A Pokémon Trainer is You! XXVII: School of Brock

[Catch up on the story so far here!]

Which Pokémon do you plan to open with against Brock?
– Jane Doe, the Zorua

Which Pokémon would you like to talk with?
– Jane

You’re a reasonably down-to-earth kid.  You’re not going to go charging into your first gym battle with a Pokémon on your team that, frankly, you barely know.  You’re going to figure out what Jane’s deal is.  As far as Jane herself is concerned, her deal is primarily rolling over and receiving belly rubs, and to be clear, you are 100% down for this.  She is a good girl and her fur is almost outrageously soft and silky.  You still want to know what her powers do, though.  Jane’s species isn’t even in your Pokédex, but the Pokémon Centre has a book room with a decent collection of field guides and textbooks.  With a little help from Jane herself, who yaps encouragingly whenever you find pictures of Pokémon from forested central Unova, you quickly find a profile in a recent trainer’s almanac.  Like I said, Jane Doe is a Zorua.  She’s a Dark-type and a fiercely intelligent ambush predator.  She should be able to learn a range of speed-based techniques, as well as attacks that strike at an opponent’s senses or mental state, and she has certain unique abilities that make your eyes pop out like an old cartoon character’s when you read the book’s description.  This definitely warrants a little practice before you go to bed.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer is You! XXVII: School of Brock”

A Pokémon Trainer is You! VIII: Seriously, kid, you should know his name by now

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

What do you say to Whatshisname?
– Ask about the health of his Pokémon.

You’re honestly not sure how trainer etiquette is supposed to go in these situations, but it seems to you like the polite thing here is to ask the other guy about how his Pokémon is doing.

“Uh…”  He blinks, fumbling for a second.  “Squirtle’s doing great.  Uh, aren’t you, buddy?”  He glances down at Squirtle, who is poking around some brush with Scallion.  Squirtle looks back up at him and replies with an affirmative-sounding squeaky grunt.  “You know a bunch of nerd stuff, right?  Think you’d be able to tell if a Pokémon was sick or hurt?”  You do, of course, know a spectacular amount of dumb nerd $#!t, but most of it isn’t directly related to Pokémon health.  You can certainly observe a Pokémon’s behaviour and take note of even fairly subtle changes, and it does occur to you that Squirtle seems to have a little more spring in its step, so you tell Prussian(?) as much.  They’ve only been together a day and a half, but some Pokémon seem to become more lively just from being in the company of humans; it’s a phenomenon that Professor Oak has always been fascinated by.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer is You! VIII: Seriously, kid, you should know his name by now”

A Pokémon Trainer is You! IV: Get Going, Kid!

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

How do you approach your first battle?
– Play it safe and wear them out with Leech Seed

You’re pretty confident you know all the angles here.  You and whatshisname are both using Pokémon you just met, and won’t be able to try any funny business.  Squirtle is tougher than Bulbasaur thanks to its shell that it can hide inside at will, so if they have any sense they’ll try to outlast your Grass attacks and then counterattack with a shell slam or something.  But there’s an easy way to keep that from working…

At your order, the bulb on your Pokémon’s back pulses and fires a single glowing yellow seed that arcs through the air towards Squirtle.  The turtle Pokémon reacts instantly by dropping to the floor and pulling its head and all its limbs into its shell, quick as you can blink, but that won’t stop a Leech Seed.  It hits Squirtle’s shell, sticks, and immediately sprouts a web of green that grows with supernatural speed, climbing around and into the shell.  The other guy is pretty shaken; you don’t think he’s actually seen this attack before.  He manages to call counterattacks, and Squirtle is able to fire Bubbles that knock your Bulbasaur off its feet, but it’s no good.  Water attacks deal only superficial damage to Grass-types, the Leech Seed is gradually sapping Squirtle’s strength, and all Bulbasaur has to do is use its vines to parry attacks and occasionally lash out whenever Squirtle emerges from its shell for too long.  Eventually, Squirtle sinks to its knees, too weak to go on attacking, and Professor Oak calls an end to the battle.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer is You! IV: Get Going, Kid!”

A Pokémon Trainer Is You! III: A Battle You Has!

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

What do you do when Oak offers you a Pokémon?
– Ask Professor Oak to let the Pokémon decide.

You turn to Professor Oak.  All three of these Pokémon are great, you explain, and you feel confident that any of them would make a powerful and versatile partner, but it seems unfair to make this choice without their input.  Maybe it should be up to them, which one goes with you?  Blue rolls his eyes, but the Professor nods sagely and smiles at you.
“I think that would be a very interesting way of making this decision!  Well, everyone, come on out!”  With a single fluid wave of his hand, he somehow activates all three Pokéballs at once, and the three Pokémon inside them emerge in a blaze of blue-white light: Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer Is You! III: A Battle You Has!”

A Pokémon Trainer Is You! II: For Real This Time, ‘Cause You’re Getting A Pokémon!

Last time, on A Pokémon Trainer Is You:

Are you a boy or a girl?
– Yes

What are your special skills?
– Compassion: You are less of a $#!tbag than most kids your age, allowing you to empathise with people and Pokémon, and intuit their desires or concerns.
– Science: You hang around Professor Oak’s lab a lot, and have picked up a lot of debatably useful trivia about everything from astronomy to marine biology.
– Tactics: You watch televised Pokémon battles obsessively.  You know Pokémon type advantages by heart, and know how certain moves can be used in creative ways.

What is your rival’s name?
– I think it’s like a colour or something

Okay, let’s get on with it!

