Riddle Me This – Volcanic Panic
Ash’s location: Cinnabar Island! FINALLY!
So, having spent a good four months wandering aimlessly since earning his Soul Badge, Ash is on the ferry to Cinnabar Island at last. Only… Gary Oak is on the ferry too, and he has some bad news for Ash: the island is nothing but a tourist trap; there’s no Pokémon Gym there at all! Gary turns out to be right; the island is swarming with tourists – even the famous Cinnabar Pokémon Lab has become a tourist attraction. When they wonder what makes Cinnabar Island so popular, a long-haired hippy asks them “what do tourists think is hot… and cool?” Misty realises that he means the island’s volcanic hot springs. Ash then asks him about the Cinnabar Gym Leader, Blaine, and receives another riddle, “[Blaine’s] Gym is right where you put your glasses,” which Misty again answers: in front of their eyes. Cinnabar Gym is a burnt-out ruin, abandoned by Blaine when he got tired of battling hobbyists. The hippy advises the kids just to enjoy their stay, gives them a business card for the “Big Riddle Inn,” and vanishes into the crowd. The card displays another riddle – “if you look near the swing, you’ll see my hands – or at least my face.” When Ash, Misty and Brock find that every hotel on the island is booked up for months, they stop to rest in a playground and think about the riddle, where Misty, looking past the swings, sees the hands and face of a clock – the clocktower of the Big Riddle, where the hippy gives them free rooms for a night just for managing to find the place. That night, he gets an urgent call from the Pokémon Lab, which is being attacked by Team Rocket. Ash and the others, naturally, save the day, so the innkeeper rewards them with yet another riddle: “Blaine built a Gym the tourists never see; it’s in the place where a fire-fighter could never win.” The next day, as the kids bathe in the hot springs, Togepi accidentally finds and triggers a secret door that leads them into the magma chamber of the Cinnabar volcano, where they find the innkeeper. “It’s not a hat,” he tells them, “but it keeps your head dry – if you wear it, it’s only because you already lost it.” The hippy innkeeper was Blaine all along, wearing a wig, and his new Pokémon Gym is suspended over a bubbling lava pit. He accepts Ash’s challenge with a powerful Ninetales, who roasts Squirtle with her Fire Spin, then switches to a Rhydon to counter Ash’s Charizard… who promptly gets bored, leaves the ring, and falls asleep. Pikachu, infamously, manages to circumvent Rhydon’s immunity to electrical attacks by aiming for his metal horn, but is thoroughly outmatched when Blaine summons his signature Pokémon, Magmar, who can block electricity with a shield of superheated air. Riddle Me This ends with Pikachu backed up against the edge of the arena, about to be struck by Magmar’s Fire Blast.
Pikachu survives, of course, clinging to the edge of the arena platform with his back scorched by the Fire Blast. At Brock’s urging, Ash surrenders to keep Pikachu safe. Blaine approves of Ash’s choice, noting that “if [he] had been foolish enough to continue the match, [he] definitely would have been disqualified as a Pokémon trainer,” but seems reluctant to offer Ash any hope of a future rematch. Ash and his friends return to the Big Riddle Inn, where Ash spends the next day musing on how he can overpower Blaine’s Magmar. Meanwhile Team Rocket, being Team Rocket, decide to infiltrate the volcano, armed with freeze-blasters to defeat Magmar. The blasters work… for about five seconds. When Magmar melts his way free, Meowth panics and orders Jessie and James to freeze blast the whole magma chamber. The rapid temperature change cracks the rock walls, and the melting ice creates a blast of steam that launches Team Rocket out of the magma chamber, leaving Ash, Misty, Brock and Blaine to deal with the rapidly destabilising volcano. Blaine orders Magmar to start piling up boulders to patch the cracks and stem the lava flows, but he can’t do enough alone. Ash calls on Charizard, who is sufficiently impressed by Magmar to help out. Brock gets Onix and Geodude to help too, while Squirtle and Staryu keep everyone cool, and together they manage to prevent an eruption. Magmar and Charizard give each other a smile, but are clearly eager to battle to test each other’s strength, and Blaine decides to allow Ash a rematch (many Gym Leaders would probably just give Ash a badge outright, but Blaine has high standards). Charizard and Magmar are evenly matched as far as firepower goes, and Magmar eventually drags Charizard down into the lava pit to try and win an advantage, but Charizard breaks free, carries Magmar high into the air, and hurls him back down with a Seismic Toss. Ash is overjoyed that Charizard is on his side again, but Charizard quickly puts an end to that delusion by Flamethrowering Ash in the face for interrupting his victory dance. Ash collects his Volcano Badge from Blaine (the third and final Kanto badge he will earn by winning a legitimate battle) and wonders where to go for his final challenge. Misty and Brock suggest returning to Viridian City, and the team sets off once more.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that Blaine burnt down his own Pokémon Gym, because he had better things to do with his time than battle tourists, and built a new one in the heart of a volcano? The man is an incredible mad genius! (Incidentally, if there is ever a live action Pokémon movie, I want Christopher Lloyd to play Blaine.) Of course, because this is one of my Anime Time entries, and because my Anime Time entries are all about analysing a children’s cartoon to a far deeper extent than the creators ever imagined, let’s take this opportunity to expand my developing thesis on the role of Pokémon Gyms in society.
