Anime Time: Episodes 69 and 70

Lights, Camera, Quack-tion – Go West, Young Meowth

We’re doing these two episodes together because the plot of the second follows directly on from the first, but to be honest Lights, Camera, Quack-tion is really not all that interesting an episode, and beyond giving a brief (hah!) synopsis of the story, as I usually do, I don’t have a whole lot to say about it.  Most of this entry is instead going to deal with Go West, Young Meowth.  That one is incredibly interesting because it’s the one that gives us Meowth’s backstory, and Meowth – the Pokémon who goes out of his way to act like a human – is in a position to say all kinds of neat things about what it means to be a Pokémon or a human.  So, not much time and a lot to say; pretty much par for the course around here.  Let’s get to it!

“Prepare for trouble!  No stun double!  To protect the movies from devastation!  To restore spectacle and imagination!  To make great epics of hate and love!  To direct the best films you've ever heard of!  Cleavon Schpielbunk!  Winner of the Golden Growlithe for best director at the Flea Collar Film Festival!  Lights!  Camera!  Hit your mark when I call action or prepare to fight; THAT'S RIGHT!”

In Lights, Camera, Quack-tion, the kids are out looking for a good spot to settle down and train for a while when they blunder into the midst of a film crew, led by the legendary director Cleavon Schpielbunk.  Schpielbunk is known for artsy films that receive critical acclaim but suffer at the box office, like Brock’s favourite movie of all time, I Saw What You Ate Last Tuesday.  His next production is going to be called Pokémon in Love, and will only star Pokémon.  He’s looking for a Pokémon to co-star opposite his Wigglytuff, a foul-tempered, thin-skinned prima donna.  Several Pokémon audition: Pikachu, Psyduck, Vulpix, Jessie and James’ Arbok and Weezing, Meowth, a Raichu belonging to a trainer the kids met earlier, and a random Doduo, Hitmonlee and Tauros.  The first round of auditions, dance, eliminates the Pokémon we don’t care about.  The second requires a duet with Wigglytuff.  Meowth flat out refuses, telling Wigglytuff “I work alone,” and Arbok and Weezing’s cringe-inducing performances earn vicious Doubleslaps.  All the other Pokémon slink off, unwilling to risk Wigglytuff’s wrath… except Psyduck.  Schpielbunk shrugs and awards Psyduck the part, to a mixture of pride and bemusement from Misty, then explains the plot of his film.  Pokémon in Love is a tale of star-crossed lovers that essentially rips off a fairly significant portion of Romeo and Juliet; Misty comments that it doesn’t sound very original, but Ash and Brock are moved to tears (in fairness to Schpielbunk, Romeo and Juliet itself was basically ripping off the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses).  The climactic scene calls for Wigglytuff and Psyduck to try to end a battle between their feuding families, only for Psyduck to be killed in the crossfire.  While the crew films this scene, Team Rocket shows up and deploys one of their patented godawful machines to capture all the Pokémon – except Psyduck.  Misty shouts at Psyduck until his headache-based superpowers kick in, and he is able to free all the Pokémon and hurl Team Rocket off into the sunset.  Schpielbunk calls cut, and decides he somehow has basically enough for an awesome movie.

Psyduck's heroic sacrifice, as planned on Schpielbunk's storyboards.

What Schpielbunk is doing in this episode seems to be thought of as somewhat groundbreaking – a movie where all the major characters are Pokémon, and played by actual Pokémon, no less, not by costumed actors or CG models (presumably they’re dubbed by voice actors though).  Psyduck getting to be at the vanguard of this exciting project never nets him much recognition, though, which is a shame.  It might have been a cool running gag to have Psyduck actually become famous for Pokémon in Love, and be approached for autographs by his fans at events like the Pokémon League tournament.  If nothing else, Misty’s reaction would be priceless.  Other than the interesting notion of trying to create the first Pokémon movie star, this is a fairly standard episode: Psyduck succeeds despite the odds, renewing Misty’s faith in her odd accidental partner; we’ve seen all this before.  Moving on.

Meowth is caught trying to steal baseballs (thinking they're food) and gets hung up in a tree.

In the next episode, Go West, Young Meowth, Ash, Misty, Brock and Delia are invited to Hollywood for the gala premier of Pokémon in Love.  Meanwhile, Jessie and James are not invited, but plan to attend anyway.  The movie is terrible (and Psyduck doesn’t even get to see it!), but that’s just backdrop.  The real plot is about Meowth wandering around the run-down, abandoned neighbourhood where Schpielbunk chose to have the premier, reminiscing about the time he spent there in his youth, when the area was vibrant and prosperous.  Meowth’s first memory, he tells us, is of being alone.  He seems to have lived near the grounds of a summer camp somewhere in North America, where he had to scavenge for food.  One day, he happened to witness an outdoor screening of a movie called That Darn Meowth, featuring a pampered Meowth in Hollywood.  The film inspires Meowth to leave his home and hitchhike to Los Angeles.  There, he lived on the streets, still stealing food and being beaten by humans when he got caught – which was often.  He eventually fell in with a gang of other Meowth, led by a Persian.  By working together, they could steal all the food they ever wanted… “but I was still starved… for love.”

