N asks:

What would be the biggest culture shocks for someone that comes from the world of Pokémon to ours?

listen if you’re thinking of making the move I don’t recommend it

but… well, I’m gonna guess the absence of Pokémon would be the big one, to be honest.

People in the Pokémon world rely on their Pokémon for all kinds of things, and it often seems like it’s kind of unusual to be a person who doesn’t care about Pokémon and isn’t in any capacity involved with Pokémon.  Like, in the real world, telling someone you don’t have pets is not a big deal.  In the Pokémon world, sure, not everyone is a trainer exactly, but almost everyone has Pokémon in their lives in some capacity, maybe as pets or co-workers or even spiritual advisors.  How big a change this is might depend on when and where you landed – people in real rural societies do “live with animals” in a fairly meaningful sense, while urbanites tend to be largely oblivious of even the animals we eat (and actually, this is a total tangent but my IRL friend Flint Dibble, who is a zooarchaeologist, talks a lot about this stuff on Twitter and is very good at making compelling stories of his work).  Of course, maybe then the culture shock is “you eat your animals!?” (but then, are we so sure they don’t eat Pokémon too?).  They would probably be confused at how far animals, other than pets, are kept at arms’ length in their involvement in modern society – and might think that we must be very disconnected from nature on account of that.

The dependence of children on their parents is probably the other big thing.  In the Pokémon world, it’s generally seen as pretty safe for kids to travel on their own if they have Pokémon, who can provide both protection and emotional support.  Adults are not necessarily better trainers than children either, so Pokémon are a big equalising factor in the face of any dangers you might face.  In the absence of that security and freedom, modern childhood (even modern life in general) in the real world would probably seem stifling.

Anime Time: Episode 72

The Ancient Puzzle of Pokémopolis

What happens when you get an actual real-live archaeologist to write a commentary on the episode of the Pokémon anime where they discover a bunch of artefacts from an ancient city?   Let’s find out.

The artefact known as the 'Unearthly Urn.'
The artefact known as the ‘Unearthly Urn.’

At the beginning of this episode, Ash and Brock are having a training battle out in the wilderness when a couple of stray attacks blow a hole in a hillside, revealing a buried shrine.  Brock finds a mottled orange dumbbell-shaped object lying on an altar, which is immediately snatched away from him by a young, blue-haired and inexplicably French archaeologist named Eve, who has a whole team of khaki-clad excavators with her.  Eve immediately presents the mysterious object to a senior professor in her group, excited because it apparently confirms an extremely important hypothesis of hers.  Once Eve’s initial bubbling enthusiasm has subsided, she brings the kids to her dig team’s camp and shows them some of her recent finds.  She claims that these artefacts – particularly the dumbbell that the kids just found, and a spoon made of the same orange material – are the first archaeological evidence of the location of an ancient city called Pokémopolis, where humans worshipped Pokémon as symbols of the power of nature.  Eve, despite her young age, is apparently the world’s foremost expert on this lost civilisation.  Her doting professor tells the kids that she had earned her PhD by the time she was eight years old, and published a best-selling book on Pokémopolis a year later.  At the moment, Eve is trying to figure out what to make of a stone tablet with a cryptic and ominous inscription: “Beware the two great powers of destruction.  The shadow of the Dark Device will grapple with the prisoner of the Unearthly Urn.  The sacred city will be no more as day is swallowed up by night.  Darker still for you when they return to lay waste the world, but no human knows the secret to soothe the powers and guide them back to the shadow world.”

Continue reading “Anime Time: Episode 72”

Anime Time: Episode 63

The Battle of the Badge

Okay!  Last badge!  We are PSYCHED!  GO ASH!  WHOOHOO!

So, Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu enter Viridian City.  Misty remarks that it’s been a whole year since they were last there, which I mention because it’s one of the few instances in the series where we get actual references to time passing – this particular one tells me that Ash probably has his twelfth birthday while preparing for the Pokémon League, since he’s only a few weeks shy of eleven when he leaves Pallet Town, and is the basis for my estimate that the kids travel for about five days between episodes (obviously there’s some variation – for instance, no time at all passes between Riddle Me This and Volcanic Panic – but assuming their ‘adventures’ are mixed fairly evenly with their ‘down time,’ it should be about five days on average).

Well, I thought it was interesting.

 I've decided that Giovanni has decorated his Gym and door guards in a vaguely classical style because he's (presumably) of Italian descent, but doesn't know enough about the Roman army to make his soldiers actually look authentic.

Anyway, when Ash is about to walk up to the Viridian Gym, he’s interrupted by his dear sweet archenemy, Gary Oak.  Gary actually has ten badges already; he’s just going after an eleventh for bragging rights (another telling little detail: there are at least twelve official Gyms in Kanto, since we know Gary never won a Volcano Badge either).  Gary waltzes past Ash, throws a few choice insults his way, and struts up to the door guards, who are inexplicably decked out in the kind of Greco-Roman mish-mash that makes classicists like me cry ourselves to sleep – bronze breastplate, leather skirt, etc – but armed with halberds, of all things, which are blatantly Renaissance weapons (I promise that this will be my last barely-relevant tangent for this- oh, who am I kidding?).  These imposing fellows let Gary in, but refuse to admit Ash, declaring that only one challenger at a time may enter… so we follow Gary for a while instead.  The Viridian Gym Leader turns out to be Giovanni, the mysterious Boss of Team Rocket (what a twist!) though this is lost on Gary, who doesn’t know him.  He overpowers Giovanni’s Golem with his Nidoking, and boils a Kingler with his Arcanine’s Fire Spin, prompting Giovanni to test out his newest and most powerful Pokémon, whom Gary’s Pokédex is unable to identify.  He even invites Gary to use both Arcanine and Nidoking together to fight the armoured monstrosity, but both are paralysed by its mysterious powers and flung roughly against the wall of the Gym.  Then, just for fun, Giovanni has his Pokémon incapacitate Gary and his cheerleaders before leaving to take care of other business.

 Mewtwo in his badass armour.  I'm not even totally sure what this is for; he certainly doesn't need it for protection.  I think Giovanni claims that it helps Mewtwo to control his powers.

Meanwhile, Togepi has gotten lost and been carried halfway across the city by a wild Fearow.  Misty, of course, searches everywhere in panic, but Team Rocket find Togepi first.  Jessie suffers great personal injury trying to grab Togepi as she wanders across a plank suspended between two tall buildings, but manages to secure her.  Overjoyed at finally having stolen a rare Pokémon, she, James and Meowth go in person to present their spoils to Giovanni, who stares blankly at Togepi and asks “what… exactly does this Pokémon do?”  Jessie, James and Meowth confer, and realise that they have absolutely no idea what powers Togepi possesses, if any, and Jessie answers “it… would certainly make a handsome paperweight!”  Giovanni is about to eviscerate them for their incompetence, but is notified of an emergency and has to hurry away to fetch his super-Pokémon.  For lack of anyone more capable, he instructs Jessie and James to man the Gym and tosses them three Pokéballs before exiting.  Togepi, who has wandered off in the meantime, finds her way to the front doors of the Gym, where the kids have met up again after completing their search.  They hear her voice and haul the doors open to find Togepi, safe and unharmed… and Gary and his cheerleading squad, unconscious and scattered around the arena.  As Ash tries to learn from Gary what happened to him, Jessie and James appear, declare that they are now the Gym Leaders, and challenge Ash to a battle.  Just to make things more interesting, Meowth has rigged special trainer boxes that transmit the pain felt by the battling Pokémon to their trainers, reducing Ash to crippling agony when Jessie’s borrowed Machamp pummels his Squirtle into submission, and her Kingler shrugs off Bulbasaur’s attacks.  When he calls Pidgeotto, however, and hits Jessie’s Rhydon with a mighty Double Edge, Jessie realises that her box has the same set-up as Ash’s.  Gary snatches the control remote from Meowth to keep him from turning off Jessie’s box, so she panics and calls Arbok and Weezing into the fight as well.  Ash objects to her using five Pokémon at once and has Pikachu join the others and blast them with his best Thunderbolt.  Giovanni’s Pokémon flee the arena and, while Jessie, James and Meowth flail uselessly, Togepi finds Meowth’s remote and starts playing with it.  Jessie’s trainer box explodes and flings Team Rocket out of the Gym, dropping an Earth Badge on the way.  Well… Ash never even met the Gym Leader… and his challenge was marked by flagrant rule violations on both sides… and no-one ever actually conferred the Earth Badge on him… but what the hell, a Badge is a Badge, right?

 ...is it just me, or is Jessie's Machamp kinda TOWERING OVER her Rhydon?  I'm pretty sure Machamp are roughly human-sized, but Jessie would barely come up to his waist... then again, I wouldn't put it past Giovanni to load 'em up on steroids...

It turns out Giovanni was the Viridian Gym Leader all along!  I realise this is probably old news to almost everyone reading this, since he’s the Leader in all the games set in Kanto as well but, of course, I find this really interesting.  In the games, Gym Leaders tend to be portrayed as pillars of the community, and this tends to hold true for later seasons of the anime as well, but in the Indigo series things are often much weirder – most notably for Sabrina, Koga and Blaine.  Giovanni adds another bizarre perspective to things: this Gym Leader is a mob boss.  I think it’s fair to assume that the Pokémon League either doesn’t know about what he does in his spare time or doesn’t care… and which option you think is more likely says a lot about what you think of the Pokémon League.  If they don’t know, then this adds support to my overall impression that there is fairly little League oversight in the way Gyms are run.  One also has to wonder whether the League might be dangerously incompetent.  True, Giovanni is a criminal mastermind and probably very good at covering his tracks but, on the other hand, he is at the head of an organisation that often works in direct opposition to the Pokémon League and regularly tramples on every value they stand for.  If the body responsible for the regulation of Pokémon training can’t sniff out the head honcho of a crime syndicate devoted to the abuse and exploitation of Pokémon within its own ranks, something has got to be badly wrong here.  The alternative possibility – that the Pokémon League knows exactly what Giovanni is up to and just doesn’t care – is even more frightening, possibly implying that significant factions of the League’s management are in Team Rocket’s pocket.  I think some combination of the two is probably in play: many overworked League officials are willing to get lazy with their background checks, or keep inspectors out of the Viridian Gym’s private areas, in exchange for a little ‘incentive.’  After all, plenty of Gym Leaders are eccentric – he probably just has a few little projects going in the basement that he doesn’t want to be public knowledge.  Can’t do any harm to let that slide, right?

 "Ohmygod Gary!  Here, let me hold you..."

