Well, I finally got my act together and reviewed every Pokémon from generation VII, but we’re not done yet. While I was reviewing the Pokémon of Unova, I wrote a series on Pokémon’s villains – Team Rocket, Teams Aqua and Magma, Team Galactic and Team Plasma. Those articles… are fine. I mean, they’re not bereft of insight, but they’re from the first six months of this blog’s life and they’re far from the most interesting things I’ve ever written. Having written those, though, it seemed only logical that after finishing the Kalos Pokédex I should write about Team Flare and Lysandre, and that one holds up much better in retrospect. Which means that now… well, where would we be if I didn’t write about Team Skull (and, after them, the Aether Foundation)? My Team Flare review focused pretty heavily on Lysandre himself and his beliefs, because his characterisation is very important to the plot of X and Y and central to how I understood and reacted to a lot of the events of those games. That’s probably going to be true of my upcoming piece on the Aether Foundation as well, which I anticipate will concentrate on Lusamine, but I think Team Skull demands a different approach. The two named characters of Team Skull, Guzma and Plumeria, do matter, but Team Skull’s story isn’t really about either of them, in my opinion; it’s about Team Skull as a group, with Guzma and Plumeria exemplifying different facets of that group’s values and experiences. So let’s talk about that.
Team Skull are the fake-out villains of Pokémon Sun and Moon. They have the same “Team” (Japanese 団/dan, “gang”) title as every villainous organisation in all the previous games of the core series (and most of the spinoffs), and they are established early on in the story as troublemakers who are well known in Alola for acts of vandalism and disturbing the peace. However, they have no grandiose plan – no legendary Pokémon to enslave, no bizarre ideology to enact, no ancient prophecy to fulfil. They don’t really “want” anything, other than perhaps to hurt the people who, in their view, have hurt them, and even on that point they can be fairly half-hearted at times. Real large-scale villainy, in a classic Pokémon mould, is entirely Lusamine’s department in this story. Their lack of vast world-changing designs make Team Skull most similar to OG Team Rocket. Team Rocket, though, were effectively the Pokémon Mafia: organised crime, with a chain of command, vast resources, a network of fronts and laundering operations, and the capacity for a coordinated attack that brought Kanto’s largest corporation to its knees. Team Skull, by comparison, are… well, a mess. They steal Pokémon (badly), steal berries (for some reason), mess with the player’s first trial (inadvertently helping you to pass it), try to steal a bus stop (…yeah, I’ve got nothing) and generically harass people. They’re only involved in anything big while they’re working for Lusamine, and even then, with the exception of Guzma himself, they’re kind of bit players. The largest-scale plan any of them ever seem to have come up with on their own is Guzma’s initiative to steal all of the Buginium-Z crystals in Alola, hoarding them in a chest in his mansion so that no one else in the region can become a stronger Bug Pokémon trainer than him. Guzma talks a big game, obsessing over brutal strength and destructive power, but the best plan he can think of to make sure he stays the strongest is to monopolise Buginium-Z crystals to give himself an advantage (Hala calls him out on this at the end of Sun and Moon, pointing out that the real point of a Pokémon battle is for both opponents to grow stronger, not for one to beat the other down). He’s something of a paper tiger – and the same is true of Team Skull generally.
Most of Team Skull’s members seem to live on Ula’ula Island, in one of two places: Po Town, at the northern tip of the island, or the unnamed settlement built up around the oasis at the south end of Haina Desert. Even “settlement” is maybe a little grandiose for the latter place – there’s a motel and two caravans. The whole place looks pretty run-down, and my instinct is to assume that it’s populated by people who left the town now known as Tapu Village after it was destroyed by Tapu Bulu. Po Town is something else entirely, and a pretty odd place. During the events of Sun and Moon, Po Town belongs to, and is solely inhabited by, Team Skull. It looks like it was once a vision of upper-middle-class suburbia – lots of nice houses with big lawns and neat hedgerows (presumably Team Skull have been… trimming the hedges and mowing the lawns?), then an opulent mansion at the end of the main road. Practically every available surface in the town has been tagged by members of Team Skull, the inside of the mansion (where they all seem to live together) has been thoroughly trashed, the main streets have been barricaded, and the Pokémon Centre is barely operable – the two Team Skull grunts who run the place have to charge a small fee just to keep the lights on. In short, it’s precisely the image running through the heads of wealthy American suburbanites when they picture a neighbourhood overrun with inner city street gangs. Except… for some reason it’s also surrounded by a massive concrete wall, a good twelve metres high at least, and two or three metres thick. Who even built that? I can’t imagine where Team Skull would get the resources (the Aether Foundation, maybe, but they’d have no good reason, and it would tip Lusamine’s hand that she was working with Team Skull). Either the wall was there before Team Skull took over, and the original inhabitants of Po Town were the most paranoid and elitist gated community in history, or it was built later in a doomed attempt to trap Team Skull inside. I’m not sure which set of implications is the more disturbing.
