Anime Time: Episodes 15-17
Battle Aboard the St. Anne – Pokémon Shipwreck – Island of the Giant Pokémon
Fresh off Ash’s victory at the Vermillion Gym, Ash and his friends are given free tickets by a pair of teenage girls to a lavish Pokémon trainers’ convention aboard the world-famous luxury cruise liner, the St. Anne! THERE IS NO WAY THIS COULD POSSIBLY BE A SCAM!
We quickly learn that the ‘teenage girls’ were Team Rocket in disguise (yes, James too), and that they were giving out free tickets to all the trainers they could find on the orders of their shadowy Boss, Giovanni, who appears for the first time in this episode. The Boss (who seems to be the closest thing Meowth has to a formal ‘owner,’ but has come to prefer his Persian – this will be a constant source of insecurity to Meowth during the series) is displeased with the time and energy they have expended failing to catch Pikachu, but still seems to have enough confidence to put them in charge of the ambush planned on the St. Anne. His confidence, of course, is misplaced – not only do the Team Rocket goons fail miserably to steal even a single Pokémon, James also loses a ludicrous amount of money buying into a Magikarp-breeding pyramid scheme, and the entire ship capsizes and sinks with Jessie, James and Meowth still on board (not to mention our plucky heroes). This, of course, is all totally incidental as far as I’m concerned. I want to talk about what happens in the meantime: Ash encounters a dapper gentleman with a top hat and moustache, whose name is never given, challenging other trainers to exhibition battles with a powerful Raticate. Ash, being Ash, takes up the challenge and finds that Raticate and his Butterfree are very evenly matched; however, just as Butterfree begins to gain the upper hand with Stun Spore, the Gentleman – to Ash’s annoyance – recalls his Raticate and suggests calling it a draw. The Gentleman later proposes a trade, his Raticate for Ash’s Butterfree, which Ash hesitantly accepts but later regrets. Luckily, the Gentleman reluctantly agrees to trade back at the end of the episode, just as the ship is sinking.
When you think about it, Pokémon trading is a pretty bizarre practice from the perspective of a trainer like Ash, who regards each and every one of his Pokémon as a close personal friend (which I think counts as further evidence that Ash’s way of doing things is actually quite unusual, since Pokémon trading manifestly isn’t). The Gentleman’s ideas about trading are interesting ones – he believes that trading Pokémon is a way of deepening and widening new friendships and spreading relationships between trainers all around the world; basically, a form of social networking. You could argue that he’s running what amounts to a scam here, proposing a trade for the first Pokémon he could find that was stronger than his Raticate and then dazzling the Pokémon’s kid trainer with some pretty rhetoric, but since he does agree to trade back when Ash asks him, I think it’s more likely he actually believes it. Misty’s perspective on the situation is almost as interesting because it shows, I think, that she relates to Pokémon in a very different way to Ash: although she is sympathetic when he begins to regret trading away Butterfree, her response, “look on the bright side; you got a Raticate!” seems to indicate that she doesn’t really understand the depth of Ash’s attachment to his Pokémon yet. I’m kind of disappointed to miss Brock’s opinion; Ash does ask him before the trade, but he’s too busy getting goo-goo-eyed over the Gentleman’s lady friend to offer a coherent response. For a person like Ash, trading away a Pokémon is basically signing away the health and wellbeing of a close friend to someone else. If Ash’s attitude is at all typical, you wouldn’t expect Pokémon trading ever to happen except between good friends but, again, this is manifestly not the case. I think this indicates that for a ‘typical’ trainer, a Pokémon is less like a friend and more like… not a possession, but… perhaps a colleague, co-worker, or subordinate – basically, someone with whom you have a formal, rather than an emotional, relationship. I should qualify that, like most complex issues, this is probably more of a spectrum than a dichotomy; Ash is at one end, and trainers like the Gentleman at the other, but a lot of people probably fall somewhere in the middle.
