I found the episode like I do so many anime — through a meme:
Yikes! I watched Pokemon growing up, but I don’t remember this scene… Drop the meme text and just think about the image: Ash is 10 years old. They’ve set a firing squad around a child in a television show for children! Did this actually air in America?
It turns out, yes. Episode 12, “Here Comes the Squirtle Squad” reached American audiences in 1998 with only minor localization edits from the English dubbing company 4Kidz Entertainment. Ah, but for the sake of childhood, the issue required further investigation. What other Poke-nonsense have I forgotten since wearing out my old original series VHS tapes every night before bed-time?
Instead, with a cursory google for “pokemon gun episode,” I found something much more interesting, something I hadn’t seen as a child: “Season 1, Episode 35 – The Legend Of Dratini (Banned Episode),” an illicit upload of the Japanese original with uncredited subtitles hosted on Facebook of all places. Facebook has the worst video player, but that “Banned” promised me a novel experience better than anything forgotten memories could conceal — no longer for the sake of childhood, but for completion. This wasn’t on the VHS!
But before watching, a couple of clarifications from elsewhere in the search results:
First, though I have used “banned” as an expedient shorthand throughout this post, I don’t think the term quite fits. No third-party regulatory agency denied the episode permission to air and unlike other Pokemon episodes which did air at least once before their television networks pulled them from rotation, this episode never reached general audiences. Rather, I think “unaired in America” makes better sense for “The Legend of Dratini.” Given the questionable content in the episode, 4Kidz simply declined to produce a dub*.
* [a rant: like that other “banned” episode, which features Brock and Ash lusting after a ten-year-old Misty, then an old man lusting after a ten-year-old Misty, then that same ten-year-old Misty enrolling in a swimsuit contest to earn money to correct the boys’ mistake with her body in competition while a grown man with gigantic inflatable breasts taunts her (a child) for having small breasts — remember, Pokemon was a children’s show! Ugh!!!]
And second, though some fans take it as hypocritical that 4Kidz banned “The Legend of Dratini” for having guns despite so many other episodes in the original anime series also featuring guns, those other appearances were either brief (episode 34, “The Kangaskhan Kind,” a safari ranger arrests Ash at gunpoint for Pokemon poaching) or cartoonishly over-the-top (episode 19, “Tentacool and Tentacruel,” an old woman uses tanks, machine guns, and rocket launchers to battle an invading sea monster). Given 4Kidz tolerance for cartoon violence in other episodes then, “The Legend of Dratini” must have done something special to have halted its American release.
And uh, yeah. Including the gif posted above, characters threaten each other with guns across seven separate shots in the episode:
Though Pokemon fans like to mock the often silly English localization changes made by 4Kidz in its efforts to scrub the series of its Japanese language and cultural content (most famously, calling rice balls “jelly donuts”), I think a localization of this specific episode carries much more serious concerns than a simple skirting around of unfamiliar Japanese food items.
My old VHS tapes don’t have a rating, but they do have a “suitable for all ages” label slapped on the back in red letters. The entire anime series has a pretty clear elementary-aged primary audience (I watched it starting in preschool). With that de-facto G rating in mind then, the point-blank gun threats become a little excessive for an audience so young because children do imitate what they see on cartoons, especially when encouraged by so many repetitions. To borrow an example contemporaneous to my own childhood Pokemon craze, my seven-year-old self once stole my father’s hammer and smashed the pressure gauge on his bicycle pump, expecting some sort of classic, loopy Looney-Tunes explosion. But nope, the gauge just let out a pathetic whimper as it depressurized through the shattered glass, ruining the entire device.
Consider then: what if a child tried to imitate one of the stick’em ups from “Legend of Dratini?” In Japan, where children have near zero access to firearms, I don’t see the episode doing any real harm. Children will play-act the scenes with finger-guns, toys, and their imaginations like happy children do. But place the episode in an American cultural context, where millions of children live in households with guns and kill each other in accidental shootings with some frequency (often while playing). On average, about 80 American children die in unintentional shootings every year, with another 1200 injuries. Though that statistic includes accidental shootings by adults, most cases involve children shooting other children, again, often while playing.
Of course, the most proximate blame in those tragedies lies with the adults who neglected to keep their guns away from small hands.
But considering two other aspects of late 1990s American culture — its famed litigiousness and long history of hysteria over pop-culture influences on children — I think 4Kidz made a sensible decision to “ban” the episode to avoid any potential liability. If even one child had shot another while play-acting Jesse and James’ interrogation scene, the company may have faced a barrage of unwanted scrutiny in an era already loaded with parental skepticism towards anime. Perhaps some will call it excessive risk aversion, but it was still, I think, prudent when weighed against the potential backlash and, on some small off-chance, the lives of children.
But before some hardcore fan accuses me of inciting a moral panic twenty years too late, I’ll drop the “think of the children” argument and make a basic appeal to quality. While discussing the dearth of thoughtful children’s television programming in the late 1960s, Bob Homme, creator of the beloved Canadian-American children’s show The Friendly Giant, once said “Children out there were listening to everything I had to say, and I began to think that what I had to say had better be good.”
And eh, after twenty years (and 10 or so more episodes), the original Pokemon series just isn’t very good.
Ash (or Satoshi, in Japanese) is a moron. Just in “The Legend of Dratini,” he threatens to lose Pikachu (and all of his other Pokémon friends!) in a competition with known-cheats Team Rocket because they promise not to cheat despite breaking that promise in almost every other episode. Why? Because “good people always win,” apparently. Later, he jumps into a lake (or oceanic cove?) of unknown depth to recover an electric bomb thrown by Team Rocket. After almost drowning, he only survives the explosion because the titular Dratini, now evolved into a flying Dragonair, saves him. Is Ash supposed to be a role model for children? I hope not because I certainly feel stupider on behalf of my child self for watching him again today…
The show feels even worse for girls, with “The Legend of Dratini” featuring some pretty typical examples of old-school Japanese sexism. I already ranted about that banned swimsuit episode, but having never watched the series in Japanese, the Japanese-language opening song surprised me with the line “Tsuchi no naka, kumo no naka, ano ko no sukaato no naka” — something to the effect of “in the ground, in the clouds, in that girl’s skirt!” (punctuated by the girl screaming) in reference to places where you could catch Pokemon. Later in the episode, the old man Kaiza has a stupid moment where he asks if Jesse will marry him, followed by a pretty gross mockery of the gyaru fashion — often used to depict women as vapid hussies.
The episode attempts a brief message against — I dunno, overtourism? — in a brief flashback about Pokemon trainers destroying the environment in the Safari Zone in a zealous hunt for the legendary Pokemon Dratini. But because Pokemon never encourages its audience to think too hard, the episode just jumps back into another string of stupid rapid-fire gags and never appraoches the issue again. Why did my parents let me watch this…
Even ignoring the issue with the guns, I don’t think “Legend of Dratini” would ever qualify as Homme’s “good” children’s television, to borrow a paraphrase of his ideals from an old Atlantic piece, to offer children “warmth, understanding, knowledge, and guidance.” I wouldn’t fault any children for watching Pokemon because ugh, I watched hours and hours and hours every night myself. But then I wouldn’t encourage them to watch it either when better, friendlier shows exist like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the animated inheritor to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and, from Japan, my darling animal edu-tainment bit Kemono Friends.
Or in other words, even if you disagree with the ban, I still have to ask: why not watch something better?