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Some thoughts and a Top 10 of the first season of the Pokémon anime, the Indigo League.

August 11, 2014

NOTE: If anybody actually reads this and wonders what it has to do with a Futurama blog, and what happened to that original purpose, I’ll explain briefly: My laptop disc drive has, for some reason, refused to play DVDs for over a year now. I could get it fixed but I can’t be bothered and it still plays other discs without a problem. Given the fact that my time to write reviews of Futurama has drastically shrunk anyway, the prospect of doing them using another disc player is not something I’m considering.


Over the past few months I’ve been working my way through a childhood classic: the first season of the Pokémon anime, officially titled the Indigo League. OK, so, not a classic in the sense of Alice in Wonderland, but a huge part of my childhood and the foundation of my obsessive love for the Pokémon franchise which has only grown stronger (and more informed) over the years. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve been able to return to the earliest adventures of one Ash Ketchum, naive, young wannabee Pokémon master.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing to define. Often people will say they “loved ‘x’ when they were a kid’, but there are so many things (the Pokémon video games being the best example) I loved as a child which I have never stopped loving. You can’t really feel nostalgic about something which you haven’t actually left behind. But anyway, other than a few parts of episodes of Diamond and Pearl, I haven’t religiously watched the anime since the first few Generation 3 episodes and I certainly haven’t watched the original season since it first aired.

Nostalgia can go several ways. You could find out something is as good as you remembered/hoped or you could have your hopes/memories destroyed. This show is one of those things that I’ve always seen people classify as the latter, so I went into it with very low expectations. The common mockery of the show – that each episode is just “Ash and co. meet a new Pokémon, Team Rocket try to capture said Pokémon and Pikachu, and are beaten” – hung in my mind.

But I need not have feared. It wasn’t just not terrible, it was actually rather good. In fact it was incredibly self-aware, witty and at times downright clever in its writing.  There really are not that many filler episodes in the grand scheme of things: about 15-20 in 72 episodes, depending on how you see it, which is amazing considering what the show would become, and most of them are not exactly bad.


The characters, usually Misty, frequently post out that Ash is a lazy idiot who, although he cares deeply for his Pokémon and his quest, is incredibly lucky, lacks skill and knowledge, and is overly reliant on his unusually powerful and undaunted Pikachu. He actually only obtains three of his eight gym badges by beating the registered Gym Leader, and defeats only one of those at the first attempt. In the end, Ash loses because his Charizard – his strongest Pokémon – doesn’t respect him. Pokémon is not generally known for its pathos, but this is a strong example: as a Charmander, Charizard was abandoned by his original trainer, who saw him as too weak. Ash – whose strongest trait has always been to love, and see the potential, of all Pokémon regardless of their strength – rescues and adopts it. It quickly becomes incredibly powerful, evolves twice, and then forgets its bond with Ash, becoming like its first trainer, deeming Ash too weak to command it.

Yet in all this Ash still manages to get to the Top 16 of the Indigo League and loses with a weakened team and does so with grace and humility. He achieves this in the face of frequent criticism, doubting and mockery from many people, especially his rival Gary (whom he betters in terms of league placing). He does learn from his mistakes and does, throughout the Pokémon League especially, employ some excellent strategy that few would consider, showing great love and faith for his Pokémon (especially the hitherto unused Krabby and Muk). Ash initially struggles to accept his defeat (“Friends to the End”) but is soon resolutely renewed in his quest to be the greatest Pokémon master of all.

To have your main character lose in his stated central goal was both a brave and highly responsible decision by Takeshi Shudo and the other writers. It would have been easy to write Ash as brilliant from the start, and to have him win in the end regardless (fluked or not). But that would not have been believable. It’s all very well and good telling kids that they can win and do anything and be the best, but it’s far more accurate to say that there will likely be someone better than you, whatever it is you do; what matters far more than winning is doing your best, caring for those around you and the journey, experience, knowledge and fun you gain and have along the way to your goal.

For an anime spin-off of a video game, Shudo really did genuinely care about the story, characters and development. It’s a shame that such a focus has been lost with the near-cyclical re-booting that comes with each new generation.

