This article was originally published in April 2015.
Pokemon games offer straightforward narratives in a consistent structure: You are a boy or girl that hikes from town to town competing to win badges and you somehow always end up taking down a criminal organization. Your character is almost never in danger, the world is almost never at the brink of collapse and most of the game’s conflict takes the form of friendly sparring matches.
The Pokemon franchise is famous for many things, but story isn’t one of them. (Warning: This article features spoilers for every main-series Pokemon game.)
This plot structure sits in stark contrast with typically melodramatic JRPG storylines. The lack of drama in Pokemon allows you to explore a relatively stable world in a state of equilibrium. Traveling the towns for the sake of collecting badges makes each town feel like a tourism destination rather than a checkpoint between action sequences.
Criminal organizations like Team Rocket give the game developers a mouthpiece that can wax philosophical about systemic problems with the world, without actually showing any of those problems. You aren’t seeing a world that was or is about to be shattered by a giant space meteor; the Pokemon world is almost always at peace. This is by design.
Series creator Satoshi Taijri said in a Time Magazine interview that Pokemon is based on his childhood hobby of catching bugs in the rural outskirts of Tokyo in the 1960s. In the same interview, Taijri also says it’s important to him that Pokemon “faint” instead of “die” and he thinks death is treated too flippantly in video games. He discussed how these simple creative choices affect kids and their perception of the world. The “cram school industry” started when Taijri was a kid and he wanted to make a game that could help kids relax for just a few minutes a day.
But there’s an important part of this story that can easily be overlooked: a lot of stuff happened in Japan between the 1960s and the 1990s. This period is known as the "economic miracle" — a time when Japan’s economy was unnaturally bolstered by both aid from the United States and corporate bailouts from the Japanese government.
The rural hometown from Taijri’s childhood was completely engulfed by Tokyo’s urban sprawl as the economy exploded. Taijri says that several of his favorite bug catching spots were completely paved over and replaced with suburban arcade centers. Japan’s government accelerated economic growth with "too big to fail" economic practices that could be compared to America’s own housing bubble. And the United States was concerned that if Japan got too poor it would resort to communism, so it justified foreign aid with domino theory.
This is all reflected, strangely enough, in Pokemon.
A tale of two Tokyos
If you compare the world map from Pokemon Red to a map of Tokyo, the two look pretty similar. In fact, every Pokemon game is based on a real-world location.
But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that they aren’t identical. Pokemon Red’s map isn’t based on present-day Tokyo, it’s based on the pre-sprawl Tokyo of the 1960s. The towns that are connected by forests and rivers in the Pokemon world are connected by concrete and bullet trains in our world. The fantasy of this world is not just that humans and Pokemon live side by side, but that the golden age of Japan never ended. This world is in a state of tranquility while its real-life counterpart was in a state of upheaval.
Pokemon has always had a strong and obvious environmentalist message. Trainers live in harmony with Pokemon, and thus nature, because pollution is bad! But there are more downsides to urbanization than the destruction of the natural world: Japan’s rapid economic growth also resulted in further economic stratification. And while the world of Pokemon was spared from the "economic miracle" of the 1960s it still, apparently, suffered the social fallout of that period, namely the increase in organized crime.
In some ways the Pokemon world is talking out of two sides of its mouth by showing us a utopia and then also showing us people who are somehow dissatisfied with the current state of things.
Even as a young American child I was able to see Team Rocket’s connection to the Yakuza, and I imagine most of us did too. But Team Rocket much more closely resembles the bōsōzoku, a motorcycle subculture that rose to prominence in the 1960s. “Bōsōzoku” literally means “to rocket out of control.”
The group consisted mainly of disaffected teenagers with poor career prospects who broke petty laws as a sort of initiation process for joining the Yakuza. One facet of Japan’s strange economic policies was the concept of “lifetime employment” — a series of government subsidies that rewards companies for hiring kids directly out of college and then employing them forever. It’s rare that a Japanese company will fire its employees, but it’s also very rare that they’ll hire employees that aren’t fresh college graduates.
