Pokémon: The First Movie was the very first DVD I ever bought. I'd just gotten my first computer that wasn't family-owned or a hand-me-down, and that also brought me my first DVD player. I was strictly VHS up until just a few years ago, I guess because my brain theorized that DVDs were only going to be as lasting as Laserdiscs. I had zero interest in Pokémon when I got the DVD. I knew absolutely nothing about it, save for the fact that all of my nieces and nephews were positively obsessed with everything Pokémon. I always wondered why. So, with curiosity based on that mixed with me needing to choose a DVD from a crappy Circuit City's terrible DVD section, I went home with a shiny new disc and popped it into the computer's D: drive.
I became a fan, instantly. What wasn't to love? Hundreds of strange creatures looking like everything from mutant monkeys to mutant flowers, all chirping their names aimlessly until it came time to battle one another using quick wit, fists, and on occasion, giant red laser beams. I immersed myself in Pokélore, reading up on each and every of the original 151 Pokémon. Soon it became an obsession, and my fits of insanity regarding everything from Pokémon video games to Pokémon plush dolls are well documented in X-E's archives.
I've since fallen off the Pokéwagon, and in that time, hundreds of new Pokémon have been introduced, bringing with them new games, new shows and movies, new toys and a new generation of addicts who will keep the boat floating until we're all dead and buried. Personally, I much prefer Pokémon's first sweep of media. I could handle memorizing 151 Pokémon, but once they got to 72,000, I had to switch to hobbies that didn't require me to jot cheat notes on the palm of my hand.
The Pokémon anime series has evolved time and time again into things I don't wholly understand, but speaking strictly of the first few seasons of the original show...it was actually really good. Beyond all the shiny colors and humorously masked Japanese culture was something with a lot of heart -- a show that rewarded its viewers by growing a single story bigger and bigger with each episode.
A three-disc DVD box set of the show's first season was recently released, and I can't recommend it enough. Not as someone who grew up on Pokémon card games, because I didn't. Not as someone who wants to magnify their love of a video game franchise, because the games were always secondary to me. Thirdidary if you count the plush dolls. I say this only as a fan of good cartoons. The original series is as good of a cartoon as I've ever seen.
There are a handful of episodes that I'd qualify as my favorites, but the real point of this article is to introduce a few people to something they've avoided for all the wrong reasons. Today, we're going to examine the very first episode of Pokémon, which set the stage for over ten years of couch potatoes hearing a yellow rat scream "pika pika" whenever they were flipping channels.
And for those who have seen it...reminisce and enjoy. The debut episode aired in 1998, and outside of Mike Tyson partnering up with good friend "Cone Stold" Steve Austin, it was the biggest event of the year.
Welcome to the world of Pokémon! It's a lot like our world, except for the fact that human society revolves around the antics and exploits of strange creatures who may or may not be from outer space. Whereas we cherish our doctors, lawyers and movie stars, this world's top profession is Pokémon training. This involves hunting for and catching wild Pokémon, training them to win battles against other Pokémon, and rinsing/repeating that process until there are no more Pokémon left to collect/destroy. At that point, it's assumed that Pokémon trainers retire to little cobblestone ranches by the lake, where they pen memoirs in Octillery ink.
Pokémon training is really important in the Pokéworld. The episode opens with a neat transition from the Game Boy-ee graphics of the video games to gorgeous-for-1998 animation, showing us a huge stadium battle between two Pokémon trainers. One uses Ghost-type Pokémon Gengar, while his opponent sends out a male Nidorino. Gengar totally kicks Nidorino's ass, because Ghost-type Pokémon usually beat Poison-types, and because Gengar is a motherfucking pimp. Love that guy.
Big arena matches indicate that a Pokémon trainer has come a long way, but if you thought they'd start the series off so far into the journey, you're the French word for stupid. Actually, some kid's just watching the match on television.
His name is Ash Ketchum, and you'd better get used to him, because he's the star of this show, along with fourteen other Pokémon shows and seventeen hundred Pokémon movies. Today, we know that Ash grew up to be the world's greatest Pokémon master, or at least the most televised. Here, he's just a ten-year-old kid who barely knows the difference between a "Great Ball" and a "Master Ball." You probably don't either, which is why it's important to start watching Pokémon with season 1 as opposed to season 236.
Tomorrow is Ash's big day. The day he'll receive his very first Pokémon and set out on an endless quest to become the planet's top Pokémon trainer. Yes, Ash gets to leave home, camp out, catch monsters and not go to school. It's the lifestyle every kid pines for. Hell, I'm 28, and I'll cut off my pair of Voltorbs if you used your magic to let me live that way.
After watching Professor Oak's TV show which clues new trainers in about the three available "starting" Pokémon, Ash falls asleep and dreams about which one he should pick. The three starting Pokémon are Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander. Each species has its own set of strength and weaknesses, but they're irrelevant, because everyone knows that you're supposed to pick Bulbasaur. Frogs with trees growing out of their backs -- like a Wuzzle crossbred with Jesus Christ.
