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Pallet Cleanser: The End of Ash Ketchum as Pokemon Protagonist

This past week marked one of anime’s biggest departures ever, as Ash Ketchum—aka Satoshi—has ended his 26-year tenure as the main hero of Pokemon. It’s amazing to think about how the character has been such an enduring presence in the lives of millions of people for over two decades, all without being wholly remade and revised. Other heroes in other franchises might arguably have greater legacies, but the fact that it was consistently the same Ash week in and week out makes for one fascinating and continuous chain of history.

It’s been many, many years since I was actively part of the Pokemon fandom. I naturally didn’t know about it when it first came out in Japan, but for all practical purposes I was there from the beginning. I remember getting a little pamphlet about Pokemon in an issue of Nintendo Power, and as I anticipated its arrival, I managed to even catch the sneak peek “Battle Aboard the St. Anne” episode that aired the week before the first episode aired in the US. For maybe five or more years, I would record every episode on VHS, and the times I had to program the VCR, I tried to time breaks in the recording to preserve space so I could fit more on each tape. I’ve long since stopped doing that, or watch Pokemon on a regular basis, but I can never forget those early days.

Ash was never my favorite Pokemon character, and for the fellow fans I interacted with online, it was largely the same. The reason: a lot of the people I talked to I met either through the competitive scene (years before the founding of Smogon) or via a Team Rocket messageboard. In the former case, people were not fans of Ash’s nonsensical battles or inability to understand the type chart despite his successes. In the latter, it’s because a site dedicated to Team Rocket would naturally run ever-so-slightly edgy and prefer older characters. For me, it’s just because he was a pretty decent but generic kids’ anime protagonist—a plain rice ball (or donut, as it were) in a world of more compelling stories. 

But there‘s something special about being that hero for so many people for so long. And while many of his accomplishments were often tied to meta events (e.g. Gary Oak/Shigeru’s Japanese voice actor leaving the show is why they ended up having their big 6v6 clash in the Johto Pokemon League), the sheer amount of things Ash managed to achieve is impressive. A character who could have gone on forever unchanging still leaves behind one hell of a CV. 

A big factor in why there was a sense of progress with Ash was because of the way he would go from one region to the next in accordance with game sequels. While the basic formula of “meet new friends, have adventures, get gym badges” was always present, he never stayed in the same area for long, and he always met new people. And while fans would often remark on the way his skill and knowledge would seemingly go backwards every time he started a new path to a Pokemon League, it’s clear that his inability to retain knowledge is not necessarily a matter of poor character writing or insufficient lore consistency and more a way to keep him level with the new fans who still come to the series even now. Ash is as much a vessel as he is a protagonist, and he could never be a vessel for everyone at the same time.

One thing I always found funny is the fact that some of Ash’s greatest wins and titles came about in “filler arcs,” the seasons that took place between main-game storylines. This is why he’s the Orange League champion, the Frontier Champion, and most recently the winner of the Masters Eight tournament (solidifying him as the strongest trainer in the world). He also won the Galar Pokemon League, but in hindsight, it’s clearly because they knew they were about to start winding down Ash’s story and they wanted to show much he had grown. I remember thinking, all the way back in the late 90s, about how a main-line gold medal would likely someday be the sign that Pokemon was going to conclude. While the anime will continue with new leads, it really is the end of an era. 

Now the perennial 10-year-old gets to go off and do things unseen, and it makes me wonder if we’ll ever see him again. Might Ash make cameo appearances down the road, and will he look different or even possibly…older? It’s a new and unknown world.

Pokémon Journeys, the Original Mewtwo, and Playing with Canon

In a surprising move, the current Pokémon TV anime (called Pokémon Journeys in English and simply Pocket Monsters in Japanese) recently brought back the original super legendary, Mewtwo. And not just any Mewtwo, but the one who debuted over 20 years ago as the Viridian City Gym’s trump card. Mewtwo is my favorite character in all the anime, so there’s a personal thrill to seeing its return, but there’s added significance as well: the continued acknowledgement of the canonicity of events in and connected to the first film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and an emphasis that what has happened over the anime’s long history still matters.