You’re at Professor Oak’s lab, ready for the beginning of the rest of your life!  The floor is tiled in pristine white – or at least, it used to be; they do a lot of experiments here and the cleaners can’t keep up.  You can still pick out most of the stains that are your fault.  Thick textbooks on Pokémon behaviour and anatomy line every wall and are scattered over most of the tables, complex machines with lots of enticing buttons litter the main room, and the lab assistants are that particular kind of dishevelled that says “we barely know how to feed and clothe ourselves, but give us grant money and we’ll work 36 hours a day!”  You nod cheerily to each of them as you pass.  You have a lot of fun memories in this place – culturing bacteria in Petri dishes, mixing chemicals to create violent colours and beautiful explosions, learning to predict the weather from air pressure measurements, helping the Professor’s assistants to draw up charts of Kantonian habitats and biomes.  It’s almost a shame to be leaving, but there’s so much to do out in the world: people and Pokémon to meet, natural phenomena to explore, battles to win!  Professor Oak is standing, magisterial and dignified, but with a kindly smile on his face, just next to a high bench with three glittering round objects.

Continue reading “A Pokémon Trainer Is You! II: For Real This Time, ‘Cause You’re Getting A Pokémon!”

Anime Time: Episodes 60-61

Beach Blank-Out Blastoise – The Misty Mermaid

 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, eat your hearts out.  Screenshots from filb.de/anime.

With Ash’s Volcano Badge in hand at last, it’s time to leave Cinnabar Island… but our hapless heroes are about to miss the last boat of the day!  As they run for the ferry terminal, a Wartortle appears out of nowhere and crashes into them, knocking everyone to the ground.  Pikachu calls on Squirtle to interpret, who immediately decides that this is an emergency worthy of BADASS SHADES, and leaps into the ocean with the Wartortle.  The kids steal a motorboat and follow.  They soon reach an island, with a beach filled with snoring Squirtle and Wartortle, and a single Blastoise.  Brock is excited by the possibility that they have found the mysterious breeding grounds of the turtle Pokémon, but there’s something off about the scene.  When Ash and Squirtle run up to Blastoise, they fall asleep too, so Pikachu attempts his universal solution – electrocute everything – and wakes up Ash, Squirtle, and most of the wild turtle Pokémon.  When Ash has recovered, he claims to have heard music echoing within Blastoise’s shell.  Misty, true to form, decides that whatever’s going on here, getting mixed up in it is more trouble than it’s worth, and suggests they leave, but Ash and Brock want to figure out what’s going on.  They establish, through conversation with all the Squirtle and Wartortle, that Blastoise fell asleep while swimming a few days ago, and was dragged back to shore by the others, who all fell asleep too once they reached the island, except for the one Wartortle who went to Cinnabar Island to find help.  Brock examines Blastoise with a stethoscope, but the huge turtle Pokémon wakes up during the process, stretches his arms, swivels his cannons… and finds that he has a blockage stuck in his right cannon.  A round, squishy, pink blockage that begins singing when he tries to dislodge it.  Everyone falls asleep again under Jigglypuff’s spell, and Team Rocket show up to try and snatch Blastoise with their Gyarados submarine’s grabbing arm.  When the turtles wake up and find Blastoise gone, Ash’s Squirtle assumes command using his BADASS SHADES and rallies his brothers.  Meanwhile, Team Rocket fall asleep themselves, and their sub sinks.  The turtle Pokémon retrieve it, along with Blastoise, allowing Ash and Misty to resuscitate James and Meowth, who are grateful, and Jessie, who screams “they’re our mortal enemies; how DARE you be grateful they saved our lives!?”  Team Rocket promptly hop back into their submarine, which rolls onto the beach and starts grabbing for Pokémon.  The Wartortle can’t stop it, but Pikachu and Squirtle together manage to extract Jigglypuff and awaken Blastoise, who has the strength and firepower to grapple with the submarine and blast it away.  Squirtle even manages to rescue Jigglypuff, who winds up on the submarine somehow.  Peace is restored in the turtle kingdom, and the kids go on their merry way.

 How has it escaped Kanto's government that a Jigglypuff in the wrong place at the wrong time could doom entire ecosystems?  This one very nearly deprived the region's primary Wartortle colony of their leader.

So, not for the first time, we see in this episode that evolved Pokémon are considered the natural rulers of their species: Blastoise is the oldest and the strongest of the turtle Pokémon on the island, and probably the most knowledgeable and experienced.  There is no shortage of reasons he should be in charge, really, and it mirrors what we see in plenty of other episodes… so why do I even care?  Well, Ash’s Squirtle is neither old nor powerful… more knowledgeable than the rest, maybe, but Wartortle are supposed to live for hundreds of years, so who knows?  When Squirtle marshals the other turtle Pokémon to go after the submarine, they obey instantly and cooperatively, treating him without question as a commander.  Misty and Brock seem to think it’s his BADASS SHADES, and, well, I guess that’s not impossible, but I think it’s giving them too little credit; I’m pretty sure Pokémon are consistently portrayed as being more sensible than that.  What Squirtle does have is experience of the wider world, something the other turtle Pokémon probably lack since their community is implied to be fairly insular, as well as powerful allies with a wide range of capabilities (he’s also familiar with their enemies).  If nothing else, the turtle Pokémon recognise that humans are very useful friends to have; as a result, they will readily accept a human-trained Pokémon as a leader because Squirtle is likely to have experience thinking on his feet and dealing with unusual situations, and because he can keep things going smoothly with Ash and the others, whose assistance might be important.  This brings us back, in the end, to the BADASS SHADES: a human item, and an outward symbol of Squirtle’s experiences in and ties to the human world.  As far as insignias of rank go, they’re an unusual choice, but I think they represent what it is about Ash’s Squirtle that really makes the other Squirtle and Wartortle accept him as a leader so unquestioningly.  My mind wanders back to that one strange line from Ash’s Pokédex in the first episode: “wild Pokémon are often jealous of human-trained Pokémon.”  I’m gradually beginning to believe this statement is actually false, or at least oversimplified, and possibly even propagandistic (but that’s another entry entirely).  Pokémon and humans are both stronger together; this has been the franchise’s stance from day one, and echoes through its every iteration – games, anime, manga, whatever – and wild Pokémon do recognise that.  They don’t necessarily want to be partnered themselves, but many of them will still treat human-trained Pokémon with a certain respect, and may defer to their experience in crisis situations.

