In a way it feels strange to do all three of these characters together – like, it makes sense to have Hau and Gladion together because they both fit Pokémon’s existing “rival” archetypes, and it makes sense to have Lillie and Gladion together because (uh… SPOILERS, I guess???) they’re family, but the three of them don’t fit together quite as neatly at first glance. In fact, though, they play off each other in ways that I think are worth talking about. Hau, Lillie and Gladion all act as foils to one another – Hau’s carefree optimism, Lillie’s self-effacing dutifulness, Gladion’s edgy pragmatism. All three of them also have certain issues with their parentage (granted, in Lillie and Gladion’s case, it’s the same parent), which is important not just in terms of their own characterisation but because tradition (and, by extension, ancestry and inheritance) is a minor theme of Sun and Moon. Lillie’s relationship with her mother is also basically what the entire climax of the game turns on. So let’s talk about these three, their personalities and what happens to them, and see what we can be come up with – starting with Hau.
Hau’s personal character arc is closely tied to his relationship with his grandfather, Kahuna Hala of Melemele Island. Although fun-loving and excitable, Hau is by nature a pretty chill person. He mentions having ambitions, even talking from time to time about becoming a Kahuna one day, but his first priority in taking the Island Challenge is just to enjoy it. He even comes up with his own personal Island Challenge to complete alongside the regular one: visit every last malasada joint in Alola. In fact, one of the most fun and succinct bits of characterisation Hau receives in the story of Sun and Moon is when, after our guided tour of the Aether Paradise, Wicke gifts the player a TM for Psychic and Hau a box of malasadas, and Hau is fµ¢£ing delighted. However, when it comes to measuring up to the legacy of his grandfather, one of Alola’s (theoretically) four most powerful Pokémon trainers, Hau honestly seems pretty lukewarm. He mentions sometimes that he wants to be able to beat Hala in a no-holds-barred battle one day, but also expresses doubt that he ever will be that strong. Gladion gives a pretty withering assessment of Hau’s positive attitude when they first meet: “His Pokémon aren’t weak. And sure, it’s fine to enjoy battling… but this brat, he’s just using that as an excuse not to try hard because he can’t beat the Kahuna. Because he can’t beat Hala when he’s serious!” In point of fact, Hau has completed Hala’s Grand Trial by this point, and was even gifted a Z-Ring as a reward for his performance, but Kahunas presumably tone it down when battling trainers who have less experience, hence Gladion’s comment about fighting Hala “when he’s serious.” Hau’s up for the Island Challenge – it’s fun! But he has trouble with the idea of truly pushing himself to become a successor to his grandfather. He may even have something of a mental block about it. One of the townsfolk in Iki Town, where Hau and Hala live, has a line about how Hala has always treated his grandson too gently, ever since he made Hau cry as a child by getting angry. Hau likes his chill grandfather, and doesn’t want to see his scary side again, and the easiest way to avoid that is to never have a truly serious battle with him.
It’s possible that Hau’s father – who seems to be somewhere in Kanto being a hotshot Pokémon trainer – is also a factor in his self-image and motivations, and Hau does mention at the very end of the story that he wants to get stronger so he can travel to Kanto himself and find his dad. According to Hau, “he really hated being the son of a Kahuna and everything, yeah? So he works far away from Alola these days,” which seems like an attitude that may have influenced Hau’s own distinct lack of fµ¢£s to give. It’s a lot of pressure, being the child or grandchild of an important and powerful Pokémon trainer. That’s probably doubly true in Alola, where Pokémon training is laden with tradition. Hala isn’t a gym leader; he isn’t just, like, a sports coach who’s particularly active in the local community – he’s a Kahuna, basically a high priest to Tapu Koko, the guardian of the island, on whom his people’s prosperity depends. Just look at how important it was for Hapu to carry on her grandfather’s legacy as Kahuna of Poni Island. The guy who ought to have been Hau’s role model for dealing all that pressure did so by just… fµ¢£in’ leaving. What’s a kid to do with that background other than get some malasadas and chill out?
As the story of Sun and Moon nears its climax, Hau is with the player and Gladion as we storm the Aether Paradise to rescue Lillie. He already feels he’s let everyone down by letting Lillie and Nebby be captured by Team Skull in the first place, and that failure is very much on his mind. He proves to be perfectly competent in this mission, and doesn’t mess up in any significant way, but he does also seem to be quite meaningfully affected by seeing the stakes that the other characters are fighting for. He’s always been impressed by how organised and sensible Lillie is (and incidentally notes that she’s the only person he knows who could pull off a personal style as glamorous as Lusamine’s). Now, he’s seen her repeatedly stand up and fight for her beliefs despite having no Pokémon of her own, and she means to continue. Although Hau doesn’t join us for the final battle with Lusamine in Ultra Space, this seems to be a turning point for him personally – realising that he hasn’t been taking the Island Challenge seriously enough, returning to Melemele to train with his grandfather, blitzing the remaining Trials, and working to become a true rival to the player and Gladion. The eventual addition of Crabominable – Hala’s signature Pokémon – to Hau’s team signifies his newfound ease with carrying on Hala’s legacy. When Hau challenges the player for the title of Champion at the end of the game, he has a line that I think is meant to sum up how far he’s come since his journey began: “It’s hard to be strong enough to admit that you’re weak… you know?” By the conventional measure of their powers as Pokémon trainers, Hau was strong and Lillie was weak, but Hau’s takeaway from the events of the story is that the reverse was true, and his real achievement is to recognise his failings and – rather than giving up – dedicate himself to surpassing them, just as Lillie did.
