Alex G. (The Tuesday Zone): I don’t need to explain Pokemon to you. At this point, you have likely heard of at least the games or anime. All of the writers for Rooster Illusion grew up when Pokemon was in every Game Boy at lunchtime, but the person who is the most avid fan (as far as I’m aware) is a writer you have only recently met: Aubrey Fox, who is writing the freshly minted Saturday Morning Cartoons. We are co-writing a column on an episode that struck me during a brief revisit of the series: “Mystery at the Lighthouse.” So, without further ado, I will pass this off to Aubrey, who will open up our conversation on the episode.
Aubrey F.(Saturday Morning Cartoons): I thank my co-writer for the introduction and for including me in this review. When Alex came to me asking about writing a critique on a Pokemon episode, I was stoked! As he has stated, I am quite an avid fan of Pokemon. Lately I have been more involved in the gaming and comic atmosphere of Pokemon, but it was nice to revisit the nostalgia that is the first season of the Pokemon anime. Truth be told, I nearly forgot about the episode in question, because as a child I found “Mystery at the Lighthouse” to be very forgettable and disappointing. Upon rewatching it, I thought it was just as underwhelming as I remember. However, there were some new insights that I gleaned both from speaking with Alex, and from watching it again, this time as an adult. “Mystery of the Lighthouse” was attempting to bring something new to the world of Pokemon and is rich in atmosphere and mood, but it ultimately is ruined by some of the worst aspects of the Pokemon anime – the stupidity of Ash Ketchum, the awkward translations of the dubbed English, and the shenanigans of Team Rocket.
AG: Two of those three things I can speak to: Ash Ketchum is almost the worst, second only to Team Rocket. As a kid, I liked him. I was an idiot. He repeats what others tell him, can’t train Pokemon to save his life, and isn’t even affably stupid. He’s just kind of a jerk. Team Rocket is awful—not necessarily because their characters are obnoxious, but because they come in and ruin the tone of any episode that dares to break the Pokemon formula. Oh, some sincere emotion? Team Rocket, prepare to fight. Somber atmosphere? Meowth, that’s right! They’re scapegoats for the writers. I imagine you can think of more examples than I can, but I’m reminded of the Squirtle Squad episode. I’ll rip more into Team Rocket when we start talking about the tone of this episode, though.. I think we could use some context, which you have as an avid Pokemon person. You already mentioned the awkward translations and distinct flaws of the anime. That might be a good place to start.
AF: Okay, let’s begin with some context of what this episode is about. The episode starts off with a recap of most everything that has happened up to this point in the anime. The narrator, as well as the characters through some fourth wall-breaking, explain that Ash has earned two gym badges and now has six Pokemon. After Misty teases Ash by saying that he never actually caught any of his Pokemon and that they just “followed him”, Ash decides that he is going to go and catch his own Pokemon. He happens upon a Krabby and, strangely, without using any Pokemon and armed with only a stick and a Pokeball, he captures the Krabby. What follows is some world building explanations on how a trainer can only carry six Pokemon at a time and any extra Pokemon are sent to the lab where the trainer received his/her first Pokemon – in Ash’s case, Professor Oak’s lab. After all this, we get into the main story of the episode involving a well-known researcher, named Bill, and a mysterious giant Pokemon. But I will leave that part for Alex to explain.
The main flaw here is that half the episode is either recap or world-building, which, though necessary to keep the viewers in the know, is rather boring. I would have much preferred the episode taken more time on the latter, more interesting part of the episode. Furthermore, both the recap and the world-building make some mistakes. Misty was incorrect when saying that Ash never caught any Pokemon, when he actually caught his first two Pokemon after Pikachu – Caterpie and Pidgeotto. Another part that the episode seems to get wrong is that a trainer can switch out his extra Pokemon and put them on his team by pressing a button in the Pokedex, yet this never comes up again for the rest of the series. Instead, Ash must go to a Pokemon Center and call Professor Oak in order for him to switch Pokemon. The strangest thing I find about the world-building piece is that in the episode that introduces the character, Bill, whom in all other Pokemon media is the man responsible for creating the system for Pokemon transfer and storage, is never connected with such technology within the episode describing it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something I find strange.