Moving on…

 The Magical Mermaid relaxes in her lagoon.

As Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu strike out for Viridian City, Misty realises that her Horsea isn’t getting enough freedom and exercise (something which never seems to be a problem for Goldeen – I’m pretty sure Misty’s Horsea is just a bit frail and sickly), so the kids decide it might be a good idea to visit Misty’s sisters in Cerulean City and let Horsea relax in the huge pool at the Gym for a few days.  When they reach Cerulean City, they learn that the Gym is advertising a new ballet, featuring a talented water dancer returning to Cerulean after a long absence.  Misty soon learns, to her shock, that she is this legendary ballerina.  Lily, Violet and Daisy explain that their traditional shows haven’t been pulling the crowds like they used to lately, so they’ve decided to spice things up by writing a water ballet to be performed underwater!  Tomorrow!  Please help us, Misty, or the Cerulean Gym will be ruined!  Misty will play the ballet’s star, the Magical Mermaid; Lily and Violet will be the evil pirates who intrude on her peaceful lagoon, and Daisy will play the handsome prince who arrives at the climax to save the day… and clearly the sisters do need Misty as the Gym is ludicrously short-staffed – they aren’t just the actresses; they run everything at these shows, ticket sales and all.  The ballet is performed in an enormous glass tank filled with water.  Misty, as a budding Water Pokémon Master, can hold her breath for a crazily long time, and the show is structured to give her moments out of sight of the audience to use her underwater breathing apparatus.  The show goes well initially, with Misty’s underwater dance holding the crowds enthralled, but when Lily and Violet are cued to enter, two quite different pirates appear, wearing… interesting… costumes: who else but Team Rocket?  Their motto is a huge hit with the crowd, who think it’s all part of the show.  Ash and Brock maintain the illusion by taking Daisy’s cue to leap into the pool to help.  Weezing floats harmlessly to the surface, but Arbok proves to be quite an impressive fighter underwater, and manages to corner Starmie, Seaking and Squirtle.  The sisters’ much-ridiculed Seel, however, saves the day, outmanoeuvring Arbok and hammering it with an Aurora Beam before evolving into Dewgong and deep-freezing the lot of them.  The kids haul all the Water Pokémon onto a platform in the centre of the pool so Pikachu can blast Team Rocket with impunity in a grand finale that makes the show a huge success, revitalising the Cerulean Gym’s business overnight.  In thanks for her part in saving the Gym, Misty’s sisters confiscate her Horsea and Starmie so that they’ll have enough Pokémon to keep performing the show.  Truly, their gratitude is an example to us all.

 ...you quickly learn to stop questioning it.

Every time I see these three I wonder how the hell they can possibly be allowed to run a Pokémon Gym.  They’re clearly more concerned with ticket sales than with challenges, and regard their Gym’s fate as resting on the success of their next water ballet, not on their ability to train Pokémon and instruct other trainers in doing the same.  The Misty Mermaid does go out of its way to point out that they are decent Water Pokémon specialists – when Seaking and Horsea initially attempt to tag-team Arbok, and Seaking lands a nasty Horn Attack, Ash comments on its skill, to which Misty responds “thank my sisters; they trained it.”  However, when push comes to shove, much of the effectiveness of the climax, and of Seel’s evolution into Dewgong, is drawn from the fact that Lily, Violet and Daisy have completely and blatantly failed to comprehend Seel’s potential, ever since they declined Ash’s challenge in the Waterflowers of Cerulean City on the grounds that Seel wasn’t strong enough to be worth trying (Seaking, who seems to be their star battler, had been injured in a previous battle with one of Ash’s Pallet Town rivals).  They do little, if anything, to earn our respect, and serve mainly to demonstrate that some Gyms are indeed more challenging than others.  They’re also making me change my mind again on a question that has me go back and forth repeatedly; whether Pokémon Gyms enjoy any sort of league funding.  Like Erika, the Sensational Sisters seem to run a successful business; then again, their Gym is unusually lavish – hardly as expensive to build and maintain as Blaine’s, but the start-up capital for their huge aquarium, water fields, and auditorium must have come from somewhere.  My working theory is that the sisters inherited the Cerulean Gym from their infinitely more capable parents, and the Pokémon League would rather allow their incompetent but largely self-sufficient Gym to continue as it is than attempt to revoke its official status and replace it with a more efficiently-led one.  This, I am convinced, would be a long and difficult process, possibly with nasty effects on the League’s internal politics, and would eventually result in a Gym that didn’t cover nearly as much of its own funding.  For aspiring Water Pokémon trainers looking for a place to practice, just having a large purpose-built pool is probably far more important than having competent instructors anyway, so the League may be happy to let the sisters maintain a fairly hands-off approach to running the place and concentrate on their water ballets.

