Making strange arguments and dubious assertions about Pokémon lore is an important branch of my schtick. Normally this comes up in questions addressed to this blog, or in whatever mad articles I decide to write in between generational Pokémon reviews, or occasionally in my musings on playthroughs of new games. It’s relatively unusual for a routine Pokémon review to provoke me to a really energetic bit of wild speculation. Luckily(?), however, today we have just the Pokémon to set me off: Oranguru.
Figuring out the source of Oranguru’s inspiration isn’t hard; he’s clearly some kind of ape, and the name tips us off immediately that he’s specifically an orang-utan. Orang-utans are russet-haired apes native to the equatorial Southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The name orang-utan is derived from Malay and Indonesian phrases meaning “forest person,” a nickname given to them because of their humanlike traits, and shared by Oranguru, supposedly because ancient Alolans thought they were reclusive forest-dwelling humans. Orang-utans are one of four living genera of so-called “great apes,” the others being gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, and of the four, they’re the most comfortable in trees and spend the most time there. Oranguru follow this lead, spending most of their time meditating in the forest canopy and only occasionally deigning to visit the ground for a battle of wits with a Slowking (another Pokémon with tremendous intelligence and a very slow, contemplative lifestyle). Orang-utans have the least complex social structures of the great apes and usually live in solitude (in stark contrast to the tribal hierarchies formed by chimpanzees, gorillas and especially humans). Again, this is picked up by Oranguru, who dislike each other intensely and meet up only to challenge one another for superiority in a variety of intellectual contests. Despite their apparently simpler lifestyles compared to the other great apes, real orang-utans are, like Oranguru, highly intelligent. Researchers who work with them claim they’re more patient and methodical than chimps, but more curious and creative than gorillas. Regardless of where exactly they rank in relation to the other great apes, they’re clearly some of the cleverest animals on Earth. As with chimps and gorillas, their ability to use simple tools, teach each other new skills and even communicate with humans through basic sign languages is well documented.
And this is where we get to the weird part. Because the Pokédex and the Sun and Moon website both make some rather striking assertions about Oranguru’s intellectual abilities. For one thing, “Oranguru sometimes act on their own initiative and will use items that only humans normally use.” So far, so good; that’s just picking up on orang-utans’ tool use. But “allegedly,” the website continues, “there have been sightings of Oranguru using Poké Balls.” Not “playing with,” mind you. “Using.” Pokéballs are a pretty specialised tool. You can’t “use” a Pokéball to scoop ants out of a nest, or sharpen a stick, or tie together a bundle of leaves to create one of the fans that Oranguru carry. There’s really only one thing you can “use” a Pokéball for: catching Pokémon. The Ultra Sun Pokédex doubles down, telling us that Oranguru “throws Poké Balls and gives other Pokémon orders as it pleases.” It sounds as if we’re being told that some Oranguru, having gotten their hands on Pokéballs somehow, catch other Pokémon and may even use them to battle, and that is suspiciously close to a description of a human Pokémon trainer. Also, in spite of their antipathy for each other, “Oranguru [are] kind to the other Pokémon living in the forest, providing medicine for injured Pokémon and food for the hungry,” just as human trainers are expected to do for their Pokémon. Orang-utans and the other great apes are known for performing feats of intellect that make humans question what really makes us unique. We once believed that we were the only animals capable of language and tool use, but that’s now pretty definitively false; our abilities are more sophisticated than those of the other apes, but not fundamentally different. In the Pokémon world, there’s one behaviour that – up until now, anyway – I would have thought made humans unique: humans train Pokémon.
