Here’s a mindboggling revelation for you. The highest grossing anime movie in the American box office is Pokémon: The First Movie. You thought it was going to be Spirited Away, right? The 1998 film was a huge box office success, but was critically panned for being a cheap tie-in for the franchise. However, I believe there is a deeper meaning to this often overlooked movie. Don’t get me wrong, it is exists primarily for brand recognition, but there is more to the story, themes, and characters. Themes which take a critical look at the main selling points of Pokémon as a whole. While I recall the marketing focusing on “the ultimate Pokémon battle”, the film actually has a darker plot revolving around identity, dehumanisation, violence, love, and the meaning of life.
Our story focuses on Mewtwo, a genetically manmade Pokémon using the DNA of the legendary Pokémon, Mew. After being used as a test subject and a weapon, Mewtwo comes to the conclusion that mankind must be destroyed. He lures a number of Pokémon trainers, including Ash Ketchum, to his island lair, where he clones their Pokémon to conquer the world. Mew shows up, leading to a brutal fight between the two armies, until Ash sacrifices himself to end the brawling. Then, he is magically revived by the tears of the Pokémon. Mewtwo realises humans can be good, his actions outweigh what he is in life, and leaves with Mew and the clones, wiping the minds of the cast for their own sake.
The Method in Mewtwo’s Madness
Though Ash is the film’s hero, it is Mewtwo’s story. His depiction on screen varies a little between the Japanese and American edits of the movie. Mewtwo is a bit more villainous in the dubbed version, since the producers thought audiences would struggle without straightforward badguy. His goal is to claim his place in the world, and wants everyone to pay for how he was mistreated. Mewtwo has a one-sided perspective, believing that all humans are evil, and that Pokémon are enslaved to their will. Any attempts to reason with him are dismissed, and Mewtwo is adamant that he must prove his worth to all. His mindset stems entirely from his time with his human creators and masters.
One of the major themes of the film is the topic of identity and the differences that can come from it. Mewtwo wants to know who he is and what his purpose in life is. The movie’s prologue answers why he was made, though the actual answers were left out of the dub. In the Japanese film, it is revealed that Mewtwo’s creator, Doctor Fuji, was trying to create a clone of his dead daughter. With Doctor Fuji’s personal motive removed in the dub, he comes off as a more generic mad scientist. Mewtwo immediately learns that he is a clone of Mew, and won’t be treated as a lifeform, but rather, as a lab rat. The scientists congratulate themselves in front of their confused creation, commenting they’ll put him in a cage, etc.
Mewtwo refuses to live his life as a laboratory specimen, nor live in the shadow of Mew. So, he blows up the lab and kills everyone inside. This is a kids’ movie. Giovanni, head of Team Rocket, shows up, having funded Mewtwo’s creation. Giovanni encourages Mewtwo to work with him, but in truth, he is merely using Mewtwo as a weapon. For some reason, he tells Mewtwo that his purpose is to be a slave. Mewtwo takes this pretty hard, believing he was to be equal to humans, and blows up Giovanni’s lair. Returning to the island of his origin, Mewtwo decides he must cement his own place in the world, and that means mankind and normal Pokémon have got to go.
Though world dominations seems a tad extreme, it makes sense. Mewtwo has been convinced that he is the most powerful creature alive, and is superior to Mew in terms of power. He comes off quite hypocritical in his actions throughout the film. He preaches about his clones being superior to normal Pokémon, who he views as slaves, but has no problem catching them and using them against their will. Well, there is a possible explanation.
Mewtwo has spent his whole time around morally ambiguous humans, and their behaviour likely rubbed off on him. He catches and uses Pokémon like Giovanni did, and then clones them to be his own tools. Though he promises to keep them safe, he shows no concern or affection towards his comrades. I also want to comment on the fascinating Geiger-esque architecture of his palace on New Island. It has a living organism motif about it. Mewtwo’s cloning machine is shaped like a giant ammonite or squid. The clones have to crawl out of their “birth pods” in a gruesome manner. Perhaps, Mewtwo is brooding over being grown rather than naturally born.
What Is the Meaning of Life?
