Books: Monster Kids

January 4, 2023 · 0 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

In his lively new book Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All, Daniel Dockery talks us through the original plans in Japan for a game called Capsule Monsters, subsequently renamed and refashioned when it proved impossible to trademark. Along the way, he has time out for asides about the history of gaming in Japan, and even sociological issues like the “lost decade(s)” of stagflation and recession.

Dockery winds back to the development of the original game, as producers fret that by the time they have perfected their software, the GameBoy platform that was supposed to run it will be obsolete. There are some wonderful glimpses of the archaic technology in play, including the postal system designed to load the 151st monster, Mew, onto kids’ machines, for which they had to send in their cartridges by mail. Dockery ram-raids the blog of the drug-fuelled screenwriter Takeshi Shudo, who wrote much of the anime version, and who was shocked by the Ghibli-style instigation to the staff regarding the game: “Please love it.”

There’s also some great efforts at placing Pokémon in its historical context, with sections not only on the anime TV series and the huge success of the first Pokémon movie, but on the influences they had on sales of the game and attempts by competitors to muscle in. Dockery points not only to the “battle blobs” of Digimon and its ilk, but also to the ill-fated attempt to turn Card Captor Sakura into a gotta-catch-em-all franchise, despite an original work ill-suited to the idea. He reserves obvious admiration for Digimon, not so much for the digitised cock-fighting of the gameplay, but the deep and moving resonances of its anime adaptation.

Dockery is a senior staff writer for Crunchyroll, which clearly gives him a razor-sharp grasp of the tone and content that he can get away with while still holding the attention of Generation Z readers. As befits a populist book with no aspirations to academia, there is no bibliography. The sources for Dockery’s quotes are occasionally given mid-sentence, along the lines of “he said to TIME magazine”, but you’ll be lucky if you find out where or when. The book is also unapologetically an account of Pokémon’s success specifically in America – despite the existence of an scholarly collection called Pikachu’s Global Adventure, and the potential for some utterly mind-melting accounts of things like the Russian Pikachu song, he concentrates on the market where the majority of his readers are sure to be found.

What really comes across is Dockery’s enthusiasm for telling a story about something that, for him as a child and for many of his likely readers, was initially just a hobby. In his investigation of all sorts of areas that ten-dollar wordsmiths might describe as historicity, technological determinism, and industrial economics, he provides his readers with a tantalising, alluring glimpse of the kind of fun you can have when you get to study what you enjoy. Just as Pokémon would prove to be a gateway to anime for an entire generation, there are a bunch of readers for whom Monster Kids will prove to be a gateway to true scholarship.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Monster Kids is published by Running Press.

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