Pocket Monsters
The Movie "Koko"

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Dogasu's Backpack | Movies & Specials Guide | Koko

This review contains spoilers for Movie 23.

After the year we've all just had, sitting down to finally watch Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is a surreal experience. Originally slated for a July 10th release, the film was pushed back six months thanks to COVID-19, making the 532 day gap between the previous film and this new one the longest in the franchise's history. Finally getting a chance to sit down and watch the 23rd Pokémon movie is like sitting down to play Kingdom Hearts 3, or watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You've been waiting so long you can't believe the day has finally come.

But it has, and you know what? Maybe all that build up was too much for a film that, at the end of the day, is really just OK.

Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is about a human boy named Koko who was found alone in a forest when he was just a baby. Zarude, one of the Mythical Pokémon who lives in the forest, decides to take the young boy under his wing and raise it as its own child. Ten years pass until one day a series of events lead to Koko encountering his very first human friend -- a boy from Masara Town named Satoshi. Koko learns about this new type of creature called "humans" and wonders if, maybe, he himself isn't a Pokémon at all...? And if he's not a Pokémon, does that mean that Zarude isn't his real father?

One of the first things people say when they talk about this movie is to dismiss it as a rip-off of "The Kangaskhan Kid" and / or Disney's Tarzan. And, well, put the two side by side it's hard to argue that the influence isn't there.

But to dismiss Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" as a mere Tarzan clone is probably about the laziest and most hack criticism you could possibly make for this film. Did the people who made Koko lift a few things from Disney's 1999 Tarzan film? Absolutely. Does that matter in any way whatsoever? Of course not. That's because, despite a few surface-level similarities, Koko stands as its own film. An inferior film in many ways, sure, but a film with its own unique identity nonetheless.

Director Tetsuo Yajima got the drive to tell this story from him becoming a father himself and wanting to work through his feelings about what it means to be a parent. The filmmakers also figured that hey, a lot of the people who grew up watching Pocket Monsters when they were little are all grown up with children of their own, making now as good a time as any to tell a story like this. All the pre-release promotional material -- the interviews, the podcast appearances, the social media comments -- made it seem like this was going to be a story delving into the concept of "found family," and how you can be closer to people you're not actually related to by blood than you are with the people who share your DNA.

If that was the story they were going for then they unfortunately fumbled the ball here. Don't get me wrong, the connection between Koko and Zarude is sweet and heartwarming......on paper. But there's just something about the two's interactions that make it feel more like someone checking off a bunch of items on a list
than them crafting a real connection between two characters who find themselves in one extraordinary situation after the other. Scene of them bonding over food? Check. Scene of one crying for the other? Check. Scene of one almost dying for the other? Check. The whole thing has this manufactured, clinical feel to it, as if the filmmakers have figured out the secret formula to making Japanese audiences cry and so they're just plugging in variables into an equation. The relationship between Satoshi and Koko feels much more organic, at least, but that's really just a detour. The main event, the supposed backbone of this film, just feels like robots carrying out a program.

It doesn't help that there aren't really too many likable characters in the movie this time around. The film opens, for example, on the Zarude troop bullying a bunch of smaller, weaker Pokémon, intimidating them in order to get berries all to themselves. Not really a great first impression for the group the movie's gonna want us to cheer on in the third act, now is it! The film's titular character is alright, I guess, but he doesn't really ever talk to anyone other than his "Dada" or Satoshi, and the latter can't even understand what he's saying and so even that has its limits. And Dr. Zed is the murderous (!) bad guy, so that leaves us with...Karen? Koko's parents? That mayor dude who walks around in Baiwooluu cosplay, for some reason? Compared to Mr. Yajima's previous film, Pocket Monsters The Movie "Everyone's Story," this film has a surprising lack of likable, fleshed out characters.

One thing this movie actually did carry over from Everyone's Story, happily, is the sense that Mr. Yajima's movie takes place in a living, breathing world. There are background characters all over the place, and everyone's moving about and going about their lives regardless of what's going on in the foreground. None of that "characters just standing around still as statues, never reacting to anything" going on here, nosiree! The Okoya Forest and Milyfa Town are living, breathing places, and the movie uses its strong visual style to make sure there's always something for us to look at.

