Anime Time: Episodes 36, 48, and 53

The Bridge Bike Gang – Holy Matrimony – The Purr-fect Hero

Ash’s location: San Francisco.  I assume.

We’re more than thirty episodes into this series and I haven’t had an entry about the villains yet.  Clearly this will not do.  Jessie, James and Meowth of Team Rocket are quite possibly the least threatening villains ever.  They certainly manage to cause the heroes harm from time to time, but they never accomplish anything.  I don’t think a single one of their plots ever bears fruit.  Luckily, the show’s writers understood that, gods bless them, and wrote Team Rocket as comic relief characters.  We often see them in brief asides, discussing how desperately they need to get something right, and they frequently break the fourth wall for comedic effect.  Anyhow, that’s enough of their general portrayal – these episodes all reveal things about the specifics of their characters, so let’s take a look.

 Admit it: you wish you could be half this badass.  And/or ridiculous.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

In The Bridge Bike Gang, Ash, Misty and Brock come across an epic bridge leading across an inlet to a place called Sunnytown, but sadly the bridge is not complete and they can’t walk across… only the cycle track is finished.  Because bicycles are by far the most valuable objects in the entire Pokémon universe, they can’t just go out and buy one, let alone three… but, luckily, Nurse Joy #148 needs someone to deliver some medicine to Sunnytown, and is willing to let her couriers borrow some bicycles.  The kids immediately agree and race off down the cycle track.  On the bridge, they are accosted by a gang of miscreant cyclists, who demand a Pokémon battle.  During the fight, Team Rocket arrive in their usual dramatic style to mix things up… and it turns out that the gang leader, Tyra, recognises them.  Apparently Jessie and James were once members of this very bicycle gang, after flunking out of Pokémon Tech, and were known as “Big Jess,” who would always swing a chain around her head as she rode, and “Little Jim,” the only member of the gang who still used training wheels.  They were, and are, regarded as the absolute height of badass.  For some reason.  Anyway, the gang members think they’re even more awesome now that they’re hardened criminals, so they’re more than happy to help Jess and Jim fight Ash and his friends… until Officer Jenny #270 arrives and scatters them.  The kids keep riding, even as a terrible storm gathers.  Meanwhile, Tyra encourages Jessie and James to ride out themselves, to renew their… er… legend… and show the gang what real riding is.  They do so on unicycles, because this will earn them unimaginable street cred.  Team Rocket and the kids, coming from opposite sides, both reach a drawbridge being raised to allow a ship to pass beneath.  Ash, being Ash, decides to jump it, in the middle of a violent storm, at the same moment as Team Rocket.  The kids… somehow bounce off their heads and narrowly make the jump, while Jessie and James plummet into the water below.

To be honest, all things considered I thought this was kind of a ‘meh’ episode, but it does have certain bright points; notably, we get a little bit of insight into what motivates Jessie and James in their life of crime.  They crave respect, anything to let themselves forget what failures they normally are, and will do blatantly insane things to cultivate the worship of Tyra and the others.  More importantly their dialogue in this episode suggests that they, like the bike gang, resent rules and value freedom above all else.  Jessie and Meowth can be genuinely spiteful at times, but Jessie at least often seems to be driven at least as much by a burning desire to flip off ‘the system,’ probably on account of her childhood spent in poverty.  Ironically she’s now part of a system anyway, being ‘evil’ apparently for no better reason than because it’s her job, making her something of a ‘punch-clock villain’ (James plays up this aspect a great deal more than she does, but Jessie has her moments too; when things are going particularly badly for them they seem like nothing so much as downtrodden nine-til-five office workers).  She claims to enjoy being villainous, but like James it takes precious little to distract her, and she takes to honest work surprisingly quickly in the episodes where she’s given the opportunity.  Left to her own devices, she would probably remain self-centred, arrogant and superficial, but not outright evil.  James, of course, has baggage of his own… and that’s what Holy Matrimony is all about.

 Okay... I think I actually know what this whole 'invisible costume' thing is about.  In Kabuki theatre, stagehands wear all black clothing.  The audience, by convention, ignores anyone wearing this kind of costume.  Incidentally, assassin characters in Kabuki plays would wear the same costume, so that the audience would think they were just stagehands until they struck, which is where the familiar image of the black-clad ninja comes from.  Isn't learning FUN!?

I love Holy Matrimony, because from the perspective of Ash, Brock and Misty the whole episode is one great big long “WTF?”  It all begins when they stop to look at a “missing person” sign by the road, and an elderly gentleman in a suit pulls up in a limousine to ask whether they recognise the boy in the picture (I presume he has been monitoring the sign in case anyone showed an interest in it).  The picture is years old, but it’s unmistakably James, so the butler piles them into the limo and drives them to an enormous mansion, which, according to the butler, is just the doghouse.  He leads them into the even more opulent actual mansion and explains that the master and his wife have just passed away, and that if their son, James, does not marry his betrothed within twenty-four hours, he will lose his inheritance.  Team Rocket, as usual, have been watching.  James is reluctant to get married, but Jessie and Meowth like the sound of this “fortune” business, so they dress up in ‘invisible costumes’ – flimsy black gauzy things – so they can manoeuvre James like a puppet.  These… seem to work on the butler, and they drag James inside, where his insane parents promptly spring from their coffins, very much alive, and reveal his fiancée, Jessiebelle – a terrifying Southern Belle version of Jessie, from whom James had fled as a youngster.

The psychological implications are nothing short of mind-boggling.

