The Path to the Pokémon League – The School of Hard Knocks – Mystery at the Lighthouse
Yep; I’m doing these out of order, for a couple of reasons. One is that I really want to do episodes ten, eleven and twelve as a group, and spend a whole entry just on episode fourteen, which sort of leaves thirteen as the odd one out. The other and far more important reason is that I feel these three episodes have a unifying theme, which is what I want to discuss today – see if you can guess what it is.
In the Path to the Pokémon League, Ash challenges an unofficial Pokémon Gym run by a gruff Texan kid called A.J. with an unbroken winning streak of ninety-eight battles – ninety-nine after A.J.’s fierce Sandshrew defeats Ash’s Pidgeotto. Ash decides that A.J. must have cheated to beat a Flying Pokémon with a Ground Pokémon and starts poking around the gym. A.J. is an extremely harsh master, having his Pokémon engage in constant practice fights and training exercises, and keeping them in line with his whip (A.J. has trained his Pokémon to respond to the crack of his whip, and uses it to command them in battles). All of A.J.’s Pokémon wear restraining harnesses, possibly the forerunners to the Macho Brace introduced in Ruby and Sapphire, which restrict their movements and force them to develop stronger muscles to move normally, and he has his Sandshrew swim in his pool to train away its weakness to water. Ash is horrified by his Spartan training style, but Brock observes that A.J.’s Pokémon are actually in excellent health; A.J. prepares all of their food himself and carefully tailors his recipes to the dietary needs of each species. Ash attempts to convince the other Pokémon that they can leave A.J. and travel with him instead, but they seem to find him tiresome and ignore him. Sandshrew is especially loyal to A.J.; they have been together for many years and long ago promised to grow strong together, no matter what obstacles stood in their way. The episode ends with A.J. and Sandshrew earning their hundredth victory by defeating Team Rocket, who tried to sneak in and steal Pikachu but accidentally got Sandshrew instead. As they had promised themselves, they close down the gym and leave on their own journey to start collecting badges and entering tournaments.
The School of Hard Knocks is set at Pokémon Tech, a prestigious private school in the middle of nowhere which Ash and his friends stumble into entirely by mistake on a foggy day. Rich families who want their kids to become powerful trainers without anything so messy and plebeian as a Pokémon journey will pay top dollar to send them to Pokémon Tech instead. Successfully completing each phase of the school’s program is considered an achievement equivalent to earning two Gym Badges, and graduation comes with automatic no-questions-asked membership in the Pokémon League. Kids who fall behind are subjected to distressingly rough ‘tutoring’ sessions by their classmates in order to keep them from disgracing the school, a system run by the strongest member of the beginner class, a Ground-type specialist named Giselle. Ash stumbles upon one of these sessions and rescues the supposedly underachieving student, a boy called Joe, who shows them around the school and asserts that his place there marks him as roughly Ash’s equal as a trainer, and that the school’s computer simulations predict he would defeat a Cerulean Gym trainer with little difficulty. Misty soon shows him the error of his thinking by effortlessly crushing his Weepinbell with her Starmie, ‘Grass beats Water’ be damned. Giselle shows up and gives Joe a condescending lecture on how a Pokémon’s level is just as important as type match-ups, and goes on to prove it by defeating Starmie with her Graveler. She mocks Ash’s ignorance and inexperience, provoking him and Pikachu into a battle against her Cubone to defend their ideals of Pokémon training based on friendship. Despite her confidence in Cubone’s immunity to electrical attacks, Pikachu prevails by spinning Cubone’s skull helmet backwards and blinding him, a tactic Giselle’s study of conventional Pokémon battling had left her completely unprepared for. Giselle is considerably more gracious in defeat than victory, and concedes that she is still a beginner as well, while Joe decides to start his career over with a Pokémon journey like Ash’s, since Pokémon Tech is not for him.
The last episode I want to look at today is Mystery at the Lighthouse. This episode starts with Ash capturing a Krabby, his seventh Pokémon, which of course vanishes back to Professor Oak’s lab. In order to check up on Krabby the group walks to the nearest building, a lighthouse, and request the use of the owner’s phone. The owner, a researcher named Bill, invites them inside via intercom and directs them to his phone. Once Ash has established that Krabby arrived safely, they meet Bill himself, a somewhat unhinged cosplayer who has trapped himself in a particularly Byzantine costume of a Kabuto, in order to… research its behaviour. Or something. Once freed, he shows them his current research project – he’s broadcasting a reply to the call of an unknown ocean Pokémon he recorded some time ago, inviting it to come to the lighthouse and meet him – and, wonder of wonders, tonight is the night! Bill hears his mystery Pokémon calling out to him, and the group sees its immense form emerge from the mist (it’s pretty clearly a Dragonite, a Pokémon Ash’s Pokédex seems to be familiar with in the very next episode, but it’s also ten times the size of a normal Dragonite, so it might be a weird subspecies). Unfortunately Team Rocket, lurking on the cliffs below the lighthouse, attack the Pokémon with bazookas (James, interestingly, is quite distressed; I think this is the first episode to portray him as markedly less immoral than Jessie), enraging it. It swats Team Rocket, smashes the top of the lighthouse, and then leaves in a huff. In the morning, Bill tells Ash and his friends that he feels privileged even to have seen the mysterious Pokémon and gives them a few words of encouragement. They set off for Vermillion City, and Bill spends the rest of the day quietly sobbing in his basement, having lost an opportunity he will probably never get again (or at least, this is what I imagine to have happened).
