The Language of Pokémon
Much to my own surprise, the newest installment of the Pokémon cartoon franchise gets my begrudging respect. This despite the fact that it is often plodding and rather repetitive. First off, I should make a distinction between Pokémon the trading-card game and Pokémon the animation juggernaut. I’ve always been down with the card game, which, like all RPG’s fosters intuitive and analytic thinking, imagination and creativity. The film series, on the other hand, has been pretty standard flash-and-dash cartoon spectacle that surreptitiously promotes certain gendered stereotypes and inequalities, as well as some “moral” lessons that I am not sure parents might want children to be learning (see my review of P2K for specifics).
Nevertheless, Pokémon 3‘s animation has evolved since the first two films, and features some enjoyably eye-catching computer wizardry. But what is perhaps most surprising is that the new movie’s story is rather intellectually sophisticated, and while its philosophical musings on language and reality will probably be over the heads of most kids, they might keep parents interested.
To be sure, the things I have disliked about the previous Pokémon films are replicated here. Ash (Veronica Taylor) is the insufferably bossy and willful little boy who always does exactly as he pleases, regardless of the dangers or others’ opinions. Of course, it doesn’t help that he is always right and always “saves the day”—such are the privileges of male entitlement. And yet, Pokémon 3 complicates its own rather traditional values with the relationship of Ash and his mother. In this film, Ash’s mother is given a lot more independence and a lot more influence over Ash than she has been afforded in the previous films. Even though, in the end, Ash must save his mother, this is not so much because she is incapable of saving herself, but because of her concern for the health and safety of the orphaned girl Molly, whose family drama is the film’s central agon.
Pokémon 3 further complicates its own gender proscriptions in the contests the trainers stage between their beloved pocket monsters. By far, the best Pokémon battle in the film is between Ash’s sidekick Misty (Rachael Lillis) and Molly: in Pokémon 3 girls can kick ass too. Even better, Misty becomes something of a role model for Molly, who never imagined she could become a Pokémon trainer (the battle takes place in a fantasy world of Molly’s creation—more on that in a sec). Misty assures her that she can, and that girls can do whatever they want and be whatever they dream. Not a bad message.
For the most part, Pokémon 3 is rather predictable. It follows the little girl Molly, whose famous Pokémon-expert father has mysteriously disappeared while searching for clues to some legendary monsters found only in myth and folklore. It seems Molly’s mother has also recently been lost (we assume she has died, although this is never explicitly stated). This abrupt loss of her other parent is too much for Molly and she retreats into a fantasy world created entirely by and for her with the help of the same ancient Pokémon that have abducted her father—unbeknownst to Molly, of course. And here is a weird sort of patriarchal logic and assertion of the vital importance of male guidance, intellect and parenting. Without her mother Molly would be okay, but without her father, she’s totally lost.
The problem with Molly’s retreat into a fantasy world complete with new daddy and mommy is that, in fact, this fantasy is very much real and dangerously encroaching on the physical space of the “real world.” And so, Ash must gather his gang together and act quickly to save Molly and the world while the rather inept adults muddle about and debate what to do.
The provocative thing about Molly’s fantasy world is that it is directly created by a new, “legendary” Pokémon (#201 for trading card purposes) named Unown, which appears to be some sort of avatar of language. Unown is both singular and multiple; as promotional materials detail, Unown is one Pokémon that has 26 forms, each representing one letter in the Roman alphabet (undoubtedly, the number of forms will vary internationally depending on the dominant language of the market). In this way, Unown can come together in infinite combinations to create infinite possible realities. Indeed, the official website e-card tells that Unown is/are “mysterious Pokémon that have the ability to use psychic energy to create alternate realities.”
Here is language directly responsible for the creation of reality, which is a topic that has had a long philosophical history in world cosmography. For Jewish kabbalists, for instance, this is the pre-lapsarian language of Adam in perfect communication with God. Before the fall, while God gives shape to the living beings that will inhabit the earth, Adam brings them into being through the act of naming—language imparts ontological meaning on the world. After the ejection from Paradise, humans are cut off from this perfect communication through the language of God, and must make do with the imprecise language of man. Pretty heady stuff for a Pokémon movie.
More recently, this philosophical attention to the interplay of language and reality has been given protracted consideration in techno-cultures and the artistic genre that has come to be called, rather generically, cyber-punk. Perhaps its most famous articulation is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which blends ancient Sumerian and Judeo-Christian cosmographies with hacker techno-jargon to reconsider the story of the generative power of language for an increasingly technological age. The binary code language that is the basis of every post-Babel computer language, as any programmer will tell you, is both creative and destructive (what is a computer virus after all but a synthetic, linguistic pathogen?), and is directly responsible for the creation of multiple types of virtual reality. With the advent of VR, the Internet and World Wide Web, MUDs and MOOs, chat rooms, web-rings and so on, the status of “reality” and how language mediates and creates reality have become increasingly complicated.
And so, in Pokémon 3, as in Snow Crash and our own world, we find a sort of ur-language directly responsible for the creation of “alternate realities.” The question is what we do with these realities once we have created them, and this is a question elided by Pokémon 3. In the film there is an easy distinction between the “false” reality of Molly’s fantasy world and the “true” reality of Ash’s. Molly’s world is escapist and psychologically unhealthy and she must be rescued and returned to the traditional world of family and friends, even though Pokémon 3 also unsettles this easy distinction in its own promotion of an alternate reality in which Pokémon really exist, and where things always turn out “right.”
I could go on, but surely you get the idea—Pokémon 3 contributes to the destabilizing of our understanding of reality as much as it tries to shore up traditional notions of the same. All of these musings on the generative power of language and the status of the “real” are surprising and pleasant to find in a Pokémon movie. This is also somewhat unfortunate though, as Pokémon appears to be on the wane (trading cards and Pokémon peripherals are not flying off the shelves as they once were). Just as it was getting interesting.