by Laz Carter
Introduction: Pokémon and Intratextuality
Some may argue that this article doesn’t concern cinema or Film Studies, that Pokémon may be better understood within the field of Sociology or Cultural Studies. David Surman writes that ‘the tendency in academia is to understand Pokémon through its social effects, though at the same time hesitating from scrutinising what is issuing from the cartridge to the LCD screen’ (2009:162). I refute such positions, primarily because an understanding of Pokémon’s ‘social effects’ is necessary before one can meaningfully textually analyse a given product. Furthermore, the very ‘franchise’ model propagated by Pokémon – wherein one can consume the Pokémon universe through not only film but also animated television series, videogames, comics, trading card games, theme parks, merchandise and a plethora of other Poké-paraphernalia – means that any attempt to usefully separate one medium from the rest remains a futile endeavour that does not benefit any serious study. Henry Jenkins postulates that the Pokémon franchise adheres to what he terms the ‘convergence culture’ model (2006:133). In other words, the various avenues through which one may encounter Pokémon influence each other to such an extent that one cannot truly comprehend any given individual element in isolation, but rather as part of a larger ‘supersystem’ (Iwabuchi 2004:64). Can one, for example, truly appreciate the eternal struggle between Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) and Shigeru (Gary Oak) in the anime series without battling one’s own rival in the Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue videogame
cartridges? Does one have the same emotional attachment to a Pikachu ‘plushie’ soft toy if one has not endured the epic ordeal of Satoshi’s Pikachu in Pokémon: The First Movie (Myūtsū no Gyakushū, Michael Haigney and Kunihiko Yuyama, 1998)? I would argue that the success of the Pokémon franchise can only be explained through an awareness of interconnected inferences and intratextual in-jokes. The producers of Pokémon were well aware of the necessity for a synergised product release; Pokémon: The First Movie cinema-goers were rewarded with a special edition trading card (Electabuzz, Pikachu, Dragonite or Mewtwo). Other connections are far more explicit, such as the opening sequence of the first episode of the animated television series (Fig. 1) which very deliberately mimics the introductory video of the original Game Boy software (Fig. 2).
Having established that the Pokémon universe relies on constant
references to itself, one should now be able to see how cinema plays a key role in a contemporary analysis of Pokémon. When examining examples of ‘franchise fandom’, one must account for the fact that a consumer’s experiences of any given aspect of the product will affect their appreciation of the remainder. Thus, whilst examples from Pokémon’s many cinematic achievements are not the main focus of this study, they inherently inform and imbue the points raised here, even if only to a peripheral degree. I argue that 2014 has seen a revival of ‘Poké-mania’, albeit a different brand of the fervour which had been evident during the peak of Pokémon’s success.
1. Pokémon in the Past: What Once Was
Before moving on to the main thrust of this discourse, it is first necessary to briefly provide a historical context for the extraordinary success of the Pokémon franchise.
Pokémon is the most successful computer game ever made, the top globally selling trading-card game of all time, one of the most successful children’s television programs ever broadcast, the top-grossing movie ever released in Japan, and among the five top earners in the history of films worldwide. (Tobin 2004a:3)
Depending on which information one chooses to focus on, these observations may well prove to be out of date one decade after Tobin’s time of writing.For example, if by ‘the most successful computer game ever made’ one assumes an emphasis on total income grossed, the contemporary champion might be World of Warcraft (Douglas 2012:1), whereas if one examines the total amount of units sold the modern frontrunner would probably be Wii Sports (‘The 30 Best-Selling Video Games of All-Time’ 2013:31) as a copy of the game was included with every Wii console. However, even though these figures do not hold as true in 2014 as they did in 2004, one can still appreciate the significant success Pokémon has achieved during its lifespan, a feat even more impressive when one considers the vast array of media covered by the franchise. From the very early days of its appearance on the marketplace it proved to be almost instantly profitable.
… in its first year, the Pokémon franchise generated $5 billion, almost as much as the whole U.S. games industry in 1998. Pokémon was the top-selling Game Boy game and the top-selling trading-card game; and the TV cartoon was the top-rated show on the Warner Brothers network. (Buckingham and Sefton-Green2004:13)
One can appreciate the sheer volume of income that the franchise created; after only seven years on the global marketplace, the first two of which centred almost entirely within the domestic market of Japan, Pokémon had, by some estimates, garnered as much as $15 billion in sales worldwide by 2003 (Allison 2006:4-5). It is not the intention of this article to posit that this early popularity of Pokémon will ever be replicated in precisely the same manner. One certainly cannot foresee a time in the near future when Pokémon cards are once again available at every newsagents or that the latest Pokémon feature-length film will in any way match the overwhelming success of Pokémon: The First Movie, which accrued over $85 million in the box office (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=pokemon1.htm). Yet there are still aspects of the franchise, most notably the animated series and the videogames, which have retained a degree of success and yet seem to have gone unnoticed by many within both the press and academia.
