Pokémon Origins: Episode 1

Professor Oak introduces us to the mysterious creatures of his world.

For those not familiar with it, Pokémon Origins is what might be called a ‘reboot’ of the Pokémon anime.  Released late last year, it is a four-episode miniseries which follows the adventures of Red – the protagonist of the original Pokémon games – and is closely based on the events of Red Version, Blue Version, and their third-generation remakes, Fire Red and Leaf Green (the visuals mainly taking their cues from the latter pair of games).  This stuff is pure nostalgia fuel, for people who were introduced to Pokémon by Fire Red and Leaf Green, for those of us who are old enough to have clear memories of when Red and Blue were first released, and, hell, probably for Game Freak and the animators too.  Each episode opens with the CONTINUE/NEW GAME/OPTIONS screen and ends with the SAVE screen from the original games, the first episode begins with Professor Oak’s “introduction to the world of Pokémon,” followed by the battle between Nidorino and Gengar familiar from the opening cinematic (on Red’s TV), and even the dialogue often quotes directly from the games.  This last point, if you ask me, may have been pushing it a bit far, since the English translations of Red and Blue didn’t exactly have the best-written dialogue in video game history – the quotes stand out for being, frankly, a little wooden.  Enough of the general style, though; let’s talk about the plot.

The first episode opens with our beloved protagonist Red, an earnest if impulsive and clumsy boy, being summoned from his home to receive a Pokédex, along with his first Pokémon.  Dear rival Blue, who is as much of a douchebag as ever, arrives at Professor Oak’s lab at the same time (of course, if they’d really wanted to capture the authentic feel of the first generation Pokémon games, they’d have called the rival character “Assface,” but I’m not going to judge), and they receive the classic spiel about Professor Oak’s dream of completing the Pokédex, before being offered a choice of partners.  Red picks Charmander (who inexplicably sounds exactly like a disgruntled housecat) because “[his] dad gave [him] the name Red hoping that when [he] grew up it would help [him] have the passion and energy of a red-hot fire.”  Well… kids have been named for dumber reasons than that, I guess (speaking of names, Red is offered the chance to give Charmander a nickname, but declines).  True to form, Blue mocks Red for his poor decision making skills and picks Squirtle to gain an advantage over Charmander before dashing out the door.  While Blue is consumed by the desire to become a powerful trainer, regarding the Pokédex quest as only a way to earn his first Pokémon, Red, interestingly, seems almost confused by the very concept of Pokémon training and is much more concerned with Professor Oak’s request, quickly catching Rattata, Spearow, Pidgey and Caterpie in the woods around Pallet Town.  In blatant defiance of all common sense, he even tries to catch a Youngster’s Nidoran in his lust for data.  Following the Youngster’s directions to find a Nidoran of his own, Red runs into Blue again on the outskirts of Viridian City and is taunted into a battle, which his Charmander loses badly.  Blue leaves triumphant, and Red wanders off to sulk.  As he sits brooding, Red is confronted by Brock, who was watching their battle from a distance and has been stalking him ever since (so he’s only slightly less creepy than regular anime Brock – naturally, he doesn’t introduce himself yet).  Brock explains that Blue is obviously the better trainer, and so Squirtle trusts him a lot more than Charmander trusts Red, who was visibly flustered throughout their battle and rapidly grew annoyed when Charmander’s attacks failed to connect or cause damage.  Brock advises him to visit Pokémon Gyms to learn battling skills, directs him to the Pokémon Centre in Viridian City, and departs.

Brock hams it up as Red’s Nidoran realises he’s made a huge mistake. ‘Well done, Onix! DOUBLE THE DAMAGE!’ ‘I immediately regret kicking the giant boulder snake in the head!’

Red duly travels to Pewter City, and gets a rude reception from Brock’s trainers, who give him the classic “million light years away from facing Brock” line – until Brock himself turns up and invites Red in, to his subordinates’ surprise.  Brock asks Red whether he has any badges, and on hearing his response selects two Pokéballs from a drawer of six.  Since Brock must realise Red can’t possibly have any badges yet, this exchange is probably a deliberate confirmation of what many of us have long suspected – Gym Leaders have many more Pokémon than we ever see, and tailor their load-outs to reflect challengers’ experience.  In their battle, Red is hesitant after his loss against Blue, and needs a lecture on Pokémon type matchups mid-battle, but manages to beat Brock’s Geodude with a switch to his Nidoran and a rapid Double Kick.  Newly confident, he recovers from losing Nidoran to a questionable interpretation of Onix’s Bide (Onix decides that Nidoran’s Double Kick counts as “two attacks” – normally I would let this slide because the anime has always played fast and loose with exactly how attacks work, but Origins is elsewhere scrupulous in following the games, so it sticks out), and tries to wear it down with Spearow and Rattata.  When that doesn’t work, he slows it with Metapod’s String Shot, but Onix breaks free and squashes the poor thing.  Brock becomes more intense with every Pokémon Onix strikes down, and by the time Red’s Charmander comes back out, both trainers are breathing heavily and sweating.  Red then has one of the least subtle epiphanies ever: “I get it!  Pokémon are not tools for battle!  They’re our partners!  My Pokémon and I are battling together.  I can’t believe I didn’t even notice such a simple thing as that.” (What did I tell you?  Masterful dialogue, right there.)  Charmander and Onix strike at each other one last time – but because Onix had failed to shake off a single strand of Metapod’s silk, he’s too slow, and Charmander’s attack hits first.  Onix nearly crushes Brock’s annoying Gym trainers as he falls, but sadly Brock recalls him in time.  Red receives a Boulder Badge, a TM for Bide, and a quick pep talk before leaving for his next adventure.  We then get two brief scenes where Brock and Professor Oak are both asked by their respective minions what it is they see in Red: Brock simply “found him quite intriguing,” while Oak admires his determination and honesty.  Both comment on his willingness to learn, which Oak contrasts with Blue’s arrogance.