We’ve already seen with Sabrina and Koga that a Gym Leader’s responsibilities to the Pokémon League are extremely hazily defined and probably impossible to enforce. Blaine’s case makes me wonder whether he’s answerable to anyone at all. Gary Oak claims that there hasn’t been a Pokémon Gym on Cinnabar Island “since [his] grandfather’s days as a trainer,” which is probably an exaggeration since I doubt Blaine is much older than Professor Oak, but it’s clear that the Cinnabar Gym has been out of the public eye for years, if not decades. Blaine’s Volcano Badge is still recognised as legitimate by the Pokémon League, though, and no-one calls Ash out for trying to qualify with a Badge from a Gym that closed before he was born. Nor has anyone attempted to set up a new Cinnabar Gym in Blaine’s absence. The innkeeper of the Big Riddle is also the first person to get a call when the Cinnabar Lab is attacked by Team Rocket. Clearly enough people are in on Blaine’s secret that he can continue to act as Cinnabar’s official Gym Leader, no questions asked, but not so many that his activities can become more than a vague rumour. This isn’t quite as strange as Koga’s situation; Blaine’s presence almost certainly does benefit Cinnabar Island during emergencies. However, it seems like taking challenges – which, in theory, is an official Gym’s primary role – is a relatively minor part of Blaine’s life. He appears extremely disdainful of weak challengers; we know that he closed the original Cinnabar Gym because he was tired of battling tourists, and unlike Brock, Lt. Surge, and even Sabrina, he is extremely reticent to offer Ash a rematch until Ash has helped him prevent a disaster. Blaine battles whom he wants, when he wants, probably handing out fewer Badges than any other Kanto Gym Leader, and it’s possible that the only people he ever invites to battle him are trainers he’s vetted personally using his innkeeper persona. At the beginning of Riddle Me This, it’s Blaine who chooses to speak to Ash – I suspect he’s checking him out, even then, evaluating his worth as a challenger.
The Pokémon League, evidently, doesn’t care. The fact that Blaine even bothered to build a new Gym implies that he does take challenges from time to time; Ash can’t be the first person ever to present a Volcano Badge to the Indigo Plateau, so someone at the top must know about him, and whoever does know is apparently totally happy with one of Kanto’s official Pokémon Gyms being a hidden volcanic death-trap that is closed to the public except by special invitation. Blaine hates tourists and refuses to battle any, but surely any visiting trainer is by definition a ‘tourist,’ and surely his job is to battle all comers? Even most islanders don’t know about the Gym, so he isn’t helping to educate local trainers either, but surely that’s part of his job too? If Blaine gets any sort of League funding, he doesn’t seem to be earning it, but that secret volcano base wouldn’t have paid for itself (I suppose he could have claimed insurance on the original Gym, but it seems to be common knowledge that Blaine himself burned the place down, so I sort of doubt it). Either Blaine is independently a millionaire (unlikely) or he receives some sort of no-strings-attached grant from the Pokémon League just for being an official Gym Leader. The Dark City episode shows that there is a fair amount of League oversight in the process of establishing an official Gym. However, I suspect that once a Gym has that magic League authorisation, it’s not all that easy to revoke it (if nothing else, it would be difficult to deal with trainers who’d defeated the Gym in question). I would further speculate that, when the Pokémon League was originally formed, the first Gym Leaders were all those trainers who were so powerful that their opinions and philosophies couldn’t be ignored – the League began, essentially, as a partnership between them. Although the organisation has undoubtedly evolved since then, its core institutions have probably not changed all that radically – so, if my current train of thought is accurate, when Blaine became a Gym Leader he may have gained the right to access and allocate a small but significant portion of the Indigo League’s resources and income at his own discretion. Depending on exactly how we imagine that Pokémon training, as a discipline, is viewed, this right may well be inalienable – to use a real-world analogy, you can fire a professor, but revoking his PhD isn’t so straightforward; perhaps ‘Gym Leader’ is simply something that Blaine is, whether the League likes it or not.
I realise I’m beginning to make stuff up now, but I simply can’t leave Blaine’s autonomy unexplained. He does hardly anything a Gym Leader is expected to do, yet he is inexplicably still a Gym Leader. Much as for Koga and Sabrina, I have to assume there is some way of accounting for this. I cannot presume to know whether I’m right, but hopefully my theories are, at least, entertaining.