“What is Ash even trying to say?”–more on the discourse of goodness

Ep. 1.42. Ash and the gang arrive in the windswept and dusty ghost town of Dark City. Streets abandoned, furtive citizens warily peeking through their windows, afraid of the dreaded… pokémon trainers!

In Dark City there are two gangs brawling for the chance to become an official gym. The residents of Dark City are now suspicious of trainers in general. In defending themselves (and condemning the Yas and Kaz gangs), Ash, Brock, and Misty are forced to articulate what really defines “good” and “bad” trainers. The show has really danced around this, claiming that there’s a difference while actually showing that, often, there really isn’t anything separating the good from the bad except for how good one is at describing selfishness in a way that makes it sound okay. When he’s explicitly asked how to be a good trainer, can Ash give an answer?

Motives

Ash seems to get the gangs’ desire to become official gyms. As Ash himself says, “Becoming an official gym is a big honor.” The issue isn’t the motivation but the way that the gangs are endangering the town and causing property damage. Misty tsks and says that their battling is “more like a streetfight!” An issue of methods, not motives?

Later, though, the boss of the Yas gang asks, “What faster way of making money is there in today’s world than by becoming an official pokémon gym?” Eschewing the sanitized discourse of honor and prestige is crossing a line, and Ash practically yells, “Pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money!” Fair enough, but what are they, then? It isn’t clear, since the weighty discussion of the ethics and Photo 2015-08-30, 1 30 15 PMcultural value of bloodsport is interrupted by a battle involving ketchup and pikachu tears.

The real difference

And you know what? I get it. Street battles are dangerous. The thugs all have big, scary ‘mon who cause a lot of damage, but honestly, the battle between the gangs, when we really see it, doesn’t look that different from any other battle, just… slightly less controlled? The battle’s real difference from sanctioned contests is that it damages houses and scares civilians. Ash may claim that the gang members “don’t have the right to be called pokémon trainers after what [they] made [their ‘mon] do;” but what is that, exactly? How are the gangs’ pokémon any worse off than Pikachu was after that battle with Lt. Surge? Battling, even in an official gym, can be brutal. Physical pain can’t be the line they’re crossing.

Photo 2015-09-03, 9 59 24 PMAsh, Brock, and Misty are also upset because their own reputations are threatened. When they see a street fight, Brock frets, “If this keeps up, people will think all pokémon trainers are dangerous!” Later a gang member tries to recruit Ash and co., and Ash worries that their “reputation as pokémon trainers” will be damaged. “Bad” trainers threaten to undermine the institution and put all trainers in a bad light.

In the end a mysterious, masked figure who’s been skulking around turns out to be a Nurse Joy who’s “the inspector from the official Pokémon League.” She, too, condemns the gangs’ “street fighting” and tells them that their only chance of becoming true trainers is to turn to Ash for advice. BUT, when asked, explicitly, what makes someone a good trainer, Ash seizes up and stammers unconvincing nonsense:

Ash: Well… you see… pokémon are really our friends so … we’ve gotta be kind to them.

Kaz Leader: But what about pokémon battles?

Ash: Of course, you fight them as hard as you can, with all your strength, trying to win…

Yas Leader: With all your strength? Isn’t that the same as fighting?

Ash: No, no, not at all… sure you try to win but you don’t try to beat each other!

Brock: Ha, what is Ash trying to say anyway?
Misty: I don’t think he knows himself!

Ash: Now first, you’ll have to fix everything you broke in this town!

In the end, then, there isn’t really a visible difference between the kind of fighting that’s “good” and the kind of fighting that’s “bad.” Instead, it’s when the gangs become productive members of the community that Brock declares “they’ve had a Photo 2015-09-03, 9 56 01 PMchange of heart and decided to become true pokémon trainers.”

So while Ash says that “pokémon are not just tools for fighting or making money,” his best piece of advice to the gang leaders is to use their pokémon as literal tools in the service of Dark City’s wider community. Harm to pokémon was never the issue. Using non-human bodies for reasons that are too openly selfish and unregulated threatens the human community and is therefore “bad.” Good trainers are also good citizens, in line with the regulations of the League and the best interests of Kanto’s economy. The League is, more explicitly than ever, an economic institution, and the discourse of battling serves Kanto’s economy. 

Endnotes: What’s the show saying?

So what’s the “message” takeaway? The anime is ostensibly about friendship, living with difference, navigating tricky relationships, learning. In cases like this, though, actually thinking through the implications of the show (and let’s be honest, I didn’t even have to go very deep), we see first that the “official” discourse–that battling increases friendship, that battling isn’t violent but interactive, that “good” fighting is about learning and “bad” fighting is about winning, that “good” trainers don’t “use” their ‘mon–is pretty hollow, and that there isn’t much difference between “good” and “bad,” at least not for the bodies being used as tools. Non-human bodies are used for entertainment and economic gain, and you can change the language and context all you like, but that material reality is the same even if the human attitude toward it isn’t.

Pokémon as a show, then, is either about how discourse shapes the world, is inescapable, and can blind even otherwise decent people to harmful and enabling contradictions in social institutions and narratives (the cynical/honest reading); or, about how our attitudes justify the means. To put it another way, Pokémon as a show is either about how non-human bodies and needs are erased/ignored/abstracted by discourse; or about how our intentions justify those bodies’ treatment, regardless of how close it comes to forms of treatment deemed, in other contexts, cruelty. 