So, my theme for these two episodes was that they are both about Water Pokémon.  Yep.  Totally planned it that way and didn’t just stick them together because I had other plans for the episodes on either side.  Um.  So there are only two episodes left in this block, and they’re both getting entries of their own.  The last one is the Viridian Gym episode.  The other one is… interesting.  See you next time.

Squirtle, Wartortle and Blastoise

Squirtle.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; do unto Nintendo as you would have Nintendo do unto you.It’s funny, but I’ve never been a big fan of the Water-type starters.  Funny, because some of my favourite Pokémon are Water-types.  Maybe it’s because they’re always juxtaposed with the Grass-type starters, which for me is no contest.  If that’s the case, then perhaps examining them in isolation will make the truth come out.  Let’s give it a try…

Squirtle is adorable.  As far as cuteness goes, amongst the first-generation starters Squirtle’s nailed it.  Of course, I think turtles are just adorable animals by nature, but it’s hard not to go all warm and gooey inside when you see him staring up at you in Sugimori’s art over there.  However, this does bring up my problem with Squirtle, since, sadly, I do have one; he’s… well, just a turtle.  Apart from the squirrel-like tail (which does, I must concede, further multiply his cuteness factor) the designers haven’t really done much with him, which I think is typical of the flaws in many of the less creative Water-types and symptomatic of a problem in the way Water Pokémon are designed: Water, compared to Fire and Grass, is an element with requirements that are relatively mundane and easy to meet.  All you need is for your Pokémon to live in the water.  This is part of the reason there are so damn many of them; more than 1/6 of all Pokémon are Water-types, which makes it the most common element by a comfortable margin, and a lot of them are just ‘this Pokémon is an animal that lives in the water!’  Not all Water Pokémon fall into this trap, of course (like I said, some of my favourites are Water-types), nor is Squirtle without merits, but I can’t help but feel that he is, overall, a less creative concept than Charmander or Bulbasaur.  Evolution to Wartortle makes him a bit more elaborate; the rudder-like ears and luxuriantly furry wave-crest tail are nice touches, and although his cultural association with longevity is a bit predictable for a turtle Pokémon, it’s still good background detail.  If Squirtle is too little changed from a standard turtle, I think Wartortle is just right; the development of the tail into an actual eye-catching feature that’s evocative of his element was exactly what that design needed.  Finally we have Blastoise, who feels a little odd to me.  Venusaur and Charizard both feel as though they continue the same changes that we see in Ivysaur and Charmeleon; the flower bursting into bloom on Ivysaur’s back as he slowly takes on a primeval appearance, the horns growing on Charmeleon’s head as he begins to leave behind his lizard form and become something more.  Blastoise, with his stubby tail and understated ears, reverses the changes we see as Squirtle evolves into Wartortle, in particular losing the physical aspects that are responsible for Wartortle’s connotations of age and experience, almost as though he’s just decided to go in a different direction entirely.  He suddenly begins to look a lot more like a real-world turtle again… except of course that Blastoise has high-powered water cannons, for no other reason than because they’re awesome.  What’s the deal with these, anyway?  Are they made of bone?  Metal?  Either raises odd questions, so again, it’s best to go with the awesome and not try to explain it.  The fun thing about Blastoise is that his cannons aren’t just for direct attacks; he can also use them as boosters to increase the speed and power of his tackles (so presumably he can rotate them backwards?), which makes him sound even more badass.

 Wartortle.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

You might have guessed I’m a bit conflicted about Blastoise.  It’s impossible to deny that he’s a brutally awesome Pokémon.  However, I’m bothered by a lot of the details, particularly the way the whole evolutionary line fits together.  I do like Squirtle, Wartortle and Blastoise, particularly Wartortle, but I don’t think this design is as carefully thought-out or coordinated as those of the other two starters – and I think I know why.  This is the list of hexadecimal index numbers used by the game engine of Red and Blue to identify all of the first-generation Pokémon.  This list has prompted a lot of fascinating discussions I don’t really have time to get into, but what matters today is that many people believe it represents the order in which the first-generation Pokémon were designed and programmed into the game (mainly because Rhydon, who is independently known to have been the first Pokémon ever created, is at the top, and there’s no other ordering principle to the list).  What’s interesting is the position of the starters.  Ivysaur is one of the oldest designs, while Bulbasaur and Venusaur come in together at a much later point, suggesting that they were designed around Ivysaur, giving the whole line cohesion.  Charmander, Charmeleon and Charizard seem to have been thrown in almost at the last minute, all together (so they’re essentially a single design), at the same time as Squirtle and Wartortle – I’m guessing this represents the moment the Grass/Fire/Water starter paradigm was created – but Blastoise is much older.  You can construct a number of other interesting patterns from this list.  Dragonite predates Dratini and Dragonair just as Blastoise predates Squirtle and Wartortle.  Psyduck and Golduck were not created together.  Gastly, Haunter and Gengar were all designed at different times, and Haunter came last.  Assuming that the index numbers do indeed represent what they are often taken to represent, this might explain my frustrating little details; Blastoise was originally a stand-alone design, and Squirtle and Wartortle were much newer pre-evolutions that fit with each other, but don’t quite match the original idea.