The next big question is one that Misty actually raises in the episode itself: why would Team Rocket want to own a Gym anyway?  Jessie responds haughtily that she wouldn’t understand; Team Rocket’s plans are too far-reaching and intricate for the likes of them (which, Meowth explains, means that she doesn’t know either).  It is difficult to imagine that Giovanni could actually steal Pokémon from challengers without blowing his cover – moreover, he had ample opportunity to take Gary’s Arcanine and Nidoking (who had, remember, just defeated two of Giovanni’s own Pokémon) but chose not to, so it certainly doesn’t seem like that’s his game here.  The obvious motive is money; Showdown in Dark City implies that official Pokémon Gyms can expect to be profitable, since that’s the Yas and Kas leaders’ primary reason for wanting official status.  Then again, some Gyms (notably Cerulean and Celadon) run separate businesses too; as a result I’m very unsure as to whether most Pokémon Gyms are funded by League grants or by their Leaders’ own personal wealth (and I quietly suspect that Giovanni created the Viridian Gym in the first place, sinking a significant portion of his ill-gotten fortune into setting it up).  The simplest argument, though, is that if the Viridian Gym existed for anything so transparently mercenary as direct profit, Jessie would know about it; there’s simply no reason for her not to.  Having a respectable public persona, too, seems like an obvious benefit, but one which Giovanni doesn’t choose to take advantage of.  It seems likely that owning an official Pokémon Gym simply gives Giovanni space to do various illegal things in secret, a place to keep Mewtwo under wraps, for instance, and work on upgrades to his cybernetic armour (taking challenges, of course, provides him with opportunities to test Mewtwo’s strength, though this is probably not routine business).  We also see that he has a number of caged Pokémon in there (incidentally, the fact that anyone would ever bother to put a Pokémon in a cage suggests quite strongly that Pokéballs just won’t cut it – they apparently wouldn’t be effective at restraining Pokémon that really want to break free).  Paradoxically, the best way to keep this stuff out of the League’s sight is by doing it right under their noses, in an official Pokémon Gym.  It seems reasonable to imagine, further, that Gym Leader status is an asset in itself; Giovanni could probably expect to be consulted about policy decisions and notified in advance of any important developments in League business, information he might be able to use to Team Rocket’s advantage.  Finally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Giovanni simply enjoyed taking challenges.  He does genuinely seem pleased by Gary’s strength, and it’s a basic truism of the series that powerful trainers seek powerful opponents; running the Gym might actually be something of a hobby for him, which would imply a whole slew of interesting twists on his characterisation.

 I wish we got to see more of Giovanni; the other Gym Leaders are all interesting, but his particular situation, I think, is the one with the most potential for elaboration.  If nothing else, it would be fantastic to have more evidence for how he treats his role as a Gym Leader (perhaps fairly casually, if he’s willing to let the notoriously incompetent Jessie, James and Meowth stand in for him – but, then again, whatever emergency he needed to deal with, it apparently required both his own personal attention and Mewtwo’s, so it’s clearly not an ordinary day for him).  The bare facts of his situation themselves, though, are more than enough for me to play with; we can learn a few rather worrying things about the Pokémon League from this episode, and this has to impact on the way we view them elsewhere in the series.

That’s the last I’m doing on Anime Time for a little while – now, there’s one more week to go of the Pokémon Power Bracket, so I’ll do another entry on that and then, I think, wrap it up with a sort of retrospective on legendary Pokémon in general.  After that… I think I need another break, but we’ll talk more about that as it comes.

Anime Time: Episode 62

Clefairy Tales

This episode is… tricky.

By “tricky” I mean that I’m not sure whether it’s the worst episode ever… or what the whole series should have been like.

I’ll… I’ll just give you the plot, shall I?

 ...I'm so sorry; I just couldn't resist.

So, they episode opens on Jigglypuff, who is strolling around the woods one night, singing to herself, leaving behind a trail of comatose forest Pokémon, with doodles all over their faces… but it’s not just the forest Pokémon that are being affected by her song.  A machine part falls from the sky and lands on her head, and she looks up to see a large yellow sphere hurtle through the sky and crash nearby in the woods.  Jigglypuff goes to investigate, and encounters a large group of Clefairy piling out of the sphere…

A few days later, as Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu relax outside an ice-cream parlour, a Clefairy approaches their table and starts doing the sort of cutesy things Clefairy are known for.  Misty declares that she must have this Clefairy, but the Pokémon isn’t interested in fighting, and bounces off, with the kids in hot pursuit.  Eventually, she slips away from them, and they return in defeat, only to find that their backpacks – and their ice-cream – have been stolen!  They go to the police station to report the theft to Officer Jenny #442, and quickly learn that they aren’t the only victims: dozens of people are lined up outside the station, complaining of increasingly bizarre thefts.  A bike horn, the buttons from a coat, the candles from a birthday cake… Misty wonders out loud who’d steal rubbish like this, and immediately gets an answer.  “ALIENS.”  The speaker is a scientist – and I use the term loosely – named Oswald, an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist whose self-proclaimed mission is to expose the hidden truths that the government doesn’t want people to know.  Oswald posits that these miscellaneous items are being purloined by Aliens for Alien Reasons, and produces a scrapbook filled with the standard blurry photographs normally used as evidence for this sort of thing.  The chef whose candles were stolen points to one picture and says that he recognises it, prompting Oswald to ask, hysterically, where he saw it and when, and whether the aliens took him aboard to probe him (no, I’m serious).  The chef stammers out that he saw the spacecraft over the forest three nights ago… which is just when the thefts began.  Oswald triumphantly joins the group and leads Ash and friends through town, sweeping the area with a bleeping ‘scanner.’

 THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE!  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

Then a pair of silver-skinned aliens land their spaceship in front of the group, calmly walk out, pick up Pikachu, and leave again.  Ash, apparently, is as dazed as I am by the way this episode is going and just blinks as they kidnap his best friend.  As the ship takes off, the kids notice that it’s being held up by a crane cable, and Ash sends Pidgeotto to snap it.  The aliens, who have stuffed Pikachu into a shockproof glass case, turn out to be Team Rocket in costume, and it looks like they’re ready to have their standard crushing defeat inflicted upon them, but instead something quite different happens.  A Clefairy appears, closely followed by an extremely irate Jigglypuff.  Oswald’s scanner starts making louder bleeping noises, and he declares that “according to my scanner, Clefairy is an alien!”  In fact, “Jigglypuff is also an alien!”  When Misty questions the scanner’s integrity, it indicates that she is also an alien, so she knocks it out of Oswald’s hand in irritation.  Meanwhile, the Clefairy steals Pikachu’s case and flees, casting a Light Screen to block Team Rocket’s pursuit before disappearing down a manhole.  Jigglypuff follows, bringing the team with her.  The manhole leads them into an underground hangar, where the Clefairy seem to have repaired their ship by cannibalising items stolen from the townsfolk, and constructed a massive rocket booster to relaunch it – and they’re going to use Pikachu to power the blasted thing.  Ash and Misty run to save Pikachu, Brock leaves to find reinforcements, and Oswald decides to stow away on the ship.  When they find Pikachu, still locked up, several Clefairy appear to guard him, but Jigglypuff bitchslaps them into submission before stalking off.  While Ash and Misty try to release Pikachu, Oswald and Jigglypuff find the bridge, where Jigglypuff furiously attacks the Clefairy captain.  Oswald starts playing with the controls and snaps the main joystick – Jigglypuff’s black marker, which she uses as a prop while singing due to its vague resemblance to a microphone.  Jigglypuff immediately grabs it and bursts into song, putting everyone on the ship to sleep, then leaves just before the launch countdown completes.  A machine whacks Pikachu with a hammer, prompting him to pour out electricity into the ship’s systems and begin the launch.

 YOU HAVE ANGERED JIGGLYPUFF, FOOLISH MORTALS.

Up above, Officer Jenny asks Brock “do you really expect me to believe a bunch of Clefairy stole those things to make a spaceship?”  Right on cue, a huge section of the road retracts to form a launch ramp and the spaceship blasts off into the sky, leaving a trail of random stolen objects behind it.

This… this may well be my favourite scene of the whole series so far.

Pikachu’s electricity overwhelms the ship’s power core and his glass cage shatters.  As Ash and Misty wake up, the spacecraft begins to lean and wobble in its flight, so they quickly find their stuff and attempt to leave.  Bulbasaur, impressively, manages to snare a nearby skyscraper with his Vine Whips and swing them all onto the roof, more or less unharmed, as the spaceship passes it.  From the roof, Ash and Misty watch the ship sail off into the sky and reflect on what has been just about the most bizarre day of their lives as trainers.

Some hours later, the Clefairy ship crashes again near a lake.  As a crowd of people gathers around to see what’s going on, Oswald emerges, wearing a makeshift cardboard space suit and asking, in a muffled and heavily accented voice, “is this the planet of the Clefairy?”  Behind him, the Clefairy crew spill out of the ship to begin their crime spree anew…

I don’t know what the writers were on when they did this one, but I want some.

 I wonder how long it takes him to realise he's not on another planet?  Hours?  Days?

Clefairy are weird, weird Pokémon.  With few exceptions, they don’t have much contact with people, suggesting that most of them don’t really buy into the idea of the implied partnership with humanity which I am convinced is the basis of the way most Pokémon relate to us.  That could be indicative of a number of things, up to and including an entirely independent civilisation with its own culture and morality.  The anime really likes the “Clefairy are from space” angle, which I think was only a fairly minor detail in the games – some dude suggests that Clefairy might be from space because of their connection with the Moon Stone – but does seem to have been at least in the back of the designers’ minds from the beginning.  Whereas Clefairy and the Moon Stone suggested that they arrived on Earth riding a meteorite, however, Clefairy Tales has them piloting an honest-to-goodness spaceship.  One might initially assume that it wasn’t originally theirs, that they stole it from someone else, but they’re shown to be able to repair the damn thing using an incredibly eclectic array of parts pilfered from random townspeople, so clearly they know its technology inside out – and the thing only failed to fly in the end because Jigglypuff put the crew to sleep and Oswald sabotaged the controls.  This isn’t just intelligence; this is technological genius.  Coupled with the belief – which, if you accept my theories, is typical of Pokémon – that human ideas about morality are exactly that, human ideas… and we have a largely amoral (though not malicious) race of highly intelligent, technologically advanced Pokémon with formidable magic and, just for fun, the ability to use Metronome.  It’s a recipe for total chaos.  Quite honestly, I think these Clefairy would make fantastic recurring villains, partly because of the fact that they’re not really villainous, just genius kleptomaniacs with mysterious goals.  Figuring out where they’re from and what they’re up to could be a fascinating storyline in itself.

