This is the first of what will, in principle, be a monthly “series” of investigations into topics chosen by the unfathomable whims of my shadowy advisors, the Dark Council. The Council is made up of everyone donating at least $12/month to me on Patreon – at the moment that’s one person, the newly appointed Lord President of the Council, Verb, who therefore gets THE SUPREME POWER to dictate the direction of these studies. However, if you value what I do, think I deserve something in return for my work, and would like me to maybe someday be able to do more of it, YOU TOO could be inducted into the Council’s hallowed ranks, nominate topics for future months, and vote on them (listen, bribing your way to power and prestige is totally on theme with the whole “cult” thing I’m going for here).
Here is the prompt I was given this month:
“I’ve often thought about the episode of Indigo League in which Ash’s Butterfree is released in order to join the migration, and it’s caused me to wonder the effects that similar migrations might have on Trainer culture, with their inherent desire to remain with their chosen partner Pokemon potentially conflicting with the Pokemon’s own desires.”
So let’s talk about Pokémon migration and what happens when Pokémon leave their trainers!
The fact that many Pokémon are migratory is referenced all over the place in the games, and has a great deal of mechanical significance in generations IV and V, when one of Game Freak’s preferred methods for making older-generation Pokémon available in the new games was the “swarming” feature. In generations II and III, “swarming” Pokémon would be species that were always present on a particular route but were normally very rare; in IV and V, on the other hand, they’re Pokémon that normally don’t exist anywhere in the region at all, appearing in a specific area in very large numbers, presumably passing through on a migration route. A few Pokémon native to Unova also migrate with the changing seasons – Pidove and Tranquill disappear from several parts of the region during winter, while Cubchoo and Vanillite can be found in a much wider range of areas. From what we’ve seen so far of Galar’s “Wild Area,” it seems like migration will be (at least by implication) a fairly significant influence on the wild Pokémon we can find, with different Pokémon coming and going over time. Alola even features migratory humans – the Seafolk, who happen to be moored on Poni Island when we show up, but regularly move their floating town all over the world. All of these things are efforts to depict a world that is capable of change; it isn’t static, but has rhythms and cycles, just like the real world, where changing seasons dictate the lives of humans and animals alike. The Pokémon games don’t give us anything like what we see in that famous Butterfree episode, though – our Pokémon never need to return to the wild for any reason. If we do choose to release them, which is always at our own discretion, it’s a pretty simple one-step process that can be done no matter how far we’ve taken them from their natural habitat. How they might go about returning to wild communities of their own species is none of our concern; it’s just assumed that they’ll figure it out. This is probably part of the reason the anime has episodes dealing with the abandonment of Pokémon, which it tends to treat as something of a dick move; also relevant is the callous attitude that Lusamine displays to getting rid of Pokémon you don’t want anymore, expressed during our showdown with her in Ultra Space on Sun and Moon. There are also instances of far more positive partings of the ways between trainers and Pokémon, though – the first of which is Bye Bye Butterfree.
Let’s briefly review the events of that episode. While travelling near Saffron City, Ash, Misty and Brock encounter a group of trainers who have gathered to release their Butterfree so they can join a Butterfree courtship ritual and their subsequent migration. According to Misty, Ash’s Butterfree will never have babies unless he lets it join the migration. Ash, of course, wants only the best for his beloved first wild-caught Pokémon, and spends most of the episode helping his Butterfree win the heart of a pretty pink Butterfree. In the end, he tearfully sends Butterfree off to fly across the sea with the others, thinking back to everything they’ve done together and hoping that his Pokémon will be happy. I’ll also link here to the old, old, old blog entry where I once wrote about this episode; I don’t go into it at much length or great depth, but it’s at least a starting point for the question of the moment. The Butterfree migration is presented as a major event that draws trainers from all around Kanto. There are even hot air balloons available for hire, so trainers can give their Pokémon their send-off from a proper vantage point. Most of them seem to treat it as a joyous occasion and are happy to see their Butterfree get to participate in something so important, while for Ash it’s much more bittersweet – there are tears at the end of the episode. In fairness to him, the Butterfree migration does get sprung on him a little bit; most of the other trainers probably gathered there with the specific intention of releasing their Butterfree, and had time to prepare that Ash didn’t get (his Butterfree is also the only one we see hesitating to leave when the time comes, possibly for the same reason). What’s especially striking about all this is that only a few episodes earlier, in Battle Aboard the St. Anne, Ash traded Butterfree away for a powerful Raticate – only to abruptly have second thoughts and request a trade-back, because his relationship with Butterfree meant more to him than any Pokémon’s fighting ability. He is absolutely willing to let his Pokémon go, but it has to be for the right reasons – the trade is ostensibly about what’s good for Ash himself, while letting Butterfree go in the end is about what’s good for Butterfree.
