Starting around 1997-98, American children could not turn their heads without seeing that fuzzy little yellow rat we called Pikachu. Once the anime and video game were released in the United States, we had Pokémon fever, and the ensuing blitz of merchandise and advertising didn’t hurt one bit. For those few years in my life, Pokémon was as much “a part of my childhood” as walls or running water; such was the power of Pokémania. And the anime, which was probably the most mainstreamed anime ever to be broadcast in this country, was a huge part of that. (Though that’s not to say I didn’t also enjoy the video game, card game, action figures, board games, magazines, books, stickers, conventions, and much, much more.)
Rewatching the anime’s opening sequence again after all these years reminds me why I loved it so much in the first place. Not because it was good, per se – I suspect that if I watched it now, it would feel childish and formulaic. But that’s just why I loved it: if you’re in that 7-12 demographic, Pokémon contains so much of what you want out of life. It’s a chance to be a cool kid, and to have power over your surroundings, just by virtue of some high-tech Poké Balls. It’s a chance for low-risk adventure with your friends (and lots of preadolescent romantic tension!) without worrying about parents or responsibilities. And look at how many varieties of terrain and Pokémon we’re exposed to in one minute! (I count about 30 different species.) The opening promises the viewer that they’ll be “travel[ing] across the land, searching far and wide.” For a kid with a big imagination and a yen for faraway lands, this is a godsend.
Just look at how this sequence progresses. We start out with the two most mysterious and powerful Pokémon of all, Mewtwo and Mew, flying through some bizarre outer space setting. So right away, we’re given intimations of something big and awesome: the three first seconds are nothing but money shot. Then we move to Ash pledging himself to a vague dream of being “the very best,” which would later be called being a “Pokémon Master,” followed by a rapid-fire series of Pokémon. It’s a marvelously edited opening, relying on fast cuts that keep time with the music, as well as constant movement in different directions across the screen. Squirtle goes right, Cubone goes left, Pidgeotto goes right, then Rapidash goes left, Zapdos goes right, Articuno goes left, and so on. It’s extremely dynamic, throwing off and then reestablishing the composition’s balance, and it suggests that the show’s all about nonstop motion, or even nonstop conflict. It’s an appealing idea for a high-energy 9-year-old whose mind can’t sit still.
Then, as we enter the chorus, we get a sense of the plot. “You’re my best friend, in a world we must defend,” is sung over images of Ash between Brock and Misty, then Team Rocket, then Ash’s rival Gary. (Because of animation’s unique abilities, this happens without any visible cuts; each set of characters just rise up and block out the previous one. It’s a very fluid procession.) Several successive images convey progress (Pikachu leaps into the air), community (the nodding elders), danger (Charizard breathing fire), and friendship. We end on Ash, alone, hurling a Poké Ball into the title. It’s a coming-of-age show: finding a compromise between our aggressive individualism and the need to locate ourselves in the wider world. Ash (and us as preteen viewers) want to be “like no one ever was,” but it can’t be at the cost of our friends, both human and Pokémon. It’s a sappy moral, and sappy morals are what the show traded in, but it speaks to greater problems that kids deal with. Pokémon solved those problems through friendship and a little dose of total fantasy.