When Pokémon Sun and Moon released in November 2016, the profound maneuver away from the previous formula was a welcome change, allowing the growing fan-base of the franchise to experience Pokémon in a slightly different way. While Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon offered little reason to continue the adventure into Alola, the anime furthered the shake-up from the previous generation, with a new art-style and a more relaxed approach to the storyline.
The positives from the Pokémon Sun and Moon anime are clear from the beginning. The updated art-style allows for the personalities of each character to be expressed more vividly, highlighting the youthful naivety of Ash that was slightly neglected in the last series. This also has its problems, as after two decades of Pokémon on the television, the expectation of some maturity is to be expected. Ash became the experienced character in Pokémon X and Y, with episodes such as episode 920: The Bewildering Forest… The Dawn of Evolution, that push Ash into a state of doubt and depression about his ability to handle the complexity of Ash-Greninja; this particular arc did more for Ash’s character development than anything since the adventures into Johto.
A Japanese version of Power Rangers commenced.
While the expressive art-style is a welcome change, there’s a deprivation in the depths the writers are willing to explore each character, alienating a core fan base that has stuck with the series since its inception. There have been emotional arcs, particularly Litten and Stoutland’s whirlwind of a story, that reached its peak in episode 971: Nyabby: Time to Begin the Journey!. With Pokémon exploring the sentimental impact of death, it allowed for one of the most depressing episodes Pokémon has written, becoming the highlight of the Pokémon Sun and Moon anime. These wonderfully written episodes are too far and between, and rarely make a sustained impact on the series that changes the way in which the characters interact with each other.
There’s a lack of direction. A lack of risk that would usually have been unavoidable with Ash’s selfless personality. Since Rockruff evolved into Dusk-form Lycanroc, there’s been no further development; the same can be said for Litten. Once the series reached the Ultra Beast arc, there was a reason to believe that Pokémon Sun and Moon would finally shift gear and take the serious tone it did in the games, instead, a Japanese version of Power Rangers commenced. Ash’s eventual capture of the Ultra Beast Poipole has yet to create conflict that it supposedly would, with not a word from either Lusamine or Professor Burnet. A reluctance to explore the darkness of the games is part of the issue, but also, there are elements of the Pokémon Sun and Moon games that hold the series back.
The changes that made the games so successful might well be detrimental to the anime. Without gyms and a recognizable goal, Ash and his companions have no drive. This suits the tropical setting, but doesn’t create engagement for the audience. The journey that would unfold hasn’t begun, with Ash attending the same school in nearly every episode so far. This naivety becomes a negative in this regard, with Ash’s experience in training Pokémon seemingly ignored (a problem with each series). The runner-up in the Kalos Pokémon League is at school learning about different types of Pokémon, rather than chasing the dream of becoming a Pokémon master.
Pokémon Sun and Moon has shied away from complex story-driven arcs and simplified the formula.
Ash should have landed on the shores of Alola as an experienced trainer needing to find inspiration to continue his dream, not as a rookie without the history of defeating some of the strongest trainers in several different regions. Without the dream, Ash becomes soulless and loses the determined essence of his character. Surprisingly, this hasn’t entirely affected his battling abilities, with the confidence to defeat some of the tough island kahunas. He did lose to Gladion, but that was the expected due to the context of the situation, with a newly evolved Lycanroc unable to control his temperament (a trait that has rarely been explored since). This unruly side of Lycanroc has shown the maturity of Ash as a trainer but becomes redundant due to the frivolous nature of the series. Conflict barely arises, and while Team Rocket seems to be stronger than before, this is offset by a continual joke involving Bewear that has long become mundane; a signature of Pokémon Sun and Moon itself, be aware that the series has become all filler and no substance.
A situation has arisen where Pokémon doesn’t realize the demographics of its fan base. While there is a substantial young audience, most fans of Pokémon are now in their 20s, growing up with the franchise since its 1996 inception. Pokémon X and Y capitalized on the older demographic, producing a series with great depth of character born from the struggles of their journey; Pokémon Sun and Moon has shied away from complex story-driven arcs and simplified the formula. While not entirely a bad idea, for a series that often follows the narrative of the games and relies on following one boy and his electric mouse around new regions, the lack of direction becomes worrisome.
The spirit of the kid that tamed an unruly Pikachu and inspired a disobedient Charizard seems to be lost in Kalos.
It’s clear the anime needed the rigidness of gym battles to provide direction for Ash and a journey for the audience to contend with. There’s no reason for Ash to battle every island kahuna when the prize of a z-crystal becomes meaningless (as he can only use one per battle). Without an actual Pokémon League, with it largely in construction during the games, the end goal is unconfirmed, and watching the anime suggests the writers aren’t entirely sure either. Suppose the games had the standard gym challenges, then it’s likely the anime would have progressed differently than its current predicament, with an Ash Ketchum that’s chasing his dream. Without a base flavor, there are too many ingredients being thrown into the pot, creating characters that have had little development and an impact that has been entirely minimal; only Lillie has had a substantial story arc, strengthening her character and relationship to the audience.
At this moment in time, the excitement of generation eight coming to the Nintendo Switch also brings the hope of its corresponding anime getting a similar shake-up. The end of Pokémon Sun and Moon will hopefully bring a dawn of new ideas and a return to an Ash with a purpose. The spirit of the kid that tamed an unruly Pikachu and inspired a disobedient Charizard seems to be lost in Kalos, never making the journey to Alola. A return to the original format in the games might be the only solution to save the anime, that is unless the writers can find another way to bring the sense of adventure back into the series.