Long before I’d heard the term “anime,” years before I touched my first volume of manga, in a time before CrunchyRoll existed to provide hours of subtitled entertainment, there was Pokémon. A series where I could follow the adventures of a young boy and his friends as they set out to become the very best, like no one ever was. Nothing was more exciting than turning on the TV to find out what Ash and Pikachu were up to today. What new Pokémon would they encounter? Would Team Rocket blast off again? Would Misty ever get her bike back?
For Pokémon Week, I thought it would be good to have a post that focused on the series, rather than the games. After all, the show is what brought me to the games. I remember seeing the first movie in the theater and getting promotional trading cards. I remember how excited I was when they brought Mewtwo back in the fourth film, which I still own on VHS. I remember watching until somewhere in the Orange Islands, and for some reason never getting beyond that. I have a vague memory of waiting for the series to move to Johto, and never seeing any episodes take place there. I don’t recall why I stopped watching. But as the Pokémon franchise hits the twenty year mark, I thought it would be as good a time as any to revisit the anime that defined my childhood. And actually, in some ways, my whole Pokémon experience. Ever since Yellow, I’ve always named my character Ash in every Pokémon game. I know now of course that Ash was only the protagonist in Yellow and not in any of the other games, but it’s tradition at this point. Some people use their own names or the true names of the game characters. I use Ash. That’s the way it’s always been and the way it always will be.
This show is in it’s 19th season, with literally hundreds of episodes. Even the best binge-watcher on the planet couldn’t watch all of that in less than a week, it simply isn’t possible. So I’m going to play favorites, a bit, and do a sort of combination trip-down-memory-lane/check in at different points along the path kind of thing here. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything past Orange Islands, and I’m definitely going to be subject to intense nostalgia effects as far as the voice cast goes. So we’ll see how this goes; when we hit newer episodes, you’ll be getting completely fresh responses from me, not reactions to something I’ve already seen. Let’s start the trip!
NOTE: All numbering of episodes and seasons is according to the official Pokémon website. Their chronology is missing quite a few episodes — for instance, from what I can tell, “Showdown at Dark City” was originally episode 42 in Japan, aired as episode 40 in the US, and is now counted as episode 39. So don’t blame me if you’re an aficionado and my numbers aren’t matching up.
Season 1, Episodes 1-2: Pokémon, I Choose You!/Pokémon Emergency
How could I have started anywhere other than the very first story arc? We meet most of the key players in these episodes — the only main character yet to appear is Brock. But we’re introduced to Ash, Pikachu, Misty, and Team Rocket in this two-part saga about trust and bike theft. So how does it hold up? Surprisingly well, actually. I mean, sure, you can tell it’s a children’s show, but that doesn’t detract from it in the least. It’s a well-written opening story, and the relationships feel real. These characters aren’t immediately friends (we’re clearly ignoring Team Rocket at the moment, because friendship isn’t really their thing), but have to earn one another’s trust and become companions over time. Pikachu’s bond with Ash grows very quickly here, but it’s the same kind of situation as with people who fall in love with someone who saves them from a horrible accident or something (consider Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in Speed). High-stress situations are conducive to bonding. Meanwhile Ash and Misty are still on tenuous ground, as they should be. They’re practically strangers, Ash is a bike thief, the whole thing is a mess. Misty was certainly the first tsundere many of us were ever introduced to, but you can’t really blame her in cases like this one. She didn’t ask for any of this. Also, we hear Team Rocket’s motto for the first time, which, not even gonna lie, I still know word for word. Meowth, that’s right!
Season 1, Episodes 15-16: Battle Aboard the St. Anne/Pokémon Shipwreck
As I have vivid memories of watching this story as a child, I thought it would appropriate to revisit it now in honor of the anniversary. These stuck in my mind as some of my favorite episodes, probably because the main trio teaming up with Team Rocket seemed like such a novelty. The puns are weak, and as an adult, I find myself wondering how in the hell they could be so stupid as to not recognize Team Rocket on sight — their disguises are hilariously bad. But they’re still pretty solid episodes, and the tension is still there even all these years later.
