Three to go, and no time to spare; the day is almost out and the shadows are getting longer, and… unusually animated. Let’s meet generation VII’s mythical Pokémon #2: the elusive Marshadow.
Marshadow is known as the “Gloomdweller Pokémon” because of its tendency to spent most of its life hidden in shadows. Its body appears to be made entirely of wisps and curls of dark smoke, with two glowing ember eyes, like a dying fire. Its shadowy body makes it almost impossible to see unless it wants to be seen, and Marshadow rarely wants to be seen. According to the Pokédex, it is “craven and cowering” – the Sun and Moon website puts a more positive spin on this, calling it “cautious.” It prefers to hang back and watch events unfold without taking action or being noticed, and almost never appears before humans, hence its “mythical” status. Although it habitually avoids conflict as much as possible, Marshadow is no slouch if you somehow do manage to corner it. It has the power to hide inside another being’s shadow and imitate that being’s movements and abilities – just as a real shadow follows every move of the one who casts it – and can eventually execute the same moves as its target with even greater power. Marshadow’s level-up move list, accordingly, has several techniques that allow it to copy its opponents or turn their own strength against them – Copycat, Role Play, Psych Up, Counter, Sucker Punch, Drain Punch – as well as Endeavour, which brings the enemy down to Marshadow’s level, and its signature move, Spectral Thief, which snatches the target’s powers away.
During its attack animations, including the full duration of its unique Z-move, the Soul-Stealing Seven-Star Strike (try saying that one ten times fast), Marshadow briefly shifts into its “Zenith” form. This is a purely cosmetic form; Marshadow’s “helmet” bursts into eerie yellow-green flame, but nothing else about it changes. Maybe this is Marshadow’s “true” form, which it only reveals during the fleeting moments that it is no longer bothering to conceal itself, or maybe it’s only while it’s attacking that Marshadow has some kind of existence independent of whatever it’s “shadowing.” “Zenith,” we know from various places in the games and anime, is what the Z in “Z-move” and “Z-power” stands for. There is no other explicit connection between Marshadow and Z-moves, Z-crystals, the legendary Pokémon of Alola, or other related phenomena, so anything else we say about this is necessarily speculation, but let’s speculate away. The legendary Pokémon Solgaleo, Lunala and Necrozma are all strongly associated with light, and all have the power to create, consume or control light; Z-moves and Z-power are seen by characters in both the games and TV show as manifestations of that same cosmic radiance. But… one of the oldest truisms in the book is that anything standing in the light must also cast a shadow. That might be what Marshadow is: a shadow cast by the light of life-force itself. In addition, “zenith,” as well as its common usage sense of “the height of one’s power,” has a technical meaning in astronomy, referring to the imaginary point in the sky directly above the observer, at a 90º angle with the horizon. For any particular celestial body to be “at the zenith” is thus a fairly unusual “stars aligning” kind of moment. Seen from Earth, the sun only reaches the observational zenith at midday on certain days of the year in the tropics. In Hawai‘i, this is called a lāhainā (or “cruel sun”) noon. The eerie result of the sun being at the zenith – the thing that makes this relevant to Marshadow – is that shadows disappear almost completely, making everyday scenes look just slightly surreal. Objects that stand straight up, like fence posts or traffic cones, cast no shadow at all. And Marshadow… Marshadow has nowhere left to hide, and decides to get serious.
It’s not immediately obvious what kind of mythical being, if any, Marshadow might actually be based on. Spectres, dark apparitions and shadow people are staples of both world mythology and modern paranormal beliefs, and Marshadow doesn’t have a lot of specific allusions to tie it to any story in particular. One of the popular interpretations is that it’s is based on the Nightmarchers, or huaka‘i pō, the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors, who are said to rise up from their burial grounds at night and march in ceremonial processions to battle sites or holy grounds, often escorting the spirit of an honoured chieftain. According to tradition, if you see the Nightmarchers and fail to immediately show deference by lying on the ground, face down, they will almost certainly kill you. The problem I have with Marshadow being a Nightmarcher is that it doesn’t really act like a warrior. It’s said to be cowardly, and hides itself from others, whereas in the case of the Nightmarchers you’re supposed to hide from them. Despite being introduced in generation VII and apparently having some kind of unspecified connection with Z-power (at least, if you buy my reasoning about the “zenith” thing), Marshadow also… doesn’t actually have anything to do with Alola. It doesn’t naturally live there, it doesn’t have any role in the games’ story or any “side-quests,” and off the top of my head I don’t think any characters in Alola hint at its existence. The only time Marshadow has ever been available so far is through the events associated with the release of the 20th movie, and those Marshadow have their “original trainer” listed as “Mount Tensei,” an important location from the movie that seems to be in Kanto. Therefore, in contrast to most of the other Pokémon from generation VII, I don’t think Marshadow necessarily invites a specifically Hawaiian interpretation (the same goes for the idea that Marshadow has something to do with the Menehune, the mythical forest-dwelling dwarf people of ancient Hawai‘i).
