Friday was Columbia University’s second Pokemon Nostalgia Night with Pokemon: The Movie 2000 and Pokemon Stadium. Seeing Pokemon: The Movie 2000 for the first time in the 10 years since it came out in was fun, fascinating, and a little bit painful. By far the most enjoyable part was the characters realizing that the villain is collecting Pokemon, an idea which horrifies them. The entire audience was in an uproar. My friend later remarked at how she hadn’t realized until rewatching Pokemon: The First Movie how ridiculous it was that Ash was so upset that the Pokemon are fighting one another. Hearing her say that made me realize that until that moment, I hadn’t thought anything of it either.
Those two lines from the first two Pokemon movies released in the US really capture what’s so complex and convoluted about Pokemon. There are a bunch of cute (or not so cute) animals that you find in the wild, beat to the point of death, capture, then force to fight one another until one or the other passes out. And for what? For money, badges, reputation, and because you “Gotta catch ’em all.” A friend referred to the entire process as similar to cock fighting, but perhaps dog fighting is a more apt analogy. Like dog fighting, these are not animals that naturally want to fight each other, but animals that you train to be angry and vicious. Looking back now, it is astounding that as a child I saw very little problematic in the show.
I believe that the reason why Pokemon did not flat out horrify me as a child is multifaceted. One facet is the fantasy world in which all of this is occurring. In that world Pokemon just faint and magically recover when taken to a hospital. Capturing and training Pokemon is natural, normal, and therefore unquestioned. The Pokemon also get bigger and stronger via the process of training, implying that fighting them is actually good for the Pokemon.
The second facet is the status of the Pokemon video game as just that, a game. Overwhelmingly video games work to make violence unproblematic through a combination of different techniques including normalization of violence, lack of portraying enemies as people or familiar animals, lack of negative consequences, defeated opponents “fainting” rather than dying, lack of moral implications due to the lack of actual victims, portraying the opponent as evil, putting the character in kill or be killed situations, and positive reinforcement through progress, points, money, experience, etc. While Shadow of the Colossus is an important and interesting exception to this trend in video games, it remains just that, an exception. Yet, for all that video game work to normalize the violence and cruelty towards Pokemon, in the anime form the Pokemon are no longer just pixels. They are detailed anthropomorphic creatures that smile, cry, scream, and try to communicate with us and each other, and in doing so are too realist and relatable to allow their forced violent behavior and captivity from the video game to continue unchallenged.
This is where the third facet, key to the anime, comes into play: Pikachu. My friend compared Pikachu to the one turkey that gets pardoned to mitigate the horror of killing all the other turkeys every Thanksgiving. In the same way, Pikachu is the one Pokemon that is free and able to act as a friend and constant companion to our main character, Ash, while all the other Pokemon remain cative in their Pokeballs. Pikachu also has the unique opportunity to choose whether or not to go with Ash, being given the choice to stay with the wild Pikachu colony. That a Pikachu colony exists itself is problematic in that it proposes that Pikachu could exist happily in a peaceful, wild state. Yet, this proposal is overshadowed by Pikachu’s bizarre decision to stay with Ash, supporting him in his goal to capture more wild Pokemon and fight other Pokemon. We see this choice to follow Ash echoed later on in the show, particularly by Pokemon’s demonstrated ability to free themselves from their Pokeballs when they want to, thereby implying that the Pokemon choose to remain in their Pokeballs. This idea that Pokemon prefer captivity seems to echo the 19th century dialogue that slaves were happier as slaves.
Yet, for how disturbing this reexamination of Pokemon may be, it is questionable as to how much these deeper dialogues are recognized by or affect their young target audience. For how popular the show and video game were in my younger years, I do not know of anyone who having loved Pokemon subsequently went into dog fighting, or any sort of animal cruelty. If anything, Pokemon represented to me a rediscovery of the wonders of the world yet unexplored, and the cute, funny, and talented creatures that lie there. Ash and Pikachu were like Lassie and her owner, a representation of mutual respect and love between human and animal, despite the contradiction to this interpretation inherent in the forced battles between Pikachu and other Pokemon apparent from this examination. In short, as a child Pokemon represented a union between man and nature, rather than focusing on the capture, subjugation, and abuse of wild animals that seems to permeate the show on further examination.
I know that this is just a short examination of the issue of Pokemon and leaves out other issues such as the Pokedex, Professor Oak, Brock, Tracey, etc. I am interested in other thoughts on the subject. ^.^
(Note: This post is based on conversations both during >.<; and after the movie, and incorporates not only my own arguments, but those of my friends. In particular, the argument for Pikachu as a pardoned turkey and the comparison with cock fighting is not my own. Also, this post was supposed to go up earlier, but I had an issue with WordPress where it lost all but the first three paragraphs of my post and I had to rewrite everything… ;.;)