Quick preface. Before anyone thinks I’m about to, in any way, bash Pokemon, I would like to remind you that Pokemon is my favorite property. All of it. Including the subject of this heavy-hearted article – the anime. Unfortunately, I feel that words need saying. Words both critical of the series itself, and those who I personally believe are criticizing the wrong things about it. So fair warning, everyone, this is gonna be pretty lengthy.
We’ll start with the latter, because my growing fed up with it is a big reason I’m really deciding to write this in the first place. As a general rule, I don’t care what other people think about the media I enjoy. If you don’t like Superman, I don’t care. If you don’t like the Tales series, it’s not my place to tell you you’re wrong. If you hate The Iron Giant, you are an unholy, irredeemable monster whose opinion I will respect… against my better judgment. All jokes aside, though, there are a few reasons I don’t care; 1) the opinions of others make mine no less valid, and nor is the inverse true; and 2) In the cases of things like Superman, the Avengers, Disney, and so-on, I have heard literally every possible argument that could be made against them. All of them. In fact, not only have I heard them all, but people seem to feel the need to constantly remind me of points I’ve heard no less than a million times – “Superman is a boring boy scout and he’s too powerful” or “The Avengers franchise is so formulaic” or my personal favorite “Disney movies are so inoffensive and unchallenging.” I’ve heard it all. And as irritating as it is to hear, it isn’t really because I disagree with those points, even though I do. It’s because I don’t like having things repeated to me, any more than I like to repeat myself. And we all know I hate repeating myself if I can help it.
Now take all of that and chuck it out the window with Pokemon, because hearing the usual suspects, saying the usual things about the franchise does genuinely bother me. And to be honest it likely goes back to grade school. Around 2005 to 2006, for me at least, there seemed to be this incredibly adamant movement going on to make Pokemon “uncool.” It didn’t work, obviously, but they tried. Yet still, whenever I hear people ripping into Pokemon, some part of me is dragged back into that era. Why? Because every single argument I ever hear against Pokemon is usually the most thoughtless, juvenile rambling I’ve ever heard. And the sad thing is that they’re usually things said by people who I know are intelligent enough to apply some actual critical thinking and are capable of articulating their point better than the 12-year-olds who used to give me a hard time in grade school. And honestly a lot of these people are relatively credible. More so than myself, at least, so their thoughts reach people and it spreads. It’s honestly quite sad because, frankly, I agree. Not with any of the points they’re making, but with the sentiment that Pokemon is an incredibly flawed series that is in need of some major changes, both in the show and the games. I’ll cover the games briefly, later, but this is mostly about the show.
The prevailing “hive minded” negative opinion of the show centers around Ash. It’s the mentality that Ash is an idiot. That Ash is a weakling. That Ash should evolve his Pokemon. The list goes on. And, frankly, I can understand where this mentality is coming from. However, I find it to be incorrect. And here’s why. I am a writer. I went to school to be a writer. Everything that’s shown up on this site so far has been written by myself. I understand how storytelling works. And this is where my own problem with the series comes from. The writing is pretty much 99.99% standardized. Yet there’s always that 0.01% in every season, every movie, where glimmers of truly good writing depict Ash as I think he should be – a kid with a strong empathy towards Pokemon, and a willingness to stick his own neck out for not just other people, but for these creatures. At his best, Ash is, simply put, a hero. In Pokemon: The First Movie, Ash tried to stop Mew and Mewtwo’s fighting, endangering his own life in the process. And no, I’m not getting into the purgatory theory, here. Go somewhere else for that. In the most recent series Ash jumps off a building to save Pikachu, with every intention of cushioning the blow for his best friend. And those are just a handful of examples of what he’s truly capable of. If we’re honest, I think that Ash is perhaps a better trainer than Red. Ash actually stops and lets his Pokemon outside of their Pokeballs and just bonds with them OUTSIDE of battling, on occasion. If you ever needed an argument for Pokemon NOT being slaves (because SCREW that), Ash is perhaps an infinitely better example than Red ever was. However, there’s an incredibly unfair formula just stacked against him in terms of progress.
You see, if the series was, itself, a Pokemon, it’d be something like a Shuckle – safe, extremely predictable, and lacking any form of evolution to make up for its previous form’s flaws. I don’t think Ash needs to physically age (even though he certainly has, and poor writing just seems to continually forget that), and I certainly don’t believe he’s the problem and needs to be removed from the series. Honestly, at this point… that just isn’t going to happen. But there does need to be a change in how he’s handled. There are two ever-present formulas in the show.
The first is that at the beginning of each new region, he only brings his Pikachu with him, and usually his human companions change up in some capacity (but please keep Serena, guys. Please? C’mon. She’s the only one I’ve liked since Misty). That’s fine. It allows the show to introduce some new Pokemon to recurring roles on the show and allows for fun new character dynamics. Cool. The downside to this formula is that there seems to be a variable in it somewhere that causes Ash and Pikachu to just forget everything they’ve been through across their previous journeys, also nerfing Pikachu considerably. Let’s take Pokemon: Black & White, for example. In the beginning of that series not only does Ash seemingly forget how to catch a Pokemon, he loses a battle to a NEW TRAINER. I remind you that by that time, Ash has been on SIX different journeys. Hell, the beginning of this journey had him lose a battle against a Surskit. A Surskit that used a battle tactic that Ash has overcome no less than 3 times in the past – freezing the battlefields. And the kicker? One of the times he overcame that tactic was against a Regice… A LEGENDARY POKEMON. Yet we blame Ash for these things? No. Blame crap writing. Ash can’t control how he’s written.
