I was in college when the original Nintendo game of Pokémon was released in the US. I remember playing it on my then-boyfriend’s Gameboy. Not much of it; just enough to say, “Huh. I guess that’s kind of cute.” For a while, it was the Token Anime—the anime that people knew exclusively and then claimed they were anime fans. (Others to hold that spot have included Naruto and Dragonball Z.) And I’ve known people who played the card game, of course. But it just kind of faded from my consciousness as “I guess one of those things” until two things happened. One was the introduction of Pokémon Go. The other was my son’s fixation with it; the current Halloween plan is that Simon will be Ash Ketchum for Halloween, and his sister will be Pikachu.
The story of the anime is relatively simple. Ten-year-old Ash Ketchum (apparently Satoshi in the original Japanese) is allowed to become a Pokémon trainer. This means that he will be issued a Pokémon by Professor Oak and allowed to wander all over everywhere by himself, catching new Pokémon. However, he oversleeps and Professor Oak plans poorly, and by the time he gets there, Professor Oak has given away all the other Pokémon except one Pikachu, which he gives to Ash. Ash then must befriend Pikachu, so he can achieve his goal of becoming a Pokémon master.
Obviously, my first problem with this is that Ash is ten. I’m aware that Japanese culture grants a lot more autonomy toward children than American culture does, and mostly, I’m okay with that. I’m just saying that, you know, there are limits. Practical ones, for starters; how does Ash support himself? Where does his food come from? Okay, so I guess we see some of that, if you’re paying more attention to the show than I do, but remember he’s one of four kids from his town alone who are now ten and sent off into the wilderness, you know, on their own.
Also, surely there is more education needed than to the, what, fourth-grade level? If all a Pokémon master needs to know about is Pokémon, surely there are a lot of Pokémon masters being swindled because they don’t know enough math. There’s an anime I like that involves a lot of “high school detectives” running around Japan, but even they’re actually attending classes in between cases. Ash is literate, but there have to be great gaping holes in his education, and that’s not good for him in the long run.
I’m also more than a little concerned and confused about the status of Pokémon in this universe. Are they sentient? They can only say their own names; apparently, this was because the writers couldn’t figure out a way to make them talk. Which . . . is kind of an odd thing to not know how to do, especially given we do have a talking Meowth, but whatever. But Meowth is a talking character who shows more sense than the two humans he’s paired with, Jessie and James of Team Rocket. There are many, many episodes where the point is that Pokémon have their own wishes and interests and so forth, but they’re still being made to fight for the purposes of humans.
And how do the ecosystems work? I’m trying to remember if we see much of any non-Pokémon animals while Ash and the others are on their journeys, but let’s assume there are, just to limit the madness here. Do Pokémon eat other Pokémon? If not, how does the ecosystem support that many predator species, assuming that many of them are predators? If they’re not predators, why have they developed all these attacks? My vague not-really-paying-attention watching has suggested that there are “non-organic” Pokémon, and how is that a thing? Several characters have been show to develop “Pokémon food,” and that just raises more questions for me.
I get that I’m not supposed to think about a lot of this, and I can promise you that Simon doesn’t. What he thinks about is “Pikachu is cute!” But there’s a lot to find unsettling about this show. The families of identical women who make up all the cops and all the nurses. The unfortunate treatment of female characters in general. There’s one where James is supposed to get married, and don’t even get me started. And Misty is frankly shrill quite a lot of the time, and while I suppose I should be grateful that they aren’t forcing a romantic relationship on ten-year-olds, I’m not an enormous fan of the relationship they have instead.
I’ve asked Simon, and he says he likes the action. All he cares about, I guess, is the Pokémon battles—though even they confuse me, because they consist of trainers’ yelling attacks at their Pokémon, and don’t the Pokémon know how to fight themselves already? How do they survive in the wild? Come to that, how much do the Pokémon actually battle in the wild? How did all this come about? I know Simon isn’t thinking about it, but I’ve long said that, if your show bores me enough so that I’m thinking about ecosystems, that’s the fault of your show.
In part, honestly, because some of this stuff would be easy to fix. Not all of it; how the Pokémon actually work is not a trivial fix. But how hard would it be to make Ash twice his age? Make Pokémon trainer a job or give him a sponsor—like Team Rocket’s mysterious leader—or something to explain how he affords, like, anything. I suppose you could either give the Pokémon more agency—giving them individual names might be a start—or else make them appear less intelligent. They all say exclusively their own names, but it’s also possible to understand what they say, and the whole thing’s a little worrying to me.
Many years ago, now, I was at an anime convention wherein, during a break from the dance, a Pikachu pinata was brought out. And slaughtered. I mean, even after it got broken open, people were pounding that thing. I still have a scrap of it somewhere, I think. At the time, I was a little weirded out by the hate; even now, I think it’s an extreme reaction. I also have little doubt that the (mostly teenage boys) who shredded the thing didn’t dislike Pokémon because of its actual content. They disliked it because of the obsessive fans who thought they liked anime because they liked Pokémon—and probably in no small part because of how many of those fans were women, or at least teenage girls. That still doesn’t mean it’s any good.