 Wartortle being awesome but somehow also adorable, by Salanchu (http://salanchu.deviantart.com/).

That’s quite enough of my baseless speculation, though; if you’re reading this you probably want to know what I think of Blastoise’s capabilities.  Blastoise kind of fell flat in Red and Blue because he didn’t really do anything that other Water-types didn’t; all of them could learn Water and Ice attacks, most of them were tanks, and (unlike Charizard) Blastoise wasn’t unique in his ability to learn Earthquake.  Gold and Silver gave Blastoise the tools that have been his mainstay ever since: superior special defence, from the splitting of the special stat, and Rapid Spin.  Rapid Spin is one of the vital necessities of competitive Pokémon, since it’s the only way to get rid of ‘entry hazards,’ traps that damage your Pokémon every time you switch; relatively few Pokémon can actually learn it, so those that do are almost guaranteed a niche (except for Delibird, because he is silly), as Blastoise has been for all these years.  He also picked up a couple of amusing tricks like Curse, Roar and Mirror Coat, followed by Yawn and Iron Defence in Ruby and Sapphire, adding to his talents as a defensive utility Pokémon.  Most of the fourth generation’s presents for Blastoise were diversifications of his offensive movepool – Focus Blast, Flash Cannon, Zen Headbutt, Aqua Jet, Signal Beam and, in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, the coveted Water Spout – but he’s not fast enough or powerful enough for aggressive strategies to make sense for him, and he didn’t really gain anything that added to his specialist role.  Blastoise still is, and probably always will be, a support Pokémon first and foremost; in addition to all the utility powers he had before, he’s picked up Dragon Tail, so he can smack Pokémon around while forcing them out of play, and like most of the Water-type crowd, he now has access to Scald, a less powerful trade-in for Surf that can cause burns, crippling physical attackers.  What Blastoise lacks in Black and White is a conspicuously game-changing Dream World ability (also Shell Smash, which would let him do something with that aforementioned offensive movepool, but I guess Carracosta would still be better at that anyway).  Chlorophyll and Solar Power fundamentally alter Venusaur and Charizard’s capabilities, while Blastoise’s Rain Dish… well, if you were planning on building a rain team anyway, the extra trickle of healing will certainly help Blastoise to do his job better, but it’s no substitute for an actual healing technique, the absence of which is one of the main things holding Blastoise back.  It’s not a bad ability, especially not for a defensive Pokémon, but Venusaur and Charizard’s new toys kinda leave Blastoise in the dust on this one.

 Blastoise.  Artwork by Ken Sugimori.

I really wish I could think of something as nice to say about Squirtle and his evolutions as I did about Bulbasaur and Charmander, because I don’t think they’re bad Pokémon by any measure.  I’m just… sort of ambivalent.  They’re… y’know.  They’re okay.  They don’t make me want to rave about how wonderfully designed they are, or how versatile and powerful they are; nor have they committed any real sins, and if I had been looking over Red and Blue prior to their original release, I probably would have passed over them without comment.  Whoo.

That is all.

You may go.

Anime Time: Episodes 15-17

Battle Aboard the St. Anne – Pokémon Shipwreck – Island of the Giant Pokémon

Fresh off Ash’s victory at the Vermillion Gym, Ash and his friends are given free tickets by a pair of teenage girls to a lavish Pokémon trainers’ convention aboard the world-famous luxury cruise liner, the St. Anne!  THERE IS NO WAY THIS COULD POSSIBLY BE A SCAM!

 This is going to be a boring day for art since I couldn't find any relevant fanart for these episodes; here's Sugimori's Raticate art instead.

We quickly learn that the ‘teenage girls’ were Team Rocket in disguise (yes, James too), and that they were giving out free tickets to all the trainers they could find on the orders of their shadowy Boss, Giovanni, who appears for the first time in this episode.  The Boss (who seems to be the closest thing Meowth has to a formal ‘owner,’ but has come to prefer his Persian – this will be a constant source of insecurity to Meowth during the series) is displeased with the time and energy they have expended failing to catch Pikachu, but still seems to have enough confidence to put them in charge of the ambush planned on the St. Anne.  His confidence, of course, is misplaced – not only do the Team Rocket goons fail miserably to steal even a single Pokémon, James also loses a ludicrous amount of money buying into a Magikarp-breeding pyramid scheme, and the entire ship capsizes and sinks with Jessie, James and Meowth still on board (not to mention our plucky heroes).  This, of course, is all totally incidental as far as I’m concerned.  I want to talk about what happens in the meantime: Ash encounters a dapper gentleman with a top hat and moustache, whose name is never given, challenging other trainers to exhibition battles with a powerful Raticate.  Ash, being Ash, takes up the challenge and finds that Raticate and his Butterfree are very evenly matched; however, just as Butterfree begins to gain the upper hand with Stun Spore, the Gentleman – to Ash’s annoyance – recalls his Raticate and suggests calling it a draw.  The Gentleman later proposes a trade, his Raticate for Ash’s Butterfree, which Ash hesitantly accepts but later regrets.  Luckily, the Gentleman reluctantly agrees to trade back at the end of the episode, just as the ship is sinking.