Then there’s the formula that irritates me the most and is the greater reason I’m writing this – the Pokemon League. Ash has never won a Pokemon League championship. I can only assume it’s because they believe that’d somehow imply he’s accomplished his goal of becoming a Pokemon Master, thus ending the series. But we’ll come back to that. The formula generally is that throughout the series Ash has two consistent rivals throughout – one that’s treated seriously, and one that isn’t, or may not even be introduced until much later. In the tournament, he manages to defeat the serious rival, only to lose to the other one. It happened with Gary and Richie in Kanto. It happened with Gary and Harrison in Johto. It happened with Morrison and Tyson in Hoenn. It happened with Paul and Tobias in Sinnoh (which was by far THE cheapest thing that has ever happened on that show), and it happened with Trip and Cameron in Unova (the SECOND cheapest thing that has ever happened on that show).
Now, where am I going with this? If you only watch the series dubbed, then here’s a spoiler warning. The episode’s out in Japanese with subtitles, though, and has been for a couple days. So if you want, go hunt it down then come back and read the rest of this. All right, so here’s the thing. This season broke that convention… kind of. Throughout the season, Ash has had the standard two consistent rivals. The first would be Alain, the protagonist of the Pokemon Mega Evolution specials, who Ash battled throughout the season and failed to beat, even once, because of Alain’s Mega-Charizard. Then there was Sawyer, a new trainer who was spending more or less the entire season trying to surpass Ash. Can we see where this is going? You can? Good, because you’re wrong. In the final stretch of the Pokemon League, Ash is actually set up to battle Sawyer BEFORE Alain… which gave me a bad feeling. After all, why would they have all this build up of a real Ash/Alain battle, when the rival that formulaically should win is going to beat him first – Especially with a type-advantaged Mega-Evolution? Well… because that wasn’t what they were plotting. Ash defeats Sawyer. Which was odd to me, but not an unwelcome change. And based upon that, I started theorizing that Ash was actually gonna beat Alain. Combined with the fact that Ash has never made it to the Top 2 before, I thought they might actually let Ash win the stupid tournament. How foolish of me. No, Ash lost. By a hair. It at least wasn’t as cheap as his previous two losses (especially considering that he made it to the final 4 in Sinnoh and only the final 8 in Unova… seriously, screw you, writers). Regardless… this is where my own misgivings with this series come into play. The show needs to evolve.
The first crime of the show’s format is ambiguity. At no point has it ever been stated what, exactly, Ash must do in order to become a Pokemon Master. There is no actual character with that title for Ash to idolize or strive towards. Ash just pursues the Pokemon League because… because. Mind you, the Pokemon League isn’t even present in the games or other media. The Elite 4 do EXIST in the anime, but Ash never pursues the route of battling them, for one reason or another. Yet here’s where I think this could actually benefit the show a great deal. Ash needs to pursue objectives other than just the Pokemon League. And it’s something that could potentially help with the evolution of the games as well. If they allow him to win a Pokemon League for once, I’d recommend they let him pursue something else. Or perhaps after he wins, he’s asked to assist with something going on in another region, thus generating an actual plot for the series. These are incredibly easy fixes, by the way. And how could this help the games? I’ve said, for years, that my ideal Pokemon game would be some sort of collaboration with Bandai Namco to create a Tales-style game, set in the Pokemon Universe, wherein you control the Pokemon’s actual movements and the like, then give it a more involved plot like the Gamecube Pokemon games (Colosseum and XD: Gale of Darkness, specifically). Boom. I would be SO happy with that, and you could probably make an amazing anime out of it. Something that still has all the appeal of Pokemon in the traditional sense, but with a plot. And that’s just one idea of a way this could be fixed. It isn’t the only suggestion I can think of.
As much as I make fun of One Piece or Fairy Tale, they DO have plots and shifting narratives, thus their staying power is warranted. Even Dragon Ball Z, which suffers from many of the same trappings as Pokemon (being extremely repetitive), has more warranted staying power as at least the characters do grow and go through things. Do you have any idea how painful that is for me to say out loud, let alone type?
In summary, the anime doesn’t need to dump Ash or literally evolve all of his Pokemon. It needs to dump this business-minded standardization, and let Ash explore new paths. Let Ash take on new obstacles. Let Ash EVOLVE. In fact, the franchise in general needs to do that. Sure, we have Pokemon Ranger and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, but these are ultimately still just spin-offs, no different than how the Friendship Destruction Simula- I mean Mario Party and Paper Mario are spin-offs of the main Mario games. But guess what? The Mario games have consistently changed things up in more than just how they look. Super Mario Bros. sure ain’t Super Mario Galaxy, yet both are recognized as main-series games. They’re drastically different. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime? Both main series. They both canonically happened. Zelda… Zelda is just… Zelda’s confusing. But you get my point. I’m not saying they need to stop with the turn-based strategy stuff, because I LOVE the current style of the games, but at least introduce some other things to the main series that we can get behind. It’d help the franchise immensely. And after 20 years, I think the franchise really deserves better than what it’s been getting.
Here’s to 20 years, guys. Let’s hope Pokemon can truly go back to being the very best, like no one ever was. Thanks for reading.
Keep up the awesome,