By Rich Stanton, Laura Kate Dale and David Bash
Tomorrow sees the airing of the 1000th episode of the Pokemon anime. First appearing on our screens in 1999, the TV series follows the adventures of young trainer Ash Ketchum (b’dum tsh) and his unique Pikachu as they traverse the many different regions of the Pokemon world.
The current season is subtitled ‘Sun & Moon - Ultra Adventures’ to tie in with the latest games in the series, and also takes place in the same tropical region of Alola. The episode airs tomorrow at 8:20AM GMT on CITV, and is repeated at 6:00PM. This special episode also features a wedding, it says here.
Naturally, team Kotaku UK’s thoughts turned to… well, to what exactly? The Pokemon anime isn’t a video game, it’s a spinoff product. But perhaps it’s something to do with where your love for Pokemon began which, as it’s a series aimed at children, is often when you’re young. The only thing that kids love as much as games is cartoons, so it’s probably kind of inevitable the two strands are intertwined. Put it like this: every one of us hadn’t just watched the show. We’ve watched a lot of it.
Rich: So the first thing for me with the show, and this is probably the same for everyone, is that theme tune. Wow! Listening to it now, even as a grown man, it still gets me pumped. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve read the words “I wanna be the very best… like no-one ever was” (the opening lyrics) in profiles, or articles, or generally just online. A lot of people I know were into Pokemon as kids, and every one was also into the cartoon. Obviously I don’t watch it these days, but when I saw that 1000th episode milestone… yeah, it takes me back to seeing the world through younger eyes, and wanting to be the very best, like no-one ever was.
Laura: Totally agreed, that theme tune will still periodically get played on a night out, and you just see the whole room full of faces light up ready to sing their hearts out. It just captured that sense of childlike wonder, adventure, mystery and potential in a really contagious way.
David: Yeah. I think nearly everyone I know can recite the lyrics to that song word for word, even now. When you heard that intro-chord, you knew it was time to get hype.
Laura: I grew up watching the show at pretty much the perfect age, born in 1991 I was old enough to have that sense of attachment to the characters in a totally non-cynical way, while being impressionable enough that I really bought into the core branding message that to be the very best took every single piece of memorabilia lol.
Even today, I play Pokemon Go, and I’m unbelievably excited about completing my Kanto Pokedex this upcoming Sunday when I finally catch a Mewtwo.
David: I was a 90's kid too. It was impossible not to get caught up in that perfect marketing storm. Even the “cool” kids were bringing in Pokemon cards and discussing that morning’s episode during lunch. It was inescapable. But I think what really glued it all together was the anime. Suddenly these dorky little sprites were on the TV screen, full of colour and life.
The art style in the original series was unlike anything else I was watching at the time. Those hand-painted backgrounds in the anime were gorgeous, and played a key role in how I imagined the world in my Game Boy cartridge would really look. The graphics were wonderful, sure, but 8-bit can only convey so much, you know? Especially on the OG brick Game Boy's screen.
Aside from the scenery though, the colour and line work was pure 90's animation kino. Do you remember that neat intro in the first episode that was a frame-for-frame copy of the intro movie from Pokemon Red/Blue? it shows the same pixelated Pokemon battling each other before transitioning into this beautiful fully-animated sequence. That blew my mind as a 10-year-old!
Rich: The OG brick Game Boy? God I’m old. The visual style was probably the first Japanese-style cartoon I’d ever seen, and that was definitely part of the impact. I think most kids who are really into games are Japanophiles in some way too, even if that only means they have some odd ideas about what a wonderful heaven Japan must be – which gave the cartoon this kind of exotic flavour, at least at first. Some people credit it with popularising anime in the west, which may be a bit much, but there’s no denying it had a role.
David: It was definitely one of the earliest memories I have of being exposed to Japanese animation. The humour was dry, and at times hilarious – something that was lost as the series found its footing and took less chances in the later episodes– and the show would frequently hit that perfect sweet spot between humour, drama and emotion (Ash and Pikachu fighting off those Spearow still gives me chills). Though it never breached dark themes too heavily, Pokemon did tackle some heavy subject matter when you consider its primary audience. When Ash released his Butterfree back into the wild, and that montage played of their journey together from back when it was just a Caterpie? Man, that still gets me.
The quality of the dub was fantastic too, with Jesse and James in particular being a highlight. Their constant, slightly-more-grown-up references, goofy dressing-up and 4th-wall-breaking was charming – you couldn't help but root for them a little bit.
