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Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film’s meaning


Ryan Lambie

Nov 14, 2017

Released in 1999, Pokemon: The First Movie was a global hit, but its meaning changed radically on its journey from Japan to the US…

What’s the all-time highest-grossing anime movie at the American box-office? Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed Spirited Away? Nope. Unsettling cyberpunk masterpiece Ghost In The Shell? Not even close. Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal Akira? It didn’t even crack the top 20.

As you’ve probably gathered from the headline above, Japan’s most financially successful animated export was Pokemon: The First Movie, released in 1999 to a huge opening weekend. Yet unlike Spirited Away, Ghost In The Shell, Akira or most of the other cross-over anime success stories from the far east, the Pokemon movie was hardly met with critical acclaim; most writers dismissed it as forgettable nonsense aimed at selling merchandise to the under-10s.

The Pokemon movie was, to be fair, an adventure film aimed squarely at the legion fans who’d already played the videogames, collected the trading cards and watched the animated series on TV. To anyone less steeped in Pokemon lore, the movie probably looked baffling. But there was one criticism which turned up repeatedly in the film’s more hostile reviews: its prominent theme that fighting is futile and immoral.

For a franchise which is based almost entirely around capturing wild animals, training them and getting them to fight one another, that message admittedly came across as more than a little contradictory. What’s ironic, however, is that this theme wasn’t even present in the original Japanese version of the Pokemon movie – rather, it was one of several changes made before its release in America.

The basic plot behind Pokemon remains the same between the Japanese and US versions: it’s an odd mix of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bruce Lee vehicle Enter The Dragon. A genetically-engineered pocket monster named Mewtwo escapes from its creators’ clutches, builds a new lab on a remote island and decides to throw its own Pokemon tournament. Ash, Pikachu and his friends – plus a selection of Pokemon trainers – arrive at the island ready for the competition, where Mewtwo reveals that he wants to clone the trainers’ Pokemon and take over the world. 

Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film's meaning

In the original Japanese version of the movie released in 1998, meanwhile, Mewtwo is a far less straightforwardly villainous character; indeed, the Japanese cut contained an entire opening sequence which better explained Mewtwo’s history and motivation. According to the Pokemon movie’s producer Kubo Masakazu – as quoted on Youchew.net – American distributor Warner Bros was concerned about the Japanese film’s lack of a distinct villain.

“The people at Warner also gave us some hassle over the script,” Masakazu wrote. “According to them, the Japanese original does not distinguish clearly enough between the good guys and the bad. Such a movie would not be successful in a multiethnic country like the United States, they insisted, because the viewers would not know who to identify with and who to cheer on. In other words, the heroes and villains needed to be identified clearly.”

To this end, the Pokemon movie was extensively rewritten to cast Mewtwo as a more generic villain who wants to take over the planet. The original opening – a prologue originally intended to introduce Mewtwo’s backstory in the TV series, but added to the Japanese film when the series was put on hiatus – was also dropped from the US theatrical cut, possibly so that the story could get to franchise heroes Ash and Pikachu more swiftly. (The short film Pikachu’s Vacation, shown before both the Japanese and US editions, also gave impatient kids an early appearance from the electric rodent.) 

Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film's meaning

This was a highly unfortunate move, since the Japanese version of Pokemon actually fixes some of the things its US critics levelled at it – not least the somewhat bland simplicity of its story and its muddled moralising. So what happened in the original? Glad you asked…

If you’ve played a lot of Pokemon, you’ll know who Mew is: a feline, psychic-type, mythical Pokemon secretly added to the original pair of games – Pokemon Red and Green – and something of a celebrity among fans. In the movie, a scientist – Dr Fuji in the Japanese version – leads an expedition into the jungle to find out more about the mysterious creature. After a bit of hunting, they discover a fossilised sample of Mew’s DNA which, after a bit of Jurassic Park-style tinkering, they turn into Mewtwo – a genetically superior clone of the original.