Ash oversleeps and jets to Professor Oak's lab the next morning, late, but hopefully not too late. Oak regrets to inform him that he's indeed too late to get any of the starting Pokémon (Ash wasn't the only boy slated to receive his first Pokémon that day), but cautiously mentions that there's still one left. It's one of those "problem Pokémon." It's got a bad attitude. Ash doesn't care, partly because he's desperate, but mostly because the last Pokémon's Pokéball has a lightning bolt sticker on it. If vanilla had a lightning bolt sticker on it, you'd take it over chocolate any day of the week.
Shit, you might not know what a Pokéball is. I'll explain. Trainers use Pokéballs to catch and store Pokémon. They live in there. And they seem to do it pretty comfortably, meaning that Pokéballs subscribe to the same lame ass "subspace" theory as Optimus Prime's trailer.
Ash opens the Pokéball, forever changing the landscape of video games, cartoons and Macy's Parade balloon lineups...
Meet Pikachu. You know Pikachu. We all know Pikachu. While a minor and nearly insignificant Pokémon in the original games, Pika's boosted to superstar status in the show -- and in turn, all Pokémon media to follow. He's cute, he's cuddly, and like most other Pokémon, he's only capable of speaking his name: "Pikachu. Pika Pika." The fact that Pokémon can only speak their name because a huge point of interest if you watch the show stoned, because there ain't nothin' more crazylicious than a two minute conversation between Vileplume and Magikarp. You gotta hit this shit.
Pikachu ultimately becomes of those "perfect" cartoon heroes -- he loves everyone, he does no wrong, and he maintains naiveté despite being able to solve every problem known to man. But since this is just the roughly formed pilot, he's kind of just a dickhead. Wronged by society too many times in the past, Pikachu refuses to be nice to Ash, shocking his new trainer using his immense electrical powers. (All Pokémon have special powers. Some shoot lightning, like Pikachu. Others blast water. Some even hypnotize their enemies using magic spoons. Totally serious.)
Ash and Shitface Pikachu leave Professor Oak's lab, where Ash's mother gives him all the supplies he'll need for his long journey. I can't believe this. The mother approves? How cool is that? You're ten-years-old, you're totally free, and all you have to worry about is getting mutant caterpillars and giant goldfish into red and white baseballs. There's a whole escapist appeal to most Pokémon stuff, and it's easy to see why. Who wouldn't want to escape to a world where the biggest concern is beating up and stealing funny looking animals?
Now wearing rubber gloves as an electricity-deflector, Ash begs Pikachu to give him a chance. Pikachu's response: "Pika." Fortunately, he says a lot with his body language.
Frustrated, Ash vows to catch a new Pokémon with or without Pikachu's help. The show stayed really true to the games in the beginning, right down to which species of Pokémon Ash was likely to see so early in his quest. He spots a Pidgey, which is like a giant-sized pretty version of a pigeon, and consults his Pokédex for more information. Pokédexes are little pocket computers that tell trainers all about the different kinds of Pokémon, and evidently, Ash likes what he hears. He's going to grab that Pidgey!
Only, he can't really do that without another Pokémon's help. As Pikachu laughs from the sidelines, Ash tries to trap Pidgey in his jacket, and the bird responds by summoning a small tornado and knocking his ass into a tree. Ash is pissed, but remains determined. He spots more Pidgeys and starts throwing rocks at them (?!!), but eventually gets overzealous and pegs the wrong kind of bird Pokémon in the melon. It's okay to throw rocks at Pidgeys, because Pidgeys will just cock their heads and make pissy faces at you. Same can't be said for a Spearow...
Though it's said that no Pokémon are evil, and that they only do bad things when urged to by their trainers, I have to disagree. Spearows are evil. They're bad news. Low on the Pokémon totem pole and rightfully ticked off about that, Spearows will seize any and every opportunity to prove to the world that they're Grade A ass kickers. After Ash wails one in the head with a rock, it goes right for his throat, eventually turning its attention to a more story-worthy adversary: Pikachu.
Ash's Pokédex tells us that wild Pokémon are jealous of trained Pokémon, which is a roundabout explanation of why Spearow wants to kill Pikachu. I think he's just trying to make a name for himself. Makes no difference: Spearow's no match for Pikachu, who blasts him to kingdom come.
But Spearows are dirty fighters. Realizing that he's outclassed, the bad bird screams for about fifteen other Spearows to come help, and sure enough, a horde of ugly, angry flying killers lunge out from a nearby tree, ready to take names and drink blood.
Flock of Spearows could be a New Wave band, or it could be a bunch of jerk birds totally decimating poor little Pikachu. They keep pecking and pecking and pecking, until finally, Ash overcomes his preference as a voyeur to enter the fray, sacrificing his skin to save a rat who not two minutes ago was sitting up in a tree, laughing at his failed attempts to trap a Pidgey in a jacket.
