Mar 07, 2024
This ‘Pokémon’ Episode Never Aired Outside Japan
And even in Japan, once was enough. Banned episodes are no rare occurrence in the world of television. Occasionally, we learn of an episode of Community that was pulled from streaming due to a
And even in Japan, once was enough.
Banned episodes are no rare occurrence in the world of television. Occasionally, we learn of an episode of Community that was pulled from streaming due to a possibly racially insensitive joke or about an episode of The Simpsons that was skipped overseas due to, well, a lot of racially insensitive jokes. And then there are, of course, episodes that never aired or that had to be re-edited due to scenes that could prove themselves disturbing in the aftermath of traumatic events such as 9/11. Children's franchise Pokémon is no stranger to this chaotic universe. It is well-known by fans, for instance, that the Pokémon Jynx had its features altered in the West due to its resemblance to Blackface caricatures and that at least one episode featuring the character has never been aired this side of the Prime Meridian. However, no Pokémon episode, or no TV episode at all, for that matter, has a banning history as bizarre as “Electric Soldier Porygon."
You’ve probably heard about it, though there is a chance that you thought it was all a mean-spirited urban legend. But, no, it’s all true: a Pokémon episode did indeed cause numerous desperate parents to run to the hospital with their children, many of which had lost consciousness due to seizures. It was an event that took place in the late 90s and that briefly caused a generalized panic concerning anime. But how exactly did it all take place? What happened with this particular Pokémon episode that got hundreds - or, as some would claim, thousands - of children sick enough to need immediate medical attention? And, finally, was it really the titular electric soldier’s fault? Or is another electric pocket monster the one to blame?
Related: These Star Trek Episodes Were Banned in the U.K. for Almost 20 Years
Originally released in Japan by TV Tokyo on December 16, 1997, “Dennō Senshi Porygon”, or, as it is most commonly known by Western fans, “Electric Soldier Porygon”, was Episode 38 of the very first season of Pokémon. It follows the basic premise of most of the show's episodes, with Ash (Rica Matsumoto), Brock (Yuji Ueda), Misty (Mayumi Izuka) — or Satoshi, Takeshi, and Kasumi, in the original version — and their Pokémons facing off against Team Rocket for some Pokémon-related crime. However, the episode takes a trippy turn that could only be possible in the late 90s: instead of fighting evil in the real world, our heroes are transported to the insides of a computer, where they must secure the traffic of Pokémons in between Pokémon Centers. They are helped by the world’s first digital Pokémon, Porygon, an invention of Professor Akibahara (Bin Shimada) with the power of copying its enemy’s physical traits. But problems arise when it is revealed that Team Rocket also has a Porygon of their own.
In the middle of all this kerfuffle, made even more chaotic by the arrival of a vaccine for the very human “computer virus” represented by Ash, Brok, Misty, and Team Rocket, Pikachu is once again tasked with saving the day. In order to stop the vaccine, represented by a missile launcher in the form of a large syringe, and ensure the gang’s safe return to the non-virtual world, Pikachu uses his signature Thunderbolt attack. When the missiles are hit with the Pokémon's powerful lightning bolts, a series of extremely bright and colorful flashes appear on-screen. It lasts less than five seconds, but it is enough to cause some mild discomfort to the eyes and even a short-lived headache in many viewers. For a considerable amount of Japanese children, however, it caused a lot more than that…
Minutes after the first and only showing of “Electric Soldier Porygon” was over, hundreds of children were admitted to Japanese hospitals with symptoms varying from nausea to full-blown seizures and even loss of consciousness. The actual number of kids affected is still unknown: more than 700, according to a 1997 story by The New York Times, and approximately 618, if we’re going by CNN. The fact is that something between 600 and 700 children was directly affected by an episode of Pokémon, and not in the “asking their parents for new toys” kind of way. Some recovered within the hour, while others had to be put in intensive care. Thankfully, no one died.
