Movie Review: "Ruler of Illusions: Zoroark"

By ChouToshio.
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ポケットモンスター ダイヤモンド&パール
幻影の発射: ゾロアーク

Pocket Monsters Diamond and Pearl
"Ruler of Illusions: Zoroark"

Cinematic History

幻影の発射: ゾロアーク or Ruler of Illusions: Zoroark is the most recent of the Pokémon movie series line, making a total of 13. It is hard to believe that it has already been 12 years since ミュウツーの逆襲、Mewtwo Strikes Back's 1998 release in Japanese theatres. While heavily ridiculed by Western cinema critics, I think you need look no further than the series' continuation to understand the strong popularity of this movie series in Japan. Thirteen releases is nothing short of impressive, and while most series fail to popularize even a second sequel, the Pocket Monster movies have continued at the steady pace of 1 per year, with a consistency of popularity and quality that is praiseworthy. They certainly got their business formula down.

In fact, it was a Pokémon movie that got me back into Pokémon. Like many American youths, I went through my "Pokémon is uncool" high school phase, though I continued to have an appreciation for anime and anime-related illustration. One day I happened to turn on the TV and what was there? Pokémon. I was about to change the channel when I stopped myself—the illustrator in me did a double take and thought, "What the, wow—this is really well animated!" I ended up sitting and watching the rest of that airing of Pokémon Heroes: Latios and Latias, though the English title makes me want to gag. I much prefer the original Japanese title, 水の都の護神 ラティアスとラティオス (Protecting Gods of the Water City, Latias and Latios). I was incredibly impressed with the degree of illustration and animation.

This is not only in regards to movie 5, but the Pokémon movies in general— while one cannot expect to find the most wrenchingly epic plot lines, complicated character development, or creative storylines, I was taken by the simple style of storytelling; showing, rather than telling, drawing the viewer into the fantasy world in which the simple story was being told. While perhaps not taken to the same degree of excellence, it is reminiscent of productions done by Studio Ghibli, originally headed by famous director Hayao Miyazaki, producer of great titles like Totoro and Princess Mononoke. In fact, one review I read criticized Pokémon Movie 4: Celebi – Voice of the Forest (originally Celebi, The Meeting that Surpasses Time) as a shameless rip-off of Princess Mononoke. My personal reaction was that I loved Mononoke Hime, and had no qualms seeing it a second time with lots and lots of Pokémon!

While a Pokémon movie may not be the "must-see" movie of a season for most moviegoers, nor will it ever be the revolutionary movie that changes the face of cinema, the series is a definitive staple product for one of the world's most popular animation/game franchises. From the beautiful atmosphere of natural fantasy created from the amalgamatikon of Pokémon and stunning background illustrations, to the nods the movie makes to real-life habitats and places (such as Venice in movie 5, and Odaiba in movie 8), the movies are rich with educational value and a spirit for adventure that I think is great for children.

It is odd to say this in a competitive community, but the heart of the Pokémon story is not battling nor competition—it's the spirit of growing up, exploring nature and seeing the world in order to become a bigger person. This is why the Pokémon games are primarily role-playing games, and why Game Freak has put such effort into making the Pokémon franchise a series that is positive for kids, and even respected by parents. Seeing Ash and his companions in a more artistic story focusing on that spirit gives the movies a different and much greater value than the anime series itself. As a fan of the franchise and as a person who loves nature, I can only give my strong approval for the movie series.

Individual Movies and Trends

Despite my overall positive opinions of the movie series as a whole, each Pokémon movie is different, and unarguably some are better than others. From a personal standpoint, movies 3-5 were the best—employing a terrific execution of traditional animation style, breathtaking illustrations, and a demonstration of excellent "showing not telling" storytelling techniques. This really captured the fantasy world of Pokémon. The tale woven around Unown in movie 3 was particularly exceptional from a storytelling perspective.

Recent movies have put somewhat more emphasis on action sequences to capture the "Hyperactive Young Boy" market's attention more effectively. This would not be a problem, if not for the over-dependence on rather cheesy-looking 3D computer graphics that look like they belong on a Saturday morning cartoon show. This was a problem most pronounced in Pokémon movie 7: Destiny Deoxys. While I enjoyed the Odaiba-theme and the mechanized animations that went with it, 3-D animating Deoxys and Rayquaza themselves made it extremely cheesy. I feel the same about the 3D Mamoswine in movie 11: Giratina and the Sky Bouquet, and admittedly Suicune even had one disappointing 3D-animated scene in movie 4, but it was much more tactfully put together fortunately. When combining CG with animation, this is the key—it has to be done tactfully, and well.

