Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Pokemon: the Origin
The Pokemon anime has been airing now since 1997, which is pretty much a decade and a half, and over 800 episodes. Which is funny because the anime is - and always has been - absolute junk. I suppose out of 800 episodes, some of the crap will eventually stick to the wall and you'll get a few emotional episodes, so its not all terrible. Sabrina was creepy, I think every kid on Earth was upset when Ash let Butterfree go, and I think Misty and Ash's budding infatuation was the first romance I ever actually enjoyed. But in a decade and a half of existence, "Pokemon" has done nothing but recycle plots, shoot exactly at kid-friendly non-threatening mediocrity, and callously abandon characters and Pokemon creatures just to fill up game-related fanservice. So anybody who watched Pokemon after, say, the Johto seasons, has said to themselves "I do not care about the quality of my entertainment, I want nothing more than a repeating cycle every two or three years where nothing is lost, nothing is accomplished, and nothing changes."* Which is fine, the consumer wants it and anime studio is willing to make money off of it, but maybe we could shoot for something a little more substantial?
"Pokemon: the Origin" is a two hour (four episode) animated special aired in Japan just last week, as part of the hype build-up for "Pokemon X and Y". If this were just ten years ago, "Pokemon: the Origin" would have been a complete mystery to everybody in this hemisphere until Cartoon Network finally released it maybe three or four years ago. But thanks to the modern marvel known as the Internet, this show was immediately streamed and just as quickly fansubbed over in English for the entire planet to enjoy. Now you can find all four of these episodes on probably fifty different websites with just two clicks on Google. The future rules, doesn't it? Anyway, "Pokemon: the Origin" is a direct adaptation of the events of the original games, "Pokemon Red and Green" (later updated for export as "Pokemon Red and Blue"), starring not Ash Ketchum, but Red, a young Pallet Town trainer who actually goes out to be the very best that no one ever was. Not with a Pikachu, but with a Charmander.
And let me say right now: "Pokemon: the Origin" rocks. This is the kind of anime we should have had years ago, frankly. This is what an animated Pokemon show was meant to be.
You will immediately know the plot and events of "Pokemon: the Origin" if you happen to be a human being living on this planet under the age of thirty. Red, a budding master Pokemon trainer, is given a Charmander by Professor Oak, who some call the Pokemon Professor, and thus goes off to complete the Pokedex, an encyclopedia of Pokemon knowledge which the Professor, despite years of work, has not filled up at all.** Along the way he will defeat the eight mighty Gym Leaders, experts in their chosen type, and then face the ultimate challenge, the Elite Four, a group of the greatest trainers on Earth. Red also saves the world from the villainous Team Rocket, captures the world's rarest and most dangerous Pokemon, Mewtwo, and is repeatedly smelled later by his douchy rival, Green (Blue to us).
The love for the video game canon extends even to the artistic and sound design of the show. Rather than the repeating of their own names, Pokemon scream realistic animal howls and roars. The sound design is a nostalgia-fueled remix of "Red and Blue" audio tracks, the kind of epic classic music that will bring tears to any red-blooded Pokemon fans' ears. Yes, I said "bring tears to your ears". You might think that makes no sense, but when it happens to you, you'll know you are a true fan. And you probably should go see a doctor. Even the characters' faces and clothing is based off of the original Pokemon art. The battles this time are slightly more realistic, with typing being a major focus of the combat, and occasionally some honest-to-God strategy showing up sometimes. Red isn't going to keep Charmander a Charmander just because of cuteness, you gotta evolve that lizard, that's how real Pokemon Masters roll.
Unfortunately, the flaw begins to seep in almost immediately when you realize this is only two hours long. Even for a game with as sparse of a plot as "Pokemon Red and Blue", four episodes is certainly not nearly enough to cover all of the material. Only two Gym Leaders battles are shown in any detail, with the other six being shown only in montage. Even the Elite Four is skipped, moving right the final battle between Red and Green. The anime wisely focuses on what are probably the most interesting moments, such as the Silph Co. invasion, and most emotionally, the ghost of Marowak in the Pokemon Tower. But its very hard to be satisfied when you realize they could have easily given the full story, with ten or twelve episodes, missing nothing. Instead its just a brief film. And we're left with some major elements of the story lacking. Red and Charmander/Charizard get very little time to bond, and the rest of his team is barely even around. Though even in his simplicity, Red remains actually a nice earnest character, essentially a silent JRPG protagonist who talks, and he remains compelling.
The fact of the matter here is that "Pokemon: the Origin" is a nostalgia trip, both for its audience and its creators. Its good to see a franchise that's extended this far, made so many billions of dollars, and created such a variety of product still remembers its roots and can celebrate where its come from. Its a very appropriate television special to bring forth "Pokemon X and Y", the most advanced game yet, which will have a huge supply of Kanto Pokemon and even hands the player their choice of the original three starters. So let us celebrate the past and look forward to the future, at the same time.
* This attitude, logically, would make sense for a show like "Sesame Street", where its audience grows up and loses interest just as its newest audience is born and comes to love it. But weirdly, adults and teenagers watch "Pokemon", some of them the same kids who first watched in 1997. I can only conclude that the show has taken the place of other indestructible and static icons such as superhero comic books or The Simpsons. Batman is never going to retire, the Joker will never go to jail, and Ash Ketchum will never actually win a League Championship or have a romantic relationship. I can understand the timeless appeal of Superman, but why the Hell is Ash Ketchum, a mediocre (and stupid) trainer by any standard and the least interesting character on his own show, such an immortal figure?
** And he's too much of a prick to give you that extra Bulbasaur sitting right there on the table. Come on, dude, you want this Pokedex filled or not?