Anime Time: Episodes 68 and 71

Make Room for Gloom – To Master the Onixpected

Bulbasaur 'chasing the Dragonite' and biting off more than he can chew.  Or, uh... sniffing more than he can smell.  Yeah this metaphor is kinda getting away from me.
Bulbasaur ‘chasing the Dragonite’ and biting off more than he can chew. Or, uh… sniffing more than he can smell. Yeah this metaphor is kinda getting away from me.

As we join our heroes today, Ash is still at home in Pallet Town, staying with his mother Delia and her Mr. Mime, Mimey, and supposedly training for the Pokémon League tournament… not that he spends a lot of time doing that.  In fact, like a schoolkid with an impending exam, it’s largely while avoiding the process of actually training that he gets up to the stuff that happens over the course of these two episodes.  In the process, though, he inadvertently winds up learning some interesting things about what it means to be a trainer – and so can we.  Let’s get to it.

In Make Room for Gloom, Ash, as he tries to escape the horror of doing chores for his mother, inadvertently leads Misty and Brock to the very place she’d wanted them to pick up gardening supplies for her – a huge domed greenhouse called the Xanadu Nursery.  Ash spent a lot of time there with his mother when he was young, but thought it had closed years ago when the owner moved away.  The kids are let into the greenhouse by one of its workers, a man named Potter, and Ash decides to let Bulbasaur out to play among the plants.  Bulbasaur has great fun at first, getting high off a herb known as Pokénip (like catnip, geddit?), but soon runs into trouble when he sniffs another plant, stun stem, which can paralyse humans and Pokémon.  Luckily, the nursery’s new owner Florinda and her Gloom are on hand to help.  Having worked with stun stem for so long, Gloom has developed an immunity to the plant’s toxin, and can even produce an antidote nectar to cure other Pokémon who have been exposed.  While Bulbasaur promptly starts flirting with his saviour, Brock – in more or less the manner we have come to expect from him – takes the opportunity to get to know Florinda.  Florinda is cripplingly insecure, and believes that she’s a failure at both training Pokémon and running her family’s business.  Potter explains to Ash and Misty that when Florinda bought a Leaf Stone for her Gloom, it failed to evolve Gloom into Vileplume, and she believes this is because she’s a poor trainer.

Suddenly, a wild Professor Oak appears!

Bulbasaur aggressively fondles Gloom to thank her for her assistance.
Bulbasaur aggressively fondles Gloom to thank her for her assistance.

Oak is investigating rumours of fraudsters selling counterfeit evolutionary stones in the area, and has come to Xanadu because his Oaky-senses have altered him to a fake Leaf Stone.  The kids ask Florinda who sold her the stone, and she tells them it was a man and a woman with (of course) a talking Meowth.  Florinda keeps beating herself up, this time for letting herself be conned, but is interrupted when Team Rocket return to steal the stun stem.  The kids spring into action, and Bulbasaur restrains Jessie and James with his Vine Whips.  Unfortunately, Meowth has been busy fashioning powdered stun stem into a makeshift grenade, and uses it to paralyse all the good guys except for Florinda and her Gloom.  Florinda is reluctant to battle because she has zero faith in herself or Gloom, but eventually steps forward after Brock gives her a pep talk… and then stands there letting Gloom take Arbok and Weezing’s attacks until Brock gives her another pep talk.  Finally, Florinda commands Gloom to surround Team Rocket with Double Team, confusing them, and suggests to Brock that she might try a Solarbeam, which she taught Gloom because she “saw it in a Pokémon magazine and [she] thought [she’d] give it a try.”  Brock is stunned that her Gloom is that powerful, but tells her to go ahead – with explosive results.  The day is saved, and now that she knows her own strength, Florinda feels confident enough to run her family’s nursery again, as well as – to Brock’s dismay – confess her love to Potter.  “Rejected by the one girl I loved…” Brock mourns, “I’ll never find another one like her again!” “Don’t worry, Brock,” Ash reassures him.  “You’ll find plenty of other girls to reject you!”

