Screen Time: Pokémon Origins

Air Date: 2 October 2013
Worldwide Network: Pokémon TV 
Original Network: TV Tokyo
Stars: Bryce Papenbrook, Lucien Dodge, Jamieson Price, Kirk Thornton, and Kyle Hebert

The Background:
The brainchild of executive director Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon began life as Capsule Monsters (later changed to Pocket Monsters and rebranded as Pokémon for the games’ worldwide release), a role-playing game inspired by Tajiri’s childhood days wandering through forests and collecting bugs. Thanks largely to the decision to produce two versions of the game, each with different Pokémon to collect and encouraging gamers to battle and trade with their friends to catch every Pokémon, the games sold very well in Japan and were soon localised for a worldwide audience. Fearing that American audiences would struggle to connect with the game’s cute concepts and creatures, Nintendo apparently spent well over $50 million localising, rebranding, and marketing the games for their international release. It turns out, however, that Nintendo were wrong to doubt Pokémon’s appeal; still, when Pokémon: Blue Version and Pokémon: Red Version released in 1998, they were accompanied by an anime, a trading card game, and more advertisements and media coverage than you could shake a stick it. Of course, history shows us that this aggressive strategy paid off; Blue and Red sold over 30 million copies worldwide, birthing one of Nintendo’s most popular and enduring videogame franchises ever, and the anime continues to air to this day, with feature-length movies and television specials being regularly produced.

Thanks to a co-ordinated marketing campaign, Pokémon dominated an entire generation.

In short, Pokémon was not just some short-lived fad of one generation but a multimedia blockbuster franchise that has spanned multiple generations and shows no signs of stopping. By 2013, there were over 720 Pokémon to be found, battled, and traded in comparison to the 150 regularly-obtainable Pokémon of the original videogames. The anime was well into its sixteenth season, having aired over 780 episodes, the sixteenth feature-length movie had just been released, the excellent ongoing Pokémon Adventures manga (Various, 1997 to present) was entering its eleventh chapter, and Pokémon was celebrating its fifteenth anniversary that year. This was also the year that Production I.G, Xebec, and OLM, Inc. produced a ninety-minute animated special, split into four parts, which retold the events of the original games in a way that was more faithful to the source material than the regular, ongoing anime. First broadcast on TV Tokyo ten days before the release of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y (Game Freak, 2013), the episodes were dubbed into English with a new voice cast and made available both on home media (in some countries) and to watch on various online platforms, including Pokémon TV.

The Plot:
Red (Papenbrook) and his childhood friend and rival, Blue (Dodge), have been chosen to select their first Pokémon from Professor Oak (Hebert). Tasked with completing Oak’s lifelong dream of capturing and recording data on all Pokémon, they set out into the region of Kanto, battling both Gym Leaders and the nefarious Team Rocket in a quest to not only capture every Pokémon but also become Pokémon League Champion.

The Review:
Pokémon: Origins is split into four parts, “File 1: Red” (Kawasaki, 2013), “File 2: Cubone” (Kuroda, ibid), “File 3: Giovanni (Takahashi, ibid), and “File 4: Charizard” (Tomiyasu, ibid). The animation style is quite different to that of the existing Pokémon series; for one thing, Origins looks much more professionally rendered and of a higher quality than even some of the Pokémon feature films. For another, many episodes feature music inspired directly from the videogames, with the classic Pokémon battle theme playing during Pokémon battles and the iconic, creepy Lavender Town theme playing when the story reaches the haunted Pokémon Tower. Of course, the anime did feature remixed versions of some recognisable Pokémon themes but nowhere to the degree of Origins; Origins also opens and closes each episode with a game save/load screen and includes dialogue boxes ripped right from the videogame.

Origins includes many aspects and mechanics from the videogames.

This closer fidelity to the source material brings Origins more in-line with Pokémon Adventures, which recreated many of the gameplay mechanics of the videogames with a surprising amount of detail and loyalty compared to the anime but also took the source material a bit more seriously as well, featuring blood, much higher stakes, and even Pokémon dying. While Origins doesn’t go fully down this path, it does go out of its way to stay closer to the source material than the anime: Red receives Technical Machines (TMs) and Hidden Machines (HMs) in the form of floppy discs, just like in the game; Pokémon battles (while generally much faster and glossed over thanks to Origins’ short runtime) are much more intense and closer to how they go down in the games (there’s no bullshit strategies like sprinkling water on an Onix to make it weak to electric attacks); and many of the items (such as the PokéFlute, the fishing rods, and the Silph Scope) from the videogame make an appearance, albeit a brief one.

