I feel like I’ve said this multiple times already, but I really am finally on the home stretch of generation VII now, with just four Mythical Pokémon remaining: Magearna, Marshadow, Zeraora and Meltan. In stark contrast to the last few Pokémon I’ve had to deal with, who have had critical roles in the plots of the seventh-generation games, as well as the accompanying seasons of the anime, these four mysterious Pokémon are pretty absent from the games and don’t have much impact on our own journeys through Alola (Meltan doesn’t even show up until we return to Kanto for Let’s Go). With the exception of Meltan, they do each get their own keynote appearances in movies, though, so we’re going to be drawing fairly heavily on the events and histories presented in those, and as usual the testimony of the Pokédex. Today we’re looking at Magearna – the aptly-named Artificial Pokémon.
Magearna is a mechanical Pokémon, inspired by a variety of historical automata – ingenious machines designed in the image of humans (or animals) and capable of performing specific predetermined actions in imitation of their models, like standing, sitting, walking, making hand gestures and so on. Stories about mechanical animals or humans that move in lifelike ways or make realistic sounds go back well into the 1st millennium BC, and are found across Eurasia. The Japanese versions of these are the karakuri ningyō of the Edo period, humanoid dolls that can do simple tricks like serve tea, fire arrows from a miniature bow, or perform set theatrical pieces. Most automata are basically toys, but up until the end of the 19th century they were expensive and required rare skills and expertise to make, so they were primarily toys for the very rich, particularly royalty. Magearna, accordingly, is said to have been created 500 years ago as a gift for a princess, and elaborately decorated to appeal to royal sensibilities, with lots of gold inlay and a lower body designed to look like a flounced skirt, as if it were a sort of artificial lady-in-waiting. Magearna was originally painted in bright red and white, so that its round lower body looks like a Pokéball. Although basic Pokéballs made from apricorns seem to have been around for hundreds of years, mass-produced modern Pokéballs in the iconic red-and-white style are usually portrayed as an invention of the early 20th century, so we might be meant to imagine that the modern Pokéball design was somehow inspired by this Pokémon – Magearna itself, its creator and its story all seem to be famous within the Pokémon world, so it’s not wildly improbable. The Sun and Moon Pokédexes have separate entries for a form of Magearna that retains its original colouration (this is where we get the lines about its status as a royal gift), though such a Magearna has never been made obtainable legitimately.
Real historical automata are often wound up like clocks, hence Magearna’s cog-shaped head, but its power source is something much more special: a unique artificial soul, the Soul-Heart, housed in the globe set into Magerna’s chest. The Soul-Heart was created, according to the Sun and Moon website, by “[gathering] the life energy from Pokémon.” Magearna is in some ways more like an adjunct to the end of generation VI than a vanguard for generation VII, and this is a design that’s still very interested in the manipulation of Pokémon life-force by humans through technological means (something that comes up a lot in the plots of the generation VI games). Conceivably, the same technology that was used to build and power the Ultimate Weapon deployed during the Kalosian civil war might have later underlaid the creation of the Soul-Heart. According to the Pokédex, the Soul-Heart, in a very real sense, is Magearna: it is the seat of its consciousness and intellect. It could be a sort of highly intricate clockwork computer, built out of preindustrial parts by a one-of-a-kind technological genius, but powered by life-force – hence Magearna’s type combination, Steel/Fairy, Fairy being the type that generation VI associates with life energy in the person of Xerneas. It’s this magical power source, presumably, that allows Magearna to, as the Pokédex puts it, “synchronise its consciousness with others in order to understand their feelings.” This ability is intended, like everything else about Magearna, to make it a better servant and companion by allowing it to anticipate the desires and needs of its charge, and making it naturally predisposed to selflessness (it’s also another Fairy-type trait – many of them possess supernatural empathy).
Magearna co-stars with Volcanion in the 2016 movie Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel, released a few months before Sun and Moon. As so often with Pokémon, it would be a stretch to call this a good movie; the pacing is mangled, the villain’s character is flat and his motivation is extremely unclear, the morals and messages are pretty standard Pokémon boilerplate, the big climactic heroic sacrifice is reversed in what I think may be a new record of 1 minute and 44 seconds… and I know I had a “but” when I began this sentence, but frankly I’ve forgotten what it was. We’re gonna talk about the lore anyway, though. ‘cause, y’know, that’s my schtick.