Rich: Team Rocket were amazing villains, and unlike a lot of other cartoons were more rounded characters – I actually looked forward to their cameos more than anything else. They turn up with all these threats, and sometimes things look bad, but are fundamentally clumsy, cowardly and maybe not all that bad at heart. I adore how their little intro would change over different appearances:
Prepare for trouble! - Make it double
To protect to world from devastation - To Unite all people within our nation
To denounce the evil of truth and love - To extend our reach to the stars above..
Team Rocket blasts off at the speed of light!
Surrender now or prepare to fight!
Meowth that’s right!
Laura: Rich, you’ve now got me thinking of the spin off CD, which had an extended version of that track.
Rich: To eBay!
Laura: Team Rocket's rockin'
Talkin' trouble, walkin' trouble
Double trouble big trouble
And the troubles gonna follow you
We're gonna capture Pikachu
There was even a love song where Misty was professing her love to Ash that seriously was the basis of seven year old Laura’s mental image of how romance worked haha.
David: One thing that sticks out as weird was how Ash knew basically nothing about Pokemon training. I mean, let's set the scene here: this is a kid who desperately wants to be a Pokemon master – it's his driving obsession. His father was a trainer, he watches competitive Pokemon matches on telly, everything in his room has a Pokemon motif. Yet he doesn't know that Pokemon (mostly) only say their own name? Or that you should weaken a Pokemon before trying to capture it? It was bizarre, to say the least.
Laura: Yeah, that did stand out as a bit odd haha.
I was sort of the opposite of Ash, as a kid who grew up on the autism spectrum, Pokemon was the first piece of media I really remember obsessively devouring stats, data, and numerical information for. It was a key part of me making friends as a kid, knowing all the stats about Pokemon so I could tell people how to progress in the games, or what to expect in the show.
Rich: It made me obsessive about getting hold of Pokemon Yellow. I had Pokemon Blue, which I’d played to death, and then some time later Nintendo did the ‘Yellow’ version of the game – which was functionally identical to the originals, barring the crucial detail that you got a Pikachu at the start that would follow you on the map. I wanted it for so long and when I got it played through an old game all over like it was brand new—entirely because I wanted to feel like Ash.
Laura: I think part of the magic was similar to why Pokemon Go took off when it released, this idea that suddenly as a kid we were imagining a world where around every corner was some secret to discover, some cool skill that would make us cooler, some new place with things we had not even imagined waiting to be found. It added a real sense of mystery and wonder to the world at large.
And yeah, totally agreed, there was something magical about getting to feel like the hero from the show, that really did make replaying a game over feel fresh. All it took was being able to turn around and check out Pikachu’s facial expression.
I even had the little Pikachu Tamagotchi they released, so Pikachu could go everywhere with me.
David: Turning around to see how Pikachu was feeling was a game changer.
Laura: One early episode of that show’s first season that really stands out when I think back, was Episode 11: Charmander – The Stray Pokemon, which was a really big help for me as a kid coming to terms with parental abandonment, and a great example of what you were saying David about the show touching on tough themes in its early seasons.
I was maybe seven years old when the episode first aired, and as a child of divorce, I was struggling to understand the idea that my father didn’t seem to care about keeping a connection with me. As a kid, that sort of complex emotion is really tough to process.
And then this episode of Pokemon comes on, about a Charmander who’s abandoned by his trainer, and refuses to give up hope that they’ve been abandoned, because this is someone that’s meant to care for and protect them.
Even when Charmander hears his trainer talking negatively about him, he still struggles to accept the reality that someone who is meant to care for him and protect him wouldn’t care enough to come back.
That episode really had a strong impact on me as a kid, to the extent that even as an adult it retains that sense of impact. It told a story of learning how to process and move on from abandonment, and Charmander ended up becoming one of my favourite Pokemon as a result. Watching them grow and become strong in their own right was a really special thing for me as a kid.
Rich: It’s funny how huge an example like that can seem to a child – an adult might feel sad for the Charmander, but I doubt they would inhabit that experience in the same way.
David: I think this is one of the greatest things about the anime. It dealt with some pretty intense themes – loss, friendship, growing up – but they were dealt with in a way that let the viewer interpret it how they chose to. It resonated with a lot of people in a lot of different ways.
Laura: Yeah, I think what the show did so well early on is it really tailored its emotionally tough episodes towards a children’s perspective of a topic. It really made an effort to show problems experienced from the perspectives of essentially children, and showed from that perspective that there was hope and ways to move forward. It tailored the stories it was telling in ways that worked for the audience of children, rather than any parents watching.
Rich: While my experience isn’t as profound as that, I do recall being quite embarrassed that the Pokemon Movie made me cry in front of my little sister. I was hoisted by my own petard. By the time the movie came out I was in my mid teens, and obviously watching the Pokemon cartoon now seemed a bit ‘uncool’ to my idiot brain (I never stopped playing the games). Luckily one of my younger sisters was into Pokemon so I was able to keep watching the cartoon by hanging out with her, and when the movie came out I took her to the cinema to see it.
