For 20 years, Pokémon has had the reputation of a cheery kid’s franchise. But under the veneer of Ash and co.’s adventures, there lies one of the most sinister dystopias around. To celebrate Pokémon’s 20th birthday this week (and its newest games), here’s a few reasons as to why the Pokénation is much more terrifying than you realized.
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way: the core of Pokémon is about wild animals being enslaved and then pitted against each other in violent combat for both fun and profit. Not only are these fights vastly popular spectator sports for the public, but the best Pokémon trainers are held in the highest regard and are lauded with titles and prize money. Every little kid dreams of becoming a Pokémon master when they head out on their adventures. Speaking of which...
Ash is only 11 or 12 (more recent protagonists in the games were aged up to be around 14 or 16) when he’s sent off on his merry way by his mom to go be a Pokémon trainer, with nothing but the clothes on his back, some Pokéballs and a Pokédex. He’s basically kicked out of the house to go not just fight wild animals—and let’s bear in mind that there’s some legitimately messed up Pokémon out there in that tall grass—but traverse across an entire country, arid deserts, active volcanoes, treacherous waters, in a bid to be the very best, like no one ever was. If that wasn’t bad enough, this is almost seen as a coming of age, rite of passage thing in the Pokéverse—the protagonist’s parents and other adults throughout the games often fondly recall the days when they too were forced to leave home on a nightmarish survivalist trek.
It’s less obvious in the anime series, but take a look around your average town in the Pokémon games and you come to realize some very odd things. Where are the schools? The hospitals? Government buildings? Financial Institutions? Basic civic planning is worryingly absent from human society, but you can be guaranteed that every town has a Pokécenter, a Pokémart and (almost every town) a Pokémon Gym. The basic needs of the populace don’t seem to exist, but if you want a Pokémon battle, you’re catered for. You’re the only thing catered for.
There’s the occasional mayor of a town in the TV show, but outside of that, there doesn’t actually seem to be any governing bodies for each Pokémon region. So who’s paying for everything? Who pays for infrastructure and highways between towns? Who pays public sector employees like Police Officers and Pokécenter nurses? (And more on them in a bit.)
Considering there’s no real government on the show, and considering how every town is set up to cater to Pokémon battles, the most obvious choice is that each Region’s Elite Four and Gym Leaders are some sort of regional government... which means people rule based on their Pokémon-fighting skill, and nothing else. To paraphrase Monty Python, the ability to know when to deploy Squirtle is no basis for a system of government.
It’s a long running joke in Pokémon that every Pokécenter is staffed by a Nurse Joy, or how every police department is made up of Officer Jennies—but never does anyone stop to question how there are so many of them running about. They can’t be identical twins, as there’s so many of them. Are they cloned creations from the original Joy and Jenny? Androids? Ordinary citizens who undergo plastic surgery to become the idealised poster child of their respective industries? No matter which way you slice it, the answer cannot be good.
Who else is part of the workforce aside from Joy and Jenny? Pokémon, of course. Pokémon are put to task at a variety of jobs: Gogoats are used as a Taxi service in Pokémon X/Y’s Lumiose City. Chanseys are used as medical assistants. Pokémon are members of the Police force. They’re used to perform manual labor, like Rhyhorns and Machamps. Hell, part of the Gym Leader Lieutenant Surge’s backstory is that he served in the Army, flying fighter planes that used Electric Pokémon as a power source, confirming that Pokémon even play a role in the military—in at least a support role, if not as active combatants.
It’s not just that Pokémon are used in this way, it’s that even in these jobs they’re never in a position of power.Chansey reports to Nurse Joy, Officer Jenny deputises Pokémon, Construction Pokémon report to a human site manager. And yet not only do they never get promoted into management, we’ve never actually seen them get paid, either.
It’s pretty obvious that the human societies of the Pokénation are very technologically advanced, even beyond ourselves. They have renewable energy sources (who needs fossil fuels when you’ve got Pokémon to generate power?), commercial-grade holocommunication devices, the list goes on. But the craziest technology is reserved for basically abusing domesticated Pokémon.
As the above video shows, Pokéballs operate by converting a Pokémon, a sentient being, into some sort of digital energy for transportation and storage—just think about the size of a computer we’d need to store the brain functions of a human, and these things are the size of your palm! But while some fan theories believe Pokémon stored in Pokéballs or on home PCs (yup, commercially viable computers can store oodles of living creatures as digital data) are housed in a sort of Star Trek-esque holodeck to keep them happy, there’s evidence to believe that this is not the case, and that Pokémon can still think and react to stimuli within the confines of a Pokéball. They’ve been shown communicating with trainers and receiving commands from inside the ball on multiple occasions, which when think about being disembodied and turned into a still-active nebulous consciousness inside someone’s pocket, that seems horrifying.
So aside from the slavery and the technological abuse, the entire spectrum of relationships between humans and Pokémon is absurd. They’re beloved pets, work colleagues (although clearly below them in this regard), transportation, sportsmen, even a source of food, all at once. How do people even begin to comprehend all of that? Well, that’s because...
Yup. Despite the messed up nature of humanity’s relationship with these powerful creatures, everyone is a-okay with it because from a young age, it’s hammered into people that Pokémon just love to serve the human race. In the very first episode of the anime, Ash’s Pokédex reads an entry on Wild Pokémon states that wild Pokémon are extremely jealous of their domesticated counterparts—supposedly hence why they will attack a trainer’s Pokémon rather than the trainer themselves when you encounter them.
So if we take the tradition of sending every young kid out on their own Pokémon journey as a rite of passage, basically every kid is going to be told that by their Pokédex. And why shouldn’t they trust it? After all, it tells them so many wonderful factoids about Pokémon, this one must be true too. Scientists like Professor Oak influence all these young kids into thinking Pokémon are eager slaves, and anyone who questions that and wants to see Pokémon free—like N and Team Plasma in Pokémon Black/White—are branded criminals on the same level as actual terrorist groups like Team Rocket or Team Magma and Aqua.
But considering all the shit Pokémon have to put up with, maybe they do want it—or at least, over the centuries have come to accept this as their way of life. Which is just as chilling a thought to consider as well.
But here’s the real kicker: This dystopian nation apparently happily co-exists with the rest of our own civilized world. Remember Lieutenant Surge from earlier? Part of his official backstory is that before coming to Kanto he served in the United States military, and he’s referred to as “The Lightning American.” Another Gym Leader, Fantina, speaks French as her native tongue.
These two characters are the only ones so far with confirmed origins from outside the Pokénation, but they confirm that international relationships between it and other countries are good enough to allow immigration—and that the rest of the world is apparently fine with these animal abusing, technologically advanced nutjobs is incredibly depressing to consider.
[A version of this article originally ran on January 6th, 2015.]
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