House Marowak: Even in Death
In regards to the nidorina and nidoqueen thing and the cubone thing, I’m going to connect them into a theory that makes sense. Cubone and Marowak were meant to be unable to breed, and gamefreak accidentally somehow put the unbreedable trait on nidorina and nidoqueen instead, and they never corrected their mistake by making nidoqueens able to lay eggs and marowaks unable to.
A lovely idea, marred only by the lack of any evidence whatsoever…
The story of Red and Blue establishes that a Marowak can be a “mother,” regardless of whatever else is going on with the Cubone skulls, so why would they have intended to make Cubone and Marowak unbreedable? Moreover, it makes perfect sense that, if they were going to make a mistake with the breeding rules, it would happen to a Pokémon whose relationship to gender is unusual – there’s no need to bring Cubone and Marowak into the picture to explain the slip-up with Nidorina and Nidoqueen, particularly as the two Pokémon have nothing to do with each other.
After defeating Brock, Red continues his journey through the classic storyline – such as it is – of the first generation. Most of this is related to us through a voice over by Red himself, with the help of dialogue boxes in the style of the original games (all direct quotes, of course), covering his victories over Misty and Lieutenant Surge, his initial skirmish with Team Rocket, Charmander’s evolution to Charmeleon, and a variety of other minor events from the games (mercifully, he sees fit to leave out all the Pokémon he is capturing during this time – we’d be here all day otherwise). Red’s narration is bland, conveying only the barest hint of his own feelings about any of the events in question, and gives little detail. I find myself questioning why things like receiving a bike voucher from the chairman of the Pokémon Fan Club even needed to be brought up if no attempt is going to be made to elaborate on them – and find myself answering that the only effect can be to call to mind viewers’ own memories of those same events. Maybe for some of us, the Magikarp Red mentions buying outside Mt. Moon became a valued team member when it evolved! It reminds us, essentially, that this is our story too. If the whole show were just Red’s rather dull, functional account, though, there wouldn’t be much point in watching, so the story picks up again with a sequence that the writers thought worthy of special attention: Red’s experiences in Lavender Town and the Pokémon Tower.
While Red is at the Lavender Pokémon Centre getting his team healed, he hears a rumour of a ghost causing trouble at the Pokémon Tower, Lavender Town’s monumental Pokémon cemetery. The woman who tells him about the rumour delivers one of the classic lines of the original game – “I guess that white hand that’s resting on your shoulder isn’t real then either!” – before vanishing without a trace while his back is turned. Red mentions to the Pokémon Centre nurse that he’s going to check out the tower, and she recommends visiting the Pokémon House first, which he obediently does. The Pokémon House’s owner, Mr. Fuji, is absent, but his assistant Reyna offers to show Red around and explains what they do there: care for orphaned and abandoned Pokémon. Red remarks that the Pokémon living there look very happy, playing with their caretakers – all except for one he has never seen before, a Cubone. Reyna explains through a flashback scene that this Cubone was driven from its home by Team Rocket grunts, who killed its mother, a Marowak. Now it doesn’t trust humans other than Mr. Fuji. Red, who has met Team Rocket before but not encountered the full extent of their malice, is deeply troubled. Later, as he thanks Reyna for the tour, he expresses a desire to meet Mr. Fuji, who seems like a very interesting man. Unfortunately, Mr. Fuji has been missing for some time, and the other volunteers have only just found out where he has gone: Pokémon Tower, which happens to have been taken over by both Team Rocket and a vengeful ghost. Although they are worried about Mr. Fuji and concerned for the future of their town (after all, the Pokémon Tower, although morbid, is their biggest tourist attraction), the civilians are too frightened of a Team Rocket reprisal to do anything about it, to Reyna’s outrage. When Red volunteers to break Team Rocket’s grip on the tower, they are shocked, but change their tune once he reveals the three badges that mark him as more than a casual trainer. Meanwhile Blue, who is eavesdropping on the conversation, concocts a plan to get rid of Team Rocket himself and steal Red’s glory, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any opportunity to be a douchebag in this episode.
