Even though plenty of scholars have written essays about the Pokémon franchise, almost no one seems to take it seriously as literature. Despite this academic trend, I think the Pokémon video games can and should be read as Japanese literature, by which I mean that we should look carefully at their content and worldview as they are transmitted through gameplay and in-game text. I believe that, if we can look deeper than the transnational economic implications of the games and the “gotta catch ‘em all” ideology used to market them, it’s clear that they deal with some interesting issues. Here are three of these issues:
(1) Human society must constantly negotiate its paradoxical relationship with the natural world.
The theme of pokémon acting as symbolic stand-ins for natural resources has always been present in the video games, but it has become more clearly defined with each successive generation. Each of the games is set in a region loosely based on an area of Japan (or, in the case of the most recent generation, New York City and its suburbs), and each of these regions spreads out around a central urban area. Pokémon (usually) cannot be found in cities or towns, however, but must be sought out in the green spaces of each region – the fields, the caves, the mountains, the rivers, and the seas. Although some pokémon are similar to domestic animals, the majority are closely linked to nature. Some even have control over natural forces such the tides, the winds, and volcanic eruptions. In other words, pokémon are not creatures that are somehow separate from nature, such as dogs or cows (or digimon), but they in fact are nature.
While some pokémon are regarded as companions (nakama), there is a running discourse throughout the games that wild and semi-wild pokémon must be protected (mamoru or hogen suru). The villains of the games are criminal or terrorist organizations that selfishly and inhumanely employ pokémon for their own purposes. For example, Team Rocket, an organization present in first generation of games, sells pokémon for money as if the creatures were no more than consumer goods. This behavior is very clearly marked as evil, and its negative consequences are visibly demonstrated. The most recent generation, Pokémon Black/White, features villains who attempt to manipulate people by shaking the very foundations of their relationship with the world, telling them to release their pokémon from bondage, thereby allowing them return to nature. Your player-protagonist, however, restores balance by demonstrating that human beings and pokémon are meant to live together in harmony. Thus, exploiting nature is obviously bad, but living in a world separated from nature is also undesirable.
The primary goal of the player-protagonist is to travel the world and collect pokémon in order to complete his or her pokédex (pokemon zukan). If pokémon represent the natural world, such a project implies that human beings can break up this world into bite-sized chunks, consume it, and thus know it completely. Such arrogance is troubling. Also troubling are the pokémon battles that trainers use to develop the abilities of their pokémon, who are otherwise stored safely away in small capsules called pokéballs. It is difficult to read these two central aspects of gameplay as a positive analogy of the human relationship with the natural world. I would argue, however, that copious amounts of text in all of the generations of the games establishes pokémon battles as mutually beneficial to both the pokémon and their trainers, who are repeatedly reminded not to take their pokémon for granted and instead to respect and value them (taisetsu ni suru). Moreover, despite the grubbingly acquisitive nature of the task of pokédex completion, the text within the game justifies this project by positing that the better we understand pokémon, the better we will be able to share the world with them. According to the central ideology underlying the games, then, “catching ‘em all” is a scientific project designed to inspire curiosity towards and appreciation of the natural world.
The relationship between human beings and pokémon is presented as mutually beneficial, although humanity must constantly check its excesses in an effort to ensure that pokémon are protected and treated in a humane and respectful manner. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the worlds of the Pokémon video games are filled with grass, trees, and flowers. Boats, trains, and bicycles help people get from one place to another, but cars and airplanes are notably absent. Pokémon Diamond/Pearl even features an electric power plant run entirely by wind power, whose giant white windmill turbines exhibit one of the most beautiful and striking uses of the Nintendo DS console’s graphic capabilities. A world that respects its pokémon, then, is a world of lush greenery that can still accommodate all the conveniences of modern technology and an urban lifestyle.
(2) A “gender-free” society is not as far-fetched as we might think.
