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Nobody knows what’s going to become a craze. Huge companies spend millions of dollars to try to figure out what’s going to rake in wheelbarrows of cash, but even they regularly screw it up. A lot of smart people whose job is to figure out how much money movies would make thought John Carter would be a multi-million dollar franchise and that Guardians of the Galaxy would be Marvel’s first commercial flop of a film.
But I don’t want to talk about movies. I want to talk about Pokémon. After all, Congress just passed a resolution making non-Pokémon related internet articles illegal— at least, that’s the impression one might get. In the wake of the shockingly massive Pokémon Go craze, there has been plenty of negative attention. Pokémon caught at the 9/11 Memorial and the Holocaust Museum. Players being robbed. Players finding dead bodies. Players becoming dead bodies.
Pokémon Go is the bile of the late nineties come spilling up our collective throats, so I’m not surprised that it’s burned a little. The younger among us have starry-eyed memories of comparing notes on the schoolyard, of which starter is the best (Charmander, obviously, why is this still a discussion,) and that you can catch Pikablu if you beat the Elite Four fifteen times in a row without healing or saving. But if you were over 13 in the late nineties, then your impression of Pokémon is totally different: a weird, potentially dangerous thing your little brother was disturbingly into.
Controversy is inextricable from Pokémon. It’s been there since day one, back when video games were a hobby for children and weirdos. Pokémon Red was the first game to be well and truly everywhere since Super Mario Bros, but it wasn’t a simplistic platformer. It was a complex RPG, filled with references to Japanese culture and customs. Naturally, it chafed when inserted into foreign cultures.
So for those surprised that Pokémon Go has attracted so much negative attention, don’t be. Here are five instances when Pokémon got itself in hot water:
(If you want to see the visual summary of this article, check out our infographic at the end of this post.)
There are two main camps among Pokémon fans. The older fans tend to insist that the first (or the first two, or the first three) generations are the best, and everything that followed is derivative crap. More new school fans counter by pointing out that some of the earliest Pokémon were unforgivably lazy. You’ve got “a caterpillar”, “some eggs”, and everyone’s favorite, “a rock with arms”.
Then you’ve got Jynx. Compared to a lot of her brethren in the original 151, Jynx had a lot of work and thought put into her design. She has three main inspirations. The first is Brunhilda the Valkyrie in opera (better known as the singing fat lady) explaining her colorful dress and penchant for song and dance. The second is the yuki-onna “snow woman”, a creature from Japanese mythology known for attacking travelers in blizzards, which explains her typing (Ice/Psychic, the latter usually being associated with occult-inspired Pokémon.) The third is ganguro fashion, a mid-nineties fashion trend in Japan where women bleached their hair, tanned their skin, and dressed provocatively in a rebellion against conservative social norms (which is why Jynx has blond hair and dark skin herself.) It’s something of a hodge-podge of ideas but it’s definitely unique and interesting. But of course, when Americans saw this…
They immediately cried “racist!”
I’m not blaming the critics for trusting their eyes. Jynx’s pitch-colored skin and protruding lips would register as a Little-Black-Sambo style racial caricature. It just never registered to these people that what they were looking at could possibly be inspired by something completely outside their own culture. It’s a good thing that we’ve learned our lesson, and accusations of “isms” aren’t thrown around with reckless abandon any more, right?
Fortunately, Jynx’s skin color didn’t cause too much of a stir. Nintendo made her skin purple instead and downplayed her role in future promotional materials. Probably for the best— cool origins aside, Jynx is really frigging ugly.
Let it never be said that American culture is unwilling to give something up. For decades, anything offbeat that got popular had to be the instrument of the devil. Heavy Metal, Dungeons and Dragons, video games… if it’s fun and weird, then Midwestern conservative Christians took offense to it. That doesn’t really seem to be an issue any more (maybe the fact that none of these things were remotely Satanic had something to do with it?) but the last hoorah of all this might well have been Pokémon.
For those of you who are really into biblical esoterica (and why wouldn't you be), you may know the story of the Testament of Solomon. Short version: Solomon uses a magic badge to bind demons to his will and force them to come when he calls, then to do his bidding. Pokémon is a story where you go around forcing monsters to do your bidding— it even has magical talismans in the gym badges you need to collect. A lot of Pokémon are based off monsters in various mythologies, which is an endorsement of paganism if you take like seven logical leaps. Pokémon also “evolve” to become stronger, which is naturally a tacit endorsement of Darwinian evolution and a condemnation of intelligent design. But most damningly of all, if you hear “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” backwards after several blows to the head, you can sort of kind of maybe a little bit hear “I Love You Satan”. Scandalous!
This reaction strikes me as beautiful, in its own way. Leftist types looked at Pokémon and screamed “racist”! Conservatives did the same and shouted “Satanic!” Both found something to be offended about, on equally ludicrous premises. We really aren’t so different after all.
But I have to give the Christians the edge here, because they actually got the god-blessed Pope to respond to all of this nonsense. The Vatican itself proclaimed Pokémon was free of “any harmful moral side effects” and was based on “ties of intense friendship” in 2000. Not this time, Satan— maybe Digimon is more your speed?
Do you like animals? Do you not like it when they’re treated poorly? Do things like puppy mills and factory farms make you sad or angry? Congratulations, you’re an emotionally functional human being. Unfortunately, these facts mean you are represented by PETA.
Yeah. I know. 99% of people think animals are great, and somehow the “everyone” lobby came to be represented by some of the loudest, dumbest, most toxic people imaginable. Their sins against the noble cause of animal rights are too numerous to count, whether it’s claiming cow’s milk gives you autism or comparing eating meat to being a fucking Nazi.
