Because I am me, I had a great deal of fun with the episode in which Ash challenges the Viridian Gym. Among my bigger regrets for that series, though, are that Ash never got a chance to confront Giovanni, his battle being delegated to Jessie and James instead, and that Giovanni himself didn’t get the kind of characterisation many other anime Gym Leaders enjoy in their keynote appearances. Episode 3 of Origins has the chance to rectify this deficiency, and it does so with gusto. Let’s take a look.
After winning his Rainbow and Soul Badges, taking on Team Rocket once more in Celadon City, and evolving his Charmeleon into a Charizard, Red finds himself in Saffron City, the home of the region’s leading producer of Pokémon-related supplies and technology, Silph Company. Red and Blue briefly team up to rescue a woman being harassed by a pair of Team Rocket grunts, and learn that she is the secretary of Silph’s president. Team Rocket has taken over the company headquarters in order to force Silph’s scientists to perfect the prototype Master Ball by performing unethical experiments on large numbers of wild Pokémon, and she has been given orders to escape and return with reinforcements. Blue, though he seems to understand the worrying implications of a world where Team Rocket can commission Master Balls, doesn’t see what any of this has to do with winning Badges or becoming Champion and has no intention of sticking his neck out for anyone, though Red eventually manages to… ‘persuade’ him to escort the secretary to Celadon City and raise the police. Red himself, meanwhile, is unwilling to let the Pokémon in the building suffer for even a moment longer than necessary, and decides to take a more direct approach: a frontal assault with all his Pokémon. As we know from the games, this is a resounding success. Red frees the imprisoned Pokémon and scientists from the Silph laboratories, then makes his way to the president’s office to confront Giovanni. If Giovanni is frustrated by what he admits is the total ruination of his plans, he doesn’t show it, and is prepared to leave without a fight, but Red is having none of that, and vows to thwart Team Rocket’s plans wherever they go. Irritated by Red’s presumptuousness, Giovanni calls on his Nidoqueen, who Double Kicks Charizard through a wall and counters his Flamethrower with Surf, causing an explosion that takes out most of the building’s top floor. When the dust settles, Nidoqueen and Giovanni are standing unfazed, while Red and Charizard are lying crumpled on the floor. Giovanni, almost disappointed by the ease of his victory, comments that Red’s failure to achieve more with Charizard is “a pitiful waste of such gifts.” Red demands an explanation for Team Rocket’s actions, and he replies that Pokémon are a business, and success in business requires sacrifice – if Pokémon must suffer, then so be it. Red angrily retorts that Pokémon should be a trainer’s friends, to which Giovanni points out, looking to Charizard, that Red is perfectly willing to let his ‘friends’ suffer as well. Red has no answer to that, and Giovanni leaves by helicopter, cleanly escaping all police action.
Fast-forward to Viridian City. Red is effervescent at the prospect of meeting and learning from the strongest Gym Leader, whom Blue has already defeated, and is horrified when he realises that – spoiler alert – the leader is Giovanni himself. He refuses, point blank, to acknowledge Giovanni as a Gym Leader at all, and instead challenges him as “the enemy of all Pokémon.” Accordingly Giovanni, who had been perusing a selection of Pokéballs like the one we saw in Brock’s Gym, remarks that he won’t accept Red’s challenge as a Gym Leader either and instead selects two Ultra Balls from a hidden compartment. Red knew Giovanni’s specialty ahead of time and came prepared with Grass-, Water- and Fighting-types, but his Pokémon simply aren’t powerful enough – Giovanni’s Rhyhorn crushes his Victreebel, Kabutops, Snorlax and Jolteon almost without effort, before his Hitmonlee manages to force a tie. Throughout the battle, we get snippets of Giovanni’s inner thoughts on the battle – he finds Red utterly infuriating, but doesn’t quite know why; nor can he account for his disappointment that Red isn’t as challenging an opponent as he’d anticipated. Though he hides it well, his smugness steadily fades to agitation and then intensity, until with only one Pokémon left on each side, Giovanni realises that the battle will come down to Charizard and Rhydon, and gloats that Red has made a critical mistake by not saving a Pokémon better suited to this fight. Red replies that he always meant for Charizard to be his last, whatever happened, since the whole battle will mean more to him if he finishes it with his partner. Giovanni’s façade cracks – he’s visibly furious now at Red’s overconfidence – but then he notices that Red throws his Pokéballs in the same way as Giovanni himself used to as a child, and he finally understands the emotions Red has triggered in him. Giovanni recognises himself in Red (complete with a flashback scene in which Giovanni is revealed to have once owned a Charmander), and has been inspired by him to find excitement in their battle that he hasn’t felt in years. He grows even more intense as he realises that Charizard really is a match for his Rhydon, and finally is left with a sense of satisfaction when Red manages to overcome him. Apparently no longer mindful of their earlier conversation, Giovanni offers Red the Earth Badge – and, when Red refuses to accept it from the leader of Team Rocket, continuing to deny his status as a Gym Leader, he turns to his attendants and orders them to spread the word: Team Rocket is dissolved, and all of their operations are to cease immediately. Red’s expression softens as he comes to perceive Giovanni’s change of heart, and accepts the badge. Giovanni encourages him to continue seeking greater strength, since only one as strong as the Champion will have any hope of completing the Pokédex quest. As Red leaves, Giovanni muses on his own future, apparently hopeful now for some sort of redemption.
