The Ancient Puzzle of Pokémopolis
What happens when you get an actual real-live archaeologist to write a commentary on the episode of the Pokémon anime where they discover a bunch of artefacts from an ancient city? Let’s find out.
At the beginning of this episode, Ash and Brock are having a training battle out in the wilderness when a couple of stray attacks blow a hole in a hillside, revealing a buried shrine. Brock finds a mottled orange dumbbell-shaped object lying on an altar, which is immediately snatched away from him by a young, blue-haired and inexplicably French archaeologist named Eve, who has a whole team of khaki-clad excavators with her. Eve immediately presents the mysterious object to a senior professor in her group, excited because it apparently confirms an extremely important hypothesis of hers. Once Eve’s initial bubbling enthusiasm has subsided, she brings the kids to her dig team’s camp and shows them some of her recent finds. She claims that these artefacts – particularly the dumbbell that the kids just found, and a spoon made of the same orange material – are the first archaeological evidence of the location of an ancient city called Pokémopolis, where humans worshipped Pokémon as symbols of the power of nature. Eve, despite her young age, is apparently the world’s foremost expert on this lost civilisation. Her doting professor tells the kids that she had earned her PhD by the time she was eight years old, and published a best-selling book on Pokémopolis a year later. At the moment, Eve is trying to figure out what to make of a stone tablet with a cryptic and ominous inscription: “Beware the two great powers of destruction. The shadow of the Dark Device will grapple with the prisoner of the Unearthly Urn. The sacred city will be no more as day is swallowed up by night. Darker still for you when they return to lay waste the world, but no human knows the secret to soothe the powers and guide them back to the shadow world.”
Meanwhile, Team Rocket have been observing from afar. Meowth likes the sound of a city where humans worship Pokémon, but Jessie and James have only one thing on their minds: loot. That night, Jessie instructs Arbok to dig into the unearthed temple and bring back some treasure. Arbok roots around in the temple for a while, eventually leaving through a second entrance, but produces only another dumbbell-like object, this one black and shiny. Jessie is not impressed… until it starts glowing red and somehow absorbs Arbok. As Team Rocket tries to flee, the object paralyses them and then floats towards them menacingly, leaving footprints in the ground beneath it. The next morning, Eve’s team discovers the artefact lying on the ground. Their excitement is renewed, until it sucks in the professor just like it did Arbok. Eve and the kids flee as the artefact captures the rest of the archaeologists. A shadow spreads out from the object and coalesces into the form of a gigantic Gengar covered in strange teal markings, who summons a huge thunderstorm. Eve identifies the Gengar as the “shadow of the Dark Device” mentioned in her tablet. Ash realises that it’s wandering towards Pallet Town, so he and Brock rush to try and fight it while Eve returns to her campervan to try to figure out what’s going on. This… doesn’t end well. Gengar absorbs Pidgeotto and Onix harmlessly. When Ash and Brock return to the camp, Gengar now in pursuit, they find that all the loose objects in Eve’s campervan are levitating under the power of the first artefact, and Eve herself seems to have been hypnotised by its matching spoon. As they watch, the spoon floats into a slot on the side of the dumbbell object. This releases a giant Alakazam, or “Alacolossal” in Misty’s words, with black markings similar to Gengar’s (Gengar is never given a nickname but in my head I call him Gengantuan, because it wouldn’t be Pokémon without stupid portmanteaux).
As Alacolossal and Gengantuan begin to fight, Eve (once again in possession of her senses) realises the meaning of the tablet: these two giant Pokémon destroyed Pokémopolis in ancient times, and will now destroy anything else that gets in the way of their battle. Ash tries to fight, but it quickly becomes clear that Pikachu’s strongest attacks are only a minor nuisance to the giant Pokémon, and when Ash tries throwing Pokéballs, they explode in flight. As things are looking dire, Jigglypuff shows up and, at Misty’s suggestion, tries to put Gengantuan and Alacolossal to sleep. Unfortunately, the song just isn’t loud enough, and Jigglypuff herself is sent flying when Alacolossal is shoved into the ridge where she’s standing. However, Jigglypuff’s song does activate a third artefact: a huge bronze bell that was sitting on the roof of the temple. It releases a third giant Pokémon: a Jigglypuff, dubbed “Bigglypuff” by the kids. Holding the bell like a microphone, Bigglypuff begins to sing a booming, sonorous rendition of Jigglypuff’s song. This one does get through to Alacolossal and Gengantuan, and they fall asleep along with everyone else. The next morning, the kids and Eve wake to find all three giant Pokémon gone, and Gengantuan’s prisoners returned. Surveying the debris of the battle and re-examining the Pokémopolitan artefacts, Brock suggests that the temple was built to honour a giant Jigglypuff who was the protector of the ancient city, and Eve speculates that the Dark Device and Unearthly Urn were some of the first “primitive” Pokéballs.
