Anonymous asks:

As you’ve often mentioned, a predominant theme of Pokemon is that humans and Pokemon both prosper by working together and treating each other with respect and friendship. It’s not only the ethos of most inhabitants of the world, but built into the metaphysics of the game itself (friendship evolution, etc). Why is it that (most of) the evil teams seem so convinced that it’s better to treat mons like tools or slaves instead, when their ideology is demonstrably wrong? Obviously, it shows that the evil people are, in fact, evil, but Team Rocket, who cares solely about money, should at least be able to crunch the numbers and see which technique is more profitable in the long run. Plus, who’s on the buying end of these smuggling rings? Do you think something else is going on? Either something implied or an unintentional interpretation?

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Anime Time: Episodes 66 and 67

The Evolution Solution – The Pi-Kahuna

Professor Oak did you really just spend all morning making this crappy Powerpoint of a Slowbro with question marks all over it?
Professor Oak did you really just spend all morning making this crappy Powerpoint of a Slowbro with question marks all over it?

These two episodes cover a brief (?) excursion to tropical Seafoam Island, where Delia and a group of her friends from Pallet Town are enjoying a relaxing holiday (it’s a very different place from the Seafoam Islands in the games).  Misty and Brock are both invited to join their group, but Ash – who is theoretically supposed to be training for the Pokémon League – is left behind, until he manages to con Professor Oak into giving him an excuse to go anyway.  The Evolution Solution, upon watching it again, is not as interesting an episode as I had hoped it would be, and The Pi-Kahuna has themes that are pretty standard for the Pokémon anime.  However, the former gives me an excuse to ramble at length about Shellder and Slowbro, while the latter… let’s just say its themes are open to creative reinterpretation.  Anyway – without further ado, let’s jump right in.

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Anime Time: Episode 65

Showdown at the Po-Ké Corral

That's it.  That's the episode.
That’s it. That’s the episode.

Now safely back in Pallet Town, Ash has to start preparing for the Pokémon League tournament – and in order to do that, he has to visit Professor Oak to find out when and where the tournament actually takes place (evidently, the answer is: in exactly two months, at exactly the same place as every year – the Indigo Plateau).  It apparently never occurred to him before now to look this stuff up.  When he arrives at the lab with Misty and Brock, Oak is apparently more excited to see Togepi than to see him, but nonetheless welcomes the gang into his sitting room, where they find out that – as always – Gary is two steps ahead of Ash.  They are almost immediately at each other’s throats, but Professor Oak protests that it would be a shame for there to be a feud between Pallet Town’s two “top trainers” – to the indignant disbelief of both.  Ash and Gary snipe each other for a while as the Professor examines their Pokédexes, and then it’s time for a tour of his facilities.

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Pokémon Origins: Episode 4

Blastoise seriously reconsiders the life choices that brought him to this point.

With Giovanni and Viridian City behind him, Red’s journey takes him to Indigo Plateau and the headquarters of the Pokémon League.   He narrates, briefly, his conquest of the Elite Four, accompanied by only brief clips from each battle, and is finally sent through by Lance to meet the Champion, who turns out to be – spoiler alert – Blue.  Red is surprised, but seems almost pleased to find him there.  Blue gives an adapted version of his classic overconfident and egomaniacal entrance speech, complete with his line about being “the most powerful trainer in the world,” and hurls his Pidgeot’s Pokéball to start the battle.  We skim through most of it in a few seconds – Blue’s team is the same as he would use with Blastoise in the games, while Red uses Jolteon, Lapras, Persian, Scyther, Dodrio and Charizard.  Eventually, of course, the battle comes down to their starters.  Although Blastoise shrugs off Charizard’s initial Mega Punch and then nearly ends the battle with Hydro Pump, Charizard is able to endure the damage, trap and weaken Blastoise with Fire Spin, and finally nail him with what I imagine to be a critical hit with Fire Blast.  Blue is confused and upset by his loss, but covers it up quickly – and then Professor Oak arrives.  Professor Oak’s lines in this scene were sort of forgivable in the games, where all the dialogue was pretty simplistic, but a lot more jarring in this medium: he initially ignores his grandson completely to give embarrassingly glowing praise to Red instead, and when he finally does acknowledge Blue, his first words are a condescending “what a shame…”  Blue shrugs that off – and gets accused of forgetting to treat his Pokémon with trust and love, something which rings a little hollow given that we’ve never really seen the way Blue treats his Pokémon.  Once Professor Oak has finished being a douchebag, he leads Red backstage to enter him in the Hall of Fame.  Red is a little self-conscious here, but is assured by Professor Oak that he’s earned it, so he vows to uphold the honour of the position.