Anyway, the ship flips upside down and sinks, and due to the captain’s gross incompetence no-one notices that a few of the passengers were still on board. There’s still plenty of air in the ship, but it’s steadily filling up with water from the bottom, and it’s balanced precariously on a huge spire of rock over a deep ocean trench…
Pokémon Shipwreck is kind of a ‘meh’ episode, if you ask me. It’s basically supposed to be about Ash’s party and Team Rocket having to work together to escape their mutual dilemma, but it’s actually about Ash’s party working together to escape their dilemma while Team Rocket cling to their coattails and scream incoherently. Suffice to say, they eventually escape the ship by blowtorching through the hull with Charmander’s Flamethrower and swimming to the surface with the help of their Water Pokémon (Team Rocket use the Magikarp James bought on the St. Anne and nearly die, but to Pikachu’s immense displeasure they recover). Once they’re all on a raft cobbled together from the debris of the St. Anne, James throws a fit, kicks his Magikarp, and renounces his ownership of the useless thing… which, of course, prompts it to evolve into a Gyarados, summon its brothers, and go all you-ain’t-in-Kansas-no-more on their asses, which leads to the next episode, Island of the Giant Pokémon…
I love Island of the Giant Pokémon. If I had my way the whole damn series would be done like Island of the Giant Pokémon. The set-up is that Gyarados’ waterspout separated Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander from the rest of the group on an island which is, for no immediately obvious reason, inhabited by Pokémon of unusual size (hereafter known as POUSes). Ash, Misty and Brock do stuff in this episode too but it is irrelevant and distracting, because this is the episode in which everything the Pokémon characters say is subtitled, which means we get a closer look at their personalities. Squirtle is laid-back and irreverent, and has something of a black sense of humour (among other things, he upsets Pikachu and Charmander by joking that Ash might have been eaten by wild Pokémon). Bulbasaur is stoic, pessimistic and cynical; he’s the one who suggests that Ash might have abandoned them, which I think speaks to the way he views humans in general. Charmander… well, Charmander is kind of boring, actually. He seems nice. He’s quite trusting, maybe a little naïve. Mostly he just goes along with Pikachu (who, as we know from the rest of the series, is defined mainly by fierce loyalty to his friends). Odd that there’s no foreshadowing of the problems Ash is going to have with him after he evolves into Charmeleon in episode forty-something; maybe they hadn’t planned that far ahead yet. And then… there’s Ekans and Koffing. They’ve also been separated with their trainers, along with Meowth, who orders them to attack Pikachu and his friends when they run into each other. Ekans and Koffing seem to be portrayed as not particularly bright, even by Pokémon standards (especially Koffing, who mostly parrots Ekans); their dialogue is subtitled in broken English, and their worldview is basically “we do as our masters tell us”… and Meowth, they are most emphatic, is not their master. They claim that if Pokémon do bad things, it’s out of loyalty to bad masters (contrast Meowth, who points out that his master is never around and he’s as rotten as Jessie and James on his own); they apparently understand morality but think it either isn’t important or doesn’t apply to them. Alone, Meowth is easily overpowered and tied up, while Ekans and Koffing join the group. As they eat dinner, and Squirtle taunts Meowth with the promise of food if he’ll just apologise (which, of course, he refuses to do), they hear a loud rumbling sound and are nearly crushed by a rampaging POUS. Pikachu goes back to untie Meowth as the others leg it (like Ash, he’s a kind soul), and they eventually spend much of the night running away. Then… then there is this one wonderfully mad scene in which, later that night, the whole group stops at a bar.
In the middle of the jungle. Run by a Slowbro. Bulbasaur and Squirtle get totally hammered and start drunkenly arguing over something (hard to say what, since this scene doesn’t have subtitles) while Meowth quietly passes out, and Pikachu and Charmander try to comfort Ekans and Koffing, who have been reduced to tears (and are presumably pretty deep in their cups themselves). At a random bar in the middle of the jungle run by a Slowbro.
…I’m not even going to question it; I’m just going to accept it.
They all go to sleep together, curled up with Ekans coiled around everyone else. This is a lovely scene; it illustrates very well how ready Ash’s Pokémon are to trust, even when Ekans, Koffing and Meowth have been their enemies for the whole season so far – or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that Ekans and Koffing work for their enemies. Off-duty, they’re no more hostile than anyone else. Anyway, the next day, they try to negotiate with the POUSes they encounter, fail miserably, wind up getting chased by them, and eventually run into Ash, Misty and Brock being chased by more POUSes, as well as Jessie and James in a mine cart dragging another one behind them (they… had an interesting couple of days, put it that way). Everyone reunites, there is much rejoicing on both sides, and all the POUSes trip over each other, get tangled together, and are completely destroyed – they’re robots, it turns out, and the whole thing is a theme park called Pokémon Land (a theme park, incidentally, run by Giovanni, who gets a call shortly afterwards to tell him of its destruction).
Again, I wish every episode were like Island of the Giant Pokémon. Most of Ash’s Pokémon are surprisingly expressive considering they can’t really speak, and Pikachu in particular builds up a reasonably developed character by sheer weight of screen-time alone, but the characterisation of and relationships between all the Pokémon characters we see in this episode are just wonderful stuff, if you ask me. That they never did this again is probably one of my biggest regrets for the whole series.