Season 1, Episode 20: Bye Bye Butterfree
After all the trouble he goes through back in Episode 15 to get his Butterfree back from the trade… Ash goes and releases it. I get why he had to do it, for sure, and it’s a very well written episode. But the timing is just kind of awful, in my opinion. They could have saved it for later on. This is pretty much universally considered one of the most emotional episodes of the series, and with good reason. Though it was only around for nineteen episodes, we watched Butterfree evolve from a Caterpie, the first wild Pokémon Ash caught. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker to watch him say goodbye. On the bright side, though, we get to see Pikachu ride Butterfree into battle, which is probably the most majestic thing ever.
Season 1, Episode 39: Showdown at Dark City
I have a very vague memory of seeing this episode, and that’s only because of Pikachu and his ketchup. Which, of course, the Internet defines as “still a better love story than Twilight,” and I’d probably have to agree on that count. I’m actually really impressed with this one; I don’t know they did it, but the scenes with Pikachu and his ketchup actually elicit emotions, which makes literally zero sense to me. Ignoring the ham-fisted “Pokémon are friends, let’s all be nice to each other” message, this is a pretty good episode. And I’m like 90% sure Ash breaks the fourth wall at the end, so… bonus! Of course, he also still can’t recognize Team Rocket. “There’s something familiar about them…” he says… after Meowth speaks. HOW MANY TALKING MEOWTH DO YOU KNOW, ASH?!
Season 6, Episode 11: Gotta Catch Ya Later!
This is the first on this list that I know for a fact I never saw — it’s from the end of the Johto arc. From here on out, we’re in uncharted territory. Though the official site has it listed as toward the start of the sixth season, “Gotta Catch Ya Later!” is the second to last episode of the original series, with “Hoenn Alone!” being the finale. I chose “Gotta Catch Ya Later!” for this post, though, because though I hadn’t seen it before, it’s a pretty important episode for me. It’s the episode where Misty and Brock leave Ash’s company. And I can’t lie, I teared up a little. After all, this episode effectively ends the series that made up my childhood and splits up the trio that I grew up seeing as inseparable. It’s about as perfect an ending as you can get, and I’d guess that “Hoenn Alone!” is less an ending than it is setting up the next region. Misty gets her bike back, finally, Ash fends for himself and makes his own decisions, and Ho-oh makes an appearance flying across the sky to give Ash a sign of what he should do next — just like in the start of the series. I was definitely thrown a few times — the opening theme is different, and I don’t know why I expected it to be the same one I grew up with, but I was kind of insulted. Also Gary Oak. What the hell happened to Gary in all the seasons I missed? He didn’t say “Smell ya later!” He seems like a pretty nice dude, actually, and he showed a resolve and maturity that I definitely never saw in him when I watched the series all those years ago. This is not the Gary Oak I was delighted to beat the crap out of in Yellow, and it makes me very confused.
Don’t cry… don’t cry… BWWAAAHHHHH!!!
Season 6, Episodes 13-14: Get the Show on the Road/A Ruin With a View
I’m actually pretty pleased with these episodes, which kick off the Hoenn region. But I think it’s because they feel very carefully calculated to evoke memories of the original series. You have an ailing Pikachu, a girl (May) on a bike (which gets destroyed, because Ash is really bad around bikes), an attack at a Pokémon Center, an introduction to the villain team of the region (Team Magma, here, though our old friends Team Rocket are still at large, of course). Yeah, the parallels to the opening of the original series are extremely blunt. Like, it makes me wonder if they couldn’t come up with anything original. I don’t have any problem with May, though she really at the moments feels like a stand-in for Misty. Except she’s kind of an awful trainer, where at least Misty was pretty decent. I’d argue that her sisters being gym leaders had something to do with it, but May’s father is also a gym leader and she’s still awful, so… yeah. Ash is as dumb as ever — wondering if Treecko is a water-type is probably one of the most egregious moments of ineptitude I can recall seeing in this series AND I’M INCLUDING TEAM ROCKET IN THAT STATEMENT. Ultimately the story is more than a bit derivative but it’s a solid way to start of the new region.
