The Battling Eevee Brothers – Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden
Ash’s location: central Anatolia.
Evolution is one of my favourite themes. It’s apparently a very simple concept, but the way it’s treated in the anime has all kinds of fascinating implications that you can draw into an extremely complicated and morally nuanced vision of how this world works. As usual, much of what I have to say here is totally made up, but regular readers will know by now that I’ve never let that stop me before…
In the Battling Eevee Brothers, Ash, Misty and Brock find an Eevee tied to a tree in the woods with a bowl of food next to it. Brock suggests that the Eevee has been abandoned, at which Ash and Misty are horrified. They notice a gold tag on Eevee’s collar with an address engraved, in a place called Stone Town (at the foot of Evolution Mountain, claims Brock – three guesses what this episode’s going to be about…). Misty is tempted to keep Eevee, but they agree they should try to find Eevee’s owner first. Following Eevee’s tag leads them to an opulent manse with a spacious garden, where three triplets and their Pokémon – Rainer and his Vaporeon, Pyro and his Flareon, and Sparkyand his Jolteon – are hosting an evolution party, with free evolutionary stones for all comers. Eevee, who belongs to their younger brother Mikey, is the guest of honour; today is supposed to be the day he chooses his Eevee’s evolved form. Mikey himself is less than thrilled, and confides to Misty that he doesn’t care about battles, doesn’t actually want Eevee to evolve at all, and hid him in the woods to keep him out of sight, just until the party was over. Ash and Brock, meanwhile, argue with Rainer, Sparky and Pyro, who have offered them a Thunder Stone and a Fire Stone to evolve Pikachu and Vulpix. Team Rocket crash the party, have Weezing lay down some smog cover, and steal a dozen Pokémon, including Eevee and Misty’s Horsea, and as many evolution stones as they can carry before hightailing it out of there. Horsea, however, is clever enough to leave a trail of ink for the heroes to follow. While Jessie, James and Meowth are arguing over how to evolve Eevee (they eventually decide to use all three stones at once, just to see what happens) the good guys show up, and Vaporeon, Jolteon and Flareon give Arbok and Weezing a thrashing. Remarkably, though, Jessie and James manage to turn things around… until Mikey’s Eevee enters the fray and slams Arbok and Weezing with a powerful Take Down. As Misty had suggested, Mikey finally admits to his brothers that he’d rather just keep Eevee – and, after seeing what their brother’s Pokémon is capable of, they’re pretty cool with that.
Some weeks later, Ash’s Bulbasaur collapses, quivering, after winning a difficult battle against a hiker’s Rhyhorn, and his bulb starts glowing softly. Ash rushes him to a Pokémon Centre, where Nurse Joy #292 concludes that there’s nothing wrong with Bulbasaur at all: he’s preparing to evolve. It’ll soon be time for him to journey to a place called the Mysterious Garden, a semi-mythical grove where Bulbasaur gather every year to evolve into Ivysaur. Ash is overjoyed. That night, Bulbasaur slips out of the Pokémon Centre to brood. Pikachu follows him, and they talk for a while (Pikachu seems to be comforting him, and offering support). Without warning, a gang of wild Bulbasaur seize Ash’s Bulbasaur with their Vine Whips and carry him off. Pikachu runs to fetch Ash and the others, and together they track the Bulbasaur through the forest, even as the plants themselves try to keep them from following. They narrowly manage to slip through a solid wall of vines as it knits itself together, and find themselves in the Mysterious Garden. They see hundreds of Bulbasaur in the valley below them, singing, as the plants around them grow and blossom in moments. An ancient Venusaur emerges from within an enormous hollow tree in the centre of the valley and roars. The Bulbasaur roar in response, and all begin to evolve… except for Ash’s Bulbasaur, who seems to be struggling not to. Venusaur is furious, and Ash runs to Bulbasaur’s side to block a Vine Whip. Ash apologises to Bulbasaur for getting so excited about his evolution without considering his feelings, and tries to convince Venusaur that he shouldn’t be forced to evolve. Venusaur responds by demonstrating his miraculous abilities, causing a bare cherry tree to burst into bloom, and Misty wonders “don’t you want to have that kind of power, Bulbasaur?” As they argue, Team Rocket once again crash the party, floating over the wall of vines in their balloon and sucking up as many Ivysaur as they can with one of their ridiculous vacuum devices. The situation looks dire… until the sun rises. With a tremendous battle cry, Bulbasaur blasts Team Rocket with his first Solarbeam. The balloon is destroyed, the Ivysaur fall back to earth, and Venusaur finds it in his heart to forgive Bulbasaur for disrupting the ritual. Bulbasaur leaves with the kids as the wall of vines shrinks away, and they realise why no-one has ever been able to find the Mysterious Garden: once the ceremony ends, it simply ceases to exist.
