The Evolution Solution – The Pi-Kahuna
These two episodes cover a brief (?) excursion to tropical Seafoam Island, where Delia and a group of her friends from Pallet Town are enjoying a relaxing holiday (it’s a very different place from the Seafoam Islands in the games). Misty and Brock are both invited to join their group, but Ash – who is theoretically supposed to be training for the Pokémon League – is left behind, until he manages to con Professor Oak into giving him an excuse to go anyway. The Evolution Solution, upon watching it again, is not as interesting an episode as I had hoped it would be, and The Pi-Kahuna has themes that are pretty standard for the Pokémon anime. However, the former gives me an excuse to ramble at length about Shellder and Slowbro, while the latter… let’s just say its themes are open to creative reinterpretation. Anyway – without further ado, let’s jump right in.
When Ash visits Professor Oak at the beginning of this episode, he is racking his brain over a problem of Pokémon evolution. Slowpoke evolves into Slowbro when a Shellder bites onto its tail… but why? Oak doesn’t know, but the man who wrote the Pokédex might: Professor Westwood, who lives on… Seafoam Island. Ash, because he is Ash, leaves Mimey in charge of the house and rushes off to the island paradise to find Misty and Brock, and drag them to Westwood’s lab. They soon learn that the eccentric Professor is currently studying the same problem as Professor Oak, and has chosen to do so by emulating Slowpoke’s favourite pastime: fishing. Meanwhile on the beach, Jessie, James and Meowth have managed to catch a Shellder while digging for clams (because clams exist, apparently) for Giovanni, who is on holiday. Giovanni, tired of watching their nonsense, decides to make them do something useful and raid Professor Westwood’s lab. They immediately paraglide into the lab, crashing the kids’ lunch with the Professor, and learn that, unfortunately, he only has Pokémon: his Slowpoke. But hey, they have a Shellder; they may as well get some use out of it! Shellder pursues Westwood and Slowpoke out of the lab and around the beach until Psyduck, who had earlier struck up a vacant staring-based friendship with Slowpoke, intervenes and manages to get Shellder to eat his head. To Ash’s disappointment, this doesn’t result in a ‘Psybro,’ but does allow Psyduck to unleash his phenomenal cosmic power, dislodging Shellder from his head and hurling Team Rocket down to the other end of the beach. Unfortunately, Slowpoke immediately trips over Shellder, who seizes the moment. Westwood watches in rapture as Slowpoke evolves into Slowbro and, now endowed with incredible new powers, is able to… stand and do absolutely nothing. With a little coaxing, Westwood manages to snap Slowbro out of it, and Slowbro finishes off Team Rocket with a devastating Mega Punch. After observing this, the Professor declares that he has their answer: mutual benefit. By joining with Slowpoke, Shellder becomes able to travel on land, while Slowpoke, with Shellder’s weight on its tail to act as a balance, can stand upright and use its hands for powerful attacks like Mega Punch. With Oak’s question answered, it’s time for the kids to leave… just as soon as Psyduck and Slowbro have spent six hours saying goodbye to each other.
Okay so first of all, can we agree that this episode would not have needed to happen if Professor Oak had just remembered that literally everyone in the Pokémon universe has Skype?
There are a couple of weird things to talk about in this episode, of which the actual question they were trying to answer is perhaps the least interesting. Mutual benefit seems like it should have been the go-to answer from the beginning; if two organisms start living together, it stands to reason that each of them is probably getting something out of it. Then again, maybe Professor Westwood has had that principle in mind for a while and has only just now figured out what the benefits to each Pokémon are. But let’s question those for a second. Slowbro transitions to a bipedal form that’s more efficient in some ways; okay, I suppose I buy that. But why should Shellder want to travel on land? What benefit is there in that, for an aquatic creature? Can Shellder get Slowbro to take it to another body of water and then slip off again, causing Slowbro to de-evolve back into Slowpoke? That would make a great deal of sense to me; it would translate into a very concrete advantage for a fairly sedentary creature like Shellder to be able to relocate itself considerable distances across dry land (er… albeit very slowly…), but it would also mean postulating that Slowbro can turn back into a Slowpoke. This might make some of us a little uncomfortable, simply because we never see it in the games or the anime, but it actually is attested in a number of Pokédex entries for both Slowbro and Slowking, so I’m willing to accept it. Shellder, then, can travel on land to a new aquatic habitat with better access to food and mates, or fewer predators, by enlisting Slowbro’s help – but I think the important thing to note here is that it’s temporary. Shellder assumes when biting onto Slowpoke’s tail that it’s not signing on forever; in fact, while Slowpoke benefits for as long as they stay together, for Shellder the greatest benefits actually come after they split up. But then, that raises more and better questions.
