Anime Preview: Pokémon The Series: Sun & Moon

There’s a new season of the Pokémon anime out now. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The Sun & Moon arc is finally here, and it’s gained more notoriety for a radical redesign of the series’ protagonist Ash Ketchum than anything else. Weeks before its November premier in Japan (and a preview already aired in the UK), many fans were writing the show’s new art direction as “cartoony” and “childish”. People thought from trailers that Pokémon was suddenly going to morph into a gag anime modeled on the success of Yo-Kai Watch. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Pokémon Sun & Moon still feels like the same show you’ve known and loved for 19 seasons, it’s just been given a fresh coat of paint.

In the particulars of story, it’s very much still the comfortable Pokémon anime, a shonen* story set in a new land. There’s a lot of shoe leather in these first two episodes alone: Ash has reached the Alola Region with a mysterious egg he will deliver to the school’s professor, discovers the Pokémon School he will attend this arc, and encounters Tapu Koko who gifts him with the enigmatic Z-Ring to power up his partner Pikachu. We also meet new friends with whom Ash attends the school, all of them Trial Captains from the Sun and Moon games (Mallow, Sophocles, and so forth).

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So let’s talk about the much-vaunted redesign of Ash, seeing as it’s the Donphan in the room. Much of the hyperbole mirrors exactly what happened prior to the airing of Pokémon: Best Wishes! in 2010, the first time Ash got a radical redesign (his eyes were made bigger). That was a watershed moment for the series as it gave animation studio OLM the precedent to do whatever they wanted with every new Pokémon generation. The Pokémon XY arc from 2013 looked fantastic, with better animation and cinematography than the show had ever seen before. But where do you go from there? You do something radically different.

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Sun & Moon marks the third redesign of Ash in as little as six years. His Sun & Moon treatment is a mite more obviously “new” than previous designs. After watching the first two episodes in full, I’m really digging his new look. It perfectly reflects the lighter touch of the Alola Region itself. Ash’s new design allows him to be far more expressively animated and able to bring out his personality like never before. It is a visual revamp with the animators in mind.

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Pokémon Best Wishes! (2010)

Compare Ash’s new look to that of Best Wishes! when it started. Those visuals, while different, were also stiff in comparison and held bound by the more traditional animation style of Diamond & Pearl. Now the show feels more alive and expressive with a visual style reminiscent of Kill la Kill or Guarren Langen than Pokémon. There will certainly be fans who will miss the matured visuals of XY, but I’m happy to give this new art style the benefit of the doubt. 18 years ago, I never dreamed that we’d see animation of this caliber on the show.

The Alola Region itself also has to live up to in the new art direction. Luckily in the first two episodes, the animators do a consistent job keeping a Hawaiian vibe to the region. Remember Hoenn back in Pokémon: Advanced Generation? In the early run of those episodes, it looked much like the Kanto and Johto regions, except they stuck a few palm trees in the background, a band-aid on gentrification (that’ll solve your problems). OLM has a much bigger budget and an art team that takes the show more seriously these days, so Alola will be in good hands for the duration of the arc.

Sun & Moon is happy to break from the rules of past arcs in other ways beyond the animation. Unlike other story lines, the first episode of SM opens cold with Ash and Pikachu already in Alola, with no context or explanation… They’re just riding on a Sharpedo on the ocean like a jet ski with no explanation. That comes until a bit later via a humorously sped-up flashback showing how Ash, his mother, and Pikachu and the household’s Mr. Mime ended up winning the holiday lottery that leads Ash to Alola. That’s a fresh approach to the usual chronological storytelling, but also jarring, particularly if you happen to watch these fresh episodes via the typical YouTube upload, thinking they’ve skipped a chapter.

Also breaking from tradition, Ash doesn’t have travel companions this time. No, he has a whole posse with whom to attend Pokémon School with. These new characters, originally the Alolan Trial Captains in their games, are now classmates aiming to rule the school. Money’s on Mallow, Kiawe, and even the timid Lillie to team up and travel with Ash should he have to opportunity to travel the Alola region properly. To wit, Lillie is known in the games for not liking Pokémon battles. We’ve had plenty of characters like this in the show (and movies) before, but the spoilerific details of Lillie’s arc in the games would certainly make the longer tail of Sun & Moon anticipatory.

By placing Ash in a singular environment, it both presents opportunities to tell different stories for this show but also constrain untold limitations. . That there’s more than two or three companions this time opens the door for greater character interaction than before. On the other hand, it would take away from what makes the Pokémon anime unique from its shonen brethren. Pokémon is at its core a road trip story, about the journey rather than the destination. My hope is for the arc to eventually be unafraid to get Ash on the road again so we see a diversity of interesting sights and cities. I pray we’re not in for three years of school life exclusively, or the show could get boring again.

Obviously, there’s no need to complain about the voice acting, which is as stellar as ever from the Japanese cast as with Rika Matsumoto. Same goes with the music by Shinji Miyazaki, which oddly enough included familiar tunes from the Kalos Region in episode one. I expect that more music from the Sun and Moon games will roll out after the game’s release.

I can only sit in fear that the American dub, once again, will wipe away most of this wonderful music with its marshmallow score due to not paying for the original soundtrack. Why do I say this? Yo-Kai Watch keeps all the original music, and that too airs on Disney XD in the States. Pokémon will have some dubbing quality competition ahead. While I’m optimistic that the first two episodes kept all the original score, we’ll have to wait for the regular season to see if this holds promise.

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Honestly, the new direction of Pokémon Sun & Moon is exactly the breath of fresh air the series needed. The XY arc was considered superb by fans, but thanks to its art style and to its new approaches to story telling and the tropical realm of Alola, the Sun and Moon arc promises to be a shake up from the games it’s based on and a break from the expectations of a 20 year old television series. From two early episodes, the next few years look promising. And if the show can now deliver this level of animation, I can’t wait to see what the 20th movie looks like.

The only question I have left for these two episodes: where was Team Rocket?!

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Pokémon The Series: Sun & Moon is currently airing on TV Tokyo Thursdays at 6:55 PM and will begin regular airing in North America in early 2017. A sneak preview will air on December 5th on Disney XD.

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About The Author

Editor-in-Chief (Former)

A man with a plan. My favorite video game franchise is Pokemon, but his favorite video game is Resident Evil 4. I can also tell you trivial cartoon factoids.