The moral: when writing a plot that hinges on what makes good guys good and bad guys bad, maybe address the fact that your protagonists are set up as the authority on good/bad but can’t articulate the difference. It’s a weird, gaping hole. The hinge of the plot of the episode is left hanging. Basically, I’m ruining my own childhood. Yay?

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Kanto’s hippie commune?

Today’s question: Is this weird town a place where we see some dramatic class divide or a hippy commune village of people who espouse some pretty deep ecology-type ideology? Maybe both? Let’s find out!

Photo 2015-08-25, 9 09 19 PM

One of the ways they try to wake it up is by getting their noblest ‘mon to kiss it. This is Team Rockets’ arbok/weezing…

In episode 1.41 Ash, Brock, Misty, and Pikachu find themselves in a small village that seems to be facing famine because their irrigation ditches have mysteriously run dry! After struggling deep into the woods through thick, thorny vines, they find that the massive, bear-like snorlax seems to be blocking the water flow! They spend a lot of time trying to wake it up, and when they do they find it’s the thorns that were clogging the irrigation channels. Snorlax saves the day by eating all the thorns and trundling off to sleep elsewhere.

This episode stands out not only because of that nightmarish kissyface from TR’s ‘mon, but also because this village is suffering from a fairly basic agricultural issue that, in Kanto’s hyper-tech society, seems like it shouldn’t be an issue. Why can’t they teleport food? Or at the very least, order supplies from elsewhere?

I wondered at first if this was somehow a glimpse of class divide. Maybe there’s a sort of peasant class, farmers who do some grunt work but don’t get a lot of technological support. This is, I guess, an option, but the degree of difference between cities we’ve seen, that have teleportation tiles and hi-tech pokémon centers, is pretty striking. Even developing nations have internet.

The way space is presented changes, too. Before Ash and the gang head up the river to find the source of the clog, the mayor (or whatever) of the town warns, “No one dares go upstream anymore. You never know what you might find!” Since when do we find inaccessible and uncertain space in Kanto? Maybe, though, it’s because no one in this town seems to have a pokémon. Ash and the others have a hard time struggling through the vines, but with their ‘mon it isn’t really that difficult for them to find snorlax.

And visually, the village doesn’t look like the cluster of of peasant hovels you’d Photo 2015-08-25, 9 15 26 PMexpect from people who are afraid to go upstream and for whom irrigation failure spells disaster. Look at this town–it’s bigger and nicer than Pallet!

The key to our mystery and the hero of the episode are one and the same. For answers we must turn to…

The Old Hippie!

Who doesn’t love hippie references in 1990s Japaense animation?? The Old Hippie plays his flute along the road, trading melodies for  munchies and money. Later, though, the gang finds out that his flute is actually a special flute with the power to energize or wake up pokémon. In the end we find out that that’s actually his “job,” sort of. He says that the snorlax is actually his, and he wakes it up once a month so it can eat 900 lbs. of food and get some exercise before sleeping for several more weeks. He even has a little timer that tells him when to wake up other snorlaxes in the area. He’s basically a shepherd, of sorts, but with seemingly fewer returns.

Maybe, then, this village isn’t a place where peasants are ignored by the rest of Kanto society; maybe it’s an intentional/alternative community. No one in the town seems to “own” pokémon. Even the hippie who claims snorlax as his doesn’t really exploit or Photo 2015-08-25, 9 02 06 PMeven transport it (at most he uses it to graze on the vines and control their growth). This community, then, may intentionally eschew the kinds of technology and human/nonhuman ecology that are so important elsewhere.

There is still a kind of inequality in play, even in this case. Regardless of whether the community is intentionally rejecting the use of tech and ‘mon that we see elsewhere, it seems to have a dramatically limiting effect on their lives. Not only is “upstream” a vaguely threatening place (and, as we’ve seen, wild ‘mon can be dangerous, esp. when traveling off the beaten path), but they lose the ability to travel through certain places. Using their pokémon the gang can find snorlax, but the villagers seemed to have some difficulty.1  There is little or no support for those who reject the form of ecology so prevalent in Kanto society. If you don’t want to capture and use pokémon, or if you don’t want the problematic use of certain forms of technology, you have no choice but to live in a fairly precarious state in which the failure of an irrigation ditch threatens famine.

1. The fact that the hippie flute player can, presumably, travel to where his diff. snorlaxes slumber is one of the many weird contradictions in the ep. Another bizarre bit is where Team Rocket and Ash get really competitive about who can get to the hippie first, because they both really want to wake snorlax… even though the hippie is going to the same place regardless of who gets to him first? Or when they try to get their noblest ‘mon to kiss Snorlax into wakefulness. It’s all pretty bananas, basically. 

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.

Different spaces

It’s been an ongoing preoccupation to figure out how Kanto manages its land so that pokémon can be easily caught yet also live in a semi-wild space. Here’s a summary of the  notable, exceptional types of non-urban spaces I’ve encountered in the show as of episode 1.34. Ready for some summary of facts and speculations about what they might mean and frequent wistful statements about how it’d be nice to know more?

Mt. Moon

Ep. 1.6. Mt. Moon accessible but challenging to navigate. There aren’t any official restrictions regarding catching the pokémon that live there, but Seymour stops Ash from trying for a clefairy because the Mt. Moon ecosystem is not only delicate, supporting pokémon found nowhere else but also recently disturbed by a Team Rocket scheme. Honestly, this place should probably be a protected national park. Does the fact that it isn’t speak more to the fact that whoever runs Kanto doesn’t care, or does it indicate instead that not many trainers choose to take that difficult trek over the mountain, at least not on foot? One would speak to the culture of Kanto as a whole while the other would speak to Ash’s own choice as a trainer.

