Saturday, April 20, 2024

Pokémon Anime and Narrative Reward

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Warning: contains major spoilers of the Pokémon anime series until the 930th episode.

It’s a common criticism for the Pokémon anime series to say that Status Quo is God, but the recent conclusion of a major arc can illustrate some thoughts on story progression and narrative reward.

For those of you unfamiliar with this branch of the Pokémon franchise, the anime series is airing since 1997, so far summing 932 episodes (with a new one airing every week), 19 movies and a few special side-stories. With the exception of the side stories, the show focuses on the journey of Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum and his Pikachu to become the very best, like no one ever was. In the Pokémon universe, that means one thing: to beat all the gym leaders and become the Pokémon League Champion.

Come on, I know you know those guys.
Come on, I know you know those guys.

The Pokémon anime is subdivided in six series, each of them grouping 2 – 4 seasons and covering the region and events of a different generation of Pokémon games. Different regions have their own League and gym leaders, as well as a new set of previously unknown Pokémon species. The current series, Pokémon the Series: XY (let’s call it XY for short), premiered in October 2013 and is based on the sixth and current generation of games, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y.

I’m gonna be honest here: before XY, I haven’t seen an episode of the Pokémon anime in over ten years. I watched the first series as a kid, until the end of the anime-exclusive Orange League arc, but quit the show for some reason I can’t recall. Since I’m still a huge fan of the games, I decided to give it a new try when XY premiered.

This should have been my first red flag: I was missing around 680 episodes from the show and I still had zero trouble keeping up with Ash’s journey on XY. I had very little info on what happened during this gap and it didn’t matter. In fact, if any of you start the show from the 800th episode, first of the XY series, with only a very basic understanding of what a Pokémon is, you should have no trouble understanding what’s going on. We’ll come back to this.

The different series of the Pokémon anime have all very similar basic plots: Ash and Pikachu are exploring a new region, find new travel companions and a new Pokémon team, defeat the gym leaders and battle in the League. Preventing a Pokémon apocalypse happens often too.

On XY, Ash and Pikachu travel to the region of Kalos to challenge its gym leaders and battle in the Kalos League. On their way, they befriend trainer Serena and gym leader Clemont and his little sister Bonnie, and the four kids become traveling companions. Serena has an arc of her own, but Clemont and Bonnie just… tag along? For reasons? Anyway, the group meets many other trainers and new Pokémon on their journey.

(L-R) Ash and his Pikachu, Clemont, Serena and Bonnie
(L-R) Ash and his Pikachu, Clemont, Serena and Bonnie

Two other trainers are recurring characters and important for this piece: Sawyer and Alain. Ash meets both of them several times during his journey in Kalos, developing a friendly rivalry with those trainers.

Sawyer is the character whose journey I wish I was following: a young Pokémon trainer, he also dreams of becoming a Pokémon Master. Studious and careful, he learns from his own mistakes and absorbs the knowledge he can from more experienced trainers such as Ash, all while loving and respecting his Pokémon. He reminds me a younger Ash, except where Ash is your standard Idiot Hero Sawyer actually has a personality and earns his development.

Sawyer: a beautiful Poképuff, too pure for this world
Sawyer: a beautiful Poképuff, too pure for this world

Alain is your cliché brooding mysterious male character. His story gets further developed in a few side specials, but we know he leaves his job as what it seems to be an assistant to the local Pokémon professor to work for the Obviously Bad Guys™ because they promised him to help the comatose Pokémon of a little girl called Mairin. I haven’t seen the side specials, but apparently Mairin used to be his travel companion, but Alain pushed her away “for her own protection” and her Pokémon got hurt indirectly because of that, so now he feels guilty for the whole thing. Mairin herself is nothing more than a motivator to Alain, so it looks an awful lot like fridging and manpain, except with a Pokémon as an intermediary. I’m not really a fan.

As if that wasn’t enough, he matches outfits with his Pokémon.
As if that wasn’t enough, he matches outfits with his Pokémon.

On recent episodes (924th – 930th), Ash finally reached the Kalos League and battled both Sawyer and Alain once more. Now, here’s one thing you should know about Pokémon: Ash never won a League before. He always beats the gym leaders, but fails at some point during the Pokémon League competition. This was going to be his sixth attempt. He’s been trying this for almost two decades.

(one can say he won the Orange Archipelago competition, but that was a short arc invented especially for the anime and its League had a different format. It doesn’t count, not really)

There was a huge fan hype that Ash could win the League this year. What made us believe so?

