Pokémon: An international cultural phenomenon

An examination of the franchise in popular culture
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  • Sunday, September 12, 2010
  • Opinion by Matkin22

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This opinion piece has been written by Matkin22. It expresses the views of the writer, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.

Pokémon; a franchise that now ranks as the second best selling video game series in history per units sold, placing it behind only Mario. It is a series that has a decade-long anime and trading card game running in conjunction with it, and that has spawned numerous manga series. The Pokémon franchise is a phenomenon unlike any other, and one that has taken the world by storm since its inception in 1996.

Charizard; the most sought after Pokémon card of all.

No series can gain such a massive amount of popularity without being referenced or parodied in the mainstream media; and despite the fact it is clearly a series aimed at young children, many of these cultural references can be found in series that are unequivocally aimed at an older audience. Take "Hakidu", the seventeenth episode of the fourth series of Everybody Loves Raymond, which was first broadcast in 1999. A spoof of the trading card game, it depicts the titular character’s daughter trading away a very rare card for one much less valuable, the wizard Hakidu. Raymond discovers the value of the card after the fact and does everything in his power to reclaim it, even going so far as to enter a card shop to purchase a new one when all his other attempts fail, only to find out to his horror that the price of the card is close to $100. This scenario is a clear parody of everybody's favourite TCG obsession: obtaining that incredibly powerful Charizard which just destroyed every other card. The episode also mocks the rumours surrounding trades (my personal favourite was the kid who traded his Charizard for a Weedle), and the lengths parents would go to get one; individual Charizard cards often went for more than $40, with some prices reaching over $150 for the 1st edition. Other appearances in television at the time included a parody in The Norm Show (Season 2, episode 3: "Artie Comes to Town"), which looked at every kid's secret ambitions to be a Pokémon Master and stop the evil Team Rocket.

Pokémon remains popular in 2010, much to Bart's bemusement.
A flock of Swellow make a surprise cameo in The Simpsons Movie.

One might argue that the vast majority of these took place when the franchise was younger and still considered to be a fad by children and schoolyards, taking over the reins of the "most popular thing" from Pogs and Yo-Yos. But in actuality, Pokémon's influence can still be found today. The 2006 Robot Chicken episode "Cracked China" humourously examined the secrets of the Pokémon anime. The franchise has also been referenced numerous times in the iconic comedy series The Simpsons. Pikachu has been shown numerous times in passing, including a hallucination by Bart on one occassion (in "Bart vs. Lisa vs. The Third Grade"), while Maggie has been portrayed as a Pikachu twice during the couch gags. As recently as March 2010, in the same week that Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver were released in North America, Pikachu and Ash made a cameo in the beginning of the episode "Postcards From the Wedge", distracting Bart from his homework and leading him to muse over the franchise's ability to stay fresh over the years. One could even make a case that Swellow made a cameo appearance in The Simpsons Movie; at the conclusion of a newscast, Kent Brockman states "It's the time of year when the Swellow's return to Springfield", and a number of birds resembling the Pokémon crash into the dome surrounding the city and begin to slowly slide down to the hungry cats waiting below. What makes this brief appearance even more surprising is that while Pikachu and Charizard are somewhat familiar to the general public, Swellow is not.

Notoriety has also had a great deal to do with the referencing of the franchise. Perhaps the most infamous Pokémon episode of all, "Dennō Senshi Porigon" has been the butt of numerous jokes. In The Simpsons episode "Thirty Minutes over Tokyo", Bart turns on the television and finds a children’s program. He has just enough time to exclaim that this is the program which gives people seizures before the robot character’s eyes start flashing on screen, causing the entire family to collapse and convulse. The South Park episode "Chinpokomon" features a Japanese Pokémon-like phenomenon which brainwashes almost all of the children. Kenny, while playing one of the Chinpokomon games, suffers a seizure and dies. Both episodes were aired in 1999, shortly after the incident. Ling-Ling, a character from Comedy Central's Drawn Together is a clear parody of Pikachu, being able to generate "beam" attacks and having a previous history with a trainer. Again referencing "Dennō Senshi Porigon", at one point in time he states that his goal in life is to give children seizures. A brief reference was also given in the 2004 novel So Yesterday by science fiction author Scott Westerfeld; one of the characters has a seizure when watching the episode.

Richard Hammond points out the design similarities between the Tata Nano and Pikachu.

Pokémon has been referenced in more than just comedy programs, however. The Japanese manga and anime Koharu Biyori (serialized in North America as Indian Summer) features a brief sequence where two mikos (Ran and Sumire) and their octopus are blasted off in parody of Team Rocket's frequent anime episode exits. In 2008, Richard Hammond compared the design of the Indian Tata Nano to that of Pikachu on the British motoring program Top Gear, leading Jeremy Clarkson to query if it was a "Punkawalla", much to the studio audience's hilarity. And then there is the 2008 discovery of a ligand named Pikachurin, a type of vision protein which can help to improve eyesight. It takes its name from the most famous Pokémon of all due to the speed of its electrical impulses; without the protein, it can take up to three times as long for the brain to register what is seen by the eyes. Other brief references are found in the final episode of ER, three times in Lucky Star, and in the films Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Bad Santa, among others.

The Pokémon franchise has left an indelible and humourous imprint on our society. It has been referenced so many times that it is impossible to cover all the occurrences in just a single article. From parodies to passing mentions, from automotive designs to biochemical processes, the phenomenon that is Pokémon has left a lasting impression on culture all across the globe. One can only eagerly anticipate how it will be referenced again in the future.