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!

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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?