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Essays student working Hard
Movies based on video games don't have a track record of being very good. Cartoons that exist to sell merchandise don't exactly have the best reputation either. And Pokémon: The First Movie has a 14% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with even the few positive reviews only being of the “Yeah it's OK if you're a fan I guess” variety. The consensus among parents and critics is that it's brainless, boring schlock that exists only to push the Pokémon brand. Consensus among Pokémon fans is more divided, but many have outgrown it and many others enjoy it only out of nostalgia.
These opinions, of course, are based on the dub version created by 4Kids Entertainment. And we all know 4Kids isn't known for faithful adaptations any more than movies based on video games are known for being good. But how much better could the movie have been in the first place? After all, the American version is stuck with the same video footage and the same general storyline, right?
Originally animated in Japan, Pokémon: The First Movie" had to be virtually reimagined for American audiences. Nintendo, which owns all rights to Pokémon in America, brought 4Kids Entertainment on board to handle all the creative aspects of essentially "Americanizing" the movie.
4Kids Entertainment's Norman Grossfeld, along with Michael Haigney and John Touhey, dramatically rewrote the script, incorporating all-new story elements. Grossfeld explains, "Our first challenge was to rewrite the film and dub the new script over the footage. We also rescored the entire movie with all new music that would better reflect what American kids would respond to."
Oh. As Coach Z would say, “That's very... overt.” Executive producer Masakazu Kubo wrote the following in his essay Why Pokémon Was Successful in America:
The people at Warner also gave us some hassle over the script. According to them, the Japanese original does not distinguish clearly enough between the good guys and the bad. Such a movie would not be successful in a multiethnic country like the United States, they insisted, because the viewers would not know who to identify with and who to cheer on. In other words, the heroes and villains needed to be identified clearly. They accomplished this by revising the various characters' lines.
And revise the various characters' lines they did. Which is perfectly reasonable. I understand Warner Bros.' concerns that kids might not get that Mewtwo's supposed to be the villain. I mean, he does kill a bunch of people at the beginning of the film, and the movie is called Mewtwo Strikes Back, but kids are stupid! It's important to really drill home that Mewtwo is a bad Pokémon who wants to take over the world so they'll know they're supposed to side with Ash, the hero they've been following for the entire series.
How much better is the original than the copy? I've suspected for a long time that it may be a genuinely good movie, but it's not an exaggeration to say that Pokémon was literally the primary driving force in my life around the time it came out in US theaters and my nostalgia goggles are likely so thick they can be considered telescopes. How am I supposed to tell if I'd like the movie at all if I were to see it for the first time as an adult?
It is likely that nostalgia and the fact that these characters imprinted on me when I was young enhance my enjoyment of the movie, but I really don't think that's all it takes. Plenty of things I loved as a child I now find boring or downright unpleasant. And literally every Japanese language review I've found is positive. I don't just mean “Yeah it's nice for fans I guess” positive; surprisingly many of them use the word ““傑作”, which usually translates to “masterpiece”. In this case it likely means “best work in a series”. It can also mean “boner”.
All of that was just a long winded way of saying I think the Japanese version of Mewtwo Strikes Back is a good film, perhaps even a bit great, and the data I've found suggests I'm not alone. So I guess I'll give reviewing this thing a go.
Before I begin (which is a bit of an odd thing to say 718 words in), a couple of notes. First, I'll be referring to the characters by their dub names for convenience's sake so you don't have to keep asking yourself things like, “Wait, who's Myuutsu again?” Second, the version I'm reviewing includes the prologue, “Mewtwo's Origin”, which was not included in theaters for time reasons (with the prologue included, Ash and friends don't show up until over twenty minutes into the movie) but unless I misinterpreted Google's automatic translation of the blog entry (which is very, very possible), screenwriter Takeshi Shudo always meant for “The Birth of Mewtwo” to be part of the story. OK, so... onto the review.
Theatrical Edition Pocket Monsters: Mewtwo Strikes Back! is an introspective character drama which, at its core, is about the meaning of life. And about selling Pokémon merchandise, obviously, but mostly about the nature of existence.*
“The question of raison d'etre is out of place! Don't put on airs!” If you say this so, I will be at my wits' end. Perhaps this anime is not only for children but also for their guardians: Where is this? Who am I? If you answer, "This is a movie theater where I seldom come. I am a parent who has a child. --Ah, child rearing is an expensive, tiring job," I'll be slightly embarrassed by your answer.
