"Ahola, Alola", How Sun & Moon Mark Pokémon's Resurgence

For many kids of my age, and for myself, Pokémon was the first, if not one of the first anime we ever saw on television, not that many of us understood what anime was at this point; coming off the back of the world-conquering video games (as of earlier this year, the total Pokémon franchise had sold a staggering 279 million games since 1998), and that bane of every playground and classroom, the trading card game, it only escalated the popularity of the series. Featuring the adventures of eternal nearly-man Ash Ketchum (Satoshi in Japan), and an ever larger cast of Pokémon and human friends, ranging from pun spouting ladies man Brock and proto-tsundere, Misty, to more recent characters such as Dawn, the anime itself has reached an impressive 947 episodes (not including spin-offs such as the superb Generations miniseries). Of course, with 2016, came the 20th anniversary of the Pokemon franchise, with Nintendo's double barrel approach of the wildly spectacular smartphone game, Pokémon Go in July, followed by a new installment of the series, Sun and Moon. But what would a 20th Anniversary bring for one of the longest running anime of recent years?

As with every Pokémon game, each new season generally starts out with Ash/Satoshi wandering into a new part of the Pokémon world he's not previously been to (quite how these sections/entire continents are magically coming into being/have existed for centuries without our protagonist knowing or reading around them, I've never understood, but then he is ten). He usually makes a friend within the first episode, catches the three starters, battles the various gyms/challenges across this new location, and attempts (and usually fails, to the consternation of Japanese  fans) to defeat the Elite Four/final boss of this region. It's a formula that's worked pretty damned well for two decades with little change; neither has the animation changed much-whilst, as you can see from the image above, a few designs have been refined, the animation is slicker visually; in essence, however, it's somewhat dated looking; heck, if the 1998 anime looked like something from the late 1980s, particularly during the rather static and low-budget battles, then before Sun and Moon, the anime had arrived at somewhere around the mid 2000s. Yet, at this point, you would have thought Nintendo and OLM (formerly Oriental Light and Magic), would have happily sat on their laurels, and carried on much as before, with their tried and tested and proven art-style, their semi-iconic look familiar to millions. And then the bombshell of the year of Pokémon dropped.

A change in artstyle.
They were changing not just minor designs, not just the look of certain characters, but wholesale driving a bulldozer through the entire artstyle, and bringing, in a word, Pokémon's anime kicking and screaming into the 21st Century - and people were divided. Certainly, one only has to look at the mixed fortunes of long running western cartoons to show that suddenly changing your entire art style whilst retaining other elements is not necessarily a good idea. For example, the sudden shift in Batman: The Animated Series to a far more angular, far more monochromatic look, losing the art-deco and red skies of the first three seasons, and redesigning key characters, most infamously the Joker, alienated many previously loyal fans and is often noted as one of the causes of the show's downfall. Equally, redesigning long-running anime is rare-for a start, the manga artist's designs tend to take precedence, and, even when shows, such as Gundam, explore new art-styles, these are usually based around an artist assisting the series (much as CLAMP did with Code Geass). More common are slight tweaks, occasional visual updates or simply the result of improved animation software or greater clarity in cels. Even in whole-sale remakes, such as Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Rebuild of Evangelion and even the controversial Sailor Moon Crystal, designs are either given a technological (as with Evangelion and Brotherhood), or the source's original artwork is returned to, and a new attempt made to bring this to life (as with Crystal).

Thus, Pokemon's art style shift is not only a highly risky move, but one not typically made in anime (indeed the only other major series that immediately came to mind regarding such a massive visual shift in style was, ironically, Pokémon's old 1990s rival, Digimon, in the form of the ongoing film series, Digimon Tri). So what are these groundbreaking, fan-polarizing changes? In essence, a more rounded, more modern-looking style, and with it, some simplification-gone are the angular, heavily defined faces of the classic Pokemon anime, and in their place softer, rounder faces-hairstyles are fluffier and rounder, ending in soft rather than sharp spikes, and the detail of facial features (for example, Ash's facial "z"s are reduced. Whilst comparisons to Studio Ghibli's art-style have been made, arguably, it's closer to the more typical trends in series such as Tsuitama, Gatchaman Crowds and even Digimon Tri, with the edges carefully smoothed off (except in extreme cases), and a generally more cartoonish look to characters. Neither does the redesign end here-in many cases, such as the new starters (Rowlett, Litten and Popplio), the designs from the Sun and Moon games have been refined down to make it easier to animate; nowhere is this more notable than in series stalwart, Pikachu - whilst there's not the sea change as in the human characters designs, there's definitely a simplification.

But this visual simplification can only tell us so much about how the new Pokemon looks in motion. And, with no hyperbole, it looks pretty damned good - the Pokemon of yesteryear was an often static beast, with battles done cheaply, and even as of late, the anime looked somewhat static and staid.
Boy, has that changed. Now, Pokemon Sun and Moon moves beautifully, fluidly and with the action and speed that you'd expect of battling-there's several sequences in these first two episodes where Ash is either racing, chasing or indeed running away from, Pokémon, and the animation is beautiful, flowing, and a million miles from the static or limited episodes of earlier seasons. Equally, facial animation. Before Sun and Moon, Pokemon's facial animation was very run-of-the mill, but now, particularly care of Professor Oak's Alolan cousin, and indeed Ash, there are a vast range of brilliantly odd facial expressions, (particularly since this Oak likes to imitate Pokemon)-this certainly seems to be due to this series' increased visual humor, and, whilst the original series did have its moments, Sun and Moon have upped the comedy.