Mewtwo’s biggest question in the world is to know what his purpose in life is. Without one, he simply takes inspiration from the ones forced upon as an experimental clone and a weapon. But, ironically, he acts like those who mistreated him. He regards his fellow Pokémon as disgraced, brainwashed slaves, as seen when Ash’s Pikachu defends their friendship.
The film suggests the poignant themes that life is what you make of it, and not what you are born into. Another message is that it is better to look for similarities between people rather than differences. Unfortunately, the characters have very black-and-white views on other people. When Mewtwo is identified as the world’s greatest Pokémon Master, one character objects, claiming a Pokémon can’t be one. It can’t have the job of a human. And yet, Chansey are employed as nurses.
Interestingly, Mewtwo abducts Nurse Joy, who is dedicated to caring for Pokémon. Perhaps Mewtwo disregards her, since she is contributing to Pokémon “slavery” by healing them for future battle. Mewtwo’s experience with humans has been completely negative, so he has no alternate perspective to look at, and has sadly inherited Giovanni’s views that Pokémon exist to obey humans and are not their equals.
On the other hand, we have Ash. His actions push his optimism to counter Mewtwo’s cynicism. While Mewtwo disregards his relationship with Pikachu, Ash expresses nothing but care and concern for all Pokémon. He regards the brutal battles between the Pokémon with horror rather than excitement. There are no rules in this match, and the Pokémon won’t stop if their opponent faints. His heroic sacrifice is driven by his love for Pokémon and life. Mew and Mewtwo’s conflict has no end, and could easily wipe out everyone. Ash decides he has to stop them before their hatred hurts everyone involved.
Life is viewed in many different ways in the film. Dr. Fuji values life to a degree, wanting to resurrect his daughter through science, which gives him the power to play god. Giovanni uses others at his own expense. Ash and just about all the other Pokémon trainers love their partners in various ways, viewing their Pokémon as friends, pets, etc. Even Team Rocket think likewise.
Mew is a rather interesting character. It wanders throughout the film til the third act, but immediately confronts Mewtwo, believing that a Pokémon’s real strength comes from within. Mewtwo takes this the wrong way, thinking Mew’s beliefs are solely judging the clones’ worth based on their powers. He then blocks the Pokémon’s abilities using his ESP in an attempt to prove which species are the superior via mortal combat. However, in the Japanese version, Mew is surprisingly more judgemental, believing normal Pokémon are better than clones. It isn’t really elaborated on though why Mew thinks that way. It might be because of its status as the progenitor of all Pokémon and all genetic codes stem from its own DNA.
I think the most important message of this movie comes from noneother than Meowth. He encounters his own clone, but they have a chat about why bother fighting. He delivers quite the thought-provoking comment.
“You’re right. We do have a lot in common. The same earth, the same air, the same sky. Maybe if we started looking at what’s the same, instead of always looking at what’s different, well, who knows?”
Those are wise words from the mascot of Team Rocket. Considering Meowth’s backstory where he strived to be different from other Pokémon, he is actually very considerate of others.
The Human Factor
This isn’t as prominent as the movie’s other discussions, but the relationships between mankind and Pokémon remain important. Mewtwo’s whole vendetta is based around his own abusive relationship with humans, being dehumanised (dePokémonised?) by them. He is a product of science and mankind playing god or whatever. This comes even more obvious since they specifically sought out the DNA of Mew to create their ultimate cloned Pokémon. As said before, Mew was basically the god and source of all Pokémon in the world before Arceus was invented. Mew is a product of nature, while Mewtwo is a product of science and manpower.
Charles Dunbar, an anthropologist and writer on Study of Anime.com, suggests that Mewtwo is the Pokémon equivalent of the nuclear bomb. We created Mewtwo as a weapon, augmented by raw destructive power through science. Mew, representing nature, is cute and innocent, and would not destroy the world. Mewtwo is the antithesis of this, driven by revenge and destruction, while Mew is childish and playful. Both take a stand against each other for conflicting reasons as explained above. Nothing will stop Mewtwo from finding his purpose and place in the world, even if it means tearing it apart and starting it over.