The Pokémon anime tends to play a little fast and loose with its canon, resulting in strange discrepancies, especially when it comes to the divide between the films and the weekly series. Aside from Mewtwo Strikes Back, whose plot ties directly into the TV anime, it’s always unclear—likely intentionally so—whether the events of the other movies actually “happened.” This isn’t unusual when it comes to films based on popular anime—nearly all the Dragon Ball Z movies are non-canon, and the popular movie-only character Broly had to be reintroduced into that universe in a canonical entry, Dragon Ball Super: Broly

In the world of Pokémon, this has meant that, despite the fact that certain legendary Pokémon are meant to be the only one of their kind, Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) has encountered multiple versions. After he helped a telepathic Lugia save the world in Revelation-Lugia, he would later encounter a different one that could not communicate psychically and, in fact, was trying to raise a child (Lugia is not supposed to be able to breed). Even Mewtwo, whose whole story is that it is a one-of-a-kind artificial creation made to be unmatched in combat, would see a second distinct version show up in the 16th movie.

In the recent episode, there is no mistaking that the Mewtwo seen is the original. When it first appears, Mewtwo slowly descends as ominous background music from Mewtwo Strikes Back and the Mewtwo Lives TV special can be heard. When Mewtwo speaks, its gruff yet soulful masculine voice is that of the original actor, Ichimura Masachika, as opposed to the feminine voice of the 16th movie Mewtwo’s Takashima Reiko. And when Satoshi and Goh lay eyes on Mewtwo, their reactions couldn’t be more different: whereas Goh is shocked by seeing something unfamiliar, Satoshi and Pikachu immediately recognize the Genetic Pokémon and even say its name. 

However, it’s not as if Mewtwo and Satoshi start to recall their two encounters. Mewtwo doesn’t even say anything about already knowing Satoshi, and Satoshi doesn’t bring anything up beyond that initial recognition. While this might be frustrating to fans who’d like to see a more concrete nod to Mewtwo and Satoshi’s connection, I think the current anime is trying hard to balance a lot of different paradoxical elements that exist within Pokémon and Satoshi himself. He’s somehow both the veteran with years of experience under his belt and the plucky young amateur who has much to learn—perpetually 10 years old for over 20 years. Satoshi’s many adventures have happened (including at least one film), but he’s also still meant to be an audience-representative character for young viewers tuning into the anime for the first time, even as Goh fulfills a similar role (though his character is closer to a scholar or researcher). Furthermore, by having Satoshi not say much, it reinforces the idea that he hasn’t let his previous experiences get to his head. A similar moment happens in the second episode of the current series, where Lugia speaks to Satoshi (and only Satoshi) telepathically, hinting that this one might just very well be the one we see in the second movie.

Trying to fully reconcile the Pokémon anime canon would be a foolish endeavor because it’s only as consistent as it needs to be in any one moment. Satoshi is forever a challenger, even as he wins championships. But given what the anime is trying to be, a long-running series that wants to feel both familiar and new at the same time, it’s not a bad place to be. And seeing the original Ichimura-voiced Mewtwo n the year 2020 is a nostalgic and thrilling experience. Mewtwo’s appearance speaks to the idea that the past of Pokémon still matters even as we continue to move into the future. 

Pokemon Sun & Moon: Why Ash Ketchum’s Design Was Updated…Again

In 2010, the Pokemon anime decided to spice things up a bit by modifying its character designs. More than a simple change of wardrobe, the denizens of the Pokemon TV world had changes to their faces and hair, and the result was an Ash with green eyes. With the release of Pokemon Sun & Moon, the characters have transformed once more, and this time it’s even more drastic than before. While it’s not like Ash is seven feet tall with a goatee now, it looks noticeably different compared to his adventures in the Kalos region. With such a major change, the inevitable question is “why?”


Fortunately, I just so happen to have answered this question the last time around, and it turns out that the answer applies just as well, if not better.

At the time when green-eyed Ash was revealed, I wrote a post explaining how this was a clear attempt at making the characters in the Pokemon anime match more closely with the character designs of the games. The main artist for Pokemon has always been Ken Sugimori, and while the designs of the anime characters were based on his work back in the mid to late 90s, he’s continued to refine his art style over the years. If you look at Ash and other characters in Sun & Moon, they veer even closer to Sugimori’s current aesthetic. Characters appear rounder and softer, and the way their eyes are drawn have that distinct Sugimori look. This is probably most evident in the new Alola region characters, such as Lillie.


Anime Character Design


Game Character Design

That explains a good chunk of why Ash’s adventures in Not-Hawaii look so far-removed from past generations of the anime, but another significant one is that a simpler art style means being easier to animate. That’s not to say that the old Pokemon anime styles were especially complex, but being softer and more simplified in this way means the animators can put more effort into making things move well instead of making sure each character has all of their necessary details.