As soon as a player begins any one of the Pokémon video games, she must create her player-protagonist. Even before she can name this character, however, she is asked a simple question in one of the series’s most iconic lines of text: “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”
The player’s answer to this question has almost no ramifications on gameplay. The boy protagonist is equipped with a backpack, while the girl protagonist is equipped with a messenger bag. The boy protagonist wears a beret, while the girl protagonist wears a beanie. The boy protagonist gets a blue cell phone, while the girl protagonist gets a red cell phone. The boy protagonist wears cargo pants, while the girl protagonist wears cutoff shorts.
Aside from these minor differences in in-game graphics, the gameplay experience is exactly the same for a male protagonist and a female protagonist. The male protagonist has a competitive rivalry with a childhood friend, and so does the female protagonist. The female protagonist has a close relationship with her mother, and so does the male protagonist. The male protagonist can ride around on his bicycle at all hours of the night, and so can the female protagonist. The female protagonist is bullied and treated condescendingly by the male villain, and so is the male protagonist. With very few exceptions (such as the chan or kun suffix used when other characters address the protagonist), there are no gender-dependent differences in the way the people in the games’ universe treat your character. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the stories are written for a male protagonist, with a female protagonist being tacked on as an option with no other purpose than to give the game more color and variety.
Besides the protagonist, his or her rival, and the main villains of the story, the characters with the most distinct personalities and graphic designs are the eight gym leaders whom your character must battle in order to advance in each game. After your protagonist has defeated the eight gym leaders, s/he becomes qualified to battle the “Elite Four” (shitennō), who serve as gatekeepers to each game’s most challenging opponent, the regional Pokémon Champion. The gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion all have distinct personalities and character designs. In the first generation of the games, the personalities and designs of these characters tended to fall along gender stereotypes. The gym leaders specializing in defense-oriented water and grass pokémon were female, and the gym leaders specializing in attack-oriented rock and electric pokémon were male. As the series has progressed, however, the gender stereotypes that characterized the gym leaders and the Elite Four have gradually faded away. A gym leader specializing in dragon pokémon and regional history can be female, and a gym leader specializing in insect pokémon and art exhibitions can be male. The regional Pokémon Champion can be female, along with the Pokémon Professor who initially gives your protagonist his or her pokédex.
The gender of each of the game’s characters therefore has very little bearing on that character’s interests, talents, or personality. In fact, the gender of these characters often seems little more than window dressing. The various generic trainers whom your character encounters come in male and female varieties, and there is almost no gendered difference in their choice of pokémon, fighting ability, clothing, or dialog text. (There are a few exceptions, such as the gender-specific trainer categories of yama otoko and otona no onēsan, but these exceptions are relatively minor.) In the pokémon universe, then, it seems that there is no social, political, or cultural discrimination between genders. You can choose to be a boy, or you can choose to be a girl. Outside of your own personal choice, the games are almost entirely gender free. This is part of what makes them fun.
(3) There are as many versions of a text as there are readers who engage with the text.
Just as a player is free to choose the gender of her player-protagonist, she is also free to choose her path through each of the games. The narrative progression of the pokémon games is more or less linear – defeat the eight gym leaders and then battle the Elite Four to become a Pokémon Master (dendō iri) – but the player can follow or deviate from this linear structure as she chooses. The opening chapters of each game shuffle your character from one gym battle to the next; but, around the halfway point of each of the games, the player is given significantly more freedom to set off on her own and explore the world around her.
The game opens up to the player in two ways: through the acquisition of skills and through optional side quests. As your character wins gym battles, s/he gradually becomes able to train pokémon to remove obstacles such as large rocks and impassable underbrush. An astute player can remember the locations of these obstacles and return later in order to investigate what lies beyond. The ability to move across the surface of water also opens expansive areas that the player may choose to either explore or ignore entirely. Along with the ability to access more of the in-game world, the player is also offered the option of visiting out-of-the-way areas such as ancient ruins, wrecked ships, steel welding plants, mountain valleys, and underwater caves. Although visiting such areas will yield tangible benefits to gameplay, such as useful items and an opportunity to test one’s pokémon against a wider variety of trainers, it is absolutely not necessary to the game’s plot or progression that the player do so. Instead, the thrill of discovery and the adventure of venturing into the unknown drive the player to complete tasks that have nothing to do with defeating the bad guys and challenging the Elite Four.