Yet the essential skills of Pokémon training are not ones that should obviously be unique to humans. Pokémon can communicate across species lines more effectively than humans can. Pokémon are not devoid of the empathy that Professor Oak always told us was essential to a great trainer – in fact, some Pokémon like Gardevoir possess literally supernatural empathy. Although most Pokémon aren’t as intelligent as humans, few of them seem to be significantly less intelligent than dogs, and a handful are supposedly much smarter than us (in at least some domains). And in fact there are a few examples in the anime of wild Pokémon commanding Pokémon of other species, though normally these are specific, exceptional individuals, often ones who have a history with humanity (but not always – see especially the wild Florges in Defending the Homeland). Pokémon trainers also need to be creative, patient, determined and charismatic – few Pokémon are all of those things, but frankly, neither are most humans. If the practice we call “Pokémon training,” in all its variety and complexity, is built on some combination of qualities like these, there’s no reason to assume that only humans can do it.
The alternative possibility is that Pokémon training is humans’ particular uniqueness in the Pokémon world: all Pokémon have some special power, and this is ours. This could be the reason humans were ever able to become a dominant species in the Pokémon world at all; we have the ability to make ourselves useful to almost any Pokémon. Being with humans makes Pokémon grow stronger and smarter, it makes them evolve and exceed their limits in everything they can do. Is there a mystical element to this, something Oranguru can’t match? Well… maybe! Humans can unlock even greater potential in Pokémon by using artefacts like Mega Stones and Z-Crystals, which certainly seem to be mystical in nature and fuelled by emotional bonds between humans and Pokémon. Something I wondered about at the end of generation VI when I wrote on Mega Evolution was whether there was something about the magic of Key Stones that made them specific to humans, the way Mega Stones are each specific to one species of Pokémon. The games give us no way to test this, but it’s the sort of unanswerable question I might put to Game Freak, given the chance: what would happen if you gave a Key Stone and an appropriate Mega Stone to two Pokémon, good friends, then sent them into battle together? And what if the one with the Key Stone was an Oranguru? Oranguru do in fact have psychic powers that enhance their ability to command other Pokémon – their signature move, Instruct, which orders a Pokémon to repeat its last move (in addition to anything else it was doing that turn – this is really only useful in doubles, where you can use it to duplicate an ally’s powerful attacks). They can also give Pokémon items, just like human trainers do, via their Symbiosis hidden ability (shared with Florges, this ability causes a Pokémon to pass its item to an ally that has just consumed its own item). It’s possible, then, that even if humans have unique powers that allow us to be Pokémon trainers, Oranguru may have something similar.
Given that possibility, are we supposed to imagine that primate Pokémon like Oranguru are particularly closely related to humans? That humans’ distinctive skills might have evolved from a move similar to Instruct, once used by another, now-extinct primate Pokémon? Trying to reconstruct evolutionary history in the Pokémon world is generally a ludicrous lost cause, and this could easily be a case of convergent evolution – two unrelated organisms evolving similar capabilities because they have similar needs. However, in this specific case we are, perhaps, being invited to consider a close evolutionary relationship with humans, since Oranguru’s designers seem to have been consciously referencing the humanlike abilities of real orang-utans. There have been primate Pokémon before, but none of them played up this angle (also, most of them have tails, which should make them monkeys rather than apes, and that much further from humans in the tree of life). I would be more comfortable suggesting that Oranguru are humans’ closest living relatives in the Pokémon world than I would be making… pretty much any other speculation about evolutionary history in Pokémon whatsoever. They may be in the process of developing into another Pokémon-training species, right under the Alolans’ noses.
All this matters because a lot of the Pokémon world’s ethics and morality are built on the (implicit or explicit) assumption that humans and Pokémon are fundamentally different. Humans train, Pokémon obey. Humans must continually justify their place by governing the world responsibly and treating Pokémon with respect. The mythology of Sinnoh places the history of Pokémon training in the context of ritualised deals between humans and Pokémon – all Pokémon, as a group. The central conflict of Black and White assumes a simple duality with humans on one side and all Pokémon on the other. And if any of that sounds at all dystopian, it’s not that different from the real world (even the symbolic deals, which are a real feature of some cultures’ mythological traditions); it’s just that Pokémon normally likes to present an idealised version of responsible, respectful behaviour by humans that the real world often fails to live up to. The realisation that some Pokémon naturally have the skills of a human trainer – and perhaps that others can be taught to acquire them – throws the whole thing into chaos. Should Oranguru have the same privileges and responsibilities as humans? Should they be guaranteed the rights of free travel and the services that humans trainers enjoy? Should they have a voice within Pokémon Leagues, in Alola and worldwide? Whether to grant higher primates some of the rights of humans is a real point of contention in our world – but the Pokémon world, with its deeper and more pervasive ideological divide between humans and Pokémon, may be a long way off from that reckoning.
