Welcome back to Pokemon Movies in Review, a weekly recap of the entire Pokemon cinematic universe. This week we’re revisiting Pokemon – Zoroark: Master of Illusion, a pseudo-sequel to Pokemon 4Ever and one of the most thematically dense films in the series. Master of Illusion is about the power of mass media and the threat that manipulated information poses to the public. It’s a particularly prescient story in the ‘fake news’ era, and it handles themes of misinformation and abuse of power in more nuanced and responsible ways than I ever expected a Pokemon movie to be capable of. The movie may have failed to earn Zoroark the same kind of A-list status that Mystery of Mew gave Lucario, but it stands out as perhaps the most culturally aware Pokemon movie ever.
Crown City is the fictional version of Brussels, a beautiful metropolis filled with Art Nouveau architecture covered in lush greenery. The time-traveling Pokemon Celebi is a patron of Crown City, and visits periodically to keep the flora in a perpetual state of bloom. While examining Crown City’s ancient texts, a man named Grings Kodai discovers the location of time ripples – resident energy left behind by Celebi. By absorbing a time ripple, Kodai gives himself the power to see the future. The corruption of the time ripple creates a shockwave across Crown City that wipes out all plant life, causing Celebi to abandon the city completely.
20 years later, Crown City has been restored to its former glory, prompting Celebi to finally come back. Kodai, who has used his precognition to become a wealthy media mogul, sees this as an opportunity to absorb another time ripple and refresh his powers, which have started to fade and become unreliable. Celebi’s return coincides with the Pokemon Baccer World Cup – a precursor to Pokemon Unite – which Kodai uses as a cover for his return to the city. Also in attendance are Ash and his friends Brock and Dawn, who arrive just in time – as they often do – to get in the bad guy’s way.
In order to pursue Celebi and search for the time ripple, Kodai devises a plan to evacuate the city through a complicated misinformation campaign. He captures the shapeshifting Pokemon Zoroark and forces it to do his bidding by threatening to kill its child, a telepathic Zorua. Kodai sends Zoroak on a rampage through Crown City disguised as the city’s guardians, Raikou, Entei, and Suicune. Zoroark terrorizes the citizens and creates illusions of massive floods and towering infernos in order to run everyone out of town. Kodai records the ‘attack’ and edits the footage to make it look like buildings and monuments are being destroyed, then broadcasts the video to everyone in Crown City, explaining that Raikou, Entei, and Suicune have been mind-controlled by the evil Pokemon Zoroark. He urges the people of Crown City to evacuate while he and his corporation hunt down Zoroark. Meanwhile, Zorua has managed to escape Kodai’s airship, but the villain uses fake footage of a Zorua hologram being tortured to manipulate Zoroark into continuing to obey his orders.
Zorua runs into Ash and his friends and convinces them to help reunite it with Zoroark. The group enters the now-abandoned city and meets up with Karl, an independent journalist who has been on to Kodai for some time. Karl and Zorua are able to combine information to figure out Kodai’s plan, and the group sets out to find Zoroak and Celebi so that they can close the time ripple and prevent the city from becoming a wasteland once again. The heroes are eventually joined by Rowena, another journalist who was working undercover as Kodai’s assistant.
Kodai’s waning powers are only able to show him short glimpses of the future, but uses those visions to stay one step ahead of the heroes. Knowing that Rowena will eventually betray him, Kodai uses a drone to follow her to a meeting between the heroes and Karl’s grandfather, who reveals the location of the time ripple. In a vision, Kodai sees himself defeating the heroes and seizing the time ripple, giving him the confidence to know he’s won before it even happens.
Upon reaching the ripple, Kodai’s plan plays out precisely as he predicted. He recaptures Zorua, defeats Zoroark, and traps Ash, Pikachu, and Celebi, allowing him to freely consume the time ripple and restore his powers. As the city gets hit with a wave of decrepitude, Kodai arrogantly admits all of his crimes to Ash, explaining that the people of Crown City will only see him as a hero for capturing Zoroark, who he’ll place the blame on for wiping out the plant life once again.
But Kodai, the apparent Master of Illusion, has in fact only just received a taste of his own medicine. The entire sequence was nothing more than a mirage created by Zoroark. Kodai never absorbed the time ripple or destroyed the greenery, but he did admit to conducting the entire scheme to Rowena, who was recording the confession from a hiding spot nearby. Rowena and Karl broadcast the footage to the city as the residents make their return, and Kodai is arrested by Officer Jenny.
Kodai’s precognition gave him the power to become wealthy, but his real power came from his ability to control and manipulate people through mass media. As a stand-in for any of a number of real-life media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, William Randolph Hearst, or, perhaps most prophetically, Donald Trump, Kodai represents the inherent vulnerabilities in the mass dissemination of information and the ease of which those with power and resources can manipulate the way we see the world.
It’s no coincidence that a pair of reporters act as the last line of defense against Kodai’s control over the media. Distressingly, it is only through Kodai’s own channels – the broadcast network that he uses to send messages to Crown City’s residents through screens installed around the city – that Rowena and Karl are able to expose him. Six corporations control 90 percent of American media outlets; where can accountability come from, but from within? Rowena acts as both an undercover journalist and a whistleblower here. When she confronts Kodai just moments after strangling Celebi and trying to kill Ash, she can’t help but address him as a subordinate. Rather than condemn him for his crimes, she sheepishly tells him “Sorry I lied to you Kodai, forget about paying me my last paycheck.”
Ultimately, Kodai’s campaign of misinformation and manipulation only ends when he himself becomes a victim of it. Not only does Zoroark trick him with a fake reality, but even his own visions mislead him with a half-truth. Kodai saw himself seizing the time ripple, but the vision ended before he could see that this was only an illusion. Of course, revealing who he really was and what he’s done was Kodai’s ultimate downfall. They say the truth will set you free, that is, unless you’re an evil liar that’s willing to kill children and Pokemon to get what you want – then the truth will most certainly land you in prison.
I know this was a long one, but I have a few more stray thoughts about Zoroark: Master of Illusion:
- Kodai tries to escape in the end but runs into another one of Zoroark’s illusions that leads him to get trapped in the baccer stadium. In the manga version, Kodai falls into the stadium and apparently dies. I prefer the manga version.
- The real Raikou, Entei, and Suiccine eventually show up to defend the city, but they’re all shiny versions. These are the first shinies in the movies, and I think these three in particular are some of the best shinies there are.
- I haven’t decided who the most evil Pokemon villain is yet, but Kodai is definitely a contender. Though his master plan won’t directly kill anyone, he does strangle Celebi, electrocute Zorua in front…