Jim the Editor asks:

How does the use of pokeballs by oranguru and their inherent empathy impact the pokemon training as enslavement argument?

So this is something that came up while Jim and I were proofing the Oranguru review, and frankly that was long enough already, so we decided it would be better to publish this separately in question-and-answer format. I haven’t talked directly about the whole Pokémon-and-slavery “thing” in a while, so to summarise my “standard” views on the subject (which are, of course, anything but standard):

  • The anime shows Pokémon leaving Pokéballs on their own, and bad guys keep Pokémon in cages, which suggests that Pokéballs can’t imprison them.
  • When bad guys in the anime occasionally catch Pokémon in Pokéballs, that’s apparently fine and no one contests it, but when they trap or confine Pokémon by any other means (even wild Pokémon, who should in principle be fair game) that’s considered villainous.
  • Battles to capture wild Pokémon in the anime rarely involve beating the Pokémon into submission; instead they are regularly shown as a process of winning its respect (see, for instance, Bulbasaur’s insistence on a formal battle before joining Ash).
  • Unconscious Pokémon are, counterintuitively, impossible to capture.
  • As a consequence of these points, I believe that battles between humans and wild Pokémon represent a ritualised trial to earn the right to become a Pokémon’s trainer, by demonstrating that you are skilled enough to help it grow. Because it has to be the Pokémon’s choice, rendering it unconscious ruins the “ritual.”
  • All this is why I don’t call Pokémon training “slavery.” It doesn’t mean that the society of the Pokémon world is totally fair, or has an unclouded view of how independent and intelligent Pokémon are. It’s just more subtle, and less brutal and hopeless, than an outright slave society.

What does Oranguru add to this debate? Well, a lesser analyst might point to Oranguru practising something that sounds like Pokémon training and say “look, it’s natural! Therefore it’s moral and everything is fine.” Lots of things are “natural” but not moral, though. Oranguru don’t seem evil, but if we can imagine that humans are enslaving Pokémon while believing they’re doing something good, we can imagine that Oranguru are similarly blind to the negative consequences of their actions. It’s harder, though, because Pokémon seem to be able to talk to each other much more clearly than Pokémon can talk to humans, and Oranguru may have further special abilities that allow them to sense how “their” Pokémon are doing. Jim and I had a bit of a debate about this, because I’m slowly coming to think that supernatural empathy is actually a trait of Fairy-types, not Psychic-types, but it’s plausible that Oranguru can sense emotions and we know they’re telepathic (the Oranguru bartender in the anime also has Bartender Empathy, which is a special class of power all of its own). If they’re causing other Pokémon to suffer, they’re probably more likely to understand that than humans are. I also don’t think there’s anything about Oranguru that contradicts my understanding of what Pokémon training is. Pokémon must all understand the “deal” on some level, so of course an intelligent one like Oranguru would be able to conceive of doing it without a human, and we don’t hear about Oranguru trapping other Pokémon using snares, or similar villainous devices. It’s possible that they can form training bonds without Pokéballs, the way humans must once have done, and humans just haven’t noticed because it doesn’t fit a modern understanding of what Pokémon training looks like. The Oranguru just picked up on the fact that Pokéballs were useful for something they were actually doing anyway.

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