Pokemon, the problem and how it could have been

Leia esta digressão em português.

Pokemon! Who doesn’t like it, right? It’s been around since 1996 as a game franchise and it’s being animated since 1997 or so. There are 6 generations of games already, 649 different pokemons. In the animation area, there are 17 movies, 5 major arcs, subdivided in 10 minor arcs (or 17 minor arcs in the US version, don’t ask me why), with more than 800 episodes and another dozen of specials and extra animated material. We also have a lot of other media and goods related, not to mention the other dozens of spin-off games, like Pokemon Stadium, Pokemon Snap, Pokemon Pinball and lots of others.

But I’m here to digress about the major problem of the whole franchise. Well, at least in my opinion. Is it the game? Is it the anime? Is it the spin-off?

In my opinion, the major problem is the anime. To be more precise, the main problem is the goal of the anime and the consequent effect on the anime development.

What’s this goal? Well, this is just what I can conclude by watching, because I’m pretty sure that no company would confirm such a goal, but I’d say that they want to boost sales (duh!) by focusing the anime to a younger audience, which would be kids aged around 10 to 12 years old. This is likely the main audience of the game, seeing how simple the game mechanics is (4 attacks, no much worries about distributing attribute points every time you level up, no skill trees, no equipments, etc) so it makes sense to focus on the same audience for the anime. Also, this audience is most likely the one that will bring more profit because they’re easily influenced by the media and they are more likely to have a greater impact in the household consumption decision. They cry for something they want and their parents buy. So you aim the anime to this group, release a ton of useless goods (foods, toys, school supplies, etc) and a ton of games and your job is done, you just need to wait these kids force their parents to buy these goods and get your cash.

Not the first time, not the last time. But hey, being aimed for younger audiences is not a problem. So what’s the problem with Pokemon? The problem is how this affects the anime.

Any good show must have something that appeals its audience and the best thing you could have is a character with whom the people you want watching it can identify with. Better yet if this character is the main character. That’s probably why our friend Satoshi/Ash is 10-year-old since forever. But in the case of Pokemon, there’s also another point to be noticed and that also justifies another characteristic that I think pretty much kills the anime. The target audience being able to identify with Satoshi/Ash is also important to create a stronger link between this audience and the game. In other words, the anime could be a tool to deepen the game experience. Just compare Satoshi/Ash’s journey in the first season and how you played Pokemon when you were a beginner. You knew little about the game but learned a lot along the way, found new pokemons, discovered new cities, battled and captured with a lot of others, leveled up and eventually evolved your pokemons and ultimately became stronger. Satoshi/Ash was the same, he knew very little about pokemon but learned a lot as his journey went on, he found lots of different pokemons, battled against many others, leveled up and….ok, he didn’t capture a lot and didn’t evolve his pokemons a lot either but whatever. The thing is, Satoshi/Ash’s experience is trying to be a mirror of what the first time players would feel.

But here’s the problem. In every new season (major arc at least, not sure about the minor arcs), Satoshi/Ash becomes the same newbie that he was in the beginning of the previous season. He leaves all his pokemons behind, except for Pikachu, he seems to have forgotten about pokemon types, weaknesses, how to battle, how to capture, etc. He needs to relearn everything again. And the most strange thing is that his pokemons (specially Pikachu) seems to level down back to level 5 every single time. I mean, just watch the first episodes of the Best Wishes arc. He loses a fight in the second or third episode! I mean, come on! He just left his seventh or so tournament at the end of the previous arc, his Pikachu should be at least at level 70 or so! But every beginning of season, he loses a battle. How come? It just doesn’t makes sense within the pokemon world! Unless we consider that his pokemons aren’t gaining much experience because he almost never battles until his opponent’s pokemons faints (Really, did this ever happened in the anime? Now I don’t remember….maybe during some tournaments?). At least in the game you only gain experience if you cause the opposing pokemon to faint. If you capture, you gain no experience, you gain a new pokemon!

This pattern is understandable if you consider the link creation I mentioned before, but that doesn’t make it seem less stupid. The most obvious solution would be to change the main character with every new arc (Maybe follow the main characters from the game they’re using as a base for the arc? Oh my! What a genius I am!). And guess what? The Pokemon Special manga does exactly that! And it’s really awesome because they follow the game’s characters and they’re not really lame characters. At least not as lame as Satoshi/Ash is.

Ok, to be fair, the anime started doing this after a while. But they never changed the main character. What they changed was the female lead, which started following the female character from the game, at least until the Diamond&Pearl arc.

