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Appreciating the Diversity of Late-Generation ‘Pokémon’

When I first caught sight of Pokémon Neo Genesis cards being sold on the Home Shopping Network as a kid, I almost took my mother’s credit card and picked up the phone to put in a few hundred orders. I remember on one such occasion using the spare change from a trip to the gas station to buy a single booster pack. I came home with a gallon of milk and yet another holographic Machamp, all while receiving the admonition I knew was waiting for me at home.

Ken Sugimori’s iconic artwork brought each of the original 151 Pokémon to life. Credit: Pokémon

Like most ’90s kids consumed by pocket-sized collectibles, the original artwork of Ken Sugimori laid the groundwork for my appreciation of all things Pokémon. Sugimori drew every one of the original 151 Pokémon, as well as the countless iconic gym leaders, characters, and trainers that featured prominently in the manga, anime, and trading card game.

The Indigo League introduced fans to some of the most interesting and enigmatic gym leaders in the series, with standouts like Blaine, Erika, and Koga, each of whom had their own roster of tough-as-nails Pokémon to defend their badges with. From the late ’90s onward, my friends and I were hooked on the stuff, constantly battling and trading and getting in trouble for the first two. One day in elementary school when my mother gave me five dollars, I blew it all on a Duo-Tang folder full of holographic and rare cards from a friend at lunch. If she only knew the steal I had gotten that day, I’d be sitting on a goldmine right now and not wincing at the memory of returning the folder for my lunch money.

As time went on, however, and as regions transformed from Kanto to Johto, and Hoenn to Sinnoh, I watched as my connection to the franchise waned in the face of high school out-groups, fearful of being further alienated for loving a “kid’s game.” Furthermore, I fought back the sensation that something, or someone, was missing from the series. I slowly discovered how quickly I couldn’t find myself in the show, the video games, or the trading cards. Many would argue that Brock was one of the first, and for a long time only, characters of color in the Pokémon animated series and card game but there was still much to be desired.

My least favorite region for some time was the Unova region — it seemed too campy for older me, and I couldn’t buy into the metropolitan aesthetic, even though my heart was always in New York City. I even scoffed at the introduction of the new starters Snivy, Tepig, and Oshawott and (regrettably) turned away from a region I felt poorly followed some of the most creative Pokédex entries in the Sinnoh region. You could imagine my surprise when I learned a few years later that the Unova region, along with the direction of Ken Sugimori and his team of talented artists, became one of the franchise’s most diverse and beloved regions. The torch would eventually be passed on to the Alola region and then of course to the more recent Galar region, with each thoughtfully expanding on diverse and inclusive characters.

Snivy, Tepig, and Oshawott, my not-so-favorite starters of the Unova region. Credit: Pokémon

The journey to the Galar region was not at all easy, with a few missteps along the way that Game Freak and Sugimori took as lessons in the histories and cultures of other countries with Pokémon fans. For instance, when the Unova region introduced the franchise’s first-ever Black female gym leader, the thought was to have a figure who was, according to character designer Yusuke Ohmura, “a mother with a lot of spirit.” As well-intentioned as their approach to her design was, the fallout came from imagery with inadvertent ties to the very real history of Black and Brown communities in the United States. In particular, the caricature of the Black female house-servant that became known as “mammy” thanks to the damaging effects of poor Hollywood representation of women of color.

Sugimori, Ohmura, and Game Freak tackled these issues head-on, as they soon acknowledged the deeply problematic features of Lenora’s design. For instance, Pokémon historian and content translator Dr. Lava pointed out that her Gym Leader title in the original Japanese version was ナチュラル ボーン ママ , meaning “Natural Born Mama.” Alongside that, her character initially sported an apron, a design choice the team hoped would communicate her caring and nurturing ways. As the reach of Pokémon expanded, so too did their base diversify and evolve into children, teens, and adults from all walks of life, many of whom reside in the United States where the realities of systemic racism and a history of violence toward communities of color still exist.

Gym Leader Iris and her Pokemon Druddigon in Pokémon Generations. Credit Pokémon

These lessons exposed Sugimori and his design team to the ways diversity and inclusivity require careful consideration and detail, and they applied some of those lessons to the approach of Unova’s Black and White series after revising Lenora’s character model and narrative. They also introduced the young, dragon-type gym leader Iris to their roster of diverse characters and equipped her with some of the most devastating dragon Pokémon, like Druddigon and Haxorus. After Unova, we saw the introduction of the rock-type gym leader Grant, whose Italian nickname “Lino” could point in the direction of Afro-Italian heritage. From Unova onward, the Pokémon franchise did the thing fans of varying cultural backgrounds and orientations have always wanted: being represented.

(l-r) Sima, Rango, and their son Kiawe from Pokémon the Series: Sun & Moon. Credit: Pokémon

The Alola and Galar regions of Pokémon’s later series Sun & Moon and Sword & Shield took the franchise to newer heights. Kiawe, his sister Mimo, and their parents, Rango and Sima, were among the new characters of color introduced to the franchise in the Alola region, the second region inspired by parts of the United States. In the Galar region, we met Pokémon Champion Leon, his younger brother Hop, his rival and dragon-type gym leader Raihan, Pokémon League chairman Rose, and water/rock-type gym leader Nessa. The cast of both series have long stood as icons in the world of Pokémon fan art and nerd nostalgia and serve as evidence that nerds of color the world over appreciate and thrive off representation.

Game Freak and the Pokémon Company have come a long way since the days of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue Version and while the missteps that arose forced their artists to grapple with significant issues of race, history, and culture, what followed ultimately expanded the world of Pokémon and its many regions for the better. Detractors of diverse representation will often wonder where the sudden demand came from but will fail to realize that it has always been here. The fans, followers, and consumers of these art forms represent a vast array of experiences that exist beyond the narrow worldview so many have come to live and be trapped by. It isn’t scary that a queer Pokémon trainer and Black female archaeologist exist in a world of already fascinating and inspiring art.

(l-r) Raihan, Leon, and Nessa from the Pokemon Sword and Shield titles. Credit: Nintendo

It shouldn’t horrify viewers to see a trans, ghost-type gym leader battle against other Pokémon champions for the ultimate title in their region. Expanding the scope of our own worldview has been at the heart of the Pokémon franchise since Ash and his friends left Pallet Town for the Orange League and beyond. The beauty of appreciating a thing is that we have the opportunity to share in that joy with people who will surely teach us new and wondrous ideas, otherwise what’s the point of it all?

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