Media Essays: The Ash Ketchum Retrospective Part 1
Updated: Mar 1
We never thought this day would come, did we? I certainly didn't think it'd ever happen...but here we are.
On April the 14th this year, a brand new series of the Pokémon anime will begin...but without Ash Ketchum. We long since came to accept that he's going to be here forever and that he'll always be the main protagonist no matter what. And then after his spectacular win in Pokémon Journeys, the anime suddenly says "Oh by the way, Ash is leaving the anime and is being replaced by two new characters. Nothing too important. Hope you enjoy the new series!" The internet practically exploded over this and even mainstream media covered the shocking news as everyone reeled over the fact the unthinkable just happened. I mean Ash Ketchum is ACTUALLY leaving the anime?! Who the hell saw that coming?! 0_0 And yet all I can say is "What took them so long?" Ash should've left years ago if you ask me. They should've followed the examples of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Power Rangers and given us a new protagonist every season. That way we wouldn't have been bashing Ash for being this ineffectual loser who never ages and never wins anything for two decades straight. Ah well, better late than never as I say.
The new anime will star these two new characters named Liko (right) and Roy (left) respectively. As of this post, the most we know about them is that Liko has a mysterious pendant and lives in Paldea while Roy has a mysterious Pokéball and comes from Kanto. There's a lot of speculation going on behind these two with one VERY popular theory surrounding Liko being the possibility that she might be Ash's daughter. I can't see that happening myself but hey, the anime keeps surprising me lately so now I think ANYTHING can happen at this point!
So before Ash truly departs from the anime, I feel we should celebrate his last days in the show with a retrospective of his past adventures. What was Ash's career like over the course of the anime? What were the highs and lows and what was truly his best showing throughout the anime? Which season had him at his best and which season had him at his worst?
Let's find out. This essay will be divided into three parts. Part 1 will cover Kanto to Hoenn so let's get started...
Where It All Began: The Original Series
Going back to this series must feel like visiting ancient ruins at this point. I mean the Pokémon anime was quite a different beast altogether when it first started out. I even remember being there when the anime came out. My older brother was excited to check it out and I watched it with him and we were hooked right from the start. This season brings me so much nostalgia I can't even put it into words. But enough about me, this is about Ash.
The anime started off with the Indigo League with the very first episode focusing on Ash as he begins his Pokémon Journey. Aaaaaaaand...it's not a glamorous start at all. In fact, re-watching this episode will have you questioning how this is the kid that went on to become the new World Monarch several seasons later. XD He oversleeps, he's late to Professor Oak's lab so he doesn't even get to choose any of the starter Pokémon, he's shown up by his rival Gary Oak who brags about having picked the best starter (which he did by the way. It's Squirtle, which is objectively the best starter of the first generation) and he gets saddled with a Pikachu (which breaks the rules of the original Red & Blue games as Ash now has a starter with a type-advantage over his rival) that hates his guts and electrocutes him whenever it feels like it! Could you start on a lower note than poor Ash here?! It doesn't even get any better for him as Pikachu won't obey him, he can't catch Pokémon as simple as a Rattata or a Pidgey and his own Pokédex even insults him too! And if Ash's day couldn't suck anymore, he gets attached by a flock of angry Spearow too! Sheesh, did Ash kick a puppy or something? It's the only explanation I can think of as to why he's suffering so much here. But this episode isn't just about how bad Ash's day is though. It sets him up as headstrong, full of himself and eager for adventure but also shows he's a kind-hearted kid who will put his Pokémon above himself, namely how he dares the Spearow to "come and get him" while protecting Pikachu. Touched by this kind act, Pikachu leaps into action and defeats the Spearow, saving himself and Ash but leaving both worn out and in need of medical attention. Their journey takes them to Viridian City next where a whole lot of other things get established in the anime and Ash's adventure only continues to grow as we go along...
The second episode sees Ash meeting Team Rocket for the first time while Misty chases him down for the destruction of her bike in the previous episode. After Pikachu and several other Pikachu attack Team Rocket together and cause an explosion that destroys the Pokémon Centre thanks to James's Koffing, Team Rocket devote the rest of their pathetic lives to trying to catch Pikachu and as of now, they're STILL trying. Such humble beginnings for everyone, am I right?
Anyhow, Ash makes his first official capture in Episode 3 when he catches a Caterpie and in the same episode, he also catches a Pidgeotto, giving him TWO catches in one episode! Go figure. After going through the woods with Misty for a while, he arrives in Pewter City in where he meets his other travelling companion and his first Gym Leader battle, Brock. After nearly winning because the sprinklers went off, Ash chooses not to win this way and Brock gives him the Rock Badge anyway as a result of his magnanimous behaviour. He also learns later on that Misty is a Gym Leader too and has to battle her for the Water Badge.