  1. This story is going somewhere, we hope? We watched this kid for the past two decades and he isn’t anywhere closer to his dream than he was 700 episodes ago. Sure that can’t last forever.
  2. The Pokémon franchise turned 20 years old this year and a victory at the League would be a nice way to celebrate it. The anime itself is younger than 20, but will be older than that by the next League.
  3. If there is a next League, that is. The next gen of games isn’t out yet, but recently released material hint that the gym/league system is going to change for the first time in history of Pokémon games. The anime Leagues are already different from the game ones – in the games, you beat an Elite of trainers plus the Champion in a row, while in the anime it looks like a regular sports competition, with brackets and whatnot. Still, if the game changes, perhaps the anime will follow and this would’ve been Ash’s last opportunity to win a traditional League.
  4. Last but not least, Greninja.
This guy.
This guy.

Greninja’s presence on the XY series was a huge game-changer. Currently the most popular Pokémon in Japan, it was the first monster Ash captured in Kalos. The relationship between Ash and his Greninja received a great deal of attention from the show, in a way that has never happened before outside Pikachu. Greninja was arguably even more important than Pikachu this season, starring the most interesting, significant or emotional moments of the XY series.

It even delves into Mary Sue territory with the Ash-Greninja transformation. Ash-Greninja is a special form Greninja can assume in battle due to the strong bond it has with Ash. Like a Pokémon Super Saiyan, Ash-Greninja is way more powerful than its regular form, even getting an appearance that resembles its trainer. At first the duo struggles with the transformation, because it was causing Ash to pass out, but they dominate it just in time for the League.

Hi my name is Ash-Greninja and I have ebony black hair with red streaks.
Hi my name is Ash-Greninja and I have ebony black hair with red streaks.

What makes Greninja almost a Pokémon Sue? The fact that this transformation is unique in the Pokémon franchise, anime or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I love Greninja, but the rules of this universe had to be reconsidered to accommodate this transformation. The closest thing we got to this are the Mega Evolutions, but Ash-Greninja is stated to be its own thing entirely. So sure Ash has everything he needs to win the League this time.

Except he loses.

Ash faces Sawyer in the semifinals and wins – a bit too easy, I would add. Because Sawyer is a good person and a good sportsman, he genuinely supports his friend in the finals. Later we see him crying and admitting to be disappointed at himself, but he uses this feeling to reaffirm his desire to gain experience, become stronger and surpass Ash one day. A beautiful character arc.

This leaves us with Alain. While Sawyer’s presence in the League was a given – we first meet him challenging a gym – Alain only gets there because the plot said so. He never demonstrated interest in facing the gym leaders or competing in the League until Ash suggested. That was episode 915. The League started on episode 924 and there was Alain. Using a form of teleportation yet to be discovered in Weisseroff, he did in less than ten episodes what took Ash over 120 to do. Granted, Ash had a few subplots and filler episodes requiring his presence, but this either makes Alain overpowered or Ash an idiot.


Alain’s motivation to be in the League remains vague to me. He thought it could be fun? He wanted to battle Ash again? Fine, but he doesn’t need the League for that. He wanted to prove he’s strong? But then why he didn’t even considered the gym challenges before Ash suggested? It’s not like he never heard of them before. He doesn’t even need the League to save Mairin’s Pokémon. Absolutely nothing bad will happen should he lose or not enter the League at all. So Alain’s presence there feels forced and doesn’t show a great deal of character agency. Yet he wins. And almost an easy victory: the much-awaited battle between Ash’s Greninja and Alain’s Charizard ended in less than five minutes in an unforgivably stupid scene.

Now my questions start.

What was the narrative purpose of Ash losing once more? Sure your protagonist shouldn’t win at all times, but their failures have to mean something. They should advance the story or be a lesson to your hero. What has this defeat achieved that the previous five haven’t, beyond ginormous levels of frustration for the audience? What has Ash learned with all this?


Is Ash ever going to win a League? He had all the advantage he could possibly have this time and still lost, what else could happen? And if Ash is never going to be the Pokémon League Champion, why the hell are you telling us this story? Why should we care about any of this?