Blue thinks that what’s really happening is obvious: the ghost is only a Team Rocket deception, one which he intends to unmask. Unfortunately, it’s nothing of the kind – the Team Rocket thugs have no idea what’s going on, though their leader is confident that the Silph Scope in their possession will allow them to identify and defeat any spirits that attack them. Blue is not so lucky. When he enters the Pokémon Tower that night, a few steps ahead of Red, and actually encounters the ghost on the sixth floor, his intellect and bravado desert him and he runs screaming… right into Red. Blue is all for fleeing, but Red decides to stand and fight with Charmeleon. The ghost doesn’t actually attack them, but avoids all of Charmeleon’s attacks effortlessly, continually repeating the words “get out… leave this place!” While they battle, Blue tries to sneak upstairs and encounters the Team Rocket leader. “A human opponent? That, I can handle!” he declares, trouncing the thug with his Wartortle and confiscating the Silph Scope, which he throws to Red. When Red puts on the scope (a pair of high-tech goggles), he realises that the ghost is the slain mother Marowak – and that she’s scaring people away from the tower to keep them from getting too close to Team Rocket. At this point, the Cubone from the Pokémon House arrives, with Reyna in tow, and has a touching reunion with its mother. Marowak’s spirit gets a chance to say goodbye, before leaving for wherever Pokémon go when they die, finally at peace. Blue leaves at this point, deciding to leave the rest to Red, whose Jolteon teams up with Cubone to defeat and drive off the Team Rocket grunts. Red and Reyna find and release the grateful Mr. Fuji, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even Cubone opens up and becomes close to Reyna. Back at the Pokémon House, Mr. Fuji offers Red two gifts to thank him, and to help him complete his Pokédex quest. The first is a Poké Flute, which of course Red will need to wake up Snorlax and reach Fuchsia City. The second is a pair of round gems, a small rainbow-coloured one and a large blue one. Players of X and Y will recognise them as a Mega Stone and a Key Stone, but when Red asks what they are Mr. Fuji offers only a cryptic “you’ll find out soon enough.” The episode ends with Red passing by Blue on the way out of Lavender Town. Blue comments that Red owes him for helping to get the Silph Scope, but Red just reminds him of his own tremendous cowardice against the ghost and leaves him fuming.
There are two main things we need to talk about here, the first of which is abandonment – that is, releasing a Pokémon that doesn’t want to be released (there are, I firmly believe, situations in which Pokémon will want to and should be released, preferably with the trainer’s agreement and goodwill, but that’s not a subject for today). This is something I’ve touched on in places, especially here, but never really tackled head on. In Origins, as in the main anime storyline, the characters treat abandoning a Pokémon as an absolutely horrible thing for a trainer to do. Reyna, referring to something Mr. Fuji once told her, equates it to “[thinking] of Pokémon as nothing more than tools or even some kind of accessories.” What’s more, it is broadly accepted that Pokémon who have suffered this are in grave need of help, hence Mr. Fuji’s Pokémon house and its many volunteers. In the real world, it’s not uncommon for wild animals kept in captivity to lose the ability to survive in their own natural habitats unless they’re continually challenged and stimulated (which is why many zoos today make animals, especially predators, ‘work’ for their food – it’s healthier for them, both physically and psychologically, to face similar obstacles to those they would in the wild), and it’s possible that some of these Pokémon are in a similar position. I’m not sure that’s the case for all of them, though. Trainers who regularly battle their Pokémon are hardly pampering them; if anything their powers are being honed to a greater extent than they would be naturally – true, some of Mr. Fuji’s abandoned Pokémon could have been pets, but I think it’s unlikely that Origins would show such interest in the Pokémon House unless most of them had belonged to trainers (since, let’s face it, trainers’ Pokémon are what the franchise is about). The phenomenon is also most pronounced in animals raised in captivity – those who grew up in the wild have less trouble reverting to instinct. Similarly, many Pokémon trained by humans and subsequently released are likely to find themselves in strange, foreign habitats that they can’t easily adapt to, but all the species we see in the Pokémon House are common in the areas around Lavender Town, and throughout Kanto generally. Again, it’s certainly something very important to consider when dealing with abandoned Pokémon, but I’m not sure it’s Mr. Fuji’s primary concern here. I think Reyna’s comment is important to understanding these attitudes: abandoning a Pokémon is tantamount to treating it as an accessory, as something to be taken up or put down at one’s own convenience. It’s… well, I suppose the word ‘dehumanising’ isn’t really applicable in this case, but that’s the sense of what I’m trying to say. The fact that being abandoned can be inconvenient or even dangerous isn’t the half of it; abandoning a Pokémon is tantamount to telling it, to its face, “You are a possession, and not a particularly valuable one at that.” If you subscribe to my admittedly convoluted views on Pokémon training as an implied contract, then being abandoned is tantamount to hearing that from someone you have singled out and judged to be particularly admirable. The psychological impact of that, I think, is far greater than the more worldly consequences.