What would happen if they kept Satoshi/Ash and made him a character with actual development? I guess the result would be something like this VGCats comic. But no, what we get is a lame and shallow character that is completely foreseeable. You know what he’s going to do, you know all his motives and goals, which didn’t chance in all these years, which could be seen as a sign of perseverance and strong will power, though I see it as stupidity and stubbornness because, hey, he participated in like 7 or more leagues and never won any (as far as I can remember). Ok, participating in 7 championships and winning none of them is not really something bad. Just look at F-1 racers and see how many of those racers have participated in 7 championships without winning any. That doesn’t mean they’re bad drivers. Also, consider a Pokemon tournament, how many participants are there? 50? 100? 20? Regardless of how many participate, one thing never changes, the number of champion. In every tournament, there’s only one champion, which means that there are X-1 losers, where X is the total number of contestants. So it’s easier to be part of the 99% and Satoshi/Ash is just another one of the majority. This goes well with real life, but not with the gaming world, where we’re all winners and part of the 1%.

Sure we can argue that Satoshi/Ash can’t win a tournament because it’d make it harder to create a new season and we all know that there’s always a bunch of 9-year-old that will become 10 by the time a new arc is about to be aired so they need to reset Satoshi/Ash’s stats so this new batch of audience can identify with him and follow his animated journey. But it’s a fact that a pattern becomes pretty obvious, making the whole thing completely foreseeable quite easily, which could make people turn away from the anime after a few seasons, and since world’s population is growing older, the size of the younger batches will start to decrease in the near future. What are they going to do about it? Leave it like this until there are not enough new kids to make it worth continuing with the production? Or maybe they could just make him grow? Really, even Shigeru/Gary develops as a character in the anime (though he doesn’t seem to get older, because it wouldn’t make sense to make him grow older and leave Satoshi/Ash at the same 10-year-old)!

One pretty interesting idea that they could try if Satoshi/Ash actually got older and evolved as a character, would be having him go through the tournaments he lost before. Being more mature, the tournament could be given a different focus, making it a completely different experience from the first time, just like in real life.

But that won’t happen so yeah, the anime will probably remain as Pokemon’s problem. Though I do enjoy the music they make for it. The openings and ending themes are pretty awesome! At least the Japanese ones. And it’s interesting to note the difference in the focus of the first opening theme to the other ones. Maybe it’s just me, but I do feel that the first opening theme gives much more importance to becoming a successful trainer and becoming the best, while the other ones starts centering more around the friendship and the joys of going on an adventure, leaving the Pokemon master thing aside or in the background. In the first theme there seems to be an emphasis on the idea of catching pokemons and on wanting to become a Pokemon master. The second theme is focused on the idea of rivals, so there’s a certain emphasis on the battling aspect (with all the attacks names and such), but it also includes evolving as a person and as a trainer and overcoming quarrels between rivals. In other words, it includes growing up, something that the music themes did, the player of the game does, but the anime characters don’t. Ironic, no?

And lately I’ve been listening quite often to that same second opening theme.

There’s one part of the lyrics that really catches my attention:

時の流れは 不思議だね                            Isn’t the flow of time is mysterious?
“どっちが 勝ったか ねえ 覚えてる?”      “Do you remember who won that time?”
今では ホラ                                               Look at us now!
笑いながら 話は出来るよ                       We can laugh while we talk!
“忘れたね!”って 恍けてる                      And joke saying “I forgot!”
そんな オレのライバルたち                        Those are my rivals!

This sums something that would be pretty awesome to see in the anime. An older Satoshi/Ash talking with one of the many rivals that he encountered along his long journey who also got older (though the one that would be most interesting would be Shigeru/Gary). Or still have Satoshi/Ash find a younger trainer, just to find him again in the future, grown up and more mature. Regardless, showing a matured Satoshi/Ash have potential to be awesome. And guess what? Fans already did this! Well, close to that, because it’s not Satoshi/Ash or Shigeru/Gary, but Red and Green. Stiil, there are some doujinshi that tells the stories of these character as they grew older. I downloaded one of them and translated myself and it’s just awesome.
This one doujinshi tells the story of an older Red and Green, but focus on the relation between Green and his Eevee (this follows the Pokemon Yellow setting, where Red/Satoshi/Ash gets a Pikachu and Green/Shigeru/Gary gets an Eevee). It’s a pretty sad doujinshi, yet it’s really beautiful. And this is a great example of what the anime could’ve been, had they chosen to let the characters develop and grow older.
To read the doujinshi, just click the image below and you’ll be taken to a gallery with all the images or click the text to download the whole doujinshi.

Red, Green, Pikachu and Eevee pokemon doujinshi
Click here to download it

And what’s the big deal about this doujinshi? It shows a relation between Red and Green that one really wouldn’t expect. Can you imagine Satoshi/Ash and Shigeru/Gary in a situation like that one? No, because they don’t grow! Because Satoshi/Ash never grows in any sense.

But that’s what fans are around for! To fill in the gaps that the original producers don’t want to fill. They are around to create the stories that they would like to see in the official world, they are around to express their own views of the work they enjoy, they are around to create, just as much as the original producers. And some fans are around to provide access to this whole new world that other fans creates by translating them to other languages. But that’s another story.

For now, let’s hope that Pokemon Origins will be able to fill in the gap that the Pokemon animated series left.

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