Pokémon Scent-sation – The Ninja Poké-Showdown
Last anime review for a few weeks so we can look at something else, so let’s make it a good cut-off point: Ash’s next two Gym battles, against Erika of the Celadon Gym and Koga of the Fuchsia Gym. Can he defeat these fearsome foes? Don’t be silly; of course he can. He’s the main character.
When the gang arrives in Celadon City, Misty immediately drags them into a perfume shop to do girl things while Brock ogles the shop assistants. Ash scoffs, declares to everyone in earshot that perfume is foul-smelling, overpriced garbage that “turns guys into zombies,” and is thrown out of the store by the bitterly offended manager. He doesn’t care, because he’s only interested in getting to the Celadon Gym anyway. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Gym manufactures perfume, and the trainers there are none too pleased with him. They refuse him entry and he wanders off, dejected, until serendipity strikes. Jessie, James and Meowth have been trying to infiltrate Celadon Gym to steal their secret perfume recipe – unsuccessfully; they ran into the Leader’s Gloom, whose stench was bad enough to overpower even Koffing. They concoct a cunning plan to get both Ash and themselves inside. Because they are Team Rocket, this plan involves cross-dressing. They disguise themselves as parents wanting to enrol their ‘daughter’ – Ash in a dress and a blonde wig – in a Pokémon training class at the Gym, so they can slip inside too. Ash is permitted to enter the Gym’s inner rooms, where he finds not only that the Gym Leader, Erika, is the manager he insulted in the perfume store, but also that Misty, Brock and Pikachu are there already, participating in one of Erika’s classes. Misty asks why Erika’s Gloom doesn’t stink, and she responds by telling the story of how Gloom saved her from a wild Grimer when she was a child, and explains that Gloom’s stench is purely defensive and won’t trigger if Gloom feels safe. Ash can’t maintain his disguise for long once Misty and Pikachu start talking to him, so he drops the act and challenges Erika. Bulbasaur is unable to defeat Erika’s Tangela, but her next Pokémon, Weepinbell, quickly loses to Charmander. Erika grudgingly acknowledges Ash’s skill, but declares that “there’s one thing you don’t have – empathy for your Pokémon!” Erika’s… kinda full of it; Ash has many shortcomings as a trainer but empathy is probably his greatest strength. Anyway, she calls out Gloom and Charmander passes out within seconds. Pikachu volunteers to step into the ring, but the battle is interrupted by Team Rocket appearing and blowing themselves up by mistake (although they do escape with a vial which, sadly, turns out to be only one ingredient of Erika’s perfume – “essence of Gloom”). The Gym is now on fire. The trainers rush around frantically to evacuate the Grass Pokémon, and once they’re all outside Squirtle and Misty try to put out the blaze. In the chaos, however, Erika… somehow left behind her Gloom. Y’know, her partner Pokémon, her dearest friend. Ash charges back into the burning building, finds Gloom, manages to calm her down enough to get her to stop filling the area with noxious fumes, and carries her out. Erika is sufficiently impressed by all this to concede that Ash really does possess true empathy, and decides to write off their battle and award Ash a Rainbow Badge for going beyond the call of duty (for those counting, that’s 1/5 badges so far that he’s earned by winning a legitimate Gym battle).
Some weeks later, we find Ash and his companions lost in the forest, as usual. They’re looking for the Fuchsia Gym, but the problem is that, in the anime, there doesn’t seem to be a “Fuchsia City,” or if there is, they never visit it; the Gym is very remote. As they weave across the landscape, they find a walled mansion built like an old Japanese castle, and enter through the front gates to see whether anyone’s home. The mansion is full of traps – rotating false walls, Voltorb concealed under the floorboards, glass panels that spring up to block their path – and the only inhabitant seems to be a Venonat who keeps leading them into trouble (we know, from our privileged position as the audience, that this Venonat has been watching Ash and his friends for some time). Venonat turns out to belong to a pink-clad ninja girl named Aya, who introduces herself by nailing Ash’s jacket to the wall with a fistful of shuriken, and refuses to let them leave without a battle. Ash’s Bulbasaur counters Venonat’s Stun Spore with… Whirlwind… which is not a thing Bulbasaur has ever been able to do in any version of the games, although, to give them credit, it doesn’t come completely out of nowhere because Bulbasaur actually pulled the same thing on Butterfree when Ash first met him (Bulbasaur’s Whirlwind just involves puffing up his cheeks and blowing really hard). Finally Bulbasaur saps away all of Venonat’s power with Leech Seed. Aya’s older brother, Koga, shows up to critique her battling, and explains that the mansion is, in fact, the Fuchsia Gym and he is the Gym Leader. He accepts Ash’s challenge and meets Pidgeotto with another Venonat, who rather dramatically evolves into Venomoth the moment the battle begins. Venomoth’s powder attacks are too strong for Pidgeotto’s Whirlwind, and Ash is forced to switch in Charmander, who is rapidly becoming his powerhouse Pokémon and can handle Stun Spore quite effectively with his Flamethrower. Jessie and James show up to interrupt and hurl sticky webs around the room to disable everyone’s Pokémon, and the heroes are forced to retreat from Arbok and Weezing through the Fuchsia Gym’s traps. Eventually, to Misty’s dismay, her perennially confused Psyduck is the only thing standing between Team Rocket and the good guys. Ash flips open the Pokédex to help her figure out what Psyduck can actually do, and his pathetic attempts at Scratch and Tail Whip attacks reduce Jessie and James to hysterics. Meowth is getting impatient, however, so Arbok eats Psyduck’s head. This turns out to be a mistake, because – as the Pokédex helpfully explains – when Psyduck’s perpetual headaches become worse than usual, he gains phenomenal telekinetic powers, which he uses to crush Arbok and Weezing and send Team Rocket flying. Ash and Koga resume their battle outside, and although Koga’s Golbat proves quite a challenge with its blistering speed and horrible Supersonic attack, Charmander manages to overcome it with Fire Spin and earn Ash his Soul Badge.