Meowth later meets a pretty female Meowth called Meowsy, whose owner is unspeakably rich and keeps her in a diamond-studded Pokéball.  He tries to sing to Meowsy and flirt with her, but she dismisses him because he can never give her the luxuries that her rich human can.  Meowth translates for us: “You’ll never be human, so just forget about me!”  This drives him to become as much like a human as he can.  Meowth finds a new lair in the attic of a finishing school, and learns how to walk on two legs by spying on students in a dance class.  Unfortunately, this makes him slow and he starts getting beaten up regularly on food raids, but gets a little faster every time.  He also gradually learns to speak, first by spying on enunciation classes and following their exercises, and later by using an alphabet picture book to learn the actual meanings of words.  Once he can walk on two legs and speak fluent Japanenglish, he presents himself to Meowsy… who gives him another crushing rejection.  “You may stand on two legs and talk like a human, but you’re still just a dirty street Meowth with no money.  You’re worse than before – now you’re a freak!”  Meowth leaves Hollywood, vowing to become rich and powerful so he can return and make Meowsy beg for his love… but, of course, that never happened.

Meowth's rooftop duel with Persian.

Back in the present, Meowth runs into his old gang.  They want him to join them again, since his new abilities would make him useful, but Meowth isn’t interested… until the Persian reveals that Meowsy is with the gang now.  She explains that when the area fell on hard times, her rich owner lost most of her money and abandoned her, leaving Meowsy with no other choice.  Meowth declares that he’ll take Meowsy away and give her a better life, but the rest of the gang is having none of that.  Luckily, Jessie and James, who were worried about Meowth, have been following him.  Arbok and Weezing deal with the gang, leaving Meowth to fight a rooftop duel with the Persian.  Both are injured, but Meowth wins… and Meowsy rushes to make sure the Persian is okay.  “She says that the Persian took her in and helped her when she was down and out,” Meowth translates, “and it wouldn’t be right to leave for me.  Anyway… BAAAAAAAHHH!  SHE’D NEVER WANT TO BE WITH ME ‘CAUSE I’M STILL JUST A WALKING TALKING FREAK MEOWTH!”  “Maybe so,” Jessie and James conclude, “but at least he’s our freak.”  At the end of the episode, Meowth sits on a rooftop and stares up at the full moon, comforting himself by thinking that Meowsy might be looking at the moon too.

Meowth gets his first glimpse of the good life.

Because of the setting in Hollywood, and the use of the movie premier as a framing device, I think this episode is probably meant to reference some classic American film or other, and it seems likely that the film in question is the one referenced by the English episode title, Go West, Young Man, a 1936 comedy about a glamorous movie star (played by Mae West) who seduces the small town mechanic (played by Randolph Scott) who fixes her car when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere.  The movie has the same themes of having your affections played with by someone of a much higher social status, and the importance of the moon in a couple of scenes from the episode might be referencing a famous scene where West’s character sings I Was Saying to the Moon to Scott’s character.  Unfortunately, I haven’t actually seen the movie and I can’t find the damn thing online, so I can’t evaluate the comparison as far as I’d like, and I don’t know enough classic cinema to look for other parallels, so we’ll have to leave that line of thought there.  Luckily I have plenty of other things to talk about, mainly regarding Meowth’s understanding of humanity and his complicated personal identity.

What Meowth does in this episode is, as far as I know, unique in the anime.  There are a few other Pokémon, like the telepathic Lapras in the Christmas episode, who can “speak” to humans, but we know of no other Pokémon who gained that ability at such great personal cost, or who learned to talk specifically in order to become “more human.”  This is particularly striking given that it ultimately didn’t work; not only was Meowth still not “human” enough for the object of his affection, Meowsy, the human traits he adopted actually made him even lesser in her eyes, a “freak.”  Let’s think about what the disconnect is here.  To Meowth, being human (or at least human-like) was about walking on two legs and speaking a human language; to Meowsy, being human was about access to wealth, luxury and power.  Both of them are missing parts of the complete picture, but let’s look at all of the things that they each consider important.

How Meowth's solo food raids usually end.