The story begins with Dr. Fuji leading a team of scientists in an attempt to clone the legendary Pokémon Mew. Mew is said to be the strongest Pokémon ever, possibly even immortal. And the key to immortality is exactly what Dr. Fuji needs, because, wouldn't you know it?, all the Pokémon he tries to clone keep dying. More importantly, so does his daughter, Ai.¹
See, Ai kicked the bucket a while back and, since Dr. Fuji's a scientist, he became obsessed with bringing her back to life through the power of science. His wife wasn't so thrilled with the idea of dwelling on her dead daughter and left him, but, hey, more time to work on cloning.
We're still talking about that show about catching and training magical animals, right?
And this is the toned down version. In the audio drama version, released earlier, we learn that human clones never survive more than four years and have to spend those four years suspended in amniotic fluid, so Dr. Fuji has been cloning Ai over and over since her initial death. I wonder what he does with all the bodies. Getting Team Rocket to dispose of them was probably part of their deal.
Oh, right, I haven't mentioned Team Rocket yet. But I shouldn't have to. Characters with the goal of reviving dead loved ones always stray into the dark side. The gist of it is, in exchange for the necessary funding for his cloning project, Dr. Fuji will provide Giovanni with the strongest Pokémon ever. Everyone wins.
For a while, this batch of clones seems to be doing fine, and they even go on an adventure together through the power of imagination. Thanks to Mewtwo's psychic abilities, they can all communicate telepathically, and Aitwo serves as Mewtwo's mentor, taking him on a tour of the town where she used to live. All is well until everyone starts dying again.
Mewtwo is understandably a bit traumatized seeing all his friends disappear from existence at once, so the scientists administer a tranquilizer that keeps him in a state of deep sleep until he's all grown up.
You know what happens next. Mewtwo wakes up and wants to know who he is, where he is, why he exists. He doesn't get the answers he wants so he blows everything up. Fortunately, before Mewtwo has time to hurt himself, Giovanni shows up and offers to help Mewtwo control his powers if he'll help Giovanni with this little world domination project he has going.
Following is a sequence in which Mewtwo, clad in a mechanical suit that suppresses his powers (yes, Giovanni says the suit suppresses his powers), performs tasks for Giovanni such as whooping Gary's butt. This was a nice way of connecting the movie to a concrete point in the show's timeline, as Gary had just fought Giovanni's mysterious, vaguely mechanical Pokémon in the episode “The Battle of the Badge”. Which would have been a great way to introduce a mystery to build up excitement for the movie's release except that the episode's airing was delayed thanks to all those seizures those stupid kids couldn't stop having.
If Giovanni could take back one thing he's ever said, it would probably be, “You're a Pokémon created by humans. What other value do you have?”. When Mewtwo doesn't like the answer he's given about his purpose, he has a tendency to blow up everything around him, so that's what he does.
Here's where that moral ambiguity American audiences hate comes into play. While both versions of Mewtwo are searching for a purpose, Grossfeld's Mewtwo seeks revenge against the world, whereas Shudo's Mewtwo launches his counterattack to prove to himself that his existence has value. Which apparently immediately renders him so sympathetic that the kids will side with him despite his plan being to wipe out all life on earth and repopulate it with other clones.
After a 3D title sequence with a great orchestral version of the Gameboy Pokémon games' intro music, we finally meet Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu. 'Bout time, right? I came here to watch Ash have Pokémon battles, not to watch a cat have a midlife crisis!
Not to worry, because a pirate shows up and, speaking in a humorous mixture of English and garbled Japanese, challenges Ash to a Pokémon battle. This sequence is remarkably efficient: It introduces Ash's cast of Pokémon and their powers, demonstrates Ash's skill in battle and his companionship with his Pokémon, and gets the protagonists an invitation to New Island to meet the world's greatest Pokémon trainer. Plus it works as the opening theme and shows off what Pokémon battles would look like if the series ever had the budget to actually show stuff moving around. And it introduces the never-before-seen Pokémon Donphan! I tell ya, if every scene had the efficiency of this one, the movie would be over in ten minutes flat.
