Monday, May 3, 2010

Pokemon: The Death of the American Franchise

Well, I'm certainly no journalist and I've never written an editorial, but I'm quite good at having opinions. A trip to the Pokemon Center recently got me thinking back on the old phenomenon that was Pokemon, and I felt the need to write about it (and to avoid reading about Japanese history like I've been doing for the last five hours).

Before I begin, I just want to remind that I'm no expert on Pokemon and I'm not responsible for any inaccurately relayed information! I'm not citing sources! Agree or disagree with anything I say - that's fine! I wrote this for my own amusement and it's meant to be informative as well as humorous as well as nostalgic! So just enjoy it for whatever it is!

So I did a post a while back about going to the Pokemon Center in Hamamatsucho. A couple days ago, Ashley and I returned to the Pokemon Center in part because there was a Charizard special, in part because the Pokemon Center is awesome, and in part because we're still total dorks after all these years.

Now, there's all sorts of things that make the Pokemon Center great. For one thing, do you know how happy people look in there? You've got children who are exploding with excitement as they run around shopping for merchandise of their favorites critters, you've got parents with lists of toys, happy simply because they're about to make their kid's life, and then you've got people like me n' Ashley who are brimming with joy because our whole childhood is magically displayed before us and ripe for the shopping.

For many people of my generation, Pokemon is something you don't entirely grow out of.  However, in America, Pokemon was marketed as something strictly for children. You enjoyed it, and then you grew up. In Japan, Pokemon survives well into adulthood and the fad has hardly died down, compared to its near-death in America.

But do you know why that is? Well, here's the thing with Pokemon. Pokemon was a great idea because it had something for everyone. Pokemon could be cute, scary, fun, powerful, smart, dumb, friend, or foe. There were soft, fluffy, adorable Pokemon for the girls and tough, fierce, powerful Pokemon for the boys. There were silly Pokemon like Slowpoke, or serious Pokemon like Charizard. There were Pokemon who were known to be friendly and Pokemon who were known to be hazards. In other words, whoever you were, there was a Pokemon for you. Now, the error in judgment made in the West was to assume that this sort of thing would only appeal to children. As seen above, Pokemon had more to offer than just silly games and fluffy animals, so why this marketing strategy? The Japanese were able to see right from the start that Pokemon could maintain a much wider age-range if marketed to its full potential.

Case in point: Pokemon: the First Movie. In America, this movie was reduced to absolute drivel in an attempt to maintain a G rating. Ten minutes were cut, the script was changed, and the entire theme of the film was watered down to the point that it drowned in its own soap-box dialogue. The result is that, while the film was incredibly successful among the youth of America, the movie lost its staying power. Sure, five year old's loved it, but those five year old's would have continued to love it into adulthood if America hadn't been so determined to keep the stupid G rating. In reality, Pokemon: the First Movie reminded its audience that Pokemon is not really for young children. It never really was. In fact, the games are extraordinarily time-consuming and complicated. I myself didn't have the attention span or the brain-power to get into the games until I was past fourth grade. I know many people who are in their twenties who play Pokemon and still find it challenging and lengthy to complete.

When I think back on what it was that I loved so much about Pokemon: the First Movie as a child, I think it was the fact that the movie didn't assume I was a dumb child (little did I know that the American release did, but at the time, even the watered-down American version seemed pretty intense). I had loved Pokemon starting around third grade and I'd been overjoyed to find a pastime that stretched and expanded my brain. I would sit there in class with boys and discuss numbers and strategy as if we were going to war. The show itself had been more comedic than the games, but it still had some dark themes and sad episodes (I still think the episode where Ash first gets his Charmander is a disturbing episode). To me, as a child, the first Pokemon movie was like a delicious validation that Pokemon was not for dumb children and that I wasn't too old to be enjoying what I was enjoying. At the age of eight, I understood that there are good guys and bad guys, but I'd never seen the lines get crossed or blended the way they were in Pokemon: The First Movie. I remember being mesmerized by the fact that the Pokemon named Mewtwo was clearly the villain, and yet we were expected to sympathize with him and forgive him in the end. Again, Mewtwo is a strong reminder that Pokemon is not really for young children (as America's G rating would have you believe). Mewtwo's very existence is adult-themed - he's a cloned creature who is unsure if the circumstances of his birth render him a real being. He becomes enslaved by a terrorist organization, he mind-controls innocent people and, frankly, he can blow shit up with his mind. I'm sorry, but no one who grew up loving Pokemon can deny that Mewtwo wasn't the coolest character they'd ever seen as a child. He was a mutant cat who could blow shit up with his mind. He could literally look at you and kill you.

But, of course, Mewtwo's story was not nearly as chilling in America as it was in the original Japanese version. The American version literally cuts the first ten minutes of the movie, meaning Mewtwo is given literally no background story whatsoever. And why would you cut out the origins of Mewtwo? That means you never get to see him as a kitten! I mean, aaaw, look how cute he was! American children would have found him a much more endearing character if this had been kept in the film!