 The mysterious Dr. Fuji. The games, too, contain hints that Mr. Fuji is more than he seems, in the form of a photo of him prominently displayed in Cinnabar Labs, the institution he founded years before.

Of course, Red’s not done – becoming Champion was never his goal; he only went to the Indigo Plateau in the first place because Giovanni told him he would need to become stronger, and fittingly this is merely the first eight minutes of the episode.  He still has his real quest to finish – completing the Pokédex – so we get a montage in which he does just that.  Finally, with all 149 known Kanto species recorded, he returns to Pallet Town triumphant, only to find the lab empty.  One of Oak’s lab assistants enters behind Red and, when asked where he is, only responds “well, it’s…” and trails off, with a pained expression on her face.  Honestly at this point I thought she was about to tell Red that Professor Oak had died while he was away, which would be a very sad but poignant way to end the Pokédex story, but no – that’s not where this episode is going.  In fact, Professor Oak is sitting with Blue, who has been hospitalised after an encounter with a terrifyingly powerful Psychic Pokémon, a hitherto unknown 150th species.  Oak wants Red to go and check it out immediately, but Blue (characteristically) objects that if “it was beyond even me, then you wouldn’t stand a chance against it either,” words which ring a bell for Red, though he doesn’t quite know why.  Oak takes Red back to the lab to get his Pokémon checked out, and finds the Mega Stones in his bag.  He has no idea what they are either, but decides to get them tested when he hears the name “Mr. Fuji.”  Red, while taking a break and fishing, remembers that he’s seen the phrase “it is beyond even us” in the journals he read in the burnt-out Pokémon Mansion on Cinnabar Island, and realises that Blue’s new species might be the “Mewtwo” they mentioned.  Oak, troubled, suggests that these may have been the notes of “Dr. Fuji,” a renowned scientist whose research became dangerous and ethically questionable after he discovered a new species of Pokémon, until he mysteriously disappeared.  Red’s “Mr. Fuji” could be the same man – especially given the connection Oak’s instruments have detected between the two stones, and between the larger blue stone and Charizard, something that reminds him of one of Dr. Fuji’s earlier projects.  Oak recommends letting Charizard hold onto the large stone, and sends Red off.

 Mewtwo shoots down Articuno.

Meanwhile, in Lavender Town, Mr. Fuji learns from Reyna that Red is heading for the Cerulean Cave and realises, to his horror, that Red is trying to catch Mewtwo.  Their thoughts are intercut with the battle between Mewtwo and Red.  Mr. Fuji predicts that Mewtwo will be far too powerful for Red’s Pokémon to defeat – and, indeed, they are all overwhelmed, even the legendary Articuno – but still has hope.  When he met Red in the Pokémon Tower, he was reminded of a Kalosian legend about a trainer and a Charizard who shared a particularly profound bond, capable of awakening the power in the stones.  Meanwhile, Charizard is getting his ass handed to him by Mewtwo, but refuses to give up, even when both he and Red are flung into the water by Mewtwo’s telekinesis.  Red, getting desperate, realises that he owes it to Charizard not to give up either.  This triggers the Mega Stones they’re holding, and Charizard transforms with a blaze of light into the dark and terrifying Mega Charizard X.  To Mewtwo’s shock, Charizard’s souped-up attacks are powerful enough to overwhelm even his psychic defences, and after a brief but intense battle (during which Red imagines little Charmander fighting in his place, thinking back to how far they’ve come), Mewtwo is overcome.  Red’s second Ultra Ball finishes the battle, and the Pokédex, Charizard returns to his normal form, and they return to Pallet Town triumphant.  There is a brief epilogue, in which Red, Professor Oak, the lab assistant, and a still-disgruntled Blue have lunch together and celebrate – and Red realises, with a start, that Mewtwo’s predecessor, Mew, must still be out there somewhere…

