1997 - Japan

"Gotta Catch 'Em All"

Beginning life as a Gameboy computer game that took six years to create, Pokémon grew into a worldwide merchandising phenomenon almost without equal, of which the TV series was merely an extension.

The interactive role-playing game of Pokémon -the title derived from 'Pocket Monster'- offered players (called 'trainers') a chance to capture an ever-increasing number of collectable species and engage in Pokémon battles with other trainers. The trainer’s goal was to increase their status until they earned the honour of becoming "The World's Greatest Pokémon Master." The simple task of capture becomes more difficult as each Pokémon creature possesses its own special powers based on its connection with the elements of either earth, wind, fire or water. Trainers have to exhibit manual dexterity, problem-solving and strategic skills to win battles, and commit to memory an ever-growing list of inscrutable facts about which strategies are best suited to which Pokémon.

The hero of the TV story is Ash, a 10-year-old boy who lives with his mother in a place called Pallet Town. Here children are eligible to receive a licence to keep Pokémon when they reach the age of ten. At the local Pokémon Research Centre, Professor Oak presents Ash with his Pokémon, Pikachu, an electric mouse. Pikachu turns out to be something of a temperamental creature, but Ash, who loves Pokémon, is happy to finally have one of his own. And so, the adventure begins for the youngster as he sets off to become the world's best Pokémon Master.

In Japan, where the Pokémon were born, Ash is called Satoshi; and Satoshi was made in the image of his creator, Satoshi Tajiri. However, by the time Tajiri had spent six years developing his computer game, most people considered Game Boy to be old technology. "When I finished Pokémon," says Tajiri, "I thought Nintendo would reject it." However, Nintendo did release the game even though they did not expect much from it. Pokémon sales grew slowly though steadily, and they did not stop. Tajiri generated further interest by revealing a secret twist in the programming. Officially there were only 150 species of Pokémon. Unknown to Nintendo, Tajiri had put a 151st in the software: Mew, a major character in the Pokémon movie. "You had to acquire Mew by interacting," says Tajiri. "Without trading, you can never get Mew." With a hit on its hands, Nintendo decided to animate the game. The show, produced in anime style, quickly became the top-rated children's TV series in Japan, appealing to both girls and boys alike.

Whilst Japanese children followed the adventures of Satoshi pitted against the evil Musashi and Kojiro, US and British children watched Ash fight the same battles against Jessie and James. Only Pikachu was called by the same name. Not only were the names changed, so too were the sites, sounds, jokes and even the storylines. Every frame of the show was altered to remove Japanese writing, foods and even culture. Not a word remained the same-and every word had to fit. After the dialogue was translated, it was edited so that the words matched the exact movements of the characters' mouths. Reshaping each Pokémon cartoon for English speaking audiences took up to three months and costs nearly £75,000, but as one of the all-time children's favourite, the investment was obviously worth it.

Pokemon was a shining example of modern-day hype and clever marketing. As well as the computer game and TV series there are books, music, and videos. Around the world people collect and swap trading cards, sometimes to the point of fanaticism. There are toys and stickers with new sets coming out, seemingly, on a weekly basis. And at the time of the animated series release, "Pokémon" was the sixth most searched for word on the Internet.

The TV series and subsequent films marked a breakthrough for anime, the popular name for a style of animation produced in Japan, contributing to its growing worldwide success at the turn of the 21st  century. Indeed, it was the success of Pokémon that encouraged companies to look for other popular Japanese properties that might be localized for Western markets. Today, the anime industry consists of over 430 production companies and accounts for 60% of the world's animated series.

Reviewing the series way back in 2000, (a decision that was criticised by some reviewers of our fledgling Television Heaven website), we wrote: Whether the animated Pokémon will ultimately earn a fondly remembered place amongst the ranks of other, much-loved cartoon series will be a question for a future generation to decide. One thing is certain for now, though. Pokémon is here. You can love it or hate it, but you can't ignore it!

Pokémon has firmly established itself as one of the most successful animated TV shows of all time. With a staggering 1200+ episodes produced and a wide range of spin-off programming, including Pokémon Chronicles, live-action variety shows, and Pokémon-related news programs, the franchise continues to captivate audiences around the world. In addition to its extensive television presence, Pokémon has also delighted fans with 23 animated movies and even a live-action film. Its enduring popularity is undeniable, cementing its status as an unquestionable triumph in the realm of animation.

Published on December 19th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus & Peter Henshuls for Television Heaven.

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