And on that point, let’s talk about Lillie.
Lillie is by nature cautious, meek, deferent and demure, and her very first action in the story of Sun and Moon is one that goes against all of those traits: betraying her mother by freeing Nebby the Cosmog from imprisonment and experimentation in the Aether Paradise, then fleeing the facility with the entire Aether Foundation hot on her tail. In this, she followed in the footsteps of her older brother, Gladion, who had already left with Type: Null two years previously. Unlike Gladion, however – and, indeed, unlike any other major character I can think of in the Pokémon series – Lillie makes it through the story, growing and surviving, without any Pokémon. Well, yes, she has Nebby, but Nebby is a mouthy little $#!t whose only moves are Splash and Teleport, and Lillie repeatedly emphasises that it’s not actually her Pokémon. Pokémon games’ stories often make a point of how training Pokémon allows people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to, like travel the world or fight evil. Shauna and Bianca in particular make a big deal of this (see also May’s original motivation in the Hoenn series of the TV show). Being partnered with a Pokémon is a way to gain freedom, opportunities, and equality of power. Lillie doesn’t have that. To be fair, Gladion didn’t either when he started, but he had the good fortune of stealing a genetically engineered super-Pokémon modelled after a possibly-literal deity and was able to make it his actual partner Pokémon, whereas Lillie was stuck trying to convince Nebby to Get In The Fµ¢£ing Bag. Nebby has some kind of cosmic power, and uses that power on its own initiative to help Lillie out occasionally, but it’s kind of a last-ditch thing that drains Nebby’s own life force quite significantly, and most of the time Lillie has to rely on her own wits and courage. And she excels – escaping Aether Paradise, serving competently as a research assistant to Professors Kukui and Burnet, pursuing her own investigation of Alola’s ruins and mythology on Nebby’s behalf, and ultimately standing up to both Team Skull and the Aether Foundation itself (again, with no means of fighting back at her disposal) to protect the Pokémon she’s sworn to help.
On Poni Island, Lillie’s growth throughout the course of the story is symbolised – a little ham-fistedly, but effectively – by the almost beat-for-beat repetition of her first scene on Melemele Island. When we first meet Lillie, she asks us to help her rescue Nebby, who (in preference to Getting In The Fµ¢£ing Bag) has bounced out onto a rickety rope bridge over a terrifying ravine and is now being harassed by three Spearow. Lillie is too frightened to rescue it, forcing the player to do so instead. By the time we get to Poni Island, Nebby has become a Cosmoem and embraced a newfound willingness to Stay In The Fµ¢£ing Bag, but we do encounter a rope bridge all the same, and Lillie declares that her own Trial shall be to cross that bridge on her own. She immediately gets attacked by three Murkrow, but after cowering for a short time, she collects herself, makes a break for it and reaches the other side. Lillie’s always been willing to do some crazy things for the sake of the people – or Pokémon – she loves, but her fear used to hold her back. By the end, it doesn’t anymore.
More outwardly and persistently, Lillie’s growth is also symbolised by her change of costume at the beginning of the story’s third act. I’m far from the first to point out the design similarities between Lillie’s original costume (with the wide-brimmed hat, long hair, braids and frilly dress) and the Ultra Beast Nihilego, but I also think there’s a coherent explanation for those similarities within the story, and I haven’t seen anyone else make this argument. I pointed this out in my character study of Lusamine, but it bears repeating here. In our first meeting with Lusamine, she offers to take Hau clothes shopping and help him choose a new outfit; when we break into her private lab in the company of Gladion, her first comment to her son is to express disappointment with his appearance. Lillie herself tells us in Hau’oli City that she has always worn clothes chosen for her by her mother. I’d say it is, at the very least, heavily implied that the outfit Lillie wears throughout the first two thirds of the game was put together by Lusamine – Lusamine, who is obsessed with Nihilego. Perhaps deliberately, but more likely unconsciously (since she doesn’t appear to have met a Nihilego in person when the story begins), she’s made her daughter’s appearance echo that of the object of her obsession. Lillie’s change of outfit after the confrontation at Aether Paradise (losing the hat, doing her hair up in a ponytail and switching to a hoodie and miniskirt) isn’t just an expression of her character growth as she becomes more outgoing and determined, it’s also a conscious rejection of her mother’s influence on her and a rejection of her mother’s obsession. When Lusamine, defeated and abandoned by Nihilego at the very end, asks Lillie “when did you start becoming beautiful?” it’s a comment on her physical appearance, but it’s also a validation of all the choices she’s made up to that point, and her newfound independence and bravery.