Anyway, here’s my Top 10(ish)…


10. “The Fourth Round Rumble” – I wanted to put a Pokémon League episode on here because, although most of the episodes are nothing special (especially once Ritchie turns up) the overall arc is a well crafted spectacle that justifies the hype the season built up to. This battle is the best of the League for Ash, as he displays real skill and understanding to triumph against a wily opponent. He survives a surprise near-sweep from a Bellsprout with the first battle appearance of his Muk, who along with Kingler in previous rounds, proves its worth despite never being used before. As this list will demonstrate, I love Team Rocket, and this episode contains another great moment for them, as they temporarily abandon their criminality to run a gift stall… and actually do far, far better than anything else they’ve attempted (although they’re actually, unknowingly, selling counterfeits made by Meowth). Their compulsive urge to steal Pokémon remains though, but for once they are actually stopped by some effective policing before they can do anything. This is the only time.


9. “The Pi-Kahuna” – Ash nearly gets run over and then nearly drowns. A man with a magic Pikachu saves him. This man dreams of surfing “Humunga-Dunga”, a mythical giant wave that his mentor alone has succeeded in conquering. He’s failed twice before and is now pretty middle-aged, but he and his Pikachu try one last time and, of course, succeed and he gets to put his flag (did he have that with him all the time? He wasn’t aware the wave was about to come?) in the top of a big rock. It’s filler, nothing of any consequence happens, and it has nothing much to actually do with Pokémon, but it’s a fun, simple, one-off story. And it spawned an entire mini-game in Pokémon Yellow.


8. “Holy Matrimony!” – James is actually the heir to his wealthy parent’s vast fortune and fled an arranged marriage to an insane dominatrix. Who knew? Through “The School of Hard Knocks”, “The Bridge Bike Gang”, “Snow Way Out” and “Go West Young Meowth”, the show’s resident criminal incompetents are probably its most developed characters, and this is the finest – and funniest – example. That first bit wasn’t a joke, by the way, that’s exactly what the episode is about. And did I mention that James’ parents entrap him into returning to his family home by faking their deaths? Or that his betrothed – Jessebelle – looks identical to Jessie but with a Southern accent? Or that James claims he himself died as a child in a harsh Dickensian winter, despite clearly being alive? Or the dominatrix part? Jessie and Meowth thinking they have invisibility suits? Or the dominatrix part (seriously, look at what’s in the basement!)? One of many, ahem, ‘hints’ throughout the series that James may prefer the company of men, this episode is insane and I love it.


7. “Showdown at the Poké Corral” – Great title pun. And a fun little episode. After returning home to ‘prepare’  for the Pokémon League, Ash goes to Oak’s lab. The lab is my favourite anime location: it’s a beautiful spectacle and a much nicer idea for where your Pokémon get sent that the PC Storage System, Oak’s narration of his daily routine is great stuff and we learn the other two trainers who sent off on the same day as Ash and Gary couldn’t cut it and returned home. It’s nice to see Ash’s old Pokémon whenever they go back (apart from Butterfree and Pidgeot, why oh why did you release Pidgeot? Just tell it to take all the Pidgeys and Pidgeottos to the lab!). Gary is also here and he and Ash continue their rivalry but, in a neat bit of restraint which will continue until the Johto Pokémon League (the ‘should have been finale’) they don’t actually battle. Meanwhile, Mewtwo is shown destroying and escaping from Team Rocket HQ in the final tie-in with the first movie. Giovanni doesn’t really seem to care that much that this super-powerful and dangerous Pokémon is free and presumably just killed hundreds of his employees and instead uses the opportunity to talk to Jessie and James (who had been planning on quitting). They go to raid Oak’s lab, but Ash’s completely forgotten (and in the West, never before acknowledged) Tauros save the day. And then Ash has to mend a fence.


6. “Pokémon – I Choose You!” – It’s the first episode, but it’s also a very good one. Both funny and emotional, it details the very first day of Ash’s Pokémon journey. He snoozes, he loses; he rocks up late to Oak’s lab in his PJs (nice responsible parenting from Delia in not waking him up, probably off with Oak); he gets his first mocking from Gary (“That’s Mr Gary to you!”); Oak lets him attempt to open three empty Pokéballs he thinks have the starter Pokémon in whilst just standing there passively (why does Oak have these random balls? Why does he invite four trainers to get their starters but only have three on offer? Welcome to the World of Pokémon!); he gets a disobedient electric mouse-rat called Pikachu which constantly tries to murder him; he fails to catch a Pidgey, gets robbed by a Rattata and enrages a flock of Spearow. He falls in a river; he steals some girl’s bike; he attempts to “capture and defeat” the Spearow, a.k.a. let the Spearow’s kill him to save Pikachu’s life. Pikachu decides Ash might be worth saving and massacres the Spearow with a powerful Thunder attack. Ash and Pikachu see Ho-oh over two years before it would actually appear as an official Pokémon in the video games. A legend is born.