Ash and May waiting for the fans to ship them
Season 8, Episode 52: Pasta La Vista
I picked this episode because it’s the last one with the original voice cast, before TAJ Productions bought the rights from 4Kids and recast the series, much the chagrin of the actors and the fans. In fact, when I met Veronica Taylor (Ash) and Rachael Lillis (Misty and Jessie), as well as a few other actors who I can’t recall offhand, it was only a couple of years after this change and there were still a number of groups actively petitioning TAJ to rehire the original cast. But despite their unceremonious ousting, the original cast was very gracious about all of it, and while they certainly appreciated the support, they never said a bad word about their successors.
But anyway. The episode is… well, it’s actually pretty weak. It wasn’t really holding my attention, Team Rocket was barely present, and Master Hamm annoyed me to no end. Honestly, it’s really a disappointing episode to serve as the final showing for the original cast. And sometimes they didn’t even sound like themselves! Eric Stuart is still playing James in this episode, but he sounds weird, like someone trying to do an impression of the original James; he’s also voicing Brock again, who returns to the series at some point after leaving back in “Gotta Catch Ya Later!,” but he sounds fine there. The late Maddie Blaustein is still voicing Meowth here, but there were moments where her voice over sounded strange too. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me because I know it’s their last episode. Either way, though, I think it was a poor episode to end a season with and a poor episode to serve as the last one for a phenomenal cast that provided the voices for one of the biggest franchises out there.
Season 9, Episode 1: Fear Factor Phony!
This one is the first episode to feature the new voice actors, so I thought it would make sense to check this one out. I went into it with very low expectations. And still came away disappointed. I knew the new voices weren’t considered good but I didn’t know just how bad it was. Ash sounds like he’s on drugs. His voice is lower, slower, and exhibits considerably less emotion. Brock’s voice is a bit deeper, and sort of gravelly. I’m not really sure how to describe May and Max, but I don’t like their voices either. James somehow sounds even more theatrical and flamboyant, as if that’s possible, and his voice is a touch deeper. Jessie actually sounds decent, but Meowth… oh man. I don’t know who thought this would work but that voice is not good… The whole thing just sounds like some sort of parody, or a bad fandub or something. There were times where I couldn’t tell if it was Brock, Ash, or Max talking, if none of them were on the screen.
That aside, though, the episode is pretty solid if you can suffer through the voices of your childhood being butchered. Story-wise it’s pretty good, and though there are always some pretty bad puns, it was decently humorous. I just can’t help but imagine how much better it would have been with the original cast.
You know their faces, but you’ve never heard them like THIS before!
Season 10, Episodes 1-3: Following a Maiden’s Voyage/Two Degrees of Separation/When Pokémon Worlds Collide
Up now is Dawn’s first appearance; I picked the first three episodes of the tenth season for this so that I could get the whole story and actually see her meet Ash. These are really good episodes. They’re funny, well written, and don’t feel rushed or anything. The main issue I have is still the voices. I just cannot get used to Ash’s post-Veronica Taylor voice. It’s physically painful. Dawn’s voice annoyed me at first, but I got over it. She seems pretty likable. Unfortunately she too fell victim to the bike curse. Ash needs to avoid girls with bikes. I’m guessing Iris and Serena had bikes that met the same fate, which I’ll find out for sure shortly.
