(Warning: Spoilers ahead for Pokémon: The First Movie)
When I was a kid, I was utterly enchanted by the stunning visual design of Pokémon: the First Movie. Even with the sometimes clunky 90s effects, the artistry of the film- its dreamy pastel color palettes, fantastical settings, and the graphic, fluid motion of the animation- captured my imagination. And although the film’s aesthetic beauty is something that upon revisiting it I continue to appreciate, it’s the film’s meaning that, as an older viewer, particularly resonates with me in a way it didn’t back then.
On the surface level, the message of the film is a simple one, easily grasped by children; that fighting and bitterness only leads to destruction (as illustrated by a scene at the end of the movie where Pokémon are forced, against their nature, to fight their own clones.) However, this is only one layer of meaning that can be found in the film; deeper still, there’s another level, a meditation on what identity means and how much, if any of it, is owed to “the circumstances of one’s birth.”
Identity is explored primarily through MewTwo, who serves as the film’s central antagonist (though he gets redeemed by the end.) MewTwo, created by humans to be the “ultimate” Pokémon, comes into being unnaturally- which puts him in the unique position of being led to question his existence rather than accepting it. Among other things, he wonders: am I only alive to be used as a tool by others?
The power in MewTwo’s predicament lies in the fact that, in asking these questions about his purpose, he is also questioning the authorities who would control him. He does not blindly trust humans, but rather doubts their intentions. And sure, that questioning comes with its consequences- mainly, that MewTwo feels resentful towards humanity- but it also comes with a kind of freedom.
Liberated in his refusal to fulfill a role for others, MewTwo is determined to discover his own life’s purpose. The reason it doesn’t go smoothly, at first, is because he tries to do that alone. Throughout the film he views identity as this kind of quest that he has to take on himself, and views anyone that stands in the way- human and Pokémon alike- as enemies.
It isn’t until the end of the movie, after MewTwo has witnessed the bond between Ash and Pikachu, that MewTwo has a change of heart. The movie frames the scene where Pikachu is able to bring Ash back to life by crying as a testament to the power of friendship. In the context of MewTwo’s personal struggle, however, I see it more as the movie’s way of providing an example of the profound positive impact that being treated as an equal can have on a being’s psychology.
Without getting into the logistics of the power dynamics between human and Pokémon (a topic which could serve as an entire essay itself) what Ash and Pikachu have is essentially a partnership. Ash is proof that the humans we see at the beginning of the movie- who MewTwo perceives are taking advantage of him- do not represent all humans. More importantly, Ash is proof that humans are capable of treating Pokémon with kindness, and that doing so can actually strengthen their sense of self.
The relationship between Pokémon and human, then, can be seen as a metaphor for an individual’s relationship to society. We certainly should not, the movie seems to argue, allow our relationship to society to be one of codependency- one in which we forfeit control over our own identity and let the people in power dictate to us how we should feel and what we should do with our life. At the same time, to shun human connection entirely (as MewTwo does) is to deny ourselves access to perspectives outside of our own, which can lead to harmful thinking and actions (MewTwo luring the humans to a trap and pitting Pokémon against each other).
Rather, the solution the movie presents us with is a society in which there is a balance of self reflection and meaningful social relationships- a society in which people are encouraged to both think for themselves, and empathize with each other. In the end, MewTwo’s story isn’t only triumphant because Mewtwo reclaims his identity, it’s triumphant because he finally has all the tools he needs TO reclaim that identity; namely, the companionship of like minded beings (Mew and the pokemon clones) as well as the time and freedom to think on what kind of being he wants to choose to be.
Of course, a lot of trouble could have been avoided if MewTwo had only had these things in the first place, but the movie makes a point that lamenting what you don’t have is counterproductive; no matter what life throws at us or what mistakes we make, our lives and our identities are our own, and each of us has a right to demand what we need from society to make it work for us.
Call me biased for having a nostalgic attachment to this film, but for a kid’s movie I’d say that’s pretty damn philosophical.