First, Meowth’s fixation with walking on his hind legs.  This is an odd place for him to start.  Not only does he admit that it initially slowed him down tremendously, I’m inclined to assume that the mechanics of his muscles and skeleton would keep him from ever being quite as fast on two legs as he was on four, even with practice.  It also seems like a very superficial thing about humanity to imitate, especially given that many Pokémon also walk on two legs.  Why is that a mark of being human, and not just a mark of being human-shaped, like Hitmonchan or Kadabra?  I think the answer is probably in what humans do with our two-legged stance.  In anthropology there are, like, a zillion different hypotheses about why humans started walking on two legs in the first place, but clearly one of the most obvious benefits is that it allowed us to become specialised tool-users, creators of technology and shapers of our environment.  Does Meowth understand how important that is?  Well, no, probably not to the full anthropological extent, but he has been on the receiving end of human tool use in a couple of unpleasant ways.  He knows that humans can use our hands to throw objects or wield them as weapons, because the proprietor of the Hollywood snack stand he used to raid for fried chicken did exactly that with a frying pan; Meowsy’s owner later strikes him with an umbrella as well.  He knows we can perform complex manipulations of objects, because the adults in charge of the summer camp where he used to live would tie him up with rope and hang him in a tree to punish him for being a nuisance.  The ability to stand on two legs, leaving our hands free to use objects, is one aspect of the power that humans had over Meowth while he was growing up.  And there’s one last point here too.  When Meowth returns to Meowsy to show her his new abilities, he doesn’t come empty-handed, but bearing a bunch of flowers – which he holds in one of his front paws.

Meowth makes his second attempt to win Meowsy's love.

What about speech?  That’s a tricky one.  In the present, when he’s with Jessie and James, Meowth usually seems to be able to translate for most Pokémon, and in general, Pokémon of different species seem to understand each other pretty well when they can be bothered, even though they all use different sounds and speech patterns.  They also understand commands given to them by trainers, and probably a lot more than that.  However, in this episode, when Meowth first starts learning to make the sounds of Japanenglish words, he doesn’t initially know what he’s saying – his first words are “she sells sea shells by the sea shore,” but he tells us that he didn’t know at the time what sea shells actually were, and that the first word he really understood was “rocket” (which he thinks may have been part of the reason he later joined Team Rocket).  My usual line on this is that, when humans speak to Pokémon, the Pokémon understand more or less what the point is through a combination of body language, subtle tonal shifts, and perhaps other channels like pheromones, but couldn’t tell you what any of the individual words actually meant if their lives depended on it.  When Meowth first hears a whole class of students repeating, in unison, a phrase with no context, emotional content, or real connection to the world around them, there are no channels by which a Pokémon could begin to understand the words.  Although the sentence technically does have semantic meaning, there’s no intention behind it, and intention is what Pokémon understand.  That might be the very reason those exercises were so helpful to Meowth; deprived of any of the context that he would normally use to interpret human speech, he was forced to focus on the sounds of the words, something that Pokémon typically pay less attention to.  In the process, he gained an understanding of the complexity and precision that make the difference between human and Pokémon communication.

Meowth and Meowsy reunited.

Meowth’s abilities are phenomenal: Professor Oak is astonished when they meet for the first time, and the old gang recognises that being able to speak to humans would make him extremely useful if he were to join back up with them.  Jessie and James (and occasionally even Ash and his friends) regularly make use of him as an interpreter, most notably in the episode that introduces Ash’s Squirtle, when he is able to manipulate the Squirtle Squad into helping them.  His skills are doubtless the source of much of his value to the team.  None of that is apparent to Meowsy, however.  To her, Meowth is a poor imitation of humanity – but worse than that, he’s a “freak.”  Beyond simply failing to become human, he’s no longer even properly a Pokémon!  He’s given up things that are essential to one identity, but hasn’t acquired the things that are essential to the other.  I think there may be an element of betrayal here; by trying to make himself more human Meowth has, in Meowsy’s opinion, denied who and what he really is, and compromised in some way the idea of what it means to be a Pokémon.  Considering Meowth’s later life choices, which led him to join a human organisation dedicated to the exploitation of Pokémon in order to become rich and powerful, I can see how there might be a glimmer of truth to that.

Meowsy's owner will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life.  Random thought: given the importance of speech, voice, and walking on two legs in this episode, could her appearance be a deliberate reference to Ursula the sea witch from Disney's 'The Little Mermaid'?

