What are the little monsters up to?

Cross-dressing, paganism, corporate oppression... None of these makes it into the film version of Pokémon. Given that big money is involved, should we be surprised?
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The Independent Culture

Style journalists and niche-market hacks just love to deconstruct cartoons. We all know now that Bugs Bunny is gay because he wore a frock once or twice, and that Tellytubbies is really a funky acid trip for warped playschool kids. But is there anything in reports of rampant paganism, risque cross-dressing and - horror of horrors - Japanese middle-management training in the cuddly and innocent phenomenon of Pokémon currently sweeping the Western world?

We know Pokémon was invented by 34-year-old Satoshi Tajiri, who based the Pokémon world on a boyhood spent collecting insects and engaging them in tiny battles with each other (which is one up, I suppose, on frying them with a magnifying glass). He rebuilt his Gameboy to incorporate his Pokémon (literally pocket-monsters) game and then sold the whole thing on to Nintendo. There followed the gaming cards, the TV series and now two feature films, the first of which is opening here for Easter.

Those in the business of flogging stuff to kids and understanding how their minds work just can't believe how perfect Pokémon really is as a piece of raw commerce. Forget collecting a half-dozen Thunderbird characters. With 150 or so monsters to acquire in different formats, and a tagline "gotta catch 'em all!", everything seems to point to limitless sales of cards and toys from the word go. How does it work? The gist of Pokémon in all its forms is about capturing Pokémon monsters from the wild, keeping them artificially reduced (by unexplained technology) in red and white little balls, and then using them in martial arts-style organised battles.

But it's the TV series that really made things roll. When the series got off the ground it too was immensely popular - though the first most people heard about it was when episode 38 gave nearly 700 Japanese children seizures through exposure to flashing lights in 1998.

But it's not the notion of big corporations ripping off children in breathtakingly clever ways, or any health concerns over epilepsy, that have got the evangelists of America up in arms about these cuddly critters. They've quite rightly detected that there's animism in this anime, and that there's a lot more of Shinto than Sermon on the Mount in Pikachu (who is clearly based on traditional images of a mountain spirit, or Kami).

Shinto dates back to the first millennium BC and though it was modified by the import of Buddhism in the sixth century AD, it still remains the state religion of Japan, of which the Emperor is the chief exemplar. It's essentially an optimistic religion with no eschatology, no need for redemption, and no absolute notion of a battle between good and evil. It does, however, require respect for the natural world, which is infested with nature spirits, or Kami. One ancient chronicle records: "Myriad spirits shone like fireflies and every tree and bush could talk."

It's not surprising, then, to find dozens of Pokémon who are talking plants and trees: trees that can hypnotise, flowers whose pollen sends everyone to sleep.

There are many episodes of Pokémon which deal with Shinto-type nature religion. In one, a group of "fairy" Pokémon are discovered in a mountain where they worship the moon.

In another, the 10-year-old hero of the TV series and film Ash Ketchum (we follow his attempts to become a Pokémon master) trails his own pet Bulbasaur to a secret ceremony where other Bulbasaurs chant their name over and over to the moon, in a zone surrounded by a thicket of sentient thorns.

It is clear that Pokémon are pretty much the same thing as the traditional Kami. Magmar, for example, is a volcanic Pokémon entity that can only be found in one particular volcano. There are various supernatural Pokémon too, including one called Ghastly, a kind of floating ink-stain who speaks with the most astonishingly camp voice.

It is at the end of this episode that Ash explicitly attends a ceremony at a Shinto shrine, and sets adrift some burning lights on a stream in traditional remembrance of the dead.

As you can imagine, the Bible belt of the US hasn't taken too kindly to the influence of this sweet-natured, undemanding religion on the minds of their children. Several "preachers" have waged a special campaign on Pokémon culture, claiming it is a repository of witchcraft and exhorting parents to take a hammer to their children's Gameboy, and create prayer-meetings round the ritual burning of Pokémon swap cards.

It's as though Pokémon have been contrived with a special sense of malice towards these groups. It's not just that some of the Pokémon have psychic powers and appear to be more pocket-demon than pocket-monster. It's because Pokémon also "evolve". In US states such as Kansas, where evolution is no longer taught in school, a creationalism has replaced it, so that the mere mention of the word Pokémon is cause enough to fetch an exorcist. Most, but not all, of the Pokémon evolve into new, more powerful creatures at certain points of their life cycle.

Whereas most people just read this as the drama of growing up (and no doubt with the pre-teens who watch Pokémon in mind, it usually involves the creature becoming a surly adolescent), US evangelists are outraged that it's not just Japanese nature spirits that their kids are in love with, it's Japanese nature spirits who are susceptible to the ineluctable logic of Darwinism.

In fact, the makers of Pokémon the Movie have been very careful to remove all the most contentious parts of the TV series before making the big-screen version, the most interesting part of which is the amazing amount of cross-dressing that goes on. In the movie we see very little of the trio called Team Rocket, a comically inept gang who are always trying, and failing, to steal other people's Pokémon. Both Jesse and James dress in the style of the New Romantics and are camp as a row of tents; James is forever donning foxy female disguises. In one episode - never screened in the West for obvious reasons - called "Holiday at Aopulco", James even enters a female swimsuit competition. Images from the episode posted on the internet clearly show him to be in possession of a fine pair of breasts! All the evidence is there: James is a raging pre-op transsexual.

The really, really unkind commentators on the Pokémon phenomenon have focused not on James's tranny credentials or the demon seed being planted in children's minds by oriental witches, but on the fact that Pokémon is a template for classic Japanese middle-management practices.

"Ash and the other trainers assemble a corps of Pokémon employees, demand their loyalty, coop them up in undersized quarters and send them out to fight their battles," notes Joyce Millman at salon.com. "The trainer's ascent up the Pokémon league ladder depends entirely on the performance of his employees."

Pikachu may have started life as a mountain spirit, a demon from the ancient sacred places of Japan where the pines grow high. But now he's going to grow up - evolve, indeed - into a perfect work drone in a gleaming new factory. A Gameboy factory, no doubt.