Pocket Monsters Crystal: Raikou - Legend of Thunder is a three-part special episode of the Pokémon anime that came out in Japan in 2001, during the Johto arc. This special is longer than some of the Pokémon movies, and it was even released on DVD in Japan, so we decided to talk about this here, as part of our series of Pokémon movie reviews.
One special thing about this special episode is the cast. The protagonist of the Generation I games, Red, appears in the anime as Ash, and the show is almost always all about Ash being the hero of everything. While the Generation II games introduced new protagonists, Gold and Kris, the anime at the time was going strong with its formula, and so they weren't going to change up the main cast all of a sudden. So, Gold and Kris don't get to be in the main series Pokémon anime -- instead, this special episode is an attempt to give them (and some other characters from Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal) a bit of the limelight. And, as per the title, the plot even features a legendary Pokémon that hadn't appeared before (and won't appear again for a long time).
Poor Raikou. It simultaneously gets the best and the worst deal out of the Legendary Beasts. The third movie features Entei, though it is notably an illusion of an Entei and not a real Entei. The fourth movie (under-)features Suicune, but in a secondary role after Celebi, and it is super badly CG'd, and it is an (un)glorified water purifier on legs. Raikou doesn't get a movie appearance at all (until movie number 13, but that's weird too, wait for that one). What it got instead was this special three-part episode that Denise didn't know was ever dubbed into English - it wasn't brought to the US until 2006, five years later, when Generation IV was about to come out and Denise was in college and not able to keep up with the Pokémon anime. So, at least as far as Denise knew, this was a mysterious Japan-only story that she couldn't watch. This is why we say that Raikou gets the worst deal: it doesn't get a movie at all, and what it got barely made it out of Japan. But, when you get to actually see the episode, Raikou actually gets the best deal out of the three Legendary Beasts, because the entire special episode is centered on Raikou. The actual, wild Raikou that runs around the Johto region. Not an illusion. Not playing second-fiddle to some other legendary. Just Raikou as Raikou. And it really gets plenty of opportunity to shine. If you get to see this episode at all.
When it was finally dubbed into English for the United States all of five years later, it was butchered to Hell - so we didn't bother to watch it dubbed; we instead watched a well-made fansub. Apparently the dub messed up all the names, cut things willy-nilly, and just, wow. They took so long to do what, exactly? To misgender Basho? Who is clearly a bishonen. Just listen to his Japanese voice if you are confused. If you've seen Sephiroth, you have no excuse being confused by this guy. The animators lovingly shaded his package. We know he has long hair and stunning eyelashes, and that confuses Denise's parents, but there's no excuse for the professional localization team of Japanese media having a problem here.
Anyway, we should actually talk about the plot and not just go off on these tangents so soon.
Okay, so, this story is about Kenta who is the anime counterpart of Gold. He has a Typhlosion, who was the Cyndaquil that he got from Professor Elm as a starter, and by when the episode starts, it has already evolved, and they are already in a trusting team together, and aah, we can skip all the part of him needing to get started and build up a bond with his Pokémon from scratch. It's also notable that the primary Pokémon on Kenta's team is Typhlosion, and he is not keeping it as a Cyndaquil for its entire life because that would be cuter (cough cough).
Early in the episode, Kenta bumps into Marina, who is the anime counterpart of Kris, and they are already friends but haven't seen each other in awhile, so we don't need to deal with them meeting each other and becoming friends, they are already friends, aah, nice, okay. There's another mutual friend of theirs, Junichi, who they are in a video call with. He's Professor Elm's younger brother or something? It is never addressed why he looks so much like Professor Elm, and the show even goes so far to put Junichi and Elm matched in the paired commercial break spots, seemingly implying a connection... but nothing says so one way or the other??? Whatever, it's his younger brother or cousin or son or something and you can't tell us that he's not related in some way, we do not believe you.
Anyway, Junichi has a crush on Marina and challenges Kenta in a love triangle and somehow this doesn't piss us off because we are just really glad to see these characters, and somehow this crush subplot doesn't bother us? Not sure why? We guess because Marina totally knows both of them have crushes on her, and is not afraid to tease them a little and see what happens? She clearly is friendly with both of them, and it's a bit ambiguous if she really wants to end up with either of them or none of them or what. Apparently the dub shipped her hard with Kenta, but not so much in the original Japanese.