Looking at Zoroark, Ruler of Illusions

On Saturday, September 11th, (yeah I know, right?) I went to a local theatre in Niigata, Japan. It must have been already somewhat late in the season, since there were no posters up for the Pokémon movie—but I was pleased to find the theatre still quite full. I was not too pleased with the price (a regular matinee entrance fee to the average Japanese movie theatre is 1800 Yen, or ~$19 USA). I did get a little Zoroark figurine though, so I guess that is cool. When I sat down I opened my DS and asked the middle-school kid sitting next to me how to download my Celebi. Officer Jenny came on screen and started giving a lecture about Celebi, the possibility to download Celebi after the movie, and turning off the DS during the movie. Then it began!

Story Line

The plot line was pretty bread and butter for a Pokémon movie. Human villain does some greedy, terrible thing at the expense of nature, and Satoshi (Ash) and his friends combine their strength to defeat him. Legendary Pokémon appear and join the battle, and while their strength is enough to defeat the enemy, some terrible repercussion are dealt that emphasize the horrible consequences of human selfishness.

Fortunately, the magical powers of one of the legendary Pokémon manages to fix everything in the end. Like I said, bread and butter—but then that is what I expect from, and frankly enjoy in a Pokémon movie. Summarized spoiler: in this movie, a guy named Kodai thinks it's a good idea to gain future-seeing powers by absorbing energy from Celebi's "time gate," which has the unfortunate side effect of destroying all the surrounding plant life and potentially killing Celebi. Wow, what a prick.

If I had some complaints to make, it would be that the movie seemed to try too hard to avoid inconsistencies, the result of which made the plot overly complex—neither things that Pokémon movies really excel at. It was like every step of the movie was trying to confirm "See, that hint we left before wasn't just open-ended! See how much thought we put into it!" But in the end, some things did simply go unexplained.

Who exactly are these reporters and why did they get involved with chasing Kodai (the main villain)? Why does Celebi even time travel? And frankly, why were the three legendary hamsters even in this movie when they added basically nothing to the plot line, and were there for almost cameo-level purposes only? At least in movie 4, Suicune had an integral role in the conclusion of the movie. The three shiny hamsters in this case literally did squat the whole movie.

Overall though, it was an enjoyable story, and I think everyone was touched when Zoroark and Zorua were reunited and put on a boat back to their home. I was pleased with the continued emphasis on the importance of protecting nature, and Ash's demonstration of bravery and adventuresome as the main character. It did feel like half the fighting in the movie would have been over in an instant if Ash had just sent out his Infernape though. Oh, well.

Overall, I give the plot 3/5 Koffings—not as good at storytelling as the Latias / Latios movie, but still much better than some of the others (like movies 2 and 7). 3 out of 5, nothing spectacular but up to snuff for a Pokémon movie.

Animation, Art, and Graphics

This is actually where I judge Pokémon movies most rigorously, since it is what I really appreciate about these movies, and where there are bigger differences in terms of quality. Since the greatest value of the movie series comes from higher quality graphics than the anime, illustrating Pokémon in their native environments, and underlining the exploration of nature, graphics really count here.

On the plus side, for a newer Pokémon movie, there was a minimal dependency on computer graphics. Certainly they were used to animate Kodai's airship and some shots of minimal importance, but overall there was a faithful effort to use high-quality traditional illustration. Sure, effects might have been used for machines/technology and to highlight explosions/attack effects like Zoroark's illusions—but for those types of things, CG is usually done tactfully and works quite well in tandem with traditional illustration. I think the staff used good judgment in bringing the two together for this movie.

On the negative side, there were not any real eye-popping illustrations from this movie. It really did focus a lot more on the action sequences, with probably too great a portion dedicated to Zoroark rampaging around or fighting the legendary hamsters (for no particular plot-related purpose). Yes, Zoroark is badass, we get it—where were the mind-blowing nature scenes that really make these movies special? A few shots of Celebi in (rather average) forest scenes with some remixed audio from movie 4 were nice and nostalgic, but not quite enough.

