Today’s Pokémon is Blacephalon, whose special skill is to blow up its own head.
And… well, you know, call me crazy, but I would have thought that would be the end of it. Nonetheless, here we are. This is the last Ultra Beast, and I just have to deal with it.
Like Stakataka, Blacephalon doesn’t appear in the original Sun and Moon, and its homeworld doesn’t appear in the sequels. It doesn’t even have a very big anime role, since it co-stars in an episode with Xurkitree and doesn’t get the spotlight to itself, although the dynamic between the two is at least somewhat interesting. Blacephalon is just… a bit of a weird non sequitur of a Pokémon. It appears, it blows up its own head…
Blacephalon seems to be modelled after a clown – lots of pastel colours, contrasting stripes, ruffled sleeves and collar, curly shoes, and an exploding head. That last part might not apply to real clowns, but frankly you can never be sure. What clowns do usually have is distinctive and unearthly facial features: red and white face paint, brightly coloured and oddly styled hair, often a big round nose. Blacephalon’s head is a perfectly spherical sort of disco ball thing with starburst patterns on the sides that floats just above its shoulders (it doesn’t seem to have a neck). According to the Ultra Smoon website, the head is “made up of a collection of curious sparks,” and we see in the anime that Blacephalon can freely remove its head, move it around, toss it about, inflate it to ludicrous sizes… and blow it up. It seems likely that Blacephalon’s head isn’t its real head – that is, its brain and sense organs are actually in another part of its body (maybe those sexy clown hips), and the exploding head is a decoy, just like we saw with Naganadel, whose brain is in its abdomen. Alternatively, since Blacephalon is a Ghost-type, it’s plausible to me that its consciousness isn’t firmly tied to its body, or might be distributed among the “sparks” that make up its head, which seem to reconstitute themselves after each explosion.
The exploding head, and the surprise factor Blacephalon’s fighting style is said to rely on, might be a reference to some of the stock tricks and gags that 20th century clowns are stereotypically known for. The flower is actually a concealed water pistol; the big round nose is actually a squeaker; the glove reached out for a handshake is hiding an electrical buzzer; the delicious pie is getting slapped all over your face; the head is actually about to detach, explode and kill us all. Clowns perform magic tricks that rely on a disconnect between what a thing appears to be and what it actually is; the truth is ideally surprising and, in some cases, would actually be unpleasant if you weren’t already buying into the act and accepting the premise that the clown is supposed to trick you. In Blacephalon’s case, everything about it is designed to create multiple layers of distraction; the Ultra Smoon website suggests that its unusual swaying movements are meant to make its targets let their guard down and allow it to approach without immediately registering it as a threat. What kind of movements exactly? Well, when Blacephalon appears in the anime, it affects a lot of performance mannerisms – sweeping bows, tossing its head between its hands and feet to display dexterity, it even moonwalks at one point (or, uh… it tries to). The Ultra Sun Pokédex describes Blacephalon as “slithering” towards people before blowing up its head, which is fantastic, because the verb “slither” here creates in my mind this truly glorious image of Blacephalon wriggling along the ground on its belly like a caterpillar, moving forward by pushing its midsection up into a U-shape and then stretching itself back out. Once it actually gets close to you, its head explodes – but even the exploding head is a distraction, as Blacephalon’s real goal is to steal your life force once you’ve been dazed or stunned by the explosion (it is a Ghost-type, after all).
I can’t help but suggest a comparison – however far-fetched – with a certain other clown-like spiritual entity from outside the universe that feeds on the psyches of its victims: “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” the titular character of Stephen King’s bestselling novel It. This is more a parallel that amuses me than a “theory” about what inspired Blacephalon’s design (for one thing, I don’t believe Pennywise’s head ever explodes – that part actually reminds me of Minecraft Creepers, of all things). It is interesting, though, to put Blacephalon in the tradition of “evil clown” figures that King codified and popularised in It. Clowns are theoretically supposed to provide entertainment for children, but they’re a surprisingly common phobia and many (maybe most?) people find them, at the very least, unnerving. One explanation is precisely that clowns do things that are unexpected, startling, even transgressive. Their makeup is so thick and their mannerisms and actions so exaggerated that they seem on some level not quite human, and you’re never entirely sure what they’re going to do, but it’s often something that would start a fight if someone did it to you without warning on the street. Blacephalon, too, trades in outlandish performances that parody humanity (could it be native to a world where humans, or other human-shape Pokémon, exist?) and lead up to startling, even frightening flourishes. And, y’know, then it steals your soul. As real clowns may or may not do at the end of a performance.
We could also propose a more charitable interpretation of the way Blacephalon behaves. As a Ghost-type, it’s not unthinkable that it might be nourished by thoughts or emotions – maybe it feeds on the sense of fascination or admiration that its “performance” creates in its audience. Even the exploding head can be seen as a performance element rather than an necessarily an “attack,” and the anime explicitly compares it to fireworks. In the relevant episode, Twirling with a Bang!, we see Blacephalon briefly glow green as it takes a bow after blowing up its head in front of a crowd (totally upstaging a fireworks display in the process), and although the episode doesn’t really clarify what that is, I think it’s probably meant to represent the moment Blacephalon steals their energy. Afterwards, though, there’s no sign that anyone in the crowd – which includes Ash and his classmates – is suffering from weakness or exhaustion. Additionally, pretty much all the characters in the episode interpret Blacephalon’s behaviour as showmanship, built on a desire for attention. It seems at least plausible that the anime is trying to propose that the “energy” Blacephalon takes from people is based on their reactions to its over-the-top style. When it meets Xurkitree, it finds that the other Ultra Beast just isn’t impressed, and they start ramping up their powers in each other’s faces. Blacephalon is probably expecting to charm or wow Xurkitree with its flashy display, and indeed the kids interpret it as a rivalry, each Ultra Beast trying to show off its powers to prove that it’s the best. That makes sense for Blacephalon but doesn’t mesh as well with anything else we know about Xurkitree (it might just be very territorial Pokémon, since its lifestyle revolves around claiming locations where it can absorb ambient electricity). I suspect what we actually witness in that episode is two very different Pokémon that both think they’re competing over the same thing, but have each completely misread the other’s intentions, leading to an explosive game of brinkmanship.
