Showdown at the Po-Ké Corral
Now safely back in Pallet Town, Ash has to start preparing for the Pokémon League tournament – and in order to do that, he has to visit Professor Oak to find out when and where the tournament actually takes place (evidently, the answer is: in exactly two months, at exactly the same place as every year – the Indigo Plateau). It apparently never occurred to him before now to look this stuff up. When he arrives at the lab with Misty and Brock, Oak is apparently more excited to see Togepi than to see him, but nonetheless welcomes the gang into his sitting room, where they find out that – as always – Gary is two steps ahead of Ash. They are almost immediately at each other’s throats, but Professor Oak protests that it would be a shame for there to be a feud between Pallet Town’s two “top trainers” – to the indignant disbelief of both. Ash and Gary snipe each other for a while as the Professor examines their Pokédexes, and then it’s time for a tour of his facilities.
The first stop is the storeroom where Professor Oak keeps the occupied Pokéballs that have been sent home by Pallet Town’s trainers. Again this is a natural point of competition between Gary, who has sent home over 200 Pokémon, and Ash, who only has a couple of dozen… all but two of whom (Krabby and Muk) are Tauros from the Safari Zone, which he captured in that one episode that we don’t talk about. Once Professor Oak has managed to make peace, he decides to describe an average day in his life, and show the kids the habitats where he keeps his young protégées’ Pokémon. He has a pretty full schedule, managing which Pokémon are in and out of their Pokéballs on any given day, feeding all of them (apparently by himself… gods, man, have some self-respect and sucker a few young researchers into being your unpaid interns; you know you’ve got the academic clout to pull it off), and still managing to put in a few hours of research. Stepping out of the lab, the kids check in with Gary’s Doduo and Ash’s Muk, and spend some time gazing out admiringly over the fields where Professor Oak’s countless Pokémon spend their time. In a fit of inspiration, Gary challenges Ash to a battle, but before they can get underway, they’re interrupted by the sound of a huge explosion in another part of the Pokémon sanctuary.
This, of course, is the regular appearance of Team Rocket, who have been having a very bad day while all this has been going on – first witnessing the destruction of Giovanni’s remote Fortress of Doom by Mewtwo as he escaped containment, then being literally swept down the road away from Ash’s house by the overenthusiastic Mimey, and then being stabbed, crushed, beaten and violently exploded by half the population of Oak’s Pokémon habitats. To their credit, though, when our heroes come across them, Team Rocket are still spoiling for a fight… but it’s just not their day, and they get stampeded by a herd of Tauros before Ash or Gary can throw a single Pokéball. Oak gives Ash the credit for this, since the Tauros all belong to him – which means Ash also gets to repair all the fences they broke on the way to Team Rocket. Misty and Brock get conscripted to assist him by a few lines of Oak’s patented Wise Old Man Nonsense, Gary decides to postpone battling Ash until they meet at the Pokémon League, and the episode is done.
What I mostly want to talk about here today is the stuff I’ve conspicuously glossed over in my synopsis – that is, Ash and Gary’s respective philosophies of Pokémon training, and what Professor Oak has to say about them. The greater part of the moral that Oak pushes in this episode is about tolerating and understanding the differences of others. Accordingly, he stresses that both Ash and Gary are excellent representatives of Pallet Town in their own ways, though as we’ll see, his thoughts on the matter could stand a little interrogation.
Gary initially attempts to assert his superiority by questioning Ash’s training style, which is more than a little unsophisticated. Gary has a policy of regularly rotating his Pokémon so that all of them receive some training, while Ash just keeps using the same team of five (Pikachu, Pidgeotto, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charizard) – not so much because he thinks it’s the best way as because he’s never really thought about it. Moreover, Ash pays little attention to the strengths of different types, and doesn’t bother to research Gym Leaders’ weaknesses before battling them, to Gary’s derision – Misty claims he would use Pikachu to fight a Pokémon like Brock’s Geodude, and Ash doesn’t try to contradict her. Later seasons make a point of stressing that Ash’s battle style is very unconventional, and he gains a reputation for somehow pulling wins out of matchups that, on the basis of type, seem like they ought to result in certain defeat. It’s sometimes regarded as a mark of his skill and creativity – and let us remember that, the last time Pikachu and Geodude fought, Pikachu came out on top (albeit by means that may have been less than thoroughly legal). There’s a considered, careful logic to Gary’s training and battling styles, where Ash relies on intuition (and here we should recall also Pikachu’s victory over Giselle’s Cubone, where this contrast of battle styles is made more explicit). That’s not something Ash can really explain to anyone’s satisfaction. Think back to one time when he was called upon to try explaining what it takes to be a good trainer, at the end of Showdown in Dark City, and was reduced to stuttering platitudes and contradictions. As a result, he sounds a lot less impressive than Gary. On the other hand, the results speak for themselves – as Professor Oak notes, Gary may have ten badges to Ash’s eight, but the other new trainers who started on the same day, one year earlier, never even approached the big leagues, so clearly both of them are doing something right.
