Pokémon: More Than Just a Game, It’s a Way of Life

A normal person in a rural town has dreams of becoming a master. As they come of age and spring approaches, it’s time for them to begin their journey to chase that dream. After saying goodbye to their mother and hometown, adventure awaits. They open the front door and take their first steps into a world full of new experiences and things to uncover.

That’s right: it’s time to enter the workforce!

The Pokémon that existed when Game Freak and series creator Satoshi Tajiri kick-started a phenomenon in 1996, and the one that premiered its first live-action TV series in Japan with Pack Your Pocket With Adventure (Pocket ni Bouken o Tsumekonde, or PokéTsume for short) last month, are almost unrecognizable. Which makes sense when you go from creating a game in a home office to a franchise more lucrative than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter, and Nintendo’s own Mario combined.

More than 25 years since the original game’s release, multiple generations of kids have become adults under the watchful eyes of Pikachu and friends, and the series has grown to encompass everything from anime and merchandise to card games and Hollywood blockbusters. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, with the growth in popularity of trading card games like Pokémon in a postpandemic world and the record-breaking sales of the recent generation of titles despite quality concerns, it only seems to get more popular by the year.

For a franchise to retain relevance for as long as Pokémon, it must evolve — and not just evolve but interweave its ideals into the fabric of daily life. Those early generations of kids need to pass on their love of Pokémon like how Disney animated classics often serve as a formative childhood introduction to film.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates Pokémon’s successful transformation from video game to a way of life quite like PokéTsume.

PokéTsume.
Image: TV Tokyo

But what even is PokéTsume? Prior to the premiere of the series in Japan last month, there had only been one prior attempt at live-action storytelling within the world of Pokémon: 2019’s Detective Pikachu. Unlike Ryan Reynolds’ wisecracking gumshoe Pikachu, PokéTsume was the first Japanese live-action foray into Pokémon and doesn’t even take place within the universe of the games.

In this series, we follow Madoka Akagi, portrayed by popular Japanese idol Nanase Nishino of Nogizaka46, a recent graduate moving out of her childhood home to live in the city and follow her dream of becoming a creator with an upstart company called ADventure. She played Pokémon Red and Blue (Red and Green in Japan) when she was a kid but has long since grown distant from the franchise.

The series’ opening episode serves as a nostalgic parallel between the challenges of working life and the quest to become a Pokémon Master. The childhood friend who works for another company becomes your rival, and the product presentation to an investment CEO mirrors a gym battle.

Rediscovering Pokémon in a box of items sent from her mother, the protagonist begins to relive this formative adventure. Moments of the game and shots showing the joy on the faces of both child and adult Madoka from the dim glow of the Game Boy screen are depicted. Pokémon’s influence extends to the music scoring the series, with a relaxing bar featuring a slow jazz-infused rendition of the Pokémon Center theme and a synth rendition of Pallet Town marking the beginning of Madoka’s journey.

As the show progresses, the lessons from the game form the basis of a pseudo-episodic tale about Madoka’s life at the company. The struggle to connect with a new client parallels the way Pokémon won’t listen until you’ve proven your worth with gym badges. Learning and improving on the job is likened to the experience that turns a flailing Magikarp into a job-leading Gyarados.

While the show may come across as silly in places and has difficulty in communicating itself, it is apparent that there’s heart behind it. There are numerous touches that reflect a series made with love, such as characters having their own sprites integrated into the gameplay of Pokémon Red.

With PokéTsume, Pokémon isn’t just a virtual journey to become a champion. It serves as a lesson we take into our daily lives long after our adventure is over, integrating the morals of the franchise into our daily lives and epitomizing a 15-year transformation of the Pokémon brand.

To understand this, we must first cast an eye back to 2006. During the preparation for the launch of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl for the Nintendo DS, developer Game Freak found the series at a crossroads. Sales had been on a steady decline since the original release, with the Hoenn GBA games at the time holding the distinction as the worst-selling mainline titles in the series. The original generation of players had moved on from playing Pokémon, and new generations simply weren’t interested. Something had to change.

In response, the company launched the Japan-only Pokémon Garden via the country’s online Yahoo! Kids portal, an interactive experience taking users on a live tour through the history of Pokémon, featuring mini-games and new information on the yet to be released Diamond and Pearl. Over 5 million unique users accessed Yahoo! Kids every month at this time, all within the series’ core target demographic. Ultimately, the project proved successful, with Diamond and Pearl selling one-third more copies than its predecessors Ruby and Sapphire before eventually eclipsing the lifetime sales of those titles.