Things get a bit more complicated when Mewtwo makes friends with a little girl named Aitwo. Like Mewtwo, she’s a clone – of Dr Fuji’s late daughter. Communicating psychically, the pair strike up a friendship, before a complication with Dr Fuji’s experiment causes Aitwo to fade from existence. This explains why, when Mewtwo wakes up as a full-grown Pokemon, he isn’t in the best of moods. But even having smashed up the lab and killed Dr Fuji, he isn’t exactly a pointy-eared despot in the Japanese version – rather, he’s a confused being in the grip of a full-blown existential crisis. 

Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film's meaning

Enraged to learn that he’s a mere experiment, Mewtwo quickly convinces himself that his breeding has made him superior to all normal forms of Pokemon – and everything he does in the rest of the movie, from staging the tournament to creating his own army of modified clones, reflects his warped worldview.

While all this is going on, Mew – the original Pokemon – is floating around like a wraith, quietly watching everything unfold. The US edition of the movie paints Mew as a straightforwardly heroic creature in the third act – a character intent on defending the other Pokemon (and Ash) from Mewtwo’s evil. Again, things are a bit more complex in the Japanese script. Mew has observed all the cloning antics, and comes to the conclusion that all genetically-modified Pokemon are evil and should be destroyed.

Mew’s massive battle royale at the end of the film isn’t, therefore, a massive act of valour on Mew’s part, but born out of a similar dogma to his more imposing nemesis. As the pair fight, we see a whole host of other Pokemon – Charizard, Bulbasaur, Pikachu and so on – fight their (almost) identical clones in the background. Ash, realising that the Pokemon are so evenly matched that they’ll fight to the death, steps between the battling Mew and Mewtwo to bring the chaos to a halt. Ash is hit by a blast of energy and promptly turns to stone. 

Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film's meaning

In the American version, this moment of self-sacrifice prompts all the onlookers – the Pokemon, their trainers and even the villainous Team Rocket – that violence is wrong. In the Japanese version, Mew and Mewtwo both conclude that all forms of life are precious – whether they’re human, Pokemon, naturally-born or grown in a lab.

It’s a sentiment that’s far more compatible with the Pokemon ethos, since the pocket monsters never fight to the death in the videogames – it’s been made clear from the very beginning that they ‘faint’ rather than expire. In the animated series, fights between Pokemon are depicted as relatively breezy affairs that the creatures themselves seem to largely enjoy – more akin to a game of conkers than a brutal bloodsport. The final fight in the movie, by contrast, fills the onlookers with sadness: this isn’t friendly competition, but an ugly war. 

Admittedly, Pokemon: The First Movie still isn’t in the same league as the other top-notch anime that has found success outside Japan – Spirited Away, Akira and the like – but neither is it the valueless toy advert it was painted as by some critics. As we’ve hopefully demonstrated, the Japanese version is the cut worth seeing if you can track it down, since the ambiguity of its characters makes it a far more engrossing watch – it’s still a film aimed at kids, undoubtedly, but the original script also gave the film a surprisingly philosophical edge for grown-ups to chew on.

(Even 4Kids, the company behind the US production, seemed to realise the value of the Japanese prologue eventually – it was supplied as an extra on the Pokemon: Mewtwo Returns DVD.) 

Pokemon: how the US version changed the first film's meaning

There are also some inventive design ideas, such as Mewtwo’s eerily organic island lair – check out the cloning chamber, in particular, which looks like a giant, evil-looking nautilus. Oh, and the Japanese version also lacks the spectacularly naff rock ballad, which kicks in when all the Pokemon are beating each other up – it opts instead for some lushly melodramatic strings.

For the thousands of kids who rushed to American cinemas to watch the movie at the height of the Pokemon craze, the various edits made to its dialogue and story probably didn’t mean much. But as an example of how a few motivational changes can completely change the complexion of a movie, Pokemon: The First Movie makes for a fascinating case study.

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