Jessiebelle brings James downstairs into what she claims is the family’s vault, but is actually some kind of exercise dungeon in which she plans to whip James into shape.  James’ parents reveal that they could see Jessie and Meowth the whole time, so they drop smoke bombs and flee while Jessiebelle calls out her Vileplume and drowns James and the kids in Stun Spore.  At this point, James’ childhood Pokémon, Growly the Growlithe, manages to break out of the ‘doghouse’ and charges in to save him.  The group retreats to the doghouse, where James explains everything to Ash, and when Jessiebelle and Vileplume arrive, Pikachu and Growly attack them together and chase them off.  James rejoins Jessie and Meowth, leaving Growly behind to take care of his parents, and Ash, Brock and Misty leave the mansion with Jessiebelle hot on their tail, begging them for help in finding James.

James and Growly being ludicrously adorable, by Bandotaku (http://bandotaku.deviantart.com/).

When James fills Ash in on his backstory, we learn that his parents arranged his engagement to Jessiebelle because they wanted her to teach him how to behave like a proper aristocrat, something he had absolutely no interest in doing.  He ran away from home rather than marry her, and eventually fell in with Team Rocket.  James likes wealth and luxury well enough but, as his final scene with Jessie makes clear, he’d rather be free than rich any day – presumably he hopes to get money and power as a member of Team Rocket, but even once Jessiebelle has been scared off, he’d rather stay a criminal than go home, where he could have those things, just for the asking.  It seems likely that he joined Team Rocket as a gesture of rebellion against the order of society as much as anything else.  As the same time, though, he does care for his parents in a somewhat neurotic way; although he professes to hate them and their upper-crust lifestyle, he would rather leave Growly at home to protect them than bring his loyal friend along on his journey.  What’s really interesting about Holy Matrimony, I think, is that it seems to take a broadly positive view of James and his life choices.  We’re almost certainly supposed to sympathise with him in his arranged marriage to Jessiebelle, whom he doesn’t love and can’t even tolerate, his relationship with Growly presents him as a genuinely decent trainer, and the final scene between him and Jessie on their hot air balloon even seems to suggest that the life they live really is the choice that makes the most sense for them.  As in The Bridge Bike Gang, they affirm that their freedom is more important to them than anything, and the episode seems to be okay with that.

Finally for today… in The Purr-fect Hero, Ash, Misty and Brock stumble into a primary school that’s been expecting some Pokémon trainers to visit, but the other trainers have cancelled at the last minute.  Brock immediately volunteers the group to replace them because he thinks the teacher is hot, and they let all their Pokémon out to play with the children.  Most of them have fun but one, Timmy, seems disappointed because the only Pokémon he wants to meet is a Meowth – the Pokémon that once saved him from a wild Beedrill.  Appearing just when we needed them, Team Rocket show up with their latest plan to steal Pikachu: present a Pokémon Magic Show and make him disappear, replacing him with Meowth and then escaping before Ash realises that they’re not really performers.  This they do, but unfortunately Timmy is so excited to run up and meet a Meowth that, in the confusion created by Weezing’s Smokescreen, he gets caught up in Team Rocket’s magic box and Pikachu is left behind.  When Jessie and James take him out and realise their mistake, Timmy is convinced that their Meowth is the same wild one who saved him long ago.  Jessie and James convince Meowth to play along, because “we’re not in the business of destroying children’s dreams!  Well, not yet…”  Meowth ‘saves’ Timmy and returns with him to the school, where Timmy’s classmates crowd around him excitedly, but the adoration goes to his head and a “that’s right!” slips past his lips.  Misty hears him and becomes suspicious, and Meowth flees back to Jessie and James.  Timmy follows, so Ash has to go as well… right into an ambush in a dead-ended rocky valley.  The ensuing battle starts a rockslide, which forces Team Rocket to retreat and nearly flattens Ash and Timmy, but at the last moment a wild Meowth appears and Mega Kicks a boulder in two, saving them.  Everyone returns to the school safe, and Timmy declares his intention to become a trainer one day, with Meowth as his partner.  Team Rocket’s Meowth tells Jessie and James that being a ‘hero’ was nice, but they need him more, so it’s for the best.

 Best.  Meowth.  Ever.

Meowth, distressingly enough, is the brains of the operation.  He’s normally extremely cynical, and quite honestly is probably more evil than either of his human compatriots.  Meowth gets a whole episode devoted to his backstory, Go West Young Meowth, much later in the series, and that will probably get an entry all to itself, so I’ll try to keep this short. The Purr-fect Hero brings out one of Meowth’s most important character traits: his desire for attention, affection, and adoration.  Meowth is incredibly prideful but also rather insecure; whenever he speaks directly to the Boss (whom he seems to regard as being formally his trainer), he is reminded, painfully, that he has fallen out of favour with Giovanni and been replaced by a Persian.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that he finds the prospect of being treated as a hero – deservedly or not – rather attractive.  After returning to Jessie and James, though, he seems somewhat exhausted and glad to have gotten away from it all, and his comment at the episode seems to suggest that he’s happiest being with people who actually need him, rather than the kids, who have only been tricked into viewing him as a hero.  Although traditionally ‘noble’ ideas like honesty and charity tend to make Meowth gag, his pride demands, in the end, that he earn the admiration he feels he deserves – besides which, he does seem to care for Jessie and James as well, though he rarely admits it and would generally prefer them to think he looks down on them.

Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder whether calling Team Rocket ‘villains’ is entirely warranted.  They’re antagonists, certainly, but their villainous actions typically serve as ‘spanners in the works’ rather than anything critical to the story, and although they appear in every episode, I imagine most of the plots could be reconstructed without them fairly easily.  Moreover, when an episode does focus on them, Jessie, James and even Meowth are normally portrayed in a fairly positive light, all things considered.  To cut a long story short (or at least, as short as I am apparently capable of making these things) I think the most natural designation for Team Rocket is ‘anti-villains’ – they have a villainous streak, but are in many respects genuinely sympathetic, and would probably live a much easier life if they just gave up and started backing the other team.

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