It is so refreshing to follow the adventures of someone who is not Ash for once. We actually watched this special after watching the Keldeo movie and then the Lucario movie, and we were just feeling so... god... like, one of the Pokémon movies happening to Ash, we can believe. But all of these movies happening to Ash is just ridiculous. There's main character powers, and then there's just unfair legendary magnetism. How many times has he had a near-death experience? How many times has he been involved in a time-travel event? How many times has he gained ridiculous powers that didn't bother him in the slightest? It's absurd. So to see someone else meet a legendary for the first time in their life and react accordingly (and not like, oh, wow, I'm seeing Mew again, like I don't even care anymore) is such a breath of fresh air. And there is no Pikachu. And we don't hate Pikachu or anything, but do you know how many times Ash says Pikachu's name during the movies, and Pikachu has to go "Pikapi!" in reply? It's like a sound loop that plays in our heads unbidden whenever we think of the Pokémon movies. "Pikachuuu!" "Pikapiii!!!" So... this was a really nice change.
Once Marina and Kenta are done with the video call with Junichi, they talk a bit... at one point Marina teases Kenta by whipping out her Lance sticker book. Then they decide to have a friendly two-on-two battle. Marina's Jigglypuff vs. Kenta's Beedrill goes to Beedrill. There's then Marina's Croconaw vs. Kenta's Typhlosion, and they do make the point that the type match-up is silly, but maybe Kenta has a secret plan for victory... but we never get to know how it ended, because a freaking bolt of lightning almost hits them all.
Kenta and Marina were going to run back to the Pokémon Center, but Marina's Misdreavus goes off in the other direction, and they follow it to a clearing where Team Rocket members Basho and Buson have set up their Electric-Defeating Crystal Dark Welkynd Stone of Doom.
Why is it a crystal? Because Pokémon Crystal. Several times now the anime has tried to shoehorn something made of crystal to reference and somehow "explain" the title of that game - there was the crystal tower in the Entei movie, and now this. For most of our lives we've been wondering what is up with Crystal following Gold and Silver anyway. That's not a logical progression at all. We thought that maybe it's because Bronze sounds inferior to Gold and Silver, and Platinum just doesn't sound good (but they scraped the bottom of the name barrel later...) But we think we've finally figured it out. We thought that they picked the name Crystal and then made the cartridge semi-transparent to match the name, but actually, it was probably the other way around. Pokémon Crystal, unlike Gold and Silver, is for the Game Boy Color only, and games made for the Game Boy Color that weren't backwards-compatible with the older Game Boy were denoted by having a semi-transparent cartridge, which looks like... a crystal! It took us almost 20 years to figure this out, but we think we finally have it!
Anyway, Team Rocket's dark crystal lures all the electric Pokémon to it, and if they try to use their electric attacks, their electricity only fuels the crystal and enables the crystal to shock them back. Basho and Buson are hoping to lure Raikou to them, but it doesn't seem to be working. They checked the PokéDex, and Raikou was probably running this way, but maybe not. We love that this is an established plot point, really, it is just like playing the games.
Anyway, no self-respecting member of Team Rocket would just leave all these helpless Mareeps and Raichus around, so Basho and Buson bring out the evil mechanical arms to grab them and make it really obvious to any casual observer just how evil they are. Conveniently, Kenta and Marina are casual observers to this blatant evilness. They were going to help, but they don't get to, because Raikou appears.
Raikou bites off the mechanical arms and frees all the poor trapped Pokémon and is out for blood. But Basho and Buson aren't too bothered. This is what they were wanting after all. Raikou tries to attack them, but that only powers the crystal and lets it attack Raikou until almost the point of fainting. So now Kenta jumps in with Typhlosion and tries to save Raikou. Basho and Buson send out their Steelix and Skarmory, and Typhlosion starts getting its ass handed to it, so Marina has Misdreavus use its Perish Song as a last resort, which forces Team Rocket to retreat.
Note that during this battle, Basho issued commands both to his own Steelix, but also to Buson's Skarmory. Bulbapedia lists this as an error, but we think it is more that they are such an established team that Basho can command Buson's Pokémon too. Also, as will be more and more confirmed over the span of the episode, Basho is very much the dominant one in this relationship, even though he is the bishonen, and Buson is the big guy. We like it when that happens.