Ep. 1.10, Melanie’s Rehabilitation Clinic

Ep. 1.10. Hidden away in the forest, there are no official regulations or recognition here, either, but Melanie and Bulbasaur keep trainers away so that it’s a de facto wildlife sanctuary. The village shows that it’s possible to carve out a small safe space even in unprotected land, but not possible to hide so well that you can’t be found by determined pre-teens and villains with flying stadiums.

Ep. 1.31, Diglett Terraces

imageI haven’t written about this episode on the main blog yet, although I did a speculative post on the tumblr. In this episode the group encounters a dam construction project that is being literally undermined by mole-like digletts and dugtrios. In response to the destruction of their territory they’ve been digging terraces on the clear-cut mountain side and planting trees, as well as wrecking construction vehicles. The gang realizes how significant the digletts’/dugtrios’ role is:

Brock: Diglett plow the ground and Dugtrio plants the trees! And not just here. . . Probably all the forests in the entire world are–

Misty: Beautiful gardens made by these little guys!

Terrace agriculture has (in the real world) been used around valley rivers, to prevent soil erosion and the soil from drifting down into the river and lowering the water quality. Presumably the diglett, who are basically impossible to get rid of, are doing the same, either because they have a sophisticated understanding of agriculture or because it’s a somehow instinctual, beneficial behavior.

This space isn’t legally protected, but in the end the dam project comes to a stop because the project leader finds compassion and also because the digletts are practically unstoppable. Even the pokémon owned by human trainers refuse to fight the digletts/dugtrios because all pokémon are, deep down, back-to-earth activists who oppose large-scale land development. This is a space managed and protected solely by non-humans, not inaccessible but certainly not under full human control. However, the fact that the dam project was approved in the first place indicates a cultural disregard for the life and territory of non-human persons. 1 It shows us the ugly cost of the managed, pretty faux-wilderness that the people in this world take for granted.

Ep. 1.33, Laramie Ranch

image

Lara rides a unicorn with a mane made out of fire and when she first sees Ash, she and her flame-icorn almost kick his head in. She’s pretty bad ass, honestly.

This is the first protected land we see. The Big P Pokémon Ranch is owned by the well-known Laramie family and is a private reserve protected for commercial purposes. Pokémon from the Laramie ranch are highly sought after. The heiress of the Laramie family, Lara Laramie herself, explains the ranch’s methods in a bad Forrest Gump accent: “This whole area’s a pokémon reserve. … It’s a place where it’s against the law to capture pokémon so they can grow up here naturally.” Brock says he’s heard of it as “The place where they raise lots of pokémon in the wild.”

First, the ranch gives us the most explicit evidence that battling pokémon are raised and sold to trainers, not only caught by travelers.

What’s weird is, how can ranch-raised ‘mon be “growing up naturally?” How is this “the wild?” Look at all those pokémon imagegathering around human trainers/feeders. Wild can’t mean “not cared for.” Maybe by “wild” they mean “not in pokéballs,” i.e., uncaught, unclaimed, not permanently owned. Ranch-raised pokémon are still “wild,” because wild simply means “not-yet-claimed.”

“The wild” was a concept I addressed when it came up in episode 10 and Melanie said pokémon belong “in the wild.” When she said it, she meant that the pokémon she cared for should eventually leave her. Maybe the pokémon and the Big P ranch sleep out in the fields? The pokémon on the ranch have greater freedom (and hardship, presumably?) than ‘mon who live inside a ball.

Ep. 1.34, the National Pokémon Reserve

by Marinko Milosevski, found at Marinkoillustration.com

Here the gang is looking for the Safari Zone “where wild pokemon run free, just waiting to be captured.” How this differs, exactly, from the rest of the places they’ve been on their journey, I don’t know, except that maybe it’s a place where the ‘mon are easier to catch?

Regardless, they come to a place teeming with rare and exotic pokémon. This place, though, turns out to be a protected public parkland contiguous with the Laramie ranch. 2  As soon as Ash exclaims (with a look of unbridle avarice), “Let’s start catchin’ ’em,” a cop disguised as a chancy leaps from a bush, brandishing a shotgun. Officer Jenny explains that  they’ve wandered into  “a national pokémon preservation area. It’s here for the raising and protectionimage of pokémon.” Finally we have a place set aside for pokémon. But that’s all we really get. No reason why, no explanation. Do some species of ‘mon need this protection especially, or is it a more general attempt to relieve the pressure on the reserve of valuable bodies?

Regardless, these spaces have all raised questions. I’m particularly interested in publicly protected land and land under development, and I’m hoping we get more about those kind of spaces eventually.

1. To be fair, we get a really dark vision of what will happen if the dam project continues. Namely: image  and also image

2. Which raises, for me, a lot of questions. Does the Laramie ranch  use public parkland? Do they pay the government for grazing rights? If so, how much? Alternately, are there govt. subsidies for raising ‘mon? So many questions!

The evidence for far-future earth

This one’s pretty basic.There are several hints that the pokéverse is actually a far-future earth rather than its own universe or an alt-reality. As of now there are three main things I think are worth discussing.