When you think about it, Pokémon trading is a pretty bizarre practice from the perspective of a trainer like Ash, who regards each and every one of his Pokémon as a close personal friend (which I think counts as further evidence that Ash’s way of doing things is actually quite unusual, since Pokémon trading manifestly isn’t).  The Gentleman’s ideas about trading are interesting ones – he believes that trading Pokémon is a way of deepening and widening new friendships and spreading relationships between trainers all around the world; basically, a form of social networking.  You could argue that he’s running what amounts to a scam here, proposing a trade for the first Pokémon he could find that was stronger than his Raticate and then dazzling the Pokémon’s kid trainer with some pretty rhetoric, but since he does agree to trade back when Ash asks him, I think it’s more likely he actually believes it.  Misty’s perspective on the situation is almost as interesting because it shows, I think, that she relates to Pokémon in a very different way to Ash: although she is sympathetic when he begins to regret trading away Butterfree, her response, “look on the bright side; you got a Raticate!” seems to indicate that she doesn’t really understand the depth of Ash’s attachment to his Pokémon yet.  I’m kind of disappointed to miss Brock’s opinion; Ash does ask him before the trade, but he’s too busy getting goo-goo-eyed over the Gentleman’s lady friend to offer a coherent response.  For a person like Ash, trading away a Pokémon is basically signing away the health and wellbeing of a close friend to someone else.  If Ash’s attitude is at all typical, you wouldn’t expect Pokémon trading ever to happen except between good friends but, again, this is manifestly not the case.  I think this indicates that for a ‘typical’ trainer, a Pokémon is less like a friend and more like… not a possession, but… perhaps a colleague, co-worker, or subordinate – basically, someone with whom you have a formal, rather than an emotional, relationship.  I should qualify that, like most complex issues, this is probably more of a spectrum than a dichotomy; Ash is at one end, and trainers like the Gentleman at the other, but a lot of people probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, the ship flips upside down and sinks, and due to the captain’s gross incompetence no-one notices that a few of the passengers were still on board.  There’s still plenty of air in the ship, but it’s steadily filling up with water from the bottom, and it’s balanced precariously on a huge spire of rock over a deep ocean trench…

 Fun fact: in the beta version of Red and Blue, Gyarados' English name was "Skulkraken."  It works on so many levels, each more terrifying than the last!  Artwork by Ken Sugimori; render unto Nintendo what is Nintendo's, etc.

Pokémon Shipwreck is kind of a ‘meh’ episode, if you ask me.  It’s basically supposed to be about Ash’s party and Team Rocket having to work together to escape their mutual dilemma, but it’s actually about Ash’s party working together to escape their dilemma while Team Rocket cling to their coattails and scream incoherently.  Suffice to say, they eventually escape the ship by blowtorching through the hull with Charmander’s Flamethrower and swimming to the surface with the help of their Water Pokémon (Team Rocket use the Magikarp James bought on the St. Anne and nearly die, but to Pikachu’s immense displeasure they recover).  Once they’re all on a raft cobbled together from the debris of the St. Anne, James throws a fit, kicks his Magikarp, and renounces his ownership of the useless thing… which, of course, prompts it to evolve into a Gyarados, summon its brothers, and go all you-ain’t-in-Kansas-no-more on their asses, which leads to the next episode, Island of the Giant Pokémon

I love Island of the Giant Pokémon.  If I had my way the whole damn series would be done like Island of the Giant Pokémon.  The set-up is that Gyarados’ waterspout separated Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander from the rest of the group on an island which is, for no immediately obvious reason, inhabited by Pokémon of unusual size (hereafter known as POUSes).  Ash, Misty and Brock do stuff in this episode too but it is irrelevant and distracting, because this is the episode in which everything the Pokémon characters say is subtitled, which means we get a closer look at their personalities.  Squirtle is laid-back and irreverent, and has something of a black sense of humour (among other things, he upsets Pikachu and Charmander by joking that Ash might have been eaten by wild Pokémon).  Bulbasaur is stoic, pessimistic and cynical; he’s the one who suggests that Ash might have abandoned them, which I think speaks to the way he views humans in general.  Charmander… well, Charmander is kind of boring, actually.  He seems nice.  He’s quite trusting, maybe a little naïve.  Mostly he just goes along with Pikachu (who, as we know from the rest of the series, is defined mainly by fierce loyalty to his friends).  Odd that there’s no foreshadowing of the problems Ash is going to have with him after he evolves into Charmeleon in episode forty-something; maybe they hadn’t planned that far ahead yet.  And then… there’s Ekans and Koffing.  They’ve also been separated with their trainers, along with Meowth, who orders them to attack Pikachu and his friends when they run into each other.  Ekans and Koffing seem to be portrayed as not particularly bright, even by Pokémon standards (especially Koffing, who mostly parrots Ekans); their dialogue is subtitled in broken English, and their worldview is basically “we do as our masters tell us”… and Meowth, they are most emphatic, is not their master.  They claim that if Pokémon do bad things, it’s out of loyalty to bad masters (contrast Meowth, who points out that his master is never around and he’s as rotten as Jessie and James on his own); they apparently understand morality but think it either isn’t important or doesn’t apply to them.  Alone, Meowth is easily overpowered and tied up, while Ekans and Koffing join the group.  As they eat dinner, and Squirtle taunts Meowth with the promise of food if he’ll just apologise (which, of course, he refuses to do), they hear a loud rumbling sound and are nearly crushed by a rampaging POUS.  Pikachu goes back to untie Meowth as the others leg it (like Ash, he’s a kind soul), and they eventually spend much of the night running away.  Then… then there is this one wonderfully mad scene in which, later that night, the whole group stops at a bar.