What Brock thinks will happen, versus what actually happens.  Can you spot ten differences between these pictures?
What Brock thinks will happen, versus what actually happens. Can you spot ten differences between these pictures?

Now, let’s skip ahead a couple of episodes and move on to To Master the Onix-pected.  With only three weeks until the Indigo League tournament, Ash and Brock are watching televised battles featuring Bruno of the Elite Four, insisting that they are trying to learn the “real secrets of Pokémon.”  Delia mentions a rumour that Bruno is training in secret on nearby Mount Hideaway, and the kids are off.  After a brief interlude where they stop for a meal at the base of the mountain and learn of the area’s famous population of giant Onix, which grow to huge sizes because of the fertile soil, they climb Mount Hideaway and nearly get flattened by one of these very Onix.  Luckily, they get pulled out of the Onix’s path at the last minute by Bruno himself.  Brock tells Bruno that Ash “does things without thinking, and sometimes he’s not too smart, but he’s serious about Pokémon,” which pretty much sums up the whole damn show, and Bruno agrees to help them train.  This appears to involve enslaving them to do his chores.  At first, they are confident that these chores are a Mr. Miyagi-style “wax on, wax off” training method, but it quickly becomes clear that Bruno is just kinda lazy.  In the face of Misty’s scepticism, Brock decides to demonstrate Bruno’s nigh-supernatural skills by attacking him from behind with a big stick, anticipating that Bruno will easily block it.  This… is not the case.  As Bruno recovers, he tells Brock that there is no great secret to Pokémon training – the only reason he’s training somewhere so remote is because he wants a giant Onix.  Dismayed, the kids head back down the mountain.

Meowth has just realised he has made a huge mistake.  James is about to.  Jessie don't give a f#&%.
Meowth has just realised he has made a huge mistake. James is about to. Jessie don’t give a f#&%.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket have decided to attack a giant Onix with a bazooka (just go with it).  Because they are Team Rocket, their plan fails horribly, they get trapped in a cave, and the kids have to rescue them.  Unfortunately, Brock’s Onix is about half the size of the giant one, and even Squirtle and Staryu together can only slow it down.  Onix swats them all away, along with Team Rocket, and is about to pulverise Ash when Bruno appears, grabs him and Pikachu, and leaps to safety with them.  Bruno watches the Onix, thrashing around erratically, and declares that he will deal with it without using any of his own Pokémon.  Instead, he leaps around, dodging its attacks, and eventually climbs onto its head, tricking Onix into swatting itself in the face with its massive tail.  While Onix is stunned, Bruno approaches it, entreating it to let him know what’s wrong, and concentrates for a moment.  He then feels his way along Onix’s body and finds something wedged in a crevice – an unfortunate Sandslash.  Bruno frees the relieved Pokémon, and offers to let Onix join him.  Onix accepts, and Bruno captures it in a Pokéball.  The kids are amazed, and Brock is once again convinced that Bruno must hold some special secret.  Ash pleads with Bruno to tell him, promising to keep it to himself, but Bruno responds “I’ll only tell you the secret if you don’t keep it.  If there really is a secret to Pokémon, it’s only this: humans and Pokémon must live and work and share this world together, and they must care for each other, just like you and Pikachu.”

Jessie and James were slightly quicker on the uptake this time.
Jessie and James were slightly quicker on the uptake this time.

