The Electric Chipmunk that Conquered the World
December 03, 2012
Little did I know that when I wrote my blog on Godzilla and other daikaiju that it would prompt me to take an extended look at the relationship between Japanese and American pop culture. The globalized Internet world has greatly sped up the merging of the two, but the process has been going on for quite some time. However, the defining moment in the fusion of East and West came in 1998 in the form of an electric chipmunk.
Yes, I’m talking about Pikachu, the most famous of the Pokémon. Who would have thought that a Nintendo video game based on the hobby of insect collecting would give rise to a media-cultural juggernaut that would conquer not just Japan and America, but the entire world? At this point, I think Japan has changed its national symbol from the Rising Sun to Pikachu to celebrate their achievement. Don’t believe me? Take a look back at the photo at the beginning of this blog. Those are jumbo jets of All Nippon Airways.
The term Pokémon is a Romanized contraction of the Japanese Poketto Monsutā. The object of the Pokémon video games is to capture as many of the (currently) 649 species of Pokémon using a Pokéball, and train them to compete against other Trainers' Pokémon in nonlethal Battles. The game can also be played as a card game with collectible trading cards. The games are wildly popular, but they were just the beginning.
The world of Pokémon has expanded into manga, children’s books, anime TV series, and movies. The Pokémon TV series, featuring Ash Ketchum and Pikachu, introduced an entire generation to the world of anime. My son and his friend Mark are two of this cohort. They possess a near encyclopedic knowledge of Pokémon lore, and they eagerly await each new Pokémon Game Boy release. These two are not little kids. They’re teenagers, and they still revel in tracking the wily Pokémon and battling each other in virtual Pokégyms. I even know some Pokémon trainers my own age. I think the games appeal to people outside the hardcore gamer demographic because the gameplay is simple and open-ended. I believe it was the demand from these consumers that finally pushed anime and manga into the mainstream of American culture. As a result, anime and manga are now readily available in America, including right here at MCPL.
In thinking about the Japanese and American cultural symbiosis, one simply cannot ignore one of Japan’s greatest contributions to the global culture, the films of Akira Kurosawa. We’ll take on Kurosawa in my next blog post, but for now I leave you with this, a heavy metal cover of the Pokémon theme song.
Gotta catch ‘em all.