The mention of actual places

In episode 1.9, “The School of Hard Knocks,” Misty has a daydream about how much she loves Paris. This one is the weakest because I think this mention of real-world places happens infrequently, and also because there could be an alt-version of Paris if the pokéverse is simply an alternate universe (AU), roughly parallel to our own except with pocket monsters. On a Compelling scale of 1-10, 10 being “Super compelling,” I give it 6/10.

Noah’s ark

This one is weird. In episode 1.16, when the gang is adrift on a raft, we get this exchange.

Brock: I remember the story of Noah, who, when he had to find dry land, sent a bird to find it and return with a branch.

Ash: What a great idea! We’re gonna do the same thing as Noah!

Okay, wow, we get a casual reference to Judeo-Christian lore from Brock, the font of random wisdoms. This bit of evidence is pretty hard to explain away. I guess we could write it off as another possible AU, except that I’m pretty sure elemental creatures being very clearly not mythological would have changed how world religions developed, especially if they’ve been used by/as companions to humans throughout history. I know that later in the series we get creation myths and a creator-deity, but as of season one those things don’t exist, and I’ve never seen those eps/films, so I’m going to say that the existence of Noah is extremely compelling evidence that the pokéverse is far-future earth. I give it a score of 8/10.

“A dream-eating tapir” 

A final bit of evidence is in episode 1.27, “Hypno’s Nap Time,” when Ash whips out his Pokédex to get a description of a drowzee. The ‘dex description tells us that drowzee is a species “Descended from a dream-eating tapir.”

Two possibilities–one, “a dream-eating tapir” refers to one specific, unique dream-Drowzee_OOOOHHHYEAHeating tapir whose babies became a whole line of pokémon. This is… possible, I guess?

More likely, though, “a dream-eating tapir” refers to “a species of dream-eating tapirs.” This would indicate that pokémon, in their present state, evolved from more recognizable species that had begun to develop special powers. In this scenario, drowzee is descended from a species of tapir with powers who, in turn, is descended from the less powerful but still adorbs tapirs in our own world; this would explain, too, why there are so few real-world critters–they’re all the observed evolutionary progressions of species that we have around us now. While the ancestral forebears of pokémon aren’t around anymore (except for a few primary consumers like fish, insects, and worms), humans have cataloged and still remember those ancient species, which is why they sometimes refer back to them when describing or naming ‘mon.

This is at least as compelling a piece of evidence as the reference to Noah–it establishes that humans in this world know how pokémon have evolved over time and establishes that some are descended from species we have here. It loses a point or two because of grammatical ambiguity and because, well, tapirs in our world don’t eat dreams. (That we know of, I guess…). Take off another point for the fact that I guess it could still be an alt-world with alt-evolutionary development. Score for this bit of evidence is 7/10.1

As you may or may not know, later seasons of the show will begin to build up a mythology of the universe that spans from creation and the primordial world to the present day. A creator-pokémon and various minor deity or demiurge-like ‘mon pop up, and legends of pre-human earth begin to become important. This doesn’t disqualify the pokéverse as a far-future earth, since mythologies and religions change. It is interesting to see, though, how much narrower and less fantasy the series is at this point. I’ll have to keep an eye out for if and when the series starts to pull away from its affiliation with the real world. Will they mention Paris or America again? Will we get more references to Judeo-Christian or other religious narratives? We shall see!

1. (This gets some sub-conscious bonus points because in a few seasons we’ll find out that there’s another psychic-type, tapir-esque pokémon called munna, perhaps an evolutionary cousin of drowzee and descended from that common ancestral tapir. This doesn’t really count for the same reason that I’m not factoring in the creator-deity pokémon Arceus–it doesn’t exist as of ep. 1.27.)

“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.

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.

(Dis)embodiment of the Uncanny, pt. 2

Photo 2015-06-27, 8 53 31 PM

The ghost/Sabrina arc, eps. 20 and then 22-24, has a pretty tight thematic focus. It introduces ghosts and the gloriously creepy Sabrina. Ghosts are a thematic counterpoint to Sabrina’s overpowering domination of others’ minds and bodies. Haunter, disembodied himself, is the only character who can help make Sabrina less psychotic and socially isolated. Today I’m going to explore what Sabrina’s deal is and why/how Haunter, as a ghost, is able to help her work through some issues and make her less, erm… murdery.

Sabrina is messed up

A powerful psychic, Sabrina can sense Ash and co.’s intention to challenge her even before they arrive in Saffron City. She can also control mind and matter with her telekinesis. Her battling strategy has three steps–dominate, manipulate, and destroy. Actually, that’s pretty much how she relates to others in general.

We learn that when very young, Sabrina became obsessed with developing her psychic abilities. At the same time, she struggled with her inability to relate to others in a healthy way. Eventually she suffered some destructive, disassociative episode in which she psychically destroyed her home, turned her mother into a small cloth doll (her father escaped, being a psychic himself), and mentally split herself into two beings. Part of her personality now manifests in a small, doll-like apparition that’s basically a horror-movie child (see gif on the right). Sabrina’s gym leader alter-ego is usually silent, a tall, imposing woman, who, if I was making a live action reboot, would be played by Aubrey Plaza or Canada’s own Natasha Negovanlis. Her doll-self would be played by that demonic robot baby from the last Twilight movie.1

