[This is the text version of this review. For the video version, visit Ember Reviews on YouTube]
Pokemon is probably one of the most basic and clean-cut examples you can find of an episodic adventure series. Ash wants to be the greatest Pokemon master in the world and he refuses to stop until he achieves his goal, and every episode in between is something that either helps him achieve this goal, impedes his progress, or has a lesson to teach him or one of his friends that will aid them in the future.
Of course, this kind of structure also means that most of the enjoyment gleamed from this series comes from the strength of each individual episode, which is, unfortunately, very hit and miss. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of really good episodes and even some fantastic ones that are better than some of the adult anime titles I watch now. However, there are also quite a few episodes that just fall into repetitive patterns with wholly uninteresting side characters, and when a long stretch of episodes like this shows up, which happens several times in seasons 3 and 4, it can be a pretty tedious watch. Fortunately, there are definitely a lot more good episodes than bad ones, and when longer story arcs do come into play, the emotional beats they hit are really solid.
A lot of my favorite episodes though are ones that put a side character at the center of the plot seemingly just for giggles, such as when Togepi accidentally steals one of Team Rocket’s tanks and they have to stop it before it runs into a populated area, or when Wobbufett is carrying a key to a box that Pikachu is locked in, but he keeps getting tossed around a city in the most cartoonish ways possible. The really weird episodes also tend to stand out either for being extremely creative like having all the Pokemon’s lines being translated for us or having Ash get turned into a Pikachu, or for going about an emotional arc in a unique way, like trapping everyone inside Larvitar’s mind in order to soothe his fractured psyche.
Pokemon also has the advantage of pulling ideas from an inherently creative source material, giving it a ton of room to craft new ideas for each episode. However, instead of a straight adaptation of the Pokemon video games, the games’ worlds and structures are there simply as outlines for the writers to create their own story, and, in my opinion, this makes Pokemon the best adaptation of a video game I’ve seen to date. By not forcing an adaptation of a story structure that’s not directly translatable to the TV medium, the series has room to craft its own story and a tone that matches. It still retains the badge collecting plot from the games to serve as a progression marker for Ash’s journey, but many other points have been altered or omitted entirely, such as changing the Pokemon League’s Elite Four challenge into a simpler tournament-style championship.
This also gives the series more leeway when constructing its characters, and man do we have some characters. Even without my nostalgia kicking in, I can honestly say that Ash is one of the most fleshed-out and multi-faceted anime characters I’ve ever seen. He dreams of being the very best like no one ever was, but he has to claw his way up from the very bottom to get there. He has a huge stubborn streak and can get really hot-headed at times, especially when goaded on by his rival, Gary, but he’s still a good person at heart who loves and cares for his Pokemon and will go out of his way to help someone in need. He’s not the most intelligent person, which can get a bit infuriating when Team Rocket’s schemes are so blatantly obvious and when he makes amateurish mistakes in battle, but his ingenuity and ability to think on his feet are usually enough to get him out of most situations. When it comes to children’s anime, my favorite kind of main character is an imperfect, relatable role model that always tries their best, and Ash fits the bill to a T while also throwing in a dozen more details to make him feel even more like a real person, and I’d be hard-pressed to write this much about another anime character, save for this next one.
Meanwhile, Misty as the female lead is nothing to scoff at either, and she still stands as one of my favorite role models for young girls in any fictional medium. Instead of filling out a traditional feminine stereotype or deliberately going against the grain as an all-out tomboy, Misty treads the less-traveled path of walking straight down the middle. She’s strong-willed and loves to battle, but she’s also into beauty and other feminine ideas. She’s hot-headed and stubborn enough to hang with the boys, but she’s still afraid of bugs. She’s independent and has her own goals to strive towards, but she can also act very motherly and take care of others when she needs to. Many people have been led to call her inconsistent or nonsensical over the years because of this dual nature, but this just makes her an even more interesting character and a better role model for young girls. To me, Misty’s character is saying “you don’t have to be this or that, but you can if you want to be; or you can be both, neither, or a varying balance of the two,” and for a children’s show, that’s a pretty amazing feat.
Brock stands up well as a slightly older member of the crew and acts as a strong mentor to Ash when he needs it, though his romantic mishaps can become rather annoying at times, and, unfortunately, there’s really nothing else to his character besides those two things, though to be fair I am comparing him to characters that I just wrote two massive paragraphs about. As for other side protagonists, I don’t have time to talk about them much in detail, but while most of them are there more for Ash’s story to progress, there are a select few that become interesting in their own right and are strong enough to become recurring characters throughout the show.
