Poking into Pokémon

Culture | The latest kids' fad is not evil, just empty

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

It doesn't cause seizures anymore. But that is about all that can be said for the newest toy/television/movie/ video-game fad, Pokémon. Not that Pokémon (short for pocket monsters) is particularly offensive; essentially, it's about a fantasy world in which kids try to capture and train small monsters. The monsters battle each other in contests (not to the death-a defeated Pokémon merely faints). Pokémon trainers who capture all 151 varieties of Pokémon (the word is both single and plural) become Pokémon masters. The fad began with a Japanese video game, which became a television series, then a card game, and later this year, a feature film. The television series included that infamous episode in December 1997 that caused more than 600 Japanese viewers (more than 500 of them children) to have seizures, because of a strobing effect on the television screen. But Pokémon survived this setback, and forgiving Japanese viewers made Pokémon the top-ranked television program in the nation. Pokémon's creators have attempted to include everything that might appeal to kids: cute, mostly harmless monsters; a near-absence of adults;, a complete absence of schools; a determined, ambitious young boy character (Ash Ketcham); a feisty girl character (Misty); and an endearing, baby-talking favorite monster, Pikachu. The monsters, of course, are the reasons for Pokémon's success. There's Pikachu, an "electric mouse" that zaps its opponents, and Caterpie, a worm that spins silk to encase its enemies. Spearow is a bird that creates wind hazards with its wings. According to the framing narrative of the Pokémon saga, 10 year-old Ash on his birthday is given a low-level Pikachu as his first trainee, and together they set off from Pallet Town, in search of other Pokémon to conquer and collect. They make their way through the wild, collecting a few other Pokémon, but are outmatched by a whole flock of Spearow. Pikachu prevails, but is badly hurt and must be taken to a Pokémon clinic. And that's where Ash and his new friend Misty meet the villains of the realm, Team Rocket (a bad guy and a bad girl who rustle Pokémon). The Pokémon craze arrived on American shores last September, when The Kids WB! Television network began broadcasting the animated series. Nintendo then released the Game Boy video game, in two versions, a red one and a blue one. Nintendo has sold more than 2.8 million units of the game, and the animated series is now the top-ranked syndicated children's program. The card game is causing a bit of controversy; in it, players match their Pokémon against each other, battling according to fairly elaborate systems of hit points and damage points. The demand for the cards, from the 60-count starter set to the rarer, "collectible" cards, has driven up the prices. Schools are beginning to ban the game because it's a distraction, and cards are being stolen from lockers and book bags. That's not dampening interest, however. Last month, more than 13,000 parents and kids attended a Pokémon card show in Woodbridge, N.J. Stores report selling out of their Pokémon shipments within hours. And that starter set, which was originally sold for about $9, has tripled in price. And Nintendo is cashing in on the craze, licensing (at last count) 45 spinoffs: Pokémon lunch boxes, posters, key chains, and now even Pokémon Beanie Babies. And the fad is producing some philosophical cultural commentary; Swarthmore College professor Tim Burke said last month that Pokémon is popular because "people want those godlike fantasies of building a nurturing a society.... Pokémon strikes me as the first real conglomeration of all these trends into a pop culture powerhouse." Is the Pokémon fad objectionable? It is, not for moral reasons, but for its vacuity. It is an insubstantial, forgettable fad. Apologists point out that math skills are employed, and team work is encouraged. But ultimately, Pokémon seems a vast waste of resources, not the least being a child's appetite for wonder. J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy Stories" has provided useful guidelines for taking the measure of fantastic tales-guidelines that apply to Cinderella and Beowulf as well as to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Phantom Menace. Richness is vital in a sub-created world, Tolkien contends, and so is righteousness-not an absence of evil, but an accurate assessment of it. Richness and a well-ordered righteousness are missing from the Pokémon world. Also disappointing is the animation, in both the television series and the upcoming movie (due to be released at Christmas). Pokémon belongs to that genre of Japanese animation that produced Speed Racer, G-Force, and more recently, Sailor Moon. Low frame rates, jerky movements, exaggerated eyes. There is no lushness, just a visible budget-consciousness. Pokémon cartoons are produced quickly and on the cheap. Bypass the trading cards; buy your child a copy of The Hobbit.

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