 "Visit Earth, they said; observe the fascinating local culture, they said... silly backwards little planet; remind me to nuke the place from orbit..."

Funnily enough, I don’t think it’s ever actually proven in the anime that the Clefairy come from outer space.  Everything seems to imply it, Seymour in Clefairy and the Moon Stone believes that all Pokémon came from space originally, and Oswald assumes that the Clefairy in Clefairy Tales are attempting to return to their homeworld.  On the other hand, though… there are plenty of Clefairy on Earth who apparently do not have spacecraft or other advanced technology, but simply worship meteorites and draw power from cosmic phenomena.  Their presence draws me toward one of two explanations.  The Clefairy may have been stranded on Earth somehow, losing most of their technology, so that some of them ‘went native’ and fully committed themselves to staying here, while others devote all their time and energy to rebuilding from scratch the starships they will need to return home (of which the ship from Clefairy Tales is perhaps only an early prototype).  Alternatively, the Clefairy may have been from Earth all along – again, there’s no proof that they aren’t – and simply developing a space program of their own in the same way as humanity did, their zeal further increased by their strange affinity for the cosmos.  As for where and how… well, they manage to construct an underground hangar in the middle of a city (and get their crashed ship inside, unseen) in the space of three days; I can only imagine what they could do out in the wilderness with several months to work with.  One final point I want to address briefly is that there are no Clefable in this group at all; not even the leader has evolved.  This implies that they do not have – and may never have had – ready access to Moon Stones.  I’m not sure that this necessarily favours one of my explanations over the other, although it does seem to suggest that the Clefairy in Kanto are divided into distinct groups, and that trade and exchange between these groups is not without restrictions.  If I were in a particularly speculative mood (which, let’s face it, is pretty much my baseline) I might even suggest a division into ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’ factions: one group focussed on community, tradition, and ritual, who use their Moon Stones to enhance their magical abilities through evolution, and another group focussed on exploration, discovery, and technology, who devote their energies to building spacecraft (or repairing them, depending on your interpretation).

This episode, like A Chansey Operation, is utterly crazy.  It’s not totally inconsistent with the rest of the series, which is extremely light-hearted, but it was clearly written with a rather different tone in mind.  I can only imagine how differently Pokémon – both the anime and the whole franchise – might have developed if the entire series had been so wholeheartedly zany.  As matters stand, though, I can’t help but love this episode for providing me with so much material that is so fun to work into the other details of the setting.  Perhaps in that respect it’s good that it stands out the way it does.

Anime Time: Episodes 55-57

Pokémon Paparazzi – The Ultimate Test – The Breeding Centre Secret

Ash’s location: Belarus.

These episodes happened.  They were a thing.  Let’s talk about them.Looks like we've got a badass here, guys.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

One day, as the kids are eating, Ash glimpses what he takes for a rifle scope poking out of some nearby grass.  Thinking quickly, he knocks Misty and Brock down and summons Squirtle to flush out the gunman… who turns out to be just an egotistic young photographer named Todd.  Todd quickly gets over the misunderstanding and invites everyone back to his cottage for pancakes.  He tries to get some shots of Pikachu eating, but Pikachu gets nervous and fries him.  He explains that he refuses to take pictures of Pokémon posing, since his art is to capture a Pokémon’s natural image – and, far more strangely, is only interested in Ash’s camera-shy Pikachu.  When the group leaves, Todd follows stealthily, but Ash playfully springs into all of his shots, and complains that Todd is being disrespectful to Pikachu’s feelings.  He persists, since he was hired to ‘capture’ Pikachu by a tearful old couple, figuring they must have once owned a Pikachu themselves.  When Ash and the others fall into a pitfall trap (courtesy of the ‘old couple’), Todd notices that Pikachu and Ash are positioned perfectly for a photo… until the bottom of the pit crumbles and Ash falls into an old aqueduct pipe.  Todd leaps in after him and gets Ash to grab the end of his tripod before he is swept away, soaking the camera (so he has learnt A Valuable Lesson).  Team Rocket appear and start lobbing grenades as Ash dangles over a sheer drop, but Ash twists the camera around to get them to pose, and James forgets to throw the grenade in his hand.  Once Ash is rescued, Todd sets up his (spare?) camera to take a photo of himself with his new friends, but trips as he dashes to join the picture, bowling the others over and ending up with a naturalistic, unplanned scene of laughter.  Todd joins the team briefly after this, and will be with us for the rest of the entry.

Seems legit.I couldn’t care less about this episode, and I couldn’t care less about Todd, who is a transparent tie-in to the photography game in which he stars, Pokémon Snap, though I suppose his insistence on photographing Pokémon as they appear in nature, which the episode presents in a positive light, is at least a fairly admirable way for someone in his position to do business.  If there’s anything about this episode that interests me, it’s Pikachu’s reluctance to be photographed, which none of the other Pokémon Todd is offered seem to share.  Pikachu has never before, in my recollection, been shown to be particularly shy or self-conscious; in fact, aside from his initial rocky start with Ash, he’s generally very friendly.  Then again, he’s never been the subject of a photographic study before, and he may find Todd’s somewhat obsessive manner off-putting.  Ash’s irritation at Todd for not respecting Pikachu’s wishes is, of course, entirely in-character.

In the Ultimate Test, Misty makes a suggestion to Ash: “you haven’t gotten a badge in a long time… maybe you should make another Gym Leader feel sorry for you.”  Ash furiously challenges her to a battle but Todd interrupts to suggest that Ash try taking the Pokémon League entrance exam, and conducts them to a testing centre where he can sit it.  Also at the centre are Nurse Joy #84, and a disguised Jessie and James.  Joy tells the kids a bit more about the test: it’s an alternative way to earn membership in the Pokémon League, which is great for people who are too old, sick or busy to travel between towns for badges.  The first two sections of the exam are theoretical: one section of true-or-false questions, another of pictures and silhouettes to identify (how can anyone tell the silhouette of a Jigglypuff, seen from above, from that of a Voltorb?).  Ash manages to come third-to-last, out of more than five hundred candidates, ahead of only James and Jessie (who is disqualified for insulting the examiner).  The third section is a three-on-three battle against the examiner, using only rental Pokémon.  Ash gets off to a good start, defeating the examiner’s Flareon with a Weezing, but his Arbok tries to Wrap a Jolteon and gets filled with spikes for her trouble, and his Meowth is frozen solid by a Vaporeon.  James, meanwhile, tries to take down a Graveler with a Pikachu’s Thunderbolt, and is then disqualified for calling out both his remaining Pokémon (an Ivysaur and a Charizard) at once.  He refuses to return the rental Pokémon, but the examiner commands the Pokémon to turn on Jessie and James, and Ash finishes them off with his Weezing’s Explosion.  Team Rocket’s presence has apparently invalidated the whole exam, and Ash is offered a chance to retake it, but can’t be bothered.

He even laughs at them.  Oh, how I loathe him.

This is one of those episodes that really start me thinking.  It gets me thinking because it offers a way to bypass the eight Gym battles normally necessary to become a member of the Pokémon League and compete in the Indigo tournament – in other words, to bypass what is normally the point of a good chunk of each game.  There is nothing in the exam that even requires you to own Pokémon at all.  Joy mentions that the exam provides a way for those hampered by age, sickness or full-time employment to join the League, but there isn’t necessarily anything that prevents someone in such a position from owning or training Pokémon – only from travelling to collect badges.  In fact, the exam is very deliberately set up to strip trainers with powerful Pokémon of any advantage they might have, by forcing them to use rental Pokémon only.  The implication seems to be that the exam is meant to invite people who aren’t Pokémon trainers at all to become members of the Pokémon League.  This in turn implies that the League isn’t purely a sporting organisation, that it has reasons for wanting to attract hobbyists, academics, and specialists to its ranks, and that there are benefits to membership beyond simply being able to enter tournaments (just about any random ten-year-old can become a trainer, so it stands to reason that there are some restrictions on non-members… one hopes).  Membership in the League may be the first step to finding employment with them, or a beneficial addition to one’s credentials in searching for other jobs (heaven knows, anyone seeking to enter the Pokémon healthcare profession would need one heck of a resume to break the Joy family’s iron grip on all the senior positions).  What I mean to suggest is that the Pokémon League is responsible for general Pokémon-related affairs in Kanto, not just the practice of competitive battle, and therefore benefits by having a roster of sanctioned experts in fields such as Pokémon breeding, human-Pokémon relations, and Pokémon ecology, upon whom it can call for consultation, and who in turn benefit from enfranchisement.  Pokémon trainers likely make up the bulk of the League’s membership – after all, the entrance exam is implied to be extremely challenging, and Ash scores dismally despite his generally decent knowledge of Pokémon, so it is by no means an easy way in, as Jessie and James seem to think – but it seems clear that other people with quite different interests in Pokémon are a significant minority.

Making animals live in cages is bad, mmmkay?As they continue their journey through a small city, the kids see an advertisement for a breeding centre that claims to be able to evolve Pokémon.  Todd says that centres like this are the newest big thing, so Ash decides to check it out.  The woman working the front desk gives a ludicrous spiel about “Pokémon love power!  Love love love!” but people seem to be getting results, so Misty decides to leave Psyduck there to see if they can’t knock some sense into him.  Soon afterward, the kids meet a restaurant owner who’ll give a free meal to anyone who can show him his favourite Pokémon… Psyduck.  Misty decides to double back to the breeding centre and, finding it closed, the kids slip in the back door.  All the Pokémon, including Psyduck, are caged in a dark room.  As Todd starts taking pictures to document what’s happening, the kids overhear the centre’s owners in the next room gloating over their plan to steal all these Pokémon.  As Misty attempts to free Psyduck, Jessie and James arrive to steal some Pokémon themselves, and the ensuing argument attracts the attention of the owners, Butch and Cassidy, Jessie and James’ hyper-competent rivals with far higher standing in Team Rocket.  The duos start quarrelling, and the kids slip away, but the centre’s security system cages everyone except for Misty, Pikachu and Togepi.  Jessie and James are caught as well trying to retrieve a Victreebel, which supposedly belongs to James… even though we’ve never seen it before… and it promptly begins a long-running gag by trying to eat its trainer…  Anyway.  Butch and Cassidy call the police, and Officer Jenny #319 arrests everyone.  Misty, however, returns the next day in disguise and distracts Cassidy so Pikachu can slip inside and grab Todd’s camera, which she uses to prove Butch and Cassidy’s guilt.  The breeding centre is shut down and the kids all go to the restaurant for their free lunch.  Finally, Todd leaves the group to go climb some mountains, but not before finally pointing Ash in the direction of Cinnabar Island.

