By Kathleen S. Kirk
My childhood was largely deprived of a phenomenon I understand to be pivotal to many ’90s kids. I’ll call this phenomenon the Little Yellow Thing. I grew up without its adorable, heart-melting cries or its, ahem, shocking personality.
What I am referring to is one of the more baby-nerd-friendly icons, Pikachu.
Yes, folks, I grew up with frighteningly little exposure to Pokemon. I never watched an incompetent, annoying ten-year-old with a voice like a pack-a-day smoker perform acts of socially-acceptable animal cruelty. To be fair, I retain an almost frightening recollection of the Digimon universe; as a kid, I had all three generations of Digivices, a plethora of trading cards, and a small army of action figures. I can still tell you a Garurumon would trounce a Patamon and where exactly File Island is.
But until recently, I remained completely unfamiliar and unaware of who or what exactly a Little Yellow Thing was or what it was for until I encountered one on Tumblr and promptly squealed over its cuteness. My Militantly Nerdy Boyfriend Alex about choked on his soda when he realized I wanted one as a pet anyway, even though it’s impossible and impractical.
He decided the best course of action would be to show me what they could do and see if I still wanted one as a pet, so he showed me all the scenes where the Little Yellow Thing shocked its owner repeatedly. But then he showed me a scene in the second episode of the first season where it’s revealed that all the electricity in an animal hospital comes from a bunch of happy Pikachus bouncing on a treadmill.
I was smitten.
For those of you who apparently lived under a rock like I did, a Pokemon is a monster crafted to imitate various naturally-found animals or naturally- and socially-developed constructs, such as fire. In the Pokemon universe, these monsters are captured, caged in balls much smaller than the monsters themselves, and then forced to fight each other, à la dog or cock fighting. Where, I ask you, is PETA? Here’s a situation where they’d actually be potentially functionally helpful, but where the hell are they? Standing on a streetcorner yelling about how “fur is murder”? (I can complain about this, especially because I myself don’t wear fur.)
Anyway, a Pikachu is small, yellow, plushy adorableness. It has a type classification, which determines the nature of its attacks. Pikachus are electrical, which means that they attack using electricity.
I would like to take a moment at this point to say how completely fucked up this world is. This world is supposed to be a natural construct. These things are supposed to be found naturally, with this supposedly somehow intrinsic desire to fight and live their lives in a small, dark ball. That’s literally what happens. They must be fought and won to be caught, but these battles are portrayed as more of an honor thing than an actual fight for their lives. And then, at least in the case of the show’s protagonist, these monsters are placed in the care and keeping of an obstinate ten-year-old boy with no adult supervision whose stubborn desire to win places these creatures in mortal harm.
Perhaps its just the Japanese way. I am reminded of a comic from the Scandinavia and the World collection where Japan is talking to Denmark about Denmark’s “son” Christiania, a small, self-declared autonomous neighborhood in Copenhagen of less than 1,000 people. In the comic, countries are referred to as people while hyperboling the countries’ stereotypical attributes. Japan is, in a way, parodying the Stereotypical Asian Father meme when he asks Denmark how frequently and in what capacity the young Christiania has saved the world, leading Denmark to panic over his son’s development.
However, the amount of stupid prevalent in this show makes it incredibly fun to watch an episode or two just to complain about the level of stupid. This is why it’s so easy to find Pokemon drinking games on the internet. But I’m still mildly confused as to how this made it into part of our culture. It essentially uses animal cruelty to promote “good values.”
At least in Digimon, they exploited the unnatural concept as far as it would go, rather than attempt to hide it. “Digimon” is short for “digital monsters,” as “Pokemon” was short for “pocket monsters.” It was explained early on that Digimon were essentially sophisticated AIs that were created and programmed inside a massive computer program, which, if I remember correctly, essentially existed on a partitioned piece of the internet and could interact with the real world via the internet.
It was a world you could visit, but being in that world was essentially like being on the Holodeck of a Starfleet vessel post-2350; you could interact with and even touch objects and creatures in the world, but at the end of the day they were just bits and bytes and lines of code.
Monsters leveling up and changing made more sense because the entire concept exploited the idea that these things were unnatural. They were artificially created, knew they were artificially created, and exploited the fact they were artificially created. There was no attempt to rationalize them with the real world, which made so much more sense to me, even now, than Pokemon ever could, except maybe (and this is a huge, Godzilla-sized maybe) that They Came From Outer Space, or some other such nonsense.
Why, you probably ask, am I comparing the merits of the two universes surrounding two children’s television shows? What do they have to do with geekdom? A lot, actually. If you surveyed ’90s nerds what their first geek incarnation (read: obsession) was, many will tell you either Pokemon, Digimon, or both.
These universes, especially Pokemon, hold such a fond place in their hearts that their fandoms survive even stronger today than it did back in the day, with the internet and all its resources keeping it all just a click away. A prominent couple in my corner of the nerd/gaming community actually cosplayed as the Pokemon couple Embreon and Espeon, inspired by a beautiful work on DeviantART. Emulators now allow for anyone to relive the fun of the original console games on their PCs. Some nerds will rewatch entire seasons of the show and talk about them with their friends.
I am not this level of nerd, even with Digimon, and the only time I revisited the series was to show part of the pilot to Alex, who found it about as dull and stupid as I found Pokemon. This might turn into an epic conflict between us, in the way Michigan fans fight with Ohio State fans. Having come from Ohio to attend the University of Michigan, I can completely understand how far this could go.
Luckily, it appears neither of us cares quite that much.
Captainess Kirk a column on Kate-book.com that runs every other Thursday at 10:30 am. It is written by the fascinating Kathleen Kirk. For more of her adventures, follow her on Twitter here and check in for future columns.