It would be a damn shame if Blacephalon didn’t have a signature move to represent its favourite trick of blowing up its own head, and here Game Freak does not let us down. Blacephalon’s strongest move is Mind Blown: a Fire-type attack that sacrifices half of Blacephalon’s maximum HP (representing its head exploding and needing to be regrown) in order to deal truly catastrophic special damage. The attack even has a unique animation where we see Blacephalon take off its head and throw it into the air, which is a nice touch. Although Blacephalon won’t actually be knocked out by using Mind Blown if it has enough HP left, it is treated as a suicide move like Selfdestruct and Explosion, and will fail completely in the presence of a Pokémon with the Damp ability. Most Pokémon with Damp, like Golduck and Quagsire, are Water-types with at least decent special defence, and Blacephalon probably wouldn’t want to spend half of its health on mind-blowing them, so in singles this isn’t a huge deal. You should be aware of it, though, if you plan to use Blacephalon in doubles, where Explosion is more common and Damp occasionally shows up as a counter to it. Mind Blown is a little bit of an “awesome but impractical” move; it’s one of the strongest special Fire attacks in the game (Mega Charizard-Y can top it with a Drought-boosted Overheat or Blast Burn, but that’s about it), but the health loss is crippling. It’s basically impossible for Blacephalon to use the move more than once and survive, and frankly it’s such a fragile Pokémon that even once is pushing it. But, y’know, sometimes you just need something dead and don’t care if you have to blow up your own head to do it (bonus points for using Choice Specs for maximum overkill).
Blacephalon has a typically Ultra-Beast-like statline with absurd special attack and paper-thin defence (its physical attack stat is also excellent, but for basically no reason, since the only half decent physical attack it can learn is – perhaps unsurprisingly – Explosion). It can use the Beast Boost ability to perform the same kind of snowball sweeps as many of the others like Kartana and Nihilego, becoming progressively more deadly with each opponent it dispatches. Compared to the other Ultra beasts, though, Blacephalon’s offensive movepool is fairly stunted: it has Shadow Ball, standard Fire attacks like Flamethrower and Fire Blast, Mind Blown, Psychic or Psyshock, Dark Pulse, and… um… Uproar, I guess? Neither Dark nor Psychic attacks add much to its basic combination; Dark Pulse in particular is almost completely redundant, although Psyshock provides a different kind of diversity, since it acts as a special attack that does physical damage. Hidden Power is a pain in the ass to get right for Ultra Beasts since you can’t breed them, but if you can snag a Blacephalon with a Grass- or Ground-type Hidden Power, that’ll cover some of its major blind spots (Fighting would be better, since it combines perfectly with Ghost, but as rotten luck would have it, a Fighting-type Hidden Power requires even-numbered IVs in at least four stats, so it’s actually impossible to get on a Pokémon that automatically has at least three perfect 31s, as all Ultra Beasts do). With all that power, though, who even needs type coverage?
On top of it all, Blacephalon learns Calm Mind, so it can build a moveset that starts to gain power even before scoring the first knock-out, then grows further and further thanks to Beast Boost. It remains extremely physically frail, and will need to pick its moments carefully to get the boost off without just dying; it’s also not that fast (it’s definitely speedy, but a lot of Pokémon are faster, including fellow Ultra Beasts Kartana, Naganadel and Pheromosa) and is vulnerable to being murdered even once it gets going. Flame Charge is a bit of a silly move, but might be amusing as a way to give Blacephalon that extra speed edge. Trick is fun, since Blacephalon is a natural Choice Specs or Choice Scarf Pokémon and doesn’t really have much cause for taking more than three attacks on a Choice set (it’s also just very on-brand, because of the clown thing). The point of Trick in this kind of context is to swap items with a support Pokémon – someone who would be crippled by becoming locked into a single move. Use the extra power or speed while you have it, then hand it off to a Pokémon that can’t use it, doesn’t want it, and can’t afford the cost. Blacephalon can also learn Taunt, if you want to get similar utility on a non-Choice-based moveset. Finally, it doesn’t have any conventional healing, but the Ultra Smoon move tutors can give it Pain Split, which strikes me as at least an interesting idea (though perhaps not exactly a good one) alongside Mind Blown.
I mean, this is some weird $#!t that absolutely no-one asked for, and if I had any idea which of the infinite worlds of Ultra Space it came from I would absolutely be leading the charge to put it back there, but I have to admit there is kind of an underlying logic to it. If you don’t like Blacephalon, I don’t blame you – it’s bizarre and kind of creepy – but there is also an argument to be made that that was kind of the point. That’s more or less the story of all the Ultra Beasts: an experiment in doing Pokémon differently. Having now reviewed all of them, finally, I feel qualified to confidently assess the results of that experiment as: hmmmnnnneeeeerrrg?
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