The trainers are put on the defensive when Mewtwo challenges their relationships with Pokémon. In the world of Pokémon, the critters are captured in the wild and taught to battle against each other in friendly tournaments. Mewtwo sees this as enslavement and nothing more, based on his own experiences. This does bring up some interesting questions and scenarios. Like what if Ash caught a Pokémon and it didn’t want to fight? What if it just wanted to be free? This has never been brought up in the anime before. Most Pokémon just automatically decide to go along with the whole thing. Hey, free food, I guess.
But, the important thing is that Ash and the other characters know the limits and rules of battling. They never push their Pokémon to the point of death or serious injury. I assume there are actual laws or rules listed somewhere. I mean, what happens if a Pokémon kills another one in a battle? Mewtwo, on the other hand, is more ruthless and commands his own Pokémon to be physically dominating and merciless. This is how he views how humans treat their Pokémon in battles.
Mewtwo even makes a cruel mockery of how they catch Pokémon, launching a volley of Pokéballs at Ash and co. His Pokéballs can even capture Pokémon that are already owned. He assumes humans steal and grab Pokémon like they are mindless things to collect, and treats them accordingly.
Damn, I love this movie! But, now, we should address the elephant in the room.
The Violence Message
In the third act, Mewtwo and Mew lead their respective armies of Pokémon against each other in a no holds barred beatdown, to prove which species is better. Pikachu and Meowth are the only ones who do no participate, and it culminates in Ash’s sacrifice to stop the fighting.
The anti-violence message comes courtesy of 4Kids Entertainment, infamous for their censorship of more adult themes like death and violence. But, it makes no sense considering that the entirety of Pokémon is based around battles, fighting, and crushing your opponent’s puny Pokémon until they are dust! Shoving this PSA message down our throats is incredibly dumb. There is a more deeper meaning to it, specifically that the Pokémon are fighting each other without the usual superpowers and restrictions. It is a fight to the death, driven by two superpowered zealots, who end up wiping out their forces anyway during their own battle.
We witness this display of violence through Ash’s eyes. He has always known Pokémon battles to be fun and challenging, and knows there are rules in place to stop his friends from being fatally hurt. In Mewtwo’s stadium, it is a very different ball game. It shines a light on the core concept of Pokémon, battling being essential to the franchise’s ethos. Ash has never witnessed his hobby and favourite sport in such a violent, darker light, and it horrifies him. Pikachu shares this sentiment and refuses to fight his clone, believing that the madness is unnecessary. And, dear lord, it is just heartbreaking seeing Pikachu get slapped around. Make it stop, damnit!
The trauma continues as the Pokémon kick each other’s asses and begin collapsing from exhaustion. Then, every single character watching this mayhem laments how Pokémon aren’t meant to fight is such a violent fashion. How they are all living creatures and equal, regardless of their difference. And while the whole thing is meant to be moving, it just feels forced and a little too on the nose.
At the end of the movie, when all is said and done, Mewtwo decides the events of the film are best forgotten. He erases everyone’s memories, therefore, rendering the huge anti-fighting message as redundant. The characters never witnessed the terrible fight, and never started to reconsider how they treat their Pokémon. What a waste.
Tears of Love
While the anti-fighting message is the dumbest moment in the film, the strangest moment is when Ash is resurrected by the magic tears of the Pokémon. Yeah, I have no other way to describe it. That’s what happens on screen. After Ash runs into the path of Mew and Mewtwo’s attacks, he is turned to stone. Pikachu is unable to revive him (electrical attacks don’t work on rock-types, Pikachu!), and breaks down in tears, as do all the other Pokémon. This miraculously revives Ash, bringing him back from the dead.
I theorise that the Pokémon are so moved by Ash’s actions, that they all cried and were somehow able to heal Ash to normality. How in the world they pulled this off? Well, the film tries to offer an explanation. A very confusing and stupid one.
Early on in the film, Mewtwo invites a boatload of trainers to New Island as per his trap to clone their Pokémon. However, he then whips up a deadly storm to challenge their bravery, I suppose. As such, the ferry is cancelled. Officer Jenny and the harbour manager Miranda stop the trainers at the gate. Jenny then turns to Miranda to explain what’s going on. But, rather than just say that the storm will kill anyone dumb enough to go out in it, she instead babbles nonsense.