(As it happens, “somewhere” is right outside the window behind them, because Mew is a massive troll.)

 'Don't worry, Charizard!  I'll catch yo-I IMMEDIATELY REGRET THIS DECISION!'

We should talk here about Mega Evolution, because this has been the occasion of a long and complicated argument between me and Jim the Editor, who has very strong feelings on the matter.  Obviously, including Mega Charizard in the final episode of Origins is a big move, and a very clear break from the nostalgic tone of the rest of the series, something which he regards as a betrayal of what the series was, y’know, supposed to be about – namely, a reimagining of our experience of the original games – in favour of trying to popularise a silly unbalancing gimmick (Jim the Editor also has very strong feelings on Mega Evolution).  Furthermore, he feels that it actually cheapens the whole series to know that the creators had a sleazy marketing goal buried in the nostalgia all along, and thinks that, as Charizard’s Mega Evolution is the only post-first generation element anywhere in Origins (not even attacks from the second generation or later are used, to our recollection), the sudden introduction of this very recent addition to the game has a bizarre and jarring effect on the viewer’s experience of the story.  Upon reflection, I don’t think this is an unreasonable stance.  Origins very self-consciously targets the nostalgia market, and the somewhat abrupt departure from that (the foreshadowing at the end of the second episode notwithstanding) causes the whole purpose and message of the series to change almost without warning.  The first three of Origins’ four episodes, taken together, are a very different beast with a very different point from the full set.  The writers must have known this would be jarring to some viewers, but they chose to do it anyway, which is sort of bound to have upset people.  As I said, though, I’m not one of those.  Maybe that’s partly just because I have fewer reservations about Mega Evolution as a concept, but of course I have other reasons which… probably also make sense.

 Mega Charizard takes the stage.

Compared to the anime’s lack of subtlety in attempting to ‘sell’ spin-offs or gimmicks in the past, I actually don’t think it’s that bad.  I’m reminded of an episode of the Hoenn series featuring Solana from Pokémon Ranger, along with her Plusle, as a guest star, and had me cringing from start to finish at the transparency of its attempts to plug the new game and the laziness of its efforts to integrate the character, her role and her skills into the established setting of the anime.  Charizard’s ascension, if nothing else, makes sense in the context of the way Origins has portrayed Red and his partner in the past; Red relies on Charizard above all his other Pokémon, at times beyond reason, and with the exception of Jolteon, Charizard is the only Pokémon who isn’t rotated out of Red’s team between their second battle with Giovanni and their Elite Four challenge.  They are, almost without a doubt, as close as Ash and Pikachu.  I like that, at the end of all this, he gets to unlock this special power that humans and Pokémon can only wield together, through absolute trust and dedication to one another, that he gets to become the charizardiest Charizard who ever charizarded.  It’s not the only way they could have reached a crescendo in portraying Red and Charizard’s relationship; I must emphasise that.  There are many other ways this ending could have been written.  However, I think there is a method to this madness, a reason for Mega Evolution to be flung into a story to which it so manifestly does not belong: in order to make the claim, brazenly and unashamedly, that it does belong there.  By making it the culmination of the relationship Red has been building with Charmander from the beginning – that we all imagined building with our starter Pokémon from the beginning – Origins stresses that Mega Evolution is only the newest (and perhaps most dramatic) expression of themes that have been central to Pokémon all along.  This last, desperate play to defeat Mewtwo, though completely different from anything that has come before, works because of the same qualities that allowed Red to defeat Giovanni and Blue.

