To say that Pokémon completely transformed the American children’s television landscape is, perhaps, overstating matters, but not by much. It almost singlehandedly created the US anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, paved the way for other child-friendly anime to fill the last waning days of Saturday-morning and weekday-afternoon cartoon blocks on network TV, and in turn made space for the growing number of anime-esque and anime-influenced cartoons of the mid-2000s to the present, from Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender to Steven Universe.
It is also very much in a cousin genre to superhero cartoons such as the DCAU, though that may not be obvious at first glance. A brief explanation of terminology: anime is frequently divided into categories by (presumed) target audience, following a similar division that exists in manga. In this division, Pokémon would be considered a shōnen series, which is to say targeted at boys aged roughly 8-14. More precisely, Pokémon is a shōnen fighting anime, a genre which typically focuses on the adventures of a boy in the same age range as the target audience and a group of friends he gathers as he battles a series of ever-stronger enemies en route to some goal–pretty standard coming-of-age stuff. The protagonist is generally eager to battle and prove himself, remaining so throughout the series (or, if he loses his enthusiasm, regains it at a critical moment just in time to overcome the enemy of the week), and there is usually a heavy emphasis on themes of cooperation, teamwork, and friendship. Very often, at least one of the protagonist’s friends is a former antagonist, emphasizing that those themes apply even to those who were once enemies. In addition, there is often a character (usually older than the protagonist) whose primary role is to provide exposition during fights, explaining to the audience what the characters are doing and why it is impressive or unexpected.
While, as the name of the genre implies, shōnen fighting anime typically involve some kind of warfare or martial arts, the same narrative structures and character archetypes can be applied to essentially anything that can be framed as metaphorical combat: shōnen fighting series about drift racing, go, competitive baking, music, and drawing manga all exist. In the case of Pokémon, we have a shōnen fighting series about collecting “monsters” to fight in “battles” against one another, this comprising the dominant sport in main character Ash Ketchum’s world. This element of the premise draws a great deal of criticism, which is not entirely undeserved: Ash does frequently use Pokémon he defeated in battle to fight for him, which is to say he uses imprisoned animals to capture more animals for himself to use in a bloodsport. It gets even worse if one recognizes the implication of episodes like “Isle of the Giant Pokémon,” which subtitles interactions between Pokémon: they are fully sapient, and the battles are thus not cockfighting, but gladiatorial combat between slaves!
Except this is the shōnen fighting genre. Defeated opponents joining the hero is a staple of the genre. So where are Ash’s defeated opponents on his team? It is not, though it is an easy mistake to make, Misty and Brock–though they are gym leaders (the closest things the game has to bosses), in the anime they each join Ash before he defeats them. (Indeed, he never actually does beat Misty, as their gym battle is interrupted by Team Rocket.) Instead, Brock is primarily the aforementioned exposition character, explaining Pokémon moves and their significance to other characters and thereby the audience; Misty is more or less the love interest.
But Ash does face an opponent in the first episode whom he battles, overcomes, and befriends: Pikachu. Pikachu initially attacks Ash at every opportunity. Later, when Ash figures out a way to keep Pikachu from shocking him quite so easily, Pikachu still refuses to fight his battles for him. It is only after Ash risks serious injury protecting Pikachu from a flock of attacking bird Pokémon that Pikachu fights to protect Ash in turn–and after Ash rushes Pikachu into medical care in the following episode, they are thereafter fast friends. Later Pokémon join Ash because he has helped them, befriended them, or, yes, defeated them through his other Pokémon, forming the ever-expanding circle of friends and allies characteristic of the genre.
None of this negates the twin specters of slavery and animal cruelty that haunt the show, but they provide it context. Twenty years later, when Steven Universe‘s title character made the first of many (mostly successful) attempts to convert enemies into friends in classic shōnen fighting style, in the first season’s “Monster Buddies,” Pokémon references abounded, from the very fact that his first attempt was a monster, to its newly cute appearance and smaller size, to the Pokéball-like appearance of its gem.
More broadly, Pokémon became the gateway for anime to flood American children’s television. Prior to Pokémon, anime’s reputation in the U.S. was as violent science fiction and pornography; after Pokémon, it was Pokémon. Suddenly anime adaptation was a growth industry, and for a time, it was everywhere, from television–most notably, the Fox Box, Kids’ WB (which aired Pokémon itself) and Cartoon Network’s Toonami block–to a growing number of specialty stores, to movie theaters, which in the late 90s and early 2000s increasingly showed anime-based films as varied as the first few Pokémon movies and Hayao Miyazaki’s contemplative-yet-violent fantasy epic Princess Mononoke.
This boom impacted Western animation, as well. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the line between Western animation and anime was never as hard and bright as fans of the latter generally liked to maintain, and the anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s caused it to fade away almost completely. Shows like Powerpuff Girls incorporated anime-esque action sequences and a soupcon of design elements into a show primarily influenced by Western cartoons and comics; later shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender combined heavily anime-influenced designs and backgrounds with Western-style animation techniques and character archetypes.
But another show looms on the horizon, just a few years away, a point of contact between the DCAU, anime, and one other major source we’ve yet to touch, though here in 1997 it is happening as we speak. But, though closer than it’s ever been, it’s still just a bit beyond our grasp, too much of the future to touch just yet.
We will arrive in due time.
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