From what we know of the creation of Type: Null, Lusamine must already have been into some fairly shady business even two years before the story begins, but according to Lillie it was after Gladion left that she started to really go off the deep end. Lillie’s relief at being reunited with her brother is tempered by resentment at being left alone with their mother all that time as Lusamine grew steadily more deranged. She clearly admires her brother’s strength and conviction, but can’t help but judge him for his lack of commitment to their family… which brings us to Gladion himself.
When we meet Gladion, he’s been on the run for two years, following his sudden departure from the Aether Foundation with Null, the engineered “Beast Killer” Pokémon that would become his partner. He dresses all in black, his hair covers his right eye, he’s very brooding and surly and cynical, he talks a lot about fighting to grow strong and making his own way, and… well, I don’t want to use the word “emo,” but I just did. He also works for Team Skull, although honestly it’s never made clear what exactly he does for them, or how they are able to pay him, seeing as their own economy in Po Town seems to be based around stolen Pokémon and threats of physical violence. Team Skull grunts also make it very clear to him, in the presence of their (at the time) mutual enemies, the player and Hau, that he’s not a real member of their team and never will be. In short, if there’s a theme to Gladion’s life at the beginning of the story, it’s isolation. He’s renounced his family, he lives alone, his closest allies refuse to truly bring him into their confidence, and he values personal strength and independence, much like Silver did when we met him in the Johto games. Even his partner Pokémon is a genetically engineered monster that has never had any previous social interaction of any kind and was put into stasis to keep it from going berserk.
It’s clear even from his first appearance, though, that Gladion’s not a bad guy. He cares about his partner Pokémon, recognises that Hau’s Pokémon are strong (which already makes him much less of a dick than Silver), and talks a couple of Team Skull grunts into backing down from a fight so their Pokémon won’t get hurt for no reason. He’s been through some $#!t, and realised that he can’t trust the person he used to be closest to – his mother – and he’s dealing with that in ways that are… perhaps not ideally healthy… but that doesn’t make him a villain. His decision to free Null from stasis in the Aether Foundation’s labs speaks to the same compassion that led Lillie to free Nebby (by the end of the story, he seems to have come to admire his sister for her compassion towards Pokémon, recognising it as “a kind of strength” that makes up for her other weaknesses – although I’m not sure whether Gladion sees his own actions in the same terms). It also quickly becomes apparent that, despite theoretically working for Team Skull, Gladion is perfectly willing to interfere with their plans behind their backs by going to the player and Hau with a warning about Team Skull’s designs on Cosmog. He knows – presumably from his childhood with the Aether Foundation – that Cosmog can create Ultra Wormholes and would be incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. Although he might be willing to work for Guzma, Gladion has no delusions that Guzma’s are anything but the wrongest of hands, both for Cosmog and for Alola itself. Whatever else he values, when Gladion realises that Team Skull is working with the Aether Foundation and that Lillie is the one who stole Nebby, he immediately takes action to save the region from disaster.
In the process, he ends up spending a lot more time with both the player and Hau. Despite his initial contempt for Hau, Gladion seems to feel that he learns a lot from him over the course of the story. Just before the Aether Paradise raid, he admits to the player that he thinks Hau is “a pretty interesting kid,” and that he’s dealing with the pressure of growing up as a Kahuna’s grandson better than Gladion himself probably would have. Considering Gladion’s history with his own family, that might well be true. He later credits Hau with helping him understand that “people can achieve more if they do something together,” and that he doesn’t have to fight alone all the time. It’s that realisation that shapes Gladion’s fate and his role in the final act of the story: like Hau, he doesn’t accompany Lillie and the player on their quest to rescue Lusamine; instead, he stays behind to repair the Aether Paradise and bring the Foundation under control. After spending all his time alone with Null in pursuit of personal strength and independence, and desperately trying to get away from Aether Paradise and his mother’s influence, Gladion realises not only that he has to return there, but that he has to step into his mother’s shoes and carry on her legacy as leader of the Aether Foundation, surrounded by other people and working together with them to preserve Alola’s ecosystems. This is a neat reversal of Lillie’s character arc, which involves gaining independence and stepping out from her mother’s shadow. Gladion’s process of defrosting and re-learning to connect with others also affects his Pokémon. Three of the four that are on his team during his final battle with the player on Mount Lanakila are Pokémon that require a strong bond of friendship with their trainer to evolve: Crobat (who evolves from Golbat only after the Aether Paradise raid), Lucario (who previously wasn’t on his team at all) and of course Type: Null’s evolved form, Silvally. Silvally doesn’t really “evolve” from Null at all, in the way other Pokémon evolve; it simply represents Null shattering its heavy, restricting control mask – the mask that isolates it from the world, keeping it from interacting with others face-to-face. If that’s not Doing A Symbolism, I don’t know what is.
Sun and Moon have, in my opinion, the most character-driven stories of any core-series Pokémon game so far (including Sword and Shield), and that’s due – not entirely, but to a significant extent – to these three. Hau, Lillie and Gladion shape the priorities and objectives of this story, their convictions drive the plot, and they all contribute to each other’s growth. Team Skull and the Aether Foundation do the thematic heavy lifting of the story, but I think it’s the “rival” characters that are its heart.