Pokémon has always liked the idea, and has grown more fond of it in recent years, culminating with the player’s battle against N in Black and White, that Pokémon battles are a way for trainers and Pokémon to express their convictions to each other, a subtle but powerful medium of communication that functions on the level of one’s deepest emotions and most firmly held beliefs. Neither of Red’s battles with Giovanni have practical aims. In Saffron City, Giovanni fully intends to leave, and Red can’t really stop him (this should be contrasted to the way the same events are portrayed in the games, where it is only Red’s defeat of Giovanni that forces him to withdraw), but he fights Red anyway because he wants to send a message: this is beyond you, I am beyond you, and you must learn your place. Likewise, Red’s motivation for challenging the Viridian Gym apparently goes out the window once he realises who his opponent is; he cannot have any reasonable expectation of breaking Team Rocket’s power with one battle, but he continues his course in order to make a statement of his opposition. Similarly, while Giovanni makes it clear that he takes his duties as a Gym Leader seriously – he mentions his earlier battle against Blue, noting that he accepted that challenge despite being unimpressed by his arrogance because Blue’s potential intrigued him – he makes it equally clear that his battle against Red is something else entirely; he is again trying to put Red in his place. Red’s decision to save Charizard for last is likewise built as much on symbolism as on strategy. Their climactic battle can be seen as a parallel to his first Gym challenge against Brock – the lessons Red first learned from Brock, Giovanni now relearns from Red. The same rising intensity and heightened synchronicity between trainer and Pokémon prompt a similar realisation: “Pokémon are not just tools” (whether “for battle,” as Red realises in the first episode, or “for business,” as he tells Giovanni repeatedly in this one). Giovanni’s choice of Pokéballs is also significant: his initial selection implies that like Brock he is considering his opponent’s experience level in order to select appropriate Pokémon for a difficult but not insurmountable challenge, as he presumably did for Blue, but when Red declares that he does not consider this a real Gym battle, he instead picks two hidden Ultra Balls – this should be taken to mean that he is not moderating his own strength but now intends to crush Red with the full power of his two mightiest Pokémon. This fact takes on a greater significance when we consider a fragment of gossip overheard by Red – that the Viridian Gym Leader has never needed even half of his true strength to defeat a challenger. While this is likely hyperbole, it must prompt us to wonder just how long it has been since Giovanni has needed to invest himself truly in a battle, in the way he does with Red. Perhaps spending too long without a real challenge is what causes Giovanni, little by little, to lose touch with his Pokémon and come to act with the callousness evident in his encounter with Red in Saffron City.
At the end of their battle, Giovanni is taken aback when Red refuses to accept his Earth Badge, even though both sides made it clear from the start that this was not a battle between a Gym Leader and a challenger. For Giovanni, though, the significance of the battle – the meaning of the conversation – changed greatly over its course. His initial intention to break Red’s insolence lost its relevance once he started to liken Red to a young version of himself, and the battle instead became about finding himself and recapturing the energy and excitement of his youth. A badge, aside from its importance to entering the ranks of the Pokémon League, is also a memento of a trainer’s battle with the leader who confers it and, as Red says before bringing out Charizard, that trainer’s understanding of the leader’s beliefs: Giovanni offers it because he wants Red to remember their battle as he undoubtedly will, as well as his new understanding of Red’s beliefs. Red’s refusal is tantamount to a statement that their battle did not carry the same significance for him, and that he has no wish to remember it fondly – so Giovanni gives him a reason to (contrast, again, the way the games portray his decision to disband Team Rocket: he feels that, after losing even at his full strength, he is no longer worthy to lead). In spite of the dramatic change Red brings about in him, though, Giovanni is still the same man who built Team Rocket; his final exhortation to Red is not the kind of sage advice about love for Pokémon that one normally expects from a defeated Gym Leader (after all, this would surely be hypocritical coming from Giovanni), but focuses particularly on the importance of accumulating greater strength. Giovanni’s comments to Red after their battle in Saffron City make it clear that he considers struggle, ambition and sacrifice to be paramount, and none of those things are incompatible with Red’s idea of what it means to be a trainer; in fact, Giovanni would likely say that Red clearly sees the importance of all three. As Red says before their battle, all Gym Leaders practice different philosophies for living and working with their Pokémon, having in common only their love for their Pokémon – something Giovanni, once again, shares.
There’s only one more episode to go in the Origins mini-series. The Elite Four awaits… as do further challenges beyond…