The Function of the Pokémon Center

Today we’re talking about the weird space of the Pokémon Center! Although ostensibly a place that works to heal the damage done to pokémon bodies in battle, what does it mean that the PC actually enables continued battling? What indications are there of state control? What sort of social interaction occurs in a PC?

Free healthcare (because they use unpaid labor?)

Pokémon Centers not only provide free healthcare but also free food and lodging for traveling trainers. This implies either some sort of state involvement or subsidy or funding from the Pokémon League. It’s easy to see why–free healthcare allows more trainers to participate in the money-generating battle circuit. I’m imagespeculating that the PC’s only cost is supplies, since labor is probably free; the Nurse Joys are probably clones engineered for work in the PCs and probably aren’t paid (or at least not very much). The Joys are assisted by pokémon (usually, in Kanto, chansies), and since pokémon have no legal rights they’re most likely considered service animals who are authorized to administer medicine.

PCs allow the govt. and/or League to shape the culture of battling, because Nurse Joys enforce certain rules and manage the movement of trainers. For example, when Ash and Brock clash with a trainer who abandoned his charmander in ep. 1.11, Nurse Joy intervenes: “You know the rules— pokémon are never to be used in personal fights. It’s disrespectful to the pokémon and their trainers!” Here Joy enforces not only the way trainers use their ‘mon but also how they think about that use–i.e., she shapes the discourse of battling. Battling is codified not only by League rules but also by personal codes of honor and self-discipline. This sanitizes the practice of blood sports–implying that battling isn’t self-serving but a respectful art or interaction–in ways not dissimilar to the bullshit ideas of art, respect, and bravery that get trotted out by fans of bullfights.

There’s also an 11 p.m. curfew for trainers who sleep in the PC. When Ash tries to dash out of a PC before curfew back in 1.20, Nurse Joy scolds him about his health. Add this to the way that the Joys tell each other about trainers they encounter, so that a few mention that they’ve heard of Ash from their cousin/sister/whatever in another city–they’re less like Big Brother and more like Big Mother, overseeing the movement and health of trainers. Any battling trainer must visit the center, ensuring that nearly all trainers are influenced by the PCs. The Joys, and by extension all Pokémon Centers, enforce League rules, regulate the health of non-humans and the movements of their human trainers, and shape the discourse of battling. It would be interesting to know who controls the centers, the government or the ambiguous but presumably private League, and therefore who is exerting the forms of control exercised by/in the PCs.

Aesthetics

Okay, so if we buy into the idea that the PC is essentially a space in which control is exerted over trainers and their ‘mon and the economic system of battling as a whole, what does it mean that the PCs consistently blend into their surroundings? Unlike gyms, in which the leaders showcase control over a specific environment and the ‘mon that live in them, PCs blend in and aren’t uniform (well, apart from the cloned healthcare professionals and their standard issue chansy).

Again, working off the assumption that PCs are centers of control, maybe it’s another way Kanto hides/makes invisible mechanisms of environmental control. We rarely see power generators or urban centers. Much of Kanto is populated sparsely, if at all, and somehow the necessary highways, power generators, and waste treatment plants are hidden. Outside of Gringey City, most of these apparatuses of power are invisible. The PC, Beachfront PCby blending in with local architectural aesthetics, also hides its status as a mechanism of external control. This is potentially more sinister than, say, a brutalist architectural design in that it’s harder for Ash and co. to realize the way the PC supports a problematic system. However, I’m willing to let this slide, because I’m just really delighted by the beach-house style PC. It’s adorable and I love it.

As a social space

There isn’t as much to say about the social space of the center, because percentage-wise the characters don’t spend a lot of time there. It’s clear, though, that different socioeconomic classes encounter one another in the PCs, because fairly often, only Ash, Brock, and Misty have to sleep over at a center and they’re the only ones there. Presumably the other trainers we see in a PC during the day have the money to pay for lodgings. This is a big point in PCs’ favor, since they seem to legitimately offer poorer trainers like Ash opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Final note

Nerd that I am, I would very much like to know who controls PCs. The League obviously profits from battling and branding. The trainers who battle essentially work to generate revenue for the League by battling, maintaining the battling fanbase that keeps the industry of poképrodcuts™ going. Sure, free healthcare is great, but Ash doesn’t seem to be making money from battling, even though trainers like him are a big part of the system that generates the League’s profits. Like, okay, I know the show isn’t going to give us figures for revenue generated, but I wish the technical aspects of the League came up more. Who is profiting and how, and what they do to keep those profits coming in, would be helpful in our attempt to think about how the PC functions in a specifically economic context.

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.