Anyway, Team Rocket retreats, and the good guys have saved Raikou, but it is very very hurt. Kenta goes toward it to help, but Raikou distrustfully shoots some electricity at him, warning him to stay back. Before Kenta can fully convince Raikou that he is his friend and just trying to help, Raikou passes out, and so Kenta brings him to the Pokémon Center, where he keeps a constant vigil.
Eusine is a character from Pokémon Crystal who wears a magician suit and is strangely obsessed with Suicune. He shows up in this episode because he has a hard-on for Raikou too, we guess, even if his true love is Suicune.
Eusine drops the pointless backstory that humans have betrayed Raikou's trust so many times in the past that it now no longer trusts humans at all. This doesn't really add anything. We believed that Raikou is just a wild animal that of course doesn't just become best friends with the first humans it runs into. Even if you saved a bear, you wouldn't expect that bear to then be best friends with you. You would hopefully respect the fact that the bear could tear you in half, and save it in a safe way for everyone involved.
Also, the story Eusine tells implies that this Raikou was born from the first bolt of lightning and that this same singular Raikou has been alive for thousands of years. This was back when Legendary Pokémon in the Pokémon canon were (mostly) implied to be singular and immortal.
Introduced along with Eusine, there's also this guy named Kudo, who has no point whatsoever, but he gets featured in the commercial spots too, for some reason. Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny are more prominent characters than he is, so we don't get it. We thought maybe he had another role in some other episode of the anime to justify this strange spotlight on him, but no, this is his sole appearance. Maybe he was a creator's pet or something.
So, Raikou is healed, but is pissed off about being in the Pokémon Center. Once it regains enough of its strength, it busts through the wall and leaves. There's another freakish storm brewing, and Raikou runs toward it. Everyone knows it must be another trap, and they have to try to stop it. So Eusine pulls up in his freaking red sports car with his magician suit flapping in the wind, and it just looks so jarring and ridiculous.
Kudo goes off to get the police, and the twerp squad rides in Eusine's sports car to save Raikou.
Raikou has arrived to Basho and Buson, still shocking the crystal even though that really doesn't work. Team Rocket engages Raikou in battle with Steelix and that's when the sports car arrives. Kenta gets out and yells at Team Rocket, and they have a whole conversation where Basho and Buson are there with their arms crossed all like, we're doing nothing wrong, we're just catching a Pokémon here, and Kenta hopping around all, but it's different when I do it, and you are doing it mean and... honestly, Team Rocket has a point here. It's like in FireRed and LeafGreen, in the Sevii Islands, there's the whole plot of, "Oh no, Team Rocket is catching Pokémon in the Ice Cave!" and Denise is like -- hiding PokéBalls and a newly captured Sneasel behind her back -- "Oh, no, that's terrible...?"
Didn't we learn after the second movie that this plotline is hypocritical as all get out?? Why do they keep reusing the idea that it is wrong to catch 'em all? At least this time, Team Rocket is pretty much just rolling their eyes and sighing at how self-righteous and non-logical and naive Kenta is being.
If Team Rocket was all, yes, we are catching this Pokémon to abuse it and use its power for evil purposes against its consent -- then Kenta could be all, oh no, I won't let you do that. But at this point, as far as Kenta can know, they are just trying to catch a Pokémon, and maybe using this crystal is a bit weird, but it's just a technological and more attack-based version of the bait or the lures from the Safari Zone and just... what, PokéBalls are okay, but no other Pokémon-catching technology is okay? Kenta is right to stop Team Rocket, but he totally loses this debate as to why he should stop Team Rocket.
We're not even sure what exactly Basho and Buson want Raikou for? To study it, and we guess use its power for some ambiguously evil purpose, probably involving money, but it's never really clear.
Also, this episode makes that same point as the Lugia movie that Raikou should be free as a wild Legendary Pokémon and its great power not in the hands of humans blah blah blah... which, once again, flies in the face of the entire plot of the games where you do need to chase Raikou across the land and manage to catch it - probably with a Master Ball - in order to complete your PokéDex, and nothing evil happened when you catch it, and Professor Oak doesn't come and reprimand you. Nope, "Your PokéDex is coming along nicely!" *jingle*
Anyway, Kenta and Marina start fighting Team Rocket. And even Junichi shows up and fights with his Meganium.
As they fight, Raikou gets weakened enough, and things are going badly enough for Team Rocket that they end up just grabbing Raikou with the mechanical arms and high-tailing it out of there.
The twerps are going to give chase but... realize Marina is missing.
