Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Takeshi Shudo: The Tragic Hero of Pocket Monsters

I'd wager that most Pokémon fans don't know who Takeshi Shudo is, which is a damn shame. As the head writer for the Pocket Monsters anime from 1997 until 2002 (read: from Kanto to Jouto), he was one of the most influential forces in the writers' room...or at least he should have been. Clashing opinions between him and his producers led to his artistic vision being compromised time and again, which is a big part of why the show became so formulaic and boring in the Jouto saga. They kept going with what they knew made money, rather than what could have been a creative new direction.

Shudo always valued creativity over marketability, which is a guaranteed recipe for frustration when you work in television. He spoke about his experiences on Pocket Monsters in a series of blog posts several years ago, which have been translated at the RocketShipper Photo Album. Among the interesting behind-the-scenes nuggets to be gleaned from these journals:

- Musashi, Kojirou, and Nyasu were Shudo's favorite characters, and he deliberately gave them more depth of personality so that the adults in the audience could have something to enjoy about the show too. (He originally conceived the Lugia movie as a film about Musashi-tachi coming to terms with the fact that they're basically good people who work for an evil criminal organization.)

- In fact, his goal from the very beginning was to make Pocket Monsters a show that anyone could enjoy, young or old, but the producers steered it in a more kid-friendly direction, simplifying Satoshi's personality and arresting character development overall. The anime was originally meant to run only for a year and a half, so Shudo had planned out how the characters would evolve over time, but when Pocket Monsters became a huge hit, it was decided to keep the show going as long as possible, throwing Shudo's series outline out of whack.

- He felt Kasumi suffered the most from the limitations of character development permitted to the show, and in fact she was only added to the principal cast so girls would have a main character to relate to. When ratings began to drop at the end of the Jouto region, there was discussion among the writers about how to change the main cast; they could either get rid of Musashi-tachi or Kasumi. Of course, we know what they chose, and Shudo feels they made the right decision - Kasumi, in his opinion, had become "unnecessary".

- And speaking of Kasumi, Shudo never intended any sort of romance between her and Satoshi, implied or otherwise. The show was meant to be about Satoshi's Pokémon journey; Shudo felt that a romantic thread between two main characters would be too distracting. (As someone who despises PokéShipping, I can't help but smile at this.)

Tragically, Takeshi Shudo died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage in October 2010, at the age of 61. And even in his retirement years, I don't think he was ever fully satisfied with his work on Pocket Monsters - his creative vision had been compromised so many times, and there was basically nothing he could do about it. Imagine what a world it might have been if he'd been given more free reign over the show - if the characters had been more fully realized, if the formulaic fillers had been eliminated, if it had ended in 1998 after a mere 80 episodes, would it be as popular today as it currently is? Almost certainly not. Would it have been better? That's something to think about.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Like a Super Contest, But Better

In the spirit of Halloween, I thought it'd be appropriate to take a look at the vast array of Pokémon costumes out there. Pocket Monsters cosplay is hardly a rare thing, but most of what I've seen is, well...not good. So to give folks a special treat, I decided to bypass the half-assed Satoshis and slutty Pikachus and lumpy misshapen fursuiters to show you the work of some genuinely talented cosplayers.

First off, let's set the bar with this amazing display...

I've got "Rocket-Dan Forever" playing in my head just looking at this.

That's the best thing I ever saw. To anyone who never thought Musashi's hair could exist in real life, just gaze upon that in wonder.

A white tomorrow is definitely waiting for these guys.

These two showed up rather frequently in my search for Pocket Monsters cosplay. All that digging revealed their names as Malro-Doll and Ryoko-Demon, and I must say, hats off to them for such an incredible job!

And hey, the good guys get some pretty awesome costumes too. Check out Satoshi-tachi...

Tell me this wouldn't make an incredible teaser poster for a live-action Pocket Monsters movie.

Or this amazing Officer Junsa...

I can totally understand what Takeshi sees in her.

But don't think it's just the original series characters that get this sort of treatment. Check out Fuuro and Kamiture from Pocket Monsters Black and White...

Where's Aloe? Maybe she's holding the camera.

I can't help but be impressed at all the time and effort that doubtlessly went into all these costumes. That right there is a sign of real devotion. And pure unfettered geekiness, but primarily devotion.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Art of Ken Sugimori

If you ever collected the Pokémon Trading Card Game cards, odds are good you've seen Ken Sugimori's name before - he illustrated all the cards that looked the coolest. He's the principal character designer for Pocket Monsters, providing nearly all the official artwork for the video games and even a couple of anime characters.

Let's look at his art. Here's one of the first concept paintings he ever did, for the Pocket Monsters Red and Green video games.

Evidently, Lizardon was originally supposed to be a caricature of Jay Leno.

And here's another one from around the same time.

Those are either the biggest starters or the smallest trainers I've ever seen.

After a couple of years, Sugimori's style evolved. For one thing, he stopped using actual watercolors and began coloring his work digitally. Personally, I kinda miss the watercolors, but I can't deny that his more recent stuff has been pretty darn awesome too.

I got nothing more to say, really - these are just really awesome paintings. Check out more of his stuff in this gallery at The Pika Club.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Golden Smile and Silver Tears (Mostly Tears)

In the spring of 2000, my dad's cable provider stopped carrying the WB, which meant I missed about half of the Orange Islands saga. That was bad enough for a die-hard Pokémon fan like myself, but what made it worse was knowing that the Johto Journeys saga was going to begin that fall - a whole new region, with exciting new adventures and characters, and I was going to miss it! I couldn't let that happen! Fortunately, my dad finally agreed to switch to Comcast, and in October 2000, I got Kids' WB back just in time for the start of Johto.