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Finally, a Good Translation for the Title! Pocket Monsters Diamond & Pearl: Arceus – Transcend the Confines of Time and Space

NOTE: The English version of the movie provides us a good translation of the Japanese title of this Arceus movie by putting it right in the dialogue. Remember folks, if you are going to translate the title instead of using the English adaptation’s as I have, Choukoku no Jikuu e should now be called Transcend the Confines of Time and Space. Stop using every translation of the title except this one, including my previous one. That line of debate should be over one way or another.

The latest movie in the Pokemon franchise is unique in a number of ways, something which is impressive given that this is the twelfth time Pokemon has seen a theatrical release. This is the first time a Pokemon movie has been released in English so soon after its Japanese release. Known as Pocket Monsters Diamond & Pearl: Arceus – Transcend the Confines of Time and Space (known in English as Arceus and the Jewel of Life), it not only is the conclusive part of the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum movie trilogy, but also the first Pokemon movie to place its focus on a god of all creation.

That god is known as Arceus, who in legends is said to have shaped the universe with its 1,000 arms. A metaphor I’m sure, seeing as the kirin-like Arceus has no arms to speak of. The movie centers around his return to Earth after many generations, where Arceus plans on exacting Judgment upon the humans who had dared to betray him all those years ago. And in the case of Arceus, “Judgment” translates into “Fiery Death from Above.”

The only Pokemon capable of even putting up a fight against this Pokemon deity are the feature Pokemon of the previous two movies, Dialga (the Pokemon who rules time), Palkia (the Pokemon who is given dominion over space), and Giratina (the sole natural inhabitant of a mysterious alternate dimension). We also learn that Arceus’ impending arrival is also what caused the distortions in time-space in the first two parts to the trilogy. Even then, they are barely able to withstand Arceus’ ire, and it is up to Satoshi/Ash and friends to figure out the truth about the Alpha Pokemon.

The 12th Pokemon movie is decent overall and definitely the kind of thing fans of the series will enjoy, but there are some things this movie does not do all that well. First, it never gives you a good sense of just how powerful Arceus is supposed to be. Though it clashes with and overpowers a number of other legendary Pokemon, the difference between Arceus and the three dragons of Sinnoh are never made clear enough to really appreciate that gap in power and majesty. Second, and I admit this is being somewhat unfair to the movie, it just does not live up to the bar set by Mewtwo Strikes Back. I revisit the first movie every time I review a Pokemon theatrical release because I believe it represents the pinnacle of the franchise and its ability to tell stories with a surprising degree of maturity and moral complexity.

That said, Arceus – Transcend the Confines of Time and Space still succeeds in showcasing through its story elements of human behavior that are both supportive and condemning of their place on the planet, albeit in a somewhat ham-fisted manner, and it provides a lot of information on the world of Pokemon that we had not previously seen, and this is probably the most fascinating part of the movie. Although the fourth movie starring Celebi gave us a view of the past where Poke Balls were hand-cranked devices, and the eighth movie starring Lucario showed us a time before the Poke Ball was even invented and Pokemon were controlled by humans like a general controls an army, Arceus’s movie goes back further still. Here, we learn that before they were known as Pocket Monsters they were called “magical creatures,” as if to imply that the relationship between man and Pokemon changed as technology progressed, though not necessarily for the worse, as the magical creatures of ancient times could be seen forcibly controlled by restrictive harnesses. That doesn’t exactly make up for not quite living up to the movie’s potential, but it does provide a lot of food for thought.

Overall, while it definitely could have been more, it was a mostly satisfying end to this trilogy. The next movie is bringing back Lugia, who’s had a 10-movie break, and will mark the first true theatrical appearance of Ho-oh. Ho-oh holds special significance in the Pokemon anime, as its appearance always signals great changes for Satoshi/Ash, so an entire movie featuring the Rainbow Pokemon almost feels like the end of an era.

Pokemon Reflects the Changing Times

The Pokemon anime is making the transition to digital broadcast in the coming months in Japan, and I think it more than anything else marks the beginning of the end for standard television.

