Pallet Cleanser: The End of Ash Ketchum as Pokemon Protagonist

This past week marked one of anime’s biggest departures ever, as Ash Ketchum—aka Satoshi—has ended his 26-year tenure as the main hero of Pokemon. It’s amazing to think about how the character has been such an enduring presence in the lives of millions of people for over two decades, all without being wholly remade and revised. Other heroes in other franchises might arguably have greater legacies, but the fact that it was consistently the same Ash week in and week out makes for one fascinating and continuous chain of history.

It’s been many, many years since I was actively part of the Pokemon fandom. I naturally didn’t know about it when it first came out in Japan, but for all practical purposes I was there from the beginning. I remember getting a little pamphlet about Pokemon in an issue of Nintendo Power, and as I anticipated its arrival, I managed to even catch the sneak peek “Battle Aboard the St. Anne” episode that aired the week before the first episode aired in the US. For maybe five or more years, I would record every episode on VHS, and the times I had to program the VCR, I tried to time breaks in the recording to preserve space so I could fit more on each tape. I’ve long since stopped doing that, or watch Pokemon on a regular basis, but I can never forget those early days.

Ash was never my favorite Pokemon character, and for the fellow fans I interacted with online, it was largely the same. The reason: a lot of the people I talked to I met either through the competitive scene (years before the founding of Smogon) or via a Team Rocket messageboard. In the former case, people were not fans of Ash’s nonsensical battles or inability to understand the type chart despite his successes. In the latter, it’s because a site dedicated to Team Rocket would naturally run ever-so-slightly edgy and prefer older characters. For me, it’s just because he was a pretty decent but generic kids’ anime protagonist—a plain rice ball (or donut, as it were) in a world of more compelling stories. 

But there‘s something special about being that hero for so many people for so long. And while many of his accomplishments were often tied to meta events (e.g. Gary Oak/Shigeru’s Japanese voice actor leaving the show is why they ended up having their big 6v6 clash in the Johto Pokemon League), the sheer amount of things Ash managed to achieve is impressive. A character who could have gone on forever unchanging still leaves behind one hell of a CV. 

A big factor in why there was a sense of progress with Ash was because of the way he would go from one region to the next in accordance with game sequels. While the basic formula of “meet new friends, have adventures, get gym badges” was always present, he never stayed in the same area for long, and he always met new people. And while fans would often remark on the way his skill and knowledge would seemingly go backwards every time he started a new path to a Pokemon League, it’s clear that his inability to retain knowledge is not necessarily a matter of poor character writing or insufficient lore consistency and more a way to keep him level with the new fans who still come to the series even now. Ash is as much a vessel as he is a protagonist, and he could never be a vessel for everyone at the same time.

One thing I always found funny is the fact that some of Ash’s greatest wins and titles came about in “filler arcs,” the seasons that took place between main-game storylines. This is why he’s the Orange League champion, the Frontier Champion, and most recently the winner of the Masters Eight tournament (solidifying him as the strongest trainer in the world). He also won the Galar Pokemon League, but in hindsight, it’s clearly because they knew they were about to start winding down Ash’s story and they wanted to show much he had grown. I remember thinking, all the way back in the late 90s, about how a main-line gold medal would likely someday be the sign that Pokemon was going to conclude. While the anime will continue with new leads, it really is the end of an era. 

Now the perennial 10-year-old gets to go off and do things unseen, and it makes me wonder if we’ll ever see him again. Might Ash make cameo appearances down the road, and will he look different or even possibly…older? It’s a new and unknown world.

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