Not all of the Pokémon in Mr. Fuji’s care have been abandoned, of course: he also cares for orphaned Pokémon, in this case Cubone. I have half come to suspect much of Cubone’s flavour text, in the Pokédex and elsewhere, was written with this specific Cubone in mind, or at least this incident in Lavender Town, which is certainly there in the original games, though not told as elaborately or emotively. Most of it refers not only to Cubone wearing its mother’s skull (where ‘mother’ could reasonably be glossed as referring to any female-line ancestor), but to mourning its mother’s death, something which is difficult to make sense of, if we understand it to apply to the whole species (some discussion of that here). It’s also worth noting that, although Marowak appear in Victory Road, the Pokémon Tower is the only place on Red and Blue where wild Cubone appear, and there aren’t very many of them, either – it doesn’t particularly strain credulity to suggest that every wild Cubone the player meets in a typical playthrough of Red or Blue version might be a child of the mother Marowak killed by Team Rocket, which would make those otherwise difficult Pokédex entries entirely accurate (it’s worth noting that, on the later Yellow version, Cubone do also appear in the Safari Zone, but considering the nature of the Safari Zone they could have been brought there from elsewhere – perhaps even from Lavender Town in response to these events). This may explain why Cubone and Marowak are such difficult species for us to understand – everything we know about them is heavily coloured by this single event. If Marowak’s portrayal in this episode is anything to go by, though, they seem to possess a profound sense of duty. The suggestion that Marowak’s spirit was haunting the tower to protect people from Team Rocket (“you shouldn’t get close to them!” she cries when Red unmasks her), a nuance that was absent from the original telling of this story in the games, is both fascinating and touching.
And that may well have been the least interesting of the four episodes of Origins. The next one is probably my favourite.
The Path to the Pokémon League – The School of Hard Knocks – Mystery at the Lighthouse
Yep; I’m doing these out of order, for a couple of reasons. One is that I really want to do episodes ten, eleven and twelve as a group, and spend a whole entry just on episode fourteen, which sort of leaves thirteen as the odd one out. The other and far more important reason is that I feel these three episodes have a unifying theme, which is what I want to discuss today – see if you can guess what it is.
In the Path to the Pokémon League, Ash challenges an unofficial Pokémon Gym run by a gruff Texan kid called A.J. with an unbroken winning streak of ninety-eight battles – ninety-nine after A.J.’s fierce Sandshrew defeats Ash’s Pidgeotto. Ash decides that A.J. must have cheated to beat a Flying Pokémon with a Ground Pokémon and starts poking around the gym. A.J. is an extremely harsh master, having his Pokémon engage in constant practice fights and training exercises, and keeping them in line with his whip (A.J. has trained his Pokémon to respond to the crack of his whip, and uses it to command them in battles). All of A.J.’s Pokémon wear restraining harnesses, possibly the forerunners to the Macho Brace introduced in Ruby and Sapphire, which restrict their movements and force them to develop stronger muscles to move normally, and he has his Sandshrew swim in his pool to train away its weakness to water. Ash is horrified by his Spartan training style, but Brock observes that A.J.’s Pokémon are actually in excellent health; A.J. prepares all of their food himself and carefully tailors his recipes to the dietary needs of each species. Ash attempts to convince the other Pokémon that they can leave A.J. and travel with him instead, but they seem to find him tiresome and ignore him. Sandshrew is especially loyal to A.J.; they have been together for many years and long ago promised to grow strong together, no matter what obstacles stood in their way. The episode ends with A.J. and Sandshrew earning their hundredth victory by defeating Team Rocket, who tried to sneak in and steal Pikachu but accidentally got Sandshrew instead. As they had promised themselves, they close down the gym and leave on their own journey to start collecting badges and entering tournaments.