Ash in the Indigo League is the quintessential kid who's nowhere as good as he thinks he is. He's stubborn, VERY cocky, reckless, at times even lazy and as many have mocked him endlessly for, he's a trainer where most of his badges he won weren't even legitimate wins. Brock gave him his badge because he proved himself a noble trainer, Misty's sisters gave Ash the badge because Ash "would've won if he'd used Pikachu", Erika gave Ash her badge just because he saved her Gloom from being roasted alive, Sabrina gave him her badge because her Kadabra was laughing on the floor and couldn't fight on and he only won Giovanni's badge because he didn't actually fight Giovanni, he just fought Team Rocket so that was nothing to be proud of. The only badges he wins legitimately are Lt. Surge's, Koga and Blaine's. Also Ash had a habit of scraping by on lucky wins in this season too. The Indigio League itself is such an example with him somehow curb stomping Mandi's entire team with a Krabby he's never used in battle before (and also evolves midbattle into Kingler) and him scoring a lucky win over Jeanette Fisher despite his Bulbasaur being at a type-disadvantage. Still, despite his lack of training and most of his Gym Battle wins being illegitimate, he's still proving to be a tough trainer and he even manages to get further than Gary. So who knows? Maybe I'm being too harsh on him and maybe he has a chance to win the Indigo League...
...oh right, that happened.
Yeah, we've never forgotten about this moment, have we? The moment where Ash's Charizard decided to screw with his own trainer and refuse to fight just because it doesn't see Ritchie's Pikachu as a worthy adversary. I'm honestly staggered that Charizard didn't become the most hated Pokémon in history for pulling off that stunt. But anyways, Ash kinda had it coming given what an incompetent trainer he proved himself to be over the course of the series. Need I remind you he spent several filler episodes NOT actually training his Pokémon? Then again, he only lost this battle because Team Rocket interfered and so his Pokémon were too tired to fight and also because the Indigo League has the worst referee ever hired for the job. I mean come on, Sleep equals KO? What a load of Pokéballs! X( So while some may hate this moment for Ash losing the league, I hate it because of how badly written it was. Ash didn't lose because his arrogance came back to bite him in the arse, he lost because the writers had to contrive a bunch of stuff to happen just so he could lose and thus it doesn't feel like a natural progression of events, more like it feels things are happening because the writers say so. Had I been in charge of this episode, I would've kicked Team Rocket out entirely and had Ash lose because of Charizard. No Team Rocket wearing his team down, no Squirtle being declared unable to battle because it's fallen asleep, nothing. Let Ritchie prove to be the superior trainer and have Ash lose because his poor training of Charizard is giving him karma for it. That way his defeat would've made more sense and wouldn't have felt so much like a slap in the face.
As is, the Indigo League is a nostalgic treasure for many of us, but MAN was it not a good first impression for Ash! But I don't say that as a negative, on the contrary. It's GOOD that he started off this way. How ridiculous would it have been if he aced everything on his first try? Ash is shown to be a flawed protagonist who has a lot to learn and by the end of this season, he has learned a few things but he still has more to learn. And with the lessons he's learned, he can carry them over to the next series and improve on his trainer skills.
The one criticism I have for Ash in this season is that the Indigo League put the bare minimum into developing the rivalry between Ash and Gary. The two don't interact all that much throughout the series, they don't even battle one another and Ash doesn't even get to beat Gary in the Indigo League. Some random nobody beats him instead. Later seasons would do MUCH better in giving Ash a proper rival and developing said rivalry but we'll get to that. First let's move on to...
Ash's Redemption: The Orange Islands
No, I don't care if this is a filler arc, the Orange Islands are still canon and the arc had impact on the series going forward. Who cares if it's not from the games and was made to fill in time while Pokémon Gold and Silver was being developed? That doesn't make it "filler" because again, there are plot points that carry over into the next seasons. And besides, this arc had Ash's biggest achievement before Pokémon Journeys happened so why would you ever overlook that?
