Philosophical Lessons from The Pokémon Movie

I absolutely must begin this post by making clear that I will not argue that Pokémon: The First Movie is a libertarian film that affirms the nonaggression principle or the sanctity of voluntary interaction. Over the past year, for every blockbuster film released, I have seen some libertarian blogger arguing that the film in question’s central theme is the validity of property rights or the immorality of the State. Apparently we are to take this as a sign of a libertarian shift in the vox populi as communicated by the Hollywood signaling system. Balderdash.

Pokémon: The First Movie is a mixed bag of several possibly conflicting themes, and different characters reach different conclusions from their experiences of the events. I intend only to touch on a few of these. I admittedly feel a bit silly analyzing my favorite film from when I was six years old (there was a summer where the only CD to which I listened was the soundtrack to this movie) and I hope none of this is contrived. But, hey, if Herman Cain is allowed to go an entire campaign season pursuing the most powerful office in the world by rallying crowds of retirees with Donna Summer lyrics written for Pokémon: The Movie 2000, I can discuss a few insights offered by the series’ characters without falling below par.

For those unfamiliar, the film begins in a research laboratory with the premier awakening of Mewtwo, a creature with incredible mental and physical capabilities cloned from the DNA of a mythical Pokémon, created as an experiment to test a set of scientific hypotheses. Upon hearing the lead researcher’s revelation of this raison d’être that has been thrust upon him, Mewtwo destroys the facility in which he had been cocooned in rejection of his assigned purpose and kills the entire research team in the process.

Before the dust settles and the fire is extinguished, criminal mastermind Giovanni—the series’ main antagonist—approaches Mewtwo and offers him a new purpose. Giovanni employs his abundant resources honing Mewtwo’s abilities and insists that the two are equal partners. Mewtwo continues to wrestle with the question of why he exists and Giovanni assures him that this will soon become clear. When Mewtwo finally presses the question, Giovanni informs him that his purpose is obedience. Mewtwo again violently rejects his purpose as the means to another’s ends and destroys his surroundings.

The meat of the plot consists mostly of cheesy dialogue and G-rated cartoonized dogfighting that is much easier to digest for the target audience of people around the age of resisting baths. To condense things, Mewtwo invites the world’s best Pokémon trainers to his seasteaded palace where he and his cloned Pokémon will battle the trainers and their retinue of critters to prove his superiority, after which he will unleash a mass extinction. A lot of animals punch each other and a lot of characters cry at the sight of it. Fortunately, both buns of this cinematic sandwich are philosophically nourishing. After the main protagonist Ash is killed diving into the fray in a feeble and desperate attempt to end the all-out brawl underway between the Pokémon and their respective clones, Mewtwo abruptly comes to the realization that the fighting is senseless and pontificates, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

This likely comes off to most moviegoers as the warm but vague sentimentality you expect as the ending to a kids’ movie, but the meaning is worth deciphering. Mewtwo understands that where and how one came into existence is inconsequential in determining how one ought to live one’s life. A laboratory clone need not constantly consider himself as such. An individual is not his birthplace, nor his ethnic background, nor his parents’ religion. As Max Stirner wrote, “Those are all ideas, but you are corporeal.”1 The film of course emphasizes the brighter half of the theme’s logical conclusions, but this half implies what is, in today’s society, a less palatable set of corollary conclusions. If it is folly to discount another’s value for being a clone, a Frenchman, or Black, one also cannot ascribe positive value to and take pride in one’s own race, ethnicity or nationality. Mewtwo is thus rejecting not only xenophobia and racism, but patriotism and racial pride too, as appeals to the nonexistent. In rejecting any personal purpose deriving from being a human creation, Mewtwo also dismisses duties of filial piety. Quoth Stirner: “It is certainly not to be denied that my father begot me; but, now that I am once begotten, surely his purposes in begetting do not concern me a bit and, whatever he may have called me to, I do what I myself will.”2

This, of course, does not mean that circumstances of birth have no deterministic relevance and that there are no physical constraints—being born as a female in Pakistan in 2015 certainly limits your chances of being elected the first president of the United States—but that no one is born into duty, purpose or value. Mewtwo, after failing to discover a higher one, creates his own purpose. The script gives subtle recognition to the absurdity of trying to unearth inherent value and meaningfulness in life. When Mewtwo erases the antagonists’ memory of the film’s events and returns them to the mainland, Ash asks, “How did we wind up in this place anyway?” to which his companion Misty responds, “I guess we’re just here because we’re here.” Interpreting this broadly makes this more intellectually provocative than a children’s movie ought to be.

The characters with less intellectual prowess reach humanistic and moralistic conclusions, rejecting the brutality due to its inhumanity instead of its being based on ultimately incoherent premises. The filmmakers’ main focus was obviously to ring with family-friendly tones in a story about cute fighting animals, and neither Max Stirner nor Albert Camus were likely on the production team. But who knew that one of the most successful family films of 1999 was covertly, and perhaps unintentionally, nudging viewers to reject all the friendly and not-so-friendly forms of collectivism and offering to the careful listeners a nihilistic view of existence?

Footnotes

  1. Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005. 126.
  2. Ibid., 111.
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