The Ninja Poké-Showdown is the first of many episodes with subplots that revolve around Misty and Psyduck. Misty never wanted Psyduck and it’s not entirely clear that Psyduck understood what he was doing when he climbed into Misty’s Pokéball either. She tolerates him, barely, but his tendency to leap out of his Pokéball when she wants a different Pokémon (usually Starmie) grates on her nerves, especially since he invariably has no idea what’s going on and can’t actually fight. Whenever his headaches get bad enough to unlock his powers, however, he becomes probably the strongest Pokémon in the whole party. At the beginning of this episode, Misty suggests that she trade Psyduck for Brock’s Vulpix in order to get rid of him, but by the end, she’s turning down Koga’s generous offer of a trade for his Venomoth. Although she never stays happy with Psyduck for long, I feel that his sporadic successes do gradually wear her down over the course of the series, softening her less attractive character traits, like her impatience and her superficiality, and increasing her capacity for empathy.
Anyway, this entry was supposed to be about Gyms, so let’s look at those some more. Again, we see that Pokémon Gyms are fundamentally very independent. No-one questions Erika’s decision to bar Ash from the Gym for insulting her profession, or her later decision to confer a Rainbow Badge, even though he was actually losing their battle (hey, the guy did run into a burning building to save a Pokémon; he deserves something). More importantly, one can suppose that Erika isn’t reliant on Pokémon League funding to maintain the Celadon Gym, because the high-quality perfume the place produces probably earns her and her trainers a fair amount of money. I’m not sure I even want to guess what Koga and Aya might do to supplement their income, but presumably they don’t live in the middle of nowhere practicing ninja arts just for their health, y’know? The isolation of Fuchsia Gym is another interesting point; the games like to portray Gym Leaders as pillars of the community, but anime Koga is almost a hermit and the Fuchsia Gym doesn’t even announce itself as a Pokémon Gym. In both the games and the anime, it’s a historic ninja training ground, presumably with a long tradition of Pokémon training, and probably predates the formation of the Pokémon League. It’s odd that the League would award official status to such a remote compound; it’s unlikely they get many visitors or take many challenges. It seems like common sense that a Gym is supposed to provide a place for local trainers to practice their craft, and the way Erika runs the Celadon Gym – offering classes on Pokémon training – seems to back this up, but the Gyms Ash visits in the anime have such wildly varying administrative structures and community roles that it’s difficult to work out what on earth is supposed to constitute ‘normal’ for these people. We can strike off the Saffron Gym right away because it’s inhabited by a maniacal cult; likewise the Viridian Gym, which is a crime lord’s den. The fact that the Cinnabar Gym even exists is one of Kanto’s best-kept secrets. The Pewter and Vermillion Gyms seem like dark, forbidding places occupied only by the Gym Leader and (in Vermillion) a couple of sidekicks. The Cerulean Gym, worst of all, is run by Misty’s sisters. No-one has a particularly clear idea of what a Gym ought to be or do other than that it should accept challenges and give out badges, as appropriate. Celadon seems like a good model for how a Gym should be run, but it’s the exception, not the rule, and I doubt the Pokémon League has much say in any of this.
I can’t help but assume that Koga, like Sabrina, has some excuse for operating his Gym the way he does, because his is one of the weirder situations. If I can be allowed to speculate a little, the Fuchsia Gym – since we know it has a long history – might have been involved in creating the Indigo League in the first place; it’s been a Gym for as long as there have been Gyms, and has stayed the same as conceptions of ‘what a Gym should be’ have changed around it. Any attempt to get rid of it now would deny its historic contributions, so Koga is free to sit in his ninja castle and give Soul Badges to anyone crazy enough to trek out to the Gym, pick through all his traps, and get past his lunatic pink ninja sister. It’s a little unfortunate I haven’t had much to say about Celadon Gym today but, well, I’m drawn to things that require explanation and, frankly, Erika’s Gym is almost freakishly normal considering what whacked-out places most of the Kanto Gyms are…