Ash Ketchum has been pretty busy over the last few weeks. First, he became a World Champion, an impressive feat that was soon rendered an appetizer for the entree announcement: that the Pokémon anime would be wrapping up his main storyline altogether. In a series that’s often been marked by fans for its relative lack of narrative or emotional urgency, it’s seemed like a downright overhaul while also culminating the goals Ash set out to accomplish when he was just the loudest kid in his hometown. And considering how much Ash has come to represent Pokémon itself and the 25-plus-year aims of the franchise, its importance has only increased.
Ash has been the central figure of the Pokémon anime since there’s been a Pokémon anime. He was born as Satoshi, named after the creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, in April 1997. When the series was localized for American audiences and released in the U.S. in the fall of 1998, Ash Ketchum was born, his name now an obvious pun on the series’ former tagline, “Gotta catch ’em all!” Since then, he’s been a globe-trotting, immutable 10-year-old, receiving a soft reboot whenever a new anime arc loosely based on the latest video game installment is set to begin.
Depending on who you are, this either turns Ash into anime comfort food or one of its most frustrating heroes. “Shouldn’t his Pikachu be at, like, level 1,000,000 by now?” became a familiar criticism. From a franchising perspective, though, it makes sense: Every few years, a new “generation” of games is released, serving as a Pikachu-filled outreach program for a new generation of fans. By keeping Ash eternally young and eternally struggling, he relates to every new round of Pokémon trainers in, um, training.
But then, in 2019, things shifted. He had a very well-publicized win in the Alola league, giving him his first canon-friendly championship. (He’d previously entered the Orange League Hall of Fame thanks to a win in the Orange Islands, a mostly anime-specific location from a storyline built to buy time for video game development.) It was the culmination of the Sun & Moon portion of the anime, a particularly good arc, and the media reaction to it was akin to discovering that a friend from your childhood had actually made good on their dreams. Sure, you hadn’t talked to him in years, but look at him go!
Fast forward to now, and he’s a World Champion, finally becoming “the very best, like no one ever was.” In retrospect, a win like this seemed all but assured. The most recent anime series, dubbed Pokémon Journeys, is no region-specific romp but rather a nostalgia-filled world tour. Ash’s collection of monsters was no longer devoted to introducing excited kids to cute potential pals (that duty would primarily be shifted to his new travel buddy Goh, a synergetic reference to the mega popular Pokémon Go mobile game). Instead, his team would be made up of classic heavy-hitters (Dragonite! Gengar! Lucario!) and new blood (Dracovish and Sirfetch’d). With a team like that and a closure-inducing storyline of visiting a lot of familiar places, Ash was playing for keeps.
To win something so momentous almost seemed to go against the basic nature of Ash. He’d spent so long as an anime avatar for new fans of the franchise, a reliable newbie whose insatiable passion for Pokémon and penchant for learning lessons about its world and growing up in general could be reflected in every rising crop of Pokémon devotees. To gain so many victories only to narrowly lose out on the big one provided just another of those lessons, relatable for everything from going to a new, unfamiliar school to experiencing defeat in a sport. Ash would get up, dust himself off, drop his old team at Professor Oak’s, and hike to the next location with his best friend Pikachu, his love for Pokémon remaining unspoiled.
Winning provided the culmination of an arc in a franchise that isn’t typically known for those, especially when it comes to Ash and the anime. Even in the games, winning the regional championship in the end usually deposits you right back in your childhood bedroom, your journey extending indefinitely as you desperately search for postgame content. Age is turned into a fairly meaningless qualifier when the quest is both cyclical and everlasting, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why older fans have been able to stay so deeply attached to the franchise even as it pushes for a constant renewal of its audience. Ash never gets too old for Pokémon, so why should you?
That said, to have Ash actually become the top trainer in the known world of Pokémon invited questions that many weren’t sure the load-bearing comfort zone of the anime would be able to answer. Would Ash go right back to his nascent ineptitude as he had a few times before? Would Pikachu lose its godlike status and be reduced to struggling against new threats again? After being signified as the ultimate conqueror of the Pokémon species, that would be a little embarrassing, right?
Providing a final curtain for Ash and Pikachu as the co-leads of the series alleviates those issues, a revelation that arrives concurrently with the massive popularity of Scarlet and Violet, the latest pair of Pokémon games. Featuring an open world the likes of which the franchise has never seen before (and a deluge of bugs and glitches to go with it), their launch made them collectively the fastest-selling console exclusive game of all time. If there’s going to be any time to embrace the new and allow the old guard to walk into the sunset, it’s now.
However long this end has been in planning is unknown. And while each previous ranking in the requisite season-ending anime tournaments inched Ash closer and closer to first place, it’s a jarring occasion. Ash, for a long time, was built as a character who specifically didn’t win. His function in the overall franchise was driven by its demands for consistent new rounds of games and merchandise, the antithesis of most definitions of storytelling. In a different story, Ash’s aims would likely be a little more defined, his inevitable endgame tied into his own personality. These goals would be slowly chipped away at, and at the end of each region, he’d find a definitive bit of advancement toward these rather than serving at the mercy of the franchise’s longevity. In that regard, his championship victory becomes a little cynical, too — evolution by forced means of companies seeking a branding revamp rather than the conclusion of a satisfying and coherent emotional arc.
In the end, though, this dueling process is the backbone of Pokémon itself. It’s a franchise with themes built on beautiful idealism, a world where humankind and nature are able to connect in ultimate harmony and its army of wide-eyed fourth grade protagonists are ready to deliver any and all messages about growing up and gaining courage. However, as a top-grossing entertainment giant, it’s also about the perpetual pitch — the new games, the new anime, the new cards, the new toys. It’s always selling, each pillar advertising another in a structure that many companies can only dream of.
Ash Ketchum has been both salesman and best friend, marketing emblem and motivational speaker. He may be heading out, but his spirit is too intertwined with the franchise to ever be removed. New monsters to collect, new places to explore, new lessons to learn, new fans to create, and coinciding with it all at rapid pace, new products to buy and series to watch. Ash Ketchum’s adventure continues forever.