And about half a season into it, I was beginning to wish Comcast would drop the WB too.

Don't try to pretend like this saga is going to be exciting, guys.

Jouto still remains the darkest days of the anime for most fans, and for good reason - I'd estimate more than 60% of the episodes were exactly the same. Satoshi-tachi happen upon a trainer with a Pokémon that can't do something, Satoshi-tachi help the Pokémon try to learn how to do whatever that something is, Musashi-tachi show up to steal said Pokémon, said Pokémon masters the skill just in time to send Musashi-tachi blasing off. Lather, rinse, repeat. Anyone who's ever called the Pocket Monsters anime boring and formulaic, this is the saga they're most likely thinking about.

But Jouto's problems hardly stop there. It's like the show's writers forgot they had to give these characters personalities. Satoshi just wants to collect badges, Kasumi just carries Togepi around, and Takeshi just...exists, I guess. They brought Shigeru back, but why? He showed up just a handful of times and barely did a damn thing. And the one new recurring character they did introduce, Nanako (or Casey, as the dub called her) looked like she was going to be a spunky new rival for Satoshi...then made all of three appearances in 157 episodes and didn't even make it to the Final Conference.

"Hi! I'm a new character! You'll never see me again!"

About the only characters who remained interesting in Jouto were Musashi, Kojirou, and Nyasu, who pretty much saved all the most boring episodes from total oblivion. I don't think I'd remember the Kereihana episode at all if it hadn't had that subplot about Musashi and Kojirou putting Nyasu in a stage show where he tells horrible jokes.

Besides, I couldn't forget this even if I tried to.

Even from an aesthetic standpoint, this saga was boring. What did it do visually to set itself apart from the Kanto saga? Virtually nil. All the characters still wore the same clothes they'd had on since day one. Maybe I've been spoiled by Houen and Shinou and Isshu giving Satoshi a new outfit every time, but I really think new clothes would have done wonders for the principal cast in Jouto, as a way of visually reminding the audience that this is a new region with new things to see. A casual viewer might tune in to a Jouto episode and not even realize Satoshi had left Kanto. And it doesn't have to stop at the clothes - Kasumi got a new hairstyle in the Gold and Silver video games. Why not in the anime too?

No more implausible than her previous hairstyle, really.

And let's not forget the Pokémon themselves. Did Satoshi really need to get all three starters again? And if he did, shouldn't at least one of them have evolved all the way to its final stage? Wouldn't you think Kasumi and Takeshi would have captured more than just one Jouto Pokémon each? (Think about that - 157 episodes and they only caught one Pokémon each. I don't care what you think of the characters, that's just mean.)

Well, it's all long behind us now. Jouto ended in 2002, and not a minute too soon. Then we got Pocket Monsters Advanced Generation and the Houen saga as the writers' way of apologizing for three years of mediocrity. Still, it hurts to look back on a saga with so much potential that was casually thrown out the window as the writers took the lazy way out. I stopped watching the anime halfway through Season 4 (right around that mind-numbingly boring Teppouo episode), and resumed once the Houen saga began, but I've had no desire to go back and watch the Jouto episodes I missed. And I'm perfectly OK with that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sorya sou ja!

Let's talk opening themes for a minute. Anyone who was between the ages of nine and twelve in the late 1990s probably gets hit with an instant nostalgia bomb when they hear the words "I want to be the very best, like no one ever was..." For most folks, "Pokémon Theme" (gosh, what a clever title) is the be-all end-all theme song to this show. And for most of my tenure as a Pokémon fan, I thought it was awesome too.

Then I laid ears on "Mesaze Pokémon Master", the first Japanese theme. And I don't know about you, but that song does a way better job of letting its audience know that they're in for an adventure. It's faster, more energetic, and the visuals are stronger. Plus, it tells you much more about the show than the American version does - it's actually performed by Satoshi and sung from his perspective, while the American theme sounds more like a commercial. (Yeah, I know the whole show is essentially a commercial, but at least it's not terribly overt about it.) By putting Satoshi's face on the lyrics, you really get the sense that this is his journey, and there's a real story to be told.

And when it boils down to it, Matsumoto Rica is just a much better singer than Jason Paige. Matsumoto puts all the emotion and excitement of the character into her performance; Paige just sounds like the frontman for some cheesy '80s hair metal band.

Pokémon GETTO da ze

How many of you grew up watching Pokémon?

Okay, and how many of you were introduced to the world of anime through Pokémon?

Now, how many of you wondered why all the anime shows you discovered later felt so much more authentically Japanese than Pokémon ever did?

This blog will be my effort to explore the original Japanese version of the Pocket Monsters universe - that is, the unaltered version, the version that didn't have to sanitize itself for international (read: American) broadcasting. I'm hardly the first person on the Internet to do this; just look at the folks hard at work on Pocketmonsters.net, or the endlessly educational Dogasu's Backpack. Those sites were (and continue to be) an inspiration to me. Just about all I learned about Japanese culture, I learned from Pocket Monsters.

I plan to make this blog a hub for all fans of the Japanese version to find and share information. There'll be analysis of the show, fan art, articles on Japanese culture, and more. To anyone who's watched Pokémon on Kids' WB or Cartoon Network and felt like they were missing something, this is the place to find it.