It’s precisely because Mega Evolution is so strange that Origins does this.  Nothing else introduced in generation six – arguably nothing else ever introduced to Pokémon – sticks out in the same way or provokes the same feeling of being a complete departure.  It demands justification in a way that nothing else does.  Things like new Pokémon, new items, new attacks – we know that new generations do that.  They require no defence, and so they are absent from this series.  Even the addition of a whole new type is something that we’re familiar with from Gold and Silver – if anything, a significant faction of the community has been disappointed at the absence of new types from generations three, four and five.  The Fairy type, whatever else you might think of it, is not something that would ever have seemed impossible, and it already came pre-packaged with a tie to the old world in the form of Sylveon, an evolution of Eevee (something else we’re used to seeing every other generation).  Mega Evolution, though, is weird, and by its very weirdness was bound to have people declaring that Pokémon had finally jumped the shark, or abandoned its roots (such outcries are of course nothing new, but these ones have, arguably, more justification than ever before).  The fourth episode of Origins, to me, is an ostentatious attempt to refute any such argument and give the creators a chance to reclaim their own past.  Is it obnoxious?  Well… insofar as it serves the creators’ broader aims at the expense of the mini-series itself, it kinda is, yes.  On the other hand, I think the way it changes what Origins is really about is interesting in itself, and in some ways I actually like how it tries to say that Pokémon’s past is still an important part of what it is today, rather than just putting it on a pedestal like something separate and untouchable. Ultimately, the only reason it is able to have this effect is because the contrast it creates between past and present is so sharp, so jarring.  Does it work?  I guess that’s up to you.

Pokémon Origins: Episode 1

Professor Oak introduces us to the mysterious creatures of his world.

For those not familiar with it, Pokémon Origins is what might be called a ‘reboot’ of the Pokémon anime.  Released late last year, it is a four-episode miniseries which follows the adventures of Red – the protagonist of the original Pokémon games – and is closely based on the events of Red Version, Blue Version, and their third-generation remakes, Fire Red and Leaf Green (the visuals mainly taking their cues from the latter pair of games).  This stuff is pure nostalgia fuel, for people who were introduced to Pokémon by Fire Red and Leaf Green, for those of us who are old enough to have clear memories of when Red and Blue were first released, and, hell, probably for Game Freak and the animators too.  Each episode opens with the CONTINUE/NEW GAME/OPTIONS screen and ends with the SAVE screen from the original games, the first episode begins with Professor Oak’s “introduction to the world of Pokémon,” followed by the battle between Nidorino and Gengar familiar from the opening cinematic (on Red’s TV), and even the dialogue often quotes directly from the games.  This last point, if you ask me, may have been pushing it a bit far, since the English translations of Red and Blue didn’t exactly have the best-written dialogue in video game history – the quotes stand out for being, frankly, a little wooden.  Enough of the general style, though; let’s talk about the plot.

