just healthcare drones but also surveillance, a way to oversee and gently manage the large population of trainers. The free healthcare and overnights for traveling youngsters keeps them safe, sure, but I’ve already noticed and noted how the Nurse Joys pass on information to each other about trainers that pass through their Centers. The takeaway is that the Joys perform certain disciplinary and surveillance functions, managing not only the health of pokémon but also the activities of humans. It’s not necessarily sinister, but in light of the rather authoritarian “curfew” it’s not unproblematic, either.

Ghosts again

Speaking of ghosts, I want to more clearly articulate the difference between real-world ghosts and ghosts in Kanto. In our world, ghosts are fragments of the past with unfinished business. The fear is that the past will burst into the present again. We in the West are afraid of the past, of what we’ve done or don’t know what to do with. In Kanto/the pokéverse, though, ghosts represent an opposite movement. Ghosts move from the present into parts of the past that are supposedly stable, familiar, traditional. Slapstick and the local legend of the ghostly Maiden are reawakened and use by ghosts in unfamiliar, scary, dangerous ways. This may be a contrast between Western and Japanese cultures–although this is speculation based on no formal research, my sense is that a lot of Japanese narratives are about how tradition survives in a quickly changing present. Regardless of the real-world source, in the pokéverse ghosts (dis)embody the way the present can reawaken and defamiliarize a seemingly stable past.

Oak’s lab

Oak’s lab is the coolest. We get a very brief look inside in ep. 1.25, so let’s break it down. image

Apart from being idyllically built on top of a wooded hill, backed by forests and mountains, there’s a wind turbine! This makes a lot of sense–I’m guessing that a lot of the energy in Kanto is produced in ways that are more easily integrated into the environment. I talked about Kanto being a dystopia, but there are some positive aspects of god-like technology and imageenvironmental control.

imageNext we get some closer views–here’s Oak meditating. Behind him is a pond, the same pond as in the second picture. It’s home to many pokémon, whom Oak presumably studies. This study of captive ‘mon aligns with Oak’s fairly sedentary research. Still, he seems to have a breeding population of the poliwag line (their second-stage evolution, poliwhirl, is peeking out from behind the rock), which means that they must not be too unhappy.

I was prepared to think more favorably of Oak because of all of this set-up. But then, during his meditation, the phone rings. Oak doesn’t move or even react. Then Krabby appears next to him holding a portable videophone. People, Oak has trained Ash’s krabby to be his phone butler.

imageApart from being exploitative of our crustacean-like friend, it crosses an in-world cultural line, and speaks to Oak’s character, albeit obliquely. Back in episode 11 when the gang encounters an abandoned charmander, they’re very uncomfortable about this pokémon who isn’t wild but is seemingly unattached. Although they want to help, they conclude that it would be best if its trainer cared for it. They go back for it eventually, but it’s clear that people prefer to leave other trainers’ pokémon alone if possible. It’s probably related to the pervasive paradigm of ownership–that is, trainers tend to see pokémon as either owned or things that can and will someday be owned, and have trouble talking about pokémon in any other way. Finding a pokémon who is owned but not cared for may trouble this, undermining their faith in the essential goodness of training culture. They don’t like it and aren’t sure how to handle it, and part of the solution is not interfering with others’ ‘mon and thereby culturally honoring the responsibilities and the power of ownership.

Part of Oak’s job is caring for pokémon over the six-per person limit, and allowing Krabby to roam around is sweet–yay, Krabby gets exercise! But Oak training Krabby to be his butler crosses a line. He’s interfering with another trainer’s pokémon, which we know is a no-no. Oak acts trangressively because he can–he works from a position of privilege and control, above the rest of Pallet Town (literally, up on that hill) and most of society as a whole. Oak is, in the end, still a total butt.