But good animation does not solely contribute to a series being good - without further ado, let's dive right into Pokémon Sun and Moon!

Episode one, as with every series, begins with Ash and Pikachu in a new region of the Pokémon world, but this time, unusually, mum is in tow - it seems that one of her Pokemon won a holiday lottery (opening some very interesting questions about to what extent Pokemon are allowed to gamble, etc) - Ash and Pikachu ride a shark-like pokemon (Sharpedo) and explore underwater, where we get a sense of the new water-going Pokemon that inhabit the Alola region. A couple of nice vignettes, with the memetic Alolan Exeggutor and fire-cat Litten are rather rudely interrupted by Ash and Pikachu foot racing through, treading on the Litten's tail, and Ash getting scorched for his trouble. Of course, Ash being Oak's dogsbody and delivery man (as usual) he has a job to do-delivering a mysterious egg to Professor Oak's cousin. Along the way, we're introduced to one of Sun and Moon's new gimmicks innovations, the Pokemon Ride, before, as usual, Ash gets distracted by a Pokemon, (a strange little insect/mole creature) and gives chase...watched from afar by a mysterious figure.

Chasing the Pokemon into a nearby forest, Ash and Pikachu become a little lost, and encounter another Pokemon, the bear-like...Bewear (seriously? I thought the names were better these days?), which, despite its cute appearance is, in a word, terrifying-here, by the way, we get Ash's first...particularly amazing facial expression, worthy of Soul Eater, as Bewear proceeds to knock trees down and...screech a lot-we also get some beautifully animated running sequences. Finding their way back to civilization following a Ride Pokemon, Ash is promptly trampled by a herd of Taurus, and meets the rest of what will, in essence, become Ash's companions: Lillie (shy and retiring and seemingly scared of Pokemon), Kiawe (Rufio from Pan, from hairstyle to attitude), Mallow (seemingly the boss, who promptly drags Ash around the Pokemon school), Lana (uh, she has a Popplio) and Sophocles (the nerdy kid). In essence, though, these characters tie neatly into promoting the game as they're the trial captains for the various islands. Ash is promptly introduced to Professor Oak's cousin, who...basically is the best thing about the series so far, not only because a) he's very funny, and I honestly look forward to his Pokemon puns in the dub, but b) his Pokémon-mimicking facial expressions and the facial expressions he causes others to pull. More sightseeing around the Pokemon School, meeting the other teacher.

We're promptly introduced to villains for this series (Team Rocket turn up in neither of the first two episodes), Team Skull, who seem...relatively laid-back, although they challenge Kiawe to a battle. Despite the odds stacked against him, Ash promptly joins the battle, and we're quickly introduced to Z Moves, with Kiawe essentially combining his power with his Turtonator (A fire turtle) and defeating Team Skull. Z-moves are explained briefly, before Ash becomes distracted by a mysterious pokemonn that no-one else seems able to see. Hearing its cry, Ash gives chase, and eventually corners it, revealing it to be Kapu-Kokeko, who gives Ash the Z-Ring, a tool needed to active Z-Moves. Ash elects to stay behind to train at the Pokémon school, and so a new Pokemon adventure begins!

Episode 2 begins with the various PokéSchool kids showing off their Pokemon as well as suggestions of their own personalities, as well as suggesting the size and scale of the Alola islands. Ash promptly arrives, and we get the basics of Z Crystals and Z Rings, as well as Kapu Kokeko and his mischievous personality. From here, Professor Oak introduces walking meme, Alolan Exegguctor, which cranes out of the window, and brings some suggestion on which the Alolan forms are so different. Ash promptly gets attacked by the tail of the towering Pokémon, and Oak cracks a few more terrible puns. The next day Ash is late to school and is promptly met with the challenges from the entire school; first, a balloon popping contest-whilst Ash attempts to use Pikachu's thundershock, Soppocles's Togemaru absorbs the electricity and wins-next up a foot and swimming race-whilst Pikachu wins the footrace, another trainer's Popplio wins the swimming race and the challenge; this is followed by a Pokemon Ride race between Ash and Kiawe, won, by a nose, by Kiawa. Professor Kukui is about to challenge Ash to a battle when Kapu-Kokeko reappears, steals Ash's hat, and makes him give chase-again, this chase is animated superbly, and the backgrounds are lush and truly represent the jungles you'd expect on Hawaii.

And, to be honest, what follows is the best moment of this entire series so far-in a beautifully animated, tense and fast-moving batttle where the camera is more dynamic than anything we've previously seen outside of the Pokémon movies. Kapu-Kokeko promptly activates the Z Crystal, and perfectly in sync, unleashes Pikachu's first Z move, inter-cutting, to amazing effect, both of them attacking. The gem breaks, Kapu-Kokeko seems pleased with Ash's progress, and Ash vows to take on the island challenge, Pikachu by his side. Off on another adventure!

If 2016 is Pokemon's 20th Anniversary, it is also truly the year of the franchise's resurgence, building from the mass popularity of Pokemon Go, to perhaps one of the best games of the series so far. Sun and Moon's anime is the pinnacle of this resurgence-if Go pushed Pokemon back to worldwide phenomenon, and Sun and Moon consolidates this position, then the Sun and Moon anime proves Nintendo, and Pokémon are taking a bold, if calculated step, into the unknown. Pokémon ends 2016 revitalized on all fronts, back to the money-making, world conquering juggernaut of two decades ago, but, if the anime is anything to go by, with a charm, a fearlessness and a more nuanced and more laid back feel. Welcome back, Pokémon.


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