clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ash Ketchum inspired a generation of Pokémon fans — and his voice actor

‘Ash never gave up on his greatest passion, and neither will I’

An image of Ash holding up a giant trophy in the Pokémon anime. Pikachu is sitting on his shoulder and they’re both smiling. Image: The Pokémon Company International
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

After 25 years of adventures, Ash and Pikachu’s time together is about to come to an end. The duo, who have long starred in the anime based on the popular video games, set out with the ultimate goal to become the very best. Now, the two have finally accomplished that goal by winning a world championship in an episode of Pokémon Ultimate Journeys: The Series in late 2022. That winter, The Pokémon Company International announced that Ash and Pikachu’s journey would be coming to an end, and a new set of heroes would take up the mantle.

It’s a bittersweet transition and the beginning of a new chapter of Pokémon. To reflect on Ash’s journey and legacy, Polygon interviewed Sarah Natochenny, the English voice actor for Ash since 2006. We talked about Ash, his influence on the fandom, and how difficult it is to say goodbye to the two faces of one of the world’s most popular franchises.

It’s now hard to think about Pokémon without thinking about Ash Ketchum, but he started as an unlikely protagonist. On his very first day as a trainer, he overslept and missed the chance to get one of the three original starter Pokémon. Instead, he got saddled with a bullheaded Pikachu that refused to go inside its Poké Ball. What distinguished him then wasn’t any sort of talent, but a stubborn dedication to his relationship with his Pokémon and a love of adventure. He was a trainer who put his life on the line time and time again to protect his Pokémon pals.

This rambunctious spirit inspired Natochenny, who used to be more reserved and introverted but eventually came out of her shell after playing Ash.

“Playing a string of protagonists, starting with Ash, had proven to me that my innermost being is an outgoing, adventurous person who screams a lot — I literally found about 200 video clips of me screaming for my 2022 recap video. I’m so grateful I decided to become an actor, because I may not have discovered that side of me otherwise. Ash never gave up on his greatest passion, and neither will I. To be clear, the passion is acting, not screaming.”

An image of Ash, Goh, and another character leaning over and looking curiously at a phone. Image: The Pokémon Company International

Ash Ketchum, whose name is a pun based on the act of catching Pokémon, has long been the stuff of internet jokes. He famously did not age, and his Pikachu appeared to reset levels more or less after traveling from region to region. Even when I watched the show as a child, the idea of Ash’s Pikachu being challenged by a low-level gym leader in a new region seemed outlandish. Because of this constant reset, Natochenny didn’t think Ash or Pikachu would ever exit the series. “I didn’t imagine a series without Ash, Pikachu, and Team Rocket,” she said.

Of course, despite aging — or, to be honest, making progress toward his goal — Ash eventually reached it. When he won the world championship in the anime, many online fans celebrated it as if it were a real-life achievement. To fans he served as a reminder that sometimes achieving your goals takes way longer than you might expect, and not giving up is perhaps the most important part of that journey. Ash taught Natochenny “to stay optimistic and remember that there’s always a way to get where you’re going without intentionally hurting people along the way,” she said.

Ash isn’t a real person, so he doesn’t have to change or retire. He could live as a 10-year-old for several more decades, perfectly preserved in animation. I asked Natochenny why she thought big life changes, even in fictional worlds, felt important.

“Everyone experiences change and discomfort in their lifetime to some degree,” she said. “But sometimes, stagnation is uncomfortable, and change is welcome. I think people generally find comfort in cartoons, so watching them go through transitions can help us go through our own in healthier ways.”