But I digress. The Orange Islands saw Ash undergoing a task for Professor Oak in where he has to fetch the G.S. ball from Professor Ivy over on the Orange Archipelago. This season is quite humorous looking back on for a multitude of reasons, the main one being that this season is essentially "Proto-Pokémon Sun and Moon". No joke, A LOT of concepts in this season eventually made their way into Sun and Moon! The setting is a tropical archipelago, there are regional variants like the different coloured Butterfree and the island of pink Pokémon, there are four challenges to win through rather than traditional Gyms and the entrance to the local League requires you to beat four trainers on four different islands. All we're missing is its own version of Team Skull and Lusamine and we're set! It's amazing Ash didn't go through Alola and ask "Say, is this the Orange Islands but with a new name? This seems awfully familiar!"
Anyway, this season saw a noticeable change in Ash's character. While he was still headstrong and stubborn at times and could still get a swelled head, he was noticeably more accepting of loss and could be humbled more easily, such as when he got full of himself during a winning streak and had to be taken down a peg by Elite Four Member Lorelei...sorry, I meant Prima (still don't get why they changed that). After Prima beats him, Ash doesn't take the loss so badly as he would've done before, which already shows he's starting to mature from last time. Also he puts more effort into training his Pokémon which leads to the most noticeable development from this season: his Charizard finally being tamed and willing to obey him again. See why this season is NOT filler? If you skipped this season, you'd be asking "Wait, why does Charizard suddenly obey Ash now?" All it took was Ash staying up all night to nurse Charizard back to health after losing to a Poliwrath that froze it alive. Charizard in turn repays that kindness by becoming more obedient and now they're a well-oiled machine at last. Charizard even helps score some important wins for Ash, namely in the battle against the fourth Gym Leader so that already redeems it from last time where it cost Ash the Indigo League.
It was also here in the Orange Islands arc where Ash caught his over faithful and powerful Snorlax. It's the only real new addition to his arsenal with the rest being his Pokémon he caught in Kanto. It's a pity really as they could've been more creative by letting him catch more than just a Snorlax like say, letting him catch any of the regional variants out there or even the Crystal Onix. True he gets Lapras but he releases it at the end of the series so he doesn't even have that. Oh and he releases his Pidgeotto that evolved into a Pidgeot before he got to the islands. Even now people are still wishing he'd go back for it, and so he should because it's freaking Pidgeot! You don't ever release that Pokémon!
Anyway, Ash's hard work wins him all four island badges (and all legitimately this time, no "pity badges") and he wins the right to battle the Supreme Gym Leader of the Orange Archipelago, Drake. This battle is a classic for us fans and is notable for being the first six-on-six battle that Ash ever participates in. It's also noteworthy for being the first time Ash ever wins a league. Yes people, it WASN'T Alola that was his first big win, THIS was. And yet it gets overlooked because "anime-exclusive arc" or some crap like that. While this is a big deal and is Ash's biggest win so far, it does kinda pale in comparison to his other wins later down the line. First of all, the fight is hilariously one-sided where Ash mows down most of Drake's team with little trouble until he's left with just Dragonite and Dragonite proceeds to mow down Ash's team until Pikachu is able to wipe out the remainder of its stamina. It doesn't really feel like Ash struggled that much with this battle and that Drake is kind of a pushover with how easily Ash was winning until Dragonite came out. The battle shouldn't have been so one-sided is all I'm saying. I do enjoy the battle, don't get me wrong, but Ash definitely has some much closer and tougher battles in later seasons.
Also Ash has no rival during this saga. While it's not mandatory for him to have a rival, I imagine some might've felt he could've done with one to add more of a challenge to him. I don't mind it much and I think this was just fine. He didn't really need a rival for this season. The most we got was just Gary showing up at the end to steal his thunder because that's all he's good for at this point: overshadowing Ash.
The Orange Islands arc is vastly underrated and unfairly overlooked due to being an anime-exclusive arc. This arc had big developments for Ash and paved the way for his story and character going forwards. It may have been an anime-exclusive arc, but it wasn't filler by any means for it hard a big impact on Ash that arguably changed the character forever in making him more experienced, a little more mature and not so lazy.
Fumbling Through Filler: The Johto League
OK let's get this out of the way: The Johto arc is plagued by filler. There, I said it. Now let's move on.