This resulted in the "cram school industry" referenced by Satoshi Taijri in the above interview. Your grades in high school and college have a pretty direct correlation with your quality of life as an adult. Teenagers with bad grades often knew they had little chance of a successful career, but found solidarity in communal rebellion. (There’s a great documentary about the Bōsōzoku movement called Godspeed You Black Emperor that follows one kid’s initiation into a local motorcycle gang.)
While the Team Rocket Grunts may resemble the angry teens of the bōsōzoku, the leader of Team Rocket (and the other Pokemon gangs) has a decidedly different personality. Giovanni, Maxie, Archie, Cyrus, N, Ghetsis and Lysandre all follow a very similar archetype: they are visionary leaders who manipulate others into helping them build their ideal world. Each of these leaders also openly surrenders after a moral defeat.
This archetype seems to be based on Yukio Mishima, the Nobel-winning author who failed to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970. Mishima and his private army stormed a military base and attempted to inspire a battalion of Japanese soldiers to join him in a coup against the government in order to restore the pre-war power structure. When the soldiers laughed at his speech, Mishima accepted defeat and committed suicide immediately.
The greater world
While a lot of this might seem obvious to anyone who grew up in Japan in the 1960s, it’s pretty inaccessible to the majority of Pokemon’s audience. It wasn’t until 2011, with the release of Pokemon Black and White, that a Pokemon game was even set outside of Japan. Game director Junichi Masuda explicitly confirmed on his blog that the setting of Pokemon Black and White, Unova, is based on New York City.
Interestingly, this version of New York City features the same "ruralization" that the previous games applied to Tokyo — even though New York City has pretty much always been fully urbanized. When I bought this game, I had been living in New York City for several years, and I was delighted at the depth and detail of the references.
There are hipsters in Nacrene City (based on the infamous Williamsburg, Brooklyn) who live in artistically painted warehouses and say things like "I don’t want to work, I just want to play my guitar all day."
Many of the gym leaders reflect "only in New York" stereotypes such as the gay fashion designer Burgh and the flashy supermodel Elesa. This is also the first Pokemon game to feature any racial diversity at all, with several people of color playing important roles in the story. And a lot of Unova’s indigenous Pokemon are based on a variety of weird NYC stuff like MTA worker vests (Watchog), NYC street fashion (Scrafty), accessory-sized Yorkies (Lillipup) and mountains of trash (Trubbish.) The world of Unova reads like a surreal love-letter to New York City.
But there are certain aspects of Pokemon’s America that feel charmingly tone-deaf. There’s a lot of talk about slavery (and whether or not Pokemon are slaves) between Team Plasma and the dark-skinned gym leader Iris. There’s a fire-psychic Pokemon named Victini that is described as a man-made weapon who helps you win even if you don’t use him — possibly an adorable reference to America’s nuclear option.
Probably the most bizarre, though, is a giant crater called Relic Castle that lines up perfectly with Ground Zero’s location in real life New York City. But in the Pokemon world this crater was caused by a meteor, not a terrorist attack. Just like with Team Rocket in Tokyo, the Pokemon world shows the scars but ignores the wound.
Relic Castle’s crater was meant to be the site of an epic clash between two rival gangs in an unaired episode of the Pokemon anime. But this storyline was abandoned when the Fukushima nuclear disaster increased sensitivities over showing mass destruction on Japanese TV. The episode was later retconned out of canon and Relic Castle has not been explored much further ever since.
Perhaps the most interesting insight that Pokemon Black and White offers on America is that it defines us by our heterogeneity — especially when compared to Japan, a famously homogenous society.
The name Unova is derived from the word "Unity" and the game’s NPCs often describe Unova as a diverse but cohesive melting pot society. The title "Black and White" is a reference to two yin and yang dragons that have the power to give their trainer sovereignty over the land. The dragons are the embodiment of two ancient princes who couldn’t agree on how to rule — an older more pragmatic brother (represented by Reshiram) and a younger more idealistic brother (represented by Zekrom).
There are two paths to sovereignty in Unova: "truth" and "ideals." It doesn’t matter which you choose (and the game presents both as valid) as long as you believe in it sincerely, you can become king. Given the game’s setting, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a fantastical veneer over America’s highly-polarized political system.