It stands to reason, then, that every player will follow a different path through the games. It is also possible that different players will encounter different variations on each game’s story. These stories are told mainly through choreographed cut scenes over which the player has no control, and the player is not able to affect the outcome of the game in any way. Supporting this main story, however, are dozens of smaller stories that are fleshed out through the player’s interaction with the various NPCs (non-player characters) that inhabit the world alongside the player-protagonist. Each city and town that the player visits, for example, is populated by people willing to talk to the player-protagonist and even invite him or her into their houses and apartments. The player can choose to seek these people out and engage them, or she may simply ignore them and continue to advance the game’s plot without being bothered by such details. Likewise, the player may enjoy visiting the maritime museum and learning about sea currents and ship buoyancy in Poké Ruby/Sapphire or visiting the library in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and reading short stories based on creation myths from the Hokkaido region, but she has no reason or motivation to do so besides her own curiosity. As a result of this type of open-ended gameplay, each player’s experience will be uniquely her own.
In other words, each of the games in the Pokémon franchise is an open text from which the player can gather bits of information according to her interests and desires. It could also be argued that the minimal characterization of the blank-slate protagonists also allows the player a significant degree of freedom of interpretation, as well as an augmented ability to insert herself in the world of the game. The Pokémon games are not true “sandbox” (complete open world exploration) games, however, but are driven by a fairly linear narrative of personal advancement and good triumphing over evil. In this way, I think, they are able to serve as experimental models of the way people read literature: not as slaves chained to the words on the page and the intentions of the author, but rather as empowered agents capable of making their own choices regarding interpretation, character identification, emotional investment, and non-linear progress through the story.
I believe that the Pokémon games thus serve as an excellent analogy for the ways in which we consume, digest, and reproduce narratives. A large part of the appeal of these games, which are bought and played by many people much older than their intended demographic, is the combination of a compelling story and a rich and detailed world in which to play. Numerous studies on fandom from both sides of the Pacific suggest the same thing: It’s not just the story that draws in readers, but also the setting, which has the power to generate even more stories. The appeal of the Pokémon franchise is the appeal of something like the Harry Potter franchise; and, the more we understand how such narratives work, the more we will understand the process of reading, interpreting, and communicating the stories that shape our lives.
In conclusion, I think the Pokémon games are a pretty big deal. I also think video games in general are a pretty big deal. The past five years have witnessed an influx of groundbreaking academic studies on titles like Halo and Everquest, but scholars involved in Japan Studies seem to be stuck on treating Japanese video games as an economic and anthropological phenomenon. These new media narratives are so fascinating and complex, however, that it’s a shame not to treat them as literature as well. I have high hopes for the rising generation of scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the academic articles on Japanese video games that are already starting to emerge.
Some of the most interesting academic work done on Pokémon in English can be found in Anne Allison’s anthropological study Millennial Monsters, which also covers topics like Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers franchise. Pikachu’s Global Adventure collects eleven essays on the Pokémon franchise written from various perspectives, such as marketing and early childhood psychological development.
One of my favorite essays on the Pokémon games as literary narratives is Yagi Chieko’s “Monogatari wa kawarieru ka: Seichō monogatari toshite no Pokemon o yomu,” which can be found in the 2006 issue of the journal Joseigaku Nenpō.
The April 2009 issue of the journal Eureka, RPG no bōken, is all about video games, and it contains an interesting essay by Shina Hidekuni titled “Pokemon to Monhan no yasei no shikō.” Shina is a fun writer, and he co-edits a journal called Game Maestro that I will definitely be checking out during my next research trip to Japan.