When you really think about how much Japan has given to the modern world, it really is quite staggering. Names such as Panasonic, Sony, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Nissan, Nintendo, Fujifilm, Honda and Canon are instantly recognizable household names, so sewn into the fabric of daily life that you have to remind yourself now and then that, yes, they are Japanese companies.
But they all have one very obvious thing in common: electronics. Not to take away from Japan’s exports achievements, but in nearly all other fields they are sorely lacking.
With one towering exception.
Yes, you know where this is going, and I know what the argument will be: that Pokémon is also electronically centered. And you’d be right. But lets cast our minds back to the turn of the millennium. One cold autumn day in 1998 (1999 in Europe and Australia), two nigh-identical games appeared on stores called Pokemon Red and Blue. Then promptly disappeared again, via hundreds-of-thousands of sales counters. Then they came back to the shelves and…disappeared again. The juggernaut that had been building up steam in its native Japan a few years prior had well and truly arrived on distant shores.
But that was just the beginning. As kids sat in their pajamas on Christmas Day rolling their character around bushes trying to catch that wretched Abra, little did they know of the oncoming storm of Poké-merchandise about to sweep into their shores.
And boy, did it strike. The games heralded the oncoming of a franchise that, to this day, I don’t think any other franchise apart from perhaps Star Wars offered a complete experience before and since. By the time the following summer had arrived, you could wake up in the morning in Pokémon pyjamas and bedding, eat Pokémon cereal, watch the tie-in anime series while reading a Pokémon book or while cuddling your Pokémon soft toys, then head on downtown while swinging your Pokéball keychain in one hand and fiddling with your functioning Pokédex in the other to meet up with your friends to play some Pokémon Trading Card games, Pokémon sliders, Pokémon Monopoly or, perhaps, just the straight game.
Looking back, the sheer empire that swelled from two modest, low-tech Game Boy games that were already two years old by the time the West got them should be unbelievable. How can these two games be at the core of a business model so successful that you literally couldn’t move for Pokémon merch, and as far as my hazy memory serves right, even the Pope made a statement to sing Pokémon’s praises?
It’s quite simple, really: because at their heart, the games tap into very inherent desires, that of nurturing, customizing and gradually improving, a formula which every iteration has stuck to since, and it has never failed. They were also one of the very first games to promote a real community and co-operation via sharing and trading: true, the system was clunky and required expensive, chunky wires to operate, but I remember my brother and I playing Pokémon Red and Blue through together, one game each, trading with one another to fill our Pokédex.
The whole Pokémon ‘thing’ has certainly calmed down since then, and the mountains of merchandise has scaled back to the recesses of eBay and the like, though the core game franchise is still stronger than ever, and the anime is some 800 episodes deep now. Pokémon has never truly gone away, but it did have a period around the mid-2000s when it was quite subdued, though in recent years the whole franchise has found new energy and a happy medium at just being merely ‘very popular’.
But I don’t think the impact of Pokémon should be underestimated. Dragonball Z and the like may have got their first to an extent, but Pokemon was the first Japanese franchise to really go mainstream. It exposed a lot of kids to Japanese pop-culture, who went on to explore further into other similar names. It heralded the true transformation of Japan from being the famed manufacturer of electronics to the prime purveyor of pop-culture. Pikachu and his motley crew made the whole concept of cute, ‘kawaii’ style not just acceptable but desirable. And I’m sure it inspired a lot of famous names out there to show that a ‘complete’ franchise really is possible.
But for me, personally, I’ll always have a special place for Pokémon. True, I don’t really play the games that much, and I’m older and more cynical these days, meaning I’m well aware that Pokémon is, at it’s most crudely basic, a cash cow for Nintendo. But it will always have a soft spot for anything Pokémon, because of it’s sunny, colourful characters, it’s sunny and naive disposition that puts it pointedly against some of the more murky, ‘mature’ game names out there…and for being one of the sparks that ignited my interest in the country that I now call home.