When Satoshi Tajiri was a child, he developed a fascination with insects. Growing up in the greater Tokyo suburb of Machida, he’d spend summer days peeling back plants and scouring the undergrowth for creepy crawlies, carefully adding each new insect to his collection. This eyebrow-raising hobby earned him the playground nickname “Mr Bug” from his teasing classmates, but Tajiri had the last laugh. After all, it was this formative obsession that inspired his crowning achievement – Pokémon.
Thirty-three years later, that first duo of ambitious Game Boy games has blossomed into the world’s highest-grossing media franchise, beating behemoths such as Star Wars and Marvel. Tajiri took a step back from his cutesy creation in 2012, and his developer Game Freak is now part of a larger Pokémon Company – whose COO, Takato Utsunomiya, now sits in front of me in Yokohama.
Anyone who’s watched a Pokémon Presents live stream will immediately recognise Utsunomiya. Earning a reputation for his flamboyant Pokémon shirts, the impeccably groomed COO has introduced the world to several new generations of Pokémon. “My job? I spend all day every day thinking about Pokémon,” he says with a smile. “Our goal is to keep Pokémon alive for hundreds of years – making sure it survives well past our lifetimes.”
During this year’s Pokémon world championships – the 18th such event – the entire port city of Yokohama was overtaken by Pikachu parades and art installations, as 2,000 competitors and 10,000 fans made the pilgrimage during a particularly humid August, children and adults alike. “I think in the past, we had two separate audiences – younger kids and adults – but now we’re starting to see a family audience where they’re enjoying the experiences together,” says Utsunomiya.
“It’s easy to just focus on adults: they have a lot of disposable income, you can see their reactions in real time on social media … But we need to make sure that we are still keeping the younger kids interested,” he continues, “Kids are very honest – they won’t play something they don’t like. If your brand feels old or boring, they will immediately dismiss it.”
Though Tajiri and co’s original characters, from Charizard to Chansey, Gengar to Gyarados, are still the most enduringly recognisable, there are now more than 1,000 little monsters for today’s kids to catch. While some recent designs have moved away from the insects and believable animals of old – see Pokémon inspired by swords, chandeliers and even ice-cream – Game Freak’s designs are still Pokémon’s biggest asset. Can the developer still design monsters as iconic as the original 151?
“I do think we can continue to create lots and lots of new Pokémon, and really we must create more appealing Pokémon if we want to continue passing on Pokémon to the next generations,” Utsunomiya asserts. “Coming up with new Pokémon ideas is an area that Game Freak really excels in. People who grew up playing Pokémon as kids are now entering Game Freak and are on those teams, creating new Pokémon and coming up with new ideas.”
Tajiri first dreamed up Pokémon as a video game – the Game Boy’s link cable inspired the trading and battling that defines the franchise’s fiction – but in 2023, games are just one piece of the wider Poké puzzle, alongside the long-running anime series, movies, trading cards and merchandise, and spin-offs such as Pokémon Go. With all that going on, how essential are the video games now to the business?
“Video games are truly at the core of the brand – and that will continue,” replies Utsunomiya, “the games are really the best way to experience the settings of each Pokémon. We really try to treat them like living creatures; you see them in the game and how they’re behaving there … In the original games, there’s quite a gap between the descriptions in the Pokédex and what you actually saw in the game. But starting with Legends Arceus and Scarlet/Violet, you see [Pokémon like] Bidoof creating dens in the game, and you have Pokémon travelling in packs. So there’s a newfound realism of their setting. When it comes to delivering the descriptions seen in the original Pokédex … there’s a lot more we can do there.”
It has not all been rosy for Pokémon in recent years. 2022’s games, Scarlet and Violet, were visually underwhelming and plagued with bugs (of the technical kind, rather than the cutesy collectible kind), their poor technical performance inciting backlash the franchise had never seen before.
“Regardless of whether we publicly respond, we’re always paying very close attention to the feedback and conversations happening in the communities,” Utsunomiya says. “There are certain aspects where we can’t always be 100% aligned with what parts of the community are asking for and what we want to provide. But we do this with the desire to keep Pokémon going for a very long time, and I believe that the fans and players are aligned with us in that respect.”
Outside the games, Pokémon’s recent releases have been spilling over more and more into real life with the eyebrow-raising sleep-tracking app, Pokémon Sleep, and a dental hygiene companion app called Pokémon Smile. It increasingly feels as if Pokémon are positioned less as battling monsters and more as mascots that slot into our day to day lives.
“Everyone has to sleep. If we can add a bit of entertainment to an aspect of daily life you have to do anyway, there’s an opportunity there,” laughs Utsunomiya, when I put this to him. “Pokémon is at its most popular in the Americas, Europe and Japan – and if you combine all those populations, it’s around a billion people. So, there are still more than seven billion or so people outside those territories. We really want to have the rest of the world become passionate Pokémon fans. So we need to learn to incorporate those values and cultures around the world.”
It may surprise those outside the Pokémon phenomenon – or those who have fallen off the wagon since the turn of the millennium – that these collectible critters are more popular than ever. The original Game Boy games remain the series’ bestselling, at over 46m units, but 2019’s Pokémon Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch have already shifted 26m, and the games as a whole have sold over 460m in total. Pokémon Go still has an estimated 80m active players. There is clearly something enduringly appealing about Japan’s most successful entertainment export. Where Tajiri started out on a catch-em-all quest to capture bugs, the Pokémon Company is now on a quest to capture the world.
“That there is something that is just universal about Pokémon,” reckons Utsunomiya. “When the first games came out in Japan, it was typical to look at video games as something that are just for boys, but we [soon] realised a much more diverse audience were playing them. We soon found that the games were very appealing to the rest of the world as well … It would make us very happy if, through Pokémon, people can connect with each other – regardless of where they are, or who they are.”
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