Late last year, many mainstream media outlets, even outside of the usual anime and gaming circuits, all reported a seismic event in the world’s largest media franchise: Ash Ketchum became the Pokémon World Champion. An event that was built up for 25 years, the main protagonist of one of the longest-running anime series of all time finally accomplished his goal. And in just one week, Ash will no longer be the main character of the series as a new set of protagonists take over and the show enters a new era.
It’s a pretty huge shift for a franchise that values consistency over all else and drags its heels repeatedly at the prospect of changing anything. To many fans who grew up in the ‘90s, Ash Ketchum is the face of Pokémon. You may play as a new protagonist with every game, but Ash was always there, going on adventures with his Pikachu and whatever new partners he was able to meet along his journeys. Despite not having seen the show since the mid-2000s, I, along with plenty of other fans of the franchise, am looking back fondly at the experiences I’ve had with Ash as a character. So if you’ll permit me, let’s all take a load off and reflect on the immortal 10-year-old and his importance in defining the Pokémon franchise.
If I’m being perfectly honest, as a kid, I didn’t like Ash. I always found him a bit too bland of a character when I was watching the series on Saturday mornings. I often found myself preferring the kids of Digimon over Ash, as those kids felt like actual characters with unique positive and negative traits. But looking back on it, I think the decision to make Ash more of an everyman character is probably what helped allow the anime to go on for as long as it did.
Ash was chipper and happy-go-lucky, and in the early days of the show he learned the importance of respecting his Pokémon and treating them like friends. Yes, he could be a bit bland and a goody two shoes, but his general pleasantness helped to convey the attitude that going on a Pokémon adventure was supposed to be fun. It’s a mindset that most children who watched the show adopted. Some people nowadays may look at Pokémon only for their stats, IVs, and EVs, but I’m sure that most players learned from Ash and his adventures to just find Pokémon that look fun to play with and go travel around trading and battling them.
Ash is a character who has lost before. Not just once, but several times. From the very beginning of the show, he was presented as an underdog. His first Gym battle against Brock all of those years ago ended with Ash having to surrender once Brock’s Onix overpowered his Pikachu. Even today, Ash is not a perfect trainer. He frequently loses and never outright curb-stomps his opponents. For a kids show, this doesn’t happen all too often.
In plenty of ‘90s anime and cartoons aimed at children, it’s rare for the hero to lose as often as Ash did, but it actually teaches kids a very important lesson: There’s always room to grow. Ash wasn’t the best, and when he lost, it taught him that he had a lot to overcome and improve upon before he could become the winner. He had to earn it, which is a great lesson. If you fail at something, it doesn’t mean you should give up. You need to pick yourself up, practice, and try again.
But at least Ash’s journey always changed things up. Each new game released by Game Freak allowed the anime to put Ash into a new region with a new group of friends to adventure with and a new cadre of Pokémon to acquire. While I couldn’t tell you one thing about any of the human characters within the series once the original trio of Ash, Brock, and Misty were separated, I can easily tell you about the Pokémon that Ash acquired.
The Pokémon on Ash’s team became a part of his identity with the region, and you grew to like them and cheer for them as they fought against their opponents. It also spurred a huge interest in a few select Pokémon. Without their involvement on Ash’s team, I doubt that Charizard, Lucario, and Greninja would have become as popular as they are now.
One of the joys during the early days of the series was to watch Ash call on some of his old Pokémon friends to help him out in battle. Like with any deep continuity cuts, seeing Ash use Pokémon that weren’t seen for years is vindicating for older fans. Seeing Ash’s Charizard is always nice, but my biggest thrill came when Ash reunited with his Butterfree that he released 1200 episodes ago just shortly after becoming the World Champion. Seeing that moment brought tears to my eyes and proved that, no matter how long it may be, Ash cares for his Pokémon much in the same way that we have Pokémon that we’ll treasure for various reasons.
Truthfully, much of the series’s traditions were firmly established because of Ash as a character. His name is a play on the series motto, “Gotta catch ‘em all,” after all. The rocking theme song the show adopted for its early Western releases had Ash staring up in an empty stadium as an upbeat vocalist sang, almost as if he were voicing Ash’s inner thoughts, that he wanted to be the very best like no one ever was. This notion etched itself into fans’ psyches. Even Pikachu became the de facto mascot of the franchise due to its heavy association with Ash as his partner Pokémon. If Clefairy were Ash’s partner, like was originally planned, the franchise would almost certainly have a different perception within popular culture.
Yet the more I think about Ash, the more that I think of his presence in general as one of the defining elements of the franchise. His adventures helped millions of children engage with the series, sell countless amounts of trading cards, made Pikachu into a household name, and kept the franchise going strong. The fact that OLM and the Pokémon Company are taking the decision to phase him out seems like madness, but it’s one that I have to respect given it aligns with a longtime intention with the character. At least as far back as 2008, it had been said that Ash’s journey would end when he became the champion.
Make no mistake, it is a categorically huge risk to proceed this way. A new series is set to premiere in April that will follow a new group of protagonists in the Paldea region with no connections to earlier entries. It’s a new era for the franchise, but it’s one that could lead to rough times. The series is tying up all of its loose ends right now. Ash is going back to Pallet Town. Team Rocket, as of this writing, disbanded. There’s an air of finality to everything as Pokémon gets ready to go into this new era, and when Ash takes his leave next week, it’ll be a sad one, with new questions being raised about the future. What direction will the new series take? Will fans accept the new protagonists? Will Ash actually stay away from this new region?
I’ve known Ash for most of my life, and now, despite not talking to him or seeing him for years, I’m sad to lose him. He was a friendly face when I just started to get into anime and video games, much like he was to others, and I’ll miss the kid. I’m an adult now and he’s still 10 years old, but I’m not going to forget the memories I had of watching him have fun with his Pokémon, overcome the odds, and stand atop the Pokémon League as its champion. Now that it’s almost over, I just wish that I had been there for more of it.