For millions of children around the world, the Pokémon franchise has served as a gateway to the global treasure trove of mythology and folklore. In the final quarter of the 20th century, Japan underwent rapid urban expansion. An aspiring game designer called Satoshi Tajiri, who grew up collecting insects in fields and ponds that were then flattened for housing developments, sought to reconnect children in post-industrial Japan to the country’s natural environment. Given the intimate relationship between Shinto, Japan’s native religion, and the natural world, it is no surprise that folkloric and religious motifs fuel so many Pokémon designs. Rooted in the Shinto tradition of kami, or spirits, inhabiting every aspect of nature, Pokémon’s sprawling lore provides its own take on many traditional Japanese stories. Tajiri also taps into non-Japanese mythology when seeking inspiration for his creations.
With so many Pokémon inspired by animals, it is no surprise that marine mammals have appeared in the ever-expanding roster of creatures that inhabit the Pokémon world. Pinnipeds such as seals are particularly well-represented, but cetaceans are surprisingly less so. It was not until Generation III, six years into the Pokémon franchise, that any explicitly cetacean Pokémon were introduced. These were Wailmer and Wailord, whose designs are based on blue whales, and Kyogre, a primordial orca whose origin as the Jewish Leviathan merits its own future post. However, dolphins remain conspicuously absent even as Pokémon enters its third decade of production. Gorebyss, which bears a bizarre resemblance to the Pictish Beast, is sometimes posited as a dolphin Pokémon, but its design and behaviour are actually based on snipe eels. At first glance, it appears that cetaceans were unrepresented in Pokémon until Generation III, and dolphins missing to this day. But if you look beyond the physical appearances and investigate deeper, one Generation I Pokémon emerges as a clear cetacean stand-in: Lapras.
Lapras is an example of a Pokémon drawn from non-Japanese folklore. Its plesiosaur-like design is inspired by popular depictions of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, an origin reflected in its development name of Ness and its French name Lokhlass. Beneath this reptilian design is a creature whose behaviour, special powers, and symbolic role within the series are firmly anchored in modern understandings of cetaceans, both scientific and religious. Lapras migrate long distances in pods that share a tight emotional bond. Marine biologists have identified the mother-calf bond as the strongest relationship in many cetacean species, and that is the relationship highlighted in the character arc of the Lapras who accompanies Ash through the Orange Islands. Beached during a storm, the infant Lapras is nursed back to health and agrees to travel with Ash and his friends until it can be reunited with its pod. Although its pod initially rejects it because of its fraternization with humans, one Lapras later revealed to be its mother is visibly uncomfortable with the others’ cold treatment of her estranged child, and it is she who leads the rescue effort when her child has risked its safety to protect them. In a later episode, Lapras returns the favour by saving its mother from the clutches of Team Rocket. Recognizing the importance of Lapras’s bond with its mother, Ash releases it back into the wild, a rare move for the boy whose mantra is “Gotta catch ’em all”.
Pods of Lapras sing to each other in a way that obviously resembles cetacean communication, as you can see in the clip above from 1:49 to 2:55. A researcher called Naomi featured in the episode Lapras of Luxury builds her entire career on studying Lapras song at the marine Pokémon lab, employing a Pokémon version of radar (Lanturn’s Supersonic power) to track their migration patterns. In the episode, Lapras use song to locate their captured comrades much as cetaceans use echolocation. Until the most recent Pokémon generation, Lapras was the only Water Pokémon that could learn the move Sing, an enchanting melody that sends opponents to sleep. Since the 1970 release of the album Songs of the Humpback Whale, whale song has captured the modern imagination, and scientists like Pokémon’s Naomi are still working hard to make sense of cetaceans’ complex landscape of sound.
Widely reputed as one of the most intelligent Pokémon species, Lapras also have powerful psychic abilities. Pokédex entries in the video games describe how Lapras can read human minds and communicate telepathically with them, an exceedingly rare ability. Lapras’s psychic power is downplayed in the anime with the exception of the episode Holiday Hi-Jynx, which features a Lapras allied with none other than Santa Claus. This Lapras glows with a rainbow outline every time it speaks telepathically to the human characters. Lapras’s telepathic powers directly reference New Age beliefs about dolphins. While these beliefs will be explored more thoroughly in later posts, a common idea among New Agers is that dolphins’ intelligence has extraterrestrial origins, enabling them to communicate telepathically with humanity, often in an attempt to impart spiritual truths. The mythological motif of dolphin as guide is an ancient one found across many cultures, but its New Age iteration has a distinctively psychic twist. Echoing this, Lapras is known as the Transport Pokémon, eschewing violence and preferring to guide humans around the seas just as legendary dolphins across the world have let humans ride on their backs and guided ships to safety. There is no suggestion that Lapras is a messenger from space, but everything else about its mind powers adds up to a clear homage to New Age spirituality.
