For anyone under the age of ten, this was THE quintessential film of the ‘90s – whether we rented it from Blockbusters, owned it ourselves, or just watched the repeats religiously on the bulky, old analogue, there was no-one who hadn’t seen Ash do battle with the intractable Mewtwo. Pokémon then was as ubiquitous as Frozen has now become, but how much of the story did we really understand? After picking up this series again as an adult, and appreciating it on a whole different level, I was surprised by how complex, intertextual and occasionally dark this ‘kids show’ got; a point which I think the first movie details perfectly. So, without further ado, here are ten things a twenty-two-year old read in a film that she really shouldn’t be enjoying anymore.
- Philosophy, Freedom and the Forces of Destiny.
This is, first and foremost, a film of searching questions, from the infinite parameters of ‘why,’ to the multiplex composition of identity, and the drive which characterises all intelligent life: purpose. As the mouthpiece for these questions, Mewtwo is naturally allied with other radical thinkers of the past, from the pacifist teacher Ghandi to the genocidal Hitler – read what you will in his actions. From the moment he achieves sentience, Mewtwo is consumed by the need to understand his purpose and his destiny thereafter, though what he is told invariably displeases him.
Learning the truth about the circumstances of his creation (as a clone of the legendary pokémon, Mew, ‘improved by human ingenuity’) he riles against the identity both of a laboratory experiment and a copy, which deny him in turn freedom and individuality. The second, thereafter, becoming a particular bane. Perceiving that his creators care nothing for him on a personal level, Mewtwo focuses his energy to destroy those who would use him. But the will to be self-governing leads him into a worse situation through the false promises of partnership and equality.
Mewtwo’s ignorance of the world he has been thrust into makes him vulnerable to exploitation, and there is nothing more poignant than seeing him work for Giovanni to defeat and capture his fellow pokémon, all the while thinking that he is finally in control. The question of his purpose though still proceeds to trouble him, and when Giovanni answers that his purpose is servitude; that he was created by humans to obey humans, Mewtwo once again rejects this identity. Breaking all bonds with humanity, he resolves to find his own purpose (one of revenge and annihilation, actually) and to act under his own autonomy in a powerful example of how ‘destiny’ is an active process of decisions and choices, and not just something that passively happens.
Still using Mewtwo as its figurehead, the film ends with one final, resounding philosophical implication: that it is not the circumstances of your birth, but what you choose to do with the gift of life which defines who you are. Deep stuff for a movie aimed at ten-year olds.
2. Pseudo Humanity
Actually, the caption above ties in pretty nicely with this point (it’s honestly like I planned it) – that Mewtwo is a pokémon which was not born in any conventional sense is a fact not to be underestimated. Synthesised from the DNA of fossil fragments, he lacks any familial or species group, and all evolutionary history. In short, he should not exist; yet he does, as something radical, something perverse and something other. In the film, this otherness manifests as a kind of quasi-state between pokémon and humans, with him demonstrating elements of both sides without wholly belonging to either.
Physically, Mewtwo presents as a bipedal pokémon with a basically humanoid shape, minus the impressive tail of course, and while bipedal pokémon aren’t exactly rare in the series his upright stance, given the circumstances of his creation, seems to reinforce his ‘humanizing.’ It was the stanchion walk which first distinguished early man from the apes, after all, and when Meowth sought to better himself by learning to speak human, the upright walk came as part and parcel of this identity. [For the full measure of this detail, compare his posture with that of his clone’s – even exempting audio we’d still know exactly which Meowth was which].
The thing which really gives Mewtwo his pseudo-human edge, however, is his instinctual mastery of human speech, channelled through his psychic power. Up until this point, Meowth is the only other pokémon we’ve encountered with the ability to speak human, and even he had to struggle for months just to mimic the barest recognisable phonetics. Furthermore, his continued mispronunciation of certain consonant sounds attests to just how difficult this proficiency is to achieve. Yet Mewtwo has the innate ability not only to speak, but to express in grand and occasionally beautiful terms. In this way he seems to represent an almost ‘pet human’ to the scientists (in the same sense as Jemmy Button and his compatriots to Fitzroy). He is the project which can understand and feedback, which can provide first-hand experience and more, but which, as a conscious, will always be less than his creators because he is a pokémon, and therefore controllable – or so they think.