In this episode, Jessie and James capture a Shellder, which they later attempt to use to transform Professor Westwood’s Slowpoke into a Slowbro. But whose Slowbro would it be? It’s not entirely clear whether Westwood is formally Slowpoke’s trainer, so… does that mean Slowbro would technically be Jessie’s? That seems to be the assumption everyone is acting on for a little while, because 1) Team Rocket insist on trying to get Shellder onto Slowpoke’s tail while they’re there in the lab, rather than just nabbing Slowpoke and sorting it out later, and 2) everyone on Westwood’s side, including Slowpoke, is very concerned to make sure that Shellder doesn’t get what it wants. But not only does this seem counterintuitive on the face of it, it’s not supported by what happens; when Slowpoke actually evolves, it remains loyal to Westwood and destroys Team Rocket with the powers that they just gave to it. Is Shellder still Jessie’s Pokémon at this point, and if Shellder abandoned Slowbro at a later date, would its ownership and loyalty revert to her? Well, maybe we should think about this in terms of what Shellder might get out of belonging to a trainer. There’s combat experience and all of the usual things that a typical Pokémon might want, of course, but Shellder would also get most of the same benefits as it would from joining with a Slowpoke – it can travel long distances on land (further and faster, too), and it doesn’t have to work as hard for food (something else that Slowbro’s Pokédex entries mention). In exchange, it helps its partner to win battles more effectively. Many trainers even get Shellder to join them by the same means as Slowpoke – by fishing. In short, I think that Shellder, once attached, regards Slowpoke as its trainer – or, really, it would be more accurate to say that Shellder regard their trainers as unusually needy and opinionated Slowpoke. Jessie, by trying to get Westwood’s Slowpoke to evolve, effectively told her Shellder it was free to jump ship… and after a couple of hours as Jessie’s Pokémon, you too might feel that Slowpoke was a better option.
There’s one final question raised here about Slowpoke and Shellder. About halfway through the episode, just before Team Rocket attacks, Westwood actually introduces a completely different research question to the one they’re looking into for Professor Oak, one which is never mentioned again (possibly this is something that the English dub team threw in by mistake, but I don’t speak Japanese so that’s not something I can check easily). This new question is, why does Shellder transform from a bivalve into a spiral shell when it attaches itself to Slowpoke? This is doubly curious when you consider that Shellder’s evolved form, Cloyster, is also a bivalve. Given everything we’ve just been talking about, we should probably also ask whether it would change back if they ever became separated. You sort of have to assume that it would, because we never see wild Shellder in their spiral form. I think probably the change in shape happens because, while Shellder’s bivalve form is more effective at clamping onto Slowpoke’s tail in the first place, the spiral shape – with the tail presumably twisted through the inside – is better at staying attached without expending effort. It might also be important that, while clamped onto Slowpoke’s tail, a bivalve form Shellder would not be able to close its shell completely, potentially exposing its soft inner body to attack from the sides. The spiral shape has a narrower opening that fits the tail better, and defensive spikes that point in all directions, but may be significantly less mobile when Shellder is on its own (scallops can swim by ‘clapping’ their shells open and shut; whelks just squidge along like snails). Shellder may be able to convert between the two forms at will, according to whether it still wants to travel with its Slowpoke.
Anyway, now that we’ve established I’m far smarter than Professor Westwood (not that that’s difficult), that’s enough about Slowbro – we have another episode to cover.
A few days later, still on Seafoam Island, the kids learn from Officer Jenny #81 that the island is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Humungadunga: an enormous wave that strikes Seafoam’s famous surf beaches every twenty years, like clockwork. Out in the bay is a tall spire of rock, bristling with flags planted there by daring surfers as their waves passed by, but only Humungadunga is big enough to get a surfer to the very top of the spire, and only one surfer has ever ridden the wave with enough skill to plant his flag – a semi-legendary figure named Jan, who achieved this feat forty years ago.
Do I even need to tell you what Ash does next?
Unfortunately, while out practicing his surf skills, Ash gets a cramp in his foot and nearly drowns. Luckily, he’s rescued by a surfer, Victor, whose partner is an elderly Pikachu named Puka with a mysterious blue glow in his eyes and around his tail. After Ash wakes up in Victor’s cabin, the old surfer tells the kids his story. Victor and Puka have been together ever since Puka washed up on Seafoam Island after the last Humungadunga. Puka apparently has a supernatural sense of the waves and tides, which helps him and Victor to navigate extremely rough surf with ease – but they’re still waiting for an opportunity to conquer Humungadunga together. When Victor was a child forty years ago, he knew Jan, and witnessed the older surfer’s famous achievement. He was inspired to match Jan, but failed on his first try, twenty years ago, and almost gave up – until he met Puka. While Victor is telling the kids all of this, Pikachu is out on the cliffs with Puka, presumably listening to the same story… until both of them get snatched up by grabber arms from Team Rocket’s submarine. While the kids and Victor pursue in his boat, Team Rocket falls prey to the attentions of a school of Gyarados. The sub is struck by a Hyper Beam and breaks apart. Bulbasaur manages to catch Pikachu with a Vine Whip as he falls, but Puka winds up in the water and Victor jumps in after him. The waves are getting very choppy at this point, and the kids are forced to head back to shore, just as Puka begins to sense a disturbance in the force. Humungadunga has arrived, and Victor and Puka, although unprepared, seize the moment. With hundreds watching from the beach, Victor and Puka ride the huge wave, and stick their flag in the top of the rocky spire, right next to Jan’s (because of course they do). Just as Jan had done for him as a child, Victor gives his surfboard to a couple of kids in the crowd, and says to them the magic words, “hey; you can do it too,” thus dooming them both to forty years of being jobless surfing-obsessed beach bums.