"To infect the world with devastation!" "To blight all peoples in every nation!" "To denounce the goodness of truth and love!" "To extend our wrath to the stars above!" "Cassidy!" "Butch!" "Team Rocket, circling Earth all day and night!" "Surrender to us now, or you'll surely lose the fight!"

There’s no single theme I really want to draw attention to in this episode, but there are a couple of little points, so I’ll comment on each.  The breeding centre, first of all, is interesting.  How do Butch and Cassidy actually run this place without being caught?  They could probably delay people who asked for their Pokémon back, possibly for days, but eventually someone would surely grow suspicious.  We do see them handing Pokémon back to trainers, so obviously they don’t steal everything.  The centre is marketed towards people who are too busy to exercise and pamper their Pokémon, so it’s possible they target people who could go for weeks before getting concerned.  When that happens, they claim to have lost the paperwork… and only once several people are seriously annoyed do they pack up and vanish with all the Pokémon.  It seems possible that some amateur trainers might neglect their Pokémon to an extent if they think the breeding centre is taking care of things; indeed, when Misty first decides to leave Psyduck in the breeding centre, Ash suggests that she’s just trying to ditch him.  Misty, interestingly, insists that she caught Psyduck and she’s going to stick with him; she just wants to see if the breeding centre can accomplish anything with him in a couple of days.  This is interesting because – remember – Misty didn’t catch Psyduck at all.  He just… kinda climbed into her empty Pokéball.  Despite this, and although she doesn’t really like him very much, Misty apparently does feel responsible for Psyduck.  For better or worse, he came to her and she is his trainer, and that is just the world she lives in and has to accept, which I think is an interesting perspective and testifies, if nothing else, to Misty’s stubbornness.  Finally, Butch and Cassidy.  I like these two.  Unlike Jessie and James, they’re actually credible villains, and generally presented as coming near to success with their fairly intelligent plans.  In that, they fulfil the same dramatic function that Jessie and James would, much later, come to fill in their scarily competent Unova incarnations (and, similarly, they don’t appear all that often; overexposure would make their defeats stand out a little too much).  I think I may bring them up again in the Viridian Gym episode, but for now, I’d just like to point out their importance in demonstrating that Team Rocket as a whole is in fact a very real danger.

So, yeah.  These episodes happened.  They were a thing.  That is all.

Class dismissed.

Anime Time: Episode 54

The Case of the K-9 Caper

Ash’s location: Rhode Island.

 The illustration on Growlithe's card from the Secret Wonders expansion of the TCG, by Kagemaru Himeno.

I can’t remember ever actually seeing this episode as a kid.  I was missing out; I really like this one.  It makes for a great opportunity to get back into one of my old favourite subjects, the ethics of Pokémon training, and to start asking new questions about whether the series considers Pokémon to be ethical agents in themselves, or merely instruments of their trainers.  Seriously, if I had my way this is what the whole series would be about.

Ash and company are innocently strolling through the woods when they hear the cry of “stop, thief!” and see a suspicious-looking man carrying a bag of loot fleeing pursuit.  Ash, not one to take this sort of thing lying down, commands Pikachu to stop him, but the more observant Pikachu has noticed that the man is carrying a handgun and, to Ash’s annoyance, refuses to attack… until a Growlithe bursts from the undergrowth and tackles the thief, causing him to drop his gun.  Pikachu merrily begins blasting away and brings him down, but the nine other Growlithe who arrive immediately afterward, led by Officer Jenny #40, don’t seem particularly happy.  It turns out that Ash and Pikachu have just interrupted a training exercise and assaulted a plainclothes police officer.  Whoops.  Jenny quickly gets over it once she realises it was an honest mistake, and invites Ash, Misty and Brock back to the police station for a hot meal.  This particular Jenny runs the academy that trains Kanto’s police dogs, specially drilled Pokémon capable of taking on humans with firearms at relatively low risk to themselves.  Jenny and Misty both admonish Ash for ordering Pikachu, who has no such special training, to attack an armed man, which annoys and offends him.  He asks for Jenny’s permission to enrol Pikachu in her training program so he can become stronger.  Jenny warns him that the training is difficult, but gladly allows it.  The next morning, she wakes Ash and Pikachu at 4am for a race against one of her Growlithe – and Ash and Jenny will be running too, because a trainer should never expect more of his Pokémon than of himself.  Ash and Pikachu are faster than Jenny and Growlithe, but are defeated by their obstacle course (which Jenny completes in her high heels).  While Ash and Pikachu recover, Brock tries to remind Ash that Pikachu is great even without special training.  Ash responds that he wants Pikachu to keep getting even better, though Pikachu himself doesn’t seem so sure anymore.

 You have to hand it to them... they've got style.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

Then Team Rocket crash through the wall of the academy in the Mutt Cuts van from Dumb and Dumber, pull on some gas masks, and start blasting away at everyone with canisters of Gloom spores.

I really feel sorry for other anime shows that have to trudge through the bleak desolation of existence without Jessie and James to brighten their lives.

This week, Jessie, James and Meowth have gotten it into their heads that it would be a good idea to steal all of Jenny’s Growlithe and use them to commit crimes, because the irony is just too delicious to pass up.  Jenny insists that her Growlithe would never be party to Team Rocket’s criminal schemes, but Jessie and James seem unconcerned, and pull out more gas canisters – this time to dose everyone with helium.  Between the overpowering stench of the Gloom spores and the helium raising the pitch of her voice, the Growlithe can’t recognise Jenny’s scent or the sound of her voice, and stop responding to her commands.  Jessie and James then change into police uniforms, produce voice synthesisers and use Jenny’s own voice to command the Growlithe to arrest her, which they do, taking ropes in their mouths and tying her up.  Meanwhile, Ash, Brock and Misty have stupidly left their Pokéballs back in the station’s dormitory, so Pikachu is all they’ve got.  Jessie tries to command him too, using Ash’s voice, but Pikachu is not impressed; Brock claims that Pikachu knows Ash by what’s in his heart, and can’t be fooled by a cloud of foul-smelling gas and a voice synthesiser.  Pikachu unloads a Thunderbolt on the Growlithe, but there are just too many for him to handle on his own and he quickly runs out of power.  Jigglypuff appears, tries her song, finds that the helium renders her enchanting voice powerless, and wanders off again.  Finally, Jessie orders one of the Growlithe to attack Jenny, but as it bites down on her wrist, she looks into its eyes and invokes the Power of Friendship to remind it who she is.  Team Rocket try to command the others to deal with her, but their synthesisers choose this moment to malfunction, and the Growlithe turn on them and chase them away.  The episode ends with Jenny commending Ash and Pikachu on the strength of their partnership: “you two recognise what’s in each others’ hearts, and that’s what count.  I’ll try to keep that in mind.”  Also Brock uses one of the discarded voice synthesisers to deliver an incredibly creepy ode to himself in Jenny’s voice.  Because he is Brock.

 Lock and load, bitches.

Let’s talk about these Growlithe.  Jessie, James and Meowth have – for once – actually come up with a pretty damn solid plan for their daily mischief.  To a human, it seems ludicrous that a Growlithe could have trouble telling Jessie in a police uniform apart from Jenny – who is, after all, their trainer – but humans rely on sight a lot more than most animals do and consequently have unusually good vision compared to other mammals.  Most mammals – like dogs – compensate with their keener hearing and sense of smell, and this episode suggests that many Pokémon are much the same.  Once Team Rocket have deprived the Growlithe of their usual means of identifying their masters, they have only their sub-par vision to fall back on, and they are left following orders given in the voice they were trained to obey.  Then Pikachu comes in.  Pikachu isn’t fooled; although Ash sounds and smells nothing like himself, Pikachu can recognise his trainer anyway – not immediately, he has to think about it for a few seconds, but he gets there.  I suppose the obvious explanation is that Pikachu is simply much more intelligent than the Growlithe (an attribute that is sorely neglected in the games’ portrayal of many Pokémon).  He’s been paying attention to what’s going on, and although he doesn’t exactly understand what Team Rocket have been doing to confuse him, he knows they’re an underhanded lot and is on his guard for tricks.  As a result, he’s able to decide to ignore what his trainer’s voice is telling him and do what he figures makes sense, whereas the Growlithe latch onto a voice they know and follow its orders, even though Jenny has been standing right there the whole time and they should know who she is even if they can’t hear or smell her clearly.  What’s interesting is that the Growlithe eventually figure it out too – or, at least, one of them does – by staring into Jenny’s eyes and having a touching flashback montage of all their happy times together.  The obvious explanation – the Growlithe aren’t as intelligent as Pikachu – doesn’t quite seem to make sense anymore; the tone of the scene doesn’t fit with Growlithe suddenly putting together the information and figuring out that Jenny’s voice is being faked.  It’s a lot more consistent with Growlithe knowing who she is the whole time and only now wondering why he’s being ordered to attack her.

 These guys seriously never get old.  Wait; does James have breasts in this scene?

Pokémon follow orders; this we know.  The Growlithe, in particular, are probably being trained to follow orders from any police officer (or perhaps simply from any Jenny; there are non-Jenny police officers in this episode, but I get the impression that the Jennies are the ones who most often work with Pokémon), so they aren’t necessarily supposed to have the same deep personal relationship with their handlers as Pikachu does with Ash.  There’s a further point to this, though.  Jessie and James are both quite convinced that they will be able to order the Growlithe to commit robberies, and Jenny is equally convinced that the Growlithe would never do such a thing.  The story is structured so as to suggest to us that Jenny is actually wrong – her comment is immediately followed by Team Rocket successfully taking control of her Pokémon and ordering them to restrain her.  The difference between their views is that Jenny regards the Growlithe as moral agents in and of themselves, capable of understanding that certain actions are ‘wrong’ and refusing to take part in them, while Jessie and James think that they’ll be able to order the Growlithe to do just about anything once they establish themselves as authority figures (and I feel I should emphasise again that the structure of the episode immediately shoots Jenny down).  I’m reminded of Ekans’ dialogue in Island of the Giant Pokémon – “Pokémon not bad; Pokémon do bad things because Master bad” – which suggests that, although Ekans and Koffing are totally aware that they are aiding their trainers in committing morally repugnant acts and would never do such things on their own, this is trumped by the principle of loyalty to their masters.  The Growlithe – who have been taught to view anyone who knows how to command them as ‘master’ – would find themselves in just the same position if they were taken by Team Rocket.  When you think about it, this has to be the case in order for Team Rocket even to exist as an organisation: their modus operandi is to steal Pokémon for use in other crimes with more direct rewards.  This could hardly be practical if a significant number of stolen Pokémon were likely to rebel against trainers who committed crimes.  As Pikachu and Growlithe remind us, though, Pokémon are in fact capable of understanding that an action is ‘wrong.’  It’s much easier for Pikachu – probably because Ash places an unusual amount of emphasis on treating his Pokémon as friends and individuals – though even Growlithe, raised specifically to be part of a squad, can do it when ordered by a new ‘authority figure’ to attack an old one.

