To have become the very best, like no one ever was...
And with that, an era has ended. The story of eternal 10-year-old Ash Ketchum from Pallet Town and his partner Pikachu chasing their dream of becoming a Pokémon Master has concluded after 25 years. A moment long in the making but one I honestly didn't think would ever come. Ash has been the face of the anime for so long that I thought that the ship on rotating him out for a new protagonist had sailed. That he would remain the face of the series until the end of time.
And yet, here we are. After Ash's win against Leon in Pokémon Ultimate Journeys, the Pokémon Company announced that his journey would come to an end with an 11-episode farewell run: Pokémon: To Be a Pokémon Master.
Let's dive into this season, this final batch of episodes of Ash & Pikachu's journey, and see how their farewell stacks up.
Ash and Pikachu have achieved their dream. They won the World Coronation Series Tournament and Ash is now the World Champion. So, what now? With this question in the back of his head, Ash and Pikachu resume their travels. After helping an injured Latias recover they meet up again with Brock & Misty and decide to travel together again, like in the old days. All the while they are secretly followed by that injured Latias, but to what end?
I saw someone say on Reddit that 'To Be a Pokémon Master' felt like what many of us did as a kid after becoming champion and finishing a Pokémon game. Just kind of running around the game and making up your own stories. I have to agree with that sentiment. It really does feel like that with Ash & Co. just going where their feet bring them and more or less stumbling into each episode's plot.
That is, I find, both the season's strength and weakness. This 'story of the day' and 'no solid endgame' approach. The season doesn't really feel like this big farewell it has been billed as. Yes, there are tons of callbacks, easter eggs and nostalgia littered throughout each episode. We have a connection to one of the best received Pokémon films with Latias and episodes like how 'A Squad’s Worth of Passion!' which is focused entirely on the iconic trio of Bulbasaur, Charizard & Squirtle from the original series.
This is all nice and well but because of this approach, it lacks gravitas. There is no strong story that weaves all of these episodes together in a memorable way. You do have that Latias secretly following our heroes but that's not what I call a story arc. Latias' presence is minimal when it's not the focus. Just a scene or two of it invisibly floating in the sky, our heroes completely unaware of its presence. Not enough to be cohesive or an overly compelling thread for the entire season.
|Ash, Pikachu & Latias.
Something like Ritchie, the rival from the original series to whom Ash lost in the Indigo League, returning for another battle that Ash trains for the entire season is an idea. It would've given the season a better connective story and paid off if you asked me. That or each episode was about Ash revisiting each region he went to, and meeting his companions there. A Hoenn episode with May & Max (the only companions that didn't return in Journeys) with Max finally becoming a trainer, for example. That would've made this season a very clear and fun celebration of Ash's journey.
Now, all of this doesn't mean that the season is weak. Far from it. While I think it fails at being a clear-cut celebratory season that doesn't mean it's a bad season. Far from it, the individual episodes are some of the strongest I've seen definitely since I started watching the series again. Most, if not all, episodes are compelling. From Ash & Co helping a Beartic to control his powers to meeting up with Lapras again. We also have a few that pull on the heartstrings, like the episode in which Ash & Pikachu get separated or the one about the abandoned Banette.
For standalone outings, these episodes are fun and well-written. The very last episode 'The Rainbow and the Pokémon Master!' is a subdued but fitting end that I won't spoil here. It's better experienced that way. Oh, and don't worry about continuity or whatnot. It's set up in such a way that you can watch that episode and follow it along without having to watch the rest of the season first if that's your thing.
What they also do well is show Ash's character. Over the years, Ash has become a caricature of himself. These episodes do a good job of bringing more nuance back to the lad. It especially focuses on its caring and helpful nature. The more emotional moments with him hit and show a side we haven't often seen.
Brock & Misty though don't get this treatment. It's nice that they are back but aside from their introductory episode don't get much focus. They are just present, being themselves and doing what you expect them to do. The same goes for Ash's Pokémon. Ash rotates his team each episode and nearly all of his Pokémon return for a quick walk-in. Fun but nothing more surface scratching, if you catch my Drift(blim).
We also need to briefly talk about Team Rocket. They have been with the series just as long as Ash & Pikachu and this is thus just as much a goodbye to them. I think this is a controversial take but I could've gone with less of them. I have really grown tired of them in these last three years. Their stick has grown old and I feel that they were unnecessarily shoved into many episodes. It is why I really like the end of 'Rocket Revengers'. I felt this unexpected, a bit downer, the ending was quite fitting for the trio and was disappointed when the final episode walked it back. Fans of the trio, however, will be happy with that second ending I imagine.
Lastly, I want to mention the music. It stood out to me for one reason: many compositions across the entire Pokémon anime make their return here. From the original series to the advanced series and beyond. And, of course, the opening theme is a re-recording of the very original Pokémon theme song. Neat. Very neat. Oh, and the animation is the same style as Journeys and I don't feel the need to talk about it. You know if you like it by now or not.
Pokémon: To Be a Pokémon Master offers a fun and nostalgic, yet disjointed, wrap-up for Ash Ketchum's 25-year Pokémon journey. While the episodic tales are engaging, the season lacks a compelling overarching narrative to give Ash's farewell more gravitas and they could've leaned a lot harder into the show's history than they did.
Even so, it's a fitting tribute that showcases Ash's character growth over the years and delivers heartfelt moments. Returning characters, familiar Pokémon and familiar musical beats add to the nostalgia. As we bid farewell to Ash's perpetual youth, these episodes deliver a mix of joy and a touch of wistfulness for a journey that has finally come full circle.
A final musing of mine: the door to Ash popping up again in the future has been left open by the Pokémon Company. In the past, we've had the gap between series filled with specials. If, after Horizons, they have another run like this with Ash I'd watch it.