Furthermore, while Mewtwo shuns and abhors all humans, there is arguably a latent part of him which identifies with them too. He wants, after all, to become the greatest pokémon master – a title and a drive which are exclusively human in origin. For me at least, this raises an uncomfortable doubt over whether when he states: ‘I wasn’t born a pokémon, I was created,’ he means literally that he was a created pokémon, or, more sinisterly, he was born a human conscious which was then subsequently implanted into a pokémon. Scarily the second option makes a lot of sense, especially when taking into the consideration the film’s little-seen beginning.
This is defined as: ‘the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.’ It was a process which lead to castration of over 3,000 mentally and criminally ‘insane’ in Kansas between 1913 and 1961. It was also the driving force behind the concentration camps in Germany; both movements aiming to reduce the number of ‘undesirable’ or ‘unproductive’ members in society.
But surely something like this can’t be in a kid’s movie? Well, actually it kind of is. Mewtwo’s desire is to rid the world of all inferior pokémon (i.e. those who serve trainers, or otherwise oppose him) and replace them with his own super-race of faster, stronger clones. I.e.: Eugenics.
He also plans to destroy the world as it stands, including all pokémon and human life upon it, and inherit it for himself and his creations. Because, you know, what are a couple of trillion lives for the cause?
4. Ethically Unsound Science
And this in buckets. One thing I think the Pokémon film and series excel at, is bringing adult issues onto the radar of children without, importantly, talking down to them. And without diluting the issues themselves. Morality and ethically form the backbone of this franchise, and are perhaps most explicit in the trainer/pokémon relationship, where the trainer owes a duty of kindness and care to the pokémon they capture, but also a responsibility to put aside selfish desire in favour of their pokémon’s wellbeing. Even if it means forfeiting gym battles.
This film, however, focuses on the flip side – the darker ‘what if’ which proceeds the failing of these institutions. Mewtwo’s creation, and his resultant actions thereafter, raise several important questions about the direction of modern experimental science. These include such gems as: is progress for the sake of progress ever a valid ethos? How far is too far in the pursuit of the unknown? And, just because something can be done does it necessarily mean it should? When we have pigs spliced with jellyfish genes so they glow in the dark, and mice with human ears growing out of their backs, how far away are we really from a Mewtwo style abomination? It’s a trope science-fiction plays on all the time, most recently with A.I – which Mewtwo can arguably be categorised as.
Furthermore, if the idea of humans experimenting on pokémon is unsavoury, how much worse is a pokémon experimenting on its own kind? In a horrifying and poignant example of abuse feeding abuse, Mewtwo rebuilds his creators’ laboratory for the purpose of synthesising his own controllable race of super-clones. This action may turn him from victim to aggressor (a welcome change by his standards) but by continuing to create creatures for servitude, and later blindly pitting the pokémon against each other, he is a still demonstrating the same arrogance and myopia as the scientists and Giovanni. In a sense then, he becomes part of the very thing he hated.
Okay, so we didn’t actually miss this one, but did we honestly give it the consideration it deserves? I’m inclined the think not. Released in 1999, this film came just three short years after the birth of Dolly the Sheep, who was the first mammal to be successfully cloned from an adult cell. Therefore, given its tone and preoccupation, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Pokémon – The First Movie is a nod towards this ground-breaking event. As well as an exploration of topical public concerns.
Cloning is and always has been a contentious subject, with some supporting, others opposing it and most just finding it impossible to wrap their heads around – the film demonstrating all three viewpoints. In possibly one of the best examples I can find of Pokémon broadcasting worldly issues, this movie prompts both its child and adult audiences alike to consider the question of the clones inferiority to their originals, as well as their reality, in a spiritual and individualistic sense. It also seeks to provide answers to these questions, though they are implicit and interpretive.