Finally, I will touch on some translation flaws that the English version most undoubtedly has. As a person who has lived in Japan and can speak the language, I find it frustrating when I watch an English version of an anime and can tell when something is translated wrong. Even without having ever watched the Japanese version of this episode, there were some parts I could just tell that some changes in dialogue were made. One main example I could tell was the conversations that the main characters had regarding food. I know for certain that the Japanese version would never have Brock saying that he would make “bacon double cheeseburgers” for Bill. It’s like the translators were trying to put a sign up saying “THIS IS AMERICA, NOT JAPAN!!!” But what can I expect from a dub which insists that rice balls are jelly-filled donuts?
Maybe I’m getting too nit-picky here, but these little things like consistency and translation errors constantly come up within the anime. But let’s move on to the latter part of the episode, where both the tone and story pick up considerably (admittedly only to be quashed by Team Rocket).
AG: The context is important, and I never noticed the irony of Bill’s technology being described disjoint from his actual character. Bill’s an interesting character, though. He does have a really bizarre accent, as you pointed out to me, but he behaves so differently from Ash. He’s calm and empathetic, yet passionate about his work. He’s driven by fascination with Pokemon, rather than a desire to make a name for himself, which immediately warmed me to him. But most importantly, when we first meet him, the episode introduces a surreal and almost melancholy tone that I found interesting, especially for this series. The first time we see Bill, he’s stuck in a giant Kabuto suit, and we’re meant to think that the legendary Bill is actually a weird Poke-person. When we realize he’s a dude stuck in a suit, I think it emphasizes how much he empathizes with Pokemon, and how lonely he is. It serves as a really nice lead-in to the titular mystery.
The mystery is that there is a huge mystery Pokemon (pretty obviously a Dragonite, but whatever) that is attracted to the lighthouse. The air of mystery is really powerful, because there’s an inherent sense of fear in something unknown that has that much destructive capability. However, we learn that the Pokemon might be the last of its kind, and that it goes to the lighthouse thinking that he or she might have found another one of his or her own. The episode embraces in full the melancholy tone that peaked its head when Ash first learned of the lighthouse and found Bill. There’s a permeating sense of loneliness in the large, open space of the lighthouse, and the foggy, unclear waters. In a show that is kinetic to a fault, the quietness of these moments really stuck out to me. I actually felt that Dragonite’s loneliness, the import of the situation. The themes of this episode are isolation and loneliness, rather than fear of the unknown. They invite us to empathize and confront that dark tower in within ourselves, daring to reach out to a potential familiar. That’s unique for most kid shows, but especially Pokemon, which I realized upon my reviewing of several episodes that nostalgia largely pushed me in the show’s favor rather than quality.
Then, of course, Team Rocket has to show up because the writers are terrified that they might carry out their emotional resonance. They bring a freakin’ bazooka and blow the crap out of the Dragonite, because the show didn’t think kids could handle emotional heft as a driving factor for a single episode. I really hate Team Rocket, honestly, because I think they are used as a shortcut for the writers, and often that shortcut takes them off really interesting paths. The Squirtle Squad episode has the same problem: Ash is about to understand a group of misfits and find a catharsis with the misunderstood, but then oh no! It’s Team Rocket! Christ, just let your story do the work that it’s already doing, and let yourself stray from the formula every once in a while.
AF: I’d definitely have to agree with all of that. A large part of my liking of this show definitely has to do with nostalgia, but I think even as a kid, without really having the intellectual understanding of it, I could tell that Team Rocket was a writer’s shortcut. Most episodes of Pokemon are rather unique and have their own story, but the ending is always the same copy-paste of Team Rocket comes in, ruins everything, and then blasts off again. Team Rocket’s invasion of the story of this particular episode is even more disjoint of the mood than normal. Looking back on this episode, I would have liked to see more of Bill. He’s a fairly important supporting character in most other mediums of Pokemon such as the games and the comics, so I’m surprised that the show didn’t utilize him more outside of this one episode. It’d be really nice to see more of him, and it’d be cool to see his take on the mysteries of the Pokemon world, of which there are many. His passion really resonates with the Ash and co., and therefore with the viewer. This is a Pokemon episode that very nearly gets it, with the mood, characterization, and most importantly, how a human can sympathize with and connect with a Pokemon. But it is unfortunately ultimately ruined by the show’s greatest flaws and just misses becoming a great and unique episode within the franchise.
AG: Well said! And with that, folks, that’s all we got. We hope you enjoyed our foray into the world of Pokemon. And, of course, please check out Aubrey’s fantastic column. Have a Groovy Tuesday!