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Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon (review)
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Enterprise & Society 6.2 (2005) 309-311

Joseph Tobin, ed. Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. 299 pp. ISBN 0-8223-3250-7, $75.95 (cloth); 0-8223-3287-6, $21.95 (paper).

Duly impressed by the phenomenal success of the Pokémon toy and collectibles franchise in the United States and elsewhere in the world during the late 1990s and early 2000s, an international group of scholars from a variety of academic fields, including sociology, anthropology, communications, and media studies, convened in November 2000 for a Pokémon conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. Out of this conference comes Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, a collection of thirteen essays compiled by the conference's organizer, Joseph Tobin, a professor of early childhood education at Arizona State University. It is evident from the beginning that the authors involved are all fascinated by Pokémon, seeing it as a unique cultural artifact, mainly because of its multimedia aspect: Pokémon was not only a game for Nintendo's Game Boy handheld video game system but also a television program, series of movies, and playable and collectible card collection. Moreover, Pokémon's metanarrative of the acquisition, training, and competing of over one hundred "pocket monsters," each with its own unique statistics and evolutionary potential, demands a mastery of complex knowledge and active interaction on the part of its intended audience(s) that is unique for a line of children's toy. Nevertheless, the essays in the volume are thematically united under a broader discourse that encompasses all of popular culture and more specifically popular culture aimed at children. This is the debate of structure versus agency in the production, consumption, and uses of popular culture—that is to say, the relative power of, on the one hand, the profit-seeking corporations that foist a soulless product on a docile and passive public, most insidiously when they target helpless children and, on the other hand, savvy consumers who interpret products in their own way and make use of them in ways that producers did not entirely intend. The children are thus, in Tobin's words, either "dupes or savants" (p. 9). Not surprisingly, Tobin and the other authors try to steer a middle course between the Scylla and Charybdis of structure and agency, but not quite successfully. Media and education scholars David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green suggest the use of the term 'pedagogy' to conceptualize this third way, but their elaboration of the concept is too vague to provide a useful alternative to the binary system outlined above. For the most part, the authors tend to support agency over structure.

There are two major subthemes within the collection. One is the "Japaneseness" of Pokémon and the implications for cultural identity when cultural products are exported. Anthropologist Anne Allison argues that Pokémon's use of the uniquely Japanese cultural value of "cuteness" (kawaisa) allows it to provide "comfort and reassurance" for children who are overwhelmed by the pressures placed on family and community by postmodern capitalism, both in Japan and around the developed world (p. 45). But the ability of Pokémon to retain its Japaneseness outside of Japan is problematic. Although he does not describe Pokémon as a victim of a hegemonic process of Americanization, media and cultural studies scholar Koichi Iwabuchi states that, due to Japanese firms' reliance on Western and multinational corporations for distribution and marketing outside of Japan, Japanese products, Pokémon included, lose some of their "cultural odor" when exported. This process results in part from "localization," that is, the tweaking of products to appeal to smaller audiences, audiences mostly defined by the nation-state. Anthropology graduate students Hirofumi Katsuno and Jeffrey Maret present a case study on the editing of the Pokémon television series for distribution within the United States, finding that most of the sexual innuendo and some of the more graphic violence that were acceptable for a children's program in Japan ended up on the cutting-room floor in the United States.

The second subtheme examines the ways in which children interact with...