The movie is set in the Azoth Kingdom, a remote city-state somewhere in southern Kalos with a pronounced steampunk theme, visited by Ash, Pikachu and their current companions Serena, Clemont and Bonnie near the end of their journey in Kalos. Proper names related to the kingdom reference chemistry, invention, and alchemy. Azoth is a mythical universal solvent sought after in alchemy; the kingdom’s princess, Kimia, takes her name from the Mediaeval Latin word for chemistry; her majordomo Flamel, from the legendary French alchemist Nicolas Flamel (of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone fame); the young prince, Raleigh (via Japanese Rakeru/Racel), from the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus; the traitorous minister Alva, the movie’s villain, from American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Finally, Magearna’s legendary creator is named Nikola, probably in reference to Edison’s rival, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, though this isn’t the case in all translations, and in appearance he seems more of a Leonardo da Vinci lookalike – appropriately, given the 500-year figure cited for the date of Magearna’s creation (the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death was, at time of writing, just three months ago). The names are supposed to invoke an atmosphere of both technological genius and mysticism – the paradoxical union of science and magic that makes alchemy alluring, and gives Magearna its power (again, think of what Steel/Fairy means).
The Azoth Kingdom is a technological wonderland, whose greatest achievements are based on a set of practices referred to as Arcane Science, or Neo-Arcane Science in the case of the modern discoveries made by Alva. Based on the way Clemont admiringly talks about it, traditional Arcane Science is not just a set of scientific principles, but a philosophy governing the harmony between humans and Pokémon, or perhaps an ethical system for conducting research with the cooperation of Pokémon. Magearna, Clemont remarks, is “the living embodiment” of that philosophy, the fusion of human science and Pokémon magic. The Pokéball design, in that context, makes a great deal of sense (whichever direction the inspiration is supposed to have gone in): Pokéballs symbolise partnership between humans and Pokémon, mediated by technology. Magearna’s decoration is not only ostentatiously royal, but a visual reminder of the essence of the philosophy that once maintained Azoth’s power. The first part of the movie’s plot is driven by Raleigh’s desire – encouraged and abetted by Alva – to recover Magearna, who has been living in the wilderness with Volcanion for centuries. The technology that created the Soul-Heart is lost and doubtless valuable, but I think Raleigh is, if anything, even more interested in Magearna as a symbol of his kingdom’s past glory and the philosophy that produced it (something that provokes disagreement between him and Kimia, who emphasises the need to look to the future for ways to grow their people’s prosperity).
The movie shows us a couple of Magearna’s abilities that the games don’t hint at. When startled or in danger, it can collapse its entire body into a Pokéball-patterned sphere; in this state, it is one of the only things capable of withstanding Volcanion’s explosive outbursts. The Sun and Moon website also claims that it does this when it sleeps, or when it is sad. Part of a Pokéball’s purpose is to keep Pokémon safe and give them a place to rest while travelling, so this makes a great deal of symbolic sense. Somewhat less practically, Magearna can make bouquets of bright pink flowers appear at the ends of its arms (if these are supposed to be specific real flowers, I’m not sure what kind, but possibly primrose or hibiscus). Magearna does this several times throughout the movie to cheer people up or indicate esteem, and it is, believe it or not, a semi-important plot-point that the flowers make Volcanion sneeze. The flower trick is presumably why Magearna’s signature move in the games is Fleur Cannon (fleur meaning “flower” in French). This function was meant to delight the young princess that Magearna was built for, but you could also imagine it being repurposed as she grew older; at diplomatic events, for instance, she might have wanted Magearna to present gifts to foreign dignitaries.
Magearna is also an apocalyptic superweapon.
Bit of a tone-shift, perhaps, but let’s see where they’re going with this.
During the movie’s climax, Alva reveals that Magearna’s Soul-Heart is also the power source for another of Nikola’s great inventions: the great fortress walls of the Azoth Kingdom itself, which were designed to reconfigure themselves into a colossal flying battle station armed with a massive laser cannon (plausibly an amplified version of the already devastating Fleur Cannon attack). When the Soul-Heart is taken from Magearna, leaving its body an empty husk, and installed in a socket deep inside the fortress, it takes to the skies. The fortress is piloted from a control panel, but the Soul-Heart itself seems to act as a co-pilot, and is capable of resisting some commands, for instance when Alva tries to fire the laser cannon on the remote plateau where Magearna and Volcanion live. This resistance can be worn down and eventually broken, though (Meowth, distraught, claims that he can hear Magearna’s steadily weakening voice protesting Alva’s actions). Nikola may have chosen to use Magearna’s Soul-Heart to power the fortress specifically so it would act as a built-in safeguard against its misuse. If so, he failed: we are told that, after the fortress was deployed for the first time, he was horrified by the devastation it caused and vowed that it would never be activated again. He instructed Magearna to flee and live out the rest of its days in hiding in the wilderness, thus locking the door and throwing away the proverbial key. This ties into another of the themes of generation VI as a whole: that powerful technologies are a double-edged sword. The same underlying science of manipulating life-force that made the Ultimate Weapon of ancient Kalos possible is also the key to the numerous beneficial innovations pioneered by the Devon Corporation in Hoenn (I’ve always been compelled to see this as an allegory for nuclear technology – modern Japan is heavily reliant on nuclear power, but is also the only country ever to have been on the receiving end of nuclear weapons). Magearna, a wondrous symbol of the achievements of the Azoth Kingdom and a compassionate, noble being in its own right, was probably created using similar technology, and the same potential for that technology’s misuse drives the movie’s plot.