And, of course, what would an adventure series be without some villains, and Team Rocket members Jessie, James, and Meowth fill this role nicely. Again, the repetitive nature can become a bit burdensome at times and that ends up decreasing how threatening they can be in a given situation, but for the most part, they stand up as antagonists to Ash’s progress fairly well, while also adding a ton of comedy to the series as the bumbling idiots that they are, though I think my favorite aspect of them is that they aren’t really evil other than in name. We’re given many glimpses into their pasts throughout the show and how many other things they’ve tried and failed to do, and by the end they come across as villains who are only villains because they need the money to eat instead of some generic puppy-kicking bad guys, and that very subtle blurring of the good/evil dichotomy is a great lesson for both kids and adults.
The animation by OLM is, unfortunately, pretty much what you’d expect from a kids’ show. While the bright colors and unique Pokemon designs that adapt Ken Sugimori’s original concept art excellently are still there, the actual animation is about as bare bones as you can possibly get, complete with whooshing backgrounds that anime has used for decades as a cheap way of conveying speed or intensity. While the battles themselves can be pretty exciting at times, it usually not because of stellar fight choreography, so the series has to rely on its creativity and the strength of its story to carry the action sequences through. Pokemon is also one of the few anime that changed over from cel-animation to digital within a single season instead of waiting for time off to make the switch, and you can definitely see that they needed a little more time to adjust to their new tools.
With the soundtrack, Shinji Miyazaki does a great job of adapting Junichi Masuda’s themes from the original video games, while also adding in his own tracks for more variety. Additionally, though I can’t find out who it was, some tracks were replaced by another composer for the dub release, and this becomes very apparent when John Loeffler’s tracks from Mewtwo Strikes Back end up being implemented in seasons 4 and 5.
I would say that now it the time for the debate over subs or dubs, but let’s be honest: if you really need a reason to stay away from this dub in particular, then you really don’t need me to tell you that. It’s definitely not the best acted dub ever and there are some pretty awkward script changes, as well as some laughable translation errors, but, to me at least, not hearing Veronica Taylor, Rachel Lillis, and Eric Stuart plays these parts would be even more jarring for me than the awkward acting, which I actually experienced while watching the banned episodes that were never dubbed.
Overall, if you’re looking for me to say that Pokemon is worth a nostalgia trip, then I can respond with a wholehearted “absolutely.” Adults with enjoy the creativity and heart that this series has to offer just as much as they did when they were younger. If you’re looking for advice on whether to show this to your own kids, then I can say yes to that as well, especially if they’re already Pokemon fans, as the fun and excitement of it all will draw them in while also feeding them strong moral values like respect for others and never giving up. Of course, it also goes without saying that if you never saw this series while growing up, or if you’re not really a Pokemon fan at all, then I’d be hard pressed to recommend it, though I do think there is some value in it as a standalone work.
In regards to my thoughts on each season individually, there is definitely a lot of credence to the prevailing idea of season 1, The Indigo League, having the highest concentration of great episodes. However, my personal favorite has always been season 2, the Orange Islands, as I found breaking away from the game’s story entirely was both a bold move and a great way to get even crazier with some of the ideas. Season 5, Master Quest, also has a ton of episodes that sit towards the top of my favorites like the Larvitar arc, Baby Lugia arc, the Whirl Cup, and the Johto Silver Conference. In terms of which is the weakest, I’d say season 3, Johto Journeys, just barely edges out season 4, Johto League Champions. Both of them only had maybe one of two really great episodes like Hour of the Houndour or The Wayward Wobbufett, but Johto Journeys definitely had a higher concentration of bad episodes. I had actually never seen the episode where Ash catches his Chikorita until my most recent viewing of the series, and, in hindsight, I might have preferred for it to stay that way, as it was easily one of the worst episodes of the entire series.
As a brief note, however, if you plan on only watching the first five seasons as I have and not continuing on to Pokemon Advanced, I would suggest skipping Episode 276 “Hoenn Alone!,” as it feels more like the first episode of season 6 than the last episode of season 5. As for my reasoning on why I stopped there for my review, I consider Pokemon Advanced the start of a long decline in both writing and animation quality for the Pokemon TV series, not just because of nostalgia bias, but because this marks the point where Takeshi Shudo, the lead writer responsible for creating the main character cast and the overall direction of the writing as a whole, stopped working on the series. After this point, the writing became more and more formulaic, repetitive, and completely lacking in the emotional punches that the first few seasons were so effective at doling out, so I really can’t recommend continuing on after season 5, at least until I get around to finishing X&Y.
Pokemon is licensed by Viz Media and the first five seasons are all readily available for purchase, though they do not contain the half dozen or so banned episodes like Electric Soldier Porygon or The Ice Cave. Additionally, the Pokemon TV website cycles through batches of episodes every week, so check them out to see if your favorite episode is up right now, though I did notice some definite audio problems while using their video player.
Final Score: Light 7