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Bulbagraphic:Sometimes, the franchise seems Jynxed

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Sometimes, the franchise seems Jynxed
A history of controversies caused by Pokémon
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  • Sunday, September 11, 2011

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This article is brought to you by the National Bulbagraphic. Any opinions expressed are those of the author.
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A few years ago, I was friendly with a woman older than me. She was a very nice lady, and she and I would often discuss certain topics and weigh in our opinions. One day, we wound up on the subject of Pokémon, a game series that I had been rather fond of since childhood. She admitted that she had never let her children play the games, due to a belief that they taught bad morals.

I pressed her on this, and though she had a fairly accurate grasp of the series' battle mechanics (although she described them as "summoning monsters to perform magical spells in order to kill other monsters"), it quickly became apparent to me that most of her information was second-hand, and full of misconceptions, half-truths and outright falsehoods. Her beliefs, it seemed, were a remnant of the moral outrage Pokémon caused in some quarters when it arrived on the scene in the mid-90s.

Koga's Ninja Trick - second design

One point of aggravation for many youths is the distrust many of their elders show towards new fads or phenomena. It seems that every new, popular thing that children enjoy will be eyed with suspicion or fear by concerned adults. Rock music, the Harry Potter book series, and even comic books have all been subject to this kind of treatment, with groups of parents and other authority figures banding together to try and put a stop to what they see as devices to corrupt the youth.

The Pokémon series is no exception. The process of Pokémon evolution, one of the series' key elements, is itself enough to raise the eyebrow of many a religious fundamentalist, who might view anything pertaining to Darwinian theory as sacrilege. This has indeed been a focus for many religious groups who view Pokémon with suspicion.

However, some rumors about the series from concerned religious leaders border on the absurd: that Gyarados' name means "great orgy" in Arabic, that the original PokeRap played backward contains Satanic messages, and (as claimed by conservative blogger Cornswalled) that the entire series is a plot by Satan to corrupt the youth of America. The aforementioned woman of my acquaintance apparently believed that the Pokémon Gengar was representative of Lucifer. Many of these claims show the telltale sign of a severe moral panic: baseless, sensationalist claims without any research done to confirm them.

Other controversies arise due to differences in culture. The Pokémon TCG card "Koga's Ninja Trick" originally depicted a manji, a traditional Buddhist symbol. The manji, unfortunately, is the mirror image of the swastika, a Hindu symbol more easily recognized as the logo of the National Socialist Party of Germany - otherwise known as the Nazis. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League was understandably concerned due to the connotations the symbol carries in the Western world, especially with regards to the Jewish community, and complained. The card was edited for the international market and released sans manji.

Paradoxically, Pokémon has been banned in the Middle Eastern country of Saudia Arabia for supposedly promoting Zionism (the Saudi mufti claimed that the video and card games feature symbolism including the Jewish Star of David). Other criticisms leveled against the series included the gambling aspect present, as in the Game Corner. Gambling is forbidden by Muslim doctrine, and Saudi Arabia is a very conservative Mulim state, meaning that children becoming desensitized to such habits a valid concern.

Not all controversy surrounding Pokémon relates to religion or seduction of the innocent. Infamously, the Pokémon Jynx was accused of being a racist caricature of African-Americans by Carol Boston Weatherford, who compared the Pokémon to Dragon Ball's Mr. Popo, a genie whose appearance has also often been criticized for being culturally insensitive.

Lenora

This controversy ultimately caused Nintendo to change Jynx's skin color from black to purple. Even in the latest printings of the Pokémon Adventures manga, the shading of Jynx's skin has been lightened in order to avoid bringing back memories of the incident.

Another racial controversy spread through the Pokémon fandom like wildfire in mid-2010, concerning the design of Lenora (Aloe in Japan), the series' first black Gym Leader. The controversy centered around the apron Lenora wears, which some felt made the character resemble the "Mammy" archetype, a racial stereotype of African-Americans that depicts a black woman as an obedient domestic servant, often of middle age and overweight. Flame wars concerning the topic quickly erupted, and got so bad that for a while, the Bulbagarden forums banned discussion of it.

No formal complaints were made regarding Lenora's appearance, but when the anime episode "A Night in the Nacrene City Museum!" aired in its dubbed form, The Pokémon Company International decided that it was better to be safe than sorry and edited Lenora's apron out.

Most Pokémon controversy cropped up when the series was at its peak in the 1990s, but as long as the series continues, it is certain that more will crop up. Only time will tell what these controversies will be, and how the fandom and public alike will deal with them. One thing's for sure: humans can find offense in almost everything, and for better or worse, the Pokémon series seems a lightning rod for controversy.