How Pokémon Took the Anime World by Storm

How Pokémon Took the Anime World by Storm

8 min read

When you think about the truly global phenomenon Pokémon, it can be hard to comprehend that this runaway success started in the mind of one man. Of course, the journey has involved countless talented people working hard to make dreams a reality, but if it wasn’t for Satoshi Tajiri then Pokémon would not exist. The Japanese video game designer and director was the person who conceived of Pokémon, and who fought against the odds to bring it into the world.

This is the story of how one boy’s childhood passion of collecting insects became the inspiration for a world-conquering franchise that spans anime, video games, movies, card games, a musical, and even a theme park. As with all great stories, this one involves struggle, sacrifice, and the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat.

‘They call me Dr. Bug’

Satoshi Tajiri was born in Stegaya, Tokyo and grew up in Machida, Tokyo. While Machida is a relatively large city now, back in the late 1960s and 1970s it was going through a period of rapid growth and still had a more rural atmosphere. It was in this rural atmosphere that Tajiri developed his love of collecting insects. He loved it so much in fact that he wanted to become an entomologist. The other kids even took to calling him ‘Dr. Bug.’ As the urban area started to spread and expand throughout Japan, the habitat of bugs was lost and it became more difficult to find and capture them. Knowing that kids wouldn’t be able to experience the joy he had found in collecting insects, he was inspired to create a game for kids that replicated this feeling. It was this germ of an idea that led to Pokémon.

Luckily, Tajiri didn’t follow his original idea for a career path as an insect specialist and instead he became seduced by the world of video games. Tajiri was around for the birth of the video arcade scene in the late 1970s and became a fan of Space Invaders before video game development piqued his interest. He started to plan his own games, but before he got there, Tajiri started an arcade game fanzine called Game Freak.

From 1981 to 1986, Tajiri was the editor and writer of Game Freak, which mainly covered strategy for gamers and secrets of arcade games. The illustrator Ken Sugimori found a copy of the magazine in a shop specialized in self-published magazines, manga, and books, and would go on to become the magazine’s illustrator. Tajiri and Sugimori started to realize that a lot of games were actually pretty bad, and so in 1989 they turned Game Freak into a game development company of the same name. That same year, the pair had their first game, Quinty, published by Namco.

The Surprising Origins of Pokémon

All of this is interesting as it feeds directly into the surprising origins of the Pokémon universe. Inspired by the way Game Boys could be linked together with a cable and communicate with each other, Tajiri had a vision of bugs crawling between the handheld consoles. Rather than just linking Game Boys’ together so that people could compete with each other, he had the idea that people could use them to trade collectibles. This was the moment when the Pokémon concept was conceived. One of the early ideas was to call the game Capsule Monsters, but this got changed to Pocket Monsters due to trademark issues, and Pokémon is a syllabic abbreviation of this.

The idea was pitched to Nintendo, who were apparently confused by the concept. Luckily, Tajiri was well enough thought of as a game developer that they gave him the green light to produce. Little did they know that it would take six years before the game would be complete. In this time it almost drove Game Freak to bankruptcy, five employees quit because there wasn’t enough money to pay them, and Tajiri had to resort to working for free in order to get it finished.

Can you imagine if Tajiri was a less tenacious person? There would be no Pokémon today. Thankfully he pushed through with a lot of help and got the games over the finish line. Pokémon Red and Green were the first Pokémon games to be released, coming out in 1996. At first expectations for the games were low, but sales continued to steadily climb until they reached the millions. The games were also released in the US in 1998 and the UK a year later. The world had discovered Pokémon, and the party was just getting started.

Pick a Card…

Image Source: Unsplash

In October 1996, soon after the release of the video games, the Pokémon Trading Card Game was produced by the company Media Factory. This card game followed similar rules to the video game and it too became a smash hit. The Pokémon train had left the station and the franchise was on a roll. Today, it is still the most successful trading card game of all time and has sold an absolutely incredible 43.2 billion cards. Some of the most sought after cards reach sale prices of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now we reach the part of the story that we at Vectornator love the most – the Pokémon anime series is born. The original anime show was conceived as a way to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of the games and it first aired in Japan in April 1997. Soon, it was one of the most popular series on television. It has been produced by the OLM Inc animation studio from the start and right up to today. The adventure television series follows a 10 year old boy called Satoshi (named after Satoshi Tijiri himself) as he trains to become a Pokémon master. In the first episode, Satoshi’s main rival is introduced, Shigeru, which is named after the Pokémon illustrator Shigeru Miyamato. The English version of the original series aired in the US in 1998. Satoshi was renamed Ash Ketchum, and Shigeru was renamed Gary Oak.

