As two new Pokemon video games were released this month it’s fitting to take a look back at the first movie of this absurdly successful franchise. While I was in my early twenties when this movie came out, I felt no need to apologize for being a geek. My younger cousins were watching the cartoon and I enjoyed the concept of this pocket monster world.
What really pushed me over though was when a co-worker forgot his Game Boy at work. At the time I was working in a small t-shirt store at the local mall. As long as we said hello and rang up purchases, the merchandise sold itself. There was a lot of downtimes in which I would usually read comics. This day though, there was a Game Boy sitting there with a bright red cartridge sticking out. I was familiar with the cartoon, but not the game. One eight hour shift later and I took my paycheck to the game store elsewhere in the mall. The Game Boy sitting at home was no longer the domain of Tetris or Super Mario Land. I was now intent on catching them all.
Therein lies the secret of the franchise at this time and of Mewtwo Strikes Back, the subtitle of this first movie. There were only 151 Pokemon at the time. 150 plus the mythical unknown that is Mewtwo. It was possible to become a Pokemon master and catch them all. All of the fans could live and die (especially in this movie) along with Ash. It was a franchise with infinite possibilities but facing an ending. This movie was meant to be the end of the line.
In a way, the “Strikes Back” part of the title makes the comparison easy. For children of the nineties, the Pokemon series to this point was their Star Wars. We both were introduced to this new world with a variety of unique and collectible looking characters. Through quests, challenges, villains with somewhat understandable motivations, and even death. At the end, the story seemed complete.
Then a funny thing happened. Money was made. The Pokemon games along with all their tie-in merchandise left Japan for the rest of the world and became a phenomenon. The cartoon series was a hit. The movie is still the number one anime at the American box office. Even now, twenty years later, I’m planning out my night around raid hour in Pokemon Go. (See, we need at least 10 people to defeat this Legendary Pokemon. 20 would be great, but with 10 we can probably defeat it. Now I need to sign in to Discord and see who is available at 6 pm local time to go fight Pokemon. Yes, we do all have jobs and spouses. No, I don’t know how either.)
Crass commercialism aside, there is a noble heart at the center of Pokemon which is why this movie and the entire franchise successfully continues to this day. Sure, there’s the near a thousand kinds of adorable animals to collect, trade, and battle. No one will ever not make money off such a concept. More than that though is the lessons and bonds taught by both Ash and Pikachu. Loyalty, friendship, sacrifice. Even the very Eastern idea of fighting with honor. Not to be a bully, not out of violence or malice or anger. But out of competition. Out of respect. Out of a desire to continually better oneself. A desire to be the very best. Like no one ever was.
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