I have to be honest here, even though it features a Grass Pokémon being awesome, Make Room For Gloom is really not a favourite episode of mine.  In fact, if we turn the honesty up to “brutal” for a second, I don’t even think it’s a good episode; it’s very filler-y and the “believe in yourself” message, although I don’t believe it’s ever been the focus of an episode in this way before, feels like pretty standard fare.  But it just wouldn’t do for this to be the first episode that I’ve had nothing to say about, so let’s see if we can learn anything by reading it alongside To Master the Onix-pected.  There are, in fact, some important things these episodes have in common.  Both are essentially about a character or characters re-evaluating their ideas about what it takes to be or become strong.  Brock is also central to both plots; in Make Room For Gloom he’s encouraging Florinda to see herself in a different light and realise her own strength, whereas in To Master the Onix-pected he’s on the receiving end of something analogous.  Let’s break down those processes and see how the comparison works.

Florinda begins her episode burdened by a crushing sensation of inadequacy, but to an outside observer it’s not entirely clear why.  Although Xanadu doesn’t seem to be open for business, Florinda and Potter have certainly maintained the place well enough; more to the point, her response to the stun stem incident immediately establishes Florinda herself as a competent botanist, level-headed in a crisis, and familiar with her Pokémon’s unusual personal abilities.  However, she sees herself as utterly incapable of either running Xanadu or training Gloom properly.  Her confidence was apparently further damaged by her belief that her Leaf Stone had failed because of her shortcomings as a trainer, like the stone somehow decided she wasn’t worthy.  The anime has never given us reason to believe that this is a thing that can actually happen, but Florinda jumped to that conclusion because she already believed she was simply missing something intangible, and it was just natural to assume it was therefore somehow her fault.  When Gloom finally does get into battle, we see indisputably that Florinda really is an extremely proficient trainer, having successfully taught her Gloom both Double Team (not a move that comes naturally to Gloom) and Solarbeam (which surprises even Brock, who has had every confidence in Florinda so far).  Florinda already knew, of course, that she had taught Gloom those attacks, and must have used them successfully at least once; she just didn’t think they counted for anything, somehow.  She does plenty of the things that good trainers are supposed to do, but still feels there’s something she’s not getting – until she beats Team Rocket, anyway, and realises that The Magic Was Inside Her All Along or whatever.  Ash and Brock experience the same realisation in the Onix episode.  They see Bruno’s exhibition matches on TV and are so blown away by his power that they’re convinced he can’t be a normal trainer, that he can’t be that strong just by training in the same way as they do.  There must be something special about him; he must have a secret.  As it turns out, in addition to his impressive physical capabilities Bruno actually does have special knowledge; by observing the giant Onix’s behaviour, he’s able to realise that it’s in pain and find the source of that pain – something Brock couldn’t do, despite owning an Onix.  He doesn’t see that as a great secret, though, only the natural extension of the empathy that Ash and Brock have always cultivated.  In other words, The Magic Was Inside Them All Along, or whatever.

Meowth prepares his magic stun grenade.
Meowth prepares his magic stun grenade.

That, hopefully, will convince you that I have a good reason for comparing these episodes in the first place, and didn’t just stick ‘em together because I couldn’t figure out how else to arrange them.  But what do we get from that comparison that wasn’t already obvious?  Well, maybe something about how the people of the Pokémon world perceive Pokémon training.  To those at the top, the Elite Four, it all seems deceptively simple; work together with your Pokémon, care for each other, be nice, all that cutesy $#!t.  It got them where they are, after all.  To us it seems equally obvious because the Pokémon franchise has been bashing those messages into our heads since day 1 (which for many of us was nearly 20 years ago).  However, not only do Ash and Brock have very different ideas about the source of Bruno’s power, Bruno himself encourages them to spread what he’s just told them; he is well aware that, although this is no secret, it’s not exactly conventional wisdom either.  To the less experienced, the less powerful, there is a sort of mysticism that surrounds Pokémon training.  It’s not something that just anyone can do; you have to have the right spark, and you have to go through special training to learn the hidden secrets.  Those two disparate views are important, because there are several comments by NPCs from the games that talk about how Pokémon training is an equaliser (for humans, at least).  It doesn’t matter that you’re a kid; anyone can be a Pokémon Master, take down whole evil organisations, and save the world.  There’s a democratising feel to it.  This kind of view is totally compatible with the “loving your Pokémon is all it takes” school of thought, but seems out of place within a “the Elite Four have secrets that make them super powerful” framework.