2. Pokémon and Profit: Questioning Established Assumptions
The key trend I wish to draw attention to here is one that I feel many commenters on Pokémon fail to recognise; that is, the assumption that simply because Pokémon has declined somewhat in ubiquitousness since the late 1990s every aspect of the franchise must have become less successful and profitable. The most useful academic text in understanding the effects of the franchise – Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon –assumes that the ‘Fall’ of Pokémon in terms of popularity amongst children equates to a decline in sales and marketability, even predicting as early as 2004 that the animated series will soon discontinue (2004b:290). This is simply not true: there have been a staggering 822 episodes (For a detailed list of every episode, see: <http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/List_of_anime_episodes>) of the animated series to date and the series shows no signs of slowing down. In fact Netflix has recently made available two seasons of the show, as well as two feature length films, Victini and the White Hero: Reshiram (Bikutini to Shiroki Eiyū Reshiramu, Kunihiko Yuyama, 2011) and Victini and the Black Hero: Zekrom (Bikutini to Kuroki Eiyū Zekuromu, Kunihiko Yuyama, 2011) (Karmali 2014:1).
In terms of the videogame aspect of the franchise, sales figures have only increased over time. The very first games, Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red saw massive success at the time of release, selling 3 million units within the first 3 months (Tobin 2004a:6-7). Yet the games just kept selling over an ever decreasing timespan; the second generation – Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver – shipped 1.4 million units in its first week in the United States alone (Allison 2006:242). Jumping forward in time, the fifth generation – Pokémon Black and Pokémon White – smashed a new record selling 1 million units in the first day of its American campaign (North 2011:1), and the sixth and current generation – Pokémon X and Pokémon Y – the first to receive a simultaneous global launch, managed to move 4 million units over its initial two days becoming the ‘fastest-selling Nintendo 3DS games of all time’ (‘Pokémon X and Pokémon Y Sell More Than 4 Million Units Worldwide in First Two Days’, 2013:1). Whilst these figures are frustratingly difficult to deconstruct in greater detail due to the inconsistency in the time periods given, one can still perceive a clear trend in increasing success and revenue over time: the amount of units shifted by the original products over the course of three months was surpassed by the most recent generation in just two days.
If one is to accept that Pokémon has both declined in visible popularity and yet somehow increased in profitability, one must ask some rather pointed questions about how this miracle is possible. Who is buying these videogame products? Who is creating the demand for Netflix to successfully air a 15-year-old anime supposedly aimed at children? I argue that the target audience for the franchise has in some ways remained unchanged, which is to say that the audience consuming Pokémon in 2014 are the same individuals who participated in the phenomenon in 1998: males born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Put simply, Pokémon can no longer be considered as a passing fad aimed at children but rather as the active, not to mention lucrative, zeitgeist of an entire generation.
3. A Contemporary Case Study: The ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’ Phenomenon
The ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ (http://www.twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon) phenomenon is one of those peculiar Internet trends which, when put into words, sounds so bizarre that one finds it difficult to believe how amazingly popular it has become. Using a modified ROM (Read Only Memory) file of a Pokémon game, users are able to input simple Gameboy commands (up, down, left, right, a, b, start, select) into an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) function hosted on ‘Twitch.tv’(http://www.twitch.tv) which are then interpreted by an IRC bot and subsequently enacted within the game. To complicate things further, users can vote for either ‘anarchy’ mode (the next command is input straight away) or ‘democracy’
mode (users vote on the next available command over a ten second period). As a concept it sounds simple enough but the process becomes so much more complex when you factor in the sheer numbers involved. By some estimates, there can be up to 150,000 users inputting commands at any one time (Hern 2014:1), with a total user base of approximately 738,000 players accessing the game over its lifespan (Schimelpfening 2014:1). According to Twitch’s Customer Experience Director Jason Maestas (quoted in Schimelpfening 2014:1) this creates ‘enormous (and unforeseen) stress’ upon Twitch’s servers, causing every command to be delayed by about 20 seconds (Hern 2014:1). The end result is complete and utter chaos, as shown by this example from the first playthrough (Fig.3).
There are a great number of issues that ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ calls into question, yet what I find most fascinating about the phenomenon is not the socio-political microcosm demonstrated by the anarchy/democracy system, nor the technical ingenuity utilised in creating the IRC bot scripts, but the people behind the pandemonium. As Alex Hern comments, ‘TPP has generated a fanatical community, which has taken its devotion to almost-religious levels’ (2014:1). Andrew Cunningham expands on this notion, writing that ‘much of the appeal of Twitch Plays Pokémon is the fan community of sorts that has sprung up around it like a virtual shantytown, spewing countless memes and image macros’ (2014:1). A fantastic example which addresses both of these points is evidenced by the veneration lavished upon a Pokémon character called Pidgeot, nicknamed ‘Bird Jesus’ (Fig.4) by the fan community, to whom they attribute the majority of their success.