Sabrina is now isolated. Her gym hosts a cadre of would-be psychics who worship her as a remote, frightening master. Yet Sabrina wants to relate to others. The problem is that she can only do so through the aggressive paradigm of battling. In episode 22 Ash and Pikachu challenge Sabrina; her kadabra psychically dominates Pikachu, redirecting his attacks, making him dance, then brutally slamming him against the floor and the ceiling Photo 2015-06-28, 3 05 10 AMuntil Ash forfeits. As punishment Sabrina then shrinks Ash, Brock, and Misty and teleports them into her toy city. Her doll-self chases them down a street until they’re cornered. When the doll-Sabrina rolls a large ball toward them, Misty sums it up–“We’re gonna get squashed!” This is pretty much how Sabrina operates in all areas of her life–domination (redirecting Pikachu’s attacks, trapping Ash/Brock/Misty in the gym), manipulation (making Pikachu dance, shrinking the humans), and finally destruction (beating on Pikachu, nearly squashing the humans). Ash and co. are only saved by Sabrina’s psychic father, who teleports them out. Later, though, after Ash fails to defeat Sabrina a second time, she turns Brock and Misty into cloth dolls and stores them away in her toy city. She very literally objectifies others, using them as toy-friends.

And here’s where we get the hint that this is the only way she knows how to relate to people. Brock, able to speak to Sabrina psychically in doll form, tells her she has to turn them back into humans. Doll-Sabrina says, “If I change you back you’ll just run away from me. You have to stay as dolls!” Sabrina wants friends/playmates, but she doesn’t know how to relate to something she can’t dominate.

There are some nice visual parallels that suggests Sabrina relates to other humans in the same way her kadabra dominates in the arena.

Here’s Ash feeling intimidated by Sabrina …Photo 2015-06-28, 2 53 21 AMAnd here’s Pikachu squaring off against Kadabra. Note the similar composition of the scene.Photo 2015-06-28, 3 11 37 AM

So once again we find a character who is socially crippled by the competitive ethos of Kanto. Even her relationship to pokémon is based on complete domination–as her father tells Ash, “You can’t control a psychic pokémon without using telekinesis.” Sabrina fuses herself mentally with her kadabra not in an intimate partnership but to better “control” it. 2 She doesn’t just transgress boundaries of self/other (as Ash does when he electrocutes Pikachu in, what, episode 3?); Sabrina simply destroys them. In her practice of combative mastery, Sabrina makes herself into a god.Photo 2015-06-27, 9 07 23 PM Her gym looks, as Brock remarks, more like a temple, and her (really creepy) medical-masked lackey bows before her throne to announce her challengers. With a temple-like gym and a toy town populated by literally objectified humans, Sabrina performs a grossly exaggerated form of the mastery Kanto so destructively venerates.

Haunter

Which is why Haunter as a ghostly ally is so vital (pun intended) to Ash’s victory. We already talked about how ghosts trouble human expectations. And because Haunter doesn’t have a body, in theory he can’t be controlled in the same way Kadabra controls Pikachu.

The problem is that when Ash arrives to battle Sabrina in ep. 24, Haunter disappears. Ash must flee, leaving Brock and Misty as dolls. Ash finds Haunter and convinces him to come along and challenge Sabrina a third time. But Haunter yet again disappears as the battle begins. Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash, remember; the ghost ‘mon is a shifty, unstable ally. In the first few minutes, Brock even suggests that Haunter may be sinister, saying to Ash, “Maybe Haunter’s the one controlling you.” Even if Haunter isn’t plotting Ash’s destruction, he is certainly not taking the arena very seriously.

Without Haunter, Ash and Pikachu don’t have much of a chance… But in the middle of a pretty grim battle, Haunter reappears in the arena. The rules are one on one, and Pikachu has already been declared the combatant; but as Sabrina’s father (Ash’s temporary mentor) points out, because Haunter doesn’t belong to Ash and wasn’t declared a combatant, “Haunter is just playing around on its own.” Haunter isn’t technically breaking the rules.

Haunter is being a typical ghost, entering into human cultural space/situation in a way that is unexpected and that defamiliarizes the expected tropes/rules. The arena is also the only space Sabrina seems to be comfortable interacting with others. Haunter, coming to her in a way that’s not illegal but is surprising, is outside of Sabrina’s control without being outside her comprehension. Haunter meets her halfway. And my favorite part of this whole arc is that Haunter doesn’t come to fight. After all, that would be against the rules. Haunter may meet Sabrina on her own turf, but it’s on Haunter’s terms–it does a comedy routine. (A pretty dumb comedy routine, to be honest, with a few ridiculous faces and tricks.) By coming to Sabrina in a space of battle but with humor rather than aggression, Haunter offers her a different way of relating to others.

Haunter gets through to Sabrina, who cracks a smile and then an uncontrollable laugh. Because of their psychic link, Kadabra also collapses with laughter, making him unable to battle. Ash wins, Brock, Misty, and Sabrina’s mother are restored to original size and form, and Haunter stays with Sabrina as her creepy buddy, and all things considered, it’s a happy ending.3

This arc is weird. Gym leaders can obviously do whatever they want, and the ghosts and Sabrina’s TK powers show us that Kanto isn’t just a sci-fi world but also a fantasy. What I like, though, is the thematic consistency and, honestly, Sabrina’s arc. Sabrina has issues. Haunter seems to get that. It accepts that Sabrina has a space in which she feels comfortable, but gently refuses to accept the destructive way she acts toward others in that space. By extension, Haunter also rejects the paradigm of mastery that we’ve seen destroy several families (Misty’s and Brock’s). Haunter models a more positive form of relationship, too, and it’s kind of nice, honestly. Once again Ash aligns himself, however unintentionally, with a ‘mon who defies Kanto’s traditional narratives of pokémon training.

That’s it for the ghosts! Or… iiiis it? I leave you with a link to some beautiful and suitably eerie artistic imaginings of Haunter if it was crossbred with various other ‘mon.

1. Misty could be played by Chloe Grace-Moretz, Brock by Donald Glover, and I honestly can’t think of anyone who would work as Ash, partly because there are so few young Asian actors and partly because Ash is just so ridiculously irritating he may have no real-life counterpart.

When Sabrina’s father says that only TKs can “control” psychic ‘mon, it may be his own ideological bias showing–i.e., the assumption that control is better than a more equal form of relationships between trainer/trainee. This would speaks loads to Sabrina’s background, maybe explain some of why she turned out so scary. It may also indicate that psychics in Kanto, as a rule, primarily use their powers to control. Most likely it’s a bit of both.

3. 2. Well, except for Team Rocket, who plunged several stories to the street below after Haunter startled them and made them laugh themselves off the edge of a window cleaning platform. At the end of the episode they’re still stuck in deep, Rocket-shaped holes in the sidewalk, which are being filled in by a cement mixer as Team Rocket splutter and call for someone to save them. This is actually really horrific. They’re drowning in cement, crying for help, and we’re supposed to be okay with that just because they’re “bad guys?” Good lord, non-grievable subjects much?

(Dis)embodiement of the Uncanny, pt. 1

The pokéverse is just weird. If it was slightly weirder it’d be easier to accept–immersive fantasy with some odd elements is more familiar ground than a world with slight, never explicit elements of magic. There’s a run of episodes, though, that underscores how Kanto is a bizarre mix of hyper-technological and bizarrely mystical elements. Today I want to talk about ghosts.

Ghosts and ghost pokémon–is there a difference? 
It’s clear that pokémon are accepted as a part of the “natural” world. There’s educational institutions built up around studying pokémon–Oak is a professor, implying higher ed., and we saw Pokémon Tech. in an earlier ep.
image
In episodes 20 and 23, though, when Ash, Misty, and Brock encounter ghost pokémon and their reaction to them is immediate fear, that signals that ghost pokémon are different from other kinds. I assumed that “ghost pokémon” as a category was figurative and that there was a biological explanation for their “ghostliness.” But these episodes make me wonder whether that’s really the case, because they make it clear that the pokéverse has a spiritual element that exists outside of what we’d call “natural.”
In episode 20, an entity the gang initially believes is a human ghost turns out to be a ghastly. A mysterious crone says the stone Maiden on a local cliff is the remnant of a woman whose love went off to war and never returned. Once a year at the spring festival her spirit emerges to… use her forlorn beauty to attract rando dudes, I guess? Brock and James, entranced, sleepwalk to the cliff and are dragged into the air. When Ash, Misty, and Jessie try to intervene, they’re all attacked by a flock of flying skulls that turn out to be, TWIST, the ghastly. The ghastly’s been taking the form of the ghostly Maiden, the crone, and the skulls (using hypnosis, I think, although this isn’t super clear). Ghastly is nearly impossible to fight, shape-shifting into what its opponent fears most. It’s alternately incredibly creepy and imageabsurd (the ghastly petrifies the snake-like ekans and the poison-spewing koffing by turning into an enormous mongoose in a gas mask). The ghastly retreats, but only because sunrise is coming.
There’s another twist, though–one of the last scenes is Ghastly bidding farewell to the actual ghost of the Maiden. They’re bffs, and she thanks the ghastly for reminding people of her story. Ghastly replies (in a posh, male British accent), “I enjoy keeping alive all the old legends people have forgotten over the years.” He also reassures the Maiden that he’ll continue to keep an eye out for her dead lover, intoning, “I am a ghost pokémon, and perhaps one day I’ll meet the man you love.”
Um, okay, what

So, what’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious–ghosts are real. Weird.

Ghastly in particular seems invested in human culture. It spends a lot of time masquerading as that old lady and as the ghostly Maiden to keep the tradition alive. There doesn’t seem to be a biological explanation for this. Unless it somehow feeds off belief (and there’s no indication it does), it seems that the ghastly simply enjoys acting like a classic ghost–i.e., a haunting presence, a fragment of an unresolved (and, oddly, human) past. The authentic ghostly Maiden seems to be more passive and bound to her final resting place. The way that ghastly performs the role of the Maiden on her behalf makes her story alive and unstable.
At the start of the episode Ash and co. attend an open air auction (this show is so weird) where someone’s selling a stylized painting of the stone Maiden, setting up the theme of retelling old stories. James and Brock, seeing the painting and the ghostly Maiden, are in love. They, like the artist, fetishize this female figure (she’s never named, just called the “Maiden”), seeing her as ethereally beautiful, an artistic subject to be mooned over. Ghastly, by assuming the role of the Maiden and playing out her plot every year, troubles this fetishizing view,  making the figure of the Maiden far more creepy and less virginal/desirable than Brock, James, and the unnamed painter want to think.
And don’t forget that Ghastly also knows the actual Maiden who is simply, honestly heartbroken in her separation from her lover. The layers–what people want to perceive, what Ghastly shows them, and the truth at the heart of the story–all contrast and overlap in a way that not only keeps the story alive and unfinished but also keeps it from solidifying into any one version. It becomes a piece of enduring but uncanny folklore, the kind of really good traditional story that endures even across cultural shifts in our own world.
Um, okay, what–pt. 2