Also in the anime there is an Oranguru who runs a bar in the middle of the jungle and come on, you have to respect that.
So, in conclusion-
Oh, right, I usually talk about that stuff. Um… quickly now…
Oranguru is a support Pokémon through and through. Although he gets Calm Mind, Nasty Plot and a respectable selection of special attacks (Psychic or Psyshock, Thunderbolt, Shadow Ball, Focus Blast, Energy Ball), his poor speed and only moderately strong special attack make him mediocre as a sweeper. Likewise, his average defence and lack of healing moves (aside from the unreliable Pain Split) make him less than inspiring as a tank, despite excellent special defence. Oranguru can only really shine in doubles, since that’s where his most interesting support moves are at their best, but there’s an fair amount of choice if that’s what you want to do. We’ve already mentioned Instruct, which can be used to amplify an ally’s offensive potential, and is probably the best reason to consider using Oranguru. He can set up Trick Room, and is slow enough to get some benefit out of it himself. He’s one of only nine Pokémon that can use Psychic Terrain, so worth considering if you want to build a team around that, although he’s far from the only one who’s used to playing support, and you’re better off using Tapu Lele if you can. Gravity is unusual, and can allow you to make good use of powerful but inaccurate attacks. Oranguru is arguably a particularly strong choice for a Gravity supporter because his Telepathy ability makes him immune to an ally’s attacks that target the whole field – such as Earthquake, which can hit Flying and Levitating opponents while Gravity is in effect (again, though, Oranguru isn’t the only Pokémon or even the only supporter who can do this – Musharna and Beheeyem have the same combination). Reflect and Light Screen are common, but still worth mentioning. There are some other moves on his list, like After You, Quash and Ally Switch, that are also usable only in double battles, but these require such a contrived setup to be useful that I can’t bring myself to recommend them.
Instruct is really Oranguru’s biggest selling point, so in singles he doesn’t have much to trade on other than his Normal/Psychic type combination (unique to him, Girafarig, who is very much not a supporter, and Aria Meloetta, who is a peculiar thing all of her own). His field moves are still useful, and you can mess around with Foul Play to turn your opponents’ strength against them, Knock Off to deny them their items, and Magic Coat or Snatch to mess with their support and disruption moves. He’s also got the special movepool to pull off a Choice Specs moveset with Trick, using an opportune item swap to cripple an enemy supporter. Oranguru’s trouble is that very little of what he can do well in singles is particularly unique or interesting. There are a lot of Psychic Pokémon with good support movepools out there, and many of them have some kind of X-factor like Xatu’s Magic Bounce ability, Bronzong’s zillion resistances, Claydol’s access to Rapid Spin, or Reuniclus’… everything. Oranguru’s only ability that’s any use in singles is Inner Focus, which after all these years still insults every Pokémon that gets it by doing nothing but grant immunity to flinching. Without Instruct, Oranguru just doesn’t stand out.
I’m glad this Pokémon’s in the world, though I’m not entirely convinced he adds all that much to the game. Oranguru represents something that the humans of the Pokémon world would probably rather not think about – the possibility that their civilisation’s most fundamental assumptions are… shaky. I can only imagine what N would have thought of Oranguru; on the one hand, his humanlike traits are a powerful argument for Pokémon liberation, but on the other, the strict ideological separation between Pokémon and humans that Oranguru challenges is central to much of N’s thinking as well. Game Freak’s writers might not have much inclination to hold their characters’ feet to the fire over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t.