I’ve written extensively about Pokémon before, purely because it’s disrupted (and continues to disrupt) every media platform – merchandise, AR, film, TV, video game, immersive gaming, and eventually … sleep?
This month we got the release of their latest main series games – Pokémon Sword and Shield. At launch this game was (and still is) mired in controversy, between the graphics, people not responding particularly to the “Dynamax” and “Gigantamax” gimmicks, and most importantly “Dexit” where over half of the pre-existing monsters were cut from the game – including some fan favourites.
Much has already been said about all this, so I won’t go into details here. I’ll just say that I imagine that we’ll get a game with ALL monsters soon enough with a massive competitive scene: probably through something like a Pokémon Stadium-type game for the Switch … but that’s just a prediction.
I’m about a quarter of the way through Pokémon Sword … at best. (I’m typing this on a train as I’ve been busy with work,) but so far it’s been a really nice laid-back experience. There’s a more expansive world, interesting call-backs to past Pokémon, and it feels very very British.
I say this as someone who was born and raised in Britain … the Game Freak team really nailed the look and feel of these isles. The gyms are modelled after football stadia, the weather’s crap, there’s an adaptation of Arthurian legend, cities have British-sounding names (my personal favourite being Stow-on-Side,) and many new Pokémon are designed around British culture, industry, and history.
The franchise has explored other non-Japanese regions based on mainland USA, France, and Hawaii and I could analyse any one of them the same way, and make the same points. But as Sword and Shield focus on Britain (and I am British) I have a unique perspective on this sort of cultural authenticity.
It’s somewhat rare to see British culture adapted by other countries. Japan has a Sherlock Manga and Level 5’s Professor Layton series, Peppa Pig has taken China by storm (with Chinese-exclusive films and merchandise being rapidly produced,) and you do get British aesthetics in the punk rock scene in the US. But I find it truly fascinating to see your own culture through the lens of another, and these Switch titles felt like as British as a Pokémon game could get.
This got me thinking about brand identity; how something that was quintessentially Japanese is becoming increasingly globalised – not just with its reach, but with its identity as well; creating culturally-specific additions to the canon and having country-exclusive merchandise – like the Pop-Up London Pokémon Center with a Pikachu wearing a bowler hat.
So, for today’s post, I wanted to give my take on this franchise globalisation, and how it can be used for similar concepts going forward.
THE JAPANESE ORIGINS
As a franchise Pokémon began as a solely Japanese concept that wasn’t designed to travel beyond its domestic market. The first region was called Kanto (after the real-life Kanto region of Japan,) and the monsters adapted very Shinto beliefs in natural, supernatural, and artificial creatures inhabiting the world and co-existing alongside humans.
Of course, the idea of catching and training monsters appealed to an international audience everywhere; and the Media Mix boom of the late-90s and early 2000s quickly followed.
For the first ten years, Pokémon continued to draw from Japanese. The first four regions (Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh) were modelled after Japan’s Kanto, Kansai, Kyushu, and Hokkaido respectively.
Many of the designs took inspiration from Shinto Yokai folklore, like Exeggutor adapting the Jinmenju Tree, Dunsparce being modelled on the fabled Tsuchinoko, Mawile’s connections to the Futakuchi Onna (two-mouthed woman,) and Infernape drawing from Journey to the West’s Sun Wukong – the monkey king. There are hundreds more, but those are my personal favourites.
It may have had an international appeal, but at its core it was Japan-first. But then things changed, as the franchise focused its attention on international markets.
CREATING A GLOBAL IDENTITY
One of the things I am a passionate advocate for is cultural appropriation.
Beginning with the launch of 2011’s Pokémon: Black and White the franchise took inspiration from countries beyond Japan – starting with the U.S.A. We got a cowboy gym leader, a bald eagle Pokémon, a New York stand-in, and American sports like Baseball, Basketball, and American football being featured. This was really the first time the company appropriated the aesthetics of another country for their brand – demonstrating a global awareness.
Then the following games drew upon French, Hawaiian, and British cultural adaptations respectively, with designs drawing off real world myths and iconography.
This is important, as it means that Pokémon is undergoing a cultural metamorphosis from a Japanese brand to a global identity.
No doubt this trend will continue, most likely capturing similar western countries and moving to focus on areas like Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Australia (which would no doubt have a ton of poison-types).
At the time of writing, it’s been confirmed that we now have over 900 Pokémon! Imagine that, 900 different characters of a single franchise – that’s over the course of just over 20 years. Repurposing pre-established elements in an international context is an excellent way to keep the franchise afloat well into the future and building a sustainable franchise for years to come.
Increasingly we see longevity becoming a franchise concern – especially on a transmedia level. Take something like Star Wars for example, or Harry Potter, both of these are decades old and that means they span generations.
This is a relatively new phenomenon – really only happening in the midst of the blockbuster booms of the 1980s – but it is significant. Having a multi-generational appeal means you bring in young and old fans into a franchise. You have parents introducing their kids to what they grew up with, and kids being able to go out and enjoy the newer version of that thing (with their parents.)
Pokémon is already doing this, really playing up the 20 Year anniversary marketing in 2016, with parents who grew up with the clunky Game Boy games now introducing, and enjoying it, with their kids … it’s like supporting the same sports team as your parents, and why longevity is so vital.
It isn’t just Pokémon that wants a global brand. Naturally, given the size of China’s audience, it’s understandable for Disney and Marvel to look to a more authentic global identity too – with superhero movies like Shang Chi on the horizon; a story about a native Chinese superhero and the power of Kung Fu.
Harry Potter has also explored this concept. Thanks to the Pottermore extended canon, it’s now established that there’s a magic wizard school in just about every country. America got the most attention, with Fantastic Beasts bringing up Ilvermorny, their houses, and even American cultural slang for muggles – “Nomaj.” (You’ll never guess what it means.)
This year we even saw Men In Black dip their toe into expanding the universe with Men In Black: International in an attempt to not only breathe new life into the franchise, but establish a wider ranging storyworld of ideas.
Going international isn’t just about tapping into another market, it’s about expanding a narrative as well. It creates a more immersive world and establishes a diverse and multi-national identity.
As companies strive to become more immersive and inclusive, no doubt we’ll see a greater importance on creating global stories.