But because I’m a twenty-something whose priorities are ridiculously out of whack as a result of being reared in a post-ironic world of information saturation, PETA’s most outlandish sin would have to be going after Pokémon with some bad parody games. The first one, “Pokémon Black and Blue”, is about how Pokémon is actually about animal abuse (did these people ever watch even one of the 900 damned episodes of the TV show which are all about the undying love between trainer and Pokémon?) and the second one “Pokémon Red White and Blue” takes Nintendo to task for daring to include Pokémon toys alongside McDonalds Happy Meals.
It’s intensely baffling. These games are loaded with Pokémon-related humor and memes so they’re obviously aimed at young people who like the games— but both of them spend their entire runtime criticizing the Pokémon franchise for being somehow complicit in animal abuse. You can’t have it both ways, PETA!
Admittedly, Pokémon’s premise can be kind of unsavory on the surface. You go around finding cute animals, beating them up, bending them to your will, and then training them into ruthless killing machines. You have to do this until you are the very best at it, so basically it’s a world where cockfighting is a rite of passage. Fortunately, the entire franchise averts this by emphasizing at every turn the importance of bonds between Pokémon and trainer. In-game happiness stats, a petting minigame, and incessant prattle about how You Truly Have a Strong Bond with your pokes.
The really sad part is, the Pokémon games (not exactly known for their biting social satire) actually beat PETA to the punch. Pokémon Black and White’s antagonists are Team Plasma, a bunch of Pokémon rights activists who are revealed over the course of the game to be led by selfish hypocrites who are taking advantage of the naiveté of their membership. Before PETA cast Pokémon as villains, Pokémon did it to them— with a lot more wit and subtlety, might I add.
Not content to offend Christian fundamentalists, Pokémon also managed to piss off adherents of the other two Abrahamic faiths. Jewish response has been fairly tame: one Pokémon card contained a manji (a backwards swastika used for centuries in Asia to represent good luck) was pulled after the Anti-Defamation League protested, and others mistook the three squiggly lines on Kadabra’s stomach for the symbol of the SS (when they’re really a symbol seen on Zener cards.)
But that doesn’t come close to the response to it from certain Muslim groups. Much like their Christian cousins, Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East took offense to Pokémon after word got out that “Pokémon” means “I am Jewish” (it doesn’t) as well as the game being filled with Stars of David (it isn’t) and that it promotes gambling, a direct violation of Islamic law (okay, they have a point with this one. Casinos are pretty prevalent in a lot of these games.) Other complaints included baffling claims of Freemasonry and promoting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Here’s where the two faiths differ: while the Vatican figured out that Pokémon’s biggest sin was being weird and Japanese, the mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa (religious edict) banning Pokémon from the kingdom!
It didn’t stick. Turns out that the international language of overpriced trading cards and buggy Gameboy games overcomes creed, and soon the fatwa was forgotten. Rumors recently circulated that the Saudi government reinstated the fatwa in the wake of Pokemon Go consuming our lives and replacing our families, but they’ve since come out and denied that (probably while trying to catch the Sandshrew that just spawned on the reporters’ heads.)
So how do you get in more trouble than causing an entire nation to condemn you?
Yeah, I guess that’ll do it.
The year was 1997, and the world was fresh and new. Nobody used the words “shart” or “vape” because they didn’t exist yet, you could go on an airplane without being lovingly sexually harassed, it was only teens who were disillusioned apathetics instead of the entire population… it was a simpler time. One fine day in Japan, several million children sat down for their daytime ritual of watching Pokémon.
Half an hour later, 618 or 685 of them (depending on what source you’re reading) were rushed to the hospital in the midst of epileptic fits. Another 12,000 complained of illness and nausea. The episode in question featured Porygon, who was the height of late-nineties computer chic. Porygon is supposed to be a computer program rendered into reality, so he looks like a late nineties video game character: a chunky, pixelated pink-and-blue blob. Ash and friends have to go into a computer to stop Team Rocket from stealing Pokémon. At one point, a few missiles are fired at Ash and friends, so Pikachu blasts them (the missiles, not Ash) with a Thunderbolt. This causes the screen to RAPIDLY FLASH RED AND BLUE LIGHTS FOR SEVERAL SECONDS.
I have no idea. A lot of people worked to make this episode a reality, did none of them stop and say “hmm, these flashing lights give me a headache. Maybe we should tone them down some?” Evidently not, because it gave seizures to hundreds of viewers. A few were epileptics whose illness was outed by the episode— most had no such problem.
Pokémon was outlandishly popular even then, but the show was off TV for four months after that while the controversy raged. TV already gave me unreasonable expectations for life and love, I don’t need it to literally try to murder me as well. Fortunately, none of the affected youths died and Pokémon returned to TV. “Electric Soldier Porygon” was never aired anywhere but Japan, either.
The real loser in all of this? Porygon, who never appeared again in the anime. His two evolutions, Porygon 2 and Porygon Z, suffered similar fates despite not even existing when the episode aired. The worst part was, it wasn’t Porygon who caused the seizure-inducing explosions! That was that innocent bastard Pikachu’s doing.
Sorry Porygon. At least you hold a Guinness World Record: “Most Photosensitive Epileptic Seizures Caused by a Television Show”.
Here is an infographic we created with Visme to visualize the biggest controversies in Pokémon history:
Embed on your site:
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And if you have your own unique Pokémon experience or story, we'd love to hear from you. Don’t hesitate to share it with us in the comments section below.