For more than two decades now, we’ve been watching eternal 10-year-old Ash Ketchum make his way through the world of the Pokémon anime series with an assortment of human and Pokémon friends on his quest to become a Pokémon Master. Though Ash has journeyed to multiple regions over the years, both the series and the larger Pokémon franchise have never missed an opportunity to revisit the character’s humble origins in Pallet Town where he first met Pikachu, the Pokémon who’d soon become his closest companion.
Pocket Monsters, the simply named latest entry in the anime franchise, once again looks back to Ash’s roots as part of its larger story that’s going to follow the trainer as makes his way into the new Galar region from Pokémon Sword and Shield, but the series premiere kicked things off this week with a surprisingly different focus.
While Ash has always been the heroic star of the Pokémon anime, Pikachu has always been the star of the Pokémon brand as a whole, even as Nintendo’s gradually elevated the profiles of other Pokémon like Eevee. Rather than simply retelling the story of how Ash and Pikachu first became partners, Pocket Monsters instead looks even further back into the past somewhere in the Kanto forests, where all manner of Pokémon native to the region lived in relative harmony. Flocks of Butterfree soar through skies above trees that are full of chattering Mankey swinging from branch to branch. The episode’s opening moments are chock full of nothing but Generation I Pokémon, making the entire setting feel like something snatched right out of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow, but there’s one small monster that stands out because originally, it didn’t show up until Generation II.
There’s a Pichu—a baby Pokémon—living among all of the much larger Pokémon, and while the mouse still doesn’t have full control of its electrical abilities, it gets by well enough running around, being cute, and marveling at its surroundings. Unlike all of the other Pokémon in the forest, the Pichu appears to be the only of its kind, but it doesn’t seem to particularly mind and the episode follows as it goes for a stroll that quickly takes a turn for the dangerous when it encounters a pair of Koffing that accidentally cause the Pichu to fall off a cliff.
Pichu takes a number of rough hits as it falls, but before it can actually hit the ground, it’s caught by a very surprised mother Kangaskhan, the parent Pokémon. Pichu becomes friendly with Kangaskhan’s child, which delights the Kangaskhan, and the older Pokémon quickly deduces that Pichu’s all alone in the world, and so she decides to plop the baby mouse in her pouch right along with her own offspring.
The Pokémon anime has a long history of doing Pokémon-centric episodes where few humans appear and the bulk of the dialogue consists of different Pokémon saying their names to one another, meaning that we’re left to interpret what’s going on through their expressions and actions towards one another. Because Kangaskhan is a species of Pokémon known for nurturing their young (all Pokémon do it, obviously, but parenting is Kangaskhan’s whole thing), it makes sense that the Kangaskhan would readily take Pichu in as its own. While Pichu wasn’t exactly unhappy before it ended up being adopted by another Pokémon, being with Kangaskhan and her baby makes Pichu feel loved in a way that a Pokémon could never quite verbally express to a human.
As the episode progresses, you see that, like the other pouch-bound baby, Pichu grows significantly under Kangaskhan’s care, but the strain of carrying two growing Pokémon is something that physically taxes the Kangaskhan in a way that Pichu can’t ignore. To the Kangaskhan, being constantly exhausted is worth it, because she cares about them both deeply. Pichu loves them both too, but it understands that by being with them, it’s taking away from the overall amount of energy Kangaskhan could be putting into taking care of its biological child. And so, while the three of them are sleeping together in a cave one evening, Pichu makes the difficult decision to leave, and it tearfully looks back at them from a distance to say goodbye.
The important thing to understand about what happens next is that while most Pokémon evolve simply because they’ve reached a certain degree of physical maturity (reflected in levels in the video game), others can only transform under a very specific set of circumstances. Pichu, for example, can only evolve once it’s developed a deep and powerful bond with someone it cares about like a Pokémon trainer who’s raised it. Or, in Pichu’s case, the Kangaskhan family who treated it like one of their own.
After Pichu evolves into Pikachu, the mouse excitedly scurries off to embark on the next leg of its personal journey through the larger world of Pokémon, and while things seem like they’re going to be great for it, Pocket Monster then makes clear just how Pikachu’s story factors into the larger one being told. Of course, this Pikachu isn’t just any old Pikachu—it’s the Pikachu, meaning that not long after it met a loving group of friends who helped it become a new, stronger person, some old human had the audacity to force it into a Pokéball and then give it to a child who couldn’t even be bothered to wake up on time to begin his Pokémon adventure.
From here, the story becomes that familiar old tale of boy-meets-mouse, but the whole of the episode recontextualizes some of the established things about Pikachu’s personality that have always been core elements of the series. Obviously, you can understand why Pikachu harbored resentment towards Ash immediately after meeting him and subsequently refuses to enter its Pokéball again. More interestingly, though, the episode also introduces the idea that Pikachu—who has always balked at the concept of evolution in the anime—might cherish its current form, both because it likes itself the way it is and because it reminds it of its connection to the Khangaskan in the forest.
It’s a heartwarming, significant deepening of the world’s most famous Pokémon, and, hopefully, the kind of thoughtful storytelling that’s going to define the rest of Pocket Monsters.
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