Pokémon has come under fire from groups like PETA for what some consider to be endorsing animal cruelty for several years, but it turns out, some of the most damning critique of the very premise of the franchise comes from within in the form of the movie Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.
In showing a more humane, harmonious view of the Pokémon world, Detective Pikachu is one of the most earnest and hopeful presentations of a universe that is already constantly touting the importance of teamwork and respect between Pokémon and partner. The very purpose of its setting of Ryme City brings into question just how moral the concept of Pokémon is, and reckons with it in an optimistic way. Instead of tearing down the Pokémon we’ve all grown to know and love, it proposes a question of whether or not things can be better.
Ryme City is a metropolis where Pokémon and humans live together as equals. People still have partnerships with these magical creatures, but they’re not kept in Pokéballs, they’re not taking part in battles, and they’re free to have their own jobs and roles in society. A Machamp is seen directing traffic, Squirtles use their water abilities to work with firefighters, and of course, Pikachu spends his days as a detective instead of shocking opponents in battle. Pokémon aren’t relegated to their abilities, stats and competitive viability here. They’re citizens with their own goals, desires, and responsibilities.
On its own, it’s a more interesting portrayal of what is possible in the world of Pokémon, one outside of the scope of competitive sport the main games hone in on. But coupled with the fact that Pokémon battles are actively criminalized in Ryme City, Detective Pikachu brings with it a larger commentary on the franchise, bringing into question the morality of everything that’s come before it.
For most people in the Pokémon world, pitting Pokémon against one another is a rite of passage ingrained in its culture. Kids are taught to idolize celebrity trainers from a young age, grow up in cities that’s main attraction is the gym that attracts trainers from all over the world, all culminating at the beginning of their own journeys at the age of 10 where they get to train Pokémon and battle themselves.
Even outside of teaching children their entire childhood is leading to the journeys they go on, society is seemingly built around facilitating the industry of Pokémon battling. Healthcare, dairy and produce, retail, and daycares all thrive because they have practical uses in training Pokémon to fight. This ranges from fairly standard stat increasing to manipulating Pokémon reproduction to breed Pokémon with certain attacks and characteristics.
By design, Ryme City actively stomps out customs and business practices that are centuries in the making, and it’s hailed as a progressive haven for the values that led to its founding. In an informational video that protagonist Tim Goodman watches on his way into the city, battles and Pokéballs are treated like archaic steps in an ongoing evolution of the relationship between humans and Pokémon, even going as far as to compare it to early civilization’s use of these creatures and their abilities as a kind of servitude.
Inevitably, Detective Pikachu’s view of the Pokémon world isn’t going to affect future mainline games. Pokémon Sword and Shield are coming to the Nintendo Switch later this year and they will pick right back up where past games left off by bringing us to a new region with new Pokémon for us to capture and battle against one another. I don’t entertain the notion that Detective Pikachu’s implicit condemnation of what makes Pokémon what we all know it to be will ever affect the series on a granular scale. But after seeing the movie, I find myself asking if it’s right.
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For years we’ve traveled into these creatures’ natural habitats, attacked them until they were in an inch of consciousness, then captured them to make them fight each other for our personal gain and glory. If humans and Pokémon are to coexist in the same society, is it not better that they be treated as the equals they’re seen as in Ryme City? Ultimately, perhaps our real world perception of what Pokémon is and should be is just as ingrained as it is in the fiction, thus will probably never change it in a meaningful way. But at least with Detective Pikachu I can take solace in knowing that somewhere in this universe there’s a place where things are different, and for the Pokémon that live there, probably better.