The left vs. the right
The idea of "left and right politics" was explored even further in the most recent Pokemon game, Pokemon X and Y. The game is set in Kalos, which Masuda confirmed to be based on France. The backstory for this game largely revolves around (the Pokemon version of) the French Revolution, a movement that started in France but rippled across the world and is the main basis for progressive politics.
The game’s antagonist is Lysandre, the leader of Team Flare and the last descendant of a royal bloodline that fell from power after the revolution. Lysandre’s Japanese name is literally just "fleur-de-lis" (the famous symbol of the French royal family) whereas his English name means "liberator." Team Flare consists mostly of wealthy and fashionable people who want to solidify their status as the elite class.
Lysandre’s goal is to reverse the effects of the revolution and restore power to the royal family. Lysandre is the embodiment of the "let them eat cake" attitude of France’s pre-revolution ruling class; he’s a ruler who became a tyrant when his privilege made it impossible for him to empathize with his subjects.
Masuda has said in interviews that the themes of this game are "beauty" and "evolution" and "bonds." And while those all sound like positive ideas in the abstract, they are sometimes presented a little more sinisterly in the game itself. The pursuit of "beauty" in Kalos borders on hedonism. "Evolution" could also refer to the Kalos revolution. And "bonds" are sometimes represented as sadistic economic relationships, such as one wealthy character who torments a peasant until he repays a debt.
The Lumiose Art Museum (based on the Musée du Louvre in Paris) features a bunch of NPCs humblebragging about their ability to appreciate fine art. There are certain cafes that you can’t enter until you can afford to buy more stylish clothing. Team Flare members talk a lot about money and fashion, and how expensive it is to join their gang. At one point Team Flare takes over a Pokeball factory so they can act as a gatekeeper over the means of production, stripping the lower classes of their autonomy.
It is revealed near the end of Pokemon X and Y that Team Flare’s leader, Lysandre, plans to straight up murder all poor people using a giant flare gun. Yeah, that’s the plot. He wants to make this world more beautiful by creating an elitist society that doesn’t have to share its resources with the less fortunate.
While his plan is thwarted almost as soon as it's revealed, a lot of the game’s NPC’s non sequiturs allude to the problem of distributing wealth fairly — many of them seem to be thinking out loud about whether or not they should join Team Flare. One child in Dendemille Town says "the bad guys say they want to rule the world, but I think it’d be hard to take care of everybody."
Pokemon X and Y’s moral center lies with its benevolent final boss, Diantha — who is the spitting image of cafe culture icon Audrey Hepburn. Diantha is a wealthy and beautiful actress but (like Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face) she is appalled by elitism. Early on in the story, the player witnesses Diantha refusing to join Lysandre’s genocidal fashionista gang — before the player is even fully aware of what they are talking about.
At the end of the game Diantha is revealed to be the Kalos Pokemon league champion. She reminds the player that beauty can be achieved without compromising empathy and that wealth can be maintained without hurting others. She reminds us that Lysandre’s worldview isn’t absolute, and that wealth and beauty doesn’t always lead to corruption.
The medium is the message
Satoshi Taijri has said that if he didn’t make video games, he’d be making anime. But you would think that someone with the aspirations of a filmmaker would focus more on exciting plots and dynamic characters than this weirdly passive storytelling. Instead, Pokemon plays to the strengths of the RPG medium: it asks you to explore a quietly complex world that you can only interact with in simple ways.
And when you really pay attention to the world of Pokemon, the things that jump out the most are the things that are missing. Why does everyone ride bikes, instead of cars? Why does no one seem to have a job? Why do we rarely see any real violence? It could be because the Pokemon world is all extrapolated from Taijiri’s childhood, which was apparently quite pleasant. Maybe even more pleasant than the stressful childhoods experienced in Japan today.
In a manner that is eerily similar to an archetypical Pokemon villain, Taijri is remaking the real world in his own vision. He’s not trying to preach to his audience or teach us a lesson. He’s merely inviting us to observe the idealized world that exists within his head and hoping that we’ll enjoy our time there.