In short, Pokémon do understand human morality – it’s just that most of them are used to thinking that it doesn’t apply to them.  They simply don’t see themselves as moral agents – thinking about that stuff is their trainers’ job – unless they’re been strongly encouraged to, one way or another.  I think this is what Brock and Jenny are talking about when they say that Ash and Pikachu “understand what’s in each other’s hearts;” Pikachu recognises Ash not merely as his trainer, but as an objectively good person, and would continue to emulate Ash’s moral character even if they were somehow torn apart.  As she acknowledges at the end of the episode, Jenny and her Growlithe could stand to learn a lot here.

Anime Time: Episodes 42, 45 and 47

Showdown at Dark City – The Song of Jigglypuff – A Chansey Operation

Ash’s Location: Somalia

I’m slowly learning that whenever I try to stuff three episodes into a single entry, the length of my synopses quickly becomes unmanageable.  This isn’t going to stop me from doing it, but I am going to make an honest effort to cut down on that stuff, so I have time to… y’know… actually say stuff about the episodes.  This is another one of those entries where I’ve just thrown three episodes together because I can just about cram them all into my vaguely defined “Pokémon and Society” heading.  Without further ado…"I am so inconspicuous right now.  Yep; Joy, you are one badass master of disguise.  If my identical twin cousins-in-law could see me right now, they'd look right through me."  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

In the first of today’s episodes, Ash and his friends have the misfortune to stumble into Dark City, where the locals hate and fear Pokémon Trainers because of a violent gang war between the city’s two unofficial Pokémon Gyms, the Yas Gym and the Kaz Gym.  Each Gym has ambitions to become the sole official Gym of Dark City, and is desperate to destroy the other before the arrival of a Pokémon League inspector a few days hence.  They’ve given up on formal battles, and mostly just brawl in the street, trainers and Pokémon alike.  The kids run into some of the Kaz Gym’s trainers – who turn out to be Jessie and James – forcing a restaurant to supply their Gym with food, and Brock roasts them with Vulpix, which prompts one of the Yas trainers to recruit them.  Misty insists that they use false names to keep their reputations from being damaged, so they enter the Yas Gym as Tom Ato, Ann Chovy, and Caesar Salad (I kid you not) to speak to the Yas leader.  He tries to test Ash with his Scyther, but Pikachu uses a ketchup bottle he picked up in the restaurant to squirt Scyther in the eyes, driving him berserk and forcing the leader to recall him.  Ash makes a big dramatic speech about how both sides are dreadful, ruins the effect by slipping on some ketchup, and gets chased out of the Gym.  Ash learns from the Pokédex that both Scyther and the Kaz Gym’s strongest Pokémon, Electabuzz, are enraged by the colour red, so when the Yas and Kaz trainers meet up for their final showdown he and the downtrodden citizens drop barrels of ketchup all over both sides to sabotage the battle.  The Gym Leaders unite to destroy Ash, but Pikachu smites them with Thunder, and the Pokémon League inspector is revealed to have been in Dark City the whole time, hidden behind a trench coat and a surgical mask – none other than Nurse Joy #1, the Supreme Joy.  She declares both Gyms utterly reprehensible and orders the leaders to submit to Ash for instruction, forcing Ash to explain his theory of Pokémon training.  “Sure, you try to win, but you don’t try to beat each other!  Um…”

Electabuzz and Scyther attack... not each other, but... their own reflections in each other's eyes.  Yeah... it's kinda like that.Dark City is a dreadful portrait of just how badly wrong this setting can go.  The worst part is that it seems like an entirely realistic scenario.  If it comes to a fight, very few people will have any hope of beating an experienced Pokémon trainer without Pokémon of their own.  The only thing stopping the whole world from dissolving into chaos is the fact that, as a rule, the most powerful trainers tend to be decent people, since most Pokémon respond better to kindness than abuse.  Sure, the ketchup strategy was clever and caused the gangs no small amount of pain, but if Ash and Pikachu hadn’t been there, the civilians would have been toast once the Gym Leaders decided to join forces.  In fact, let’s put some thought into how this situation could have deteriorated without Ash’s presence.  Nurse Joy seems to have no weapon in this conflict besides her authority.  The anime has never portrayed Chansey, her only Pokémon, as a powerful fighter, and it should have been obvious to her within minutes of arriving in Dark City that both Gyms were nauseating stains on the honour of all trainers.  Had she been able to end the fighting, she would already have done so.  If either Gym had lost interest in winning official status, Joy would have been powerless.  One hopes that she could have called in reinforcements from the Pokémon League, but given their conspicuous failure to deal with a powerful rogue Gym Leader in the past, it is difficult to be optimistic.  The civilians might eventually have become organised; they might even have developed the same plan as Ash did to set the Yas and Kaz forces fighting amongst themselves, but they would have been crushed in short order once the two Gyms decided to join up.  Eventually, one Gym would win the street war, unless they chose to unite permanently.  Either way, Dark City would be ruled absolutely by violent robbers.  They might even start handing out badges, claiming to be an official Gym, and reaping many of the benefits of being one without paying lip service to the Pokémon League.  This is all prevented solely by the fact that, with Electabuzz and Scyther out of the picture, the highest-level Pokémon left in the town happens to belong to Ash.  Hooray…?

Later, they go to Las Vegas!

Part of me actually thinks the series would be improved if they were like this in every episode.  Someone must have agreed with me, because that's pretty much what the Go-Rock Quads in Pokémon Ranger are.Well, the show calls it Neon Town, but… it’s a big city in the middle of the desert filled with bright flashing lights and casinos.  Trust me, it’s Vegas.  Everyone in Vegas is a misanthropic sociopath because they’re all massively sleep-deprived, so the kids stay there for as little time as possible before returning to the woods, where they find a wild Jigglypuff.  Misty wants to catch her, of course, so she summons Staryu and has it whack Jigglypuff, who bursts into tears (they all find this really bizarre for some reason).  They realise that this Jigglypuff can’t sing.  Misty says she’s still cute – which cheers her up a bit – but who wants a Jigglypuff who can’t sing? – which starts her crying again.  Then this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fpoq_fcMixc happens (and ends exactly the way every other fight with Team Rocket ends).  Misty and Pikachu try to teach Jigglypuff to sing and fail (and Jigglypuff is a real bitch to Pikachu about his singing, too), but Brock finds a rare fruit that can be used to soothe an inflamed throat, which works.  Jigglypuff can sing at last!  Unfortunately, no-one can sit through her song without falling asleep… not even Psyduck.  Jigglypuff is enraged and scribbles on everyone’s faces with a marker as they sleep.  The kids decide to take Jigglypuff back to Vegas with them, since those jerks never seem to sleep.  Team Rocket disguise themselves as a rock band and offer to let Jigglypuff use their outdoor stage, planning to stay awake using earplugs and rob everyone blind, but the earplugs fail and they fall asleep, along with every other person in Vegas.  When the kids wake up, Jigglypuff is nowhere to be seen, but the people of Las Vegas have suddenly become halfway decent after their first proper night’s sleep in decades.  That, in a roundabout way, constitutes the kids’ good deed for the day, so they return to… whatever it is they were doing, now with Jigglypuff following them, ready to resurface whenever it’s most inconvenient for everyone.

Alternatively, this works too.In The Song of Jigglypuff, Ash and his friends use a Pokémon to cure insomnia.  I just want to point out that the last time someone tried that, a whole bunch of kids went insane and ran away from home to live as Pokémon in the city park.  Just so we’re clear on that.  Anyway.  Jigglypuff is a weird little Pokémon in the anime.  Although her Doubleslap is useful against other small, physically weak Pokémon, she can’t really fight.  Her trump card is her song, which Team Rocket try to capture on tape in this episode.  I can’t think of anything that’s ever managed to stay awake through the whole thing and thus avoid provoking Jigglypuff’s fury.  Strangely, even though she continues to follow Ash around for years, after this episode both Misty and Team Rocket seem to lose all interest in catching her, possibly because they’re all terrified of her.  How anyone ever manages to train a Jigglypuff is beyond me; if their songs will put everyone within a good twenty metres to sleep, using one would surely put an end to most battles by rendering both trainers unconscious, as well as any spectators.  They’re extremely rare Pokémon, it’s true, and tend to live far away from humans, but presumably trainers must bring them into towns from time to time.  In order to maintain some semblance of sanity, you almost have to assume that the Jigglypuff Ash meets in this episode has an especially enchanting voice, and that a typical Jigglypuff isn’t quite so soporific.  The kids clearly don’t anticipate the sheer power of her song; they go back to Vegas fully expecting that many of the citizens will be able to shake it off, and haven’t given any thought to what might happen if anyone happened to be driving a car during Jigglypuff’s performance.

"What do I look like, a DOCTOR!?"A Chansey Operation, my last episode for today, begins with Pikachu swallowing a whole apple and nearly choking to death.  Ash panics because there’s no Pokémon Centre nearby, so they rush to a hospital instead.  There is exactly one doctor in this hospital, and he refuses to do anything because he’s off duty, until Misty uses her cute girl powers on him.  Dr. Proctor (for this is his name) sticks his hand down Pikachu’s throat and retrieves the apple.  Once Pikachu is saved, the emergency phone line rings.  Dr. Proctor, however, is still stubbornly off duty, so Ash answers it.  Jessie and James have caused a horrible accident on a highway by means of their massive incompetence, badly injuring a truckload of Pokémon.  The Pokémon Centre in the next town is overwhelmed, so Nurse Joy #29 is pressing Dr. Proctor into service as backup.  Since he is still the only doctor in the entire hospital, he gives lab coats to Ash, Misty and Brock and declares them to be doctors.  Medicine is easy, right?  Especially as Dr. Proctor’s solution to every injury imaginable is copious amounts of superglue. When Arbok and Weezing come in for treatment, Ash gets a crash course on the Hippocratic Oath (from this guy?  Mr. “screw that, I’m off duty”?  I get the distinct impression he was “off duty” when his class swore the damn oath) and Jessie and James join the team.  At some point Dr. Proctor accidentally anaesthetises himself trying to get close to an angry Dodrio, and goes to sleep for several hours, leaving Ash to figure out how to calm the thing down himself (Ash’s panacea turns out to be “Pikachu, THUNDERBOLT!”).  Team Rocket, inevitably, betray the kids eventually and attack them with evil hospital equipment, but Arbok and Weezing are unwilling to fight the Chansey who helped to heal them.  Dr. Proctor wakes up and reveals that his lab coat contains a veritable arsenal of scalpels and syringes, which scares off Jessie and James quickly enough.  All the injured Pokémon have been patched up now, so Dr. Proctor says goodbye to the kids – but not without suggesting that they stay and be doctors at the hospital.  Medical school?  Pfft.  Dr. Proctor got his MD watching reruns of Doogie Howser.