On another note, Team Rocket had a couple of nice fourth-wall breaks here. I almost died when Jessie quipped that they’d “been after Pikachu so long [they’re] trademarked!” Meowth later on mentions saying something to the writers about the fact that they were blasting off yet again. He also mentions to Dawn that they’ve been aftet Pikachu “since you’ve been alive.” Which is pretty much true, given that she’s ten, and this episode aired nearly nine years after the series started. Meowth’s voice is still all sorts of wrong, and they’ve changed their motto — they’d actually had a slightly different one in the past few episodes I’ve watched, but I hadn’t really given it much thought at the time. The original is still and always will be the best. I was a little thrown when James said, about Dawn, upon finding out they were in Sinnoh, “That’s why she does’t know a bloody thing about us!” I wasn’t expecting “bloody” to show up in a show for kids, even if it’s not considered a swear in America.
I seriously don’t like Paul. I mean, as a character and foil to Ash, yeah, well done there. But he’s not likable and I was hoping Ash would hand him his ass.
Overall, even the voice acting can’t stop these being good, fun episodes.
Dawn joins Ash’s ever-growing harem. Uh, I mean, his party, she joins his party.
Season 14, Episodes 1-2: In the Shadow of Zekrom!/Enter Iris and Axew!
These episodes mark Iris’ first appearance and the start of Ash’s adventure in the Unova region. The animation has taken a new direction and an increase in quality. Though I do appreciate the usage of CGI to enhance certain sequences, I’m not a huge fan of the noticeably different art style. Ash somehow looks younger now than ever did before. Which brings me to Iris, in a roundabout way. I can see why she’s the least favorite among Ash’s female companions. She’s kind of annoying. And her constantly calling Ash “a kid” is downright infuriating. Not because it’s necessarily inaccurate, since Ash is clearly supposed to be young, but because she says it so pretentiously and so often. Like, seriously man, the guy is new to the region, of course he doesn’t know anything about the Pokémon there yet. Also even though he doesn’t seem to have aged, he should technically be like 23 at this point, going by how much time has passed in the real world, at least, so he’s probably older than her. On the other hand, he twice tries to catch a Pokémon without weakening it… and if we count Orange Islands as a region, this is his sixth region. You’d think he would know how to catch a damn Pokémon by this point. Also, Iris kind of seems like she’s supposed to be some sort of feral child? Which is weird because she seems pretty well-groomed and like she knows and comes from civilization, so I don’t really get what the deal is with her. I supposed I’d learn more about her if I watched further, but I don’t think I care enough about her to bother. Ic an just as easily look up her information online without having to suffer through her calling Ash a little kid fifty times an episode.
Team Rocket has black uniforms now, for some reason, and they seem like a much more credible threat. Which I also kind of like. Sure, goofy, incompetent Rocket is fun, but it could be interesting to see them as a real threat rather than the three who come on the scene only to get curb-stomped.
Thank God (should I say thank Arceus in this case?) that Iris doesn’t have a bike. She broke the curse!
Season 17, Episodes 5-6: A Blustery Santalune Gym Battle!/Battling on Thin Ice!
Serena’s first appearance is in the first episode of this season, actually, but since I’ve been framing my introductions to the primary female companions through their interactions with Ash, I’m skipping to the first story she and him share. Prior to these episodes, their story arcs are separate plots, and while that’s plenty interesting, it’s not what I’m looking at here. Ash may not be the best trainer ever, but he was one of the first characters I ever had a personal attachment to, and even looking back now and seeing his flaws, I still feel a special affection for him. And since he is the main character it’s only fair that I make me judgments through the lens of his story.
Plus, even without seeing her earlier episodes, it seems Serena’s story revolves around him too. I’ve been told that she is the only female companion to canonically have romantic feelings toward Ash — as opposed to the rest which have feelings that have never been confirmed but the fans swear up, down, and sideways exist. I’d agree with the camp that says Misty was totally into him. I can’t say about anyone else. Anyway, her reason for going to Santalune City seems to be to catch up with Ash. So I don’ think I missed much anything of import while scanning the descriptions of episodes to see where she actually catches up with him.
At any rate, I don’t have very strong opinions about her. She seems fine, but if she’s in this love-struck state all the time around Ash I can imagine it getting old fast. There was one moment here where she was kind of gushing about him, and I just wanted her to stop. But she mostly seems ok, and she has my favorite Kalos starter, Fennekin, so bonus points there.