For Mewtwo, at least, his clones represent so much more than just ‘improved’ copies of pokémon; they are a validation of his own existence. If they can prove their strength and power against the originals then he, by extension, can prove that he is superior to Mew and, more importantly, separate from it. Physically then, the clones match and exceed the originals, banishing any charge of inferiority, but what about the interior – the conscious, the conscience and the mind? Is it the abstract that gives clones their lesser status, their lack of individualism?
In the parameters of the film, at least, the clones are shown to have a certain amount of individuality. Clone-Meowth, for example, is calm, docile and level-headed – the exact opposite of Meowth himself, and despite being an identical copy, clone-Meowth does not possess the ability of human speech, leaving room for individual variance. [It’s worth noting that Mewtwo did not know that Team Rocket were on the island, neither that they possessed a talking Pokémon, therefore, his machine would not have been programed to filter out this trait]. Similarly, clone-Pikachu is belligerent and aggressive, unlike Ash’s Pikachu who point blank refuses to fight. How far Mewtwo’s technology actually goes towards replicating personality or not is unclear, these are the only two examples of variance we see.
6. Misogyny and Oppression
Enough about science, let’s talk about women! First of all, these are not the usual charges brought against a Pokémon episode. With feisty yet well-rounded characters such as Misty and Jessie, and a whole barrage of girls just waiting to turn Brock down, the strong-willed, independent woman is a thriving species in the Kanto Region and beyond. But this film, once again, dabbles in the darker side of society, and of social relationships in particular.
More implicit than perhaps any other point so far, is Mewtwo’s complete and quietly sinister domination of Nurse Joy. Chosen for her knowledge of pokémon anatomy, Nurse Joy is spirited away to an uncharted island, almost definitely against her will, where Mewtwo seizes control of her mind, presumably extracts the information he needs, and then manipulates her to perform his bidding. This largely includes tracking down the world’s strongest trainers and inviting them to the island, where their pokémon will be forcefully taken from them, cloned, and then destroyed along with the rest of the world. Now, I don’t know much about the Hippocratic Oath, but I’m pretty sure it’s being contravened in some pretty dire ways. A fact Mewtwo would appreciate.
Despite the species difference then, and the movie’s identity as a ‘kid’s franchise,’ it isn’t too difficult to read elements of patriarchal tyranny here – taken to an extreme example, of course. (Though gender isn’t formally introduced until Black and White it’s pretty certain to assume that Mewtwo IS male). And while he shows open [validated] disdain towards all humans, Mewtwo seems particularly scorning towards Nurse Joy, as evidenced in the way he literally tosses her aside when her usefulness to him has ended – an action which can be read to so many different effects it isn’t even funny. Furthermore, since patriarchy and misogyny are concepts we have created, we can really begin to see the effect of that ‘human ingenuity’ Mewtwo was ‘improved’ with.
What makes his actions even worse, however, is that he knows what it is like to be manipulated and misused – it was the reason he seceded from humanity in the first place. Yet he freely reduces Nurse Joy to a state which is arguably worse than his own was, denying her the freedom and autonomy he so heavily prizes.
7. Racism is No Good
This was the biggest thing which struck me about this movie, and which generates one of the most important messages ever broadcast to children, I think. Compared with the rest of the film, this scene is brief, but no less powerful and enduring for its brevity. And the use of Meowth, who so frequently acts as translator between pokémon and human speech, to make this point is both beautiful and fitting. In this movie, at least, he seems to be the foil to all corruption Mewtwo puts out.
Approached by his own clone Meowth prepares to fight, just like all the other pokémon, but unlike them he quickly loses heart and begins to question his motivation. He intimates that his clone will not ‘push him around,’ but at the same time does something unfounded – he talks to his ‘enemy,’ restoring a semblance of reason back into chaos. When clone-Meowth suggests that they don’t have to fight, Meowth answers with concern: ‘But how can I trust you, you was born different to me?’ reducing the crux of racism down to a concept that even a six-year old can understand (and which many adults fail to). Then, instead of focusing on the differences which separate them, the Meowths focus on the similarities – the same earth; the same air; the same sky – in a pure, beautiful moment, which has to be one of the most enduring in animation to date.