When I was a kid, I could accept this without any problem.  As an adult, I've played Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon.  Then again, even in Mystery Dungeon I'm pretty sure they never go to a bar and get wasted.  Screenshots from www.filb.de/anime.In the middle of the jungle.  Run by a Slowbro.  Bulbasaur and Squirtle get totally hammered and start drunkenly arguing over something (hard to say what, since this scene doesn’t have subtitles) while Meowth quietly passes out, and Pikachu and Charmander try to comfort Ekans and Koffing, who have been reduced to tears (and are presumably pretty deep in their cups themselves).  At a random bar in the middle of the jungle run by a Slowbro.

…I’m not even going to question it; I’m just going to accept it.

They all go to sleep together, curled up with Ekans coiled around everyone else.  This is a lovely scene; it illustrates very well how ready Ash’s Pokémon are to trust, even when Ekans, Koffing and Meowth have been their enemies for the whole season so far – or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that Ekans and Koffing work for their enemies.  Off-duty, they’re no more hostile than anyone else.  Anyway, the next day, they try to negotiate with the POUSes they encounter, fail miserably, wind up getting chased by them, and eventually run into Ash, Misty and Brock being chased by more POUSes, as well as Jessie and James in a mine cart dragging another one behind them (they… had an interesting couple of days, put it that way).  Everyone reunites, there is much rejoicing on both sides, and all the POUSes trip over each other, get tangled together, and are completely destroyed – they’re robots, it turns out, and the whole thing is a theme park called Pokémon Land (a theme park, incidentally, run by Giovanni, who gets a call shortly afterwards to tell him of its destruction).

Again, I wish every episode were like Island of the Giant Pokémon.  Most of Ash’s Pokémon are surprisingly expressive considering they can’t really speak, and Pikachu in particular builds up a reasonably developed character by sheer weight of screen-time alone, but the characterisation of and relationships between all the Pokémon characters we see in this episode are just wonderful stuff, if you ask me.  That they never did this again is probably one of my biggest regrets for the whole series.

Anime Time: Episodes 10-12

Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village – Charmander: The Stray Pokémon – Here Comes the Squirtle Squad

Okay, last entry was so long this is starting to get ridiculous, so I’ll try to blaze through the synopsis of these three episodes as quickly as I can so I can spend more time on commentary; here goes nothing!

 Bulbasaur surveying his domain, by Vermeilbird (http://vermeilbird.deviantart.com/).

These are the episodes in which Ash meets and catches, in rapid succession, his Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle, each under unusual circumstances.  Bulbasaur is the guardian of the ‘hidden village,’ a kind of halfway house deep in the forest for Pokémon abandoned by their trainers, run by a girl named Melanie, who patches them up and releases them back into the wild.  Bulbasaur is initially hostile towards Ash for intruding into the village and trying to capture one of the Pokémon, an Oddish, but warms to him when he, Brock and Misty help protect the village from Team Rocket.  Melanie suggests that Bulbasaur leave with Ash so he can grow stronger, and so the Pokémon of the village can get used to surviving on their own again, and Bulbasaur agrees on the condition of a battle with Ash – which, of course, Ash wins.  Soon after, Ash and his friends encounter Charmander waiting alone on a rock in the forest.  Ash tries to capture Charmander, but Pikachu establishes that he actually has a trainer already, so they decide to leave him and travel on to the next Pokémon Centre.  That night, they overhear a trainer named Damian bragging about his huge collection of Pokémon and explaining how he finally managed to ditch his useless Charmander in the wilderness by telling it he’d be back soon.  Brock is furious and Damian’s group nearly comes to blows with the heroes, but Nurse Joy #147 breaks up the fight.  Since a storm is brewing, Ash, Brock and Misty go back and look for Charmander, and manage to bring him back to the centre before his tail flame sputters out.  Early in the morning, Charmander escapes and wanders off to look for Damian again, but he stumbles across Ash’s group on the road and saves them from Team Rocket.  Damian shows up and wants Charmander back, but Ash convinces Charmander that Damian is a good-for-nothing jerk and the little salamander Pokémon joins Ash’s team instead.  Ash’s Squirtle, finally, leads a gang of juvenile delinquent Squirtle who terrorise a small town with pranks, vandalism, theft, and their awesome sunglasses.  The Squirtle Squad resent humans because all of them were abandoned by their trainers, and Meowth exploits this by tricking them into thinking that he owns and controls Jessie and James (which… let’s face it, is not far from the truth).  Meowth manipulates the Squirtle into capturing Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock, but they let Ash return to town to buy medicine since Pikachu is injured.  When Ash returns as promised, he finds that they have released his friends, since they aren’t a genuinely malicious bunch.  He then helps the Squirtle Squad when Team Rocket inevitably turn on them, and coordinates them to put out a forest fire started by Team Rocket’s weapons.  The Squirtle are reintegrated into society as part of the local fire brigade, and the leader joins Ash to travel Kanto with him.

 

Whew.

