By Gabriela Kalter
Phot by lydia_shiningbrightly.
Chicken Skin is a new column to the BreakThru Radio arsenal that gives us an outlet to discuss our not-so-guilty pleasures in music and culture. Why? Because when we’re not crafting podcasts full of the latest and greatest independent music for you all, our undying preadolescent affection for Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” needs to be logged in the great annals of human experience that is the interwebs. That’s why.
I never really got into Yu-Gi-Oh or Dragon Ball-Z. I liked Sailor Moon, she was pretty cool. But, of all the anime cartoons that saturated my childhood, I’ve got to give the medal to the one that fueled the continued artform: Pokémon. More than just an animated television series, or a trading card fad, or the original video game, Pokémon somehow defied specific categorization because it managed to conquer such a multitude of cultural mediums. It could probably qualify for some kind of mention in a History textbook or something.
If not a History textbook, then Pokémon (at the very least) deserves to appear in some nostalgic, epic scrapbook documenting the pop culture milestones/icons of my past. What’s interesting about the special place that Pokémon holds in my heart is that I’m not much of a gamer or an anime fanatic. My love for Pokémon stems from a broader appreciation for the connectedness and sense of community that it inspired. The show infiltrated school cliques and adolescent social tiers and brought us all together in an effort to catch ‘em all and be the the very best, like no one ever was.
Pokémon was marketed as a phenomenon from the very beginning, since the introduction of the Japanese creation in the United States circa 1998. Created by video game designer Satoshi Tajiri in 1996, Pokémon was first introduced in Japan as a game-link-cable video game called Pocket Monsters. The game is inspired by Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects as well as the popular activity of capturing Asian crickets and then training them to fight each other.
The goal of the RPG was to climb the ranks as a Pokémon trainer, eventually collecting all 151 Pokémon creatures. Sold in two versions, the Red pack and the Blue pack, the only way for players to collect all of the Pokémon was to link up with a gamer who had the opposite color pack. So even from the get go, The Pokémon Company utilized a very strong merchandising strategy to ensure the kinds of sales that would launch the brand into an international craze.
When Pokémon was introduced in the U.S., the television show came before the Nintendo video game. It debuted on Sept. 9, 1998 and the Game Boy RPG was released on Sept. 28, 1998. The role-playing, adventure game became the fastest selling Game Boy title in Nintendo product’s 10-year history and was in such high demand that many electronic chains and gaming stores experienced inventory shortages and completely sold out of the game the same day it arrived. The success of the TV show spurred a demand for Pokémon toys which launched Hasbro Inc. into industry success despite difficulties in keeping up with the demand for more Pokémon products.
In other words, kids loved this shit. We ate it up like chocolate. It was our crack, and it reached a much broader demographic than the intended audience of 6-12 year old boys. It appealed to young girls, teenagers, and to non-gamers who didn’t necessarily have a taste for anime.
The show centers on Ash Ketchum, a 10-year old living in the Kanto region who sets out to become a Pokémon trainer. Through various battles and defeats, Ash aims to win Gym Badges and add more Pokémon (Pocket Monster) to his collection. Along with his first Pokémon, Pikachu (a cute, little, yellow nugget monster with a squeaky voice and rosy cheeks), and former Gym Leaders, Brock and Misty, Ash embarks on a journey that would last throughout over 600 episodes and 13 spin-off movies.
The success of the show is no joke. Just ask my friend Didi from temple. Didi had one of those Grandma’s that bought her presents constantly. There were many times where she would be showing off some new toy that she got as a “Friday afternoon gift,” as if that were normal. As if getting a present on a Friday “just because” was something routinely experienced at Didi’s.
In any case, she started collected Pokémon cards and would put them in a three ring binder full of protective sleeves — you know the ones. As her collection grew and she got all three stages of Bulbasour and Charmander, I knew this thing was becoming huge.
After convincing my parents to indulge my impulse-buy for a few packs of Pokémon cards at the counter of virtually every store with a hunger for easy sales in the early 2000s, I started my own collection. My brother and I woke up at 6 a.m. every day and made sure to catch the show before heading off to camp or school. We would set up our breakfast in front of the TV and sing along to the theme in giddy excitement of the adventures that would unfold in the 22 minutes to follow.
If being an early bird in grade school doesn’t scream dedication, I don’t know what does. Frankly, I’m so impressed with my 8-year-old self for waking up at such an early hour I wonder if this would be an effective wake up strategy for adult life. Whatever gets you out of bed in the morning, am I right?
As my card collection grew and I got more holographic Pokémon to show off, with all the pretty colors and shininess, I felt purposeful. It was comforting to be a part of a craze that helped connect me with kids on the school bus who were looking to trade a Squirtle for a Jigglypuff, or a Clefairy for a Zubat. Heck, to be honest, I’m sure I got taken advantage of and was had in some unfair trades, but I was just so happy to be a part of it all.
In the name of being sincere, I must admit something that puts me at risk for being a poser or a fake, but that speaks to the massive appeal of the Pokémon craze. Even though I collected the cards, watched the show religiously, played Pokémon Snap on N64 and had a huge crush on Brock, I never fully understood how the whole thing worked. I didn’t know how to actually play the card game, I just liked to look at the pictures and trade with my newfound friends. I didn’t know why there were so many energy cards that seemed so useless to me, or why the numbers on each card had an effect on winning battles or whatever. It was never about that for me.
Maybe it’s super lame of me for loving Pokémon despite not knowing the intricate details of how to become a Pokémon Trainer and gain Gym Badges. But, my ignorance doesn’t delegitimize my appreciation for the pop culture hit. My love for the phenomenon is completely genuine and traceable throughout my childhood, allowing my brother and I to bond over breakfast every morning and giving me something to talk about with the kids on the bus.
Despite some reported seizures in children who watched the show and had epileptic reactions to the fast paced images and flashing lights in the series, Pokémon has had a largely positive effect on its young viewers. It encourages the Japanese values of empathy and perseverance. An article from last year in the LA Times states,
“Although “Pokémon” has been accused of fostering gambling, un-Islamic conduct and Darwinism, the series and games stress friendship and good sportsmanship. When a player wins, it’s not a glorious victory but a testament to his exceptional bond with his Pokémon. In the series, Ash never allows anyone to mistreat a Pokémon, and he learns self-sacrifice when he permits his Butterfree to find a mate and depart for their nesting grounds.”
The show promotes the importance of pushing yourself to be your best (just listen to the theme song) and to evolve as stronger and more competent then when you started. It offers a very healthy image of progression and the importance of hard work.
One day Didi came running out of the coat closet clutching her binder of Pokémon cards in tears. Pokémon was far more powerful than any unsuspecting grandma’s thought it would be when buying their grandkids that infamous “Friday afternoon gift.” Didi was frantic because someone has stolen her Charizard card, the holographic third stage Pokémon that completed the Charmander evolution. It was like a family heirloom had been taken, like her innocence and faith in mankind was shaken to the core. That’s when I knew this was much more serious than another passing childhood fad. This was a lasting and invested sort of fandom.
Kids had to catch them all, and sometimes that meant resorting to stealing. Of course, Didi’s Grandma bought her like eight more Charizard cards by the next weekend, but the point is the blind dedication to collecting these things. Pokémon was a craze and it made us crazy. I still can’t believe I ever got up at 6 a.m. with energetic anticipation to watch a cartoon. But, that’s the beauty of Pokémon. It was a mania and a staple of childhood that will always hold a special place in my heart. Plus, how cute was Brock!?