5. “Battle Aboard the St. Anne”/”Pokémon Shipwreck” – The show’s first two-parter (and it’s sort of a three-parter, but we’ll see that later) and the most genuinely tense and perilous story of the series. Ash and co. enjoy a free, luxury cruise where nothing can possi-bly go wrong! Until Ash trades his Butterfree for some creepy old guy’s Raticate (but gets it back later). And then the whole cruise is revealed to be a Team Rocket scam to steal a lot of trainer’s Pokémon (the real Team Rocket, not just Jessie and James). The plan relied on nobody putting up a fight, though, which obviously doesn’t happen, and Team Rocket are swiftly defeated. Meanwhile, James is conned out of all of our TR trio’s life savings for a worthless Magikarp. Then everything goes all Titanic as the Captain apparently forgot to do anything during the terrorist incident and a storm is about to doom them all. With no intention of going down with the ship, he bails off, as does everyone else. Apart from our heroes (and villains)! As cliffhangers go, having your main characters unconscious on a sinking ship, with absolutely nobody realizing they are still there is pretty dark for a kid’s show. Everybody has to work together to escape, with a highly informed Misty getting to take the lead. It’s exciting and it’s neat to see Pokémon used in situations other than battling. Ash and co. manage to escape the wreck and magically acquire a raft. Team Rocket, lacking a water Pokémon, have been left behind. (“Whoever said beauty doesn’t last, must have been thinking of us!/I’ll always remember what a wonderful dresser you were!/So will I!”) But wait! Magikarp! James’ smugness as he remembers the fish that ruined everything may actually save them is perhaps his finest moment. Of course, it can’t swim, but eventually manages to flop its way to the surface, by which point TR as basically half dead, and so convincing Ash and co try to throw their ‘corpses’ back down and think they’re zombies when the wake up! Magikarp evolves into Gyarados and gets revenge on his cruel master James and it, and a bunch more, Dragon Rage everyone off into the night…Another, really quite dark, cliffhanger, which will be resolved… (see no. 2)

Also, I love that Ash, Misty and Brock’s presumed deaths are announced on national TV, and then when they meet Delia and Oak two episodes later in “Beauty and the Beach”, neither apparently have even the slightest inkling that anything has happened, or are too ‘busy’ behind Ash’s back to care whether he’s dead (it’s so obvious as to basically be confirmed; they are always together and usually going on ‘holiday’ together as well).


4. “A Chansey Operation” – in the traditional sense ‘filler’, as nothing of importance happens, but it’s probably the funniest episode of the season. Now, the aftermath of a crash involving a truck filled with Pokémon might not seem like a plot ripe for comedy but this is a children’s show, so have no fear. Basically, due to Ash’s negligence (he’s asleep on bench during the day like a drunk, for some reason) Pikachu nearly chokes to death on an apple. The closest medical facility is a people hospital. There, seemingly, the only staff member present is a Dr. Doug Ross expy called Dr Proctor, who agrees to treat Pikachu only because he’s attracted to the 10-year old Misty. When he has to treat the crash victims, he ropes in the gang (and those responsible, Team Rocket of course) and some Chansey to help, but spends all the time moaning about it being the end of his shift, using superglue to cure basically every condition, hitting on Misty and Jessie and Nurse Joy, before accidentally impaling himself with a vial of anesthetic. It also includes one of Brock’s best lines; after seeing Proctor’s pathetic attempts to chat up Nurse Joy he bluntly states: “I don’t like this guy, he sounds like me!” Brilliant.