Because I’m posting this having just come back from Greece, where I was working on the excavation of an actual ancient city, I could spend the entire rest of this commentary just bitching about how unrealistic the episode’s portrayal of field archaeology is. That would be pointless, though, because that sort of thing is a problem of fictional archaeology generally, and not all that interesting. So I’ll just spend an entire paragraph bitching about it instead.
The thing about digging stuff up is that, when you do it properly, it’s incredibly boring. This is because just finding a cool artefact isn’t what’s important; what matters is that you can relate that artefact to everything else around it, including the dirt you found it in. In archaeology we basically rely on two major principles to extract information from artefacts: 1) if a deposit is undisturbed, objects found in the same layer of soil are the same age, while deeper objects are normally older, and 2) some artefact types, particularly pottery (coins are really brilliant but not all civilisations have them and they’re usually not as well-preserved as ceramics), get made in slightly different ways over the course of decades and centuries, and if you have enough material it’s possible to figure out how the styles evolved and put them into chronological order. Basically, we mostly know how old things are based on the crappy bits of broken pottery that we find with those things. It’s therefore extremely important to know exactly where a cool object was found, and what else was found with it, because if you don’t, it’s often impossible to say how old it was, how and when it got to the site, or what it has to do with the function of the site. When some moron like Ash blows a hole in a hillside and picks up some awesome piece of loot without going through all the proper documentation or collecting a zillion bits of broken pottery to analyse along with it… well, the find itself is cool, sure, but Eve really ought to be screaming internally, because the circumstances of the Unearthly Urn’s discovery will cast serious doubt on literally everything that she, or anyone else, ever writes about it. Even claiming that the artefact is Pokémopolitan at all could be going out on a limb, since it’s a unique object and Ash didn’t check for any dateable material in association with it – it might have been left on the altar centuries after the city and temple were abandoned, for all we know. All of that goes double for Team Rocket digging up the second artefact; looted objects, even if they are later recovered and find their way into public museum collections, are far less useful to archaeologists than they would have been if they had been found on a proper excavation, which is why we hate the antiquities black market so much.
Okay, that’s enough of that; let’s talk about Pokémon stuff.
There are two things about this episode that I find really interesting: the “primitive Pokéballs” known as the Dark Device and Unearthly Urn, and the colossal Pokémon which those artefacts held. Let’s talk about the Pokémon first. The Gengar, Alakazam and Jigglypuff that appear in this episode are clearly vastly more powerful than any non-legendary Pokémon of the present day. Alacolossal also displays an odd ability to warp physical matter, creating swirling multicoloured chunks of rock when it strikes the ground with a shadowy crescent attack, which doesn’t appear to correspond to any first-generation move that I can think of. It might be overreacting a bit to accept without question the Pokémopolitan tablet’s prediction that they will “lay waste the world,” but I will readily believe that Gengantuan and Alacolossal might have been responsible for the fall of an ancient city. This is interesting because of the parallels between this situation and another one that was described to us in one of the games, years later. Think about it: in a forgotten age, when powerful Pokémon were worshipped as gods, humans were at the mercy of destructive conflicts between Pokémon whose abilities far exceeded those of their present day counterparts. If you hadn’t seen this episode, you might think I was talking about the Primal Age described by Zinnia in Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. Obviously for this to be a deliberate reference we would have to attribute the writers of The Ancient Puzzle of Pokémopolis with a startling degree of prescience, but clearly they had in mind a general idea of the Pokémon world’s history that has important thematic similarities to a much more recent vision. That’s important because it suggests that the idea of an ancient past ruled by super-powerful Pokémon is not something specific to Hoenn, which is not really surprising when you think about it; forgotten eras of powerful magic and monsters are a staple of world mythology in general, so it’s a natural way for the writers to frame their world’s history. It further tells us that the Pokémon who wielded this kind of power were not solely those considered “legendary” in the modern world. In short: it’s not out of the question, in my opinion, to think of these Pokémon as examples of essentially the same phenomenon as Primal Kyogre and Primal Groudon – we might tentatively call them “Primal Alakazam,” “Primal Gengar” and (gods help us) “Primal Jigglypuff.”
The parallels get more specific than that, too – Gengar and Alakazam, like Kyogre and Groudon, were rivals whose battle destroyed everything around them. Their quarrel has little to do with humankind in general or with the Pokémopolitans specifically. Bigglypuff, like Rayquaza in the Draconid legend, had the power to calm their fighting and was worshipped as a protector of humankind as a result (themes like this get reused a lot in Pokémon if you look for them). The ancient past of the Pokémon world is a battleground of primal forces with agendas that defy human understanding; if Gengar and Alakazam have a reason for fighting beyond “because it’s what Pokémon do, damn it,” we are given no hint of what it is. Human communities are at the mercy of their conflicts, unless they can cajole another powerful Pokémon into acting as their guardian, much as the Draconids and apparently the Pokémopolitans did. But these Pokémon are gone now. Most legendary Pokémon have become reclusive (look, for instance, at the way Heart Gold and Soul Silver present Ho-oh and Lugia; the Kimono Girls’ whole purpose is to call them back to the human world), and it’s not clear where the others went. Possibly, like Primal Groudon and Primal Kyogre, all of the greatest ones were somehow subdued and pacified. The overall impression is a fading away of magic and powerful natural forces from the world, in favour of an age of civilisation and human technology (which, again, is a perfectly standard mythological theme).
