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The Rise and Fall of Pokemon

Friday 10th August 2012

Jonathan Clements on a book that dissects Pokémon (what a thought)

PokemonOn the 16th December 1997, in the big finale of the Pokémon episode ‘Cyber Warrior Porygon’, Pikachu defended his owner by delivering a blue and red jolt of electricity. It alternated swiftly in a hypnotic pattern, and made several hundred children throw up or have seizures. Thanks, anime! But as two of the writers observe in Pikachu’s Global Adventure, the notorious epilepsy incident of 1997 did little to diminish the appeal of anime’s new hit show. Far from it – for many people around the world, it was the first they had heard of the phenomenon that would all too soon be bearing down upon them.

Pikachu’s Global Adventure offers a collection of essays on the ‘rise and fall of Pokémon’, including studies of its origins, the campaigns against it, and the efforts made in localising it for foreign markets.

The book is impressive, at least in part, because it represents a true convergence of disciplines. Far too many such collections swiftly accrete an inertial gunge of cultural theorists and solipsistic drama llamas, wittering about peripheral issues in a vain attempt to justify an undeserved grant. But contributors to Pikachu’s Global Adventure come from anthropology, pedagogy, and media studies. Two are Japanese. One is a primary school teacher. Some elements of the book are personal, but are focussed resolutely on the observation of researchers’ children as they watch Pokémon, play the game, and in one case, drag their stock-trader Dads down to the swap-meet in order to get tips on card exchange values. Such an emphasis could have all too easily backfired into wittering about whatever someone’s kid did at school today, but thankfully remains tightly focussed on what Pokémon means to the kids. We have, presumably, editor Joseph Tobin to thank for this, who comes to the task from a background in Early Child Education.

Ever since Liliane Lurcat’s ground-breaking study A Cinq Ans, Seul Avec Goldorak, the academic world has had plenty of opportunity to investigate what it is that kids actually get out of their anime. The toy industry certainly does – I have seen massive, brick sized collations of commercial-in-confidence documentation by Child Psychology PhDs, amounting to racial profiling and empirical data on the world’s children. When I once worked for a well-known toy company on the idea for a new cartoon franchise, every one of my ideas was run past a panel of accountants and a panel of seven-year-olds. In other worlds, when it comes to the business of selling to children, the industry players do not screw around whereas academia often forgets about the kids altogether. For this reason, Tobin’s inclusion of child-focussed studies is to be commended.

PokemonThere’s some great stuff in here. Christine Yano has a whale of a time chronicling the anti-Pokémon backlash, citing criticisms from concerned parents, religious nutcases and racist bigots. Julian Sefton-Green puts his own son in the spotlight, and chronicles a year in the life of a Pokémon fan. Dafna Lemish and Linda-Renée Bloch cover the history of Pokémon in Israel, to which the brand stumbled as late as 2000. And Gilles Brougère asks ‘how much a Pokémon is worth’ by examining the way in which French kids assign value to pieces of (theoretically) worthless card. Perhaps most fascinating to readers of this blog is the coverage of the localisation of Pokémon, and the arguments over the ways in which the original had to be compromised in order to make it truly huge.

Koichi Iwabuchi talks of two kinds of difference, a ‘cultural odour’ that needs to be damped down a bit, and a ‘cultural fragrance’ that can add to the appeal. A quote from one of Pokémon’s producers admits that the Japanese had observed the rise and plateauing of Sailor Moon, and determined that one of the many reasons it didn’t quite take the world by storm was that elements of it were too Japanese. Unlike, say Astro Boy, which Tezuka was persuaded to render ‘stateless’, Sailor Moon retained Japanese street signs and tatami-mat family settings, all of which served to put some of the mass audience off. Instead, Hirofumi Katsuno and Jeffrey Maret in Pikachu’s Global Adventure speak in a mixture of awe and fear of Gail Tilden, the ‘dragon mother of Nintendo’ (now its US vice president), who pushed for a deeply invasive but demonstrably populist re-versioning of Pokémon in the overseas market. There are stories here of soundtracks ripped out in their entirety, of massive alterations to dialogue and character and of the infamous ‘lost episodes’, but all such considerations are discussed in blunt and business-like terms. Pokémon the anime is merely a tool to sell Pokémon the Everything, and there are strong arguments in this book that it’s this very lack of respect for the ‘integrity’ of the original that made it possible for it to sell so well. Other authors get to grips with the world-beating Japan rhetoric of the period, and note that Japanese media companies have often tripped up when trying to deal with foreign clients, and that the real success stories are to be found among those Japanese companies that find a foreign partner who can do their work justice. Such as, it says here, Manga Entertainment, a company which made such a success of Ghost in the Shell. Which is nice to hear.

Nobody can really quantify Pokémon’s success. Trust me, if they could, then there would be another phenomenon as big, already. So it would be unfair to wonder why the academics spill so much ink over Pokémon, without offering much practical advice about why it worked. They don’t know, but then again, neither does anyone else. A few reviewers online have carped that Tobin’s book has missed the point, and that Pokémon is ‘still popular today’. In claiming this, they rather miss Tobin’s point, which is that the demonstrable, quantifiable Pokémon explosion was already fizzling out by 2001. Ten years on, Pokémon still has a residual appeal and a long tail of dedicated fans, but it is nowhere, nowhere near the global phenomenon that it was at the turn of the century. Tobin actually welcomes this fact, noting that academics should be just as interested in the decline of a phenomenon as with its rise, and that often one helps explain the other.

Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon is out now from Duke University Press.

The Rise and Fall of Pokemon

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