After finishing in the Top 16 in Kanto and winning the Orange Islands league, Ash is honestly doing well in his Pokémon journey. For a newbie, he's certainly got what would be considered big achievements by then. Annoyingly though, whenever Ash talks about his big achievements, he ALWAYS brings up how he finished in the Top 16 in the Indigo League. You'd think winning the Orange Islands would be more worth boasting about. Still, the Johto saga follows a more experienced Ash chasing after Gary once more as they both go through the Johto region to take on the league. It's also here where Ash takes the G.S. Ball to Kurt, the man from the games whom can make Pokéballs out of Apricorns for you. What was meant to happen was that the G.S. Ball would turn out to contain Celebi but because the writers decided to use Celebi for the movie Pokémon 4Ever, they decided to just drop the G.S. Ball plot entirely and in their own words "hoped the viewers would forget about it". Well big whopping fail on that part writers! You underestimate us geeks. We NEVER forget things like that! =P
This season also saw Ash catching some fan-favourite Pokémon like the three Johto starters, a shiny Noctowl and a Heracross while also gaining an egg that hatches into a Phanpy. While they're not as iconic as his Kanto team, these Pokémon are still noteworthy additions to Ash's roster for their varied personalities and some big wins throughout the season. Heck, when Ash's Chikorita becomes a Bayleef, it actually helps Ash win a race against Gary and his Arcanine, thus giving us Ash's first legitimate win over his rival! I imagine that was a big deal for many viewers because Gary was always depicted as being a step ahead of Ash and the Orange Islands saga ended with Gary beating his Pikachu in a battle with his Eevee and yet here Ash is beating him in a race with a Pokémon that shouldn't even be able to outspeed Arcanine!
This season also saw many departures for his most beloved Pokémon with Bulbasaur going back to Professor Oak, Squirtle re-joining his old squad and most importantly, his Charizard staying at a valley of Charizards to become even stronger than before. As a kid I remember being shocked when that happened. Ash finally bonded with Charizard and got him to obey him at last and now they have to depart? Who saw that coming I ask you! And yet this was a good idea on the writers behalf because even Misty lampshades that Ash is a little too overpowered with his Charizard so getting rid of his biggest powerhouse puts him back on an even level with everyone else and allows his new Johto Pokémon to have their chance to shine, as well as his other Kanto Pokémon like Snorlax. Also Charizard DOES come back so it's not like this is a permanent departure or anything. Speaking of that...
After winning the Johto Gym Challenge, Ash is in the Johto League and after some tough battles with other opponents, he finds himself going up against his long time rival Gary. This was a SERIOUSLY hyped moment for viewers at the time for Ash was FINALLY going to have a proper all-out battle against Gary. The rivalry that has been built-up since the very first episode of the series has been leading up to this battle and now at long last, we can watch Ash and Gary duke it out! But they also feel the need to tack on a lame backstory for why they're rivals in the first place. You see, their rivalry started...over a broken Pokéball. No I'm serious. Why they felt the need to add that, I don't know. But anyway, the battle itself isn't quite up to modern standards but is nonetheless a classic brawl regardless. It's far more evenly-matched than Ash vs. Drake was and both sides have a variety of different Pokémon that get to show off their strength in this battle. There are some downsides to this like much of the fights ending in one or two hits so the battle feels ridiculously rushed (it should've been a three parter) and Gary's Blastoise is depicted as completely unstoppable until Charizard gets to use a Seismic Toss on it and that IMMEDIATELY defeats it. Like seriously Gary, THAT'S your ace? A Pokémon that goes down the moment anyone lands a hit a on it? And people say you're the best rival how exactly? =P Leon's Cinderace is taking pity on you at this point.
So yeah, the conclusion kinda sucks but the point still stands. Ash has FINALLY beaten Gary. He's one-upped his rival at last and now he's looking poised to win the Johto League to make up for losing the Indigo League...
...oh right, that happened.
Yeah, Ash loses the Johto League to a trainer named Harrison. Thankfully, they didn't have him lose to some random nobody for Harrison was built up beforehand and also Harrison uses Pokémon Ash has never seen before like Kecleon and Blaziken. That was a smart way for Ash to lose for not only it hypes him and the viewers up to see the next season adapting the Ruby and Sapphire games, but it tells Ash he's still got a lot more to see in this world he lives in and much more to learn. If there was any way for Ash to lose, it was definitely having him go up against Pokémon he's never seen before. This is by far a much more acceptable and organic loss than what happened in the Indigo League and far more dignified too as Ash goes out on a high note instead of losing because Charizard didn't feel like it that day.
The Johto saga was a big deal for Ash as it showed him as more experienced and capable in battle while also making up for his humiliating loss in the Indigo League by beating his rival with the very Pokémon that cost him the league in the first place. It brought closure for Ash as he finally one-upped his rival whom he's been chasing after since the very first episode and with Gary choosing to retire while Ash chooses to keep on journeying, Ash has fully surpassed Gary too. It also saw what would be a tradition at the end of every season going forward in where his companions depart and he goes into a new adventure alone. Misty and Brock's departure at the end of the season remains one of the biggest tear-jerkers in the show's history and a moment we won't be forgetting anytime soon. So Ash has gone through three leagues and won one of them while also surpassing his rival. What's next for him? Well that's when...