The town was attractive, but then again the town illustrated in movie 10 (Darkrai) was mind-numbingly mesmerizing (especially the towers of Space and Time). While not as consistently appealing as some of the old school movies, recent movies still have some great highlight scenes like the valley and huge mountain village from a distance in movie 10 and Shaymin's valley in movie 11, which showcased the real illustration skills of the film-makers. Movie 13 unfortunately provided little in terms of this type of eye candy. Even the intro—Pocketto Monstaa! Chijime, Pokémon! kono you no naka no fushigina ikimono! Sono Kazu ha nihyaku, sanbyaku, yonhyaku, daremo wakarimasen—are usually quite epic and accompanied by some fantastic illustrated scenes. Not quite up to snuff on this one, but still much better overall than some of the other movies.

For animation, art, and graphics I also give the movie 3/5 Koffings. There was nothing visually unappealing or particularly disappointing, but the lack of really terrific art unfortunate. In short, average.

Character (Pokémon) Design

The human characters are rather unimportant (and uninteresting) so I will go ahead and skip them to talk about Zorua and Zoroark.

I really like Zorua as a character, and felt it brought something new to the movies. The movies often have some semi-helpless Pokémon that Ash has to save, and help right the wrongs done to nature and Pokémon (though Lucario was more than badass enough to take care of itself). Zorua brought a new take on this role. For one, unlike Celebi, Lati@s, or Manaphy, Zorua has telepathic powers that let it talk, and develops the "perspective of the Pokémon", much like what occurred with Jirachi, Lucario, Darkrai, and Shaymin (odd that the Pokémon that "have" telepathy are often not the Psychic ones—go figure).

Being able to talk can be good or bad, as it can often backfire and ruin the "nature" image or take away from Pokémon's mystique—especially because unlike say, Darkrai, Zorua is something of a chatterbox. However, I thought the ability to talk worked well with Zorua's non-legendary status (making taking away its "mystique" less problematic) and trickster-like personality. We also got a nice balance since Zoroark does not talk (though we know it must obviously possess that ability). It kind of adds to developing Zoroark's personality, making it seen more mature, reserved, "grown up,"—having telepathic abilities but knowledgeably avoiding the risks associated with talking with humans.

As for Zorua's voice and personality—I really enjoyed them. Zorua's got the personality of a playful prankster kid. He's smart, clever, and a bit of a brat, but he's a good kid at heart. He's the Calvin and Hobbes's Calvin of the Pokémon world. He ends all his sentances with "da-zo", which shows his boisterous and tough personality. "We're going to find my ma dazo!" or "You guys are now my friends dazo!"

For those who study Japanese, you probably know about the diversity of words for "me". From the humble "watashi" to the more manly "ore" or the effeminate (aggressive female, or cutesy female) "atashi". Pokémon particularly likes giving characters interesting "me" words in order to develop character personality. For instance Bill uses "wai", while Whitney and Bebe use "uchi" to show their lively personalities and connection to the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, where Johto is based off of). A lot of the professors, including Oak, use "washi" to represent themselves as old men. Shaymin (Sheimi in Japanese) uses "me", which comes from Shei-MI and is obviously a reference to English. Speaking of which, Lt. Surge also uses "me" because he's . . . an American. If you ever play the game in Japanese, enjoy the opportunity to find just how they manage to cram every painful stereotype about Americans into Lt. Surge's 5-6 lines of talking.

In any case, Zorua uses "oira", which is similar to the standard strong manly "ore". I got a kick out of this because oira (or just "oi") was also used in the dialect from Satsuma (now part of Kagoshima Prefecture), and Satsuma was badass. I mean, Saigo Takamori (the inspiration for the Last Samurai) was from Satsuma. How can you be more badass than that? If Zorua had spoke Satsuma dialect the whole time I would give this whole movie an instant 10 Koffings out of 5, it is that awesome. Well, Zorua still gets a stamp of approval from me for using "oira". Badass kid, badass.

Wrap Up

Overall, this was not a bad movie (not even by Pokémon standards). It was not a great movie, but it certainly was not a bad movie. I give it average ratings on almost everything. If you do not care about plot, background illustrations, nor fear the ridicule of those who would scorn you for watching Pokémon movies—this movie offers lots of Zoroark kickass, which is very notable. If you are a fan of the Pokémon movies as a series, you will probably enjoy this.

Overall Rating


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