Gotta Buy 'Em All!

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

Left to right: Pikachu, Misty, Ash Ketchum and Brock of Pokémon . Photo © 2000 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

peek a chu peek a chu peek a chu peek a chu...

Listen...can't you hear it? Not very long ago, it was only a faint whisper from far across the Pacific...

PEEK a chu PEEK a chu PEEK a chu PEEK a chu...

But now it's grown louder, coming at us like a flame-spitting, deranged locomotive! Surely you heard THAT! It's almost on top of us! It's headed straight towards...



The first time that anyone in America (besides the most fanatic otaku) heard of Pokémon it was as a news brief a year or so ago. A stroboscopic special effect in one episode of this popular Japanese series produced seizures in some young viewers, causing the episode to be pulled and redone. Pokémon then receded from our memories, but not for long. During the very time that episode was being aired, one of the most effective merchandising projects to go transcontinental since Mickey Mouse was already underway. For the few of you who are not familiar with this latest confluence between popular fad, brilliant marketing strategy, and free-market capitalism, here's the story...

Left to right: Team Rocket: Meowth, James and Jessie of Pokémon . Photo © 2000 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

The Birth Of An International Craze
Several years ago, Satoshi Tajiri of Game Freak teamed up with video game producer Tsunekazu Ishihara, president of Creatures, on the original idea for Pokémon. Knowing instinctively that they had a potential hit, the pair approached Nintendo for a distribution deal. Ishihara came up with two different versions of the video game, apparently with the intent to market it more effectively overseas.

Before the game was released, however, the creators also hooked up with the staff of Koro Koro comics, distributed by Shogakukan Publishing Co. The intent was to develop the premise of the game into viable (and profitable) manga. If the significance of this alliance escapes you, consider the role of manga in Japanese culture as a source of entertainment, enculturation...and merchandising, especially to the youth market. With all these deals in place, Pokémon was ready for a stellar debut. At first, game sales were moderate but as they picked up steam, Shogakukan's managing editor, a Mr. Kubota, came up with the idea that Pokémon might -- just might -- make a good animated series. All licensing and marketing weapons were now primed and at the ready.

The back story to Pokémon is not a complicated one, but then it doesn't need to be. There are some 150 Pokémon running around the world, each one seemingly a product of acid flashback night at the recombinant genetics lab. It's the dream of every child to become a masterful trainer of Pokémon so that the (generally) wee beasties can subdue other trainer's wee beasties and capture them in Poké balls. The universal goal? "Gotta get 'em all!" (Or, "Getto Da Ze!" for the otaku among my readership.) The animated series focused on the efforts of a young, none-too-savvy Pokémon trainer named Satoshi (Ash in the US version) who, along with his friends Misty and Brock, compete against costumed adversaries Jesse and James of Team Rocket in their quest to, "Get 'em all." Ash is aided by Pokémon Pikachu, a 16 inch-high electric mouse. Team Rocket, not to be denied, enlists a Pokémon of their own named Meowth. The game, the comic book, a role playing game (RPG) in trading-card form, and then the animated series generated a roaring tsunami of profit and popularity, each feeding off the other until Pokémon became a yen-sucking phenomenon the size of Ghidrah (OK, OK, King Ghidorah. Sigh...).

Ghidrah, however, tended to stay in Japan; Pokémon was another matter entirely. This product, in all of its manifestations, was meant to be exported to the lucrative American market, and this was done in a number of astute and telling ways. A look at the changes made from the original concept prior to exportation reveal that considerable thought went into the methodology by which Pokémon would be marketed in the US. In a recent interview with Animerica (Vol. 7, No. 7) Takemoto Mori, who produced the animated series, admitted that, "From the very start we thought about children from both countries." The first thing that was toned down was the notion of battle between the Pokémon, a mainstay of the Nintendo game. In its place, Mori aimed for a more genteel approach where "'s not the battles that are important, it's the value of friendship and making new friends." Later Mori averred that, "We're trying to draw something that shows the value of being a nice person...the Pokémon world is a very nice world...So we don't have any scenes that are bloody or any scenes where characters die." As we all know, such things never occur in anime. Now, for all I know, Mr. Mori is the very model of sincerity, but I cannot resist adding a bit of cynicism here; this column is, after all, about merchandising.

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