Sadly, Origins glosses over many of the game’s important battles and plot points.

Something that lets Origins down, though, is the brevity of its narrative and the way it devotes the focus of each of its four episodes. “File 1: Red” begins in standard fashion, with Red and Blue beginning their Pokémon journey, establishing their rivalry (which is much friendlier than portrayed in the games or the early days of the anime), and Red learning the basics of Pokémon battling and capturing from Brock (Johnny Yong Bosch). However, from “File 2: Cubone”, each subsequent episode begins, and includes, a recap and a montage of sorts that glosses over what I consider to be some very important story beats: Red tells us about, and we briefly see, how he defeats the majority of the Gym Leaders (we only see him battle two in full throughout the course of the series), acquires the aforementioned fishing rods, captures the majority of his Pokémon (again, we only really see him capture a handful in any kind of detail), the evolution of his Charmander (Shin’ichirō Miki), and even his battles against the Elite Four and, most egregious of all, some of his most important encounters with the villainous Team Rocket.

Red and Blue begrudingly team up but Team Rocket are easily defeated despite their reputation.

Obviously, there are only four episodes of this mini series so the story cannot cover everything from the videogames but, for me, glossing over Red’s first meeting with Team Rocket and his eventual vendetta against them is a bit of a mistake. Take “File 2: Cubone”, for example; sure, it features Team Rocket having overtaken the Pokémon Tower, but it’s far more concerned with the trauma the group caused Cubone (Cristina Vee) and the ghost that haunts the tower. Red and Blue begrudgingly team up to solve both problems but Team Rocket is easily defeated first off-screen by Blue and then with a ridiculous amount of ease by Red, who successfully scares them off after defeating one of their Pokémon. Considering how the townsfolk were so afraid of Team Rocket’s power and threat earlier in this episode, this is more than a little disappointing and I would have preferred to see Red’s journey through Mt. Moon and his battle against Lieutenant Surge to help properly establish Team Rocket’s threat in this world. On the plus side, at least the group isn’t portrayed as largely ineffectual bunch of goofballs and Red takes his opposition to their plot a lot more seriously than Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor/Sarah Natochenny).

Although he stumbles in the first episode, Red quickly becomes a competent and capable trainer.

When comparing Red to Ash, it’s like comparing night to day or apples to oranges. There are some similarities but these are generally due to the fact that both characters are based on the avatar from the games and therefore follow the same path the player forges in the source material. While both are big Pokémon fans and excited to become Pokémon trainers and both start out knowing very little about the actual mechanics of Pokémon battling, capturing, and the scope of their journey, it takes Red a bit more time to learn that a close bond with his Pokémon is required to grow stronger and succeed in battle. While Brock does help to teach him these lessons, Red’s bond with Charmander is nowhere near as intense as Ash’s with Pikachu (Ikue Ōtani) yet he quickly becomes a far more competent trainer than Ash; in a surprising amount of restraint, Pikachu only appears in a brief cameo and, to separate Red from Ash even more, Red not only uses a far more competent Electric-Type Pokémon in Jolteon (Unknown) but only captures a Pikachu after he has become the Pokémon League Champion! Granted, most of this is implied, seen in montages, or takes place between episodes but Red captures way more Pokémon (mainly because he’s much more committed to completing the PokéDex than Ash), easily defeats pretty much every trainer and Gym Leader he comes up against, and has a far more well-balanced and well-trained team than Ash has ever had. Hell, Red even ends up with Articuno (ibid) in his squad and, generally speaking, has much more in common with his counterpart from Pokémon Adventures, who was also a far more competent and capable trainer compared to Ash.

Blue is humbled in defeat, realising Red’s bond with his Pokémon has made him superior.

