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.

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Ep. 13–The privilege of pokémon profs and a conspiracy theory

In episode 13 we meet yet another pokémon researcher, Bill of the Lighthouse. That makes three–Oak, Seymour, and now Bill. When I started watching the show I thought I would like pokémon academics. I was wrong. Oak and Bill are the worst, and what makes this episode great is that it isn’t just me saying that but the main characters, too. Let’s look at some of the flaws in Kanto’s academic circles, how maybe Oak and Bill occupy a place of privilege and prestige, and… is that a conspiracy theory I see?

we. . . shall. . . see

Oak

In this episode Ash catches his seventh pokémon, a little krabby he comes across at a beach. The pokéball dematerializes and Ash discovers that pokémon caught when he’s at his limit of 6 are teleported back to the place where he got his pokédex—in this case, Oak’s lab. Far from being reassured, Ash says the greatest line (at least, the greatest not spoken by Team Rocket): “So Krabby’s with professor Oak, huh? Now I’m doubly worried about it!” Gods, I love it. Ash is worried that Oak will… what? Misplace it? Eat it, maybe? When Ash does get to a place with wifi a video phone and skypes calls Oak, the professor is eating. Ash freaks out and shouts, desperately, “You’re not eating my krabby, are you?” Oak is not, however, eating the krabby, in part because, as he says, it’s too small. (Sidenote: In a few posts I’ll talk about how disturbing it is that Oak might actually eat krabby.) Oak then shows off Gary’s huge krabby and then says, apropos of nothing, “I want you to know that my grandson Gary has already caught 45 pokémon.” WHY did you want him to know that, Oak?! UGH, Oak, stop bragging about your environmentally irresponsible grandson.

I love that Ash doesn’t trust Oak because Oak is unempathetic and a potential (probable?) sociopath. It goes nicely with what we get next, which is…

A Glimpse of Privilege at Work

Ash and co. find themselves at a remote beach near a lighthouse, which turns out to belong to “Bill of the Lighthouse,” a rich pokémon researcher. Oak learns where they are and says “[Bill] knows even more than me! […] He could teach you […] everything about pokémon– and then some.” Oak vouches for our fearless travelers and asks Bill to put them up for the night. As Oak hangs up, Bill says to Ash and co., “There’s no way I could ignore a request from the great professor Oak.”

I mentioned earlier how the first episode indicates that the Oaks seem to have weatlh and power. In this episode we discover that Bill and Oak have a professional relationship that includes doing favors for one another. The fact that Oak, who I already surmised is rich, is tight with another rich pokémon researcher (probably self-funded) does NOT surprise me. Oak describes Bill as “a young pokémon researcher,” and I suspect from the way Oak and Bill each praise the other that Oak is helping Bill professionally and Bill is helping Oak financially. Bill’s knowledge and wealth may help him connect with older, better-known researchers who boost his reputation and status.  I’m not saying there’s fraud going on, but I am saying that there seems to be a network of wealthy pokémon researchers, the keepers of a lot of power and knowledge.

Well, I say keepers, but maybe the better term is takers? Because we see researchers who aren’t in this network, people like Seymour the Scientist, who work in the field. Seymour is so dedicated to his work that he ends up living on Mt. Moon with the clefairies. Bill explicitly says that trainers like Ash provide researchers with information and data. Ash’s success as a trainer is, Bill says, “as vital to me as it is to you.” There’s a strange economy of the academy in which trainers are used as unpaid, probably uncredited sources of information by armchair academics working in mansions or remote labs. It contrasts strangely with the way direct engagement has been consistently set up as better than any amount of book learnin’, but maybe the push for young people to get out there and learn is really meant to generate raw data for the ivory tower academics?

Not only is there a weird imbalance of power/labor/credit going on, but I legitimately think Bill is deep in some unethical, shady, conspiracy-type stuff. Oak may be in on it, too. Friends, I think the show is canonically suggesting that Bill of the Lighthouse (and possibly Professor Samuel Oak) is aware of and involved in. . .

