Ash Ketchum and the Case of Filler Arc Character Growth

Ash Ketchum (Satoshi in Japan) is an ageless character. Whether it’s 1998 or 2017, Ash will always be 10 years old, will always be traveling with Pikachu, and will always be just not quite good enough to win a major championship. When he’s fighting through Kanto or Kalos, he won’t dominate the competition with his massively powerful Pikachu, and he’s perpetually more of a learner than a master in spite of his experience. It makes sense, because that’s how his character’s supposed to be. When he points his Pokedex at the same Pokemon for the 10th time in 10 years, it’s not because he’s supposed to be dumb but rather for the sake of a young audience who might be watching Pokemon for the first time.

Ash doesn’t always act as the impetuous rookie, and at times he’s allowed to shine as the battle-hardened veteran. Curiously, however, these mainly come when the Pokemon anime is not trying to go through its main narrative. During the filler arc that was the Orange Islands (taking place between the first and second generations of games), Ash was allowed to have a 6 on 6 battle and even defeat the Orange Islands champion. When Ash was participating in the Battle Frontier, post-game content within the context of the games, he would call upon his entire previous roster. The opening video during that arc reflected the full range of Ash’s experience by showing every Pokemon at his disposal (and even cameos by ones since released such as Butterfree). Ash eventually won the Battle Frontier, again showing how strong he was, but only within the between-games storylines.

Perhaps the biggest exception to this rule was when Ash finally got to face Gary in a full on 6-on-6 battle in the Johto League finals. The context behind this was that Gary’s Japanese actor was taking on less of a role in the series so they wanted him to go out with a bang and they succeeded. Just like his eventual Battle Frontier victory, Ash was allowed to show just how much he had learned over the years, at least for one climactic confrontation. It reminds me of how the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comics kept running even during the years-long lull of no new Sonic games, and it was during those times that they dared to go as far as killing Dr. Robotnik. To a lesser extent, it makes me think of how during the infamous Naruto year-long filler arc, characters such as Hinata were allowed to get new techniques and grow more powerful.

I find Ash’s situation this interesting because it reflects both the realities of making an anime based on an wildly popular game and a desire to provide continuity or growth when the opportunity arises. Ash has to be eternally youthful, yet his viewers grow up and remember all of his adventures. The anime’s creators likely also have to mindful of the source material, especially as the series has grown to such international success (the earliest seasons played rather fast and loose with the rules).

What do you think of this balance? Do you wish Ash could be 20 years old by now, training atop a mountain like Red in Pokemon Gold, Silver, & Crystal?

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