Let’s take a moment to do some musing on villain stereotyping in the Pokemon series. If you have a life, feel free to disregard this post.
In the first two generations of Pokemon games (Red/Blue/Yellow and Gold/Silver/Crystal), your character takes time away from the gym-badge challenge to take on and defeat the criminal organization Team Rocket*. And as criminal organizations go, they’re not exactly subtle about it: While wearing black uniforms with a red R on, they openly threaten people, steal Pokemon from innocents, keep said Pokemon miserable, all for the sake of amassing further wealth. Everyone hates Team Rocket, but the police are powerless to stop them. Naturally it takes a protagonist whose sense of justice has completely devoured that of self-preservation to confront this syndicate, set them up in a line, and give them the one-on-one righteous whuppings they deserve.
Naturally, when your syndicate consists entirely of the brute squad, their choice in Pokemon will reflect that: snakes, bats, rats, balls with frowny faces, creepy dream-devouring tapirs, globs of nastiness and pollution, the occasional mag-lev creature as a representation of science’s dispassionate amoral side. Almost all of their teams include poison or dark types**. The only exception to this is their leader Giovanni, who must also put up a cleaner public face as a gym leader; his team consists of more “respectable” displays of power and influence (rare species and Nido royalty).
And that’s all well and good, I guess. In kids’ games, sometimes the bad guys need to be obvious. The trouble is that later villainous teams tried to seem more complex in their morals – often claiming the extreme version of a noble and lofty goal – but still fall back on poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats.
Generation 3 (Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald) introduced us to polar opposite Teams Magma and Aqua, the leaders of whom honestly believed that they were only doing what was best for the natural world by seeking out ancient supermonsters and setting off catastrophic climate disasters. And it was pretty obvious that they were misguided at best, evil at worse, by looking at the Pokemon they used. Each leader had a companion of his respective elemental goal (Volcanic camel for Magma, torpedo-shark for Aqua) … but they and every other member also had a team full of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.
So we move on to Generation 4 (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum), where the Sinnoh region is under constant harassment from Team Galactic. The low-level grunts declare that they’re researching new methods of generating clean energy for the world (which for some reason involves stealing people’s beloved companions?) … their boss Cyrus, on the other hand, fully intends to destroy the world and remake it in his sociopathic image. So I can understand why Cyrus has no qualms about filling his roster with a rampaging dragon, a hellhound, a kamaitachi, a mob boss crow, and a vampire bat, but why are the supposedly virtuous zealots of his lower ranks all going around bullying people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats?
Generation 5 (Black, White, and their respective sequels) introduced us to Team Plasma, a hybrid between PETA and those people who think they’re being clever when they say “durr hurr de pokey mans is cock fighting haw haw haw.”*** Your first experience with Plasma is a public speech given by their boss, Ghetsis Harmonia, pleading with the masses to cease battling with their Pokemon and release them from captivity. The entire team operates on the assumption that they’re “liberating” Pokemon from trainers who only make them suffer.
Naturally the whole “think of the poor abused Pokemon” line was a scam; what Ghetsis really wanted was to disarm everyone else and conquer the Unova region unopposed. So of course his team consists of Dark types, an evil ghost, a dubstep frog, and a terrifying electric lamprey. But once again, the alleged footsoldiers of justice and kindness are attacking people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.
(The naive and saintly King of Team Plasma, Ghetsis’s adopted son N Harmonia, actually has a neat gimmick to his battles: He refuses to capture any Pokemon, so his team changes every time you encounter him because they’re just a group of local wildlife that he befriended. You can even find and befriend some of them as a miniquest in the sequel, and they remember him fondly. So props to Game Freak for that bit of story and gameplay integration.)
The sequels don’t fare much better. The amoral researcher Colress at least follows a theme of technology (and aliens for some reason), but Ghetsis returns with his six balls of evil, and the grunts keep up the grand tradition of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.
Generation 6 (X and Y) demonstrated a massive waste of potential. Team Flare, the relentlessly stylish criminal organization led by the charismatic Lysandre and secretly supported by Elite Four member and voluptuous celebrity newscaster Malva, proclaimed that their goal was to amass a great fortune and make the world a better, more beautiful place by getting rid of anyone not up to their standards. Surely even the lowliest member of such a tragically hip organization would still fight with– no, wait. Poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.****
And here we are at last, Generation 7, with Sun and Moon. And from what I’ve played so far, the villains are … I don’t know what to say about them. Team Skull is, as far as I can tell, a group of upper-middle-class white kids trying to dress and act like the most overblown possible caricature of inner-city minority gangs. They have grabbed Poe’s Law by the short and curlies and are sprinting across The Line waving their arms and singing Al Jolson’s rendition of “Mammy.” And so far they’ve attacked the main character with (everybody sing along at home) poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.
