Yesterday, apropos of seemingly nothing, a tiny voice deep in the folds of my brain squeaked at me: “Pika-pi,” it said. “Pika, pika-chu.” Well-conditioned late-’90s child that I am, I was compelled to answer the call: I had to consume some Pokémon.
It was only after I was eight episodes into the original series that I realized (no, really, I am not making this up for dramatic effect): the next day — today — was the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon pilot airing in the US That “Pika-pi” has been drilling into my skull for two decades, years after I’d stopped giving a damn about new Pokémon games (sorry, friends, if I’m gonna “catch ‘em all,” 250 of them is my limit), and now here it was again, to passive-aggressively remind me of my encroaching mortality.
The question of what, exactly, constitutes appropriate content for kids has been swirling particularly strongly over the past few years. Though there’s some obviously sinister stuff getting through on platforms like YouTube, thanks to algorithmic blind spots — Spider-Man and Frozen’s Elsa, in particular, have had a rough go of it — most of the stuff that’s getting under adults’ skin has been the weird, almost disturbing stuff. But boy, oh boy, if you’ve recently found yourself sitting there marveling at how fucked up those Johny, Johny, Yes Papa videos are, allow me to point you back to your own childhood (or your kid’s, I don’t know your life), to the adorably weird anime import that quite literally hurt kids at one point. Going back and watching these early episodes is both enlightening and upsetting simultaneously: on the one hand, no wonder we turned out this way, but on the other, no wonder we turned out this way.
Over the years, plenty of better critics have explored just how truly fucked up the world of Pokémon actually is. James Whitbrook at io9 did perhaps the most thorough examination in 2015, underlining the bizarre shit we’ve taken for granted for decades, like civil servants who are clearly clones, Pokémon rights activists painted as terrorists, and an entire society almost entirely devoted to what amounts to dog-fighting, except the dogs are enslaved wild animals, that this society convinces its children — who bizarrely are encouraged to become lone nomad poachers at 10 years old — want to be enslaved. They’re forced to work in hospitals, as electricians, even as soldiers in war — and when they’re happy, in retrospect, it seems more like Stockholm Syndrome than anything. (A P.T. Barnum-esque trainer in season 1, episode 8, who uses a whip to drive his Pokémon’s training is painted as a zealous tyrant for pushing his Pokémon to excel, but ultimately his methods are accepted because he’s doing exactly the same thing Ash and the rest of society do to the creatures.)
Returning to these first few episodes, though, I realized that it’s even worse than that: Pokémon aren’t just sentient — many are more advanced than humans. In the first episode, protagonist Ash Ketchum is gifted his starter Pokémon, a Pikachu with “a problem.” The problem: Pikachu doesn’t want to be owned, or put in a Pokéball, and electrocutes anybody who tries. Ash literally ties a string around Pikachu’s middle and drags down the road on a string to force it to go along. It becomes clear throughout the season that Pikachu is not only extremely cognizant of itself and its desires, including protesting its own enslavement — it’s also far from alone in its complex thought.
In episode 3, Ash catches a Caterpie, a purring caterpillar Pokémon who has a conversation with Pikachu while the pair stargaze, existentially awed by the vastness of the universe. And if that wasn’t enough, in episode 6, “Clefairy and the Moonstone,” we learn that Clefairy, a fairy-type Pokémon found in caves and mountains, collects moonstones, gathering them into a shrine where they perform ceremonial dances and prayers at the full moon. That’s three instances in which Pokémon demonstrate anthropomorphic interiority and beliefs, even whole religions — and then on top of that, they’re able to shapeshift and have superpowers. By these standards, Refrigerator from the “Johny, Johny” videos is just a big Roomba that responds to voice commands.
Pokémon writ large isn’t inherently worse than other franchises. (Though one episode did feature a scene that accidentally gave a number of children seizures in Japan in 1997, it was immediately pulled both from Japanese TV and kept out of the U.S. exports altogether.) Plenty of other animated children’s shows have been built on sort-of-disturbing premises, featuring horrific scenes in which characters go to hell, get buried alive Cask of Amontillado style, and countless other nightmares, stretched across a century of kids’ programming. Watching these early episodes now is a great reminder of how low-grade perversity is and has basically always been a cornerstone of children’s television. The lessons being taught are, of course, a legitimate concern, but perhaps we should worry a bit less about whether they make sense or are psychologically scarring children. After all, we all turned out pretty okay — minus the voice of Pikachu popping up in our brains every so often, that is.