I recently finished co-producing a documentary on Pokémon Live.
It was a musical that played at Radio City Music Hall and then around the world from 2000 to 2002 or so. Due to a whirlwind of a story behind it that is covered in the doc, most traces of it have faded from memory. In essence, it became a piece of lost media. It was a nearly year-long process of trying to piece together as much of its story as possible through interviews with cast members and scouring archival footage with my good friend Jonii Vee.
This isn’t me gloating or anything like that. Rather, it’s some much-needed background for the topic we are exploring today.
I want to take a few pages’ worths of words and a few minutes of your time to discuss canon. Not weapons – those are cannons – but the literary idea of canon.
If I wanted to be dry and purely authoritative-sounding about this, I’d tell you that some dictionary definitions of canon include “a set group of works that are considered to be high quality and representative of a field” and “the collection of works by a writer or artist that are considered to be authentic.” Or at least, that’s what Vocabulary.com says.
And that’s cool and all, but what does this have to do with an obscure Pokémon musical from over 20 years ago?
When it comes to video games, canon is a bit of an odd thing. Long-running game series have potentially dozens of people in charge of writing bits and pieces of their stories throughout their numerous entries. The same sometimes applies to other pieces of media as well, such as decades-old film and TV series such as Star Trek.
Game series usually have one or only a few actual creators, but these creators don’t always stick with them. For better or worse, what is considered canon – which, for our purposes, we’ll use the common definition of “most people consider it part of the greater story of the series” – often depends on a mix of what those heavily involved with a series say and what the respective fanbases want to believe.
And this is where Pokémon Live comes in. Pokémon was created originally by Satoshi Tajiri in the nineties, and upon release later this year, Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet will mark the ninth set of fully original mainline titles in the series.
Pokémon canon gets very tricky very quickly, though. That’s perhaps funny for a series where every single game is a self-contained story.
But Pokémon is so much more than just the games. Pokémon Live doesn’t even take place in the game world – it takes place in the world of the popular Pokémon anime series. Due to featuring characters such as Ash Ketchum who do not appear in the games – though, may at times somewhat resemble game characters with how they dress – it’s generally accepted that the anime series occupies part of a different canon to the games.
As such, it’s already obvious that Pokémon Live isn’t canon to the games. But how about to the anime series?
This is where things get truly odd. The Pokémon anime series had a number of questions that it never fully answered. Who is protagonist Ash Ketchum’s father? Does Professor Oak – the kindly Pokémon researcher who sends Ash on his adventure – have a crush on Ash’s mom? And is James of the villainous Team Rocket gay?
And, according to Pokémon Live, Ash’s father was the head of Team Rocket, Oak definitely has some sort of feelings for Ash’s mom and, as for James, he literally makes a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke at one point in an early show.
This all seems wild and crazy, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. But is it canon?
Pokémon Live was not created by anyone involved with the games. While Nintendo and developer Game Freak apparently had to sign off on the script, the musical itself was the production of American-based 4Kids Entertainment. This was the same studio that was responsible for the American dub of the first eight seasons of the anime series.
Though Game Freak signed off on it, Pokémon Live itself was never even performed in Japan. According to actor Patrick Frankfort, who played Professor Oak in the musical, series creator Satoshi Tajiri was at the musical’s premiere.
However, 4Kids was known for making changes to their anime dubs. Most infamously, any references to rice balls in the Pokémon series were changed in the English dub to jelly-filled doughnuts. This arguably makes the American dub of Pokémon different from the original Japanese version.
If Pokémon Live is canon, is it then only canon to the American version? Or, as the original creator of the series was aware of it and watched it premiere, is the musical canon to the series as a whole?
I am not trying to answer this question today. Rather, I am just wanting to touch on this subject. I honestly don’t know the answer. Just as likely as it being canon to just the American dub or the series as the whole is the possibility of Pokémon Live not being canon to any part of the series.
If that is the case, then it is just an officially sanctioned Elseworlds-esque story filled with fun music, silly humour, and a whole slew of puppets and pyrotechnics.
Pokémon Live is a fun work to view the idea of what makes something canon through. A thought exercise, of sorts. This is all meant in good fun, after all.
I mean, it features a one-of-a-kind never-before-seen Pokémon called MechaMew2, which is just like the regular Pokémon Mewtwo, except covered in samurai-esque armour and filled with explosives. It’s a wild musical with an even wilder story behind it, and I’m glad to have been able to talk about it today.
From Ash to Dust: How Pikachu Nearly Took Broadway was released on YouTube on 29 March 2022. It is viewable on the YouTube channel Stuff We Play, and there is a follow-up video that dives in even farther into Pokémon Live on Jonii’s YouTube channel.