On the Origin of Species: Magikarp
Hello again, and welcome to a special five-week run of On the Origin of Species. With just over a month remaining until the long-awaited release of Pokémon X and Y and the beginning of Generation VI, I'll be taking a look at some of the weird and surprising things that influenced Pokémon design in previous generations. This week, I'll be focusing on some Pokémon from Generation I, and we start today with an old friend.
It's agile, tenacious, symbolic of high achievement and an occasional menace to boaters. What manner of creature is this? Well, it's Magikarp.
Or, to put it more precisely, it's the Asian carp, the real life creature upon which Magikarp is based. The term "Asian carp" is used to refer to various related species of freshwater fish native to China and surrounding areas. Many of these, like the silver and bighead carp, are commonly farmed for food, but the group also includes the likes of goldfish.
Asian carp adapt well to new environments. A little too well, in fact, as they will often out-compete the native species by depleting their food sources. Various species of Asian carp have been introduced to North America over the years, only to escape into the Mississippi River and Great Lakes, where they are now classified as invasive species. Many things have been tried to reduce the number of these fish or at least prevent their spread into other rivers and lakes, but there hasn't been a great deal of success so far.
That's certainly evidence of tenacity, but what about agility? Asian carp, most notably the silver carp, can jump up to ten feet out of the water, and they frequently do this when startled... by boats, for example. This occasionally results in people in boats being hit by jumping carp. In 2010, a kayaker named Brad Pennington was competing in a race on the Missouri River, when a 20 to 30 pound carp jumped out of the water and hit him in the face, forcing him to withdraw from the competition. When you consider that silver carp can weigh over 60 pounds and leap up to 10 feet in the air, it's clear how dangerous they can be.
So far, however, we haven't really tied the Asian carp to the Magikarp we're familiar with. They're anything but dangerous, being the original "joke" Pokémon. Their only move until Level 15 is the useless Splash. After that, they can learn Tackle and Flail by level-up, and sometimes Bounce via other means. But there's a pattern here, and it becomes evident when you realize that the Japanese name for Splash, haneru (はねる) might be better translated as "hop": this is why Pokémon like Hoppip, Spoink and Buneary, who have no connection to water, can learn it too. Most of Magikarp's moves – hopping, flailing and bouncing – allude to the carp's jumping ability. The jumping is the key, because the sight of jumping carp inspired a Chinese legend that, in turn, inspired Magikarp.
The story went that if a lowly carp could leap over a particular waterfall, referred to as the Dragon Gate, it would be transformed into a dragon, and that when one succeeded, the summer rains would start to fall. There are numerous waterfalls in China which are claimed to be the Dragon Gate, but the most notable is on the Yellow River, near Henan.
Carp are known for instinctively swimming upstream, and a waterfall would represent a clear barrier to further progress, so it's easy to see how the sight of jumping carp flinging themselves at the base of a waterfall might have inspired this legend. But what's really of interest is the fact that this legend is commonly used as an analogy for problems faced by us humans.
Traditionally the carp leaping the waterfall and becoming a dragon was associated with social climbing, especially in relation to passing the imperial examination, a challenging series of tests for entry into Imperial China's civil service, and one of the main ways in which ordinary people could rise to positions of real influence. Even today, it's said that students taking their exams are like carp trying to leap the Dragon Gate: it's a challenge, but the rewards will be great.
Similarly, while Magikarp is an overwhelmingly common and ordinary Pokémon, with enough effort it too can exceed expectations and become a dragon (though not a Dragon, to the continual annoyance of some fans). Incidentally, I can't be the only person to have assumed Magikarp's name – along with its Japanese name, Koiking – was a bit of deliberate irony, especially given that this Pokémon is often sold to the player by a smooth-talking salesman extolling its virtues. Having looked more into the legend, though, I'm not so sure. In illustrations of the Dragon Gate myth, the fish depicted are often majestic-looking koi carp, most frequently red or gold in color. This matches Magikarp's appearance in some respects (red and gold with a crown-like dorsal fin) though perhaps not all: Magikarp's vacant expression and habit of flopping around uselessly don't exactly embody any kind of regal dignity. So perhaps both interpretations are true. Magikarp, just like carp of legend, has the potential to become something magnificent through enough effort and perseverance. But in the meantime, it’s just a regular old fish, and you really can't expect too much from a regular old fish.