The voice cast for this film is, for the most part, top notch. Kankuro Nakamura's "Dada" is pretty much perfect, and watching Kouichi Yamadera's turn from the cool and collected researcher to the murderous, enraged villain in the final act is an absolute delight. Shoko Nakagawa is usually this unstoppable ball of energy so seeing her play Karen in a subdued, natural way reminds us of just how great an actor she is. The regulars - Rica Matsumoto, Ikue Otani, the Rocket quartet -- are all up to their usual high quality. The only voice I couldn't really get into, unfortunately, was Koko's. Moka Kamishiraishi is a fine actress and all, but there were several points in the film where I was very aware that this ten-year-old boy was being voiced by an adult woman.

Music-wise, the film does a lot of interesting things. The movie has the usual opening and ending theme and then a whopping four insert songs (five if you include the second, alternate version of Okite no Uta that's not on that Theme Song Collection, for some reason), the most of any Pocket Monsters film to date. You could see this as being yet another thing the filmmakers are ripping off from Disney's Tarzan, but unlike the Phil Collins songs in that film the music in Koko has a lot more variety. Show Window is a standout, and Hum of the Forest is a hauntingly beautiful song that's used in the most absolutely perfect moment. Shinji Miyazaki and the rest of the crew from Everyone's Story returns to provide the non-vocal background music, and I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear his music in Pokémon again. I've grown to like Yuki Hayashi's work in the Pocket Monsters (2019) TV series and I think he's a super talented musician and all, but at the end of the day the show doesn't sound like Pocket Monsters if Mr. Miyazaki isn't working on it. The movie also makes great use of silence -- scenes without any background music whatsoever -- to give certain scenes the weight they wouldn't otherwise have if, say, someone was playing a sad melody in the background.

Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is by no means a bad film. It's actually pretty decent. I just think that if you go into this expecting a movie as great as director Yajima's other Pokémon movie then you're going to walk away disappointed. Temper your expectations and I think you'll have a decent time.

Stray observations:

  • The audience at the theater I went to was probably the smallest crowd for a Pocket Monsters movie I've ever seen in the 13-ish years I've been watching Pokémon movies in Japanese theaters. To be fair, I went on the earliest showing I could find on a regular weekday morning (I had to take the day off of work to go see it opening day) so I'm sure that affected things. I hope this movie doesn't bomb, but as a fan of not catching COVID-19 I can't say I was too upset by the smaller crowd size.
  • There are a few dirty diaper jokes / a Skunpuu fart joke early on in the film, for those of you who like that sort of thing.
  • No explanation is ever given as to what those white markings are on Koko's face and torso. Tattoos? Paint? Purin's angry scribbles? We never find out.
  • Koko can only speak Pokémon language when he first meets Satoshi so a lot of their early interactions are just Koko grunting something and then Satoshi trying to figure out what he just tried to say. Koko picks up a few words here and there over the course of the movie -- "Satoshi," "friend," "father and son" -- but he never gets to the point where he becomes super fluent or anything.
  • The name of the town just outside the Okoya Jungle is called Milyfa Town (ミリーファタウン), which is just the word "family" with its letters rearranged. That goes right along with the naming scheme of Okoya Jungle, which is just the word oyako (親子), or "parent and child" with its letters rearranged.
  • The second movie trailer edits the scene of Satoshi talking to his mom in a way that it makes it look like he rudely hangs up on her but that's not really the way it happens in the actual film. He keeps trying to hang up but his mom interrupts him repeatedly to bug him about new things ("Do you have enough Potions? Food for Pikachu?"). He ends up making up some excuse before finally hanging up. It's a lot less abrupt then what we see in the trailer.
  • The only Pokémon we ever see Satoshi use in this movie is Pikachu.
  • This movie has the debut of a lot of Generation 8 Pokémon. Many them are only get "blink and you'll miss them" cameos (Sacchimushi, Foxly, Pulsewan, Beroba, Galar Maggyo, etc) but others, like Hoshigarisu and Tairehtsu, get quite a bit of screentime.
  • Satoshi tries to get both an Uu and an Appryu he comes across in the jungle but both of them manage to get away.
  • The Mother of Rohta can be seen walking around Milyfa Town as Satoshi shows Koko around.
  • Koko has never seen a Monster Ball before and is understandably freaked out when he sees multiple people use these little handheld spheres to make a bunch of Pokémon disappear out of thin air.
  • So Dr. Zed's whole deal is that he wants to find the Holy Tree so he can uncover the secrets of the Spring of Healing. Dr. Chrom Molybdenum and Dr. Lin Molybdenum, Koko's parents and researchers at the Biotope Company, had actually discovered the location of the tree a whole ten years ago, but when they found out that it's considered to be a sacred place to the Zarude who live there they decided they should search for a way to obtain the tree's secrets without upsetting the Pokémon. Dr. Zed's angry at this decision -- who gives an eff about what some stupid Pokémon want!? -- so he goes after the couple to steal the data they had gathered on the location of the tree. A car chase ensues, and Dr. Zed ends up running their car off the side of the road and into a riverbank below. He steals the data from the flaming wreckage of their car and then walks away, allowing it to explode with Koko's parents still pinned underneath their vehicle. It's probably the closest we're ever going to get to a human murdering other humans, on-screen, in this franchise.
  • The "Satoshi talks about his dad" thing is basically just him saying something along the lines of "When I was little a bunch of the other kids would make fun of me because of my dream. But my papa told me that the map that leads to my dream is within me and that if I give up, my dream won't come true." And that's it! There was no mention of where his dad is now, no flashback showing his dad's face, none of that. Just two or three lines of dialogue, pretty much exactly as I predicted.
  • The Rocket trio actually get a decent amount of screentime in this movie! They're mostly around to serve the same purpose as they did in last year's film -- that is, sneaking around the villain's lair and stumbling across  videos and other files that provide important exposition -- but they do also get a chance to also cooperate with Satoshi and Koko at one point. Kojirou's kind of a computer genius in this movie, researching the Biotope Company on his tablet and then later hacking into the keypad outside Dr. Zed's study, while Musashi and Nyarth are more comedy relief than anything else. The trio also has some great scenes with Uu and even get to help Satoshi and Pikachu out at one point.
  • Nyarth's human disguise includes him wearing somehow fitting his cat paw into a five-fingered glove. It is suuuuuuper unsettling.
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  • Dr. Zed's mecha is rendered completely in some funky 2006-era CG. It sticks out soooooo much, y'all. The models themselves are sufficiently detailed and everything, but there's just something off about them that make them stick out like a sore thumb. It honestly looks like placeholder CG to me, or like maybe they forgot to turn on a few layers before adding it to the movie? It looks incomplete, and I can't help but wonder how much worse things would have looked if this movie had come out in July instead of December.
  • The phrase "Mythical Pokémon" has pretty much lost all meaning at this point, and the Zarude in this movie are a perfect example. There are about 30 of them in the Okoya Forest (according to the film's pamphlet) and basically none of the humans ever lift a finger to try to get them for themselves. The Rocket trio has no interest in them, Dr. Zed has no interest in them, Satoshi doesn't really bat an eye when he meets them...it's as if they're just common, everyday Pokémon.
  • Koko is somehow able to use Jungle Heal toward the end of the movie to bring his Dada back from the brink of death, so there's that.
  • Celebi doesn't show up until literally the last five minutes of the movie. Like, I think maybe the Lugia in Everyone's Story had more screentime...?
  • The end credits are an animation of (mostly) Uu and Hoshigarisu dancing to the ending theme while the film's credits play on the right side. This would have been the perfect place to, I dunno, show all the parent-child groups throughout the franchise (Takeshi, Haruka & Masato, Hikari, etc) but I suppose the film's director thought conspicuously skipping over the parentless companions like Kasumi and Dent would have made the whole thing too awkward.
  • There was no teaser, or hint, or anything about Movie 24 played after this film. Just end credits, a Pokémon with You ad, a message about how to receive the "Dada" Zarude on your Sword & Shield games, and then...that's it!
Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" was released in theaters in Japan on December 25th, 2020.




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