Worldwide phenomenon that span over multiple medias, have fans of various ages and walks of life, and that have been around for decades, are an amazing part of culture to behold. But behind every great phenomenon that eventually finds its way to pop culture, there is often a person or even a fictional character that helps these once brand new fads wiggle their way into everyday life and cement their place into the history books.
Welcome my fellow Wizards & Witches to Character Chronicles, a monthly topic that takes cartoon characters from popular genres and discusses them in a short in-depth illustrated article that explores their history and what made both them and the genre they belong to, part of everyday culture.
Rather than starting off with any old generic fantasy character though, for this introductory article we’ll be taking a look at one of the world’s most recognizable cartoon mice.
No not that one, but this one:
To start this series, we’ll be taking a look at a character from the mainstream of media and entertainment…Everyone’s favorite electric mouse, Pikachu. Like all the upcoming installments, we’ll go over in short detail the idea behind the character, its history and artistic evolutions throughout the years, its claim to fame in the media, and how it brought its respective genre to global status.
And what subject to better start with as an introduction to this series than Pokémon, who hit a very respectable 20 years in existence, and has spanned over almost every form of entertainment known to man. But what “Sparked” this cute yellow rodent’s popularity? Well like most popular cartoon characters, it all started with an idea…and in this case, the idea of bugs.
THE IDEA: It Began with Bugs
That’s right. Our beloved yellow rodent came to fruition from the love a young boy had in collecting bugs and insects. Now I admit, I’ve been a longtime fan of the series we’re talking about, but even I didn’t know the truth behind how the popular series began until a few years ago. After doing some research for this article though, the connection of the two really did begin to make sense.
The creator of the series, Satoshi Tajiri, was born in the month of August in 1965. Growing up he always had a love for collecting and studying insects, and one day had dreams of becoming an entomologist. This future dream of his however shifted, when he found interest in videogames as a teenager, and self-published a gaming magazine that later would be known as “Game Freak.” Through his magazine, he learned and talked about various existing videogames and their systems…one of which in particular, was the Gameboy, released around 1990.
“What if people could trade not just bugs, but creatures with one another, and battle them using the Gameboy and its trade-link cable?” That was what he pondered as he thought back to his childhood. And so six years later in 1996, the first ever game of “Pocket Monsters” or what we know as “Pokémon” was released onto the Gameboy handheld system…
THE HISTORY: The Yellow Pokémon
During its beginning years, the Pokémon video-games saw not just one but four versions released, which were red, blue, green (in Japan) and by far the most popular, yellow.
What made the yellow version so popular among the others however was the fact that you could actually travel and interact with your starting companion the over world.
This is where the now famous rodent was first introduced specifically to the video-game audience.
The appeal and implication of him as the acting mascot into the game really made that version unique, which eventually helped Pikachu’s rise to fame. The question is though, why did they decide to make that choice? To answer that, we need to learn about a much darker and humorous version of the series than was portrayed in the video-games, which when I dug deep, found out some very disturbing things.
In 1997 an illustrated comic based on the video-games, about a young boy and his companion was released in Japan called “Pokémon Adventures.” However, instead of Pikachu as the boy’s companion like in the games, it was the Pokémon called Clefairy.
On the surface, like I first thought, most probably viewed this as no big deal, but rather than being a cute an energetic monster, Clefairy was portrayed as a wise-cracking and mischievous Pokémon that deceived people with its looks; perusing acts of theft and even physical violence in some cases. The series even touched upon topics that today are most often hot button issues, such as child abuse, animal cruelty, and war.
Not wanting to divulge such behavior and topics to the young generation of its day, the creators of the comic needed a creature more child-like to help fill the protagonist’s shoes…And so Pikachu was chosen as Clefairy’s replacement for not just the game’s yellow version, but the comic and yet another reiteration of the famous series.
During the same year the comic book started, on April 1st in 1997 a cartoon adaptation of the famous video-game series made its way to television. Rather than mischievous adventures however, this version was focused more on light-hearted fun, and Pikachu was once again chosen to be at the forefront…and it paid off. With close to a thousand appearances in the show (that’s still airing) and 19 appearances in feature films over the span of 20 years, he’s in the public’s view constantly making child audiences (and in some cases young adults), all around the world really fall in love with the electric mouse…most notably his design.
THE DESIGN: Shocking Appeal
Like its comic book version, the Pikachu from the cartoon shared a number of similarities in regards to design. They both we’re portrayed with round bellies, a curvy shape, and a “lightning bolt” like tail…which was an exclusive design choice to Pikachu alone. Not to mention each was fast and light footed in their respective mediums, when being portrayed in combat. Where they differed however, was in there nature and personality.
Where the comic book version wasn’t given much of a defining personality and treated no different from other creatures in its medium, the Pikachu in the anime was shown to be more of a friendly character that exuded confidence in his abilities…the exact qualities that the show wanted to portray towards its young audience. Combine this with the power to shoot lightning from its body (something lots of kids would love to do as a superhero), and you’ve got the making of not only a future pop-culture icon, but a great mascot.
With every great cartoon character though, there is bound to be remakes, redesigns, and different interpretations through the media and our electric rodent is no exception.
THE MEDIA: Remakes of a classic
Since his first appearance, the confident Pikachu has been part of many events and re-telling’s of the series he helped catapult to pop-culture fame, since its introduction in 1996.
One of the most common retellings that Pikachu has been a part of was also the most recent. It was a remake of the anime called “Pokémon Generations,” a series of animated shorts that retold significant points in the game’s history, which came out in mid-year of 2016. But Pikachu’s influence doesn’t stop with just re-designs or retellings…it goes much further.
Our beloved mouse even has his own festival every year in Yokohama Japan, where giant balloons and mascots of the critter, line the streets for a Pikachu Parade. One of the most recognizable honors he’s gotten in the states however is a float designed in his image to be used each year in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day Parade. And as most of you might know, getting a float dedicated to you in one of the biggest events of the year, is one of the highest honors anyone—or anything can get.
So in conclusion, while this yellow electric creature started out as a humble thought, there’s no denying that he played a huge part in catapulting his respected series into the mainstream of media and pop-culture.
He was the first Pokémon to truly stand out from the rest, giving him his own version of the very first games; he still retained his popularity throughout his design career, and is in the public’s eye on a consistent basis with multiple versions of the media. Not to mention he’s got his own line of merchandise, which includes but isn’t limited to clothing, utilities, and even food.
It’s easy to see that without this yellow electric rodent “Sparking” an interest within the JRPG genre, the “Fantasy” videogame field may have turned out a lot differently. And it doesn’t look like he’ll be ceasing to influence pop-culture and his respected series any time soon.
And with that, my wizard and witches, concludes my first "Character Chroncles" post. The Question remains though, what type of character would YOU like me to discuss the history and design of next? Click the link below to vote for your favorite, and you might see it in the next installment!