One thing that helps separate Origins from the anime is the relationship between Red and Blue; in the games, and the anime, these two had a largely antagonistic relationship throughout the story until facing off in the Pokémon League. Here, though, while Blue is arrogant and a blowhard and determined to complete the PokéDex before Red and become a more powerful and capable trainer than him (he picks Squirtle (ibid) not because it matches his name but specifically because it will give him the type advantage over Red’s Charmander), he and Red have a much more friendly rivalry than one based on actual animosity. Blue sees himself as Red’s superior and seems to both be motivated to beat Red to the punch wherever possible and happy to walk away from confronting the likes of Team Rocket when it doesn’t suit him but the two are generally more about ribbing on each other and winding each other up about their progress and abilities than actually hating each other. Sadly, though, because of the brevity of the mini series, Red and Blue only battle head to head twice in this story; the first time, Red is soundly defeated as his strategy of mindlessly attacking without having properly developed trust and partnership with his Charmander prove his downfall. Brock specifically uses Blue as an example of a trainer who has established this bond and it is from both of them that Red learns to put his love and trust into his Pokémon, which are treated as his beloved partners and allies rather than mere tools. However, when they face-off again in “File 4: Charizard”, the tables have turned; though Blue has already become the Pokémon League Champion, he falls to Red despite having amassed a team powerful and diverse enough to conquer any and all opponents not because of his lack of strength but because he had failed to maintain the bonds of trust and friendship between himself and his partners. Humbled by his defeat, Blue nevertheless congratulates Red on his victory and accomplishments and the two retain a friendly rivalry for the final episode of the anime, one based on Blue’s desire to one-up Red at any opportunity while still acknowledging his skill and capability.

Battling with Red awakens a passion that Giovanni had long forgotten.

Despite much of Origins being reduced to quick montages, there is still a strong sense of Red’s capability throughout the anime; after learning valuable lessons from Blue and Brock, Red goes from strength to strength, easily defeating other trainers and Gym Leaders even when he has a massive type disadvantage. Not counting that initial battle against Blue, Red only runs into two roadblocks throughout his journey, the first being his showdown against Giovanni (Price). Though Red’s first meeting with the Team Rocket boss is glossed over in a recap, his battle against him for the Earth Badge is a significant part of the aptly-named “File 3: Giovanni”. The strength of Giovanni’s Rhyhorn (Unknown) alone is enough to wipe out all of Red’s team even when Red has the type advantage but Red’s determination and passion for both battling and towards his Pokémon awakens something in Giovanni he had long forgotten. Exhilarated by the thrill of the battle (even though it’s ridiculously one-sided in his favour for the majority of the time), Giovanni is impressed, humbled, and even grateful to have been defeated by such a zealous trainer. So touched is Giovanni that he disbands Team Rocket and wishes Red well on the remainder of his journey, urging Red to follow the path that he (Giovanni) strayed from long ago and pledging to carve a new path for himself going forward.

Mewtwo represents Red’s final, and greatest, challenge.

The second obstacle Red encounters is hinted at in “File 2: Cubone” and forms the central focus of “File 4: Charizard” and it is, of course, Mewtwo (ibid). Mewtwo’s threat is immediately established by how badly, and easily, it overwhelms Blue, leaving him badly injured and putting the wind up the usually arrogant trainer. Nevertheless, motivated by the desire to finally complete Oak’s PokéDex, Red heads to Cerulean Cave to confront the creature, which is still a genetic copy of the mythical Pokémon Mew (Christine Marie Cabanos) but, unlike in the anime and manga, it never speaks or communicates in any way other than brutal, aggressive battle. Far from the nuanced, tortured character in other media, Mewtwo is portrayed more as simply an extremely powerful Pokémon to be captured like any other, which is much more in-line with its position in the games as a “super boss” of sorts rather than a pivotal plot point. However, even Red is unable to match Mewtwo’s monstrous power; luckily, though, he was gifted two Mega Stones by the mysterious Mr. Fuji (Kirk Thornton) in “File 2: Cubone” and, even more helpfully, they just so happen to react to the close bond between Red and Charizard (Shin’ichirō Miki) and allow Charizard to mega evolve into Mega Charizard X (did I mention that Origins came out around the same time as Pokémon X and Y?) This is enough of a power boost to allow Red to overwhelm Mewtwo faster than it can react and capture it with a ridiculous amount of ease; seriously, Red throws two Ultra Balls and captures Mewtwo with the second, which is some serious bullshit when you think about how many damn balls it can take to snag Mewtwo in the games. I would have liked to see Red use a Master Ball but, sadly, he never acquires one in Origins as it’s merely an unfinished prototype in this story.

