Pokemon Ebony and Ivory

This Pokemon acknowledges the series' slavery allegory.

Joey Davidsonby Joey Davidson

Pokemon Ebony and Ivory

I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking that this is a damn Pokémon game. There’s no way it should be taken seriously. You’re thinking that it’s nothing but Team Rocket (Team Plasma, actually), silly Pokémon, bikes, caves and some legendary creatures tossed into the mix for good measure. Well, yes, you’re right. Pokémon Black and White is all of that stuff.

But it’s also something a little on the dark side. Pokémon Black and White admits to a common comparison, albeit a joking one, that’s often made when describing Pokémon. People have been known to mark it down as an allusion to slavery. One Pokémon Trainer (master) and an endless stream of Pokémon to catch, contain and use at your command (slaves). You make them cut trees, move boulders and fight until they pass out.

We’re not trying to make something out of nothing here. We love Pokémon, we get that it, at its core, is a kid-friendly game with great moral themes and very little in the way of ambiguity. The enemies are evil-doers and the point of the adventure is always to "grow up" a little. Central to the campaign is this process of moral justice and friendliness that divides the inherently good from the inherently evil.

That said, the link between Pokémon training and slavery is still there. What makes Pokémon Black and White so unique is that Nintendo and Game Freak (the developers of the main series) actually own up to the allegory at hand for the first time. The franchise has always been quick to remind gamers that Pokémon are their friends and that players will have the most success when they treat their friends with respect and love, whatever that means. They still do that with this entry, but something is brought up that makes characters question their reasoning.

Pokemon Black and White

In the early goings, before the first gym, of Pokémon Black and White, players walk in on a gathering in the center of a town. In the midst of that gathering is a robed man and a group of guards. The man starts bellowing about how mankind knows nothing of how Pokémon really feel when it comes to being captured and contained. He suggests that these creates need freedom and deserve liberation. That quest for liberation becomes the objective of your enemy immediately. They start stealing and freeing Pokémon.

The plot evolves over time, of course, and it changes pretty dramatically. But that initial nod in recognition of Pokémon can stand for is presented so well that it makes players question the nature of Pokémon themselves. The players question the morality of holding Pokémon because the characters on screen do the exact same thing. Are they deserving of freedom? Are they happy? Are the sad? That’s pretty dark and twisted, and it’s the core of the plot in Black and White.

Now, there is a massive cultural gap that we’re overlooking here; and that gap may explain why this Japanese game is only now making reference to the slavery allegory hidden within. Japan and the Western world do not have the same views on racism and slavery. The cultures are wholly and entirely separate, and I’m speaking from experience.

Does Japan have racism? Oh, absolutely. In the eyes of an American, the Japanese culture is one that’s unknowingly enthralled in racial prejudice. Hell, I was turned away from several Udon (noodle) shops simply on the basis that I was a white Gaijin (outsider or foreigner). But that racism does not instantly connect with slavery like it does here in this part of the world. The country doesn’t have the same history of racial tension brought on by recent slavery as is found in the US.

This slavery connection that’s always been made when it comes to the basis of Pokémon is one that was likely unintended by the Japanese developers. It’s in Pokémon Black and White that the company may actually be making a nod at their own crazy snafu. Gamers are presented with in-game characters that question the moral rationale behind capturing and holding Pokémon. While no fourth walls are directly broken throughout this twist and turn of the plot line, one doesn’t have to strain too hard to read the situation as allegorical. Nintendo could very well be making a reference to the unintended moral ambiguity of the Pokémon series with this entry. It is called Pokémon "Black" and "White" after all.

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