While this conversation has been going on, Professor Oak has been looking over their Pokédex records and discovered something interesting: Ash has logged more than 100 Pokémon species, whereas Gary has seen only 60; Gary claims that this is because he knows enough about Pokémon that he doesn’t need to use the Pokédex, preferring to “catch ‘em first and ask questions later.” This excuse rings hollow to me, though – even if Gary isn’t registering most of the Pokémon he sees, the Pokédex still doubles as his official trainer ID, and ought to have a record of all the Pokémon species he’s caught. It’s probable, then, that he really has only caught Pokémon of 60 different species, and Ash may really have encountered significantly more than him. When we’re told Gary has over 200 Pokémon, Misty infers that he must have some ‘duplicates,’ as it were, since there are about 150 known species in Kanto, but no one attempts to probe how many, and there seem to be rather more than Gary might readily admit. What is Gary doing with all those Pokémon? Not collecting Pokédex data as we do in the games, that’s for certain; he might conceivably be looking for particularly high quality examples (that is, ones with “high IVs”) of the relatively few species he has decided he likes, but if so, he doesn’t clarify this. He mainly seems to be interested in just having as many as possible. Regardless, the message of what Professor Oak tells us here (and Gary’s response) is clear: Gary is pragmatic, invested in doing what a trainer does – catching and training Pokémon – while Ash is curious, invested in learning more about Pokémon and seeing as much as he can of the world.
In the Pokéball storage area, Ash challenges Gary by declaring that he may have a lot of Pokémon, but they aren’t all his friends like Ash’s are, to which Gary sneers “friends!?” His disdain seems to imply, not only that he doesn’t consider friendship with all of his many Pokémon to be a priority, but that he thinks Ash’s concern for friendship with his Pokémon is childish. He then asserts that, the more Pokémon you have, the better prepared you are for battles – which is a decidedly odd thing to say, when you think about it. No matter how many Pokémon you have, you can only use six of them at once; again, Gary doesn’t really explain what he’s getting at. Professor Oak, once again, is quick to defuse the growing tension by suggesting that both Ash and Gary have some good ideas that have been informed by their different personalities – essentially, that their differences are a matter of style, not superiority. “If we care for [Pokémon] the way care for those we love,” he says, “we’ll be able to live in peace… My research has taught me that we need to deal with Pokémon like we need to deal with people – as individuals – if we want to discover their mysteries.” In the context of the scene, this is supposed to be a mediating, neutral comment. Taken on its own, however, it seems to be much more closely aligned with Ash’s view of Pokémon training; there’s a very strong emotional component to it, and even a degree of reverence that seems alien to Gary’s “you can never have too many Pokémon” attitude. This could be meant as a subtle admonishment to Gary, a more gentle version of what the games’ version of Professor Oak famously says to Blue at the Indigo Plateau about his failure to treat his Pokémon with love. But why hold back? If he thinks Ash is right, why not just say so? Is he just hedging his bets, since he has no concrete proof of Ash’s superiority as a trainer (unlike the games’ Professor Oak, who delivers his crushing repudiation of Blue as a trainer just after his final defeat and loss of the championship)? That’s not a very satisfying answer. Let’s see if we can’t break this down a bit more.
Gary is particularly adept at thinking about Pokémon in the abstract, as representatives of their types and species, which makes him naturally suited to strategic thinking and the kind of planned training regimens he describes in this episode. Ash, on the other hand, trusts in their individual temperaments and aptitudes, and tends to go with his gut; in so doing, he allows his Pokémon more freedom and creativity. Professor Oak knows that Gary is the more technically expert trainer, and takes a certain degree of pride in that, but he also feels that Ash has hit on something quite important, despite his inability to articulate exactly what that is. An interesting counter to Ash’s main point here would be that, actually, his Pokémon aren’t all his friends – Muk and Krabby, conspicuously, are little more than casual acquaintances at this point, and the less said about Charizard, the better. Ash’s Muk is very affectionate, but mainly towards Professor Oak himself, whom he has grown excessively fond of glomping. Hell, Ash doesn’t even recognise his Tauros until Professor Oak explains that the herd belongs to him. Gary’s Doduo, by contrast – undoubtedly not a Pokémon he spends a particularly large amount of time with – approaches to greet him when the kids leave the lab, and is recognised by Gary immediately. Gary doesn’t have the extremely deep personal connection with his Pokémon that Ash has with the five members of his usual team (or rather, the personal connection he has with the four contributing members of his usual team… and the deep mutual loathing he shares with Charizard), but he seems to be a lot better than Ash at maintaining more casual relationships with a very large number of them.
Now think about how Professor Oak would relate to these two opposed views of Pokémon training. Ash’s interest in Pokémon as individuals, actually, touches surprisingly closely on Professor Oak’s current topic of research, which he mentions a little later in the episode – he’s studying variation within Pokémon of the same species. He’s very interested in the idea of treating Pokémon as individuals with the same kinds of quirks and varied personalities as humans, but for him it’s still an academic matter. It’s something he definitely wants to spend time thinking about, but doesn’t yet fully understand. But now consider Professor Oak’s own lifestyle. He doesn’t appear to spend much, if any, time training Pokémon in the sense that Ash and Gary do, but he’s responsible for thousands of the damn things, and utterly dedicated to them. Are they all his friends, in the way that Ash is so proud of? Some of the Pokémon that he spends the most time with, like Ash’s Muk, would perhaps grant him that distinction, but almost certainly not all of them. However, it’s spending time with so many of them that allows him to appreciate the sheer variety that even a single species of Pokémon can encompass. I think the reason Professor Oak is so invested in mediating between Ash and Gary’s conflicting views is because his own work makes it important for him to find ways of incorporating the strengths of both.
There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of further questions you could ask – not the least of which is whether Ash or Gary is more representative of a ‘normal’ trainer (I’m on the record as thinking that it’s actually Gary, on the grounds that he probably bears more resemblance to the way the designers of the games expect us to play). Maybe even more curious, though, is the question of how much weight we should give to Professor Oak’s authority. Do his opinions here reflect common wisdom in Kanto, or is it possible that a lifetime of studying Pokémon has led him to develop ideas that are actually pretty groundbreaking by the standards of his world? That’s probably not something I’m going to be able to answer here… but maybe keep it in the back of your mind when watching the anime in future.