The Pokemon anime is older than some of the kids who are fans of the show in the first place. It’s seen some of the most significant changes in animation and entertainment in our time. The anime started in 1998 with cel animation and a somewhat limited budget resulting in somewhat limited animation. As Pokemon reached international success, the show clearly improved, and by the time the 2000s rolled around it was starting to go into digital animation, eventually converting over completely. Along the way there’s been multiple movies done in both cel and digital, and now we have a new era upon us of widescreen, high-definition, digitally animated, digitally broadcasted Pokemon. And that’s not even talking about the basic changes in episode styles and themes that are the result of starting with a primarily Japanese audience and moving into an international one.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Very few anime can say they’ve seen the world change around them as it has with Pokemon.

Cool Down, You Damn Environmentalist Otaku! Pocket Monsters Diamond & Pearl & Platinum: Giratina and the Sky Bouquet

If you can believe it, we’re already at 11 Pokemon movies.

In a unique twist, the events of the previous movie have a direct effect on this one, and it looks to be setting up at least a trilogy. In Pokemon Trainer Satoshi’s previous 90-minute adventure, he was caught in the middle of a battle between Dialga, the Pokemon that controls time, and Palkia, the Pokemon that controls space. Unbeknownst to even these titans, their cataclysmic continuum clash (call me Stan Lee) had an unforeseen side effect.

There is a world connected to the real world, and actions in one effect the other. This Reversed World is the domain of the ghost/dragon pokemon Giratina. Just as Dialga rules time and Palkia rules space, Giratina is lord of the Reversed World, a disorienting dimension where is up is down 50% of the time  and crystals are windows into the real world. Also,  Giratina is pissed. Giratina, knowing full well that Dialga and Palkia are responsible for the extensive damage to its world, is looking for a fight. Giratina finds Dialga and drags the steel/dragon into the Reversed World for a one-on-one. Dialga, being the Time-ruling Pokemon that it is, creates a time loop which disables Giratina’s ability to travel freely between worlds. And through all this, the two pulled along an innocent bystander, the Pokemon Shaymin, who ends up escaping the Reversed World but is now very far from home.

Shaymin along with Manaphy (star of Movie 9) are like the Mews of this generation. Shaymin needs to get home, but unfortunately has a sense of direction on par with Yotsuba. Giratina wants Shaymin for unknown reasons (though Shaymin believes Giratina’s looking for a Shaymin Sandwich), and is still itching for a fight with Dialga. Satoshi and pals want to help Shaymin along. And also there’s a crazy scientist guy named Zero who has taken a page out of Gelarden’s handbook from Revelation Lugia and constructed a giant airship for the purpose of capturing Giratina. Also, the ship comes with a holographic girlfriend.

Man, otaku.

At some point the Pokemon franchise settled upon a rough formula for its movies, and this one is really no exception. I personally feel that this is one of the less good movies, certainly worse than its predecessor Dialga vs Palkia vs Darkrai. The villain’s motivations are vague, a lot of time is spent just promoting these new Pokemon and telling you to buy their toys, and I think about the only things I really enjoyed about the movie (other than its animation which is always solid) was that it leads into the 12th movie and part 3 of this series, some cameos by the male heroes of Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald and Diamond/Pearl/Platinum whom we rarely see, and the appearance of a certain other “Canadian” Pokemon.

I am fully aware of how dumb it sounds for me to be complaining about merchandising in a kids’ movie, especially a Pokemon movie of all things, but I’m not really taking issue with the merchandising aspect, more that it feels like they didn’t try to come up with a good plot or characters to go along with it. I also don’t like how the movie didn’t really do a good job of conveying Giratina’s power. Giratina is supposed to be on par with Dialga and Palkia yet never really does anything big. The power disparity isn’t as apparent as it was with Mewtwo vs Everything Else, and Giratina even ends up being captured by Zero.

It’s not a bad movie really, it’s just that I’ve seen the Pokemon franchise realize its potential before. Mewtwo Strikes Back had a deeply conflicted antagonist in Mewtwo, and Lord of the “Unknown” Tower didn’t even really have a villain and instead focused on a lonely little girl. Writers are capable of creating Pokemon stories that are greater than cash grabs (while still being cash grabs), and I’d just like to see that return to form.

If you haven’t seen the preview for the next movie, go see it. Titled Towards the Dimension Beyond*looks like we’re finally going to see the Pokemon who is God, and I for one cannot wait.

*This is what I’m calling the twelfth movie because Towards the Overcome’s Space-Time for 『超克の時空へ』 is a terrible translation.

PS I changed my translation once just because the original one wasn’t sitting right with me. Towards the Dimension Beyond is less literal but conveys the idea better.

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