There’s a bit at the end of the first one where, basically, they pretend that Ash has died. Mewtwo I think the baddy is? Anyway the beams between him and Mew turn Ash to stone. He isn’t dead of course but suddenly I’m blubbing in the pictures, racked with sobs, to the extent people around are looking and even my wee sister’s eyebrow is raised.
Then ofc it all works out. Laura corrected my recollection of the movie’s events and tells me, perfectly enough, that tears bring Ash back to life. Triumph! Dried my eyes, walked out, thought I’d got away with it, never dreamed I’d be confessing it on the internet two decades later.
Laura: There is a bit where Pikachu gets punched in the face over and over by the clone Pikachu, as they exhaustedly cry and keep whimpering “Pikachu” over and over, that was pretty dang sad too. That movie got me!
Rich: OHMIGOD Laura has the script!
Laura: *with a flourish*
Nurse Joy: [watching the Pokémon battle with the other Trainers] Pokémon aren't meant to fight; not like this. It's useless. What can come out of it?
Neesha: Nothing, but pain.
Brock: Why can't Mewtwo understand it's not right to force Pokémon to battle this way?
Misty: They're all living creatures. This just proves that fighting is wrong.
[Brock's Vulpix and it's clone fall and stop battling in exhaustion]
James: [he, Jessie and Meowth are watching the Pokémon and their clones fighting] I was prepared for trouble, but not for this.
Jessie: Make that double, for me.
James: Now I can see how horrible fighting really is.
Meowth: You mean, we don't have to fight each other? But how can I trust you? You was born different.
Meowth: Hmm? [looks up at the moon as well] You're right. We do have a lot in common. The same Earth, the same air, the same sky.
Meowth: Maybe if we started looking at what's the same, instead of always looking at what's different, well, who knows?
For a show about being the best at making animals fight, that movie sure went in hard on the making animals fight is wrong message.
They also erased the characters memories at the end, hence Ash going home, forgetting that animals shouldn’t fight, and continuing to make animals fight for him.
Rich: Deepest lore.
Anyway – 1000 episodes! It’s not something to sniff at. Folks we’ve got a lot of words here, so I’m gonna ask you both to finish up with your favourite memory of the Pokemon anime.
David: There's definitely some great moments to choose from. I think my favourite episode was Pikachu's Goodbye. Basically, Pikachu comes into contact with a bunch of other Pikachu, and temporarily leaves Ash. Pikachu is so happy playing with others of its kind that Ash thinks maybe Pikachu would be better off staying behind—that maybe they should part ways.
After some Team Rocket antics, Ash tells Pikachu to stay and goes to leave, tears in his eyes, as a montage of their time together plays out. Of course, they end up leaving together in the end, but as a kid I remember this scene being really moving. It showed the power of friendship, the spirit of adventure, and it cemented my choice of future career. Forget being an astronaut, or a footballer. School – who needs it? I wanted to be a Pokemon trainer. Throw me into the woods at 10 years old with nothing but an electric rat and some rubber washing-up gloves and I'm good.
Laura: Aside from the Movie, and the Charmander episode I mentioned above, I think my favourite episode of that show is probably Showdown at Dark City, that episode where for no apparent reason Pikachu fell in love with a bottle of ketchup, and has his heart broken when Scyther breaks it as a setup for the fact Scyther don’t like red or something. I was a bit of a ketchup-obsessed kid, had it on everything without exception, and learning Pikachu was equally in love with the condiment was weirdly important. I was seven, I must be forgiven the odd taste in episodes I had.
Rich: And condiments LOL. Haha OK I’m gonna go with the last episode of the first series, where Ash’s rival Gary Oak returns for a showdown. What I really remember about it is that the fight between Pikachu and Eevee blew my mind – I imagine if I looked it up now I’d be disappointed at the reality haha – and that Ash ultimately loses. This was like the climax of the entire show! In the games you obviously have the ongoing thing with the rival and it felt like the perfect thing for the cartoon to wind up with the rival battle – but it kind of impresses me even now that, instead of giving Ash an easy win, it’s all about how far he has to go. Most cartoons, the baddy gets tonked in the last episode then escapes somehow for the next season. In this one, Ash fails to beat his rival, feels like he’s barely achieved anything, and even Gary’s kind of the same. They’re battle-weary and tired. Naturally the episode ends on a much more optimistic note, but yeah – loved it.
Feel free to share your fondest memories of the Pokemon anime in the comments – we'd love to read them!