The School of Hard Knocks is set at Pokémon Tech, a prestigious private school in the middle of nowhere which Ash and his friends stumble into entirely by mistake on a foggy day. Rich families who want their kids to become powerful trainers without anything so messy and plebeian as a Pokémon journey will pay top dollar to send them to Pokémon Tech instead. Successfully completing each phase of the school’s program is considered an achievement equivalent to earning two Gym Badges, and graduation comes with automatic no-questions-asked membership in the Pokémon League. Kids who fall behind are subjected to distressingly rough ‘tutoring’ sessions by their classmates in order to keep them from disgracing the school, a system run by the strongest member of the beginner class, a Ground-type specialist named Giselle. Ash stumbles upon one of these sessions and rescues the supposedly underachieving student, a boy called Joe, who shows them around the school and asserts that his place there marks him as roughly Ash’s equal as a trainer, and that the school’s computer simulations predict he would defeat a Cerulean Gym trainer with little difficulty. Misty soon shows him the error of his thinking by effortlessly crushing his Weepinbell with her Starmie, ‘Grass beats Water’ be damned. Giselle shows up and gives Joe a condescending lecture on how a Pokémon’s level is just as important as type match-ups, and goes on to prove it by defeating Starmie with her Graveler. She mocks Ash’s ignorance and inexperience, provoking him and Pikachu into a battle against her Cubone to defend their ideals of Pokémon training based on friendship. Despite her confidence in Cubone’s immunity to electrical attacks, Pikachu prevails by spinning Cubone’s skull helmet backwards and blinding him, a tactic Giselle’s study of conventional Pokémon battling had left her completely unprepared for. Giselle is considerably more gracious in defeat than victory, and concedes that she is still a beginner as well, while Joe decides to start his career over with a Pokémon journey like Ash’s, since Pokémon Tech is not for him.
The last episode I want to look at today is Mystery at the Lighthouse. This episode starts with Ash capturing a Krabby, his seventh Pokémon, which of course vanishes back to Professor Oak’s lab. In order to check up on Krabby the group walks to the nearest building, a lighthouse, and request the use of the owner’s phone. The owner, a researcher named Bill, invites them inside via intercom and directs them to his phone. Once Ash has established that Krabby arrived safely, they meet Bill himself, a somewhat unhinged cosplayer who has trapped himself in a particularly Byzantine costume of a Kabuto, in order to… research its behaviour. Or something. Once freed, he shows them his current research project – he’s broadcasting a reply to the call of an unknown ocean Pokémon he recorded some time ago, inviting it to come to the lighthouse and meet him – and, wonder of wonders, tonight is the night! Bill hears his mystery Pokémon calling out to him, and the group sees its immense form emerge from the mist (it’s pretty clearly a Dragonite, a Pokémon Ash’s Pokédex seems to be familiar with in the very next episode, but it’s also ten times the size of a normal Dragonite, so it might be a weird subspecies). Unfortunately Team Rocket, lurking on the cliffs below the lighthouse, attack the Pokémon with bazookas (James, interestingly, is quite distressed; I think this is the first episode to portray him as markedly less immoral than Jessie), enraging it. It swats Team Rocket, smashes the top of the lighthouse, and then leaves in a huff. In the morning, Bill tells Ash and his friends that he feels privileged even to have seen the mysterious Pokémon and gives them a few words of encouragement. They set off for Vermillion City, and Bill spends the rest of the day quietly sobbing in his basement, having lost an opportunity he will probably never get again (or at least, this is what I imagine to have happened).
So, who’s picked up on the theme?
