In the Wake of Detective Pikachu

A Quick Pokémon Crash Course

Pokémon Detective Pikachu didn’t topple Avengers: Endgame at the US box office this weekend. Still, you can hardly dismiss a close second place against a culture-swallowing juggernaut. And worldwide, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes ceded the top-earning spot to a mystery-solving electric mouse with a love for classic hats and an obsession with caffeine. Pikachu, whether a detective or otherwise, is one of the most recognizable and well-loved characters of the late 20th century, and the early 21st. Pokémon, the franchise he represents, has proven to have genuine cultural longevity. If you’re curious about how and why that has happened, and where the art of detection fits in, read on.

Pokémon got its start in Japan with the 1996 video games Pokémon Red and Green versions. The Blue version, initially sold exclusively through a magazine, quickly followed. It upgraded the graphics and fiddled with the world design. The Japanese Blue became the basis of the worldwide Red and Blue versions, which launched in 1998. Alongside the Pokémon anime series, Red and Blue kicked off a global craze. The anime, which still runs today, introduced its viewers to the Pokémon world (and many of them to anime in general). And given that it’s meant to serve as an introduction, I’ll be using it as one.

The Core Appeal of Pokémon
Ash and Pikachu, trying to catch all them Pokémon.

The Pokémon anime follows Ash, a young boy travelling the world on a journey to become a Pokémon Master. He and his Pokémon–his longtime pal Pikachu and a rotating crew of other critters (some who’ve been with him almost as long as Pikachu, some who’ll only travel with him for a little while) aim to see all they can see, do all they can do, be the very best they can be. In the process, they make friends, challenge the region’s Pokémon League (the equivalent of a major sports organization) and foil dastardly plots by those who would abuse Pokémon for sinister ends.

That story structure, which the anime has used in a variety of ways over its 1,000 plus episodes, also drives the core Pokémon games. The player-character is a young person who embarks on a fantastic adventure. You don’t just see astonishing things; you do astonishing things, from defeating sinister plots hatched by villains ranging from mafia dons to megalomaniacal would-be gods, to catching creatures from out of legend and myth and then befriending and battling alongside them. By conquering the best of the best, you win their admiration and friendship. And at the end, you look back and see that you’ve had an adventure for the ages.

It’s a standard coming-of-age narrative rendered fantastic. You, the player, become your best self. And you do so alongside friends who range from tortoises with cannons coming out of their shells to electric mice who developed psychic powers from eating lots of pancakes to metal solar lions whose powers include Lovecraftian dimension-hopping. Everyone from a kid first discovering Pokémon to a long-time fan of the games can dive into the fairly simple Point-A-to-Point-B story structure. For first-time players, it’s a trek through a magical world with a clear end point. For long-time players, it’s a chance to learn more about the world as a whole–what remains the same across different cultures and regions, and what changes.

And as the core Pokémon games move from generation to generation and region to region, its creative team continues to add depth. Conversations about the math that defines and generates each individual Pokémon in any given game file go quite deep, as do those about the process of optimizing teams to participate in the games’ long-lived high-level competitive scene. The storytelling, while still meant first and foremost for the current members of the series’ young audience, has made space for compelling, even complex, character work. For those who are interested, the creators weave these developments into the larger game with care and subtlety.

Pokémon’s Adventure Becomes Detective Pikachu’s Mystery
Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith in Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

At first glance, Detective Pikachu seems like a strange way to bring Pokémon into live-action. It’s an adaptation of a fairly recent spin-off video game set mostly in one city, and its protagonists–Ryan Reynolds’ Detective Pikachu and Justice Smith’s Tim Goodman–are far removed from the young seekers who usually stand as Pokémon protagonists. Moreover, a good chunk of Detective Pikachu plays like a genuine detective movie. It’s more concerned with Detective Pikachu and Tim interrogating a Mr. Mime for clues than it is with Detective Pikachu and Tim battling the forces of evil. Indeed, Detective Pikachu’s attempt to participate in an underground fight club goes very bad very fast. Even the climax, which (somewhat disappointingly) leans more towards a contemporary blockbuster finale, turns in part on the sort of reveals on which great detective stories thrive.

But looking deeper, Detective Pikachu is very much a Pokémon story. Its Rhyme City may not be as big as the Kanto, Johto, Hoenn or Aloa regions, but it’s still a massive, enthralling space that begs to be explored (the set and costume design for Detective Pikachu is well and truly phenomenal). Smith’s Tim may be a 21-year-old insurance appraiser rather than a tween or teen who wants to be a Pokémon trainer, but his story is very much a coming-of-age tale.

Over the course of Detective Pikachu, Tim rediscovers passions he’d long set aside and begins to build emotional bonds that he’d long let atrophy. Detective Pikachu may be a decidedly atypical Pokémon, but the bond he and Tim forge is as deep and meaningful as the bond Ash and his Pikachu share, or of the care gamers give their Pokémon. Even if Pokémon stories generally aren’t detective stories, Detective Pikachu is a darn good example of why people love Pokémon and its many tales.

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Justin Harrison

Justin Harrison is a film writer based in Austin, Texas.

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