There was a time when the Pokemon anime was intended to be only 80 episodes long. There was a time when dangerous objects like guns (and Jynx in “blackface”) were put in the cartoon without a second thought, because the creators weren’t thinking they had to please a global audience. This was the first arc of the Pokemon cartoon, now called the “Indigo League” because it culminated with the League Games at Indigo Plateau.
I still think the original season of Pokemon was the best one they ever made, and you can say it’s just the nostalgia goggles, but I have my reasons. The series would soon settle into an eternal loop of directionless badge-chasing, with the same jokes repeated in every episode a la Scooby Doo. Indigo League is an actual story, fraught with peril and hardship, with a beginning and a middle—and though success robbed it of its end, it’s still a satisfying watch.
At the start, Ash Ketchum is just plain inexperienced. He oversleeps and almost misses his chance at a starter Pokemon. He’s overshadowed in his hometown by rival Gary, who’s so popular he has his own entourage of cheering teenage girls. Ash’s first attempt to catch a Pokemon in the wild is to throw a bag over it. When that doesn’t work, he tries throwing a rock at it. Except for his talking Pokedex, he’s alone in his struggle, and Pikachu hates him. He has very little idea what he’s doing in the world; all he has are his dreams.
That’s what makes Ash so easy to root for in these early episodes. He’s an underdog with an iron will. No matter how badly he screws up, he clenches his fists and growls in Rudolph’s voice, “I WILL BE A POKEMON MASTER. I WILL!!” You really want to see if he can do it. And the first season made me believe he eventually would.
In Indigo, Ash and friends travel the countryside at a much quicker pace than they do in subsequent arcs. He meets and battles Gym Leaders more frequently—in one instance, the Gym battles are two episodes apart. Misty and Brock have pretty funny and vibrant personalities that would eventually be flattened out once she turned into a mother figure for Togepi and he was reduced to doing little but performing the “WHOA A GIRL” gag once a show. Even Team Rocket is more bearable, starting out as an actual threat and getting slightly goofier with each passing episode. Though the basic series formula is already in place, there’s a greater variety of plots, and the show producers aren’t afraid to go down some dark areas and add real suspense.
The Narrator calls Ash’s three-part battle against Gym Leader Sabrina “the biggest showdown of his life.” Back then I didn’t think the Narrator actually meant it, but I’ve never seen Ash at such a dangerous disadvantage, with the stakes so high, ever again—not even in the movies. Sabrina is portrayed as a psychic psycho with brain powers so strong she can manipulate matter. The emotional turmoil over controlling those powers has split her into two beings: a cold robotic grownup, and a creepy giggly little girl who turns every Trainer that loses against her into a doll forever. Ash only has cuddly Pikachu in defense against this monster, and he only escapes with his life because Sabrina’s teleporting father rescues him, believing he is the only one who has a chance of stopping her.
In order to stand a ghooooost of a chance (as 4Kids would say), Ash needs a Ghost Pokemon on his side, and so he spends an episode trying to capture a Haunter. Unfortunately, Haunter ends up being completely unreliable, and so Ash is stuck there again in that Gym facing certain doom, with his friends turned into dolls and his turn about to come. His loyal Pikachu insists on defending him, no matter how impossible the feat looks. Pikachu tries furtively to nail a lightning strike on Kadabra, Sabrina’s Pokemon, but Kadabra can simply teleport out of the way every time. Just when things look totally hopeless, Pikachu suddenly nails him! The battle has finally turned!
But then Sabrina simply says, “Recover,” and her Pokemon instantly heals itself. Ho. Lee. Cow. At this point, I had absolutely no idea how Ash would get out of this and I was riveted. Though the actual solution is kind of a deus ex machina that Ash had little to do with, I was impressed by this storyline in a way I never was from Pokemon again. It was a true battle for survival.
There’s a real sense of wonder here, and you can see why the concept caught on so well. The journey is literal—full of then-fresh surprises, you never knew what to expect next. By the middle of the Johto arc the show had become so repetitive that this sense of wonder was lost.
The Indigo League Vol. 1 box is somewhat bigger than the size DVD consumers have gotten used to lately. Viz used full-size DVD cases to house the 3 discs containing the first 26 episodes—in fact, all of Indigo League was released this way. There’s no Japanese track, and no bonus features are included (unless you count the full Poke-Rap, like Viz does). And one dubbed episode is missing: “Beauty and the Beach,” which chronologically fits between “Island of the Giant Pokemon” and “Tentacool and Tentacruel.” It wasn’t in the original American episode run either. Due to the infamous “James with breasts” scene it would not be dubbed and aired until the summer of 2000. It only appeared twice on Kids WB and has never been released again, on any network or any home video format.
We should all write Viz thank-you letters for compiling Indigo League into sets back in 2007. Prior to this, they were only available as 3-an-episode individual discs, the same way they were originally released on VHS. The Pokemon franchise is about to enter the “Black and White” era with over 250 new monsters, but nothing has changed about Ash aside from his human companions and a pair of newly-dilated eyeballs. He seems content in his repetition, and so do the kids today who follow him. But the Ash I remember wouldn’t be satisfied with just a pile of badges. Here’s to 1998, the Indigo League, and the dream of becoming a Pokemon Master.