Ep. 10 (again) — Speculations about population management and the paradigm of ownership

I’m sticking with episode ten for one last post. What does it tell us about pokémon and Kanto’s ecosystems? Also, I’m not sure that the people of this world have the concept that some pokémon want to remain free.

Why shouldn’t you catch sick pokémon?

If you recall, in the last post I noted that Misty says something like “only bad guys would catch sick pokémon!” Makes sense on the surface. Misty and the others imply that bothering sick/stressed pokémon is somehow more cruel than catching a healthy wild one, which is why those who would dare to do such a thing are “bad guys” or “robbers.” But any time you try to catch an unwilling pokémon (as Misty does with an oddish) it’s going to be traumatic. Why are sick ones special? If anything, being caught would get them prompt medical attention from a Pokémon Center.

I don’t think it’s about the pokémon at all. I think it might be about population control, a form of Kanto biopower1 that manages the health of the wild pokémon population and ensures the health of the battling industry. There are a few ways this idea of leaving sick pokémon might accomplish this.

First, refusing to catch sick/weak ‘mon woud ensure those pokémon were not caught and treated at a Pokémon Center. This would lead to the weakest dying and, in theory, the gene pool would improve. Allowing natural selection to continue uninterrupted would makes the stock of wild pokémon stronger overall—probably better for them and better for trainers who catch them.

But, you ask, wouldn’t catching them also remove them from the gene pool? True, it would take them out of the wild population; but, we know that there are pokémon breeders because that’s Brock’s career goal. While wild pokémon power the industry/cultural institution of the traveling trainer, there must be captive-bred pokémon. For all we know, outside of traveling/battling circles, captive-bred pokémon might be more prevalent than wild-caught ones. Maybe they’re selectively bred to produce stronger battling ‘mon or for fancy color variations (the main reasons people breed pokémon in the games), or perhaps darker reasons. (Think of the captive pikachu used as emergency generators in episode 2.) Regardless, keeping weaker pokémon out of the captive pool would be in the best interests of the breeding programs.

Finally, telling trainers to leave sick and weak pokémon alone might prevent a trainer from being saddled with easy catches that won’t help them in the arena. This wouldn’t just lead to less successful trainers and, by extension, a less successful Pokémon League, but could also put greater stress on the (free) pokémon health care system.

This is all speculation, but I think that “don’t catch sick pokémon” is a weird idea when examined, and these guesses are pretty plausible, if I do say so myself.2

A Paradigm of Ownership

In episode ten we get a pretty clear idea that everyone in Kanto has a basic inability to really see pokémon as independent beings who may want to stay independent. Team Rocket’s role in this episode is to be figures of unchecked acquisition and, being excessive, they’re labeled “bad.” All they do in the end, though, is follow the possessive attitude that we see in Ash and Misty to its logical conclusion.

First off, Ash uses the word “robbers” to describe people who would come to the village and capture pokémon. The thing is, it’s already been made clear that the pokémon don’t belong to Melanie or anything else, so “robbers” is the wrong word. Still, “robber” emphasizes that people who would try to catch sick pokémon are crossing some sort of moral line (see footnote 1), at least according to Kanto society.3 It also implies that there isn’t even a word for catching pokémon that you should leave alone.

Later Melanie tells Ash how brave and helpful the wild bulbasaur is, and we see just how deeply Bulbasaur cares for his fellow pokémon. Melanie says he’s so protective that he “doesn’t like trainers,” although by the end of the ep. he comes to respect Ash. It is very clear at this point that there are some pokémon who actively want to be left alone, who exercise agency and empathy to keep other pokémon safe from humans. But instead of responding with understanding and respect, Ash’s response is to say, wistfully, “It would be great to have a pokémon like that!” In both instances, Ash seems unable to see the pokémon he meets as anything but potential possessions. It’s a sort of objectification-greed hybrid. (It’s deeply unfortunate that Bulbasaur does voluntarily join him. Ugh. Maybe Ash needs to not get everything he wants for a change?)

image

What a cute little object!

More disappointingly, Misty does the same thing. Misty has already tried to catch a clearly frightened oddish. We learn it was abandoned by a trainer because it wasn’t a good battler. Misty apologizes and says, “All I think about lately is winning. I hope I’m not becoming heartless.” This is great! Score one for empathy and self-awareness! Except that just before this she tries to comfort the oddish by saying, “You just need to find a trainer who understands you.” But… why? Why does Misty insist, like Ash, on putting the pokémon in Melanie’s village back into the paradigm of trainer/pokémon, when clearly an existence outside that paradigm is possible? Oddish is with Melanie because it was abandoned and is lost. As a viewer my first assumption would be that Oddish, dumped by a jerky trainer and obviously afraid of being caught in the beginning of the show, does not want to find another trainer.