By some appalling mischance, this episode was my very first direct exposure to Pokémon as a child.

You can imagine my reaction.

I… I would comment on this episode but I honestly think it speaks for itself.  It’s one of those delightfully mad episodes you get from time to time which reminds you that, really, everyone in this universe is just a little bit nutty.  I don’t think A Chansey Operation really tells us anything meaningful about how the Pokémon world works, but if nothing else, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Anime Time: Episodes 33-34

The Flame Pokémonathon – The Kangaskhan Kid

Ash’s location: The wilderness sometimes euphemistically referred to as “Fuchsia City.”

These two episodes aren’t really all that interesting, and the second is one of those ones that pops up now and again to make me wonder what the writers were smoking, but they’re chronologically the first ones after the Ninja Poké-Showdown so I suppose I’d better get them out of the way… here we go.

 Lara Laramie and her Ponyta.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

So, anyway, the set-up of The Flame Pokémonathon is that Ash, shortly after winning his Soul Badge, is caught by a girl named Lara Laramie trying to capture a Tauros on land he thinks is the Safari Zone but is actually a Pokémon ranch owned by Lara’s family.  Though she’s initially annoyed, once the mistake is cleared up Lara is happy to show Ash and friends around the enormous ranch and even invites them to stay for a Pokémon race the next day, a fantastic competition with honorary membership in the Laramie clan as the prize.  According to Brock, the Laramie dynasty is world-famous, and all breeders know and respect their name and the quality of their Pokémon, so this is no small thing.  Lara will be riding her Ponyta in the race to uphold her family’s honour, and one of her toughest opponents will be another breeder who works on the ranch, an obnoxious fellow named Dario who works with Dodrio.  Unfortunately, Team Rocket also have a horse in this race – figuratively speaking.  Jessie and James want a way in with the Laramie clan, so they’ve made a deal with Dario to help him win the race in exchange for the influence he will soon gain.  That night, Meowth spooks the Tauros herd, then snipes Lara’s Ponyta from afar with a slingshot when she comes to calm them down, making Ponyta throw Lara off and break her arm.  Lara asks Ash to ride in her place the next day, gambling on Ash being able to win Ponyta’s trust with his experience as a trainer so she won’t burn him.  Ash duly enters the race, along with – just for the hell of it – Misty and Starmie, Brock and Onix… and Pikachu and Squirtle, who plod steadily along in last place, Pikachu practically having to push Squirtle up the hills in the course.  Team Rocket follow, sabotaging other racers with slingshots and pit traps, and Onix glumly surrenders when the course crosses a river.  Jessie and James have to attack directly at one point to delay Ash and Misty, when Dodrio’s heads start squabbling over food at a pit stop, and Misty, Squirtle and Pikachu stay behind to deal with them as Ash and Ponyta try to catch up with Dario.  For all Ponyta’s speed, she can’t quite keep up with Dodrio… at least, not in her current form.  Ponyta eventually decides that enough is enough, evolves into Rapidash, and streaks ahead to beat Dodrio by a nose.  The race is won, Ash becomes an honorary Laramie, and there is much rejoicing.

 The contestants assemble.

The next episode, the Kangaskhan Kid, is one of those episodes that really make you wonder who writes this stuff.  The initial set-up is a bit lazy in that it recycles what happened in the last episode: once again, Ash sees a rare Pokémon (a Chansey) in what he thinks is the Safari Zone, but it turns out to be Officer Jenny #74 wearing a ridiculous hat and she arrests him for poaching.  Again, Ash is immediately forgiven, and Jenny deputises the kids when an alert sounds to warn her of actual poachers (Team Rocket, of course) attacking a herd of Kangaskhan.  When they arrive in Jenny’s jeep, they narrowly avoid the stampeding herd, which Jessie and James soon trap beneath a net.  Luckily, the Kangaskhan have a far more competent protector than Jenny on hand, in the form of an eight-year-old boomerang-wielding wild child dressed in animal skins, who frees the Kangaskhan and sics them on Team Rocket before swinging back into the jungle yelling “kanga-kangas-KHAN!” at the top of his lungs.  While the kids are trying to figure out what on earth has just happened, a helicopter lands nearby a young woman and her ugly midget husband disembark.  The pair are searching for their son Tommy, whom the moron of a husband dropped out of the helicopter as a toddler.  It has apparently taken them several years to remember where they dropped him and come looking.  Jenny takes one look their photo of Tommy and says “Oh!  You must mean Tomo!  His address is listed right here in the Safari Zone directory!  Yeah, he’s totally in my carpool!”

 We all get together at his place for poker on Wednesday nights.  I'm sorry, how is this weird?

…okay, the carpool part was a lie but she actually says the rest of it.

Anyway, they build a makeshift litter for Tommy’s parents, who are far too rich to be expected to walk, and go off into the jungle to find him.  When the kids find an injured baby Kangaskhan and try to help it out, its cries draw Tomo/Tommy, who attacks them and demands to know whether they are people or Pokémon.  The kids try to explain who his parents are, and he temporarily goes mad trying to decide whether his mother is the human who gave birth to him or the Kangaskhan who raised him, then flees into the jungle.  The kids have no time to chase them, because Jenny has been alerted that Team Rocket are attacking the Kangaskhan herd again, this time using a… a giant robot Kangaskhan that uses a fake roar to attract the real Kangaskhan – all but one of whom fall for it – and then subdues them with tranq darts.  Tommy attacks with his boomerang, which predictably does absolutely nothing, and Charmander sets the robot on fire, which doesn’t help either, but Tommy’s parents arrive in their helicopter and perform a kamikaze strike that destroys the robot.  As Tommy mourns his parents, they crawl out of the wreckage, battered but miraculously alive, clad entirely in animal skins, and announce that they have decided to live with Tommy and the Kangaskhan in the jungle so that he can keep both of his families.  So… yeah.

 Rapidash being awesome, by Dr. Karayua (http://dr-karayua.deviantart.com/).

In a misguided attempt to have this entry make sense, I have decided that these episodes do in fact have a theme in common, though the link is somewhat tangential: Pokémon and family.  The Flame Pokémonathon isn’t the first episode that’s made me think Pokémon are often a family business, but boy, it’s a big one.  Being made an honorary Laramie seems to be the only prize to be had in the Pokémon race, but just becoming associated with the Laramie name is apparently enough incentive for Dario to deal with notorious criminals in order to beat Lara.  Conversely, the prospect of being owed a favour by someone inside the Laramie clan is attractive enough to Jessie and James that they don’t ask Dario to give them anything else in exchange for their help, even though they don’t really stand to gain anything from the mission itself.  All of this is over a name – Dario already works with the Laramie family on their ranch, so it’s not even like it’s about getting him into the ‘company’ or anything.  He just wants to be able to call himself a Laramie.  Clearly these people have one heck of a reputation, and possibly some serious clout in Pokémon breeding circles.  One imagines that all this goes back generations.  Practically everyone in this world has something to do with Pokémon, one way or another, but it’s been my observation that a lot of the Pokémon trainers we know best are part of families whose history is closely tied up with Pokémon – Ash’s father is a trainer and his mother, from what we see of her relationship with Mr. Mime later in the series, easily could have been if she’d wanted; Gary’s grandfather is Professor Oak (come to think of it, the wording of Gary’s boast in Pokémon, I Choose You – “it’s good to have a grandfather in the Pokémon business” – seems to suggest an interesting line of thought); Misty’s sisters are all trainers; Brock’s parents are both trainers; and of course my all-time favourite example are the Dragon Masters of Blackthorn City, a family of fantastically powerful trainers who go back centuries.  Obviously this doesn’t mean that big, old families have a monopoly on Pokémon training and breeding in general, but it seems likely that becoming a skilled trainer or breeder is often strongly influenced by one’s upbringing and the way one was taught to view Pokémon as a child.

Speaking of the way children view Pokémon growing up…

 Yabba dabba doo.

Tomo was raised by Kangaskhan and, of course, is the series’ interpretation of the old ‘wolf child’ type; a human raised from a very young age by wild animals, the most notable literary portrayal being Tarzan.  In the real world we don’t actually know a whole lot about kids like this, purely because so many reports turn out to be hoaxes, but it’s believed that they normally have great difficulty learning how to speak and are incapable of grasping many of the basic concepts of human society.  Now, in Tomo’s case, the speech thing raises some interesting questions.  Although very few Pokémon can actually produce human speech, most of them seem to understand it, and since Tomo can speak in pidgin English, he was clearly old enough to have started talking already when his moron father dropped him out of the helicopter.  Presumably he could address his ‘family’ in human speech and they would understand him.  The thing is, though… he doesn’t.  He speaks to the Kangaskhan in their own language (and by the end of the episode has started teaching it to his human parents).  The fact that he even remembers how to speak English at all suggests to me that he must have had regular human contact during his time in the Pokémon preservation, I assume with Officer Jenny, since she apparently knows him and even seems to have a file on him, complete with a photograph.  This brings up a nagging little question: why the hell hasn’t she told anyone about him?  Unless this particular Jenny is somewhat unhinged (which, let’s be fair, is a possibility), the only reasonable answer is that Kanto doesn’t consider it entirely unreasonable for human children to be raised by Pokémon (extreme, clearly, but not unthinkable).  And why not?  Tomo clearly has a happy life with his adoptive family and seems to make a meaningful contribution to the wellbeing of the herd.  Most Pokémon seem to possess intelligence, self-awareness and social complexity that only a few animals can match, and unlike, say, chimpanzees or dolphins they also seem to be naturally predisposed to cooperating with humans.  Humans, by their own nature, prefer to take control and assimilate Pokémon into their society, but Tomo (and, later, his human parents) demonstrates that the reverse can and does happen, even in the face of contact with normal human societies.