That brings us to what Meowsy sees as the most important part of being human: wealth and power.  That’s the really interesting part of all this.  Meowsy equates simply being human with the ability to have whatever you want and do whatever you want, and understands that her own privileged place in life is a result of belonging to a rich human.  She knows that humans run the world, and the smart thing to do is to make them happy.  Meowth takes what she tells him and tries to do something completely different: rather than ingratiate himself with humans, he attempts to actually become human (or an imitation of a human), and to her this is radical disruption of the status quo that can’t possibly end well.  Unfortunately, though, Meowsy is completely blindsided by two things: first, that her owner’s wealth and influence end up having some pretty hard limits, and second, that when she has to face those limits she would rather give up Meowsy than make sacrifices in her own lifestyle.  Meowsy viewed humans as wholly separate from and superior to Pokémon.  She admired humans and valued their ability to provide for her, but believed that the best way to interact with them was simply to go along with their whims.  In the process, she also gave up a part of herself, renouncing her place with her own kind in favour of one defined for her by humanity – though she is ultimately able to reclaim that place.  Meowth, on the other hand, used his connections with humanity to try to better himself in ways that could be useful to him as a Pokémon – which is, essentially, exactly what trainers’ Pokémon do by becoming stronger and evolving through battle.  He viewed humanity as a resource, a set of skills, something to be used and acquired.

This also happens.  For some reason.

So where does that leave him?  When offered the chance to return to his old gang – a group he seems to remember fondly in his flashbacks – Meowth refuses because he values his partnership with Jessie and James more.  Jessie and James are emphatically not Meowth’s trainers (in fact, he seems to consider Giovanni to be his trainer, though they rarely see each other in person and he doesn’t often receive direct orders), but they nonetheless regard him as more or less an equal member of their team, listen to his advice, and include him in decisions – and a good thing, too, because he may actually be the smartest member of the trio.  He’s also well aware that they need him every bit as much as he needs them, a fact which is a point of some pride for him.  Moreover, unlike the old gang, Team Rocket provides him with avenues for his ambitions.  More than anything else, Meowth hates being helpless.  He crossed the country to find a better life for himself; when Meowsy led him to start equating humanity with power, he pursued the basic abilities that make humans strong; after that failed, he vowed to follow the path to power, and it led him to a life of organised crime.  His whole life has been about making himself stronger and breaking down the barriers in his way, whoever put them there.  He can’t turn back now, even if it might mean having another chance with Meowsy.

Meowth in his noir ensemble.

To finish this up with one of my mad little tangents, one of the things that I’ve always found really interesting about this episode is the stuff Meowth doesn’t do in his quest to become more human.  In particular, there’s one thing humans do and Pokémon don’t that would have been really easy once he started learning human languages: he doesn’t start using a personal name.  It would have been really easy for him to do this, to just pick something he found inspiring and run with it, and it’s not even as though the concept was unfamiliar to him; Meowsy, the object of his whole quest to become more human, had a name.  Perhaps I’m overreaching here, but I suspect that the reason Meowth never names himself is because Pokémon just have great conceptual difficulty with the whole idea of personal names, probably because they place less emphasis on individuality and more on group identity than humans do.  When a human names a Pokémon, that’s always its “nickname”; its “real” name, by implication, is always still its species name.  When Pokémon talk to each other, they may distinguish members of the same species by titles like “sister” or “friend” rather than by “names” as we understand them (so Pikachu’s “pikapi” for Ash is more a designation like “my trainer”).  The other thing we don’t see Meowth adopt in his flashbacks is clothing – that’s not totally unique to humans but it’s certainly much more distinctive than walking on two legs.  While Meowth is back in Hollywood during this episode, he actually does wear a long coat.  That’s probably meant as a purely aesthetic touch to evoke the grittiness of film noir, but it still seems like it ought to make us think about the themes of humanity in this episode as well.  Meowth occasionally wears clothes in other episodes, but only ever to disguise himself; it’s not core to his notion of “being like a human.”  On the other hand, Meowsy, although she doesn’t have full-body clothing, does wear a ribbon and a necklace when Meowth first meets her.  She embraces superficial adornment, dressing herself up while remaining fundamentally the same underneath, while Meowth changes who he really is while still more or less appearing ordinary.  Meowth can understand the value and symbolism of outward appearance, and will wear clothes that suit those purposes, but in the normal course of his life it’s not something that he’s concerned with.

I could probably keep going, but this is very fast becoming one of my more epic entries, so I’ll leave you to think about Meowth and his odd personal identity yourself.  As a Pokémon in a world ruled by humans, Meowth chose to become “human” himself, and ultimately ended up part of an organisation that ruins the lives of both humans and his fellow Pokémon, but particularly the latter, so that he could satisfy his ambitions.  Is his ambition ultimately the most human thing about him?  Is that ambition what built this world ruled by humans?  Is becoming more human the only way for Pokémon to ever get ahead?  Give it some thought, and see what you come up with.

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