And then we get Team Rocket’s deeply strange, symbolic role, which draws attention to the inconsistencies of the characters. Hoping to catch vulnerable pokémon, Team Rocket attach balloons to a stadium4 and fly it into the clearing. Then they use a super-powerful vacuum to suck the pokémon into the stadium. Oddish, interestingly, is the ‘mon that comes closest to getting caught.

image

It’s either a literalization of training OR a really weird phallic metaphor. Or both.

It’s like a weirdly literal metaphor for what all trainers do to pokémon, especially when we consider the scene when Misty tried to catch Oddish. The Rockets aren’t doing anything very different from what the protagonists did earlier.

As I hinted earlier, it’s basically just taking the culture of training to its logical conclusion, stripping it bare of all the nuances and niceties and moral scruples and approaching it with cold efficiency. (Well, okay. As efficiently as you can when you’re using helium balloons and large portable arenas of uncertain provenance.)

Maybe Team Rocket is “bad” because, by taking Kanto’s possessive attitude toward pokémon to the extreme, they reveal what it is in the end—cold and greedy. The Rockets show the dark side of using pokémon for glory and power, which endangers the entire institution, and undermines the idea of the noble quest that Ash and his peers buy into. TR is “evil” because they don’t follow the rules, but the rules  justify behavior that is, in the end, barely different from Team Rocket’s. The Rockets are to trainers what hardcore Christian fundamentalists are to the evangelical church—embarrassing, unashamed, and ultimately dangerous in the way they call attention to the potentially dark conclusions and attitudes of the institution.

1. I’m basically going to speculate on some biopolitics of Kanto. A bit of theoretical background, influenced by some overly simplified Foucault and others: biopolitics is a term for the governance that manages and controls population rather than individuals. Biopolitics focuses on the health, productivity, and management of large numbers, of demographics, of populations. Biopower, the way that biopolitical thought is exercised, often operates through discourse. Rather than force a population to follow certain rules in order to improve a population’s health, often a set of ideas and vocabulary are internalized, affecting the way a culture thinks and creating a sense of what one should do or has a duty to do. This sense of duty is seen as a moral good in itself, and people following it works in favor of The System. Discourse determines how we think of our bodies, which affects how we use them, which ultimately determines what sort of body we are able to have. As Sherryl Vint writes in Bodies of Tomorrow, “The ideas that we have about what is natural or proper for our bodies influence what our bodies can and cannot do, and preconceived ideologies will determine what science will or will not find when it looks at them” (18). Of course, ideology is never framed as “I’m telling you how to live and I have an ulterior motive,” and it isn’t “used” by any one person or group. Instead it’s often couched in religious or moral/ethical codes that are seen as ends in themselves, done because they’re The Right Thing To Do. Therefore, Misty says that you don’t catch sick pokémon simply because . . . 

2. As a side note, if you like this kind of speculation, you should check out “Meganium” by R.J. Palmer. His pieces always have some great speculative write-ups. From this particular piece [sic for the whole thing]: “Foongus [a mushroom pokemon] have only become a point of interest recently, when their pokeball-like camouflage developed. In the past two decades, Pokemon training has seen a huge surge in popularity of youths the world over, as has the littering of broken pokeballs across the country side. Pokemon have become very cautious around the appearance of a pokeball, as they do not want to be caught. It appears that Foongus has adapted this color pattern to take advantage of the natural wariness of other Pokemon species. As such, the numbers of Foongus have skyrocketed with few Pokemon eating them. There is another species of Pokemon that uses a similar camouflage in the Kanto area [voltorb/electrode] , scientists are still uncertain which species developed the trait first.”

3. This discourse might function as population management and justification of battling/pokémon catching practices. You have to draw the line somewhere. Ash is kidnapping a random creature but he can still say “at least I’m better than X”? Maybe constructing an idea of what makes a “bad trainer” allows you to justify your own practices by comparison, even if what makes them bad isn’t that different from your own actions, when you really look at it, but just culturally unacceptable.

4. Which… what? They go from clumsy pit traps to portable arenas, and I just don’t know how or why, like, what sort of organized crime is this, even?

Advertisements

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?