Pokémon, Yokai, Animism, Anthropocene

This morning my son sat down and asked me to read through his Pokémon cards with him. Of course I’ve heard of Pokémon, and I remember the Pokémon Go mobile game craze back in the summer of 2016. But, until this morning I really had no first-hand experience with the game and the variety of Pokémon creatures. There were such a great variety of beasts and forces inhabiting all aspects of the planet—woods, waters, earth and sky, thunder, lightning, fire, etc. The half-intelligent mystical beings carrying on according to their own rules brushing up against the human universe.

To avid Pokémon lovers, such observations are painfully basic and obvious. My son responded to my interest and questions with plenty of “sures” and, “of course, dads!” What he didn’t catch from my reactions, however, was that I found Pokémon interesting because the characters seemed to be so obviously inspired by Japanese Yokai and Shinto animism.Animism takes the world to be an alive one, where things are animated by forces and spirits. There are typically few distinctions, for example, between types of living things—trees, plants, humans—and “dead” objects and forces—rocks, water, lighting. An animistic understanding of the world sees beings, objects and forces interacting with one another in ways that touch upon and interact with the human world, but are also independently motivated by intentions beyond human understanding.

While I’m not an expert in this area, it seems to me that in Japanese history the Yokai are examples of this kind of animistic view. The ghostly or demonic presences of various beings—kind, indifferent or malevolent—which exist in and beyond human understanding. The Yokai are strange. They are found in mundane everyday life and yet they point to the things that humans don’t understand—pointing to the “outside” of human comprehension. They are both here and now, in the human world, and yet connected to the external spaces beyond. In this sense Yokai are weird in the way Mark Fisher examines, they fill the world with a fascination that might repel, but also compels human attention because it suggests that the conceptions we have of existing must be inadequate.

So is there a Pokémon connection? I’m certian some scholar in/of Japan with a deep knowledge of Pokémon has written somewhere about a connection. For me, however, the interesting thing is not only that my son and others who love the world of Pokémon may be playing in a fascinating universe that is a legacy of Japan’s Edo period. I wonder about the coincidence of Pokémon’s influence in popular culture for the past two and a half decades since the mid-1990s and the important work they do reanimating the known world.

The reason I wonder about this is that in recent years have seen an emerging universe of academic work across disciplines that focuses on the human and in/non-human ways of being in the world. This work, a kind of reintroduction of animism into the human sciences and humanities, looks at perspectives such as non-human ontologies (Eduardo Kohn), object oriented ontology (Graham Harmon),”hyperobjects” (Timothy Moreton) and speculative realisms (Steven Shaviro). Indifferent ways, these authors see the world as filled with varieties “vibrant matter” (Jane Bennett) in active exchange. As the world of the Anthropocene takes on a life of its own (Isabelle Stenger) in response to human actions, animism as a way of thinking of the world and negotiating it may become useful again.

Is this too much to make of Pokémon? This morning when my son climbed up onto my lap to talk about his pile of Pokémon cards, he certainly never would have imagined that later in the morning I’d pull out my phone and start dashing off this blog post. But, it seems there might be something here. Pokemon GO certainly has compelled millions of people to search though real space for virtual beings—reanimating everyday spaces in entirely new ways. Its a powerful force that can push otherwise law-abiding citizens to trespass on an army base and lead an investigator to remark that they might need seek advice from a 12 year-old.

At the same time earth-science experts report that the earth is taking on a life of its own—environmental disasters such as this summer’s Australian wildfires become the weird things that disrupt the everyday and point beyond to the nature of existence and the extinction of species (including our own!) leave us thinking about the nature of existence.

I don’t have time or space here to continue these thoughts this morning, but perhaps Pokémon and yokai can be good to think with. Here are some examples to contemplate.

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