In the original, uncut version of the movie, Mewtwo's creation was just camouflage for a man trying to bring his dead daughter back to life. This human clone and a host of other Pokemon clones became Mewtwo's only friends. Ultimately, due to the instability of the project, Mewtwo watched the little girl and the Pokemon clones die before his very eyes. To avoid backlash, Mewtwo was forced by the scientists to simply forget what he'd seen. In the American release - where this ten minute introduction to Mewtwo's character was removed - things are very black and white. Mewtwo awakens in the lab, hates that he's a clone, and blows shit up with his mind. In the Japanese version, however, we're left wondering... how much does Mewtwo actually remember? Surely the shadow of kitten-hood trauma is still buried in his subconscious. Suddenly, Mewtwo's rage and violence towards the scientists (and humankind) doesn't seem so random or overblown.

But you see, this kind of thing is necessary to make a film last beyond childhood. As a child, I certainly could have handled this plot. Is it disturbing? Yes, but I think even at eight years old I would have found the story intriguing. And that story would have been interesting to me when I became nine, ten, eleven... twenty years old. Right?

And you know what, it's not just the film. America also thought on a small scale concerning the show itself. I remember when I was growing up there were shows like Animaniacs and Dexter's Laboratory that were made for children, but parents could sit in the same room and have a chuckle. In fact, Animaniacs was down-right filthy sometimes - not that children were mature enough to notice the raunchy humor. Well, Pokemon was originally more adult as well. In fact, there are episodes of Pokemon that were banned in America, and most episodes had tweaking done to them during the dubbing process. But again, the flaw in banning episodes and cutting episodes in America was that the Pokemon franchise became doomed to die out after its generation hit, well... pre-puberty. If the show had remained as it was originally, it probably would have maintained its staying-power.

I mean, let's look at the cast alone. The lead "villains" are the comedic-duo of Jessie and James of Team Rocket (Musashi and Kojirou of Rocketto-dan in the original). Already we have a problem. In the original Japanese, Team Rocket was called Roketto-dan (Rocket Gang). The "gang" was devolved into a "team" in the American versio. Too bad the American editing couldn't hide that Jessie and James were a pair of cross-dressers. Every time the duo put on a disguise, it was Jessie in pants, and James in, well... tutus, skirts, dresses... you name it, he wore it. There were times when James was dressed like a sexy female police officer or a sexy, short-skirted nurse. America banned an entire episode of Pokemon because James had inflatable breasts during a bikini competition. Which I can show you here in its original Japanese:

But really, the list of things that got banned in America is astounding. There were episodes of Pokemon banned for the use of guns, episodes banned for the use of explosives, episodes banned for supposed racial stereotyping... One of my favorites is the episode of Pokemon with Dr. Proctor in which several of the scenes had the frames cut down so that the American audience couldn't tell the good doctor spent much of the episode with a syringe sticking out of his arm. Probably my favorite "tweak" of all time is the episode in which James is forced to marry a woman named Jessiebelle who has a dominatrix fetish. In the American version of the show, her torture chamber is referred to as a "gymnasium" despite the fact that Jessiebelle has a whip in there along with other questionable items. Like American children weren't going to figure that one out eventually!

I think the most interesting thing concerning this aspect of the Pokemon franchise was that the sequel to Pokemon: the First Movie was not allowed to be released in theaters in America at all because it was simply too dark and morbid of a film. It was distributed as a straight-to-video release. And it was morbid. When I saw the movie I was maybe nine years old. I remember being shocked by the cruelty of the film. As a Mewtwo fan, it was difficult to watch a movie in which Mewtwo is virtually tortured for a good half an hour to the brink of death, simply because Team Rocket wished to reclaim their project. And yet, this straight-to-video release was still tweaked! For example, there's a scene in the original Japanese version in which Giovanni (the leader of Team Rocket) yells "kill them!" This was removed from the American dub because Team Rocket in the American version are meant to be "thieves" and not terrorists.  They're not supposed to "kill."

I guess what I'm trying to say is, Pokemon was never really for young children anyways. And America's attempt at making it that way was what ultimately doomed the franchise in the states. In Japan, Pokemon continues to be popular and the films still get released in theaters. When Ashley and I were at the Pokemon Center, they were already selling pre-sale tickets to see the new Pokemon movie (which will be the thirteenth installment in the franchise).

And so, even at age twenty, I'm excited to see the Pokemon movie, and I still buy Pokemon merchandise, and I love my Cyndaquil stuffed animal, and I still think James is one of the funniest characters in television history. Part of that is because I know the truth behind what Pokemon really is, no matter what America tried to turn it into. And part of it is because, either way, Pokemon was simply good stuff, no matter your age group.

And, because I'll always be a die-hard fan of Mewtwo being a mutant cat who can blow shit up with his mind.

And that's the end of me being opinionated about Pokemon. But I hope that anyone else who grew up with Pokemon can at least appreciate what I'm trying to point out about the way the franchise was portrayed in the U.S. Maybe you knew about some of what I said above, and maybe you didn't. But I hope you enjoyed my little article either way!