So why am I bothering to overanalyze a video game series for children? Probably a fixation due to some kind of neurological defect. But also because this is a game series that’s hit its 20th anniversary and still has die-hard fans who were children when Red and Blue (or Green, for the Japanese kids) first came out. And The Pokemon Company is fully aware of their adult fans, considering the more sophisticated designs on some of the merchandise they offer. They must know that there are fans of the franchise who could really enjoy a game where the villainous team doesn’t wear T-shirts with “Ask me about my bullying and world domination plan!” printed on them. Why not set up a villainous team with more of a knight templar or self-righteous paladin-gone-lawful-mad feel to it, insisting that they’re making their Gardevoir and Lucario and Audino do these cruel things for the greater good? Instead of stealing Pokemon for money and profit, they could be confiscating Pokemon from trainers who they deem insufficiently virtuous. Maybe they could even turn public opinion against the player character and make NPCs think you’re the bad guy for a while.*****
But I’m not just pining for a complex and satisfying plot. I also want to see the writers live up to a concept that keeps showing up in the games, comics, and anime, and was stated outright in the first movie: “[T]he circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” For the people who use that concept again and again to turn around and use the same poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats on the villainous team every darn time is just … disappointing.
* Fun fact: Team Rocket’s Japanese name, “Rocket-dan,” can be read as either “Rocket Gang” or “Rocket Bullet.” This little pun is kept up with the other villainous groups throughout the series – Magma Bullet, Aqua Bullet, Galaxy Bullet, Plasma Bullet, and so on.
** Fun fact 2: in Japanese, the Dark type is named Aku (evil) type. Notice how most of the Dark moves are based on deceit and undisciplined violence. Night Slash, for example, is “Crossroads killing” in Japanese, referring to old stories that samurai would test the sharpness of their blades by killing peasants at a crossroads at night with no repercussions.
*** The games (and the anime) frequently address this topic: most Pokemon see training and battling as a mutually beneficial arrangement: trainers are able to travel safely to places they otherwise would never see, while the Pokemon is able to unlock greater potential through cooperation and discipline. Personally, I see Pokemon battles as something of a martial arts sparring system, with the gym badges being the equivalent of the different ranks and colored belts. Hence the fights only going to a KO rather than death.
**** I guess, if you wanted to nitpick, you could claim that the ugly and intimidating Pokemon were a subtle hint from Lysandre that none of the lower ranks were intended to survive the awakening of the Legendary of the Game to see the new beautiful world … but I’m not sure the game designers have earned the benefit of the doubt here.
***** Heck, take a look at the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. The villain is a skilled manipulator who not only convinces the town that the player character is the cause of all the recent natural disasters, but also convinces the character of this! You go through a surprisingly tense series of dungeons fleeing from an angry mob that will stop at nothing to see you dead.
Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything worth reading, hasn’t it. Sorry about that. There are various excuses involving stressful jobs and apartment floods and other projects, but it mostly comes down to me having the attention span of a gnat and not much time to review comics anymore. So I hope this bit of writing will at least provide entertainment to make up for my lack of credibility.
So, story time.
A few years ago, a friend from tabletop gaming group found a pretty awesome game called Dawn of Worlds. You basically play as a pantheon creating a new world and all the races in it, and at the end of the game you have a setting for your next rules-flexible roleplaying campaign. We tried it out a few times, creating different worlds, different ideas, different fiascos.
During one of these sessions, one of the players decided to create a race of Ewok-like creatures called the Woowoos. A few looks of disbelief were shared around the room, but in the end the consensus was that this was pretty harmless.
So then on his next turn, he declared that the Woowoos particularly excelled in archery, and that their military included an elite corps of marksmen (markswoowoos?), known as the Wuhu.
Well now I was tempted.
On my next turn, I spent some points to create a godly avatar among the Woowoos. One who excelled in martial training because of her time spent meditating among the desert rock formations and allowing Loa spirits to inhabit her body and mind.
Or in other words, Lulu became the Hu-Wuhu of the Woowoos because she practiced voodoo among the hoodoos.
This was about the time that the rest of the group said enough was enough. The might of the Woowoos needed to be broken, for the sake of everyone’s sanity. The other races of the world banded together to defeat their archers, and their bruised and broken leader chose to die rather than be taken forever captive.
Which is to say, Lulu the hoodoo voodoo Hu-wuhu bid the Woowoos adieu and committed seppuku.
It took a while for that gaming group to forgive me.