I am gradually building up a very strange view of this universe…

Anime Time: Episodes 27-28

Hypno’s Naptime – Pokémon Fashion Flash

 (Apologies for the delay on this entry – internet connection conked out last night and I wasn’t able to post it.  Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from writing, so my next entry will be up on schedule.)

There’s little to connect these two episodes other than the fact that Misty and Brock each happen to gain new Pokémon, so for the most part I’ll be dealing with them separately.  That’ll take time, so without further ado…

 Yikes, Hypno is creepy.  For this picture, thanks are due to =Snook-8 at http://snook-8.deviantart.com/.

In a place inexplicably known as “Hop Hop Hop Town,” Ash is suddenly accosted by an enormous pair of breasts calling him Arnold.  Once Ash explains that he is not Arnold, the woman attached to the breasts calms down and tells his group that her son has disappeared recently.  Ash wonders whether Arnold might have just wandered off to become a Pokémon trainer, which is apparently not an unreasonable thing for a young boy to do on a whim without telling anyone, but the mother has her doubts.   In fact, as they soon learn from Officer Jenny #309, Arnold is only the most recent of several young children to go missing over the last three days.  Ash, in his official capacity as a random wandering trainer, offers to help Jenny solve the case.  They check the Pokémon Centre for kids who know the missing children, but none of them have any information.  Nurse Joy #558 doesn’t know anything either, and has her hands full with her own crisis; all the Pokémon in her care are becoming lethargic, and she can’t understand why.  It all started – gasp! – three days ago.  Jenny suddenly remembers that she possesses a piece of technobabble known as a Sleep Wave detector, and that it’s been acting up recently.  She hasn’t been following up on it because, honestly, she’s just a terrible officer, but now she decides to follow the Sleep Waves to their source:  a mansion on top of a skyscraper.  Because, y’know, what better place to build a mansion.  Ash storms the mansion, and finds that it houses a society of well-to-do aristocrats, who term themselves the Pokémon Lovers’ Club, as well as a Drowzee and a Hypno, their favourite Pokémon.  Apparently, the members have been using Hypno’s powers to combat their crippling insomnia ever since their old Drowzee evolved… three days ago.  Brock suggests that their mysteries might be connected to Hypno modifying his Hypnosis for use on humans… so they do the sane thing and sit Misty down in front of him to see what happens!  Misty promptly becomes convinced she is a Seel and flees the building, leading the team to a park where they find the missing children, who all think they’re different kinds of Pokémon.  Brock has the idea of dragging Misty back up to the mansion to have Drowzee zap her, on the theory that Drowzee’s “Dream Waves” will cancel out Hypno’s “Sleep Waves” because… whatever.  Despite a characteristically incompetent intervention from Team Rocket, Drowzee cures Misty and puts the other kids to sleep.  When they wake up, they all remember who they are and rush back to their homes.  Nurse Joy’s Pokémon, likewise, all recover after a short nap… except for a single Psyduck, who remains totally dazed.  Psyduck doesn’t seem to have a trainer and no-one really wants him, but he manages to capture himself in a Pokéball Misty drops by accident, so she’s stuck with him.

 

This is one of many episodes that I think would make a good one-off side quest to stick in a game; it’s fairly simple, there’s a clear motive for most reasonable people to help, and most importantly you learn something about a particular species of Pokémon in the process.  Given the chance, I’d probably stuff the games with diversions a lot like this.  What we learn from Hypno’s Naptime specifically is that Psychic Pokémon are really friggin’ dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing with them.  Granted, I can’t make head or tail of why Hypno’s powers affected either the kids or the Pokémon in just the way they did, and I’m pretty sure the writers didn’t know either, but it’s clear that exposure to his abilities can cause chronic psychological damage at tremendous range even when he’s aiming at someone else.  Even though the aristocrats seemed healthy, it’s possible they too would have begun to suffer some other totally unpredictable mental disorder if they had kept using Hypno to treat their insomnia.  I’m inclined to suggest that this is at least partly due to the absence of a proper Pokémon trainer or Psychic-type specialist to help Hypno learn to control his newly enhanced powers, and that practice will keep his Hypnosis from causing negative effects on the townspeople.  However, if this were the real world, I’d want to keep all Hypno away from major population centres if at all possible until I had the results a couple of independent studies on the effects of long-term exposure.  In the Pokémon world, of course, no-one does studies like this because, hey, if a Pokémon drives your kid insane, why not just throw other Pokémon at him until you find one that fixes him?  Although Hypno is clearly a risk, no-one even considers trying to get rid of him.  Legislating to restrict the freedom of people to own and use Pokémon is probably unthinkable in this world; Pokémon are just too great a part of their industry and culture.

 All0412 (http://all0412.deviantart.com/) turns on the charm with his adorable Vulpix art.

The gang’s next misadventure is all about fashion, and the things people will do to stand out.  Brock has dragged his companions to Scissor Street, a district famous for both breeders and fashion, so he can meet one of his idols: a young woman named Susie who runs a Pokémon grooming and healthcare shop.  She and her Vulpix, according to Brock, are world-famous in breeder circles.  Brock is here to tell Susie that, in his words, “I wanna breed like you!” (I mean, breed with you!  I mean, wanna come back to my place and check out my rocks?)  Brock wants to become Susie’s apprentice.  She’s not interested, but invites them all out to lunch anyway, where she forlornly tells them that she’s been losing a lot of business to a big new salon.  Salon Rocket (pronounced “Ro-KAY”) makes its money selling gaudy Pokémon makeup, clothing and accessories, and is making Susie wonder whether she’s right to spend all her time focussing on a Pokémon’s ‘inner beauty’.  Ash affirms that yes, of course she’s right, but Misty muses that looking pretty on the outside can be nice too.  Even though she’s not actually saying he’s wrong, they have a massive argument and Misty eventually stalks off to Salon Rocket to check out the latest trends.  Meanwhile, Brock and Ash plan to draw customers back to Susie’s shop with seminars on Pokémon healthcare, and the line outside Salon Rocket dwindles as people wander over to Susie’s lecture on Pokémon massage technique.  She eventually calls on Ash to demonstrate what he’s learned by massaging Pikachu’s electrical cheek pouches.  Ash performs perfectly, Pikachu seems to enjoy the attention (I like to think this becomes part of their daily routine), and several members of the audience sheepishly remove the tasteless decorations from their Pokémon as they listen to Susie and Brock discuss Pokémon nutrition and grooming.  Meanwhile, Misty is having the time of her life at Salon Rocket.  Jessie and James (who else?), presented with only one customer to spend their time on, are enthusiastically covering her with face paint, glitter, bracelets, bangles and every other item of tween fashion they can lay their hands on.  Tragically, Meowth grows impatient, blows their cover and has Jessie and James take Misty hostage.  Meowth explains their dastardly plan to make obscene profits peddling trashy fashion items, then steal any rare Pokémon a trainer brought in, which… would have worked exactly once, I expect, so I hope they were waiting for a good one.  Psyduck escapes and dashes off for reinforcements.  Ekans and Koffing apparently get some kind of defensive edge against Pikachu and Geodude from all the frills and other nonsense they’re wearing, but also trip over themselves a lot.  Eventually Susie gets annoyed and commands Vulpix to burn them to ashes with her Fire Spin.  Later, Susie reveals that she’s going to close down her shop to go on a journey and learn more about breeding… and has decided to give Brock Vulpix, since he’s the only other person who’s ever managed to gain Vulpix’s trust or appease her discerning palette.

 Misty: paragon of style.  Screenshot from www.filb.de/anime.

This seems like a good time to talk about how the series portrays Brock and Misty, because their reactions are actually important to the plot in this episode.  Pokémon Fashion Flash really does its best to show off Misty’s superficial side, which raises its head from time to time throughout the series: she gets along with Jessie and James astonishingly well up until Meowth has them break cover.  Her new look is played for laughs when Ash and Brock arrive, but Misty sincerely thinks it’s great, and so do Jessie and James.  In general, Misty likes Pokémon that are “cute” and distastefully rejects ones that aren’t, like poor Caterpie – with the corollary that she thinks all Water Pokémon are cute – and regularly has lines suggesting that she doesn’t really ‘get’ a lot of the things that are important to Ash.  She’s the least idealistic of the group, tends to adopt a ‘whatever works’ approach to the rules, and doesn’t regard her Pokémon as close friends or understand how much Ash cares for his.  Although generally practical, she’s as stubborn as Ash and can be irrational where Water Pokémon are concerned (see Tentacool and Tentacruel, where she’s worried about protecting the Tentacool who are destroying the city).  None of this makes her a bad person, though – just flawed, like anyone.  Her heart is very much in the right place, and if nothing else she’s loyal, which this series values highly.  Brock, likewise, has his issues.  If a pretty girl – Susie, for instance – needs help, he will happily drag the whole group out of their way to take care of things, which gets him into a lot of trouble in the Ghost of Maiden’s Peak.  His desperation to get a date notwithstanding, Brock is generally patient and level-headed.  Although he has powerful Pokémon, he rarely fights except in episodes that are particularly important for him personally; he’s not a serious trainer and just wants to become a good breeder.  He prepares meals for Ash and Misty’s Pokémon as well as his own, and presumably keeps an eye on their general conditioning as well – based on this episode, advising people on how to take better care of their Pokémon seems to be a breeder’s primary role in society.  Brock’s strong sense of responsibility probably plays into this; he’s passionate about teaching people how to raise Pokémon well and bothered by the idea that a renowned breeder like Susie could be forced out of business by people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.  Although a lot of what Brock and Susie say about raising Pokémon in this episode, like the importance of healthcare and nutrition, seems like common sense, it pays to remember that most people who own Pokémon aren’t actually dedicated trainers and would probably never put much thought into it of their own accord, which makes Pokémon breeders tremendously important players in the relationship between humans and Pokémon.

You will have noticed by now that I’ve skipped over episode 26 – Ash’s battle with Erika in Celadon City.  I want to do that episode together with episode 32, the Fuchsia Gym episode, so those will both be coming up soon.  Before that, though, we have two environmentalist episodes to get through: Sparks Fly for Magnemite and Dig Those Diglett.  See you next time!

Anime Time: Episodes 22-24

Abra and the Psychic Showdown – The Tower of Terror – Haunter vs. Kadabra

It’s time for the Saffron Gym episodes already?  Ash does the Gyms in kind of a weird order, since he doesn’t take roundabout routes through underground paths the way we do in the games to avoid pointlessly obstructive gate guards.  As a result, Sabrina, normally the sixth challenge for players of the games, is Ash’s fourth.  As expected, he gets curb-stomped.