The idea that it has something to do with Mars, the Roman war god, because it’s a Fighting-type and looks a bit like it’s wearing a helmet, if anything is even less convincing to me (the “marsh-” part of its name probably comes from “martial,” which technically does derive ultimately from the name Mars, but I don’t see anything else that fits particularly well). I can believe, as another popular suggestion has it, that Marshadow’s uncanny power of mimicry could be related to the concept of shadowboxing – sparring against an imaginary opponent, metaphorically against your own shadow (and although “shadowboxing” is an English idiom, it does seem to exist in Japanese as a loan-word). But ultimately, I don’t think that Marshadow really needs to be based on anything more than… well, a shadow. Shadows mimic your actions perfectly, just like Marshadow does; they’re “cowardly” because they “run away” from the light and are difficult to pin down. The idea of a shadow as the “negative” of something that stands in the light is useful and interesting, whether we want to see Marshadow in the context of the legendary Pokémon of Alola (as discussed above) or in the context we see in its movie appearance, where it is associated with another legendary Pokémon strongly connected with light.
Marshadow, much like Magearna, has no story in the games, but plays a significant role in the denouement of the 20th Pokémon movie, I Choose You (2017). This is not a review of that movie, but I’m about to spoil the ending pretty hard, and this is one of the ones that I actually think is relatively worth watching, so if you think you might want to see this movie, consider putting off the next four paragraphs of this article. I’ll wait.
In I Choose You, Marshadow is a servant of Ho-oh, known as the “guide from the shadows.” Its job is to lead the holder of the Rainbow Wing to become the “Rainbow Hero” who will have the chance to meet and battle Ho-oh at Mount Tensei. In this movie, naturally, the holder of the Rainbow Wing is Ash, who received one of Ho-oh’s feathers when he saw the legendary bird at the very beginning of his journey. Marshadow first encounters him, seemingly by chance, while travelling with Entei (another Pokémon associated with Ho-oh). It seems to be drawn to the Rainbow Wing, and jumps unnoticed from Entei’s shadow to Ash’s when it realises he has it, subsequently following him quietly on his journeys. Later, when Ash has a crisis of faith after losing an important battle, he argues with his friends and Pikachu and storm off into the woods alone. There, Marshadow begins whispering to Ash. Apparently under its influence, his Rainbow Wing turns black (something that supposedly happens when it is touched by “the heart of evil”) and Ash has a nightmare, in which he forgets that Pokémon exist and has a mundane life as a schoolkid. His feelings for Pikachu are strong enough to bring him back to reality, however, and the Rainbow Wing’s colour has returned by the time he wakes up, at which point Marshadow silently withdraws, still unseen by Ash or any of his friends. Later that night, Pikachu notices something lurking in Ash’s shadow and attacks it, but only wakes up a bunch of angry wild Pokémon.
Based on these scenes, Marshadow seems like a sinister force, trying to corrupt Ash. It’s only when Ash reaches Mount Tensei that we learn Marshadow really serves Ho-oh: “when the colour of the rainbow fades,” we are told, “Marshadow seals it back up, and leaves it right.” At the summit of Mount Tensei, Ash is challenged for the Rainbow Wing by Cross, the hard-hearted young man who (in the movie’s version of events) was the original trainer of Ash’s abandoned Charmander. Marshadow reveals itself, but makes no move to uphold Ash’s claim; supposedly “its only purpose is to observe the proceedings.” Ash wins their battle, but Cross refuses to accept defeat and steals the Rainbow Wing, using it to try to summon Ho-oh in his place. The Rainbow Wing, darkened by his touch, fills the sky with ominous black clouds, and Marshadow finally takes action. It snatches the feather back from Cross, then uses its power to control the minds of the local Pokémon, who begin attacking all the humans indiscriminately. When Ash tries to recover the dark feather, Marshadow battles and defeats Pikachu, leaving Ash helpless against the possessed wild Pokémon. Ash forces Pikachu to return to his Pokéball, shields it with his body, and is fatally injured by the onslaught. As he lies dying (or… fading away into sparkles… it’s a Pokémon movie, okay?), the Rainbow Wing in Marshadow’s hand disintegrates. Pikachu, in rage and grief, unleashes a blast of lightning that clears the skies and snaps all the wild Pokémon out of Marshadow’s control. Ash is then brought back to life, apparently by Ho-oh’s magic, and finds a new Rainbow Wing in his hand. At this point, Marshadow withdraws into the shadows, playing no further part in the closing scenes of the film.
In principle, Marshadow is supposed to help and guide the Rainbow Hero. In practice, although it’s not really the main antagonist of I Choose You (on balance, I think this is Cross), it certainly is the “final boss,” and it doesn’t really seem like it’s helping Ash – it very nearly gets him killed. In the scenes where Ash runs away from his friends in the forest, it seems like Marshadow is the one causing both his nightmare and the darkening of the Rainbow Wing, and Ash’s eyes have the same purple glow that we see in the wild Pokémon controlled by Marshadow during the final battle. My guess is that Marshadow is trying to test Ash. It senses his frustration and anger, and realises that these could develop into the kind of darkness that would corrupt the Rainbow Wing. Accordingly, it takes everything he’s feeling – “who needs Pikachu, anyway? I’m just fine all by myself” – and uses his dreams to show him how hollow that life would really be. Marshadow is gambling that, if Ash really is the Rainbow Hero, pushing him further towards the dark will cause him to turn away from it, and it works. I suspect that, because it’s a living shadow – the dark image of another being, the shadow of Ho-oh’s light – everything it does to affect the world has to come from someone else’s dark side, in this case, Ash’s. Likewise, although Marshadow’s role is to restore colour and light to the Rainbow Wing, it can’t actually do that by itself. When Marshadow gets hold of the Rainbow Wing at the end of the movie, it stays black, because Marshadow’s heart has no light of its own to restore it.
