For any child of the Nineties, Pokémon was an inescapable part of growing up. One of Japan’s most lucrative exports, it became a way of life. The Gameboy games, the trading cards, and, of course, the still on-going anime series. Even now, twenty years later, a new generation has been hitting the streets as Pokémon Go rekindled our quest to be the very best.
At this year’s MCM Comic Con, we had the great honour to sit down with the amazingly talented and genuinely lovely Veronica Taylor, the original voice of our peppy hero Ash Ketchum, to look back on the show’s history and its enduring success…
How does it feel looking around today and seeing so much love for Pokémon, even after twenty years?
It’s extraordinary! The thing is, I’ve worked on so many things, but many of them nobody’s ever heard of or seen! Pokémon is a show that we’ve all grown up with. It’s part of us! The only thing I had heard before getting the part was that some kids got seizures from some show called “Pokémon”, so we had no idea! Even then, when they said it was going to go on TV, we were all like “Great, yeah, okay, whatever! We’ll see…” But we were happy to be working on a show. And then, of course, it did actually go on TV. I don’t think anybody knew that it’d last a year, let alone twenty!
What is it about Ash that makes him so appealing to audiences?
I think Ash is kind of the Everyman character that we all relate to. We all are on a journey through Ash. I love that first episode, because nobody knew what was gonna happen! I love that he’s so excited the night before, watching TV and getting psyched up, but then he oversleeps! Then he goes running out, misses out on everything… We’ve all done that in our lives! Maybe not run out in our pyjamas, but it right away set up that this was something relatable, before he gets Pikachu, and that’s something we all don’t have! That started this extraordinary adventure, but because we had that introduction, we could be on it with him. To be able to jump into the sneakers of Ash at work, and be this amazingly positive boy, even though I was a girl… He is all of us!
What was it like, as a girl, playing a ten year old boy?
For me, I played Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island on stage before that, and it was believable that I was a boy, so playing a boy in a cartoon; I didn’t really think about it that much. It was nice to have a leading role, because there are so few female leading roles, especially in 1998! It has an impact for me, because it means, ultimately, that girls can do anything, and I really believe in equality. For everyone. It was a sense of equality for me that I could be believed as this character, regardless of the fact that it was a boy. A lot of girls have talked to me about that; how great it was that it was a girl who played Ash. In the beginning, they didn’t want me to do interviews because they didn’t want anyone to know. They said “if you say your name’s Ronnie, so no-one knows, then we’ll let you do interviews”, which I didn’t do, because you can’t really hide that! There are more girl roles now. I still play a lot of boy roles, and they’re sometimes a little more fun!
So how does it feel when you see people now “being Ash” while they’re walking around playing Pokémon Go?
It’s so fun! I play it sometimes, but more often than not, I just watch people. I’ll be walking on the street, and then someone drives by with the first season theme song blaring out of their car… What a treat that is! It’s one of those songs that makes you feel great; it’s so positive! I have gone up to people playing it and said “hey, you know I used to play Ash on the show?” and they’re like “okay…” and then they’re back to their game.
Do you ever sneak up on them and do Ash’s voice?
(laughs) Well I hadn’t thought of that! I might have to do that! I’ll just carry my pokéball around with me and throw it at them… That’s a good idea!
Why do you think Pokémon is still so important to its original audiences?
The show was more than just an advertisement for the games. It had heart. We all learned from it about friendship, positivity… All of the stuff that you could relate to, and go on your own adventures through it. The games supported that, because you could meet people by playing cards… That created community. You immediately had something to talk about if you saw someone playing any Pokémon game. That you can master it helps you relate to other people, and you challenge yourself to get better and better. The show reinforces that.
Speaking of that emotional response, Ash’s death in The First Movie is still one of the most heart-breaking moments in cinema history…
I know! I recently saw the movie again in theatres and everybody was crying! We all cried!
Were you aware this was coming when you received the script?
No! We had no idea! We never got the scripts ahead of time, so it’s not like you knew what was coming up; you just got to that point in the script. So, no, I didn’t know! Also, in other shows that I work on, you can be doing it and your character dies, or something bad happens to them, and nobody told you that was gonna happen. And then you’re going “I hope I come back!” y’know? I think it’s wonderful, because we all experience loss in our lives, and through the show, as kids, we learn about loss and how to deal with it and grow from it. You rely on your friends and your family to get you through it. This movie is a prime example of that; Ash cared so much that he sacrificed himself, and they cared so much that they brought him back. It’s the power of friendship. It’s important to us all.
Do you think that’s the most important message Pokémon relates?
Well, I’ve always thought of myself as a positive person. I didn’t realise the work it took to be positive until I started playing Ash. Ash would never say “we can’t make it”, he’d always say (in Ash’s voice) “How can we get through this? What can we do?”. That’s so important in all of our lives. The minute you let yourself get down, it’s over. You always have to look towards to positive; try to figure out a positive way to get through it, to help others. That’s how we move along. But I don’t think I realised that so much before Pokémon. It’s inherent in most of us, but you’re not as cognizant as you should be. It takes a lot of work to be positive and not give up.
One of the biggest mysteries in the show, and one that has never been answered… Who’s Ash’s Dad?
Y’know? I have no idea! We all have our jokes and things we like to say. Like, Giovanni… Wouldn’t that be funny? It’d be such a weird thing if it were… But ultimately I have no idea. It never has been brought up. I do think part of that not knowing is part of the reason Ash starts his journey in the first place, and to discover that part of himself that he didn’t know. I think all of us have had some loss in our lives, and it sends you off on a journey in search of something. His not having his dad around, although he and his mum have a fine life with Mr. Mime… That’s part of it, and part of why Ash’s mum lets him go on a journey with just a backpack with maybe two pairs of underwear and a friend who says he can cook.
So, as a mum, and now as Ash’s mum in the show, do you think every ten-year-old child should be sent out in search of mythical beasts?
(laughs) You know what? I think you can do that in your bedroom. You find your imagination, you’ve got your flashlight, you’re under the covers, you’ve built a tent and you have your characters and you create that world. Yes! Would I let my daughter go with a backpack out into the world alone? Absolutely not! Unless we were going together. But we journey together. Imagination-wise, I think every child should go on an adventure like that, and as a parent, that’s what I hope to bring about. But no, I would never! Plus, there were no cell-phones at the time! They have to get in touch? They have to find… Remember those big picture phones when he would call Professor Oak? Now we have most of that stuff! We just don’t have a tiny ball that we can put stuff into! But we all need to be able to take ourselves on an imaginative journey, because with our imagination, we can go anywhere. Every kid needs that, and you find that in books and in TV shows, but not always with the screen on. You need to take off, y’know? And I think we, as adults, need to allow children to do that. And we can go with them, even in a museum or something. So it’s a yes and no answer!