We can’t be too confident about the rest of the Pokémon world during the Primal Age, based on the limited examples we have, but we know a little about what ended the time of these two particular giant Pokémon: the artefacts known as the Dark Device and the Unearthly Urn. Eve speculatively calls them “primitive Pokéballs,” but “primitive” is an odd assessment, considering how seriously Ash’s modern Pokéballs failed to do the same job, and whether or not they are “Pokéballs” isn’t a trivial question either. Say what you like about the modern relationship between Pokémon and trainers, what the relative positions and responsibilities are on each side, or whether the whole thing can ever really be considered ethical, but clearly modern Pokémon trainers never intend for Pokéballs to be used for eternal imprisonment, which is what seems to be going on here. But then, why does the Unearthly Urn come with a “key” of sorts (the matching spoon) that could theoretically be used to release Alacolossal voluntarily, while the Dark Device lacks such an accessory, apparently forcing Gengantuan to subvert its power and imprison other Pokémon and humans in order to free itself? Maybe, unlike modern Pokéballs, they need to be tailored to particular species, or even individuals, and the different designs are a result of that specificity. Or maybe they were created by different cultures using different techniques, and only one of the two is really Pokémopolitan at all. However, the fact that only one of them has a “key” implies to me not just differences in style or technology but a major difference in function. There were probably times when Alacolossal was supposed to be let out; the same may not have been true of Gengantuan, or may only have applied in cases of extreme emergency. The one has much more in common with a modern Pokéball than the other.
Let’s take a moment to analyse the narrative we’ve been given for the destruction of Pokémopolis. Alacolossal and Gengantuan destroyed the city when they fought in ancient times, according to Eve’s interpretation of her tablet. Subsequently, they must have been imprisoned inside the Unearthly Urn and the Dark Device, possibly with the assistance of Bigglypuff, though it’s odd that the writers of the tablet don’t appear to mention her (other than a vague note that “no human” can quell the fighting, which implies they needed the assistance of Pokémon). The shrine uncovered by this kids seems to have been built to worship Bigglypuff, whose bell sits on the roof. This implies either that Bigglypuff was already established as Pokémopolis’ guardian before the city’s destruction, and failed to prevent it, or that the shrine was established after the city was destroyed (this is why pottery and stratigraphy are important, Ash; god damn it!). Then there’s the tablet. Eve seems to take the stone tablet’s text as a prophecy, written before the city was destroyed in the first place. I’m inclined to assume, if only for the sake of argument, that the Pokémopolitans did not possess actual oracular powers; it’s not impossible, as there are Pokémon like Xatu who can supposedly see the future, but humanity’s ability to make use of those powers is limited and haphazard. I think it makes much more sense to understand the tablet as a warning. It was probably written after the city had already been destroyed by the two warring Pokémon, and after the surviving Pokémopolitans had managed to trap them within the artefacts. The intent of the message is simple: “this is what happened last time; don’t bloody touch these things.”
There’s one thing about this story that seems a little off to me: if Gengantuan and Alacolossal destroyed Pokémopolis, then who imprisoned them afterwards, and how? If the Pokémopolitans weren’t able to stop the destruction of the city in the first place, then how did they have the resources and technology to fix the problem afterwards by creating the Dark Device and the Unearthly Urn? I think this is where the writers of the tablet are not telling us everything, perhaps deliberately. We know that this is a civilisation whose power was built on their relationships with Pokémon. Artefacts like the ones we see in this episode could easily have been a defining achievement of Pokémopolis, something they had known how to use for a long time. Eve conjectures that Bigglypuff, who resides in one of these artefacts, was a protector of the city, an ally to its people. Consider again that Alacolossal’s artefact comes with a built-in release mechanism. Maybe Alacolossal had once been one of the great Pokémon protectors of Pokémopolis and fought their enemies for them, until one particularly vicious battle (against Gengantuan) caused the Pokémopolitans to lose control of him? Gengantuan, for his part, might have been fighting for a rival city-state, or might have been wild; perhaps the Dark Device had been prepared ahead of time with the intention of capturing him so he could be made into another protector for the city. That’s why they were fighting, and why Gengantuan emerges first while Alacolossal only comes out in response – he still thinks he’s defending Pokémopolis. The Pokémopolitans’ solution, as their city crumbled around them, was to hurriedly call on another giant Pokémon, not to destroy the warring creatures, but just to put a stop to the fight so they could be restrained. Bigglypuff might already have had an established relationship with the city, or they might have frantically tracked her down and made overtures to her even as the city was being destroyed.