It turns out that Team Rocket actually grabbed Marina too. Marina is now stuck in the aircraft cargo hold with an angry Raikou. Yike.
She manages to calm Raikou down, though not before it rips off part of the floor -- which just so happens to be exactly the panel that needed to be accessed to reach the door mechanism, and this door mechanism happens to work by: if Marina yanks out all the wires indiscriminately, the hangar door opens! Also the engines fail. This makes the part of Denise that wears the quality-control functional-safety hat scream in horror.
Marina assesses that, at their altitude, she could not survive the jump, but Raikou could. So she shoves it until it jumps out of the hatch, looking at her with sheer marvel at how could a human care enough to shove the ass of a thunder-tiger out of a moving airplane. Raikou's faith in humanity is restored. Or at least respect for Marina's intense chutzpah.
Meanwhile, Kenta and Junichi are freaking out about Marina and want to literally run through the forest after the airplane, but Eusine manages to convince them that that would be very foolish. He wants to wait for the police to come and handle this. Can we just comment on how weird it is to see the one in the magician suit being the one trying to keep everyone calm during the emergency situation?
Then they all remember that the Generation II games were the ones where they introduced cell phones, so they try calling Marina to see where she is.
The phone is answered in time to hear screaming and Buson sounding very threatening, and the phone getting destroyed. Oh no.
Eusine, the dude in the magician suit leaning against his red sports car, starts suggesting that they go all CSI and trace the location of the phone call, but that won't be necessary, because Team Rocket, trying to recapture the escaped Raikou, has set up the crystal for the third time, and they all see the super obvious clouds brewing in the distance, and they know that is where they need to go.
They pull up in the red sports car and demand where are Marina and Raikou. Buson holds up a bound and gagged (but otherwise unharmed) Marina, and everyone realizes, duh, they lost Raikou because they are doing the crystal thingy again.
Kenta proclaims that Raikou surely won't fall for such an obvious trap a third time... when Raikou charges onto the scene and starts ineffectually shocking the crystal yet again, lol. Basho and Buson don't even need to comment.
By the way, the dub made it sound like Basho and Buson are new recruits that have never met before this episode, but they're wrong - in the Japanese version, we know that they work in the "money division", which amuses us a lot - we imagine it's the department of Team Rocket that prints money, or something. Basho and Buson are clearly seasoned veterans, and they work together like a well-oiled machine (well, er...). For a long time, they held the distinction of being the only Team Rocket members ever shown having successfully captured a Legendary! They get a cameo in the Manaphy movie where they seem to have captured Rayquaza.
Another cool thing about them is that Buson, the big guy, tends to panic, but Basho keeps him calm. Basho is maybe a little too cool sometimes. Before, when Marina was opening the door of the hangar, Buson was panicking all "OH NO they openED THE DOOR", and Basho calmly, "Just switch it to the alternate circuit". And then adds in complete deadpan "Also the engines are failing". Cut to next scene, probably to avoid us hearing Buson shrieking in fear.
That's great. They are wonderful together.
Anyway, Raikou wasn't being dumb, even though everyone in this show treats Raikou like a dumb animal. It was trying to destroy the crystal and was aware of the way it was set up to strike it back. If you are willing to hold out the possibility that Raikou has any intelligence at all, everything it has been doing so far makes much more sense. Of course it's not just falling into the same trap for the third time in a row. It's trying to destroy a dangerous gizmo and run off two obvious bad guys. It's also trying to return the favor of helping the humans that have helped him. It listens to Kenta's impassioned speech and understands his intentions. Raikou is also smart enough to figure out that the remote control panel is important to the crystal and therefore decide to destroy that. Raikou is smart enough to attack the crystal in such a way that the amplified attacks rebound against Team Rocket. None of this is the decision of a dumb animal.
Maybe Raikou doesn't understand doors, but everything else, it has under control.
Raikou does a pretty good job of destroying things, but then Team Rocket pulls out their ultimate backup secret plan of doom. Raikou gets trapped by the crystal and its very life energy is being used to fuel it. In the final battle, Basho goes into all out dominatrix mode. The good-guys' Pokémon are trying to disrupt the crystal to save Raikou, but Basho has Steelix attack their trainers directly, and he taunts the Pokémon all, while you are so busy with that, you can't help your humans, what are you going to do~? Buson is probably getting quite the boner watching him do this. They are sick fucks, but they match.