Although I’m not exactly impressed by Red explicitly stating the episode’s key message, which is lazy even for the Pokémon anime, his battle with Brock is nonetheless quite interesting.  The experience is portrayed as exhausting for both of them, and possibly even physically painful – Red comments in his inner monologue that “I feel as though I’m also taking damage.”  I would stop short of suggesting that he’s actually sharing Charmander’s pain somehow, which seems a bit metaphysical even for Pokémon, but  I think there is a clear implication there that battling (or doing it properly, anyway) requires a heightened sense of empathy for one’s partners.  Early on, Red doesn’t approach his battles with the urgency or adrenaline that his Pokémon experience: during his battle with Blue, he expects his attack commands to produce certain effects on his enemy and becomes frustrated when they fail, while against Brock, he initially wants more time to plan his moves and hesitates, so that Charmander picks up on the fact that they aren’t thinking at the same speed and becomes worried.  “You let your Pokémon take that,” Brock taunts when Geodude seizes the opening.  Red is detached, and isn’t fully conscious of what his Pokémon can and cannot do.  When the tempo of the battle increases with Red’s rapid switches against Onix, he begins to immerse himself in what’s happening, and becomes more sensitive to what his Pokémon are thinking and feeling.  This kind of development is something that we don’t really see in the main anime with Ash because, for all his many flaws at the start of the Kanto series, Ash ‘gets it.’  He may be clueless and incompetent, but empathy is not something Ash Ketchum needs explained to him, his disastrous first day with Pikachu notwithstanding – and in Ash’s defence Pikachu isn’t exactly a model partner himself when they first meet.  Charmander, by contrast, is instantly friendly, loyal and obedient; their problems are very much on Red’s end, despite what he seems to be thinking during the battle with Blue.

Red and Charmander contemplate their failure and the lifetime of misery and insignificance that lie before them.

The other thing that’s interesting to me about this episode is Red’s dedication to his work for Professor Oak.  In spite of Blue’s cocky exhortation to “leave it to me!”, another quote from the games, later episodes will bear out the impression created here that Red actually cares about finishing the Pokédex while Blue is more concerned with becoming powerful (although he does note before their battle that the goals are complimentary – finishing the Pokédex will mean fighting and capturing strong Pokémon).  This says a lot about what the writers of Origins think the point of the game is, but it’s also neat when you think about it in terms of Red’s characterisation.  Red doesn’t always think things through, but the quality both Brock and Professor Oak admire in him is that he’s aware of his own lack of experience and wants to grow.  In the context of the Pokédex quest as a scientific inquiry, this is an extremely valuable trait – arguably the most important virtue in science is the willingness to question one’s preconceptions – and takes on particular significance when Oak contrasts it with the self-assuredness of Red’s opposite number, Blue, whom he worries is too good to admit that there could be anything else he needs to learn.  Their attitudes have a bearing on their views of the importance of the Pokédex quest.  Presumably Professor Oak is aware of the 149 species of Pokémon that exist in Kanto (excluding Mewtwo), could give rough descriptions of them if pressed, and might be able to drum up more detailed information from textbooks – given that, someone like Blue might be inclined to regard their mission as merely an exercise in compiling existing data into a more convenient form, while Red might be curious to see whether some of that data can be confirmed or disproved, and more ready to think that there could be more to discover.  The Pokédex quest even has some bearing on Red’s relationship with Charmander, who clearly shares his disappointment after his failed first attempt to catch a Pidgey results in a blank Pokédex entry.  It’s not obvious how far Charmander actually understands what they’re doing, but he seems to be reacting to the blank page itself, and not just following Red’s cue (they give dejected sighs in unison).  Professor Oak could have explained the purpose of their mission to all three starters beforehand; it’s hard to say without ever seeing what Squirtle thinks of all this.  The rapidity with which Charmander assimilates to Red’s goals and priorities, though, is interesting, and may say something about what he thinks of his new trainer.

Red’s relationship with Charmander, of course, is going to be a major theme of Origins, and this won’t be the last I have to say about it either – stay tuned!

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