  1. I can definitely agree with this. I think perhaps the time this was most striking to me was about two months ago. I was showing a friend the chin-pokomon episode of southpark (not the coolest stuff I've ever done, anyways), and the thing he was most offended by wasn't the terrible stereotypical jokes about Japanese penis size and such, but how they turned the word "pokemon" into a slur like "chinko".

    He said that such a thing would just never fly in Japan because everyone loves Pokemon. Which is just so different from the American side. I guess the franchise, as you've described, is more open in the Japanese market and more approachable by different demographics.

  2. Yay! Love the article! Oddly enough, I was just discussing the American Pokemon Marketing plan to a friend who is a sort of business major! Well, we got about 10 minutes into the conversation and then our pizza arrived...
    But you really made me want to find all the original versions of the movies! I can watch them while I plot my way around HeartGold...

  3. Wow, I'm really glad you guys found this article to be interesting! I don't know anything about business, but a lot of this just seemed like common sense from the fan side of things. As a fan of Pokemon, I hate to see the kind of banning and splicing that was going on with a show I loved. Especially when you consider how other Japanese animes after Pokemon received similar and often far more offensive treatment (like removing homosexuality from Card Captor Sakura and Sailor Moon). Well, I just hope it was an interesting read over all!

    That's very interesting about South Park, Mike! I've never known what the Japanese perspective would be on Americans making fun of Pokemon, lol!

    And Rochelle... I hope you enjoyed your pizza :-D

  4. I've always loved Pokemon, and I still do at the age of 17. I'm made fun of it by some people, but I figured that it's so big in Japan there has to be something that they're seeing that we're not, then I stumbled across this article! I'm determined now to actually find the originals and see them. They are so much more relaxed on what their kids see and hear over there, but we're all protective over every little ounce of violence. My best Friend I are glad we know Mewtwo's background too! I love Mewtwo to death, and I never knew his story before now. Thank you for this amazing article!

  5. Japanese version...just plain out wrong
    American version...fine but to over protective
    I don't know why they would cut out "Kill them!"
    I mean thats want makes your spine tingle inside and want to see the more dark concept
    They dont have to show innapropriat things that even goes beyong adult thinking.
    And no one needs Hentai unless they are just desperate. If you want to focuss on something focuss on child hood things and playing pokemon real life. If japanese and others keep putting out this stuff fine but just saying
    You perverts out there...get a life.
    I think a made my point

  6. You...didn't make any point at all.
    Was your goal to come in here and type out a post that was more than half-full of something totally unrelated to the topic? Because that's what it was. For one, how is the Japanese version wrong? Because it has a deep, darker, and more adult background, compared to the US version where there's no background at all? And what in the hell did any of this have to do with hentai? Who the hell ever said anything about hentai? I also find it ironically funny how you're wasting time on the internet reading an article about Pokemon and trying to tell other people to get a life.

  7. I don't agree. I applaud your compassion and conviction. I suppose that is the point of these types of blogs.

  8. I agree with this article, but it's even worse than that; most countries import Pokemon shows and games from the US, so Pokemon has been ruined elsewhere also. In Europe, for instance, the games and anime are translated from English instead of directly from the original language. I don't buy Pokemon from America or Europe any more; I import my games and watch the anime over the Internet.

    There is another show, called Yu-Gi-Oh!, which has met the same fate as Pokemon, and no serious people seem to like it, because so much have been censored out. I remember telling a friend about an original YGO episode and he thought it was cool, until I told him it was YGO, because then he thought about the American version. I can't talk with my friends about either YGO or Pocket Monsters, because most have never seen what it really is.

    When you say that America made Pokemon unpopular, at least in America, I wonder what made the monster-training RPG genre itself so hard to become popular. I've never met anyone who plays Dragon Quest Monsters, even though I ask on the Pokemon forums, and Telefang, another monster RPG, never made it out of Japan. I expected Pokemon fans to like other games of the same genre, but either they do not, or these games are not popular for some reason. Could this have anything to do with America's and other non-Japanese countries' view on Pokemon? I remember reading about DQ Monsters in a magazine, where they said it was bad because it was like Pokemon. It's not like Pokemon, rather the other way around, and if DQ Monsters is not good, then Pokemon can't be good either, if they're so alike.

    A thing that worries me about the US changes to Pokemon, is that it does not only affect countries outside Japan. I think Japan is affected also, making Pokemon look more childish. I'm not sure this is true for the anime, even though I've heard people say so, but for the games I can clearly see that the new games are more cartoonish compared to the more realistic design of Red and Green. I like that the monsters actually looked like monsters, but it could be the anime which made this change, and not the US, because Pokemon Yellow was imitating the anime in design. Yet Game Freak has to make sure that the games sell in every target country, thus they have a lot of people to make it suitable for.

    The article was very interesting. It's good you spread this information. There are so many people out there who don't know what they're talking about; they should read this blog.

  9. Your blog is awesome and I love this post! I recently wrote one along the same lines about the similarities between Mewtwo and Lucy from Elfen Lied -