Notably, at the time, it was one of the company’s biggest attempts at diversifying the brand since its initial launch. Following the initial multimedia blitz and the introduction of a World Championships and competitive circuit for the video games and TCG, the seriesThe growth and evolution of the Pokémon franchise has marked a significant shift from its traditional form. Prior to new endeavors, Pokémon had not ventured into online distribution and promotion, nor extended its reach beyond the core audience and multimedia properties.

The introduction of Pokémon Garden represented the first major attempt to broaden the core Pokémon experience to diverse platforms and audiences. While 2016’s Pokémon Go is often viewed as the pivotal moment when Pokémon began to capture the interest of older demographics, the groundwork for this success was laid earlier through efforts to redefine the essence of Pokémon. This involved initiatives like Garden and the transformation of the anime to encompass a wider range of narratives within the expanding Pokémon universe.

For the first time, external partners were involved in expanding the Pokémon world beyond the realm of Ash Ketchum. OLM, the long-time Pokémon animation studio, delegated the production of a spinoff series, Pokémon Origins, to other studios such as Production I.G and Xebec. This collaborative effort proved to be a success, resonating with audiences seeking fresh content from the Pokémon universe.

This marked the beginning of an evolution that saw the production of six unique web series by various external partners from around the world, each set in different regions within the Pokémon world. The most recent series, Path to the Peak, stands out for its focus on the real-world experience of competing in the TCG. Additionally, the upcoming Netflix series Pokémon Concierge adds a unique dimension to the expanding animation portfolio by venturing into stop motion, marking the franchise’s series debut in this format.

Numerous one-off short films and music videos were also created, alongside a reshaping of priorities for the long-running movie franchise. In 2017, the film series diverged from the TV anime’s continuity to tell original stories, thus enabling experimentation with CG animation and the recreation of early episodes of the Pokémon TV series in movie form. This newfound flexibility also allowed animators from the original series Attack on Titan to direct their own movie with The Power of Us in 2018.

Beyond revitalizing the anime, the company placed greater emphasis on integrating Pokémon into the community, both in Japan and globally, through relief efforts and merchandising campaigns. This involved initiatives aimed at providing more than just toys and light entertainment to an aging audience.

Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku and Fukushima, The Pokémon Company, along with many others, swiftly provided aid to the affected areas. This led to the establishment of the Pokémon With You Foundation, which aimed to support disadvantaged communities by expanding its efforts to provide free educational materials, food drives for struggling children, and funding scholarships. These actions were followed by partnerships with local governments across Japan.The tourism initiatives related to Pokémon are becoming increasingly popular, with events such as Yokohama’s annual Pikachu Outbreak and the Pokémon Local Acts initiative, which promotes local specialties and attractions using Pokémon. These initiatives have even resulted in the creation of charming Pokémon-themed manhole covers throughout the country.

As the fan base diversified, Pokémon merchandise also expanded to cater to different age groups. This included the introduction of monpoke, a line of Pokémon-themed items for infants, and the now-discontinued Pokémon Shirts, featuring button-up shirts and formal workwear inspired by various Pokémon.

With the launch of Pokémon Go and other efforts, the franchise evolved from being just a gaming phenomenon to becoming an integral part of modern life for fans of all ages.

The 2023 Pokémon World Championships held in Yokohama showcased the widespread appeal of Pokémon, featuring a city-wide takeover with various attractions such as drone shows, pop-up Pokémon Centers, an orchestral concert, and more, attracting families across multiple generations who share a love for Pokémon.

The success of these initiatives is evident in the record profits and revenue reported by The Pokémon Company, along with the popularity of the games, anime, and trading card game. The enduring appeal of Pokémon ensures that even as young fans grow older, they are likely to engage with the franchise through different mediums and may introduce it to their own children in the future.

PokéTsume, a series that embodies the reinvention of Pokémon, represents the franchise’s aim to appeal to a broader audience. It provides relatable content for adults who may find common ground with the characters navigating their own paths in life.

Ultimately, Pokémon continues to resonate with fans as a source of moral guidance and nostalgia, with PokéTsume encapsulating the feeling of existing in a Pokémon world on-screen.

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