The Pokémon Anime Franchise Takes Off

In the debut season of the show we get introduced to the rich world of Pokémon. It opens with Ash Ketchum oversleeping and being forced to rush to his meeting with Professor Oak to receive his first Pokémon. In his rush he runs into Gary Oak, who becomes something of Ash Ketchum's nemesis. The only Pokémon Ash has to choose is Pikachu, and so this cute little creature becomes his companion on countless Pokémon journeys. In the first season Ash makes friends with the Cerulean City Gym Leader, Misty, and Pewter City Gym Leader, Brock. Ash also encounters the criminal organization Team Rocket for the first time. Team Rocket's mission is to steal Ash Ketchum's Pikachu and any rare Pokemon they can get their hands on.

The show was a huge success from the get go and it has aired almost every week since. It has become the most successful video game adaptation of all time and one of the most popular animated television series of all time. The adventure anime and the video games go hand in hand – each time a new game is released, a new series arc of the show begins. You could say that the each game has its own anime version. The Pokémon characters are introduced in both the game and the series at the same time. In total there have been 24 seasons of the show and more than 1,200 episodes.

The 24 seasons are actually broken down into seven sequential series that cover the main video game series. Along with the original series, there is Advanced Generation, Diamond & Pearl, Black & White, XY, Sun & Moon, and Journeys. What is it about Pokémon that has made it one of the most popular animated television series, from the original series through to Diamond & Pearl, Sun & Moon and up to today? One secret is that even though this is anime for children, it resonates with all ages, and once you are locked in as a kid you want to stick with it. Another big factor is that you become invested in all of Ash Ketchum's Pokemon journeys and find yourself rooting against Team Rocket. No big spoiler, but needless to say he doesn't become a Pokemon master straight away, and you find yourself really rooting for him every step of the way.

Spinning Off and Stepping Out

As well as the original Pokémon anime series canon, there has also been a number of anime spin-off mini series of Pokémon journeys set apart from the previous anime episodes. Some of these have been aired exclusively on the Pokémon YouTube channel and Pokémon TV app, such as the Pokémon: Twilight Wings mini series. The most recent edition is Pokemon: Hisuian Snow, which was released in May of 2022 and is set in a time when people and Pokémon were not yet interacting with each other. It is produced by Japanese animation powerhouse Wit Studio, and will be aired on both the Pokémon YouTube channel and the Pokémon TV app.

The Pokémon universe is not just responsible for some of the most popular animated series on television, it has also spawned an animated film series. In total there have been a whopping 23 animated Pokémon films. The first 19 of the films are based on the anime series, and then from the 20th film it is set in an alternate continuity. The first two Pokémon movies – Pokémon: The First Movie and Pokémon: The Movie 2000 – are in the top 50 highest grossing Japanese films of all time.These anime - box office smashes make it seem as if everything the franchise touches turns to gold.

A live-action film, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, followed in 2019 and starred Ryan Reynolds. The film was based on the 2016 video game spin off Detective Pikachu rather than the gym battle world of Ash Ketchum, Team Rocket. It was really well received and became the second highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time. There was talk of a sequel, but apparently it's not going to happen now, which is a real shame.

The Pokémon World Today

The crazy thing is, despite having been around for more than a quarter of a century, pretty much every component of the Pokémon franchise is still going strong today. The video games are still being produced, the card game is still super popular, the anime series continues to run, new movies are being made, spin-off series continue to pop up, and we haven't even touched on the manga, books, toys, and other merchandise that are a big part of the Pokémon universe.

That all of this stemmed from the mind of one kid who was obsessed with insects is really a testament to the power of a great idea. It just goes to show how far a dream, passion and perseverance can take you.

To learn more about the world of anime, check out our previous blog posts on The Top 15 Japanese Anime Studios and The 20 Best Anime Movies of All Time.

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