I think that's why Pikachu gives Ash "the look" in this scene. You know the one. "The look" says so much. "I hated you, but now I love you, because it was you who saved me from those birds." Verbatim, that's what "the look" says. So, Ash runs off, cradling Pikachu, as the dozen Spearows continue the attack. After rumbles and tumbles through grass, down a waterfall and out of a lake, it looks like Ash's finally escaped Bird Hell.
He stumbles onto a young trainer named Misty, who only gets around forty-five seconds to establish herself as one of the show's main stars. In the games, Misty was the leader of the Cerulean Gym, and a master at using Water type Pokémon -- cute ones, like starfish and seahorses. The cartoon version of Misty is pretty much the same way, albeit less polished.
Spotting the still-hunting Spearows, Ash defies everything his mother taught him and steals Misty's bike, so he can make a speedier treat and get poor Pikachu to a fucking hospital. Misty's pissed, but she really shouldn't be; the bike is more or less the catalyst that drove her to become the show's top female character. She's in like every episode for the first few seasons, collecting new wet Pokémon as she travels the world with Ash.
Feels wrong to stop talking about such a major character here, but Misty was only in this episode for one scene. Maybe if I write her name big and in bold once, I'll be quenched.
So, Ash rides on into a storm, and Pikachu can't believe that this dude with the mussed up hair and the too-long bluejeans is going through all this trouble for him. Between the sad shots of Pikachu making Pika-versions of "ow" sounds and of Ash's determined eyes, a bond is formed.
Ash's (Misty's) bike crashes, and the Spearows gleefully circle him and his Pokémon. It's not exactly a pivotal scene, but I need to mention it anyway because Ash gives the most cracked out "bring it" speech ever to the Spearows. Paraphrasing, it's something like, "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I AM ASH, FROM THE TOWN OF PALLET! I'M GOING TO TEAR UP EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU, AND COOK YOU, AND EAT YOU, AND THEN PUT WHATEVER I DON'T EAT IN POKEBALLS. DO YOU HEAR ME, SPEAROWS?! I FEAR-NO SPEAR-OW!"
Might not sound like much on paper, but when put to the same kind of music another show might use to score a scene where the family dog dies of dog cancer, it's powerful stuff. Powerful enough to inspire Pikachu to use his last bit of energy to Kentucky fry some asshole Spearows.
Pikachu uses his "Electric Shock" move, which can come in various shapes and degrees of power. Here, it's looking quite a bit like the same move I've used countless times to blink out my friend's shitty Samus in Smash Bros. Melee. Pika's moves better be just as cheap in the Wii game, or I'll picket Nintendo's headquarters with really lewd and inappropriate signs.
We never see what happens to the Spearows following this, but I'm taking that to mean that they're all dead. If they were only supposed to be subdued, there's no way the animators would've skimped on the holy shot of twelve smoldering Spearows smacking the grass in succession with their tongues hanging out.
The next morning, Ash and Pika wake up and make lovey dovey eyes at each other. Pika's still hurting bad, and in the next episode, we get to see Ash take him to the hospital, where a big pink Pokémon wheels out a Pikachu-scale stretcher. I probably should've reviewed that episode instead.
And now, my favorite part of the episode. As the heroes convalesce and contemplate their newfound respect for one another, Ash spots the shiny silhouette of a huge, regal Pokémon flying in the sky. He's never seen anything like it, but the Pokédex has no data. It tells Ash that some Pokémon haven't been discovered yet.
In each of the games, there are "Legendary" Pokémon -- super powerful, one-of-a-kind monsters that you can't catch until the very end of the journey. In the first set of games, three of the four Legendary Pokémon are gigantic birds. The implication seemed to be that this glowing, mystery bird in the sky was one of them, but there was just one problem: It really didn't look much like any of the three Legendary bird Pokémon from the games.
As the creature disappears beyond the rainbow, Ash is left awed and inspired. He knows he's seen something special. The topic of this mystery bird would come up again in several episodes down the road.
Opinions differ on whether this was a case of careful planning or retroactive refitting, but the glowing bird would eventually be revealed as "Ho-Oh," the must-have Pokémon from Pokémon Gold -- a game that didn't come out until 2000, almost two years after this episode debuted.
It's hard to discern whether all of this came from a master plan or just from one artist's misinterpretation of what one of the original Legendary birds looked like, but either way, it's awesome.
Pika gives Ash a kiss, and a gentle reminder that he's bloody as all fuck, so the duo head down into the bustling city to find a hospital. There, they'll fix up Pikachu, meet some new friends, make some new enemies, and continuing weaving tales that will be read about on Wikipedia from now until goofeygrape01 edits every related page with ASCII art of a giant cock.
So many great episodes were yet to come. Everything from Charmeleon setting Ash on fire to some idiot boy who was too stupid to realize that Vaporeon was the best choice for an Eevee evolution. It all started here.
On a finishing note, here are links to photos of the seven most awesome items found in Ash's bedroom: