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Media Essays: The Ash Ketchum Retrospective Part 2

Updated: May 1, 2023

Continued from Part 1.

Our story so far:

Ash began his Pokémon journey. He had a VERY rocky start. He had an embarrassing loss in the Indigo League. He won the Orange Islands. He beat Gary in Johto and then won the Battle Frontier in Hoenn.

So what's next for our plucky young hero? Let's find out. This part will cover his adventures in Sinnoh, Unova and Kalos.

Ash's Toughest Rival Yet: The Sinnoh League

Ah the Diamond and Pearl series. Even to this day, fans consider it one of the best seasons of the anime and one of Ash's best outings ever. I'm inclined to agree that yeah, this was a good season and Ash got to show off what he could REALLY do here.

For this season, he still gains Brock as a travelling companion but gains a new female companion in the form of Dawn, whom I'm inclined to agree with many is one of, if not THE best female companion in the entire anime. Dawn is a walking bundle of preciousness and must be protected at all costs! While Dawn is another trainer aspiring to be a coordinator, thankfully they don't just repeat May's story with her. Dawn actually likes Pokémon from the start and craves the life of being a coordinator whereas May gradually grew into that role, Ash doesn't really play mentor to her the same way he did to May and in fact, the two end up playing mentor to each other a few times for both pick up tricks from each other that they use in their respective goals of battling and coordinating and Dawn also experiences more losses than May does whereas May only really tended to lose the really big contests. Ash and Dawn had an adorable dynamic together and their friendship felt so genuine to the point they had their own little high-five whenever they were encouraging each other. While Brock and Misty will always be the most iconic companions for Ash, Brock and Dawn were a good pairing for him too and I think this trio should be as iconic as Ash, Misty and Brock.

But while Ash got a new friend in the Sinnoh region, he got what he sorely lacked in the Advanced era...a new rival. Yes, it is finally time to talk about everybody's favourite purple-haired, grumpy arse rival himself, Paul. Paul is considered even to this day to be Ash's best rival, even surpassing GARY OAK in that regard! When you're considered better than THE original and most iconic Ash rival, you know you've done well in that regard! But it's true, Paul is everything Gary Oak SHOULD have been in the original series! He and Ash got to interact and battle each other far more often than Ash and Gary did so their rivalry felt like it had proper development and build-up over time, Paul would routinely kick Ash's butt whenever they battled so we knew Paul could be taken seriously whereas most of Gary's achievements were off-screen and he and Ash only fought twice over the course of the original series and Paul would also challenge Ash not just physically, but philosophically too. This was the first rival that ever pushed Ash mentally for his methods of training Pokémon differed so greatly to Ash that Ash would try to prove that Paul was wrong and that Pokémon should be raised with care and love, only to fail to prove himself to Paul every time they battled so Ash would be forced to change how he trains his Pokémon to be a more effective battler. We definitely see Ash fighting more strategically than in previous seasons, especially when he adapts some of Dawn's coordinating into his battle style and even coins up the famous Counter Shield strategy to stave off Fantina's hypnosis strategy. Paul was a fantastic rival for Ash and I doubt the anime will ever top him. He truly pushed Ash to his limits and may have even inspired him in some ways to become the more skilled trainer he is now. If you're interested, I wrote an entire essay last year about why Ash and Paul's rivalry was so good if you want more details on that.

But back onto Ash. I like how this season shows that despite being experienced and being strong enough to beat the Battle Frontier, that doesn't mean he's invincible and he's still able to lose on occasion with Paul, Roark and Fantina all giving him a tough time and he's also still able to learn new things like the aforementioned Counter Shield. Also he doesn't go around boasting about himself or acting like he's some big shot because he beat the Battle Frontier, which further shows how far he's come. Could you imagine pre-Johto season Ash being that humble? Probably not. He's become more modest (if still occasionally arrogant) as well as smarter over time. That said, he does occasionally still make dumb amateurish mistakes like going against Pokémon with a type advantage over his own so it comes off as taking the mickey sometimes but I wouldn't say he comes off as a dumbass at least. Oh wait until next season for that (!). Ash also proves to be more open to trying new things compared to last time. He wasn't all that bothered about contests during his Hoenn run but here, he actively participates in at least two of them and proves to be pretty good all things considered. He doesn't get very far, yes, but he does prove that he could potentially be a decent coordinator if he wanted to be. His performance round in the Wallace Cup with his Buizel was especially pretty cool.

Speaking of that, let's cover his Pokémon. For this season he comes to Sinnoh with his Pikachu and an Aipom that joined him at the end of the Battle Frontier saga. In Sinnoh, he goes on to catch a Starly, a Turtwig, a Gligar and a Gible while Aipom is traded with Dawn for Buizel and Paul releases his Chimchar and it goes with Ash afterwards. All of them except for Buizel and Gible evolve over the course of the series. This was a solid team of Pokémon for him and they all had their times to shine during various parts of the season, although Ash's Torterra had a nasty habit of losing a lot after evolving and when it became a Torterra, it never won ANY battle that wasn't against Team Rocket. Ironic considering Paul's Torterra has only one onscreen loss and several wins under its belt. Of course, Chimchar got the lion's share of development and was a crucial part in the development of Ash's development and the rivalry between him and Paul. Ash was able to master Chimchar's Blaze ability while Paul never could and Chimchar would perform considerably better under Ash's ownership with more wins and it arguably became one of Ash's strongest Pokémon alongside Pikachu and Charizard when it became an Infernape. All this reached its peak when the two had their battle in the Sinnoh League and after a long hard battle, Ash is able to beat Paul using the very Pokémon Paul deemed as "pathetic". It was the perfect end to their rivalry and the perfect victory for Ash over Paul. So Ash has beaten Paul at last. How can the writers undermine THIS victory then?

Oh...right. Him. (inhales deeply)

Ash makes it to the Semi-Finals and loses to Tobias, some random nobody who has a team of legendary Pokémon. He has a Darkrai and a Latios but we have no idea what else he is so it's up to speculation as to what his remaining team is. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out he has Latias to go with Latios, Mewtwo, Lugia and Rayquaza while he's at it! This was by far the biggest load of crap the anime pulled on us ever since the series began. This was the writers literally having to make up a character solely for the purpose of making sure Ash loses and they give him a team with at least two legendary Pokémon just so Tobias can beat him more easily. What a load! And the excuse they gave is even more pathetic. No joke, they literally did this because in their own words, "they couldn't think of a realistic way for Ash to lose". That's a load of garbage if you ask me. You can still make Ash lose even if he's more experienced! Heck, this very season had him constantly losing to Paul and he had a rematch against TWO Gym Leaders! They didn't need legendries to beat Ash so what's Tobias's excuse? Give the Indigo League credit, at least Ash lost because of outside factors and his poor training skills that lead to his Charizard being uncooperative. This is just Ash losing to some random nobody with legendary Pokémon just so the writers can cheese him out of a league victory! If they didn't have Ash lose this way, it wouldn't have been such a sore point for the fandom and a black mark on what is otherwise a solid season.

So in spite of Ash losing in the most forced way imaginable, this was still a good season for Ash and arguably one of his best. He proved to be more capable and experienced than ever, he got challenged in new ways that he'd never been challenged before, his team was among the strongest he'd ever trained and his companion dynamic was greater than ever. How will things go for him next season?

Ash's Most Embarrassing Track Record: The Unova League


This is gonna be a doozy. I'm sure everyone's been dying to see me rip this thing apart. So let's do it. Here's me, ripping this thing apart. Enjoy!

Pokémon Black and White is unanimously agreed to be the worst season of the entire anime. People don't hate EVERYTHING about it, I can't emphasize that enough, but it is the one that is often brought up the most when people talk about the worst of the anime or the anime at its lowest point. Much of those criticisms are directed at Ash himself. Why is that? For starters, the Black and White season acts as a "semi-reboot" of the anime. The Black and White games were kinda like "the new Gen 1" with many Pokémon coming off as expies of Kanto Pokémon before them and the anime reflected this with Ash's character development being hit with the reset button. Gone is the experienced, less cocky and more mature Ash and he's essentially back to being his old Indigo League self where he was more stupid and reckless. And it REALLY takes the mickey this season! There's this running gag of Ash constantly forgetting how Attract works and then you have his embarrassing Gym Battle against Elesa where he brings just ONE Pokémon to her gym and after Elesa beats it, he somehow ISN'T declared the loser considering his only Pokémon is defeated, then he RUNS OUT OF THE GYM TO GET ANOTHER ONE AND KEEP FIGHTING!!! Just how dumb do you think Ash is writers?! Even Ash from Season 1 was never this stupid!

Also because Gen 5 was trying to be "the new Gen 1", they end up copying a few things from the original series like Ash being reset to a rookie trainer, his companions being a pair of Gym Leaders where one's a sassy tomboy and the other's a skilled chef and he has an embarrassing League loss (we'll get to that). Iris and Cilan are his new companions here and yeah, it's obvious they're meant to be the Unovan versions of Misty and Brock for this series. Iris is a sassy tomboy who often bickered with Ash and wants to be a Dragon Master, much like how Misty is also a sassy tomboy who often bickered with Ash and wants to be a Water Pokémon Master. Cilan is a Gym Leader from the very first Gym who is also a skilled cook and has to act like the peacekeeper between Ash and Iris, much like how Brock is a Gym Leader from the very girst Gym who is also a skilled cook and has to act like the peacekeeper between Ash and Misty. They really could've given us a more unique dynamic with these characters than just "Let's rehash Ash, Misty and Brock" given Cilan and Iris are their own characters in the games and aren't just Brock and Misty clones. While they aren't exact copies, they are a little too similar in my eyes. Also it's weird that Iris tells Ash that "he's such a kid!" and yet she's a kid herself. Pot meet kettle, eh Iris? =P

As for Ash's Pokémon, he catches quite a few here. I think this is even his biggest team he constructs in the entire anime with TEN Pokémon overall (Pikachu plus his nine new catches). He gets Oshawott, Snivy, Tepig, Pidove, Sewaddle, Palpitoad, Roggenrola and Krokorok while he also gets an egg that hatches into a Scraggy. The only ones that evolve are Sewaddle, Pidove, Roggenrola, Krokorok and Tepig. While there are some overall good Pokémon here, his team was just too big so the writers couldn't really juggle them all and so some got overshadowed in favour of others, leaving a pretty underdeveloped team overall. It also didn't help that his Unova mons don't all have the best track records either with many of them having pretty unfavourable win-loss ratios. It just made his Unova team look pretty weak overall and in some cases, a pale imitation of his Kanto team. I mean he has all three starters, his fire-type starter comes from an abusive trainer, he has a Bug-type that fully evolves, he has the regional bird and only a select few of them actually evolve. All that's missing was for Tepig to evolve into a disobedient Emboar and we'd be set! Funny enough though, Iris got the disobedient Pokémon story this time with her Dragonite which actually goes on to lose to Ash's Charizard, which was formely disobedient so that was hilariously ironic.

Speaking of hilarious, I cannot talk about this season without bringing up the funniest thing about Ash in this series. And that's his tendency to get knocked flying into water anytime Bianca showed up. Seriously, it's one of the funniest running gags in the entire series!

But sadly, one funny running gag doesn't make up for all the bad surrounding Ash in this season. I already mentioned his character reset earlier, but what also sucked for him in this season was his rival, Trip. Many people saw him as just "Paul but if he sucked". The writers kinda tried to make him like Paul but it just didn't work out as well and the rivalry doesn't even come to a satisfying end. Ash beats him in the first round of the Unova League in a one-on-one match so we don't even get a full six-on-six with him. It's like even the writers got bored of Trip and just wanted to get rid of him. Sadly, this leaves us with...(heavy sigh)...Ash's worst performance in a Pokémon League yet. Namely his loss... this idiot. Let's just get this over with.

Ash makes it to the quarter finals of the Unova League and finds himself up against Cameron. Cameron was set up to be a decent trainer what with defeating the likes of Bianca on his way to the quarter-finals and he starts off strongly by revealing he has a Hydreigon. THAT is nothing to sneeze at! But after Hydreigon takes out two of Ash's Pokémon, it's defeated by Pignite and then Ash works his way through the rest of Cameron's team with some losing rather easily like Ferrothorn and Swanna due to having double weaknesses. And then Cameron is left with just his Riolu...despite him having only used four Pokémon at that point and Riolu is now his last one. So this guy is so stupid he only brought five Pokémon to a six Pokémon battle? AND HE STILL WINS?!?!?! What were the creators thinking with this idea?! Why did they make Cameron so idiotic and have him win with his Rilou conveniently evolving into a Lucario right when it mattered the most for him? Was it supposed to look more impressive when he won? No, it didn't do that! It just made Ash look weaker and more incompetent for somehow failing to beat a guy who's dumber than he is! Why didn't they just let Cameron's Hydreigon be his ace-in-the-hole he brings out at the end to beat Ash while also not making him stupid? THAT would've been a more impressive win than "I win because the plot says so!" I get that Ash having a humiliating loss is another call-back to Gen 1 but again, it was done better there because Ash was a newbie and his lack of proper training plus outside factors caught up to him and cost him. Here, Ash doesn't even have that going for him. It's just him losing to a total moron when at this point, he should walk all over idiots like Cameron. If Ash HAD to lose this league, he should've lost to Virgil and his team of Eeveelutions instead. That would've been a better loss.

Oh and random side note, this season is the first time Ash and Giovanni ever actually meet in person. Mewtwo Returns doesn't count because they barely even interacted and Mewtwo made Giovanni forget that even happened. Sadly, they didn't do it very well as they have a battle that ends in two seconds with Persian knocking Pikachu out with a single Power Gem and that's it. They may as well have not bothered with how they put the bare minimum into it.

After his embarrassing league loss, Ash goes on an island hopping adventure with Iris and Cilan in the Best Wishes saga. Unlike the Orange Islands however, Best Wishes IS filler. Complete and total filler. Ash gains no new Pokémon, he doesn't develop and he doesn't get to win any leagues here. When people say the Orange Islands arc is filler, they actually mean this arc.

So yeah, Black and White was a pretty bad run for Ash. His character was reset, the companion dynamic was recycled, his Unovan Pokémon don't have a stellar track record and there was just too many to handle, Trip was a lamer version of Paul that didn't live up to past rivals and he had the most embarrassing loss of his entire career. It's amazing this series didn't kill the anime then and there. Thankfully it didn't as next time we went from Ash's worst outing to arguably his best outing...

A Mega Journey: The Kalos League

The X & Y series is a frequent highlight for many and is often seen as one of the best seasons of the anime alongside Diamond and Pearl. It's highly praised for its handling of Ash, the companion dynamic, Serena's involvement with the story, the gorgeous animation and fight choreography, a truly tough rival for Ash and a team villain arc that is seen as the best of its kind in the whole series.

For Ash, this series was already a step-up from the Unova seasons. Gone was the stupidity and inexperience of Unova Ash. Here, he's back to how he was during the Diamond and Pearl era where he was much smarter, more experienced and less full of himself. It almost came off as if the writers were apologizing to the fans for wrecking Ash's character during the Black and White era and thus they re-railed him back to how he was before. He still displays his usual wide-eyed excitement at travelling through a new region and getting the chance to battle new Gym Leaders and also showing off his usual nice guy personality, particularly when he he bravely goes out of his way to try and calm down a rampaging Garchomp. I dunno about you guys but if that were me trying to do that, I'd crap myself! But that's Ash for you, brave as a Pyroar if a little mad at times.

His companions for this series include yet another Gym Leader with Clemont (seriously, what is it with Ash and travelling with Gym Leaders?), his sister Bonnie and of course, the ever popular Serena. This companion dynamic was not a rehash of Misty and Brock like it was with Iris and Cilan so already these companions were more popular than those two because of it. Clemont and Bonnie are a brother and sister duo, something never really done with Ash's companions before as he would travel with a companion or two but they wouldn't have their siblings with them, Ash would just meet them along the way be it Brock's many siblings or Misty's sisters at the Cerulean Gym. Here, brother and sister are together for the ride so that was a nice change. Clemont is the gadget master who is also the Electric Gym Leader and he serves as Ash's first opponent in Kalos (at the time Ash didn't know he's a Gym Leader). It would be Clemont that would help Ash in mastering the Ash-Greninja transformation by developing a gadget that assists them. The dynamic between the two is quite unique with both being fascinated with one another's skills and abilities like Ash's Pokémon skills or Clemont's scientific skills. Bonnie doesn't interact with Ash a whole lot with no episodes out there really focusing on her relationship with him. She mostly interacts with Clemont or Serena. But Ash clearly cares for her a great deal as he becomes as protective of her as the other two do.

And now let's talk about Serena because there is A LOT to talk about Ash concerning her. Some feel that the retcon of Ash's backstory to include her is a little iffy but personally, I buy it. Ash IS a ditz remember so he's likely to forget things from time to time. Also this meeting between him and Serena took place when he was much younger so he's more likely to forget about it, especially as he never even learnt Serena's name at the time. But yeah, Ash apparently met Serena back before his trainer days and he helped her back on her feet after she hurt her knee. Serena even kept the handkerchief he wrapped it up with this whole time and years later, she'd eventually meet Ash again, though he doesn't remember that meeting. While Misty displayed not-so-subtle hints she might be into Ash (most of it added by 4Kids mind you), this series was the first to have a companion be openly in love with Ash and it's so obvious that even Bonnie ships the two together. This too gave Ash and Serena a unique dynamic as we didn't really have companions that had a crush on him before. Again, Misty's hints she was into him were mostly added by the English dub so that doesn't really count. The two play supporting roles to each other throughout the series and its her adventures with Ash that inspires a big change in Serena's demeanour as she becomes more confident in herself and even has a goal of her own in mind with becoming a Pokémon Performer. It's through Serena that we see Ash is the kind of guy who inspires positive changes in people and he leaves quite a big impact on the people he meets. He definitely did this a lot in past seasons but it's especially prevalent here that we see how an adventure with Ash can change everything for you.

For his Pokémon team here, he catches a Froakie, a Fletchling, a Goomy and a Hawlucha while obtaining an egg that hatches into a Noibat. Except for Pikachu and Hawlucha (it's a single stage Pokémon with no evolutions), this entire team evolves all the way, making this the first fully evolved team of Pokémon Ash has ever worked with. This team has many moments to shine and puts up a much better performance than his Unova team while also getting more time to shine now there isn't too many Pokémon to focus on. His Greninja is the star of the show here with its character development and the Ash-Greninja bond phenomenon that Ash uses to great effect throughout the series and is the closest thing he gets to a true "Mega Evolution" before Mega Lucario in Pokémon Journeys. It's even debateable whether this is Ash's strongest team he's ever trained with Journeys arguably being the only team that's stronger by comparison.

His rivals this season include the smart and calculated Sawyer who is inspired by Ash to become stronger and the strength-obsessed Alain. These rivals have an interesting dynamic with Ash as Sawyer actually looks up to Ash rather than down on him and takes inspiration from Ash to be as strong a trainer as he can be. It's even refreshing to get a rival that has a positive rivalry with Ash for a change and again, shows what an inspiring guy Ash can be to others. Alain on the other hand started off as this aloof loner who valued strength and power above everything else to the point he only ended up hurting himself by pushing his friends away to avoid hurting them...which only hurt them anyway so that didn't help. Upon meeting Ash, he mellows out and actually learns to enjoy himself in a battle for the first time in forever. Alain is easily Ash's strongest rival ever, even surpassing Paul in that department. Unlike past rivals, Ash NEVER defeats Alain although he always gives him a tough fight regardless. Sadly, it lead to...well...this moment.

Yeah. Ash loses a league...again.

HOWEVER, this wasn't the worst loss he could've experienced. Far from it in fact. This isn't like Indigo League where he lost because of outside factors or his own hubris, this isn't like Sinnoh League where he lost because of a random guy with Legendary Pokémon and it's CERTAINLY not like the Unova League where he lost to an idiot with only five Pokémon on his team! No, this was Ash making it to the top two of the Kalos League and finishing as the runner up to somebody who truly is better than him. This was by far Ash's best performance in a league yet. But it SHOULD have been a win! The worst part was that the anime was hyping Ash up to win the league with the Japanese title of the episode "Kalos League Victory! Satoshi's Ultimate Match" even implying that Ash would win! But no, the writers chickened out at the last minute and as you can imagine, the fans weren't happy. I also hate this for being the wrong way to write a rivalry arc. When you're writing a story with two rivals duking it out together, the main character must ALWAYS beat their rival in the end, otherwise you don't give your story a satisfying ending and it feels like you've wasted the audience's time getting them invested in this rivalry because the hero doesn't get to one-up them in the end. Ash SHOULD have beaten Alain in the end for this story to work and have a proper, satisfying ending. As is, it just feels like Ash vs. Paul done wrong.

Despite this controversial loss, what follows is the Team Flare arc and many fans view it as the highlight of the season for a truly epic climax that felt bigger than anything ever done in the series before and paid off all the build-up immensely. Ash even helps to defeat them and Zygarde in the end so at least he didn't end his time in Kalos on a low note.

X & Y was a huge step-up from Black and White for Ash as he was brought back to his original characterization and displayed much more competence and skill more akin to his Hoenn and Sinnoh days. The companion dynamic was fresh and new, his rivals are compelling and even if he had a controversial loss, he got to play a part in defeating the villains during the most praised villain arc of the anime. This series is seen as Ash's best outing alongside Diamond and Pearl and I can see why. This truly felt like the proper way to handle a post-character development Ash.

And that's it for Part 2. Join me for the final part as we conclude Ash's journey through the anime with his first League win ever and his biggest achievement of his entire career...

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