Why wasn’t Ash, as a character, allowed to grieve his loss? This is the culmination of all his efforts during XY, it should carry a huge emotional weight. But Ash has the emotional depth of a sock with a smile painted on and brushes off this defeat in seconds with a shrug emoji. Writers don’t allow him to win, but they don’t allow him to lose either. He’s not sad or angry or anything. I don’t wanna be mean here, but this was hardly his first failure; this kid has been a disaster in his career of choice for the past two decades. Please let him feel something.

(Note: a positive attitude towards a defeat is welcome, even more considering Pokémon comes from a culture with a position towards failing that often results in severe mental illness. This is not my issue here. Sawyer had a positive attitude; Ash simply had no reaction)

Why weren’t we, as the audience, allowed to feel something? The battle was barely over and the story moved on to the “preventing a Pokémon apocalypse” plot. The narrative doesn’t breathe. Have I mentioned how little I care about this stupid subplot right now? Why are the writers ignoring how frustrating this moment could potentially be for the audience? Maybe Ash doesn’t remember his past, but we sure do. They weren’t expecting us to care?

(It doesn’t help that the world-saving arc is never Ash’s goal; saving the world is just a thing that happens while he’s in the middle of his League adventures, not the other way around. This is game canon too: becoming Champion is your goal and the credits only roll after you achieve that)

You know why Ash isn’t allowed to feel a thing? Because this would be admitting what we saw was frustrating. It’s admitting there were actually five defeats before this one and five is a much more oppressive number than one. It’s admitting that if he lost six times, maybe he’ll just keep losing forever. It’s admitting Ash isn’t getting anywhere with all this. And they can’t do that. They wanna brush it off as just another day in the field because they don’t want to change the story they’re telling, so it’s vital that nothing happens. Except, if nothing happens, if nothing matters, why should I care?

None of Ash’s previous defeats mattered because none of Ash’s previous adventures matter for the show. His former companions moved on, his former Pokémon moved on or were left with Professor Oak, his previous failures and victories are ignored. And this happens every other season; we only know the show is one big journey and not a bunch of AUs because a few references tell us so. But remember: I missed 680 episodes and I haven’t missed anything.

It looks like the writers don’t want Ash to be the League Champion because they don’t want to come up with another goal for him. But if past seasons are to be ignored for the sake of attracting new fans, why not let him win sometimes? If not for him, then to reward the people following his adventures. Throw us a bone!

Not like THAT!
Not like THAT!

Heroes don’t have to win all the time. It’s even good if they don’t: it raises the stakes. But we expect a payoff eventually. We expect to be rewarded for all the time and emotions we invested in a story. All stories have ups and downs, but when the downs are lower than the ups are high, the audience feels bad. A writer may actually want that – horror and dystopian stories come to mind – but it’s a dangerous path. They better have a good reason to do so, because nobody wants to be punished for caring. Right now, I feel I was punished for caring about the Pokémon anime series, both for the lack of story progression and the lack of a reward.

If you wanna do The Groundhog Day and reset your story like nothing happened, your character has to learn something like in Groundhog Day. For good or bad, they have to be a different character than they were in the beginning. This doesn’t happen here. The story hasn’t moved anywhere over the past twenty years; they just press the reset button every other season and call it a day. The episodes connect into a bigger arc, but that arc is ultimately meaningless and the character development achieved is null. After a while, you get the sense nothing new is gonna come up from this story, so whatever they’re giving you has to be good.

But it’s not. If Ash’s goal is to be a League Champion, if all his actions are oriented towards that goal, we want him to succeed eventually. Any League victory would do the trick; we would root for him again in the next one anyway. But no victory ever came and we have waited far too long. Worse: we have no indication this waiting will ever be over. We have no reason to believe this story won’t punish us forever.

That’s the difference between the Pokémon anime and the Pokémon games: the games are very formulaic and repetitive as well, but they work because each of them is a different adventure involving different characters and they all reward you should you invest your time into playing them.

The anime has also many other flaws: it’s overly expositive and repetitive even for a kids show; it ignores battle mechanics already established whenever convenient; it has tons of filler episodes and they all feel the same; it’s brimming with gender stereotypes; so on. I knew all this and I only came back because I wanted to see my favorite Pokémon on screen. But why would I keep doing this? To watch them losing? To watch them be forgotten?

I have broken up with shows before: I gave up on Game of Thrones twice; I still haven’t watched the How I Met Your Mother series finale. There’s only so far you can go on the process of treating me like an idiot. Now the Pokémon anime can join the club.

It’s nothing personal; I just really like caring about stories.

All images courtesy of The Pokémon Company.

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