Japan, the birthplace of Pokemon, is not immune to the influence of Alchemy. Cross-pollination, in a cultural sense, with China no doubt infused the country with ideas of the Philosopher’s stone, Elixers, and transmutation. Drifting into the public psyche, it’s no surprise Alchemy ideas, images, and words can be re-identified in the initial Pokemon games (published by Nintendo in 1996) when looking back on the 20th anniversary.
Other fictional works from Japan use Alchemical language. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979, Tokyo Movie Shinsha) is inspired by the charlatan alchemist of the same name. A childhood spent in 1970’s Japan would have imbued Pokemon Creators like Satoshi Tajiri with a vague (at least) awareness of alchemy.
They used these basic building blocks as ideas to support their world of Pocket Monsters.
A name using these alchemical building blocks in fiction is “literary alchemy”. John Granger coined that term. It’s where fiction writers use alchemy “imagery and language” to build a world, or make milestones for a character’s journey to enlightenment and purification.
In mentioning “Azoth”, and having Solgaleo imitate the “Lion Devouring the Sun” alchemy artwork, Pokemon echoes and expands on ideas and alchemy archetypes used to weave together the Pokemon world together twenty years ago.
Here are five of those ideas:
5 . Alchemy concerned creating the philosopher’s stone, which was also know as the Elixir of life. “Elixers” are found across the Kanto region.
Elixer’s and tinctures are the core aspect of an alchemists day-to-day job. They get up, experiment, hide the recipe in an intricate, cryptic script, and then go out with the alchemist friends. Pokemon misspells the item as “elixir” (pron: “el – icks – ear”). Like most fantasy works, the item’s effects are restorative.
4 . Refining base metals into gold represents a big life goal for alchemists. Gold Orbs – “Nuggets” in the English versions – are also scattered across the Kanto region.
Using a philosopher’s stone, alchemists can transmute lead into gold. Everyone who has seen Harry Potter knows this. Delving a bit deeper, some alchemists found gold transmutation to be common. A distraction from the true goal – prolonging life and curing illness. The pursuit of gold could even be seen as toxic avarice.
Team Rocket desire wealth, and one character in Lavender Town – the place where Team Rocket committed the crime of killing a Marowak – says:
“TEAM ROCKET will do anything for the sake of gold!”
-Lavender Town Pokemon Centre NPC, 1996.
A degree of literary alchemy is at work here, casting Team Rocket in a selfish and destructive light for their desire of gold even before the player learns of their murderous rampages.
3 . Cinnabar is a naturally occurring mercury sulphide used by Alchemist in ancient Chinese culture as a principal material, and is the name of an island in the Kanto region.
In Japan, Cinnabar Island is know as “Guren Island”, which translates roughly into “Crimson Colored Lotus Island”. Remembering that literary alchemy evokes a journey to purity and enlightenment, the Lotus flower is also a symbol of enlightenment. Even if it’s red. The alchemy connection to Pokemon remains, if somewhat a bit less direct, across translations.
2. Firestones are for sale in the Celadon department store (4th floor, 2100.00 Pokedollars), but a firestone is also a half finished philosopher’s stone.
According to Diana Fernando ( Alchemy, an illustrated A to Z. 1998, Blandford) Jack Glass says to new alchemists “aim at the firestone – the stepping stone – first. It will transmute lower metals”.
If we swap out lower metals for fire type Pokemon, this statement is another thread tying Pokemon and Alchemy together. The firestone, and by extension the other elemental stones (plus the sun and moon stones from Pokemon Gold and Silver) transmute Pokemon. The link carries over into the Mega-stones introduced in Pokemon X and Y.
1. The “great work” or the steps needed to create a philosopher’s stone are 12 to 14 items long, depending on the differing alchemical lore. These stages line up with the major tasks needed to complete the Pokemon Adventure in Red, Blue, and Yellow versions.
Eight gym leaders. The elite four. The final rival battle. Capturing Mewtwo. Excluding the final tasks, there are 12 stages to becoming a Pokemon champion. With the added two obstacles, you can add defeating your rival, and capturing a powerful and notorious Pokemon. Fourteen steps altogether.
Creating a philospher’s stone commonly takes 12 steps:
The numbers do match up. In completing your Pokemon journey, you refine yourself into a Pokemon Champion, with a completed Pokedex. This is a match with a less well know Alchemy goal – improving the self, and achieving self awareness in your life.
But does this add up? Do you have any thoughts on literary alchemy in the Pokemon Games? Let me know in the commments.