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Right now is the best time to get into the Pokémon anime
To date, there have been over 1,000 episodes of the Pokémon anime. I know, that number sounds absurd. How can there be 1,000 episodes of anything? But more importantly, how can something last 1,000 episodes and still be considered watchable? Most shows can't make it through a few seasons without becoming haunted shells of their former selves, so how does Pokémon — a franchise that is constantly about a kid who collects monsters and uses those monsters to beat the snot out of other monsters — maintain popularity when it's lasted longer than Friends, The Office, How I Met Your Mother, and Star Trek: The Next Generation combined?
Well, while I can't honestly tell you that every portion of the Pokémon anime series upholds the golden standard of being the very best, like no one ever was, I can in good faith tell you that it has lasted this long due to its dedication to constantly tweaking and renovating itself.
And no "arc" has overhauled the show more than the most recent one: Pokémon: Sun and Moon, based on the games called, well, Pokémon: Sun and Pokémon: Moon.
It's because of this overhaul that I think there is no better time than now to jump back into the Pokémon anime; Sun and Moon is the best this show has been in over a decade. It feels refreshed, yet timeless, which are qualities that you desperately need when you've been going for over 20 years. But just how has it earned this second wind?
Well, through the designs and animation, first of all. Now, don't get me wrong — the designs are more cartoonish than they've ever been. Any hope that Ash Ketchum would somehow age or grow a goatee or whatever has been dashed by Sun and Moon. That dude is firmly between the ages of 10 and maaaaaybe 12. But instead of some gritty ol' Ash and Pikachu, we've got a cast of characters and monsters that look absolutely fabulous when animated. When in motion, the anime has NEVER looked this good.
It reminds me of what the team behind The Spectacular Spider-Man did. Knowing that they had budget limitations and obviously wanting to differentiate their cartoon from the many Spidey shows that had preceded it, they went with simple, yet definitive designs that would look great as they moved. They figured that 26 episodes of the best fight scenes the franchise had ever gotten outweighed the initial audience shock of "Why do their faces look like that?"
And the battles in Sun and Moon are really, really good. There's an energy to them that belies the traditional "I yell my move and then the creature attacks and then you yell your move and then your creature attacks" system. Finally, the combat has become the dynamic contest we've always dreamed of.
But how does the story hold up? Well, even the Sun and Moon games — which traded in gym leaders for Island Kahunas, introduced powerful Z moves, relocated everything to a tropical beach environment, and let you surf on a Mantine(get out the Mountain Dew Code Red it's about to get X-Treme in here) — still felt very Pokémon-y. And the anime adaptation is no different. There are a heart and humor that have often felt stunted or even lacking in previous seasons; Sun and Moon does not shy away from the silly or the sad, as the show places a lot of importance on relationships, whether they're between people or people and their Pokémon companions.
You get the sense that there's a lot of love here, as though the creators actually want the best for these characters rather than simply pushing them through their arcs so Ash can leave them and go to the next region. For example, the kindhearted and intelligent Lillie grows from being deathly afraid of strange Pokémon to being competent in handling them in a way that feels like real growth instead of "Thanks for helping me with my vague problems, Ash! Okay, bye forever!"
There's also a deep awareness of the history that the anime has built up. For example, Team Rocket's Jessie and James have to deal with the idea that, maybe, they're just not that good at their jobs and no longer a threat to Ash and Pikachu, who have potentially outgrown their menace. Team Rocket has an existential crisis! That alone makes this worth watching. Also, Brock might have finally found love, which, if you've watched early Pokémon, you know is the culmination of years of heartache and tears and terribly awkward proposals.
Finally, I love Sun and Moon because it almost feels like it was made to be watched on its own. Obviously, if you can, watch every Pokémon episode multiple times with your friends and family, but Sun and Moon seems specifically designed for people who had dropped out of the series and were looking for an entry to get back in. It's not a total reboot but a polite invitation to see what you've been missing, or, if you've never watched the Pokémon anime, to finally jump aboard.
Pokémon has always been a series about imagination, seeing as, historically, most of the experience has come through tiny screens on handheld devices. So every spinoff, whether it's the anime or the manga, has kind of lived (or died) based on how well it reflects that imagination. There's a vibrancy to Sun and Moon that can't be ignored and that vibrancy is what makes it the closest to capturing what I think the Pokémon world should be in a cartoon.
With a new art style, a fun and familiar story, dynamic battles, and strong core themes about growing as a person and improving your relationships, Sun and Moon is the best way to reintroduce yourself to the Pokémon anime. You'll be missing out if you don't.