What do you think happens when we die? (In real life and also in Pokemon)
Well, when I die I usually hang out in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell with all the rest of the great queer icons of history for a few months while I wait for my acolytes in the earthly world to assemble the all the artefacts, lore and sacrifices necessary to bring about my resurrection. But even souls are subject to entropy, and in the end those too are ground to dust by the constant wear of existence, eventually becoming unable to resist the pull of the Endless Void. Whatever mystical safeguards we place about ourselves to delay our fate – undeath, reincarnation, appeal to the protection of a deity, consumption of the souls of others – sooner or later we all, from the tiniest bacterium to the most ancient celestial leviathans, return to nothingness.
I mean, except for frogs, obviously.
In the Pokémon world… well, there are ghosts, there are Ghost Pokémon who aren’t all necessarily ghosts but can interact with them and have power over them, and there is a spirit world to which lost souls are supposedly guided by Dusknoir and Pumpkaboo, and to which people can be abducted by Drifloon. All of that would seem to imply some kind of further existence after death. Yamask are even believed to be the ghosts of ancient humans, whose faces are preserved in their masks. The problem is that a lot of Ghost Pokémon are known for being deceptive, and many of them have powers of illusion, so we can’t necessarily trust them any further than we can trust anyone in the real world who claims certain knowledge of what happens after death.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that Pokémon’s writers are thinking within the background of a traditional Japanese conception of the afterlife, which is a grey and joyless place called Yomi that has more in common with the realm of Hades in Greek mythology than with Christian conceptions of either heaven or hell. There is no judgement of the dead, no just reward for souls who lived virtuously and well, nor final retribution for villains who escaped punishment in life. It is a continued existence, but a hopeless and meaningless one – though the most important and revered ancestors can influence the world of the living as kami (“gods,” kind of, but not really, maybe “spirits” is closer). The one thing that really makes a material difference to the spirits of the dead is how well their descendants uphold the traditional rituals performed in their honour, so it’s in their interest to guide and protect their descendants if they can. This is all there in the background, and in my opinion, nothing we see of Pokémon’s beliefs about the afterlife is wildly incompatible with this kind of model. On the other hand, the “spirit world” of Pokémon is not explicitly Yomi. The word used in the Japanese text of Pokédex entries is 霊界 (reikai), which is a fairly generic word for the “spirit worlds” of many cultures and does not imply a specifically Japanese perspective, or even necessarily an afterlife. Honestly I don’t think Pokémon’s creators intend to suggest any specific perspective on the afterlife, other than that it’s mysterious, as are the creatures that regularly hold commerce with it.