The first episode opens with our beloved protagonist Red, an earnest if impulsive and clumsy boy, being summoned from his home to receive a Pokédex, along with his first Pokémon.  Dear rival Blue, who is as much of a douchebag as ever, arrives at Professor Oak’s lab at the same time (of course, if they’d really wanted to capture the authentic feel of the first generation Pokémon games, they’d have called the rival character “Assface,” but I’m not going to judge), and they receive the classic spiel about Professor Oak’s dream of completing the Pokédex, before being offered a choice of partners.  Red picks Charmander (who inexplicably sounds exactly like a disgruntled housecat) because “[his] dad gave [him] the name Red hoping that when [he] grew up it would help [him] have the passion and energy of a red-hot fire.”  Well… kids have been named for dumber reasons than that, I guess (speaking of names, Red is offered the chance to give Charmander a nickname, but declines).  True to form, Blue mocks Red for his poor decision making skills and picks Squirtle to gain an advantage over Charmander before dashing out the door.  While Blue is consumed by the desire to become a powerful trainer, regarding the Pokédex quest as only a way to earn his first Pokémon, Red, interestingly, seems almost confused by the very concept of Pokémon training and is much more concerned with Professor Oak’s request, quickly catching Rattata, Spearow, Pidgey and Caterpie in the woods around Pallet Town.  In blatant defiance of all common sense, he even tries to catch a Youngster’s Nidoran in his lust for data.  Following the Youngster’s directions to find a Nidoran of his own, Red runs into Blue again on the outskirts of Viridian City and is taunted into a battle, which his Charmander loses badly.  Blue leaves triumphant, and Red wanders off to sulk.  As he sits brooding, Red is confronted by Brock, who was watching their battle from a distance and has been stalking him ever since (so he’s only slightly less creepy than regular anime Brock – naturally, he doesn’t introduce himself yet).  Brock explains that Blue is obviously the better trainer, and so Squirtle trusts him a lot more than Charmander trusts Red, who was visibly flustered throughout their battle and rapidly grew annoyed when Charmander’s attacks failed to connect or cause damage.  Brock advises him to visit Pokémon Gyms to learn battling skills, directs him to the Pokémon Centre in Viridian City, and departs.

 Brock hams it up as Red's Nidoran realises he's made a huge mistake. 'Well done, Onix!  DOUBLE THE DAMAGE!' 'I immediately regret kicking the giant boulder snake in the head!'

Red duly travels to Pewter City, and gets a rude reception from Brock’s trainers, who give him the classic “million light years away from facing Brock” line – until Brock himself turns up and invites Red in, to his subordinates’ surprise.  Brock asks Red whether he has any badges, and on hearing his response selects two Pokéballs from a drawer of six.  Since Brock must realise Red can’t possibly have any badges yet, this exchange is probably a deliberate confirmation of what many of us have long suspected – Gym Leaders have many more Pokémon than we ever see, and tailor their load-outs to reflect challengers’ experience.  In their battle, Red is hesitant after his loss against Blue, and needs a lecture on Pokémon type matchups mid-battle, but manages to beat Brock’s Geodude with a switch to his Nidoran and a rapid Double Kick.  Newly confident, he recovers from losing Nidoran to a questionable interpretation of Onix’s Bide (Onix decides that Nidoran’s Double Kick counts as “two attacks” – normally I would let this slide because the anime has always played fast and loose with exactly how attacks work, but Origins is elsewhere scrupulous in following the games, so it sticks out), and tries to wear it down with Spearow and Rattata.  When that doesn’t work, he slows it with Metapod’s String Shot, but Onix breaks free and squashes the poor thing.  Brock becomes more intense with every Pokémon Onix strikes down, and by the time Red’s Charmander comes back out, both trainers are breathing heavily and sweating.  Red then has one of the least subtle epiphanies ever: “I get it!  Pokémon are not tools for battle!  They’re our partners!  My Pokémon and I are battling together.  I can’t believe I didn’t even notice such a simple thing as that.” (What did I tell you?  Masterful dialogue, right there.)  Charmander and Onix strike at each other one last time – but because Onix had failed to shake off a single strand of Metapod’s silk, he’s too slow, and Charmander’s attack hits first.  Onix nearly crushes Brock’s annoying Gym trainers as he falls, but sadly Brock recalls him in time.  Red receives a Boulder Badge, a TM for Bide, and a quick pep talk before leaving for his next adventure.  We then get two brief scenes where Brock and Professor Oak are both asked by their respective minions what it is they see in Red: Brock simply “found him quite intriguing,” while Oak admires his determination and honesty.  Both comment on his willingness to learn, which Oak contrasts with Blue’s arrogance.

