Pikachu Outbreak Captures Hearts

A daytime Pikachu Parade on the Grand Mall in Minato Mirai

The Minato Mirai district of Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture played host to the fifth annual Pikachu Outbreak in the holiday week of Obon, August 10–16. Scores of “life-size” Pikachu and Eevee characters made “outbreak” appearances around the district; in parades, on boats and on stage. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to meet them.

In the Pokémon world of games, manga and anime, human inhabitants hunt and attempt to capture Pokémon in the wild. Each of the more than 800 Pokémon species “discovered” to date has its own ecology, while any creature in the species collected by a player has its own temperament. Pokémon owners carry out “special research” to learn about the creatures and care for them by completing tasks. To prosper in this demanding world, inhabitants must treat their fellow creatures with respect, as partners and friends.

The “life-size” appearance of creatures from the Pikachu and, this year, Eevee species during the annual Pikachu Outbreak week reinforces the sense of Pokémon being something larger than fiction or just a game. Those gathering in the real world to welcome the week-long visitation by armies of Pikachu and Eevee do so without any apparent sense of irony but instead with something resembling devotion. They are there to pay homage. As media arts company WOW’s President Takahashi Hiroshi put it at an opening event on August 10, “Pokémon fans are serious people.”

The first ever Eevee Outbreak took place in Shinko Central Plaza opposite Aka Renga.

Pokémon’s power to conflate the real and virtual worlds is not to be underestimated. The 2017 Pikachu Outbreak attracted more than 3 million people to the events in Yokohama, many of them enticed by the opportunity to capture rare creatures in the smash-hit game for the smartphone Pokémon Go. In the game, which has been downloaded a phenomenal 800 million times worldwide since its release in July 2016, players are able to hunt Pokémon creatures in the “real world” and capture them as they appear on the smartphone screen against the background of a player’s real-time environment.

Concerned about congestion and public safety following the unexpectedly large crowds last year, co-organizers the City of Yokohama and the Pokémon Company agreed there would be no repeat of the Pokémon Go event at this year’s Outbreak. Instead, the Pokémon Company, which controls the Pokémon brand’s reach across video games, trading card games, anime and manga, found other ways to “synchronize” the real and virtual worlds.

Science is Amazing!

Scene from a night performance of the Super Soaking Splash Show. Most of the crowd were young adults.

The subtitle of this year’s Pikachu Outbreak was “Science Is Amazing”— a Pokémon catchphrase. The event used science and technology in a variety of ways to bring the virtual world to life.

The Super Soaking Splash Show in front of the historic Aka Renga red brick warehouses engaged members of the audience and a resident DJ in writing a tune to which small groups of Pikachu and Eevee characters attempted to dance — with the guidance and encouragement of colorfully dressed human “cheerleaders.” Throughout the show, water cannon fired in all directions over the crowd, soaking anyone within a 20-meter radius of the stage. Evening performances of the Super Soaking Splash Show attracted mostly young adults, who jumped up and down and chanted — “Pika Pika Pikachu!” — as the music’s tempo increased and the Pokémon found their dancing feet.

Another evening show with a trance-inducing charm was the Pikachu Night Parade on the Grand Mall between the Yokohama Museum of Art and the MARKis department store. In this outbreak, Pikachu characters wearing LED costumes and goggles performed a choreographed routine alongside talented human dancers to Dan Hartman’s 1994 disco classic “Instant Replay.” (Watch MARKIs-produced video here.) Members of the audience who were around when Pokémon was first released in 1996 may well have had flashbacks to the days of the Nintendo Game Boy, Tetris and life on the cusp of the Internet age.

View across the left screen at the “Pokémon Synchronicity” show at Nippon Maru Memorial Park in Minato Mirai, Yokohama. Visual design companies WOW and Rhizomatiks Research produced beautiful new installations for the event.

The stand-out new feature of the event this year was the harbor-side show “Pokémon Synchronicity,” which featured new digital media artwork by the aforementioned WOW and another leading visual design company, Rhizomatiks Research. Pokémon Company Product Engineering Manager Ogawa Satoshi told the Japan Journal the collaborative project took a quick-fire four months to complete and praised the “amazing” contribution of the two design companies to a riotously entertaining multimedia show.

Flyriders perform acrobatics in front of the right-side screen at the “Pokémon Synchronicity” event.

Against a background of the still harbor water, two large transparent screens displayed beautiful digital artwork from WOW and Rhizomatiks in which ambiguous creatures were transformed into plumes of fire and water, or colorful shapes twisted, curled and dissolved into the surrounding fire, smoke and lighting effects. An upbeat soundtrack of electronic music created a rave-like atmosphere as Pikachu faces and Poké Balls slid across the face of the Cosmo World clock and amphibious buses and boats crammed with Pikachu circled the offshore stage. LED-clad flyboard riders performed acrobatics in front of the screens while caged Pikachu on land had their features transformed by projection mapping. Huge crowds gathered every night on the sloping lawn space at the Nippon Maru Memorial Park to watch the spectacular free show.

According to Pokémon Group Corporate Officer Tanaka Masami, the Minato Mirai district of Yokohama is the location of choice for the annual Pikachu Outbreak because of its ease of access; barrier-free, pedestrian-only thoroughfares; and wide open spaces such as those on the fringes of the inner harbor. The 2018 event once again attracted large crowds, but the only congestion this year was immediately around the “outbreak” sites and contributed to the free festival atmosphere.

More than twenty years since their release in the first Pokémon game, Pokémon have moved beyond familiarity to become a cherished fact of life as the brand’s designers and collaborators continue to break down barriers between the real and virtual worlds.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

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