Pokémon Sun and Moon and the Japanese Circus

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you know what Pokémon is. You probably also know that there are new games coming out called Sun and Moon. (Pokémon S&M, oh my!) Last week a trailer was released in Japan, and in the west we got to see some gameplay footage. In both places, we got to meet the three starters.

For those who don’t know, the starter Pokémon are a big deal. At the start of every game, you get presented with three Pokémon; a grass type, a fire type, and a water type. You can only choose one, and that critter becomes your first Pokémon; your partner throughout the game. For Sun & Moon, the grass type starter is Rowlet, a little owl with a bowtie, the fire type is Litten, a black cat with red markings, and the water type is Poplio, a happy little sea lion.

Left to right: Rowlet, Litten, and Poplio

After processing all that information, I began to wonder if there was some sort of theme among these starter Pokémon. In X and Y, the final evolutions can be seen as an RPG team (a fighter, a mage, and a rouge), and the final evolutions of the starters in Diamond and Pearl are based on legends (Torterra is a World Turtle, Infernape is the Monkey King, and Empoleon is Poseidon). Of course, spotting such a theme at this stage would be hard, since the final forms of these starters has not been revealed.

It was when I tried to imagine what Litten could possibly evolve into that it came to me. You see, the marks on Litten’s face and its colouration suggest to me that it could become a big tiger-like Pokémon. A fire tiger? Tigers in the circus jump through rings of fire, and Polio obviously fits a circus theme too. I’m not quite sure how Rowlet fits in, but he could evolve into something that resembles an acrobat, or a magician, or a ringmaster. I think it’s safe to say that the finale evolutions of the Sun & Moon starters will have a circus feel to them.

As you can imagine, I felt pretty good figuring that out myself. Of course, a quick Google search showed that I was about three days behind the rest of the internet, and people were already talking about the circus connection. However, so far I am not seeing any discussion about the parallels between the circus, Pokémon games, and the themes of the Japanese Sun & Moon trailer. So let’s start talking about 19th Century circus troupes and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Yes, I’m digging that deep for something new and relevant to say about the this announcement.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was subjected to an isolationist policy and trade with foreigners was strictly controlled. In 1636, an edict enforcing sakoku (literally, country closed) was handed down, stipulating that no-one could enter or leave the country, the punishment for breaking this law was death. It remained illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this time there was still trading with Dutch, Korean, and Chinese merchants, but only at designated ports. The majority of Japanese people during this time would never have any contact with foreigners, and vice versa.

Four years after the Meiji Restoration, Richard Risley brought a U.S circus troupe to Yokohama, and the Japanese loved the show, which was mostly equestrian acts. Risley also got a chance to see local performers and was impressed with what he saw. He sought permission to bring a troupe of Japanese contortionists, conjurers, acrobats and other performers to tour the U.S. and Europe, thus creating the The Japanese Imperial Artistes’ Company. More Japanese circus troupes would later travel overseas, and more Western circuses would tour Japan. The Meiji Emperor once visited a circus performing at Tokyo and was so impressed he gave the ringmaster $5000 worth of gold.

So… what is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, apart from the merchants and the statesmen, the first Japanese people to travel overseas were circus performers. In the 19th century, the only place the average Westerner would see a Japanese person would be at the circus. Likewise, the circus was the first exposure a lot of Japanese people had to Westerners. The circus was an early channel for cross-cultural interactions between Japan and the West. Different cultures were bonding over something fun and frivolous.

Does this seem familiar to anyone? Let’s have a look at the Japanese trailer with this context in mind. (Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r0_F-_ClcQ) In the trailer, a young boy moves to Hawaii, and has trouble making friends. Not that the other kids are mean, it’s just hard to make friends in a new place where everyone speaks a different language. The new Pokémon games help the boy connect with his classmates, as all the kids are drawn together by playing the games. Pokémon transcends language barriers and national borders. It’s a way to play with people from different cultures, who you may never be able to play with in any other setting.

See what I’m getting at here?

It’ll be interesting to see how this circus theme – this coming out from isolation, travelling the world, meeting people from different cultures, sharing skills and experiences, and bonding over a fun event – is applied in the rest of the game.

Yes, the rest of the game. In Ruby and Sapphire, the starters represented different habitats, and the environment was front and centre in the games. In Diamond and Pearl, the starters had that legend theme, and the games were very big on expanding the Pokémon mythology. In Black and White, the starters had a theme of different cultures, and these games were set in an expy of New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The villain team also had an inability to see any views other than their own as valid; their views were not about race or culture, but the lesson of being able to accept difference still fits with this theme. In X and Y, the starters represent different roles players in an RPG may take on. In these games, you travel and fight against the baddies alongside a group of friends at many points in the story, and all your friends are constantly trying to figure out what role they want to play in the world.

So, what can we expect from a circus theme? Will the focus on cross-cultural bonding play a big story role? How will that focus on meeting people from across the world impact the wireless battling and trading features? Will the locations and travelling play a bigger role than usual? What will the villain team’s motivation be?

I am super excited about these games. I can’t wait to find out the answers to these questions alongside my brand new Pokémon partner; which will be Litten, of course.


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