So this is it, the end of an era. I know these episodes technically aired in Japan almost a year ago, and the reality has long since set in. But watching the English iteration of Ash’s final episodes exactly 25 years after the first official U.S. episode aired in America still hits me emotionally. There is no way that I can be unbiased when talking about this final batch of episodes. There are some things I can still complain about, which I’ll get into later. Like how Pokémon: To Be a Pokémon Master is specifically for Pokémon fans, this review is also specifically for Pokémon fans. We all knew this day would come, so it’s time to ask ourselves exactly what kind of note this all ends on.
First, though, there’s the series’ weird release on Netflix. Netflix dropped To Be A Pokémon Master as a twelve-episode season, but only the first eleven episodes were epilogue spinoffs that focused on closing out Ash’s journey. Episode 12 is a single-episode OVA that aired before this season in Japan and focuses on an alternate-timeline Ash from the past couple of Pokémon movies. It’s a little weird to pair them together. I guess the logic was that Netflix wouldn’t drop a single self-contained episode on their platform. Just keep in mind that episode 12 is not a continuation of episode eleven and should be watched separately. You’ll get the most out of it if you’ve enjoyed how Ash was written in the past few movies. Episode 12 focuses on an aspect of Ash’s life that the main series hasn’t even touched upon: his relationship with his father. I would’ve liked that plotline to have been integrated into the mainline continuity, but that’s another can of worms. Just keep this in mind when you watch this season.
The eleven episodes end things on a pretty solid and surprisingly thoughtful note, the most thoughtful the show has ever been. To Be A Pokémon Master gives us a rare glimpse into what a couple of days in the life of Ash looks like when he’s not actively pursuing a concrete goal. He goes out into the woods and explores, helps Pokémon that are in need, and gets into all types of crazy shenanigans. He reconnects with friends he met up with in the past, which leads to various callbacks that are sure to tickle the nostalgia bone of even the most cynical old Pokémon fan. We get a little bit of that “you could’ve gone farther with the callbacks” issue that most of Journeys had. But given the limited episode real estate, closing the door on every loose character thread and plot point wouldn’t be possible.
That’s just a pill we have to swallow as viewers. Still, what we have here is fluffy, lighthearted, and, for the most part, well-animated. There aren’t any spectacularly well-animated highs, but it gets the job done. What this season lacks in flashy battle animations, it more than makes up for with entertaining facial expressions. But just because this is very much “a day in the life of Ash Ketchum” doesn’t mean there isn’t a point at all of this.
Ash has arguably reached the top, but does that mean he’s reached his goal of being a Pokémon Master? What does it mean to be a Pokémon Master? We don’t necessarily get that answer until the conclusion, where it’s spelled out for us, but that doesn’t mean the show didn’t make it abundantly clear beforehand. Being there for your friends and Pokémon, going on journeys, and discovering things daily is part of that answer. This would feel like a copout in many other stories, but Pokémon earns this answer because it’s consistent with Ash’s characterization for the past 25 years. If anything, it’s nostalgic to see a kid set a lofty dream for himself that he may never actually be able to accomplish in his lifetime, but just having the dream and trying to make it a reality leads to a fulfilling life in and of itself. When we hear that final leitmotif of the classic Pokémon theme roll out at the end, it doesn’t feel like the end. I was still waiting for the episode to close with the “to be continued” sign. There’s no grand bang or spectacle because it’s just another journey to Ash, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day. The only difference now is that we won’t be able to see what comes afterward.
That being said, not every journey is perfect, and neither was this season. Once you reach the end and realize the narrative’s end goal, it’s evident it could’ve told the story in about half of the episode length. The callbacks are nice, however some felt a bit more derivative than others. One episode is a straight-up repeat of a similar episode from past seasons. What’s more, there’s a random plot point introduced at the end where Team Rocket breaks up only to get together an episode later and it’s probably one of the most randomly dramatic and quickly dropped conflicts I think I’ve ever seen in the series. There could’ve been a better way for Team Rocket to go out, especially if you consider they are just as important to the show as Ash.
Speaking of Team Rocket, I would be remiss not to bring up James Carter Cathcart, who recently retired from voice acting due to his health. Considering the abundance of characters that he plays, there is a noticeable change in his vocal delivery, but given his current physical circumstances, that is to be expected. I commend him for pushing through to round out his performances of some of the most well-known characters in the franchise. The performances consist of some of my favorite reads from him to date. One of his last lines in the entire series is as Gary asking Ash if he is any closer to being a Pokémon Maste. Poetically, this is rather beautiful. The voice actors did a phenomenal job. There weren’t any overly dramatic or incredibly heart-wrenching scenes to act on their own, but when you consider this is probably the last time any of these actors will ever play these characters again, even the most simple and subtle of line deliveries take on a whole new emotional context.
But unfortunately, this is the end of this journey. I grew up with Pokémon all my life and I will continue to be a Pokémon fan probably up until my deathbed. This franchise has a grip on my soul that will not be relinquished anytime soon. Watching these episodes didn’t feel like I was doing work for a review but rather felt like I was a kid watching the latest installment of a nice journey on Saturday morning television. Much like a lot of those episodes, this finale wasn’t the flashiest or most over-the-top but I think that was always supposed to be the point. Much like the final lesson that Ash learns in To Be A Pokémon Master, even when things end, they never truly do. The journey will always continue even if we don’t get to see it.