3. “Electric Shock Showdown” – This is the best example of an episode showing the series’ main themes. At this point in the series Ash’s need to prove himself was still very high. He didn’t actually properly beat Brock or Misty so this was a chance to show he did have what it takes. He goes to battle Lt Surge, a brash, bullying Gym Leader who has clogged the Vermillion City Pokémon Centre with defeated Pokémon. Rather than attempting to use or catch another Pokémon, perhaps one with basic type advantage, like, say, Brock’s Onix, which he has seen is not affected by electricity, Ash forces his absolutely terrified Pikachu to fight the taunting Surge’s more powerful Raichu. It’s a great battle, in a dark, floodlit, atmospheric gym as Pikachu refuses to give in despite receiving an absolute curb stomping. While recovering, Pikachu refuses to evolve, wanting to prove that unevolved Pikachu can still be strong (thank God Pichu didn’t exist yet). With Team Rocket, moved by Pikachu’s resoluteness, deciding to cheer them on, Pikachu uses his better speed and agility to triumph over the bulkier Raichu. And then Surge is suddenly really nice.


2. “Island of the Giant Pokémon” – A classic. Having survived the sinking of the St. Anne, the gang wash up on a seemingly deserted island, but Ash’s Pokémon have been separated from him. It’s the only time we get to hear what the Pokémon are saying – with the aid of subtitles – and it’s both hilarious and an excellent insight into their characters and feelings towards their relatively new trainer. Squirtle jokes that the gang got eaten, Pikachu describes Brock and Misty as “those guys” and Bulbasaur’s distrust of humans continues, as he assumes they’ve been abandoned. We also get to see Koffing and Ekans undying love for Jessie and James. And Bulbasaur and Meowth get drunk. Both Pokémon and trainers soon discover that the island is actually home to a number of giant Pokémon who have nothing to do but attempt to murder everyone. Chasing and screaming ensues. It’s a neat mystery plot because – spoilers – it turns out the giant Pokémon are actually the robot attraction of the Pokémon Land amusement park owned by, of all people, Giovanni. It will now have to close because Ash and co. have trashed it. But the highlight? Perhaps the most pathetic moment in Team Rocket’s history, having to collect call Giovanni and then, due to their seemingly obsessive-compulsive need to repeat it, beginning their motto to introduce themselves to their own boss. Hearing the distorted backing track through the phone on Giovanni’s end is probably the most wonderfully absurd moment of the series. Giovanni, obviously, has no time for this crap and hangs up. (Incidentally, as another example of the self-aware writing at this stage, there are only about 10 times in the whole season where the TR motto is not interrupted or ignored.)


1. “Riddle Me This”/”Volcanic Panic” – Another two-parter. Ash and co. arrive on Cinnabar Island, as Ash searches for his penultimate badge. Of course, Gary is here first, but for once he hasn’t already beaten the gym leader: the gym has been closed down and the island is now a colossal tourist trap. What follows is the gang’s amusingly desperate attempts to find a room, while being pursued by a riddle-loving, moderately bi-polar old hippie. The riddles bamboozle Ash, while the hippie complains about the tourists like they’re some kind of infectious bacteria… before revealing that he himself operates a hotel… and then that he is actually the former Gym Leader: Blaine. After some solid Team Rocket antics, plus one of the most bafflingly, seemingly stereotypically er “Japanese” scenes in the franchise (it involves a Hot Spring… I’ll leave it at that) Blaine accepts Ash’s challenge.

What follows is, in my view, the coolest gym battles of the series. Or rather, hottest, because it takes place inside a volcano! At least, the first one does, because, yes, as with Surge, Ash loses his first attempt. He does put up a good fight (actually attempting to use type advantage with Squirtle!) But in the end Blaine’s hulking Magmar proves too strong. The music as Magmar approaches Pikachu is my single favourite anime track (aside from the main theme); it really conveys the danger as the hopelessly outgunned Pikachu faces the choice between running head first into the scalding Magmar, or slipping into the boiling volcanic depths below. Blaine manages to trump Surge as both amusing, honourable and menacing in the right quantities. In part 2, we witness one of the most pun-ishing scenes ever, as Team Rocket attempt to capture Magmar with a freeze-blaster, the erupting volcano being plugged with rocks (I’m no scientist, but…?) before Blaine agrees to rematch Ash. Charizard has finally found another opponent he deems worthy of his challenge, and then proceeds to beat the ever-living shit out of Magmar. Outstanding.


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