 An adorable Charmander by Yamio (http://yamio.deviantart.com/)

Let’s talk about Pokémon and their trainers.  As I said, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle all join Ash’s team under unusual circumstances, and furthermore all of them had been abandoned by other trainers in the past (well, Charmander and Squirtle had; Bulbasaur could have been wild but I think it’s more likely that he was abandoned – how else would he have come to be working with Melanie? – and it would explain his somewhat aloof and suspicious nature), so all three of them presumably have somewhat skewed perspectives on humanity compared to wild Pokémon.  Given this, it’s interesting that only Charmander acts in the way you’d expect an ‘outsider’ to act in the games – growing rapidly and later becoming disobedient.  Part of the reason is probably that Squirtle and Bulbasaur had largely forgotten their trainers and washed their hands of humanity in general (except for Melanie, in Bulbasaur’s case) until Ash came along and forced them to totally rethink their attitudes towards people, while Charmander was still ‘loyal’ to Damian until making a snap decision to Flamethrower him in the head two minutes from the end of his episode.   He may have regretted that choice later, and may even have come to feel he’d been forced into it – Bulbasaur and Squirtle both had other reasonable choices, but Charmander’s options, besides Ash, were going back to Damian or wandering off into an environment he wasn’t very well suited to (as he had learned the hard way only the night before).  Finally, while Bulbasaur and Squirtle were both befriended by Ash specifically, it was actually Brock who did most of the work of rescuing Charmander, and Brock who decided to brave the storm to look for him in the first place.  In fact, Ash acknowledges that Brock has as much right as him, if not more, to become Charmander’s trainer, but Brock insists Ash catch Charmander because… y’know, I’m honestly not sure.  In short, Charmander may actually have legitimate reasons to be upset here.

Probably the single thing I find most interesting about these episodes is Bulbasaur’s insistence on a battle with Ash, which seems like a formality by that point – Ash and Bulbasaur have worked together, Bulbasaur clearly has at least some degree of respect for him, and Melanie has suggested that everyone involved would benefit if Bulbasaur joined the team, and given her blessing.  Honestly, I think it seems like a formality because that’s precisely what it is: trainers catch Pokémon, and Bulbasaur is not going to go easy on Ash just because he seems like kind of a decent guy; he is damn well going to be captured, because that’s what trainers are for.  Squirtle and Charmander don’t challenge Ash; they just join up because they feel he’s already earned their respect, and I think the fact that Bulbasaur does is at least partly because, as we’ll see in Island of the Giant Pokémon, he’s very stubborn and also a bit of a cynic (Squirtle the reformed gang leader, by contrast, isn’t so likely to be a stickler for tradition).  What does being captured actually mean for a Pokémon, anyway?  Theoretically they belong to the trainers who capture them, but we know they can break out of their Pokéballs whenever they really want to (case in point, Misty’s Psyduck, but others do it too, and not just for comic relief either), so there’s nothing stopping them from wandering off in the night and never coming back, but in practice they don’t.  The very act of capturing a Pokémon normally seems to instil a degree of loyalty, which tends to remain even when it’s not such a good idea, as with Damian and Charmander.  This is presumably why releasing a Pokémon is viewed as such a jerkass thing to do in the anime.  Speaking of capture, when Ash first tries and fails to catch Charmander, Brock observes that he’s quite weak and tired – in theory, an easy catch.  Now, what happens in the anime when you try to catch another trainer’s Pokémon is neither entirely clear nor totally consistent across different seasons, but here and now I think the only reasonable interpretation is that Charmander’s loyalty to Damian is what makes it so easy for him to break out of Ash’s Pokéball.  Even for a weak or injured Pokémon, being captured still involves an element of choice: no Pokémon can be captured unless it is at least receptive to being partnered with a human (with the caveat that most wild Pokémon will still want to test a trainer’s worth by battling first).  This gives an interesting perspective to Nurse Joy’s seemingly nonsensical comment, when she breaks up the fight with Damian, that it’s disrespectful to Pokémon to use them for settling personal disputes.  How is it any more disrespectful than using Pokémon to battle at all?  I suspect it’s meant to be implicit that practice battles and official challenges, as part of the advancement of a Pokémon’s career with a trainer, are in some sense “what they signed up for,” while “hey, Pikachu, beat up this guy’s Pokémon for me because he’s a douchebag” is unfairly bringing Pokémon into a wholly human dispute (although this particular example is something of a grey area; Damian’s mistreatment of his Pokémon could be considered just as much Pikachu’s business as Ash’s).

 Squirtle, wearing his trademark Squirtle Squad shades, gives us a lesson in awesome.  Art by Rebecca Weaver (missninjaart.tumblr.com)

To finish up for today, I want to take a closer look at Squirtle’s street gang.  For the Squirtle Squad, being abandoned by their trainers resulted in disillusionment with humanity in general, so clearly they had expectations of partnership with trainers which weren’t met – presumably power, knowledge and friendship.  Again, abandonment is regarded as an unambiguously rotten thing to do, by both human characters and Pokémon; in a sense it’s a breach of the implied agreement a trainer makes with any Pokémon who joins his team.  I suspect the Squirtle Squad are a Pokémon-world instance of the depressing phenomenon reported by real-world animal shelters, who invariably receive kittens and puppies in huge numbers after each Christmas – presents given to children who weren’t ready for the responsibility.  Squirtle, of course, are one of Kanto’s standard starter Pokémon.  It seems likely that the Squirtle Squad all belonged to new trainers who quickly realised that they weren’t cut out for the trainer’s life and ditched their starters in the wilderness.  Ash and Officer Jenny #604 are quick to blame the trainers, but honestly I think the Pokémon League is just as much at fault here; obtaining a Pokémon License seems to be literally just a matter of turning ten and showing up.

What I’m driving at with this entry is that – easy as it is to dismiss Pokémon training as slavery and thereby demonise the franchise – the ethics of Pokémon training are, even from an in-universe perspective, a great deal more complicated than that, which is why I’m so glad the games finally caught up in Black and White and produced a whole storyline about whether ownership of Pokémon is morally justified.  I still wish the story was a little more complex and the antagonists not so… well, cartoonish, but hey, it’s a kid’s series.  Baby steps.