During Ash’s battle with Cross on Mount Tensei, Marshadow isn’t interested in doing him any favours. If he’s the hero, he should win, and indeed he does. It only intervenes to stop Cross when he tries to use the Rainbow Wing himself. After that, Marshadow is equally hostile to all the humans, and I frankly don’t know what its endgame is at that point. Maybe this is still part of the test. It’s drawing power from the darkened Rainbow Wing, which is full of Cross’s blind ambition to be the strongest and his resentment at not being the chosen hero. If Ash is the true hero, he should be able to overcome that, right? Alternatively, maybe it underestimated the strength of Cross’s dark emotions and became drunk on their power. It’s kind of hard to tell; during the final battle Marshadow sometimes looks angry, but there’s no obvious visual effect to indicate that it’s not in control of itself. Maybe it literally can’t tell the difference between one human and another, so its only choice is to fight with all its strength and hope that only the Rainbow Hero will be able to take the feather back. Honestly, maybe Marshadow has just decided that this Rainbow Hero has failed, so it’s time to scrap him and start over with a new one. Because it immediately backs down once Ash has a restored Rainbow Wing in his hand, I want to think that this was all somehow “part of the test,” and I suppose you can’t argue with results. Just like when Ash has his nightmare, Marshadow uses the darkness inside the holder of the Rainbow Wing to provoke a reaction from the light, and the Rainbow Hero does get to summon Ho-oh in the end. On the other hand, Marshadow looks surprised when its own dark feather disintegrates, so I doubt it understood exactly what was happening either, and it may have just been… well, “winging” it.
…I’ll see myself out.
Right after we do a paragraph on Marshadow’s combat skills.
Like Magearna, Marshadow trades heavily on its powerful and (in Marshadow’s case) unique type combination. As a Ghost/Fighting-type, Marshadow can deal at least neutral damage to every Pokémon that currently exists using just its primary attacks, which is a hell of a feat. It’s also fast and physically strong – not outrageously so, but it also gets solid defences to back up that offensive presence. It has a signature move, Spectral Thief, which allows it to steal stat boosts from an opposing Pokémon, which suits Marshadow’s flavour well and makes it an interesting answer to set-up sweeper Pokémon, but really the most important thing about this move is simply that it’s a strong Ghost-type physical attack, something most Pokémon just can’t get (bypassing Substitute is icing on the cake). Its ability, Technician, strengthens moves with a base power of 60 or lower, making several weak attacks with useful effects competitive against more traditionally powerful ones; this has long been a core part of Scyther and Scizor’s skillset. For Marshadow in particular, it makes Shadow Sneak a very effective way of dealing with even faster Pokémon, and makes Rock Tomb (with its slowing effect and higher accuracy) a superior choice to Stone Edge for getting those super-effective hits on Bug, Fire and Flying Pokémon. Force Palm is also interesting for its high chance of paralysing the target, but even with a Technician boost, you probably still want the higher power of Close Combat. All of this adds up to make Marshadow extremely dangerous. It also has a wide range of possible type coverage attacks available, including Fire Punch, Ice Punch, Thunderpunch, Acrobatics, Iron Head and Zen Headbutt, but it doesn’t really need any of these, because the one-two punch of Ghost and Fighting attacks can already deal very effectively with almost anything. You have room, then, to give Marshadow some kind of utility move if you want it, although there aren’t a lot of stand-outs in its movepool. Bulk Up is probably the most enticing, giving Marshadow the increased power necessary to wipe out multiple opponents in a row once it gets going (especially with Shadow Sneak to keep faster Pokémon from sniping it off). Knock Off is at least interesting, since few Pokémon are okay with losing their items, but Dark and Ghost attacks are largely redundant. Although the concept is an important part of Marshadow’s flavour, Copycat should be reserved for comedic value.
I don’t think I had much of an opinion of Marshadow before I started this one, but on reflection, this is quite a neat design. Everything about it flows from the basic concept of a living shadow, and there is something charming in the simplicity of the art, especially alongside the intricacy of Magearna’s 16th century clockwork. I rather wish we got to see Marshadow’s relationship, if any, with the luminous legendary Pokémon of Alola, but I suppose this is a more general gripe with the way mythical Pokémon work as a group, as part of the franchise’s brand strategy – laden with important themes, but not allowed to be part of important stories (except in the movies, which… well, are hit and miss). As mythical Pokémon go, Marshadow’s quite a nice one.