The Mewtwo Conspiracy

Untitled_Artwork

This is my conspiracy wall

So I suppose that, strictly going episode to episode from the first one, we shouldn’t know that this is significant. However, we cannot ignore the truth, so find some corkboards and pushpins and string, people, because it’s time to map out some conspiracies!

When the kids arrive at Bill’s lighthouse we get a shot of tall iron (ebony?) doors decorated with relief sculptures of pokémon. Most are rare or legendary, and a few, in particular, stick out—specifically a relief of Mewtwo, the man-made outcome of an unethical, cruel, irresponsible, and ultimately disastrous genetic experiment that, at this point in the series’ timeline, no one knows about except those involved in its ongoing secret creation.

the face of suspicion

Bulbapedia writes off the carving of Mewtwo as a continuity error, but on this blog we don’t blame things on the show creators! Instead we take everything very seriously and with an endless supply of suspicion! 1

This means we have to accept that Bill must know about the existence of Mewtwo and be involved in the project. His deep pockets might even be financing some aspects of the experiments. We know for sure that Bill is interested in weird fringe-science, too—this whole episode pivots on his ongoing efforts to find/contact a gargantuan, never-before-seen species of dragonite. It’s not a big leap from chasing cryptids to playing around with genetic engineering.

Even weirder, though, is that Oak may be in on it. We know he and Bill are friendly and help each other out, and Oak makes that bizarre comment about Bill—“He can teach you everything there is to know about pokémon—and then some.” It might just be Oak praising Bill, but the phrase doesn’t make any sense—how could he tell them more than everything unless “and then some” implies that Bill is involved in the creation of new, as-yet-unknown pokémon. In the same conversation Oak brags about Gary’s (much larger) krabby and just how many pokémon Gary has caught. Oak likes to brag, likes the sound of his own voice, and he would slyly reference his own knowledge of top-secret conspiracies.

To sum up: the most powerful people Misty, Brock, and Ash have encountered have been Oak and Bill. Both seem to be buddy-buddy, seem to have $$$ like wow, and are removed from the world. This removal from the messy journey Ash takes clashes with the idea we’ve gotten from the show that direct engagement with the world is the most credible grounds for authority. Add this to the (more or less) fact that Bill and Oak are involved in cruel, experimental tinkering with the building blocks of life itself, and we get a dark, compelling picture of the institutions of power in Kanto being driven by money, connections, privilege, and…. secrets.

Never forget: image


1. Let’s prove just how seriously and suspiciously I can take things and go back to that picture of the door covered in my conspiracy scribbles. Here it is again.

 Untitled_Artwork

First off, we see Mewtwo, which is a pretty straightforward clue. Underneath Mewtwo, though, is ditto. Ditto’s signature move is to transform into a rough doppelganger of any other creature. The attack is called transform, and the only other pokémon that can use transform is Mew. Ditto, then, has some connection to Mew, whose DNA was used to create Mewtwo. Ditto may have been used in its experimental creation. Also significant is arcanine to Mewtwo’s right. Blaine, the gym leader of Cinnabar Island, uses an arcanine in the game. Cinnabar Island also happens to be the site of the experimental research facility in which Mewtwo was created. I can’t speak to continuity of this particular clue re games/TV show, but it’s an eerie coincidence. Finally, bottom right, we see a golbat. Golbats are often used by members of Team Rocket. Giovanni, leader of Team Rocket, is or will be involved in the Mewtwo conspiracy, as he’s the one who attempts to claim and control Mewtwo. Does Bill know about Team Rocket’s intentions, as well, or is it a strange coincidence? Why have several very rare ‘mon and then a golbat, not rare or even very powerful? I’ve got nothing for the zapdos we see on the top left, so maybe it’s just part of the non-significant decoration OR hints at a mystery we have yet to discover!

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.