These episodes (and I presume the whole season, at least) use a new version of the original theme song for the title sequence. It’s shortened, but it’s still a pretty awesome throwback. It seems the series followed the games and added in a healthy dose of nostalgia to go along with all of the new stuff, which is pretty cool. I know it was definitely a great moment for me to hear that old theme song, even if it is a new version. Ash’s voice sounds a whole lot better here, too. I don’t think it’s just me getting used to the new voice actor, either, I think his voice legitimately sounds better here than in earlier episodes. Clemont and Bonnie kind of get on my nerves, but they’re mostly tolerable. Some other things I noticed: Team Rocket didn’t appear in these episodes, so I can’t comment on them in the new region; and the animation looks way better here than in the last episodes I watched — it looks more like modern anime you might find on CrunchyRoll, and the integration of the CGI graphics is very nicely done. Ultimately I thought these were decent episodes. Not the best ever, but decent. The gym battles with Viola were pretty intense and enjoyable, and there were some interesting moments strewn about that almost feel like self-awareness. For one, Ash gets uncharacteristically down on himself after losing his first battle at the gym, and he notes it himself later on that it’s unusual for him to act like that. At another time, Serena points out that he hasn’t changed since she met him years ago at summer camp — to which bursts out laughing and says no, he hasn’t changed at all. I find myself wondering if that was a nod to how he hasn’t aged in the least since the series started — and how sometimes he still seems like he hasn’t learned a damn thing after all these years. It’d certainly be interesting if the writers were thinking about this stuff when they wrote the lines.
Season 19, Episode 1: From A to Z!
This is the most recent episode to air in America as of this writing (episode two drops on Saturday). And it’s actually really good. I mean, I don’t know the story leading up to it, but the plot about “Z” (the new legendary, Zygarde). It’s apparently the result of some sort of experiments being performed by Lysandre and Team Flare — which, if we remember our lessons from Mewtwo, will definitely not turn out bad in any way shape or form. The animation quality is on par with season 17, above, or maybe even a little bit better. Serena’s hair is cut into a wavy bob, noticeably shorter than her debut — it was a bit jarring, which is why I mention it. Team Rocket pops up in this one, back in their classic uniforms. While there are a lot of plot threads and characters that I’m unfamiliar with, I’m actually considering picking up the series from here, if only to find out what the deal is with “Z.” It seems like an unusually intense storyline, and it’s actually got me interested. So I suppose that says something. After all the trouble it went through after the recast, it seems Pokémon has hit its stride again. It could be interesting to see what happens from here.
So there you have it. I’d like to think this gives a pretty good overview of the anime. It’s had ups and downs, but given that it’s in its 19th season, over 900 episodes (counting the specials and episodes that haven’t aired in the US, be they upcoming or simply cut), and has its 19th movie coming out in July, I think I’d say that overall, Pokémon has maintained a surprising level of quality. Sure, the recasting of the voice actors seriously dropped the quality of the dub, but like I spoke to above, the stories themselves were actually pretty good. And I think the series has actually largely recovered from that… well, “disaster” is too strong a word, but you get the idea. It was a bad move for everyone involved, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.
In the end, it’s certainly been interesting for me to relive some of my Pokémon anime memories, and look at what the series has been up to since I left. It’s come a long way since I last saw it, and while it may not all be to my taste, if it serves to get new generations interested in the series, well, then I guess we can chalk that up as a win. I said before, everyone experiences Pokémon their own way, and that extends to the anime too. My Ash may be the one taking on the Indigo League with Misty and Brock by his side, but if someone else’s Ash is travelling Kalos with Serena and company, well, who am I to say they’re wrong? To them, that’s the Ash they know. And you know what? I think that’s great. They’ll have their own memories and nostalgia, and maybe some day they’ll be in my position — looking back on all their favorite memories and looking at the things that were memories for other people. And that’s another win we can give Pokémon — creating memories that will last a lifetime.
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