“Jesus loves me because I am special.”
“Yes you are.”
I wrote that when I was seven during my Christian “Religion and Life” class. Mrs. Meyerwitz taught us once a week when I was in primary school, and she wrote that reply. At the time, I didn’t feel special, aside from being called a “spaz” and other derogatory names for disabled people. I’d been recently diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, wore a funny brace on my leg that chafed my heel, and, periodically, had plaster casts that confined me to a wheelchair
I was new to the school and was immediately ostracised by quite a few of my classmates. Still, I held onto the hope that I might be genuinely special despite everything, and I can trace much of that heightened self-worth back to Pokémon 2000: The Power of One. Along with an individualistic dub subtitle, the dub itself wholly reconceived the communal themes of the original Japanese film as a singular hero’s journey.
2018’s The Power of Us, known as Everyone’s Story in Japan, therefore metatextually pitches itself as a pointed course-correction and recapitulation regarding the ideals of Pokémon. But when I was young, that simple “chosen one” story allowed me to have hope that I, too, was special even when I was alone and felt discarded by my peers due to disability. And in some ways that thought that I could be special, even in isolation, carried me through most of high school.
Now almost twenty years later, having failed multiple times, having fallen into the deep recesses of melancholy, having faced the overwhelming sadness of loss, at this juncture, I once again find myself affirming the different guiding principles that preoccupy The Power of Us: that we don’t have to overcome our problems alone; that reliance on others is permissible; and that the interdependency and acceptance that comes with friendship is fundamental to our survival as people. These are not new messages, especially not for the Pokémon anime, which has always thrived on the idea of camaraderie. Ash has, of course, gently coaxed many distrustful and reticent Pokémon into seeing his virtues as a trainer and friend, yet the individual struggle in reconciling with our past faults and feelings, to overcome that inertia of willpower and reach out to others, have rarely been examined in quite so profound and varied a manner.
Speaking of our cap-wearing, Pikachu-cajoling, Pallet Town native, Ash’s effervescent personality doesn’t really lend itself to debilitating emotional suffering or deep introspection on failure. So The Power of Us wisely broadens its viewpoint characters to an ensemble cast, keeping Ash on the periphery. Arriving at a festival in Fula City, he acts like an accidental messianic figure preaching the benevolent doctrine of “Pokémon Power”, a partnership-fuelled ethos of mutual dependency between “buddies”.
Using the eternal bond between Ash and Pikachu as a transformative catalyst is inspired, because he provides an assured perspective on constructive friendships that the other characters lack, and one that the audience won’t doubt after twenty-odd years. The film dedicates an early sequence towards illustrating the wonders of genuine trust and partnership, and in doing so, holds a mirror up for the rest of the characters to recognise what they lack in their own connections, while also highlighting their deep-seated issues. Crucially though, the characters’ desire to change is an internal one, and so while Ash manages to convert every living being within the city to his cult of positivity, their buoyed spirits allow them to see the hopeful light of having a future together with Pokémon through their own actions.
Most bluntly, the old and embittered Harriet spites the young Pokémon who have taken to following her around. Her guilt and long-held grief prevent her from accepting their affection out of fear of loss. Then there’s Risa, whose injury hampered her running career. The reality of giving up passions is a sadness that people constantly face, but it is the fear of restarting and confirming what may have been lost in the interim that makes her very relatable. Meanwhile, Toren faces a fear of public speaking and judgment by his peers. These are relatively small-scale conflicts in a world where ginormous, reality-warping monsters exist, and a breakaway from the usual fare for Pokémon movies, which tend to link those supreme powers more directly to the earth-altering predicaments perpetrated by antagonists. By contrast, there is no true villain in this story because the film settles on the fallibility of humanity as its centrepiece, and internal psychosomatic barriers being the enemies of personal progress and relationships for the entire ensemble.
The more meditative approach rewards the audience with possibly the most emotionally compelling film in the series to date, with deeply empathetic character arcs, even amongst the requisite trappings and battles of a Pokémon movie. For me, it was Callahan, an uncle who lied to his niece about catching a Pokémon, and then perpetuates that lie to not disappoint her. I’m not sure when I first lied to protect others from the emotional consequences of my personal shortcomings and hardships. It wasn’t always the case. I used to be truthful to a fault. At first, it was an omission of the facts relating to my circumstances. And then it was full-blown lies regarding my well-being. All in the name of conserving and presenting an image, not really for my sake—I knew the reality and loathed myself for it—but to preserve the emotional status quo for everyone I cared about, so that they would be okay. And to avoid the inevitable rebuke, not so much for the lying, but the hiding, and the pain of the truth. It will always unravel eventually. The aggregation of lies and perpetuation of a façade is a burdensome cage of one’s own design. The moral release of telling the truth even in the fallout of shame is cliché, but that the truth will set you free. What comes after though in reconciliation is less explored in media: the guilt of approaching others with one’s rawer, truer self; the permission to forgive yourself and to go on; to feel deserving of love and appreciation from others. The fact that The Power of Us follows through on stories like this with Callahan and a wild Sudowoodo makes it an unusually rich Pokémon film.
The film has particular impact through the persistency of the character dilemmas, though this is in spite of the fairly inelegant dub dialogue. Then again, Pokémon has never been Shakespeare. However, the resonance of characters faltering when facing their existential crises is still powerful, because the film takes special care visually conveying their internal struggles and dejected states with composition and framing, particularly accentuating separation and distance. Wit Studio’s involvement is a boon for the subtle, crisp animation of finer expressions, and the film utilises this to pepper these stages of self-acceptance by the characters throughout the film, so that the emotional changes feel gradual.
The emotional turmoil is also expanded through the changing relationship to Pokémon. Without having to pay lip-service to too many Pokémon per trainer, the film is able to feature each Pokémon consistently throughout their respective trainers’ journeys. In terms of personalities, The Power of Us regularly chooses to juxtapose opposites: Callahan is recklessly bold while Sudowoodo is fearful; the old hermit Harriet has young, outgoing Pokémon traipsing behind her; Toran is nervous compared to the calming presence of Chansey. Yet as much as odd-coupling enlivens the dynamics, the pairings force confrontation with and reckoning of emotional strife that each character has set up for themselves. As in life, it is a struggle of complementing one another and finding balance, as well as others recognising a person’s worth when often they themselves do not. That these epiphanies come at the hands—and in some cases rocky branches—of adorable creatures that can only intone a single word makes them more palatable, but no less powerful.
The problems of these characters eventually being resolved is not surprising—it would be a dour Pokémon movie were everyone still in trouble at the end. The surprise instead lies deeply in the exploration of fundamentally human problems and flaws. However, plots dovetail together pretty elegantly, creating a rousing finale that holds up against more battle-oriented climaxes of past films.
The choice to restrict the characters to having one main Pokémon each really shines here. With each character having a defined role throughout the movie, what might have become a disengaging cavalcade of Pokémon instead results in a cathartic conclusion and chance for growth as individuals and affirmation of new bonds between friends, forged by emotional openness in the face of overcoming everyday tribulations.
This is the true Pokémon Power, one that eluded me nearly twenty years ago. Perhaps that is what I needed at the time, but with the passage into adulthood comes the understanding that I alone might not be special. Unlike during that time I was battling away with my Pokémon, heading towards the Elite Four, I may never have the true power of one to singlehandedly change the world. I can still be happy, however, and have buddies to rely on and to share in that happiness. Maybe that is enough to move forward. Enough to survive and justify facing tomorrow’s dawn. To watch the approaching Lugia on the horizon, with the promise of a day worth living together.
Pokémon: The Power of Us was released on Bluray, DVD, and Digital in March 2019.