Nevertheless, this bizarre incident left a lot of parents, government officers, TV execs, and general audience members scratching their heads: what on Earth happened there? Well, it turns out that the children affected by the Porygon episode of Pokémon were largely suffering from a particular form of epilepsy, named photosensitive epilepsy, that affects one in 5,000 people. That’s about 0.02% of the population. Sure doesn’t seem enough to cause an outbreak of seizures, but, when we take into consideration the popularity of Pokémon, things do take quite a turn. A research conducted in 1999 estimates that around 1 in 4,923 individuals aged 6 to 18 in Japan was affected by Pikachu’s Thunderbolt in that fateful December afternoon.
But “Electric Soldier Porygon” is far from being the first time Pikachu used his iconic move. Why did it take 38 episodes for it to impact kids the way it did? The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the animation techniques used to make Pikachu’s attack seem more vivid and electric inside the virtual world. In order to achieve the desired effect, animators used a combination of the paka-paka technique, that flashes different colored lights on screen, with a flash effect that emitted a strong beam of light. The result was a sequence of flashes in a frequency higher than 10 hertz, or 10 flashes per second, with can cause seizures, according to a statement given by Dr. Toshio Yamauchi, a professor at Saitama Medical School, to The New York Times.
The effects of “Electric Soldier Porygon” didn’t stop on the day the episode aired. In the following days, around 12,000 children reported feeling ill as an effect of watching Pokémon. That, however, has been mostly attributed to a case of mass hysteria: after hearing about their classmates’ experiences or learning about the incident from the media and their parents, kids began experiencing the symptoms themselves. Nevertheless, it still shows how this one episode of Pokémon had a strong negative impact on almost a whole generation of kids inside a country.
And this negative impact was indeed confined to a single country. As a result of what happened in its first airing in Japan, “Electric Soldier Porygon” was completely pulled from both syndication and the original network. The episode never aired again, neither in Japan nor anywhere else in the world, though the infamous Thunderbolt scene is available on YouTube for anyone brave enough to watch. As a matter of fact, the “Pokémon Shock,” as the incident became known, caused the show to be taken off the air for four months. When Pokémon eventually returned to TV, with Episode 39, “Pikachu’s Goodbye,” the opening credits were changed in order to avoid any possibility of a repeat "Pokémon Shock" incident. During the commercial breaks, TV Tokyo also aired brief “infomercials” to explain the incident to viewers and assure them that it would never happen again.
And, indeed, it never did, at least not on the same scale. To avoid another incident like what happened with Pokémon, TV broadcasters and media experts gathered to discuss a new set of guidelines that virtually stops techniques such as the ones used on “Electric Soldier Porygon” from being used again. These guidelines include rules such as avoiding the use of more than one light flash per third of a second and avoiding flashes using the color red in isolation as these effects can cause nausea and even induce seizures.
Though the response to the “Pokémon Shock” was relatively swift, this didn’t stop Nintendo, the giant tech company that owns Pikachu and his friends, from taking a hit. Despite not being directly responsible for the show, which was produced by OLM, the company’s share price dropped 3.2% in the aftermath of the event. Ever since 1997, however, Nintendo has more than recovered from the trauma and continues to be a juggernaut in the gaming world.
Still, the Pokémon incident remains a sensitive topic. In 2020, the official Pokémon Twitter (or X?) account made a post saying that Porygon did nothing wrong. The tweet did not sit well with fans of the franchise and was soon deleted. It’s a pity, because, in the end, Porygon did indeed do nothing wrong. It was all Pikachu’s fault. However, the beloved yellow Pokémon remains the poster boy of the franchise. As for Porygon, well, it never had a big part in the show again, and neither did its evolutions.
Elisa Guimarães is a feature writer at Collider. She's a journalist, a translator, a linguist, an aspiring author, a lover of trivia games, and a first time cat owner. Likes science fiction, true crime, coming-of-age stories, teen dramas, and some other things as well. Can also be found at Delirium Nerd, writing in Portuguese.Community The SimpsonsPokémonRelated: Rica MatsumotoYuji UedaMayumi IzukaBin Shimada