Children’s films nowadays then to shy away from controversial issues, and this seems like a completely baffling consensus; children learn from what they see, so why not give them a positive message instead of skirting the issue completely? In 1999 we were a brand new generation, heading into a brand new millennium, and surrounded by so many hopes and dreams that things would turn out different – that we would turn out different, born already knowing the things it took our parents years to learn. And I’m not saying that this one film made us all miraculously tolerant, because it didn’t. But the programmes we watched as kids which dealt with issues of racism and ‘the other’ at least, I think, made us more open-minded, more willing to see past the differences to what was the same.
I don’t know, maybe everyone’s just nostalgic about the decade of their birth.
8. The War Against Yourself
Aside from the Charizard Blastoise and Venusaur that he already owns, every pokémon Mewtwo synthesizes is an exact replica of the ones contained on the island. Therefore, when he forces them to fight, each pokémon is essentially battling against itself – with all the psychologic implications that proposes. Set hauntingly to Blessid Union of Souls’ ‘Brother My Brother,’ these reflective battles have a dark, horrific quality previously unseen in the series, and are pitted in direct contrast to the film’s opening battle, with its upbeat theme.
Here the physical and emotional pain of the pokémon is quite literally palpable. The lack of definitive markings on the rest of the clones also produces a powerful sense of disorientation when we don’t know, for example, which Squirtle or Bulbasaur is Ash’s, making the fighting seem even more perverse and senseless. When the pokémon eventually collapse, locked in half-consoling, half-aggressing embraces this once and for all drives home the true destruction and depravity of Mewtwo’s scheme. It still gives me chills now, even as an adult.
The external war, of course, is a representation of Mewtwo’s internal one – of the kind and curious nature of Mew continually breaking against the greed and pride installed in him by humanity, with neither side capable of fully triumphing over the other. It is not until Mewtwo understands the damage of his actions that he can go any way to winning the war against himself, and finding an identity that is at peace with his sense of purpose.
Okay, so this is early-season Pokémon and nobody actually dies, but seeing Ash turn to stone after getting hit by blasts of both Mew and Mewtwo’s energy is the closest the film can come, and again it does not shy away from this ‘adult’ ground. I think the first time we all saw this a small part of us turned to stone too. And watching Pikachu act as a pokémon defibrillator is heart-breaking whatever age you are.
This scene details all the abruptness, disbelief and emptiness of death with absolute sincerity, while offering the redeeming reassurance that Ash can, in fact, be saved in the perfect melding of child and adult experience. Like with Meowth I also think these scene stands out as one of the most beautiful and enduring scenes in recent(ish) animation.
10. Mind Control
The mind is the human sanctuary, so it seems somewhat fitting that Mewtwo seeks to violate it; first for domination and then for more altruistic purposes. But how troubling is it that Mewtwo can physically and abstractly affect the mind and brain? And what are the effects of his control? These are never made clear in the movie.
The human mind, as a basic metaphor, is a series of interwoven connections; mind control, or indeed mind wiping, then would seem to work by either overriding this system or severing certain key connections – neither of which sound particularly advisable. And if the cliché rings true that even stepping on a butterfly in the past can severely alter the future, then how detrimental to identity is supressing or severing even one of these networks? Even with the brief response that is shown, Ash, Misty and Brock demonstrate a sense of confusion and a feeling of something hidden just out of reach, suggesting that Mewtwo’s mind wiping didn’t sit completely comfortably.
Furthermore, if to experience is to learn, and to learn is to grow, then what right does Mewtwo have to decide that it is better if the trainers don’t remember their experiences on the island? For himself, he takes away a new understanding and the beginnings of empathy, but the trainers are denied any personal growth arising from the incident. Why?
At first this, once again, seems like Mewtwo’s arrogance and megalomania, but on second consideration it is more akin to wisdom. He knows that the only way to protect his freedom (that which he prizes so highly) is to remove himself from common knowledge and, by taking his clones away with him, he is denying humanity the technology they have abused and exploited until such as time as they are ready to possess it.
For a pokémon which was initially consumed by anger and confusion, Mewtwo has indeed come a long way.