Anyway, the kids win, Raikou is saved, and Basho and Buson escape. At the end of the episode, Kenta, Marina, and Junichi split ways again, but not before Kenta gets Marina's phone number, which for some reason he didn't have at the beginning of the episode. The narrator says, "this is what all Pokémon trainers dream of..." ...yeah, getting a girl's phone number.
It was pretty good. It would have been best to have watched it back in 2001, but it was still enjoyable. It just makes us sad that these characters didn't appear again. We would have watched a whole show of these people.
We've read theories that The Legend of Thunder was meant to be a pilot episode to test fan reactions to the possibility of a whole series centered on these characters, either to be aired alongside Ash's adventures, or eventually becoming the main series itself... We don't know if that was the intent, but it is true that this episode does feel to us like a pilot. Characters are introduced but not yet deeply explored, leaving room for later developments; Basho and Buson escape, which leaves them available for future mayhem; their evil scientist boss is not shown again after the very beginning, which makes it seem like he might have been the big bad that would reappear occasionally, like Giovanni in the main series; Lance was established to be idolized by Marina but did not appear in person, which lays the groundwork for a future arc where he shows up and teams up with the main cast, just like in the plot of Gold, Silver, and Crystal; the main characters split up at the end, but are now in contact with each other, closing the plot of this episode, but still leaving it potentially open.
Now that we're writing this down, we're seeing how awesome this series could have been, and we're suffering because it never happened. This could have been a new beginning for the Pokémon anime, away from the stale formula that Ash has been stuck with for ages. The Pokémon anime is always structured around Ash and Pikachu; in each episode, they meet the character of the day and the Pokémon of the day, have whatever adventures, and then move on. Ash may be traveling with other friends and other Pokémon, but they're not too important, they're essentially interchangeable, and even when they're switched around, they always fill the same roles. For there to be the tension of Ash needing to struggle before he can succeed, Ash never really gets to be a competent trainer. He always has to be a bit of a noob, and maybe by the climax of the arc he knows what he's doing, but then he needs to be "reset". Ash has to forget everything he has learned and dump all his strong Pokémon with Professor Oak so that he can be weak and inexperienced at the beginning of the next arc; otherwise, he would be overpowered and just winning every battle, and that's not interesting to watch. Over time, this gives the Pokémon anime that unsettling feeling of Ash being stuck in a loop where he is always repeating the same adventure in slightly different ways, but nothing matters.
If instead this special had become a whole series of its own, it could have had a completely different kind of storytelling which maybe would have helped avoid these problems of always being the same. There could have been episodes following Kenta, episodes following Marina, and episodes following Junichi - and each one of them would have been interesting to follow in their own right, since they're all very different characters with different approaches to training Pokémon. Then you could have had the episode where two or more of them meet up and interact with each other, which would have been something different yet. Since the main characters are already accomplished trainers on their journey, there could be episodes of them being competent without needing to restart from zero every time, and we could have seen their earlier hardships through flashback episodes instead. Basho and Buson are interesting villains to follow, they're both smart, they have an intriguing dynamic, and they too are competent, which makes them a real threat. As much as we love Jessie and James, it's also hard to watch them make the same mistakes over and over and never learn anything; they've also shifted into the role of being weird comic relief frienemies, which we like, but that means that they're not really villains, and cannot be honestly feared. Even Ash at this point sees them and goes, yeah, yeah, Pikachu, Thundershock them, whatever - and they blast off again for the 1050th time, ding. Having this new series could have also set the precedent that the Pokémon anime can add new characters and do something different. But because this didn't happen, the anime ended up only entrenching itself into its tropes, and now it's been 20 years of Ash, and there's no way out anymore.
So, why did this not happen? The fan theory is that the special did not do well enough, and so, Ash forever it is. If that's how it went, that was a very limited test to have only checked the reactions to one single special episode which did not make it out of Japan (until it was fished out of the trash can and aired long after it was no longer relevant). With this kind of radical changes to an established series, the first episode of the new thing is always going to be tough and bittersweet because the characters that you've grown to love are not there, and now there are all these new characters and you don't know if you care for them yet. It takes a while to get over your mourning for the other characters and fully fall in love with the new characters... but it can happen, if you give it some time. Generally more than one episode of time.
Watching this special, we get the feeling that we were robbed of something that would have been good for Pokémon, because the people that made the decisions were too hasty and risk-adverse in the short term, without considering enough of the long term. So, this special stays that: special, and not to be repeated again. Alas.