Let’s return to the creator and his resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci, because I think Leonardo’s legendary inventor status might have been part of the inspiration for Magearna’s design, externally to the plot of the movie. Leonardo dipped his toes in practically every field of 15th century science, including the creation of automata. Most famously in this regard, we have his designs for an automaton resembling an armoured knight, operated by means of cables and pulleys, that could move its head and arms, stand up and sit down; it is not clear if the machine was ever built, but the plans have been used to build modern replicas. There is also an interesting story in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, repeated in other 16th century sources, that Leonardo built a mechanical lion and presented it to the king of France at a banquet (see this article by science historian Jessica Riskin, footnote 47). Magearna is quite definitely not a lion, but there are four things that make me suspect a possible deliberate reference anyway: 1) the location, France (thus, Kalos), where Leonardo spent the last few years of his life; 2) the purpose of the automaton’s creation, as a gift to royalty; 3) we are told the lion could “open its breast,” which is where Magearna keeps its Soul Heart; and 4) the lion was designed to present a bouquet of flowers. What’s more, Leonardo da Vinci is remembered today as a visionary who was “ahead of his time,” and fiction often attributes to him secret knowledge or advanced scientific discoveries that surpass even modern inventors – which is a big theme for Magearna, who (like Golett and Golurk) was created using ancient technology that cannot be replicated today. Leonardo da Vinci is also known to have designed a range of creative siege weapons and flying machines, though nothing that combines the two on the scale of the flying fortress we see in the Magearna movie. Honestly, thinking back to Lawrence III’s ship in The Power of One and the Sword of the Vale in Victini and Reshiram/Zekrom, I think it’s possible that the Pokémon anime just really likes flying fortresses.
I’ll finish with a verrrry quick run-down of Magearna’s combat skills. Steel/Fairy is pretty solidly in the “amazing” category, with only two weaknesses (Ground and Fire), resistances to more than half the type chart, and two immunities. Fairy attacks are also quite powerful, and Magearna… well, Magearna has a real doozy. Its signature move, Fleur Cannon, is a Fairy-typed Overheat or Draco Meteor, offering massive damage output at the cost of cutting the user’s special attack stat in half. This kind of move is normally very powerful on movesets designed for use with Choice items, since those sets will have you switching out often anyway, resetting your stats. Magearna however, almost uniquely, can actually just keep going after using Fleur Cannon, thanks in large part to its unique ability: Soul-Heart, which boosts its special attack every time another Pokémon faints (note that, in contrast to Moxie or Beast Boost, Magearna doesn’t have to be the one that scores the knock-out, and it can even be triggered by allied Pokémon fainting, making it especially deadly in doubles). Coupled with the fact that Magearna can learn Calm Mind to further increase its special attack at will, even repeated instances of Fleur Cannon’s recoil will only slow it down, not stop it. It has a wide range of powerful special attacks to choose from to combine with Fleur Cannon, like Flash Cannon, Aura Sphere, Thunderbolt and Ice Beam. It also packs an impressive support movepool, featuring Heal Bell, Volt Switch, Thunder Wave, Reflect and Light Screen, Trick Room, and – best of all – Manaphy’s signature move, Heart Swap, which lets it switch stat boosts and penalties with a target. This can be used to utterly ruin a set-up sweeper’s day by stripping them of their buffs, while potentially saddling them with a special attack penalty from Fleur Cannon, and maybe even putting Magearna in a position to attempt a sweep of its own. Magearna’s only clear weak points are its iffy healing, courtesy of Pain Split, and its poor speed, and even its slowness can be overcome by using Shift Gear (formerly Klingklang’s signature move, essentially Agility with an extra physical attack buff). In short… this thing is nuts; pick some moves and have fun.
Magearna has a surprising amount of meaning packed into it, even for a mythical Pokémon, and an interesting backstory. It’s just a shame that it never gets to do anything in the games to put that meaning into context, and never gets to even appear in the games where it would have been most relevant – I almost wonder whether it could have been originally intended to appear in a cancelled Z version, with a little Meloetta- or Victini-style event. Doing justice to a design like this takes a richer story than the Pokémon games are accustomed to offering, and unfortunately, even the most devoted partisan of the Pokémon anime would have to admit that a Pokémon movie is not the place to find it. Magearna is an interesting Pokémon, but it’s a little disappointing to me that it isn’t more than that.
Thanks as always to my mysterious Patrons, whose divine radiance sustains my life force in these dark times!