The Unova series, interestingly, actually has a call-back episode to this: Butterfree and Me, which lacks the Butterfree romance subplot and focuses more heavily on the drive to join a migration. In this one, Ash, Iris and Cilan are travelling by ship through the Decolore archipelago, an island chain somewhere between Unova and Kanto, and come to Wayfarer Island – so called because it’s a favoured rest stop for many flying Pokémon on their transregional migrations. After seeing a group of Metapod evolve and fly away, Ash meets a Caterpie who just doesn’t seem all that into the whole “training and evolving” thing and just likes taking naps. Thinking back to his own Butterfree’s journey, Ash decides to help it evolve. Despite a somewhat rocky start, Caterpie gets on board with the idea, and after a couple of high-stakes battles Ash miraculously manages to get it to evolve twice in only a few days, just in time to join another migrating swarm of Butterfree as they stop at the island overnight. As in Bye Bye Butterfree, Ash is brought to tears as he remembers both the good times he’s shared with this Butterfree, and the first Butterfree he trained back in Kanto.
I think the point of the second episode is to illustrate that letting Butterfree go, back in the original Bye Bye Butterfree, was a formative experience for Ash as a trainer, one that led him to appreciate that his Pokémon’s needs and best interests do not always lie in staying with him. He’s released several other Pokémon since then – Pidgeot, Lapras, Larvitar, Goodra, Poipole – in order to let them return to their own kind. In the case of Pidgeot and Goodra, they leave to become leaders in their communities, while Lapras actually leaves to rejoin a migrating herd (having joined Ash in the first place after being separated and left behind due to the actions of pirates). In one famously traumatising episode Ash was even prepared for Pikachu to rejoin his own kind in the wild, until Pikachu talked some sense into him. Squirtle didn’t return to the wild, but did rejoin the Squirtle Squad to become a firefighter alongside his childhood friends, while Charizard was technically always Ash’s Pokémon but went to train with wild Charizard for a while because that was what he needed to become stronger. Greninja… I think Greninja went off to become a superhero and help Zygarde save the world; that one might not be strictly relevant. There’s… also Primeape, but frankly I reject Ash’s logic for letting Primeape go, for reasons described in that linked entry; that was a poor decision for everyone involved. Butterfree will always be his first, though: the first Pokémon he caught, the first Pokémon he evolved, the first he said goodbye to. That might well be the case for a lot of people who started Pokémon on any of the games that feature Caterpie; it’s basically in the game to be an introduction to evolution, but Butterfree’s usefulness tends to plummet during the midgame as other Pokémon start evolving and its stats become lacklustre by comparison. I think one motive for showing this tradition of releasing Butterfree to go and lay their eggs across the sea is probably to give players “permission” to do the same thing, rather than keep Butterfree throughout the entire game. You’re supposed to be able to let go, without feeling like that cheapens the relationship you’ve imagined with your Pokémon up to that point. Butterfree and Me is essentially Ash’s celebration of the fact that some of his relationships with Pokémon are incredibly brief, but still incredibly intense and deeply meaningful. He isn’t in this to catch a Butterfree for his team; his entire goal is for Caterpie to evolve and leave him, but his actions will affect the rest of that Butterfree’s life, and he knows it.
The premise of every healthy relationship between a trainer and a Pokémon portrayed by either the Pokémon games or anime is that the Pokémon are somehow better off with the trainer – because they get stronger, or because they can travel, or because they gain unique experiences that set them apart from others of their kind, or because they can find opportunities living in the world of humans. All of that has to serve some endgame, though. Being stronger isn’t a goal in itself (realising that is the point of, for instance, Cheren’s arc in Black and White). For Ash and Pikachu, there seems to be a sort of “it’s not the destination; it’s the journey” logic in play, but other Pokémon might have any number of reasons for wanting to become stronger. Considering the way the series tends to portray the motivations of Pokémon for fighting alongside trainers, it’s possible that some of them really are just glory-hounds – Ash’s Charizard comes to mind – but certainly not all of them. Others may genuinely be interested in humans for their own sake, and want to live around humans or as part of human society – Meowth of Team Rocket is an extreme example. Still others, though, may want to gain influence or status within their own wild communities, or to be able to protect those communities from external threats. We see many wild Pokémon that live in large groups with deeply entrenched social structures, strong cohesion and a clear sense of group identity. It’s hard to imagine that all individual Pokémon are happy to sever all ties completely with that kind of community. In many cases, it’s possible that they don’t have to. After all, it seems like trainers who go on grand region-wide journeys with their Pokémon to compete for badges are something of a minority; most of the people we see in either the games or the anime who have Pokémon don’t travel at all, or travelled only when they were younger. If your Pokémon comes from the forest just outside your hometown, staying with you and being near its own friends and home may not be mutually exclusive. On the other hand, there are times when the demands of a wild Pokémon community can catch up with even a trainer who does travel very widely.