From this point until Mew's appearance the movie is largely the same as its American counterpart, just with completely different dialogue and music. And I should mention somewhere that I do think that the American version's music is usually superior, with one exception I'll get to later.
OK, so, fast forward. The protagonists, Team Rocket and a few other trainers have managed to reach New Island despite that big ol' storm Mewtwo started to weed out the weaklings.
“I once shared an ambition with another human,” Mewtwo mewses. “But I was greatly disappointed. Humans are the worst existence for Pokémon.” He sounds rather like N, the antagonist of the Black & White games, until he mentions he considers Pokémon worthless as well for being subservient to humans.
Long before N and Team Plasma, Mewtwo Strikes Back peered at the edges of the Pokémon world, examining the way it works, particularly in regards to the master/servant relationship of a trainer and his or her Pokémon. It's worth mentioning that this relationship was to be the subject of Shudo's originally planned final episode back when the show was supposed to end with Ash winning the Indigo League championship. I'm curious how much of Mewtwo Strikes Back was written with the idea that it would serve as a grand finale. If Mewtwo hadn't erased everyone's memory at the end, things would be a bit different for those he encountered.
In particular, Team Rocket, whose epiphany comes during the climactic fight-to-the-death between the Pokémon and their clones. I'm skipping stuff and assuming you recognize what I'm talking about because if you haven't seen the movie already you probably wouldn't be reading this far into the review. But in case I'm wrong, Mewtwo captures and clones every Pokémon present (except Togepi, presumably because seeing two Togepis trying to kill each other is a bit too harsh) and, after the original Mew shows up and says the clones are obviously inferior, every Pokémon battles its clone. But not the fun kind of battle with Bubblebeams and Thundershocks. The kind where you just beat each other up.
So yeah, Jessie and James are standing there, watching perfectly symmetrical violence not solve anything. Their appearance begins with (aborting) their motto and ends with their “blasting off” catchphrase, which I'll pretentiously leave as “Yana kanji” (literally “a bad feeling”, probably best translated to “This feels bad!”), but what happens in between is rather different from usual.
James: “If you ask us this or that”... What is this?
Jessie: This all seems so pitiful.
James: It's like bullying yourself.
Jessie: It's like seeing your past self...
James: ...and seeing yourself now...
Both: Yana kanji!
Until I decided to write this review I didn't examine what the “past self” line meant very closely, just thinking of it as one of those vague Japanese things, but this time instead of moving on I paused and thought about what it meant. I remembered something I read in one of Shudo's translated blog entries:
[Team Rocket's] self awareness is strong, but that's because they're good natured by nature. And indeed, they're not hopeless villains. [...] However, with some little causal relationship, they stepped out of line and stopped living an honest life.
Suddenly the meaning of the line I'd skipped over was obvious: In this exchange, the usually self-assured Jessie and James admit that the lifestyle they've fallen into is self-destructive, that they're at war with what they once were and are harming themselves through their actions. If this were George Lucas' movie he'd probably have gone back recently and added the line “What have I become?!” in there to make sure and eliminate that annoying subtlety. When you consider that Team Rocket forgets everything they've learned at the end of the film, their exchange here can be seen as darkly humorous in a “Somebody throw the goddamn bomb!” sort of way.
The movie's most criticized sequence is its “tears of life” scene in which Ash is petrified by Mew and Mewtwo's Psybeams and revived by magical Pokémon tears. And, you know, I can't defend it. But I do think what happens around it works marvelously. Pikachu's Gandhilike commitment to nonviolent resistance is especially moving, as is Pikachu's devotion to Ash. All he can do is Thundershock and Thundershock until he has no energy left, and that sort of devotion is something that I think is universally sympathetic. It was certainly sympathetic to Mewtwo, who gained a newfound understanding of the bonds living beings can form and the value they hold to each other.
Shudo seems to like this sort of ending a lot. That is, an ending in which the protagonist never really conquers the opponent, but proves his or her worth just through dedication and everything falls into place as a result. It happens in two of the three Minky Momo OVAs³, it happens in “Pokémon, I Choose You!” when Ash blocks Pikachu from the attacking Spearow, it happens in “The Ghost of Maiden's Peak” when the characters are unable to beat Gastly but he recedes when the sun eventually comes out, and it happens enough in gym battles that the stereotypical gym episode involves Ash not winning the battle but earning the badge by helping the gym leader in some other fashion. It's “a very Japanese” ending, I'm told.