Although the ‘fan community’ behind the ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ phenomenon and their production of image macros might not be so totally different from other Internet based fan communities, the demographic of the community is particularly revealing. Fifteen years ago, if one were to ask who might be the target audience for an online game based on Pokémon, one would expect the answer to be Pokémon’s ‘intended’ audience: children aged between 5 and 12 (Buckingham and Sefton-Green, 2004:16). Yet judging by the sophistication of the in-jokes and inferences made by the ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ ‘fan community’, one would have to assume a much older demographic. ‘Reddit.com’ (http://www.reddit.com/) user ‘Matoking’ surveyed (http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/comments/1yiy5k/i_made_a_semiserious_survey_about_twitch_plays/) a number of users in the ‘r/twitchplayspokemon’ (http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/) thread, and amongst his questions were ones pertaining to age and gender. The graphics displayed below (Fig. 5) and (Fig. 6)show the results, and one can clearly see that the average user surveyed is a 20-year-old male.
Whilst of course this survey is by no means conclusive, as it includes only a small percentage of the ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ ‘fan community’, it does give a pretty firm indication of who is engaging in these activities. The ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ phenomenon functions as an outlet for young men across the globe who have spent their youth collecting Pokémon companions. These same individuals are now acting upon a latent urge to return to the simplicity of their formative years.
Conclusion: Pokémon and a Fandom of Nostalgia
In 2004 Tobin predicted that ‘sales of Pokémon products and viewership of the TV series and movies could drop significantly from fall 1999 levels and still leave Pokémon as a top-selling children’s product’ (2004b:290). I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement for two reasons: firstly, as demonstrated above, sales of certain Pokémon products have not declined since 1999 but have in fact increased; secondly, Pokémon is no longer solely a ‘children’s product’ in the strictest sense of the term. Certainly there are child consumers interacting with the Pokémon franchise for the first time today, but there is also a growing secondary market: adults who fondly recall Pokémon from their own childhoods, and have continued their fandom well past the intended target age. In a Nintendo press release issued shortly after the simultaneous global launch of Pokémon X and Y, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata stated that ‘the early response to Pokémon X and Pokémon Y not only reaffirms the ongoing passion of Pokémon fans, but also indicates that an entirely new generation of gamers is eager to experience the franchise for itself’ (2013:1). Iwata’s statement focuses positively on the ‘entirely new generation of gamers’, that is to say the young children experiencing Pokémon for the first time, but also alludes to the ‘ongoing passion of Pokémon fans’: those nostalgic adults who have maintained their Pokémania over the years. Nintendo doesn’t appear to explicitly thank its older audience, because, after all, who would want to be reminded that one has outgrown their favourite pastime? And yet the implication is clear: there are two distinct groups of Pokémon consumers, young children and nostalgic adults.
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Rebekah Willett, borrowing from Jenkins (1992), suggests that Pokémon ‘can be ‘poached’ by different people for different purposes’ (2004:239). Junichi Masuda, one of the original nine programmers working on the Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue games unequivocally states that ‘we did not create Pokémon for kids. We create the Pokémon games for everybody […] adults might focus
more on the storyline [… and] maybe kids can better enjoy the trading aspect of Pokémon games’ (quoted in Nutt 2009:2). This openness built into the games might not have been utilised to its maximum capacity in the 1990s during Pokémon’s peak, possibly because adults at the time were so totally unprepared for such a franchise. However, now one can witness a revival for all things Pokémon wherever one looks – even the Japanese Football Team has chosen Pikachu as its mascot (Fig. 7) for the 2014 World Cup (Lamb 2014:1). Nostalgic adults aren’t necessarily buying Pokémon cards or Pikachu soft toys, but they are binge-watching Pokémon episodes on Netflix, flocking in droves to buy the latest 3DS videogame and interacting with each other online through ‘fan communities’.
Myūtsū no Gyakushū /Pokémon: The First Movie, 1998 Directors: Michael Haigney and Kunihiko Yuyama
Bikutini to Shiroki Eiyū Reshiramu / Victini and the White Hero: Reshiram, 2011 Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
Bikutini to Kuroki Eiyū Zekuromu / Victini and the Black Hero: Zekrom, 2011 Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
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———- (2004b) ‘Conclusion: The Rise and Fall of the Pokémon Empire’ in Tobin, J. (ed.) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 257-92.
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Laz Carter is a Film Studies academic with an interest in the theories of stardom, authorship, fandom and cyber-piracy. He has completed both a BA and an MA in Film Studies at the University of Exeter and he is currently working towards his PhD at SOAS, University of London. As well as being an avid cinema-goer and a passionate PokéManiac, he also enjoys endlessly re-watching David Attenborough documentaries.