Miranda explains that the “prophets have predicted the returns of the winds and water”. Uhhh, prophets? Alrighty, then. Miranda details a local legend that a powerful storm, akin to the Great Flood, wiped out a lot of people save a few Pokémon. The tears of the Pokémon, or more specifically, the sorrow and water of said tears, were able to bring back the dead. That is the explanation set up to make Ash’s resurrection make sense.
While I can’t really make sense of how the tears actually work, the reason behind them is likely what drives most of the characters: Love, of course. The Pokémon trainers all love their friends, and their shock at their battling is out of fright and concern. Team Rocket remain together despite their bumbling and bickering. Ash’s actions are purely out of love, to protect and save his beloved Pokémon’s lives, at the cost of his own. The Pokémon are able to save him in return, ending the hatred all around.
Mewtwo and Mew watch Ash and Pikachu’s embrace from above, and Mewtwo realises that humans do care about their Pokémon. It may seem a little sudden, but Mewtwo has now witnessed that those he despises do love and care for others. This opens his eyes to the love and devotion that can be found in life, and people care for each other regardless of who or what they are. The quote him:
“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with life that determines who you are.”
In the end, Mewtwo and Mew decide to leave New Island, flying away into the clouds with the clone Pokémon to find their own place in the world. Ash and the others have their memories wiped of the experience, Mewtwo believing it is for the better. It could be to protect his fellow clones in an action of newfound love and compassion, and to make sure no one remembers or follows them. If he hadn’t, someone would have likely found New Island and tracked down the clone Pokémon. Mewtwo may have thought things through to cover up his tracks, but not that well.
Yes, there is a sequel. Mewtwo Returns continues and resolves Mewtwo’s journey.
He and his clones have hidden themselves on a remote island at the top of a mountain in the Johto league. The climate makes it perfect for the Pokémon to hide in seclusion, but there is trouble. Mewtwo has done a complete one-eighty, now believing he and his kind don’t belong in the world. There are literally no differences between the clones and their original counterparts, so there isn’t much to go on why Mewtwo has come to this conclusion. We never see the clones being persecuted until after a handful of them leave their island. Pikachu and Meowth’s clones want to go out and explore the world. There’s an interesting debate there, Mewtwo wondering if he should force them to stay or let them leave. He certainly has changed a lot, caring for his fellow Pokémon at last.
His creator, Giovanni, comes calling to enslave Mewtwo, and it is up to Ash and co. to save the day. During the movie, Mewtwo is injured, and is helped by Ash to the island’s natural spring, which has amazing medicinal properties. They discuss why people help each other, Ash pointing out that humans and Pokémon are unique. Mewtwo comes to terms that he is a one-of-a-kind creature, and realises he has the right to exist in the world as any other person. He hides his clones and allies underground, deciding that it would be best to erase Ash’s memory once again.
But, Meowth steps in and tells Mewtwo that it is wrong to take away their memories. Just as people are unique, so are their memories, and they have the right to remember them. Ash and the others agree, believing it is better for the Pokémon to know where they come from. Mewtwo finally agrees, understanding that everyone has the right to choose how they live their own lives.
In the end, he allows the clones to go their separate ways, and departs to find his own place in the world, with the epilogue hinting that he succeeds, guarding a city somewhere like he is the Batman.
Now, this is just my own collection of ideas, and by no means is Pokémon: The First Movie a masterpiece. Some things don’t make sense, it is often cheesy, and hasn’t aged well in some places. I like to find a deeper meaning in stories, and I believe that there is are more immersive themes in Mewtwo’s story. The second and third Pokémon films also told more profound plots, particularly the third, but most afterward adopted more formulaic narratives. Most are dispensable and even follow the same story beats. While most, if not all, critics disregarded this movie as a marketing ploy, there is more a story and themes that deserve recognition and discussion.
What are your thoughts on Pokémon: The First Movie’s debatable themes? Was the anti-violence message on the nose or made sense? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.