So, who’s picked up on the theme?
The theme these episodes have in common is different ways of living and interacting with Pokémon. The series focuses primarily, of course, on Ash’s relationship with his Pokémon, but as the opening scenes of Mystery at the Lighthouse point out, Ash’s training style and philosophy are actually quite unorthodox. Brock and Misty note that it’s entirely normal or even expected for full-time trainers to capture dozens of Pokémon before settling on a few they like (if they ever do at all). This is more or less how Gary’s campaign is described, and it’s implied that the other two Pallet trainers are doing the same thing, while Ash’s comparatively small roster has more in common with those of the numerous small-time trainers who stay in their hometowns (the interesting thing about this is that the one who behaves in a manner more consistent with a typical player of the Pokémon games is actually Gary, not Ash). As far as Ash is concerned, the most important thing for a trainer is having a strong emotional bond with your Pokémon, and if you get that right the rest is just bells and whistles (I swear there are moments when Ash thinks you can win a battle with the power of friendship). This isn’t to say that others are cruel or neglectful, but it’s hard to imagine Gary treating all or even many of his Pokémon with the affection Ash does, and Ash’s relationship with Pikachu regularly earns comment for their remarkable closeness. The first character in the series to demonstrate a comparable friendship with a Pokémon is, funnily enough, A.J., who is as inseparable from his Sandshrew as Ash will eventually become from Pikachu – they’re a lot more alike than Ash would probably admit. For Ash, though, being a Pokémon trainer is about exploring the world and making new friends, while for A.J. it’s about endurance and determination in the face of suffering and hardship, which is why he works his Pokémon so hard. The episode still portrays him sympathetically, though, since he genuinely cares for his Pokémon and works them hard because he wants them to be healthy and strong.
Contrast, for instance, Giselle. Although Giselle is clearly intended to be arrogant to the point of being obnoxious, and although she expects very high standards from her human friends, she appears to be at least tolerably kind to her Pokémon and believes that responsibility for defeat rests squarely on the shoulders of trainers, not Pokémon. A.J. would probably react to a loss by working the Pokémon harder, because his first responsibility as a trainer is, well, to train; Giselle would be more likely to react by studying harder herself and researching new tactics, because her first responsibility as a trainer is to command. Giselle’s general attitude implies a rather condescending view of Pokémon. They’re objects of study to her, more like underlings or even tools than partners, but she’s smart enough to know that mistreating them won’t get her anywhere. The implication is that she represents the philosophies of Pokémon Tech as a whole, which is why Joe decides to leave when he comes to admire Ash’s way of doing things more, but – Giselle’s own character flaws aside – the episode as a whole seems to view this outlook as just as much a viable alternative as A.J.’s, with the caveat that each trainer has to make his or her own way.
Finally, we have Bill, who as a researcher has no interest in owning Pokémon at all. For Ash, and for most other trainers, the first step in making friends with a Pokémon is to capture it, which seems like it would actually be a fairly counterintuitive notion for someone who isn’t a trainer. Ash automatically assumes that Bill wants to catch the mystery Pokémon he’s looking for, but Bill can’t think of any reason why he would and just wants to meet it. He’s like Giselle and the rest of Pokémon Tech in that his relationship with Pokémon has a huge intellectual component, but at the same time he’s very different in that they study Pokémon in order to make more effective use of them, while Bill actually seems to look up to Pokémon and admire them. His bizarre cosplay fixation, for instance, is part of an attempt to understand Pokémon from their own points of view. In short, someone like Giselle cultivates an intellectual approach to Pokémon so that they might benefit from association with humanity, while someone like Bill cultivates that same approach so that humanity might benefit from association with them. At the same time, Bill’s final speech at the episode’s conclusion makes clear that he regards trainers as vital to the continuation of Pokémon research. This is partly a statement of practicality – trainers are the ones who catch Pokémon, and often the ones who discover new species as they explore – but also an assertion of the importance of embracing different ideas and worldviews (a theme which, years later, was wholeheartedly taken up by Black and White).
Wow, this was a long entry. Okay, quick summary: because Ash is the main character of the anime, it’s easy to forget that his experience of Pokémon is in fact an atypical one. These episodes, among others, show that the relationship between Pokémon and humanity is actually a far more complex one than Ash’s rather idealistic interpretation might suggest. This is another of those recurring themes that I’m probably going to comment on more as I move through the series – as well as something I’d like to see more of in the games!