Origins ends with Red eager to find more Pokémon, starting with the mythical Mew.

Regardless, Red is successful and captures all 150 Pokémon but his mission is far from over as, while celebrating with Oak and Blue, he remembers that Mewtwo was created from Mew and rushes out a bundle of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of encountering and capturing still more Pokémon. It’s here, and in Red’s steadfast determination in battle, that we see the closest links between Red and Ash: both are stubborn in battle and endlessly excited about capturing and finding new Pokémon. However, Red ends Origins a far more accomplished and experienced trainer; he’s the Pokémon League Champion, for one thing, and now has numerous Legendary and incredibly powerful Pokémon in his possession. In this regard, Origins ends exactly as a standard game of Blue or Red would end, with the character having numerous Pokémon at their disposal and ridiculously overpowered. While Ash does also grow and become more accomplished as a trainer, this takes…what? A hundred episodes? Two hundred? And even then he still makes rookie mistakes; no such foibles befall Red but, to be fair, much of his growth as a trainer and a character is implied, rushed through in montages, or takes place between episodes and relies heavily on the viewer’s familiarity with the videogames to fill in the blanks whereas the anime is able to use many (many) episodes to show Ash’s numerous lessons and growth.

The Summary:
Pokémon: Origins is an extremely enjoyable, gorgeously-animated anime; everything from the character designs, Pokémon battles, and sounds is fantastic to look at and closely reminiscent of the source material. Unlike the anime (and a lot of Pokémon media), Pokémon do not constantly speak their names and instead have more realistic, animal sounds like in the games; Japanese text is also left unaltered, which is refreshing, and while many elements, mechanics, and important plot points from the games are glossed over, at least they’re actually included here rather than either being ignored or significantly altered. As much as I enjoy the anime (specifically the films because of their focus on Legendary Pokémon), it can be grating at times to follow a character as annoying and unreliable as Ash and, because of that, Red is a breath of fresh air. Like his manga counterpart, Red is competent, brave, and determined; he starts out as a rookie, knowing very little about the basics and nuances of Pokémon battling, and quickly matures to the point where he can defeat Gym Leaders with ease, single-handedly brings down Team Rocket (something Ash is still struggling to do), and not only captures Legendary Pokémon but casually uses them as part of his team just like the player would. His fidelity to the player’s character and journey is commendable; he learns the same lessons that the player does throughout the game while still being his own distinct character separate from the player’s avatar, Ash, and even his manga counterpart.

Origins‘s fidelity is impressive, though it rushes through many usually-important plot points.

It’s this fidelity to the source material that elevates Pokémon: Origins and makes up the majority of its appeal; the anime strayed too far from the gameplay mechanics and spirit of the games for my taste, as much as I enjoy it, so it’s refreshing to see such a well-crafted and well-animated series tell a very similar story to the anime but in a way that is so much closer to the source material. The only thing that lets Pokémon: Origins down is the brevity of its narrative; limiting its story to just four episodes means so much of the game’s story gets glossed over and the focus can be a bit skewed at times. While, at its core, it focuses on Red’s journey and his mission to complete the PokéDex and his ongoing rivalry with Blue and Team Rocket, I can’t help but feel like this would have benefitted from being more like ten episodes to spend a bit more time on Team Rocket, Red’s battles against the Kanto Gym Leaders, and, specifically, his battles against the Elite Four.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What did you think about Pokémon: Origins? How do you think it holds up when compared to the anime and numerous feature films? Did you enjoy how faithful it was to the source material or do you feel that it was weighed down by focusing on fidelity over telling a more unique story? Do you agree that certain parts were rushed or were you happy with the story it told? Which character, or Pokémon, is your favourite and why? How did you capture Mewtwo when you first played Pokémon? Whatever you think, do please leave a comment below and join me next Saturday for National Pokémon Day!

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