This leads me to the second strangest and most important characteristic of ghostly ‘mon–that they don’t fit. They’re uncanny, shifting, gaseous. They’re incomprehensible, as we see in episode 23. Traveling to Lavender Town, Ash finds a haunter and a gengar, ghastly’s later evolutionary stages, and when he whips out his pokédex it can tell him only that “Ghost pokémon are in a vapor form. Their true nature is shrouded in mystery.” Confronted with haunter and gengar specifically, the ‘dex simply IDs them, notes that they’re “gasous pokémon,” and says, “no further information available.” If the Pokédex, representative of all academic, codified (and misleadingly coercive?) pokémon knowledge, has no further info, there has to be a culture-wide ignorance about these ‘mon. This fits with the way the ghastly enjoys inhabiting folk tales–maybe they’re deemed “ghostly” because they’re too elusive for more academic, skeptical research to get hard info on them.

But honestly, I’m not sold on the idea that they are definitely pokémon at all. I’d always assumed that ghost pokémon were gaseous beings, somehow manipulating the charges of atoms/molecules to maintain a form and interact with physical surroundings; but that ghastly talks to a human spirit, and the ghosts in Lavender aren’t any more animalian than the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak.For example, Ash “dies” and comes back to life in ep. 20 after the ghosts, who love to watch slapstick comedy on their television, drop a chandelier on Ash and Pikachu.1 To their chagrin they can’t revive them. Instead, they pull Ash’s and Pikachu’s transparent,

image

this right here is the definition of chagrin

floating spirits from their bodies. Ash, Pikachu, and the ghosts spend a few minutes playing tricks on Misty and Brock and flying around giggling incessantly. Ash does return to his body in the end, but the way they can manipulate Ash’s soul/spirit/astral form doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen any other ‘mon do.

The second reason I’m hesitant to believe they should be called pokémon is that when Ash leaves with Haunter as his companion, Ash doesn’t catch Haunter. I’m not sure he even could; after all, it’s gaseous, so a pokéball would just fly through it. I’d’ve said that a pokémon was a creature that was containable in a pokéball, imageso are we sure that these ghost “pokémon” should be in the same order of beings as critters like pidgey? Maybe they’re really more like non-human spirits rather than non-human animals. Is “pokémon” just a really flexible term that applies to elementally powerful non-humans? Our own term, “animal,” is no less rigorous, so this is possible.

 I love that I can’t settle the question. The viewer, like the characters, remains uncertain as to how to categorize the ghosts. The ambiguity here seems purposeful rather than sloppy, shrouding the ghosts in a general mystery that’s never fully resolved.
All of this–the way ghost pokémon defy categorization, control, and reliable perception–will come back in the next post, because these characteristics tie episodes 20-24 together. Ash seeks out a ghost pokémon because he needs to fight Sabrina, the telekinetic gym leader who herself transgresses categories but does so in order to place others under her control. Ghosts, with their slippery, shifting nature, are the only ones that can face her. But that, dear readers, is for next week.
1. Similar to the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak, these ghosts are inhabiting a human-centric trope and performing a narrative in a way that’s darker and creepier than humans would expect. This is a little different from repeating a local folktale, but it’s essentially the same thing–bringing to life human tropes and then defamiliarizing them in a way that’s scary and dangerous.

Further speculation on Kanto’s ecological management and butterfree breeding cycles

It’s a long to-do list for today’s post! This Tuesday I revise a theory, speculate on Butterfree’s impending death (?), and talk about the Venonat Truther Movement.

Horsea ruins everything

Way back when, I spent a post speculating on why trainers might have a rule that “only bad guys try to catch sick pokémon.” It’s made pretty clear in that episode that trying to catch sick or exhausted or hurt pokémon was a pretty jerk move to pull, and Team Rocket were the villains of that episode for trying. My thoughts were that not catching weak pokémon would keep them out of the captive breeding pool and result in better, stronger battling pokémon.

The problem is, Misty catches a horsea in episode 19 precisely because it’s hurt. She says that she needs to catch it and get it to a Pokémon Center. This makes sense to me–it would be more compassionate to catch injured pokémon so that they could be treated, and my confusion as to why you shouldn’t prompted a post and a theory I was happy with.

Now, though, I just don’t even know what to do. When Misty catches Horsea she doesn’t know why it’s injured, she just sees that it is. Later we find that it’s probably from the construction work occurring on the reef offshore, and this might explain her interference–after all, human intervention already injured it–but she doesn’t know that when she catches Horsea.

Maybe because Horsea approaches Misty and the others, it’s alright to catch it? I’m not sure why this would be, because it would still allow injured pokémon into the battling community, but discursive cultural control isn’t flawless and sometimes weird exceptions come up, so I could see this being plausible. Pity may sometimes trump the attitude of “avoid the sickies.” None of them hesitates, though; Misty just seems sad to see that a pokémon (a cute one, at least) is injured. Maybe she breaks the “rule” because of how cute she thinks it is?

The only other thing I can think is that maybe it’s a matter of different environments? Would it make any sense if marine pokémon were treated differently? I only suggest this because the ocean seems to be a very different environment, less altered/controlled by humans than mainland Kanto. This may explain why they’re less wary of disturbing ecological rhythms in the ocean than they are in the probably-recreated mainland ecosystems? This honestly doesn’t really make sense, because there’s no reason that you’d want the weaker water pokémon in the battling circuit. Maybe pokémon like horsea are simply not as commonly owned and encountered by trainers, not only because they live under the ocean (presumably in kelp or seagrass beds) but also because most battling takes place on land so they would be harder to train.1

Bye bye Butterfree–is Butterfree going to die?!