The prototypical example of this is the collective of Bulbasaur and Ivysaur that we see in Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden: they perform large group rituals at a set time and place, under the direction of a clear hierarchical leader, and are very displeased when Ash’s Bulbasaur appears to consider not going along with their evolution ceremony. This is another case when, just as in major Pokémon migrations, the demands of the natural rhythms of wild Pokémon life take matters out of the trainer’s hands – a similarly regular natural event that occurs as part of an immutable cycle. Ash is initially excited at the prospect of Bulbasaur evolving, but quickly sours on the whole idea when he realises that Bulbasaur’s wild cousins intend to force his participation in the ceremony. Part of my reading of this episode, which might be a bit controversial, is that not all trainers would necessarily react the same way here; some, I think, would go along with it. When the ancient Venusaur tries to persuade Bulbasaur to evolve along with the rest by giving a display of its incredible power over nature, Misty actually seems convinced, asking Bulbasaur “don’t you want that kind of power?” While I suspect most trainers wouldn’t be on board with forcing Bulbasaur to evolve here, many might try to persuade him – and, depending on your views of evolution (something we see many different perspectives on throughout the history of the Pokémon anime), they would arguably have decent grounds for doing so. Like the Butterfree migration, the evolution ceremony is “natural,” a part of growing up and taking one’s place within a community, and largely beyond a trainer’s ability to influence or control. It’s a mark of Ash’s unusually individualistic nature, and how much he values the same in his Pokémon, that he supports Bulbasaur’s decision to rebel. When Bulbasaur eventually stops spending time with Ash, it’s not to join a wild community like Charizard, which he might well have found stifling, or even to be with his own kind within a human context like Squirtle. Beginning in the episode Bulbasaur, the Ambassador, he works with Professor Oak in Pallet Town, helping to build relationships and communities between Pokémon of many different types and species, using skills of leadership and cooperation that he learned from Ash.
I think another really interesting comparison here is the Minior episode, Showering the World with Love, where Sophocles has to come to terms with the fact that Minior just don’t live a long time – once on earth, they have at most a few days before they dissolve into stardust and return to the night sky (this is all described in their Pokédex entries from the games as well). This, again, isn’t really a “migration” in the sense we normally understand it, but the way the episode presents it, and the way Molayne and Professor Kukui comment on it, it seems to be the natural process of their life cycle – like salmon swimming upstream to their birthplace to spawn and then die. Most of the usual things you might imagine a Pokémon would get out of being with a trainer don’t really apply to Minior, because their lives are so brief. It seems like they just value every moment of their time on earth, and spend time with humans in order to experience as much of terrestrial life as they can in the time they have, before the immutable reality of their nature catches up with them. By playing and exploring with Sophocles, Ash and their classmates in the Pokémon school, the Minior in that episode has what amounts to a good life for a Minior, and returns to the stars with no regrets.
As a trainer – potentially a very young one – you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting yourself into when you choose to partner with a particular Pokémon. You probably don’t know all that much about Pokémon biology or society or ecology; you might have nothing more to go on than a personal relationship with an individual Pokémon that you happen to think is cool. Natural developments in his own Pokémon’s lives regularly take Ash by surprise; he didn’t know about the Butterfree migration or the Bulbasaur evolution ceremony until he was in the middle of them, and nor did young Sophocles know that Minior only live for a single day after arriving on Earth. It seems like these are just things you’re supposed to take in your stride as a Pokémon trainer – after all, you’re the one who’s responsible for them, not the other way around. For a lot of questions like this, it may be that there just is no “right” choice – nor would all trainers see it, even if there were. Ash could have asked Butterfree to stay with him, and Butterfree probably would have done it; who knows where their relationship might have taken them in the future? He could have convinced Bulbasaur to give in and evolve into Ivysaur, trading some of his individuality for power over nature. He almost did leave Pikachu behind, when he thought Pikachu would be better off without him. All of these decisions, and countless more, are balancing acts between nature and civilisation that all Pokémon trainers have to deal with sooner or later, and that mirror decisions humans have to make in the real world whenever our lives intersect with those of the animals around us (which is always). The only guiding star – if there even is one – is what you think is best for your Pokémon, and sometimes they might disagree, or sometimes nature might be inexorable.
Sometimes you just have to let go.