Let’s look at some quotes from Eevee Brothers. The conversation Ash and Brock have with Rainer, Sparky and Pyro makes it plain as day that their views on evolution, particularly on induced evolution, are wildly different to the brothers’. Ash is asked “one of these days you’ll turn that Pikachu into a Raichu, won’t you?” in a very matter-of-fact tone, to which Pikachu reacts with obvious worry. The brothers also ask Brock “why don’t you just make [Vulpix] evolve?” as though it would be the easiest thing in the world – and, well, they’re offering him a free Fire Stone, so why not? After all, “evolution is what Pokémon are all about!” If you’ve been playing the games, this makes a lot of sense. If there’s a move you want your Pokémon to learn, you might hold off on evolution until it’s learnt it, because most Pokémon stop learning new attacks after using stones. In the long term, though, there’s no downside. If you mean to use a Pokémon for fighting, you will eventually evolve it, no ifs, no buts. That’s not how Ash and Brock see it. Ash tells the brothers, somewhat defensively, “we just don’t evolve our Pokémon that way,” while Brock says firmly “you like your way of evolving and we like ours.” You can read this either as making sense or as being utter bullshit. Personally I would rather read it as making sense but, y’know, to each his own. It makes sense when you think about what actually happens when Pokémon evolve; their physical bodies grow and change their proportions, sometimes drastically, and their mental state often undergoes a profound shift as well. Normally in the anime this seems to have some kind of psychological trigger; Pokémon evolve when they’re ready for it, and sometimes seem to be able to forestall evolution on their own – but when a trainer uses a stone, the Pokémon simply evolves on the spot, without any choice in the matter. It’s not really unreasonable for Ash and Brock to think that using these things is a little bit morally questionable, especially if it’s done for the sole aim of making the Pokémon in question better at battling.
Where the argument breaks down – and where Ash and Brock’s position starts to make less sense – is that, for Pokémon like Pikachu and Vulpix, there is no other way to reach their final forms. If Ash and Pikachu aren’t willing to use a Thunder Stone, Pikachu’s never going to become a Raichu; no two ways about it. Brock’s statement suggests that he believes there is some other way for Pikachu and Vulpix to evolve, but if so, no-one ever hints at what that might be. Moreover, Ash’s statement suggests that refusing to use the Thunder Stone Sparky offers him is not simply a matter of waiting for the right time; he has absolutely no intention of evolving Pikachu at all, now, later, or ever. Surely Pokémon are supposed to reach their final forms eventually? Why else would they even have them? On the other hand, clearly evolution isn’t actually necessary for Pikachu to become an ‘adult’ since, as we just saw in Pikachu’s Goodbye, a community of wild Pikachu can get along just fine without a single Raichu. Obviously they’re capable of surviving without the protection of their more powerful cousins, and presumably they also reach reproductive maturity without any hiccups (indeed, if we can trust the games, there are very few Pokémon that do need to evolve before they can reproduce – only the ‘babies,’ such as Elekid and Bonsly). My newest pet theory on this is that Pikachu’s ability to evolve into Raichu is actually vestigial. At some point in the history of their development, for one reason or another, they stopped needing to evolve (maybe Pikachu fill an ecological niche that Raichu are less suited to, or maybe some kind of Ground-type predator made speed and small size more valuable than greater electrical power). They still have all the genes they need to become Raichu, but they’ve lost the genes that tell them when and why to evolve, so unless they’re triggered by some outside influence, they just don’t. Basically, what I’m suggesting is that Pokémon like Raichu, Ninetales and Poliwrath are throwbacks – forms that have become extinct in the wild, because they’re no longer suited to a changing ecosystem, but can be recreated via human intervention. That definitely leaves Ash and Brock plenty of room to feel a little bit uncomfortable about evolutionary stones, especially if the Pokémon have no choice in whether to use them.
The degree of choice Pokémon have in when they evolve is another tricky question that the anime implies things about, but rarely explains outright. Most of the evolutions we’ve seen in the series so far have happened at moments of high emotion; it’s often implied that they’re triggered by strong desire or need – most notably, Ekans and Koffing evolving in Dig Those Diglett, in response to their trainers’ uncharacteristic outbursts of affection. Bulbasaur, it seems, are very different. They have little freedom to decide; evolution, for them, is an extremely ritualistic thing that all of them go through together – to the point that, when Ash’s Bulbasaur decides he doesn’t want to evolve, he provokes the outrage of the entire community. That isn’t merely because his refusal somehow disrupted the ceremony either. The scene between Bulbasaur and Pikachu is a little tricky to interpret because, y’know, they don’t speak, but I’m pretty sure that Bulbasaur is explaining to Pikachu that he doesn’t think he really wants to evolve yet, but doesn’t want to disappoint Ash either, and Pikachu is telling him that it’s okay and Ash will be cool with it. The other Bulbasaur who overhear the conversation are apparently so discomforted by the whole idea that they immediately kidnap him and drag him to the Mysterious Garden. Venusaur isn’t just upset about the ritual; he and all the Ivysaur are actually somehow offended that Bulbasaur doesn’t want to evolve. For them, it’s the most natural thing in the world, the way they attain the powers that are their birthright, and trying to deny it is just asking for trouble. Of course, if that’s how they do things, where the hell does Ash get off trying to stop them? Or, conversely, if we do let the Bulbasaur get on with their strictly enforced mass evolution ceremonies in peace, what kind of ground are we standing on if we say that Mikey’s Eevee shouldn’t be forced to evolve?
I could go on, you understand. It’s just that this entry is clearly getting far too long.