Okay, someone has to ask: what the hell was it even *doing* in there?
Okay, someone has to ask: what the hell was it even doing in there?

You can make another comparison of all of this to Professor Oak’s discussion in Showdown at the Po-Ké Corall of the contrast between Ash and Gary’s training styles.  I briefly suggested at the end of my commentary on that episode that the reason Professor Oak is so interested in finding the merits of both of their wildly different perspectives is that he’s trying to draw on their experiences to answer to some important open questions about the relationship between Pokémon and humans – much as Colress is in Black and White 2, although his approach is a little more… hands-on.  Bruno’s words about cooperation and caring for one another are exactly the sort of thing that we might expect Gary to turn up his nose at; Ash, by contrast, takes them as a vindication of exactly what he’s been doing all along.  I suspect that what we’re seeing, in all of these cases, is the tip of an iceberg: the humans of the Pokémon world are in the process of totally re-evaluating their relationship with Pokémon, and important figures like Professor Oak and Bruno are right in the middle of that, trying to pass their views to the next generation.  What’s the other side?  Well, that’s all speculation on my part, but I think perhaps a very bushido-esque philosophy of Pokémon training (the fact that Bruno is a martial artist who trains with his Pokémon helps that particular comparison) – elitist and aristocratic, heavily focused on philosophy and enlightenment, requiring absolute dedication to one pursuit to the point that it becomes a way of life.

Of course, the true unsung hero of the Onix episode is the old woman whose muskrat meatballs keep being stolen by Jessie and James disguised as old mountain hermits until she threatens to murder them with a broom.
Of course, the true unsung hero of the Onix episode is the old woman whose muskrat meatballs keep being stolen by Jessie and James disguised as old mountain hermits until she threatens to murder them with a broom.

So what do we say about Brock within all of this?  Well, like Ash and Gary, he comes from a Pokémon training family – his father was a Gym Leader, and we see in a much later episode that his mother is just as strong, so in that sense he comes from a traditionalist perspective, where Pokémon are something you devote your life to.  The Pokémon-Master-as-sage thing is a natural part of his worldview.  However, his perspective is also informed by the particular circumstances of his family; having spent a number of years caring for his parents’ countless spawn in their absence, Brock has grown to be a nurturer and educator, and that’s the stance he takes towards anyone on a lower rung of the ladder, so to speak, like Florinda.  Compare Misty, who also comes from a Pokémon training family but is incredibly disillusioned with it and more than a little contemptuous of her Gym Leader sisters, especially when we first meet her; her scepticism of Bruno, perhaps, comes from the same place.  Of course, Brock is doubtless influenced here as well by the fact that he immediately falls just as hopelessly in love with Florinda as he does with literally every other woman the group meets, but his infatuation isn’t just being played for laughs in this episode the way it often is (except at the very end), so I think he’s mostly sincere.  Brock, like everyone else, is between two philosophies, and as a result his experiences in these two episodes give him a great deal to think about.

What we’ve got here, in sum, is two episodes that come at the question of what it takes to be a great Pokémon trainer from two more or less opposite directions: one focusing on a character who thinks she’ll never make it, and one on a character whose reputation has built him up to be far greater than he ever claimed to be.  Maybe it’s a little bit of a stretch for me to read into this a whole cultural shift around the perception of Pokémon training in the modern world, but I think the contrast between progress and tradition, as well as between elitism and equality, is something that’s actually lurking around the edges of quite a lot of the Pokémon games and anime episodes.  The idea that all it takes to be a good trainer is a pure heart, existing in the same universe where people believe in mystic ‘secrets’ that make some trainers unbeatable?  That’s got to be subversive to someone on some level.  There’s more going on here than they tell us.

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