Although I’m not exactly impressed by Red explicitly stating the episode’s key message, which is lazy even for the Pokémon anime, his battle with Brock is nonetheless quite interesting.  The experience is portrayed as exhausting for both of them, and possibly even physically painful – Red comments in his inner monologue that “I feel as though I’m also taking damage.”  I would stop short of suggesting that he’s actually sharing Charmander’s pain somehow, which seems a bit metaphysical even for Pokémon, but  I think there is a clear implication there that battling (or doing it properly, anyway) requires a heightened sense of empathy for one’s partners.  Early on, Red doesn’t approach his battles with the urgency or adrenaline that his Pokémon experience: during his battle with Blue, he expects his attack commands to produce certain effects on his enemy and becomes frustrated when they fail, while against Brock, he initially wants more time to plan his moves and hesitates, so that Charmander picks up on the fact that they aren’t thinking at the same speed and becomes worried.  “You let your Pokémon take that,” Brock taunts when Geodude seizes the opening.  Red is detached, and isn’t fully conscious of what his Pokémon can and cannot do.  When the tempo of the battle increases with Red’s rapid switches against Onix, he begins to immerse himself in what’s happening, and becomes more sensitive to what his Pokémon are thinking and feeling.  This kind of development is something that we don’t really see in the main anime with Ash because, for all his many flaws at the start of the Kanto series, Ash ‘gets it.’  He may be clueless and incompetent, but empathy is not something Ash Ketchum needs explained to him, his disastrous first day with Pikachu notwithstanding – and in Ash’s defence Pikachu isn’t exactly a model partner himself when they first meet.  Charmander, by contrast, is instantly friendly, loyal and obedient; their problems are very much on Red’s end, despite what he seems to be thinking during the battle with Blue.

 Red and Charmander contemplate their failure and the lifetime of misery and insignificance that lie before them.

The other thing that’s interesting to me about this episode is Red’s dedication to his work for Professor Oak.  In spite of Blue’s cocky exhortation to “leave it to me!”, another quote from the games, later episodes will bear out the impression created here that Red actually cares about finishing the Pokédex while Blue is more concerned with becoming powerful (although he does note before their battle that the goals are complimentary – finishing the Pokédex will mean fighting and capturing strong Pokémon).  This says a lot about what the writers of Origins think the point of the game is, but it’s also neat when you think about it in terms of Red’s characterisation.  Red doesn’t always think things through, but the quality both Brock and Professor Oak admire in him is that he’s aware of his own lack of experience and wants to grow.  In the context of the Pokédex quest as a scientific inquiry, this is an extremely valuable trait – arguably the most important virtue in science is the willingness to question one’s preconceptions – and takes on particular significance when Oak contrasts it with the self-assuredness of Red’s opposite number, Blue, whom he worries is too good to admit that there could be anything else he needs to learn.  Their attitudes have a bearing on their views of the importance of the Pokédex quest.  Presumably Professor Oak is aware of the 149 species of Pokémon that exist in Kanto (excluding Mewtwo), could give rough descriptions of them if pressed, and might be able to drum up more detailed information from textbooks – given that, someone like Blue might be inclined to regard their mission as merely an exercise in compiling existing data into a more convenient form, while Red might be curious to see whether some of that data can be confirmed or disproved, and more ready to think that there could be more to discover.  The Pokédex quest even has some bearing on Red’s relationship with Charmander, who clearly shares his disappointment after his failed first attempt to catch a Pidgey results in a blank Pokédex entry.  It’s not obvious how far Charmander actually understands what they’re doing, but he seems to be reacting to the blank page itself, and not just following Red’s cue (they give dejected sighs in unison).  Professor Oak could have explained the purpose of their mission to all three starters beforehand; it’s hard to say without ever seeing what Squirtle thinks of all this.  The rapidity with which Charmander assimilates to Red’s goals and priorities, though, is interesting, and may say something about what he thinks of his new trainer.

Red’s relationship with Charmander, of course, is going to be a major theme of Origins, and this won’t be the last I have to say about it either – stay tuned!