Why are such consistently cetacean characteristics assigned to a Pokémon whose design doesn’t resemble them? The answer may lie in the darker side of Lapras’s place in the Pokémon world and its real-world undertones. In the very first game, the Pokédex establishes Lapras as an endangered Pokémon. Humans have hunted them almost to the point of extinction. Although Pokémon’s parallels to animals have often led fans to question whether Pokémon are hunted, Lapras is one of the only Pokémon ever explicitly identified as a target of human destruction. In Generation II, their gentle hearts are identified as the reason they don’t fight back against hunters, and in Generation III, Lapras is said to “sing plaintively as it seeks what few others of its kind still remain”. The reason for killing them is never stated, and the anime is more ambiguous, describing the hunters as pirates and poachers. When Team Rocket seeks to abduct a pod of Lapras, their goal is to enlist the Pokémon in a water taxi service, but such motivations can hardly underlie the depopulation made plain in the Pokédex. It is possible that they were hunted for food; a Sinnoh folk tale from Generation IV describes how Water Pokémon were hunted, though the people maintained a balanced population through a purification ritual:
Pick clean the bones of Pokémon caught in the sea or stream. Thank them for the meals they provide, and pick their bones clean. When the bones are as clean as can be, set them free in the water from which they came. The Pokémon will return, fully fleshed, and it begins anew.
Whatever the reason, Lapras have been targeted by human hunters and in the anime they are often portrayed as fearful of humans as a result of the abuse they have suffered. The protagonists actively fight the sort of captivity for Lapras that is common for most other Pokémon species. When most Pokémon are tamed by humans, the relationship is depicted as a cooperative one, but in Lapras’s case it is always exploitative. Upon Ash’s first encounter with Lapras, he resolves to return it to the wild instead of adding it to his Pokémon collection, and he is met with skepticism when he announces that he “caught” Lapras, with Misty quipping that he likes to dream. In his article “Pokémon 151: Complicating Kawaii“, David Surman analyzes the art style Ken Sugimori used in his original designs of the first Pokémon generation. He breaks Pokémon designs down into three categories based on the docility conveyed by their poses. Lapras is in the final category, “counter-pose”, which is usually limited to final evolutions and Legendary Pokémon.
The counter-pose describes how the pose of the character simultaneously conveys a sense of relaxation and dynamism, and in so doing seats power firmly within the creature. [… They stand] in counter-pose, subtly orientating their weight onto one leg to suggest at potential movement, while looking through, or away from, the viewer. The eyes are the most resolved and human-like, and challenge the authority of the Pokémon trainer, alluding to the fact that at the end of the evolutionary chain emerges the proposition of Pokémon as autonomous from their trainer.
Although Lapras is neither a final evolution (it has no other evolutionary forms) nor a Legendary Pokémon, it occupies this place among the most advanced and independent of Pokémon. The mighty Lapras is not easily tamed and pushes the boundaries of the Pokémon trainer relationship just as Legendary and powerfully evolved Pokémon do. The defiant depiction of Lapras in its original design, coupled with the unfailing moral opposition to its capture embraced by the protagonists, may be a statement that would be too controversial in Japan were Lapras to resemble an actual cetacean. At the same time Pokémon was created, Japan was coming under heavy international scrutiny for its widespread whaling practices. Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in Japan, though their popularity has declined in recent years, and while Japan claims its whaling is only done for scientific purposes, the UN’s International Court of Justice considers that to be a front for commercial whaling. The Taiji dolphin drive hunt kills hundreds of cetaceans annually and continues in spite of international protests that have been ongoing for 15 years. The role of Lapras in the Pokémon universe presents a strong argument against whaling, but Tajiri may have considered it too overtly political to convey this message in the form of an actual whale or dolphin Pokémon, so he chose a visual nod to the Loch Ness Monster from a firmly non-Japanese folkloric tradition to cloak his environmental message.
In an interesting postlude, the most recent generation of Pokémon games provides an updated account of Lapras’s plight. The Pokédex entry in Pokémon Moon reads, “These Pokémon were once near extinction due to poaching. Following protective regulations, there is now an overabundance of them.” Respect for cetaceans saturates every aspect of Lapras’s portrayal in the Pokémon franchise. Are Pokémon’s creators trying to model what they want to see for cetaceans in our own world by painting an optimistic future for Lapras? When Lapras’s songs were once met by an empty ocean, thanks to environmental regulation, the sea is once again filled with their symphonies.