Ash Becomes Mentor: The Hoenn League
Hoenn was an interesting point in Ash's history for quite a few reasons. One, he's now essentially playing mentor to his new female companion in the form of May, a girl who's not that keen on Pokémon but wants to go adventuring. And two, this is a more experienced Ash and they play that up by showing him as more capable than before and with him mentoring May, we get to see what a smarter more mature Ash is like.
The Ruby and Sapphire series is seen as a mixed bag overall with an overabundance of filler and a poor handling of Teams Aqua and Magma and is also mocked for the infamous "Thunder Armour" that Ash's Swellow and Pikachu just pull out of their arses. But at the same time, people enjoy it for the memorable characters and Pokémon and especially Ash's character development. It's easy to see how this Ash isn't the same Ash as when he started out for he's more experienced as a trainer, smarter and not quite as hot-headed. It was also great to see him become a mentor to the newbie in this season. It added a whole new dynamic to the companion relationship and set him and May apart from him and Misty. Brock does come back so he does have a familiar face with him at least. On his Hoenn adventures, he catches a Treecko, a Snorunt, a Torkoal, a Corphish and a Taillow. With the exception of Corphish and Torkoal (because Torkoal has no evolutions), they all end up evolving over time and many such as his Sceptile and Corphish are quite popular amongst the fandom.
Like with Orange Islands and Johto, Ash's Gym battle wins are all legitimate (Thunder Armour asspull notwithstanding) and he makes it to the Hoenn League. He battles his way through some tough opponents and I do mean TOUGH! He has some double battles that are close calls but he ultimately wins in the end and he has a full six-on-six battle with Katie which really proves to be problematic for Ash thanks to her strategic battle style and pulling off some big surprises on him. Fun fact: Katie is the only trainer to fight Ash in a full six-on-six who is female and was the first female character to do so with Cynthia being the only other one to do so. Ash also battles Morrison, a boy he befriended on his journey and he has the upperhand at first because Morrison doesn't really want to battle his friend but come the second half, Morrison gets his act together and comes back hard. No joke, he catches up staggeringly quickly and nearly wins! Imagine if Morrison had been like this from the start, he probably would've beaten him!
As is, Ash beats Morrison and he finds himself up against a tough trainer named Tyson. Like Harrison, he's not some random nobody. Tyson was built up and we see him in action beforehand so we know what he's capable of. Tyson and Ash have a tough, evenly-matched battle that seems them using a variety of powerful Pokémon. In the end, it's Ash's Pikachu vs. Puss in Boots. Sorry, I meant Tyson's Meowth. XD What's really weird about this fight is that...well...Pikachu loses. This is the same Pikachu that's routinely kicked Team Rocket's asses, including their Meowth and yet here he is LOSING to a Meowth! Talk about dramatic irony. At the same time, this loss feels so...underwhelming. Like come on guys, you couldn't give Ash a more impressive defeat here? Just make him lose to a Meowth and call it a day? You can do better than that! Tyson's Metagross would've been a more impressive opponent to lose to than some Puss in Boots cosplayer.
But don't feel too sorry for Ash. He does end this series on a high note at least? How so? After this league is over, he goes on to take on the Battle Frontier. And he WINS! And people act like he never won anything until Alola. =P The Battle Frontier proved to be one of Ash's biggest wins ever for not only did he take on some of the best trainers in the region, but he even goes up against Legendary Pokémon like Articuno and Regice. And he BEATS them! Can you see Ash from the pre-Hoenn era pulling this off? Probably not. Sadly, Gary once again steals his thunder by battling him with an Electivire and defeating him. Geez, is this all Gary is good for now? Undermining Ash's victories whenever he wins something big? Thank god he disappeared after the Diamond and Pearl era so he can stop doing that.
The Hoenn era was a big step in Ash's character development and progression as a trainer. Becoming a mentor figure and achieving arguably a win even bigger than the Orange Islands league, Ash truly cemented himself as a more skilled and capable trainer than he ever was before. The one downside is that Ash had no real rival for this series so he didn't really have anyone to challenge him and make him strive to become better. Also his Hoenn League loss was really underwhelming too. For some, it feels like the writers didn't really know how to write a more experienced Ash. But that would all change in the next season...
And that's it for Part 1. Join me for Part 2 as we cover his adventures in Sinnoh, Unova and Kalos...