“You can hardly see any sky”–Reading space in Kanto

New thing, just fyi–I’m going to start putting the main conclusions in bold at the end of each long-form post as a sort of TL;DR.

I’ve talked before about the faux-wilderness space of Kanto. The hardship of a badge-collecting journey is a form of education–remember how the private school, Pokémon Tech, is an accepted substitute for the badges? It may also be a test of a trainer’s worthiness. That said, Kanto’s rugged land is engineered to be challenging but accessible, a rigorous way of learning to be a trainer that’s open to all.

Hop Hop Hop Town, an interpretive dance

What about the cities, though? There are some interesting visuals of Ash, Brock, Misty, and Pikachu in urban space that frame Kanto’s cities as more confusing than the rugged space in between them.

To get us oriented and showcase some cool maps I found, here’s Kanto with all the locations in the anime (and from the games, I think) marked.1

Kanto_Map_Anime

A little clearer but slightly less gorgeous is this roadmap created by a user of Serebii.net.

Kanto Roadmap, found here: http://www.serebiiforums.com/showthread.php?427120-Kanto-Anime-Road-Map

source found here

There’s a lot of space between and around the cities. This makes sense–the faux-wilderness serves as a standing reserve for wild ‘mon, like pastureland for lightly-tended livestock.

Ash and co are always overjoyed when they reach a city, often because they’ve been wandering lost for weeks. “Lost,” though, not in the sense that they were wandering the woods fearing for their lives, but rather in the sense of being unsure of exactly what footpaths they were on. Although when they reach Vermilion they haven’t “had anything decent to eat for three days,” they still seem to have had something. Vermilion offers them a wash, some food, and a place to sleep that isn’t the ground, but they don’t seem to have been in real danger.

Reaching “civilization,” though, doesn’t solve their problem of being lost. In fact, visually, the urban spaces are far more dizzying and overwhelming than their timeimage wandering. First, here’s a visual comparison of two scenes in which the characters are “lost.”

The images show Ash, Misty, and Brock in Hop Hop Hop Town (a suburb of Celadon) and on their journey en route to Vermilion. Notice how they look at least as confused in Hop Hop Hop as they did in the forest. In both images Brock is studying the map, the others looking vaguely confused.

The perspective is different, too. While the characters seem small from an overhead view, it also gives a sense of depth to the forest and a sense of space. In the city, note the frequent use of low perspective and the claustrophobic feel of the background to create a sense of the looming surroundings. The scenery of the urban spaces is far more overwhelming and, paradoxically, limited than any forest we’ve seen. imageIn fact, the first dialogue in ep. 1.27 (spoken along with the top image in the collection at the left) is about how lost they feel, even though they’ve just left Celadon and are obviously on a main road.

Ash: I feel like the buildings are closing in on us.

Misty: Yeah, and they’re all so tall you can hardly see any sky.

Usually, in our world, when urban space is described as claustrophobic, it’s also easily navigable. You feel trapped and isolated, but usually you know how to get around, with street signs and subways and taxis. The wilderness, in contrast, is huge and free from social constraints and refreshing, but also, in this binary, prone to swallowing you up in its un-navigable vastness. This isn’t how it goes in Kanto, though.

Something else troubles this familiar contrast of city and nature, because in Kanto the rural space is where Ash acquires the non-human bodies he uses to win badges. The wilderness is a place of acquisition, which is the opposite of how we in our world conceive of wilderness vs. urban space. Usually when contrasted with human space/society/cities, our world’s idea of wilderness is of freedom from The System, from consumerism and human desires, a return to simpler living. (This is, of course, a social fiction, as in our own world everything is a commodity, but I digress…)

The city is still a place of advertisement and consumerism in Kanto, but look at these pictures of advertisements from ep. 1.28, “Pokemon Fashion Flash.” imageNote all of the pokémon images used. We’ve seen similar advertising and pokémon-branded products before, including Cerulean coffee and Mt. Moon spring water. It all refers back to pokémon bodies, explicitly, and those bodies are acquired outside the city.

The fact that urban advertisements so clearly, consistently refer to pokémon bodies, and the fact that Ash often feels pressure to continue his travels in order to catch more pokémon (and feels like a failure when he’s told how few he’s acquired in comparison to Gary), indicates that in Kanto, nature is a place where consumerism happens. In Kanto, “Nature” is not a place to escape capitalism but where you go to get the materials (bodies) you need to participate in the competitive system. Bodies and nature are explicitly thought of as capital. We see this in the way Ash evaluates each new location based on what bodies if offers him.2 The cities, in contrast, are places where the characters go to refresh themselves for a short time before returning to the hard work of their training journey. The cities offer food and rest but are confusing, more human but no more navigable than the accessible wilderness where Ash and co. spend most of their time. 

Bonus: real-world application

So this time I actually think this reflects in a significant way on our own world’s ideas of human and non-human space. I mentioned before how everything is commodified, and you only have to look at the kerfuffle surrounding drought-stricken B.C.’s sale of water to Nestle to realize that oil, water, trees, everything is bought and sold all the time.

We still like to think of “Nature” as a place where we can get away from the ravages of capitalism and consumerist drive, though. It’s nice to imagine, fantasize that this is possible. We maintain this social fiction that there are non-human spaces, but we do so less and less as the century progresses. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding the recent creation of the world’s largest marine reserve back in September of 2014. The project’s motivation was presented, not as a desire to protect our nonhuman neighbors from our own avarice (which should be an end in itself) but, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “a responsibility to make sure. . . the future has the same ocean to serve it. Not to be abused, but to preserve and utilize” (“Marine Reserve”). Protecting this area of the Pacific must be justified as protecting a commodity or a product.

I would suggest that as the permanence of the world as we know it becomes more uncertain, and the rarity and value of natural commodities rise accordingly, our culture is more explicitly beginning to talk about water, animal bodies, oil, etc. as things with an inherent value, a price tag. Nature, in our world’s increasingly neoliberal paradigm of thought, is becoming more explicitly, as in Kanto, a place made up not of significant non-human others, but of capital and commodity. Kanto’s somewhat flipped idea of urban and rural is our own world’s logical next step.

1. The map is official game artwork, and the locations are added by this forum user whose angsty profile indicates an early teen, but whose much-appreciated thoroughness and consistency of image edits suggests someone of greater years and wisdom, so Arceus bless you, mysterious stranger on a now-defunct forum.

2. In the image of the gang reading a map in the forest, Ash has binoculars. In this scene he uses the binoculars to scan a distant meadow for pokémon and is disappointed to see only spearow, which he seems to feel aren’t worth his time. He objectifies and evaluates all the bodies he encounters on his journey because nature is essentially a space of consumerism. This would align with the paradigm of ownership (i.e., how everyone talks about ‘mon as if they were owned or will someday be owned, seemingly lacking the concept of a happily un-owned pokémon). Each place is evaluated for what resources it offers, and how rare/strong those resources are. Basically, the wilderness is a large, exceptionally violent shopping mall.

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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.  

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?