I’m not sure if it’s correct to call this post a reassessment of Pokemon: The First Movie – MewTwo Strikes Back as, I’m sure, very few people have assessed it in the first place. It’s not a film which lends itself easily to analysis of any kind. It’s not a film of any particular depth. It’s not a film designed for anything except flashing bright lights at children for a merciful hour or two while the television babysits them.
The premiss of the film is hardly complicated. A young boy, Ash Ketchum, is permitted to torture animals in an environment completely devoid of parental oversight.
Don’t get me wrong. I freaking love Pokemon in a totally unironic way. It is hilarious fun. I doubt I could name more than a few dozen, but I still love carting out my regular batch of ferocious beasts to go on wacky adventures consisting mostly of making punk kids choke on their arrogance. Here’s my team from Diamond:
Although I sometimes swap out Fearow for Shedinja for the lulz. Oh, and Abra is my favourite Pokemon.
Pokemon: The First Movie (MewTwo Strikes Back) follows a plot quite similar to whichever of the godzillion-billion episodes of the television show have been produced: Ash Ketchum has a bunch of animals which fight on his behalf against the animals from other unsupervised children called ‘trainers’.
The focus of the film is on a Pokemon by the name of ‘MewTwo’. MewTwo is a Pokemon that was developed by scientists in a laboratory (as MewTwo puts it, he was ‘not born a Pokemon, but created’). The scientists used the genetic material from a very rare and powerful Pokemon called Mew. Instead of outright cloning Mew, the scientists are directed by a shadowy figure called ‘Giovanni’ to make the clone more powerful. Pictures might help.
This is Mew:
These are the scientists:
And Mew’s DNA plus these dark-eyed scientists equals MewTwo, who looks like this:
Already, I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about writing blog posts about Pokemon. Never go searching Google for images. Oh, God. My eyes. The goggles do nothing.
From the moment that MewTwo awakes, he suffers a major existential crisis and hideous narcissism. He blows up the laboratory in a rage. He’s approached by Giovanni who offers to help MewTwo learn how to control his powers (using pretty fierce technology). After a while, MewTwo figures he can do better without Giovanni’s help and blows up the second laboratory in favour of creating an evil lair in an island fortress.
Thus begins the overlap between MewTwo and Ash Ketchum. Ash is out torturing animals with his friends, Squinty and Ranga, when he receives an invitation from MewTwo to come to a Pokemon tournament in the island fortress. Unwilling to let a challenge slip him by, Ash sets out with his friends to the island fortress, sailing on the backs of their Pokemon to cross the treacherous waters. It turns out that MewTwo has tricked everybody, and intends to gather up all the Pokemon caught by the trainers for the purposes of obtaining their genetic material. MewTwo needs the genetic material in order to create an army of cloned Pokemon which will help him overthrow the human race.
Meanwhile, Mew — the adorable creature from the very start of this tangled plot — has been awakened by MewTwo’s tampering with nature and comes to confront him. MewTwo’s army of cloned Pokemon fight the ‘original’ Pokemon while Mew fights MewTwo. The battle comes to an end when Ash puts himself between Mew and MewTwo’s kamehameha psychic wave blasts, turning him to stone. Fortunately, all the Pokemon start crying and Ash is healed by their tears. MewTwo realises the error of his ways and wiped the memory of everybody involved. Roll credits.
It’s batshit insane and clearly trying to push a message about tolerance: it doesn’t matter how you came into the world, your personhood is all that matters and, as such, we shouldn’t fight with each other. One character, Meowth, has a short soliloquy explaining the moral of the story.
On the other hand, this overt message obscures potentially more meaningful messages hidden in the subtext of the film. What are the socio-political structures of the Pokemon world which give meaning to the individual lives of both the ‘trainers’ and the Pokemon? Can we take them for granted?
Let’s start with the biggest issue. Something is fundamentally weird about a world where getting animals to fight for entertainment is considered a healthy activity for unsupervised children.
What makes it even more strange is that these animals are clearly capable of communicating complex desires. These creatures are not merely pets. MewTwo, a Pokemon, is capable of having a fullblown existential crisis. If Descartes had been confronted with Pokemon, he would have struggled to designate them as mere automata. Sure, there seems to be a hierarchy at play: MewTwo is clearly more developed than, say, MagiKarp. Even so, the existence of MagiKarp doesn’t make it easier to deal with the clearly rational beasties.
There are two philosophers who might be able to help us out here. In Aristotle’s world, there was a natural hierarchy to the world. The gods were right at the top of this cosmic order with Athenian/Greek males right beneath them. I forget the exact order, but women, foreigners, and slaves make it on the hierarchy shortly before animals and plants. Perhaps the Pokemon world is a rigid interpretation of Aristotle’s cosmology. Humans exist at the top of the cosmic order with Pokemon of all kinds existing lower down the chain. In Aristotle’s cosmology, the world is designed with a particular end (telos) in mind: humans living happy lives in city-states (poleis). Man is by nature an animal of the polis, he claims. What would he claim about humans living in the Pokemon world? I think he’d be happy with their world: humans assume a role of authority (‘trainers’) who help Pokemon to realise fully their natures (which are strictly designated into categories). Indeed, some creatures can only realise their highest natures (‘evolution’) through the intervention of humans (for example, by ‘trading’ them or exposing them to particular materials).
