Pokemon, or, rather, Pocket Money
First things first. To state what should be obvious to anyone over, say, the age of twelve, Pokemon The Movie 2000 is simply awful. The story is simplistically moralistic, the animation lacks the finesse of much recent computer animation, and those adorable little “pocket monsters” are maddening throughout. Being largely unfamiliar with the entire Pokemon craze, I was dismayed at the limitation of the monsters’ linguistic abilities (they repeat their own names with various “emotional” inflections), finding them most annoying. If I hear little Pikachu say “pikachu!” one more time, I am definitely going postal.
However, that the film doesn’t hold that much appeal to me is hardly surprising, and in the end immaterial. Neither those hordes of kids whose world is wrapped up in Pokemon, nor Pokemon the commercial enterprise really care whether I like it at all. As long as those kids spend their weekly allowances or wheedle the money out of their parents’ pockets to fill the coffers of the Poke-corporation, the international obsession will continue. And if the sneak preview screening I attended, which was filled with adoring children, is any indication (as I am sure it is), Pokemon The Movie 2000 (or, P2K) will assuredly fulfill its capitalist duty.
Just as my own interest is of no consequence to Pokemon, so too is this film’s story irrelevant to its success. In it, Jirarudan, an evil Pokemon collector, aspires to capture Moltres, Zapdos, and Articuno, the Pokemon avatars of, respectively, fire, lightning, and ice. Such an action will upset the elemental balance the three monsters maintain, thus releasing Lugia, the sea beast, whom Jirarudan will then also capture, and so become the most powerful Pokemon owner in the world. His plan, of course, threatens the peace and security of the world. And so it is up to Ash, Misty, and their gang of friends and pocket monsters to stop Jirarudan and save earth. Well, there you have it. Really, the film uses this thin storyline to introduce new monsters and thus kick the Pokemon economy up a notch: most specifically, it introduces Pokemon #249, Lugia, the telepathic, flying sea-serpenty creature.
If the relative merits of the film as cinematic achievement are meaningless, it may still be important to ask of this massively popular phenomenon, what is it teaching/telling kids? In the case of Pokemon The Movie 2000, the lessons taught (be good, help your friends, respect elders and tradition, etc.) are undermined by two things: first, the system of gender inequality the film supports, and second, the film contradicts its own ethics and fails to make clear what constitutes moral behavior. The movie suggests that ethical action is merely narcissistic, that one really only need “be good” in order to gain the approval of others. And it confuses (or, rather, refuses to give) distinct moral valuations, so that it is impossible to assert with any confidence who is being “good” or “bad.”
One of the more refreshing aspects of the Pokemon cards, cartoons, and movies is that they feature girl characters who appear very independent as they gad about the world in search of adventure with their boy counterparts. Unfortunately, this is true only on the most superficial level in P2K, where the girls are soon shuttled off to the sidelines. For instance, Marin, the orange-jump-suited girl who captains the boat that takes Ash, Misty, and company from place to place, is quickly disappeared once they no longer need the boat. Even when she is playing captain and even though she seems resourceful, Marin lets the much younger Ash do whatever he wants and unquestioningly follows his will. When it does focus on its girl characters, P2K essentially tells them that they should shut up and stay in “their” place, just as it tells the boys it is their duty to go out into the world and in the process, sever ties with their families. More succinctly, the film follows traditional patriarchal logic and confines girls/women to the domestic sphere while boys/men inhabit the public.
While cruising around the South Pacific, Ash and his friends are blown off course by a freak storm that lands them at some island whose name I could never catch. It seems they have arrived just in time for the “Legend Festival,” a ritual in which all the local children perform. The chief’s youngest daughter, Melody, assigned to play this year’s lead, is at first profoundly uninterested. She tells her fellow islanders that the tradition is musty and boring, and they should really get with the times. When we first meet Melody, she is plucky, assertive, and modern, wearing wide-leg trousers, a cropped top, and headphones. However, things quickly change; once she dons the ceremonial girly garb, she’s is transformed into an obedient daughter and embraces her culture’s gendered traditions. Of course, Melody’s capitulation is due to her burgeoning crush on Ash. Similarly, Misty, Ash’s sidekick and clear proto-romantic interest, learns the necessity of heterosexual identification and that her own identity is validated through her association with one boy/man. For most of the film, Misty is quite self-reliant and resistant to any sort of romantic link between her and Ash, strenuously repeating that Ash is not her boyfriend. But as her relationship with Ash is threatened by Melody, Misty becomes jealous. In the end, she risks her life to save Ash and claims her identity as his girlfriend.