I have a suspicion that the whole “twenty-year wave” thing is actually not quite as crazy as it sounds, because ocean waves do have regular periods and wavelengths just like electromagnetic waves, and there is a certain rhythm to them – it’s just that a wave that big with a period that long would face so much interference from landmasses and weather conditions and so on that it seems vastly improbable without some really freakishly contrived conditions. I want to speculate that the Gyarados have something to do with it – according to James, they venture into shallow water once a year to lay their eggs, and it seems awfully curious to me that this coincides with Humungadunga, given Gyarados’… erm… reputation among seafaring folk. Maybe, once every twenty years, the Gyarados’ mating season synchs up with something else on a slightly different cycle, and that causes Humungadunga. None of that matters, though, because clearly the point of Humungadunga is to be a metaphor for missed opportunities and never giving up on your dreams and so on and so forth. But whose missed opportunities?
Victor and Puka have a pretty striking relationship. Victor never captured Puka, so he doesn’t have a Pokéball; they’re as close as Ash and Pikachu; they’re united by a passion for their sport (to say nothing of Puka’s mysterious powers)… and they’ve been together for, well, a hell of a long time. Just short of twenty years, in fact, and Ash and Brock are extremely surprised when Victor tells them this. What’s interesting about this is that Puka is visibly very old. His ears are ragged, he has wrinkles around his eyes, and there’s a touch of hoarseness in his voice (in Victor’s flashback of their first meeting, all of these features are absent, and Puka is noticeably smaller, though he does have his distinctive cobalt blue eyes). To an extent, this is just to make him easily distinguishable from Ash’s Pikachu, but there are any number of less pointed ways that the animators could have done this. What’s more, when they’re captured by Team Rocket, he definitely has a lot less fight in him than Pikachu does; he never even tries to use an electrical attack. What I’m trying to get at here is that Ash and Brock’s surprise at how long Victor and Puka have been together may well be hinting at something: it’s possible that Pikachu just don’t usually live that long. We don’t like to think about this, but, well, Pikachu is roughly similar in size and metabolism to a rabbit, and those live, like, 12 years at the most if they’re well cared for; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that most Pokémon live longer than their real-life counterparts, but 20+ years must still be pushing it. Puka is… well, he’s really old; in fact, relatively speaking (in ‘dog years,’ if you like) he’s probably a lot older than Victor, who should be in his late 40s when this episode takes place.
Victor has failed Humungadunga once before, but picked himself up and kept going; heck, as fit and physically active as he is, he might plausibly get one more shot at it if he misses this one. And that’s the main message of this episode, of course – you’re never too old to pursue your dreams. But if we look at this episode from the perspective of a fairly short-lived Pokémon, its events take on a rather different significance. Puka seems to have been caught up in the stormy seas of the last Humungadunga when he was very young; he already had his strange powers, but likely hadn’t ever thought about using them for sport. Twenty years later, almost his entire life – all of it spent with Victor – has been building up to this, and he’ll only ever get one shot at it. Puka actually has a lot more riding on this than Victor does, and what’s more, Puka isn’t going to inspire a new generation of Pikachu to carry on his legacy as Jan and Victor did; his powers are too unique. Odds are, though, he’s given Ash’s Pikachu something to think about. This is a world where many species interact and cooperate on a grand scale, and it’s dominated by one of the comparatively longer-lived ones (though of course there are many Pokémon who leave humanity in the dust… literally). Pokémon like Pikachu may well be very conscious of having not much time to do an awful lot, and I’d be awfully surprised if that didn’t impact their decisions to travel with trainers; tournaments are a quick route to glory and fame. On a more speculative note – and this doesn’t apply so much to Pikachu, but will be important for a lot of Pokémon – we should probably wonder what happens when Pokémon evolve. It seems a priori possible that evolved Pokémon live longer, and we know that trained Pokémon are disproportionately more likely than wild Pokémon to achieve evolution. People exercise to be healthier and live longer; it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me that a Pokémon’s decisions might be affected by the same kind of concern, especially a Pokémon anxious to leave a legacy.
You know, I put these episodes together because I couldn’t think of anything else to do with them, but on reflection I did actually wind up with something of a theme here – the differing perspectives of humans and Pokémon. Pokémon are like humans in a lot of ways, and both the anime and the games are very fond of reminding us of that, but they’re not exactly like us; in fact many species have radically different outlooks on life shaped by things as fundamental as their natural lifespan, position in the food chain, ability to move freely from one habitat to another, or normal social structure. Shellder and Puka should both remind us of that, in very different ways, but with an important common thread – they know opportunity when they see it.