Let’s laugh at him!

 Sabrina's two selves, portrayed by Stephen Yang (http://stephenayang.deviantart.com/) - her mature, blankly psychotic self and her childlike, playful and incredibly disturbing self.

The thing about the Saffron Gym is that its leader is a certifiable loon.  Sabrina has a split personality: a playful and childish self, outwardly manifested as a psychic projection of an incredibly creepy little girl, and an intense, heartless Pokémon trainer, both of whom possess formidable telekinetic powers.  Sabrina senses Ash coming a mile away, and sends the image of her child self to lead him off a cliff.  She’s kinda like that.  After Ash, Brock and Misty make it to Saffron City alive and are captured by Team Rocket (in possibly the most successful day of their entire career), child Sabrina teleports in, freezes Jessie and James, retrieves Pikachu, and teleports the group right to the Saffron Gym.  A passing jogger warns Ash that the leader is a total psycho, but Ash (being Ash) enters the Gym anyway.  The place is practically a cult.  The other psychics fear and worship Sabrina, who mind-blasts one for daring to question her, then responds to Ash’s challenge by insisting that, if he loses, they have to ‘play’ with her.  Ash… still isn’t taking the hints, so Sabrina sends out her Abra.  Abra rather lazily teleports around Pikachu’s attacks and then, seemingly at Sabrina’s command, evolves into Kadabra.  As well as teleporting, he can now redirect attacks with Confusion, and basically make Pikachu his bitch with Psychic.  Ash surrenders, and Sabrina makes good on her promise to ‘play with them’… literally, shrinking them and stuffing them into her doll’s house.  Luckily, just as child Sabrina is about to crush them, the random jogger teleports in to rescue them.  Once they’ve teleported outside, Ash demands that he teach him to use psychic power to even the odds against Sabrina.  They argue, and the man pummels Ash with telekinesis until, impressed by Ash’s determination, he reluctantly suggests that they should travel to Lavender Town to catch a Ghost Pokémon, since only they can face Psychic-types on an even footing.

Ash is nothing if not determined, and a few days later he enters the Pokémon Tower in Lavender Town.  I don’t really like the way the anime does Pokémon Tower; in the games it’s an incredibly important monumental cemetery built to honour all Pokémon, while in the anime it’s just this dingy old tower at the edge of town that people don’t talk about because it smells like old socks.  Also, a Gastly, a Haunter and a Gengar live there and spend most of their time watching slapstick comedy on TV and playing silly practical jokes to mess with anyone who stops by.  This… is actually really interesting.  Because this episode aired so long ago, everyone has gotten used to the idea of Gastly and friends as pranksters rather than anything truly malevolent, but the idea is actually original to the anime; nothing in the games is even remotely suggestive of this kind of characterisation (for all we know, it could be just these individuals that are like that).  Anyway, after Brock and Misty have been scared away by the ghosts’ tricks, Ash eventually works out that they’re more interested in comedy than horror… only to be knocked out cold by a falling chandelier.  Haunter releases Ash and Pikachu’s souls from their bodies so they can fly with the Ghost Pokémon for a night.  They all have a good long romp around the tower pranking each other, and poor Misty, who has no idea what’s going on, as Ash learns to see the funny side in scaring people.  Eventually, though, Misty and Brock find Ash’s body, and he decides he’d better return to the world of the living, much to the disappointment of his new friends.  Ash gives up on catching a Ghost-type, since they’re near-impossible to track down and aren’t interested in battling… but Haunter decides to follow Ash anyway.  Together, they head back to Saffron City with renewed confidence…

 Karzahnii's (http://karzahnii.deviantart.com/) depiction of the three Kanto Ghost-types; Gastly, Haunter and Gengar.

… which turns out to be utterly misplaced when Haunter vanishes the moment Ash steps into Sabrina’s chamber.  Ash panics and forfeits, so Sabrina turns Brock and Misty into dolls and chases after Ash as well, but the random jogger returns and teleports him out again.  The jogger (actually Sabrina’s dad, though Ash never quite catches on) explains Sabrina’s backstory – her singleminded devotion to pursuing psychic power isolated her from her family, and eventually split her soul in two.  He’s actually waiting for someone who can save Sabrina.  While Ash goes to look for Haunter, who’s busy tormenting Team Rocket, Brock and Misty strike up a conversation with the doll next to them on the sofa – Sabrina’s mother, who’s been a doll for years, but continues to insist “please don’t think badly of Sabrina!  She’s really a good daughter!”  I… I’m calling PTSD.  Anyway, Ash finds Haunter and returns to the gym to challenge Sabrina again… and Haunter disappears.  This time Pikachu (to Ash’s tearful gratitude) voluntarily steps into the ring to keep Ash from being doll’d.  Although he manages to land a good Thunderbolt on Kadabra, Kadabra just Recovers off the damage and Pikachu gets mangled as badly as the last time… until Haunter reappears.  He makes no attempt to battle anything, but instead tries out his latest slapstick routine.  Sabrina watches in bewilderment for a while, but eventually cracks a smile, which soon runs over into hysterical laughter.  Because of their psychic link, Kadabra succumbs as well, and Sabrina’s dad declares him unable to battle.  By getting Sabrina to laugh for the first time in over a decade, Haunter has managed to reunify her soul, making her give up the whole ‘psychotic cult leader’ thing.  Out of gratitude, Sabrina confers the Marsh Badge on Ash and releases her ‘dolls.’  Haunter chooses to stay in Saffron City with Sabrina, and Ash, Misty and Brock go on their merry way.

Okay, remember how I thought Pokémon League oversight must be fairly slack to let Lily, Violet and Daisy get away with running the Cerulean Gym as a ballet studio?  Well, I take it all back, because Cerulean City has NOTHING on this nonsense.   Actually, I can sort of empathise with the Pokémon League here.  When a Gym Leader is a criminally insane cult leader and the most powerful psychic of her generation, but also perfectly happy to sit around in her Pokémon Gym not bothering anyone, except for the occasional trainer too stupid to notice the warning signs… well, can you blame them for just letting her get on with it?  After all, if someone tried to get rid of Sabrina, she might be provoked into leaving the Gym, and no-one wants that.  Still, it’s rather a depressing comment on the central authority for Pokémon trainers in Kanto, and for that matter on Kanto’s law enforcement, that the one who eventually sorts it all out (after Sabrina has been Gym Leader for, one imagines, several years) is a relatively inexperienced wandering trainer with three badges and a grand total of six Pokémon.  In fact, no, it wasn’t even Ash; Haunter totally saved his ass in there.  The people of Kanto were saved from the Psycho Psychic of Saffron by a wild Pokémon with an interest in slapstick comedy (clearly no-one ever thought to try sitting Sabrina down with a box set of Monty Python’s Flying Circus).  The League are either woefully incompetent or just don’t care; nothing else adds up.  Either way, it’s clear that Pokémon Gyms can, if they so choose, act with a tremendous degree of autonomy.  Heck, the Gyms themselves are probably the power behind the Pokémon League, rather than the other way around – the anime has no Elite Four until much later seasons, so the Gym leaders are pretty much the cream of the crop, and several Gyms, notably Fuchsia and Blackthorn, probably predate the formation of the League.  Although the society of the Pokémon world appears superficially very similar to our own, there must be some pretty major differences lurking beneath the surface if powerful trainers are as above the law as they seem to be.  The fact that the strongest trainers are generally decent people is probably all that keeps the whole tottering edifice from collapsing.

 A spectacular piece by Jo Tyler (http://jotyler.deviantart.com/) of Sabrina commanding Kadabra and her new ally, Haunter.

The elephant in the room is the question of how Sabrina ever became a Gym Leader in the first place.  We know from her dad’s flashbacks that she began her psychic training at a young age (I’d guess between six and eight) and very quickly developed a habit of lashing out at her parents with her telekinesis when they annoyed her.  It’s unlikely, then, that she became the Saffron Gym Leader first and a deranged psychopath later.  Nor would she have gotten her Gym officially registered and gained the authority to hand out Marsh Badges if she had come to the Pokémon League with a proposal like “please give me League funding so I can build a temple for my personal cult and have a place to keep all the people I turn into dolls with my horrifying mind-powers.”  I may not give the Pokémon League a whole lot of credit, but let’s be reasonable here.  It follows that the Saffron Gym was already established and she took over at some point – getting League authorisation for a Gym isn’t easy (if it were, then A.J. from the Path to the Pokémon League would have done it), but taking over an existing one seems relatively hassle-free in the conclusion of Showdown in Pewter City – it’s probably assumed (falsely, I might add) that no Gym Leader would hand over the reins of power to an inferior trainer.  It seems normal for Pokémon Gyms to be family businesses, but I don’t think Sabrina’s father is a Pokémon trainer (her mother, conceivably, might have been, but I have trouble imagining Sabrina’s mother as a Gym Leader).  The other odd thing about the situation is that Sabrina’s cultists don’t actually seem to be Pokémon trainers either.  They’re totally occupied with exercising their psychic abilities (which are remarkably feeble in comparison to Sabrina’s) and, aside from Kadabra, we don’t see a single Pokémon in the Saffron Gym.  What’s more, the cultist who ‘greets’ Ash, although he declares emphatically that Ash is not worthy of challenging Sabrina, doesn’t make any effort to meet that challenge himself.  I suspect what this all adds up to is that Sabrina muscled in on the Saffron Gym as soon as she was old enough to train Pokémon, turned the old leader and the other trainers into dolls, and converted the place into a training centre for human telepaths.  Taking challenges is a minor nuisance, but at least gives her opportunities to practice her terrifying powers.  Moreover, I suspect the original Saffron Gym didn’t specialise in Psychic-types, otherwise you’d expect her to have kept a lot of the trainers and Pokémon from the old regime.  Remember the Fighting-type secondary Gym in the games’ version of Saffron City?  Yeah… I think I know why it doesn’t appear in the anime.

(Its anime equivalent is actually the “Fighting Spirit Gym,” which turns up in the very next episode, but that’s even less of a proper Gym, so I’m sticking with my wild speculation)

So that’s Saffron Gym – a place I hope never to visit again, but which offered some surprisingly valuable insights on the culture of Pokémon training in Kanto.  For the rest of this chunk of the series I’ll be hopping around a bit – I want to put episodes 25 and 29 (Primeape’s episodes) together, as well as 26 and 32 (Ash’s Fuchsia and Celadon Gym battles) – so bear with me; I’m on the home stretch.