In episode 21 we learn that trainers often release their butterfrees at a certain time of year. If you don’t release them, Brock says, they won’t ever breed.

It’s hard to tell how important a trainer’s choice is for the population of butterfrees, partly because it’s unclear how prevalent a practice this is. It doesn’t look like all of the butterfrees migrating are released, andimage it obviously isn’t a required practice (Ash didn’t know about it). Presumably it’s a voluntary thing, sort of like planting milkweed in your yard for monarchs, and therefore releasing captive butterfrees can’t be necessary for the health of the population. If anything, captive-raised butterfrees would interfere with the competition-based courtship rituals butterfrees practice. We learn that butterfrees do aerial dances and displays, and a trained, battling butterfree would have a strength advantage over untrained butterfrees. But Ash’s butterfree struggles to attract attention from a shiny female (although later he earns her love by stopping Team Rocket’s plan to capture the migrating butterfrees en masse), which does imply that there are other factors (flexibility? scent? wing patterns?).

whoa, many dance, much sexy, so courtship

It’s difficult to get a sense of what releasing a butterfree means, too. Brock says that if Ash’s butterfree doesn’t go now it’ll never breed, and that implies that death is a factor with butterfrees just as it is with monarch butterflies.

We could interpret Brock’s statement to mean that Butterfree has only one chance to breed. Maybe butterfrees only breed within their own generation/migration group. Or maybe they need to breed in their first season to maintain fertility. Butterfrees are a strange insectoid-mammalian critter, so it might make sense that their reproduction is unusual.

Alternately, maybe butterfrees have a cyclical lifespan and die at the end of the breeding season. Some monarch butterflies migrate south to breed and then die.2 The return migration goes in stages and isn’t completed by any one generation. Instead the first goes south, breeds, lays eggs. These hatch and pupate and emerge as butterflies and then fly a certain distance north to breed/lay again, and so on until there’s a population back where it all started who makes one long journey south once again. The point is, it all ends in death after a migration. So is the reason unreleased butterfrees won’t breed that they die and only have this one chance? Is death inevitable for Butterfree in the next few months?

It would be nice to know if this is just a choice between sexy freedom and celibate captivity, or if it’s more about how Butterfree and Ash want to spend the last months of Butterfree’s life. Or actually, less about what Ash wants, since Ash tells Butterfree that he hopes to meet him again someday. If we assume that Butterfree is going to his death, this line would have an ironic knife-twist to it, and Ash’s ignorance would be, for once, more poignant naivete than obnoxious immaturity.

Listen, maybe the concept of non-human persons with fairly complex subjectivities living by different rhythms and having a predictable deathdate is a bit heavy in a show obviously geared for pre- and early teens. (Many cartoons can and do handle really heavy themes in beautiful, funny, touching ways, but Pokémon has never tried to be one of those cartoons.) Nevertheless, Brock’s hint that there’s something else going on is too dramatic to ignore but too vague to fully understand. What does Brock know that Ash doesn’t?! (Haha, just kidding, the amount of knowledge Brock knows that Ash doesn’t could and does fill several Kanto libraries.)

To sum up, my meticulously speculated theory about the discourse of not catching sick pokémon is troubled by episode 19. On the bright side, in ep. 21 we see that many trainers are far more ecologically aware than Ash is. It’s doubtful that all the trainers releasing butterfrees are pokémon battlers, and maybe raising caterpies/metapods/butterfrees is a hobby. It may even be done in schools, not unlike the way many classrooms raise butterflies in our own world. The fact that these ‘mon get released at the start of the season makes this a fairly positive human-pokémon interaction. There’s more going on in Kanto than we see following Ash’s very specific journey, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.

Endnotes: The venonat/butterfree truther movement

As you may or may not (but should) know, a caterpie evolves into a metapod which evolves into a butterfree. Here’s a visual refresher, pulled from deviantart user 42production’s site:

It’s not an unusual progression; all of these ‘mon are pretty clearly based on a corresponding real-world insect’s life cycle.

BUT, many have pointed out that there is an alternate evolution line that would make more sense. Namely, metapod should not evolve into butterfree but rather into venomoth. Gasp! Behold, the visual evidence!

There’s no other evidence for this, not that I can find, but just look at the second image below drawing literal parallels between the eerie similarities in this proposed alternate evolution. I’ve seen speculation that this was the original version, but the final evolutions were later switched because butterfree’s design is cuter, more relatable, and since Ash was, in the anime, going to spend a lot of time with a ‘mon it should be one that VenonatTrutherswould sell more merch or be generally more likable.

I like venomoth more than butterfree, at least design-wise, and apart from my sense of aesthetic continuity I really wish his caterpie had ended up as a venomoth. I like it so much that this is how it goes in my headcanon and sometimes I forget that it isn’t like this in real life. Someday at a big conference for pokémon professors I’m going to slip up and be so embarrassed, you don’t even know.

1. Seriously, Brock pulls a dubious move when he makes his gym more or less inaccessible to trainers who want to use ‘mon that require water to battle, esp. because his own rock-type team would have been weak to water-type opponents. His prerogative, I guess, and it’s not impossible to get around–just use a squirtle/wartortle/blastoise–but still, dirty pool, Brock.

2. They die regardless of whether they breed or not, as I found when my family kept a crippled monarch in an old gerbil cage one summer.