It’s not until you’ve tangled with Team Skull several times and gotten quite far into the game’s plot that a fairly important piece of their backstory is revealed: they’re all trainers who failed the Island Challenge. This is almost certainly something you could have been told earlier by characters like Kukui or Ilima, who are familiar with Team Skull and have been present during your previous confrontations with them, but you first hear it from Team Skull grunts, encountered on the way to their base in Po Town. Exactly how one “fails” the Island Challenge is never specified within the games, and I only have guesses. No one ever mentions a time limit, or any real stakes for being defeated in a trial, and of course there’s no way for the player to fail any part of the Challenge while still progressing through the story. I’ve speculated before that they were disqualified for cheating, making this a plot point in my narrative playthrough of Moon version, but I’m not aware of any positive evidence for this. The Island Challenge is described a couple of times as essentially a rite of passage for young trainers, so it’s possible that you can no longer participate after you turn twenty (the same age at which Trial Captains are supposed to give up their positions, according to Mallow). This idea is very tenuously supported by one of Guzma’s lines during the player’s first meeting with him in the Malie Gardens, where he implies that he wanted to become a Captain but was “rejected” and has somehow missed his chance, presumably because he’s now too old. I’m just not sure I believe that everyone in Team Skull is over twenty, though, and again there’s no positive evidence for an age limit.
Around the same time as we learn about the origins of the individual members, we also hear about the origins of the group itself, from a Team Skull member who lives by the oasis. Apparently, they were once led by no less grand a figure than an Alolan Kahuna, but somehow fell from grace and “got smacked down by the wrath of the Tapu.” The games never tell us anything else about this ex-Kahuna, or what they did to incur the divine fury of the island guardians; nor, to my knowledge, is there any hint in the anime. I’m tempted to link this with the destruction of Tapu Village by Tapu Bulu, which happened in response to the construction of a supermarket on sacred land. Guzma talks about wanting to reject Alolan traditions, so failure to observe ancient ritual prohibitions is the sort of offence that Team Skull might have been condemned for, and most of them seem to live on Ula’ula Island, so there’s an argument from geographic proximity too. Nor do we know what the group’s original purpose was; it may have just been a fan club of sorts for the charismatic Kahuna, of the sort that powerful trainers in other regions often attract (there’s a potential parallel here to Team Rocket, whose boss was a Kanto gym leader surrounded by a potent cult of personality that persisted for two years after he abandoned his organisation). They might have been a criminal group from the start, but to me that doesn’t gel with what we know about the Kahunas, who are chosen directly by the Tapu as exemplars of Alola’s values and traditions. It’s hard to imagine them going that badly wrong. Besides, Team Skull aren’t hardened criminals; they’re more like rebellious teenagers, committing crimes as gestures rather than for material gain. I can believe that the Kahuna might have wanted Alola to change, evolve and adopt new traditions, just like Professor Kukui, and might have gained a substantial following by advocating for social change – but then slaughtered one too many sacred cows. The ancient gods of Hawai‘i are generous and beneficent, but they are also unpredictable and vengeful – and so are the Tapu of Alola.
In short, the members of Team Skull failed the tests that Alola’s traditional culture laid out for them, attached themselves to a traditional authority figure who offered them some kind of path forward, and found themselves struck down in some (presumably violent) event of divine retribution. They have subsequently been excommunicated and left to rot in a walled-off city that they lack the skills and infrastructure to maintain. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I can’t help but suspect that the “good” characters have ulterior motives in not telling us this whole story – like maybe they’re afraid that, if we knew everything about Team Skull’s origins from the beginning, we might actually be sympathetic towards them. In fairness, Team Skull’s members aren’t exactly model citizens, but there’s still an awful lot of straight-up classism in the way they’re treated by the rest of the Alolan people, to the point that I think this is deliberate on the part of the game’s writers. To my mind, this is an attempt at a sympathetic portrayal of gang culture that sees delinquency as the product of social stress and generational values dissonance rather than personal moral failings, which is… a surprisingly interesting and nuanced idea for a side plot of a Pokémon game.