But Aristotle, I think, would struggle to understand the Pokemon’s natural inclination to obey humans. For that, we’d need to look at the ideal world of Confucius. Confucius thought there were natural relations between particular positions within the social framework. Sons had a duty towards fathers, who had a duty to the Emperor, who had a duty to the Gods. Instead of just being in an order of creation, Confucius introduced the idea of duty and obligation. We are not merely speaking of a natural order within material objects, but a natural order within social structure. Confucius would be right at home in the Pokemon world. Pokemon have a duty to obey their trainers, and trainers protect the Pokemon. We see problems arise when this order is disrupted (Pokemon like Charizard disobeying Ash, for example).
MewTwo helps us to explore this problem of the natural order through his identity crisis. MewTwo can’t work out where he fits in this cosmic order. Again, he was ‘not born a Pokemon, but created’. Giovanni responds to this identity crisis not by asserting his own place in the cosmic order (with the humans above Pokemon) but by approaching MewTwo as an equal: Giovanni offers to be partners with MewTwo rather than his ‘trainer’.
Meowth’s soliloquy towards the end of the movie, in light of this observation of MewTwo’s role, is therefore not a ‘We should all be tolerant of each other, regardless of how we’re born’ lesson, but a ‘Pokemon, regardless of how they come into the world, are subordinate to humans’.
MewTwo also explores the rigidity of this cosmic order. Not only does his creation set him apart (although not really, as there are plenty of Pokemon who are ‘created’ and not born), he also claims (with some justification) that he is the strongest Pokemon. This, of course, invokes the idea of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (‘superman’). In Thus Spake Zarathustra, the superman is set up as a goal for humanity but Nietzsche was, by this point, so riddled with syphilis that he could barely think straight. Although he himself rejected the racist interpretation of his work, it seems fairly obvious that Nietzsche’s ideal human was a male and something like an aristocrat. This feeds in nicely to Pokemon: The First Movie. Here we have a creature, MewTwo, who would fulfill most of Nietzsche’s understandings of the Ubermensch… except that he was born/created in the incorrect caste. MewTwo cannot transcend the ordinary constraints of the cosmic order. No matter how rational, how powerful, or how driven by the Will to Power, MewTwo’s place is amongst the Pokemon and not as an Ubermensch.
Perhaps I’m jumping ahead of myself. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch was a character who would be able to shed the moral hangups of his upbringing (a bizarre parable involving a baby turning into a camel before transforming into a dragon). Does MewTwo satisfy this requirement?
MewTwo doesn’t just claim that which he desires. A feature of his evil lair is a battle arena. Before he takes the Pokemon, he goes through the process of challenging Ash to a duel according to the rules of the battle arena. Although MewTwo wants to be the ruler, he still subjugates himself to the rules of his society.
MewTwo’s value judgements are also based on the prevailing ideology of the dominant human caste. When MewTwo confronts Ash’s Charizard, MewTwo scornfully notes that Charizard is ‘poorly trained’. The prevailing belief is that a Pokemon is stronger if it subjugates its will to that of the trainer. In this thread, MewTwo adopts the value judgements of the dominant ideology as his own, showing that he hasn’t managed to escape the constraints of his society but is just in a state of confusion regarding them.
But MewTwo is not the only person who transgresses the limitations of his caste. As a trainer, Ash is always one step removed from the danger of the challenges that he accepts. At the start of the film, a thuggish looking guy appears and challenges Ash to a battle. Ash accepts gleefully, fully aware that any consequences of accepting the challenge will be worn by his Pokemon and not by him. But at the end of the film, Ash throws himself between Mew and MewTwo in order to stop them from fighting.
The Pokemon, who are the oppressed class of rational and powerful agents (seriously, those Pokemon could just go feral and wipe out the human race), see the trainer injured by the acts of two powerful Pokemon. Instead of rejoicing that there’s one less oppressor in the Pokemon world, the Pokemon weep for Ash. Their sorrow restores Ash to his former place as an oppressor. In this way, the Pokemon most clearly represent the way ideology disconnects people from the immediacy of their desires. MewTwo is attempting to liberate Pokemon, but they reject his liberation and mourn the passing of the oppressor. In turn, the oppressor’s position is maintained by the Pokemon’s feelings of obligation and duty towards him. He needs their sorrow. He is a monster.
There’s lots of interesting stuff going on in Pokemon. Why do the Pokemon not have individual identities? Why are they only known by their taxonomic classification? Is this a way for the humans of the Pokemon world to maintain a detachment from the Pokemon and to avoid their obvious rationality?
And why are all the police officers and nurses clones of each other? Just as the Pokemon lack identities, so too do the functionaries of the Pokemon world.
Is it ethical to eat meat in the Pokemon world when every animal is clearly a highly rational creature?
Ah, this is fun.