So, Mewtwo learns his lesson, flies off with his clones to live somewhere far away, and erases the memory of everyone who came to New Island. Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu find themselves back at the harbor, where they have either the most profound or most pretentious (depending on your perspective) dialogue exchange in all of Pokémon.
The conflict of the film all came from Mewtwo's struggle to find a meaning for his existence. Now, the protagonists find themselves in a microcosmic version of the same position Mewtwo found himself in at the beginning of the film: They don't know how they got to the harbor, and, without any knowledge of Mewtwo, they have no apparent reason for being there. After Brock mentions that Nurse Joy, Officer Jenny and the harbor lady “look even prettier when they're wet”, Ash asks a question and Misty responds.
His intended question is, “What are we doing here [at the harbor]?” and Misty's response is, “Who knows? But we're here, so why don't we stay?” But, thanks to a triple meaning of the word “iru”, their exchange can also be translated as, “Why do we exist?” “Who knows? But we exist, so why not continue [living]?” Thus, as the movie ends, Ash and Misty unknowingly resolve Mewtwo's existential crisis through casual conversation and apparently stumble upon the meaning of life without realizing it.
It was bound to be somewhere!
This would have been very easy to retain in the English version, since “Why are we here?” has the same double meaning, but it looks like the 4Kids guys completely missed the double entendre. I wouldn't have caught it if it hadn't been pointed out in an Amazon.co.jp review, and even then I found it so surprising that the freaking meaning of life was hidden in a Pokémon movie that I had to repeatedly check to make sure I wasn't imagining it. Which I almost wish I was, because that would mean I'd get to put it in a story I wrote and take credit for it.
After a brief check up on Team Rocket, in which we see Shudo's favorite characters get a happy ending for the first time, we get one of my favorite end credits sequences in a movie. It consists of all the parts that would usually be considered too boring to make it into the show itself: Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu walking, walking, walking some more, waiting in a cave for the rain to stop, camping, sleeping, walking, and walking some more. Normally such a thing probably wouldn't come across as particularly remarkable, but the lovely Ghibli-esque backgrounds and the beautiful background song “Together with the Wind” create a truly poignant sequence that expresses the characters' camaraderie and the scope of their journey better than a million episodes of helping a side character's Pokémon overcome its personal quirk ever could.
Is Theatrical Edition Pocket Monsters: Mewtwo Strikes Back! a good movie? I can't answer that for you. I think so, despite its indefensible climax and its occasionally redundant dialogue.∞ Even if it's not, it's still probably the best video game movie we're ever going to get.
*The movie's strongest influence is probably Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to which both versions of Mewtwo Strikes Back have many parallels. Mewtwo and Frankenstein's monster probably would have been best buds.
¹I know I said I'd use the dub names, but I'm sticking with Ai here because she doesn't appear outside this story and her dub name is Amber. While I like a Jurassic Park reference as much as the next guy, the name Ai has greater thematic significance: her name is a homonym for the English word “I”, in line with the movie's theme of self-existence.
²I can argue against the Nostalgia Critic's “Imagine if Bambi and Simba could revive their parents by crying” argument now, though, since a certain critically acclaimed recent addition to the Disney canon uses the exact same device, except in that movie someone is actually brought back from the dead whereas Ash was just petrified by Pokémon power and un-petrified by Pokémon power.
³It doesn't happen in the first Minky Momo OVA, which I reviewed in my last article, but that OVA does include an “everyone's memory is erased” ending that Shudo reused and built upon in Mewtwo Strikes Back. His episode “The Ghost of Maiden's Peak” also reuses several elements from my favorite Minky Momo OVA, “Bridge Over Dreams”, but uses them in a different enough fashion that I wouldn't consider it lazy.
∞I really don't think we needed to hear Mewtwo ask himself, "Where is this? What am I?" so many times, nor did the message of "All living things have value" need to be hammered in so hard. The movie has the bizarre quality of being intermittently subtle and anvilicious.