The film follows a similar logic in its representation of boys and masculinity. Ash is the perfect “little emperor,” headstrong and fiercely autonomous, always taking charge of the situation and leading the girls and monsters wherever he chooses. It’s not necessarily that Ash is a bossy bully-in-training, but rather that the film assumes his desire and right to lead, to be the hero. Hey, he’s the boy. Ash’s authority is further illustrated in his relationship with his mother. We first see her at home, worried sick about him as global trouble starts to brew. When she realizes that Ash will be at the center of the apocalyptic storm, she rushes to be with him, but only reaches him after he has saved the world. Still, she chastises Ash for ignoring her feelings, then relents, conceding that she can’t control him or his destiny. All she asks is that he remember that “Everyday, you’re my hero.” A friend of mine wondered whether this mother-son relationship might be influenced by the hyper-patriarchal Japanese culture that spawned the film and phenomenon. This certainly may be so; however, the fact that the film will be popular globally suggests that these sorts of representations go almost entirely unchallenged. Indeed, most people probably won’t even think anything is amiss.
The second major problem with P2K is its principal moral lesson, facilitated by “Team Rocket.” As bad guys, siblings Jessie and James (Get it? They’re outlaws!) Rocket demonstrate the propriety of the film’s gender norms through negative example. The self-assured Jessie is a “bad” girl, just as the dissipated, ultra-sensitive, and passive James is a “bad” boy. As if this weren’t dismal enough, the Rockets also impart the film’s confused notion of ethical action through their “transformation” into do-gooders by film’s end: “We’re not bad,” they say, apparently surprised at themselves. “We’re good.” Still, they fret that no one has witnessed their Ash-saving deed until, in a moment of self-awareness, a Pokemon informs them that someone has seen them, and all three characters look out at the audience. We are the witnesses to their transformation. Apparently, being good only counts when someone sees it. Is this the ethics of good behavior we want kids to be learning?
Defenders of Pokemon assert that the game teaches kids moral judgment. While this might be true for the trading card game, it is far from true for Pokemon The Movie 2000. Perhaps a distinction should be made between Pokemon the trading card game and this film. As I understand it, the Pokemon trading card game can be quite complex, requiring participants to synthesize a host of information about the various monsters, their powers, affiliations, etc. Indeed, this was driven home for me at the screening I attended, as a boy in front of me gave his clueless father the name and general character sketch for each monster as it came on screen. In addition, then, to teaching kids moral values, Pokemon also encourages imagination, creativity, and memorization, as well as logical and analytical thinking (in the relations of monsters, their relative strengths, etc.). This can only be a good thing.
Pokemon The Movie 2000, however, shares no similar instruction; instead, it promotes gender inequality and contradictory ethical lessons. In the end, P2K spurs children to consume more product, in order to perpetuate the Pokemon global dominion. The film itself is shameless in its self-promotion. The evil collector Jirarudan, after he is finally defeated, rises from the wreck of his ship with only his first Pokemon card intact. As he looks wistfully at this card, he says, “And where it all started, so will it all begin again.” Indeed. Just as Jirarudan’s interest begins with a Pokemon card and leads to his obsession to possess all things Pokemon, so too does the film move its young viewers to desire all Pokemon peripherals. No doubt this final scene with Jirarudan will be connected to the “all new mysterious, double-sided, holographic Ancient Mew” trading card that will be handed out for free at participating theaters the first week of Pokemon The Movie 2000‘s run. Here’s your first card for a whole new trading card game, kids! Consume! Consume!! In the end, and this should be nothing surprising, Pokemon stands not for “pocket monsters” but “pocket money,” as in, if you are a parent, kiss yours goodbye.