If the centuries-long political turmoil between Japan and China doesn’t prevent it, a big-budget live-action Pokemon movie may finally happen, granting the wishes of all nerdy ‘90s kids. Nintendo is shopping around the rights to the property, but Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures, a company known for massive blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Godzilla, and the upcoming Warcraft, is the most-likely winner. Whoever buys the rights will have to reckon with a big question: what is Pokemon actually about?
Pokemon 101, in a nutshell
Pokemon was created by Japanese video game designer Satoshi Tajiri, who lamented that kids weren’t going outside to play and collect bugs like he did as a child. So, perhaps counterintuitively, he made a video game to encourage going outside.
The core premise of Pokemon is simple enough: there’s a world like our own, except in this one, super-powered animals called Pokemon roam free. Some are cute and tiny, others are gigantic as shit and can rip you to shreds, burn you, or freeze you. (Reminder: Pokemon is for kids!) While some live totally normal lives without Pokemon, people who catch and raise these creatures become Pokemon Trainers and engage in illegal dog fighting competitive Pokemon battles. It’s a spectator sport with matches and ranked leagues where people set out to become the best — like no one ever was.
With a multi-media franchise as gigantic as Pokemon, there isn’t just one story. It’s not Marvel, where the obvious thing to adapt are stuff like comic books. This is where a Pokemon movie becomes difficult: Whose story do you tell? How do you balance audiences’ expectations with interesting surprises? Is it worth even adapting anything specific?
Here are all the different narrative Poke-media that may or may not make it into Hollywood’s vision of Pokemon, whenever they get to it.
Pokemon: The Game(s)
The cornerstone of the Pokemon franchise are the video games released exclusively to Nintendo consoles. The core RPG games are generally released in two variants, and the first to arrive in the U.S. were 1998 Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue (which came out earlier in Japan as Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green).
The games have continued to evolve over time, the most recent original release being 2013’s Pokemon X and Pokemon Y on the Nintendo 3DS. Two new games, Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon are arriving later this year.
The games generally offer up a pretty loose, repetitive story: a basic opportunity tale in which you play as a mute nobody who sets out to become The Very Best of All Time, every time. There’s some semblance of a narrative, like your childhood rival who always seems to have stronger Pokemon every time you challenge him. But this isn’t Mass Effect or something from Telltale Games. The appeal has always been just training Pokemon to make them stronger.
In 2013, the original Pokemon Red and Blue were faithfully adapted into a series of TV movies called Pokemon Origins, which wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Pokemon: The TV series
The most beloved piece of the Pokemon empire is the long-running anime series that first aired in the U.S. in 1997. With over 900 episodes and counting, it’s daunting for non-fans, and even lapsed fans, to keep track of the stories, character changes, and new creatures. But the one constant is a 10-year-old boy named Ash who dreams of becoming the world’s best Pokemon Master. Forever by his side is his first Pokemon, Pikachu, who doubles as the mascot for the whole franchise.
The first season, titled Pokemon: Indigo League is what most people familiar with Pokemon remember best. Like the games it’s loosely based on, Indigo League follows Ash’s rise to the top of the league — along with friends and fellow trainers Brock and Misty — eventually squaring off against the mysterious Giovanni, who leads the criminal organization Team Rocket. The show evolved over time to coincide with the new games and is now in its nineteenth season, Pokemon XY & Z which started airing on Cartoon Network this year.
The series also spawned a series of animated films, the first being the aptly-titled Pokemon: The First Movie directed by Kunihiko Yuyama, set during the events of Indigo League. It was released in the U.S. in 1998, distributed by Warner Bros.
With recognizable, defined characters playing in a very clear and easily translatable narrative, the Pokemon anime is probably what the movie will be based on, if we had to wager.
Pokemon: The Manga
If video games and TV aren’t enough to get sucked into the bizarre world of Pokemon, there are three different Pokemon manga based on different aspects of the Pokemon franchise: Pokemon Adventures, published from 1997 to 2014; Pokemon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu released from 1997 until 2000; and Magical Pokemon Journey, published from 1997 to 2003.
Pokemon Adventures, which Tajiri once said “most resembles the world I was trying to convey” is a loose adaptation of the Pokemon Red and Blue GameBoy games and written by Hidenori Kusaka. The series still ongoing, and like the Pokemon anime it evolves alongside the new Nintendo games.
Pokemon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu, is another comic adaptation but more closely follows the anime than the video games. It was written by Toshihiro Ono and ran for just four volumes.
Magical Pokemon Journey is a weird one. Though it’s also a finished series like Electric Tale of Pikachu, Magical Pokemon Journey is someone’s attempt at making Pokemon resemble Sailor Moon. Written by Yumi Tsukirino, the series follows a girl named Hazel who pines for the love of a boy named Almond. Hazel sets off to become a Pokemon Trainer when a scientist named Grandpa (???) tells her he’ll make a love potion in exchange for Pokemon. A unique aspect of the series is that Pokemon can talk like regular humans.
I sincerely doubt if a big-budget Pokemon adapts any of these comics, especially Magical Pokemon Journey. But how trippy would that movie be?
Pokemon: The Card Game
It’s a card game. There’s no story. Though that could be a pretty interesting comment on Hollywood’s obsession with reviving intellectual property and milking your childhood memories for all they’re worth.