That framing, I suspect, has its roots in the fairly well-documented phenomenon of Japanese appreciation and appropriation of Chicano culture, a set of values, beliefs and aesthetics associated with Mexican-Americans throughout the southern United States, and particularly in Los Angeles. Describing the ongoing political, social and artistic history of the Chicano movement is frankly not a task to which I am equal, nor something that can be done adequately within an article on a Pokémon game. To be criminally brief, though, it emphasises the maintenance of strong families and communities within a very different and often hostile society, drawing upon a blending of Spanish and native Mexica cultural heritage, devout Catholicism, strict adherence to traditional gender roles (particularly to the role of men as warriors and protectors), and solidarity with African-Americans and other US ethnic minorities. In the US, Chicano culture is often pejoratively associated with street gangs, delinquency and violence. In Japan, by contrast, young people since the 1980s have found a lot to admire in Chicano style and values, especially the centrality of family and the prestige accorded to craftsmanship (including mechanical skill, particularly with cars). Both appeal to certain elements of Japanese traditional values, while the Chicano aesthetic allows room for rebellion (tattoos in particular are normally frowned upon in modern Japan, but Japanese “Chicanos” will get them anyway). It also makes sense that the notion of maintaining a unique cultural identity in a changing world by combining tradition and modernity would find sympathy in Japan. There’s an interesting short film from a couple of years ago that documents the whole phenomenon.
Team Skull makes perfect sense in this context. They have all the trimmings of a stereotypical American street gang: baggy clothing, tattoos, rap music, conspicuous jewellery, distinctive hand signs, the lot. Even Team Skull’s name and skull emblem could be taken as a reference to the popularity of skull motifs and skeletal imagery in modern Mexican and Chicano art (especially in relation to the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead), which itself looks back to traditions and famous artworks of ancient Mexico like the turquoise-inlaid skull masks of the Aztecs. Guzma’s violent tendencies, exaltation of physical strength and obsession with the concept of destruction make a surprising amount of sense as a critique of the limitations and failings of Chicano machismo; without direction and strong relationships, it collapses in on itself and leaves a person with no way to understand the world except through violence (becoming an instance of the more general concept of “toxic masculinity”). Other members of Team Skull, judging by the dialogue of some of the grunts in Po Town, seem to struggle with the same issues, finding themselves with no viable way to interact with Alolan society other than to try to smash it. Of course, it’s not Guzma that holds Team Skull together – he’s almost more of a figurehead, controlling his team through intimidation and the constant threat of violence. What holds Team Skull together is his lieutenant, Plumeria, who explicitly sees Team Skull as a family, dubbing herself the “big sister” of the group and referring to the other members as her “brothers and sisters.” When Guzma vanishes into Ultra Space alongside Lusamine, it’s Plumeria who asks the player and Lillie to rescue him (from Ultra Space and from himself). That’s the Chicano culture’s emphasis on family and community that its Japanese adherents find so appealing.
At the end of the game’s story, all of Team Skull’s members are given another chance. Plumeria is evidently allowed to attempt the Island Challenge again, obtains a Z-ring, swiftly blazes through her Trials, and becomes one of the ten trainers who can challenge the player for the position of Champion of Alola (on Ultra Smoon, Guzma has the same opportunity). Hala begins to mentor Guzma, and recruits several of the grunts to be trained as a rescue team (under the cringeworthy title of Team Reskull). Guzma seems to adopt a stance more like Plumeria’s, coming to see himself as more of a protective big brother figure to his friends in Team Skull, although he doesn’t explicitly use familial language like she does. Once the barriers of mistrust between Team Skull and the rest of the Alolans are overcome, they are swiftly reintegrated into society and are able to build happy, productive lives for themselves. I like to see this as part of the modernisation of Alola that Kukui is trying to bring about – the members of Team Skull give up the rebellious aspects of their identity, but the Alolans are also giving up the strict adherence to the dictates of the Tapu that led them to ostracise Team Skull in the first place, and beginning to alter and revise the strict tradition of the Island Challenge that so many of Team Skull’s members couldn’t complete.
I have a number of issues with the plot of Sun and Moon; the denouement is rushed and doesn’t give Team Skull very much to do, and the ending leaves a lot of loose threads (in principle I assume these were meant to be picked up by the sequels, as Black 2 and White 2 did, but then Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon just take the entire climax in a wildly different direction, so the intent winds up… muddled). The concept and message behind Team Skull, though, is in my opinion one of the strongest elements. These games care about the society and culture of the region they’re set in, more than any previous set of Pokémon games, and I keep coming back to this, over and over again, as clearly the greatest strength of generation VII. Pokémon has, for a long time, favoured villains who have at their core some fragment of a noble motive, which I think is important in telling a powerful story, but those characters fall into villainy by pushing their ideals, to the exclusion of everything else, past the point of no return, which can make them seem ridiculous or simply insane. Team Skull… are ridiculous, that much is true, but they’re also, I think, arguably the most human villains Pokémon has ever had.