Bigglypuff, we are led to assume, stopped Alacolossal and Gengantuan in just the same way as we see in the present – or at least, we see most of it. The giant Pokémon are put to sleep, and then we cut straight to the next morning, so it’s never made clear how she induces either of them to return to their artefacts. It’s possible that both of them simply returned of their own accord once they felt “defeated,” maybe to recover their strength (Pokémon seem to use less energy while inside Pokéballs, so the same may be true of the artefacts), which would fit neatly with the idea that both of them had already been in an established relationship with either Pokémopolis or some other city. At the end of the day, Pokémopolis was left abandoned – right? Well, except by Bigglypuff, who stayed there to… do what, exactly? Protect the ruins? If the city had just been destroyed, the survivors would have wanted to take everything valuable away with them, and Bigglypuff’s bell definitely qualifies, given her recent heroism. What’s more, her shrine is in startlingly good condition when Ash and Brock accidentally excavate it; it must have been repaired or rebuilt after the destruction. It doesn’t make sense to abandon something like that so soon after it has just saved your people. So, here’s some of the speculative nonsense that I really love to produce – maybe we’re viewing the decline of Pokémopolitan civilisation in entirely the wrong light because we’re putting too much trust in the tablet’s apocalyptic tone. Again, enough Pokémopolitans must have survived the disaster to successfully imprison the destroyers of their city, more or less for good. So why did they never recover? Well, we know that the city-state’s strength was founded on their alliances with Pokémon. Maybe the cataclysm caused them to abandon those alliances out of fear, leaving Bigglypuff’s temple to fall into disrepair and giving up exactly what would have made them strong enough to regain their former power? Or, alternatively, maybe the tablet was written at a low point, shortly after the destruction of the city, when it seemed like the Pokémopolitans would never recover – but then, in fact, they did? Maybe the final abandonment of the city actually happened decades or centuries later, for totally unrelated reasons. All of this and more, of course, would have been blindingly obvious if SOMEONE HAD EXCAVATED THE BLOODY SITE PROPERLY INSTEAD OF JUST BLOWING HOLES IN A GODDAMN HILLSIDE.
One final addendum: throughout this, we’ve been assuming one important thing that perhaps we shouldn’t – namely, that the giant Pokémon we see in this episode are real Pokémon at all. That seems to be the direction that the “primitive Pokéballs” line is leaning in, and the tablet’s reference to a “shadow world” could easily be the Pokémopolitans’ idea of what the inside of a Pokéball is like. Then again, though, we could be dealing with something totally different: devices that summon beings from this “shadow world” (the same existence we would later come to know as the Distortion World?) and create bodies for them, in the images of the Pokémon that Pokémopolis was so familiar with (maybe this is the intended meaning of the mystical tattoos sported by all three giant Pokémon?). If we take that view, we almost have to assume that Alacolossal and Gengantuan were effectively weapons, conjured to fight the city’s enemies – and, again, either they were both Pokémopolitan and the summoners had bitten off more than they could chew, or perhaps one was the creation of a rival city and sent to attack Pokémopolis. Most of the narrative doesn’t change substantially, except that instead of imagining the Pokémopolitans currying the favour of tremendously powerful wild Pokémon, they begin to sound more like sorcerers in the Faustian tradition, bargaining with otherworldly forces for power at a terrible price. This interpretation makes it easier to understand why all three Pokémon simply vanish after a few hours of inactivity; once quieted, they go back where they belong. On the other hand, it means attributing a great deal more literal magic to the Pokémopolitans, which we may or may not be comfortable with – then again, similar kinds of spiritual wizardry might be behind the creation of Pokémon we know about from later generations, like Spiritomb and Golurk, so perhaps it’s not out of place.
Whatever our interpretation of exactly what happened to Pokémopolis, the point of this episode is clearly to create a sense of wonder at the mysteries of the vanished past. Pokémopolis wasn’t just a great civilisation by the standards of its own time, it actually accomplished things that modern technology can’t. That’s a theme Pokémon tends to be quite fond of, the idea that although modern science is wonderful (and Pokémon does tend to have an overwhelmingly positive attitude to technology in general) it can’t tell us everything. The disappearance of Pokémopolis from the world, just like the end of the Primal Age in Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, represents a moment when humans fundamentally changed the way they related to the natural world, no longer submitting to it and seeking harmony with it, but pursuing detached understanding and control. Pokémon’s attitude to modern science and technology is generally overwhelmingly positive, but it always comes with the caveat that, in the end, we are still at the mercy of nature.