The theme these episodes have in common is different ways of living and interacting with Pokémon. The series focuses primarily, of course, on Ash’s relationship with his Pokémon, but as the opening scenes of Mystery at the Lighthouse point out, Ash’s training style and philosophy are actually quite unorthodox. Brock and Misty note that it’s entirely normal or even expected for full-time trainers to capture dozens of Pokémon before settling on a few they like (if they ever do at all). This is more or less how Gary’s campaign is described, and it’s implied that the other two Pallet trainers are doing the same thing, while Ash’s comparatively small roster has more in common with those of the numerous small-time trainers who stay in their hometowns (the interesting thing about this is that the one who behaves in a manner more consistent with a typical player of the Pokémon games is actually Gary, not Ash). As far as Ash is concerned, the most important thing for a trainer is having a strong emotional bond with your Pokémon, and if you get that right the rest is just bells and whistles (I swear there are moments when Ash thinks you can win a battle with the power of friendship). This isn’t to say that others are cruel or neglectful, but it’s hard to imagine Gary treating all or even many of his Pokémon with the affection Ash does, and Ash’s relationship with Pikachu regularly earns comment for their remarkable closeness. The first character in the series to demonstrate a comparable friendship with a Pokémon is, funnily enough, A.J., who is as inseparable from his Sandshrew as Ash will eventually become from Pikachu – they’re a lot more alike than Ash would probably admit. For Ash, though, being a Pokémon trainer is about exploring the world and making new friends, while for A.J. it’s about endurance and determination in the face of suffering and hardship, which is why he works his Pokémon so hard. The episode still portrays him sympathetically, though, since he genuinely cares for his Pokémon and works them hard because he wants them to be healthy and strong.
Contrast, for instance, Giselle. Although Giselle is clearly intended to be arrogant to the point of being obnoxious, and although she expects very high standards from her human friends, she appears to be at least tolerably kind to her Pokémon and believes that responsibility for defeat rests squarely on the shoulders of trainers, not Pokémon. A.J. would probably react to a loss by working the Pokémon harder, because his first responsibility as a trainer is, well, to train; Giselle would be more likely to react by studying harder herself and researching new tactics, because her first responsibility as a trainer is to command. Giselle’s general attitude implies a rather condescending view of Pokémon. They’re objects of study to her, more like underlings or even tools than partners, but she’s smart enough to know that mistreating them won’t get her anywhere. The implication is that she represents the philosophies of Pokémon Tech as a whole, which is why Joe decides to leave when he comes to admire Ash’s way of doing things more, but – Giselle’s own character flaws aside – the episode as a whole seems to view this outlook as just as much a viable alternative as A.J.’s, with the caveat that each trainer has to make his or her own way.
Finally, we have Bill, who as a researcher has no interest in owning Pokémon at all. For Ash, and for most other trainers, the first step in making friends with a Pokémon is to capture it, which seems like it would actually be a fairly counterintuitive notion for someone who isn’t a trainer. Ash automatically assumes that Bill wants to catch the mystery Pokémon he’s looking for, but Bill can’t think of any reason why he would and just wants to meet it. He’s like Giselle and the rest of Pokémon Tech in that his relationship with Pokémon has a huge intellectual component, but at the same time he’s very different in that they study Pokémon in order to make more effective use of them, while Bill actually seems to look up to Pokémon and admire them. His bizarre cosplay fixation, for instance, is part of an attempt to understand Pokémon from their own points of view. In short, someone like Giselle cultivates an intellectual approach to Pokémon so that they might benefit from association with humanity, while someone like Bill cultivates that same approach so that humanity might benefit from association with them. At the same time, Bill’s final speech at the episode’s conclusion makes clear that he regards trainers as vital to the continuation of Pokémon research. This is partly a statement of practicality – trainers are the ones who catch Pokémon, and often the ones who discover new species as they explore – but also an assertion of the importance of embracing different ideas and worldviews (a theme which, years later, was wholeheartedly taken up by Black and White).
Wow, this was a long entry. Okay, quick summary: because Ash is the main character of the anime, it’s easy to forget that his experience of Pokémon is in fact an atypical one. These episodes, among others, show that the relationship between Pokémon and humanity is actually a far more complex one than Ash’s rather idealistic interpretation might suggest. This is another of those recurring themes that I’m probably going to comment on more as I move through the series – as well as something I’d like to see more of in the games!