If you tell people that Ash Ketchum is one of your favorite characters ever you will be laughed at. People will tell you he has no personality or that he’s barely a character. I’m sick of seeing this slander so today on The Story Arc I and my friend CJ are going to recap how much Ash Ketchum has changed over the years as you have grown up.
Ash’s journey began as a fresh faced kid in Kanto. He knows he loves Pokemon but he doesn’t really know why, and so we don’t really have a feel for why. He loves them despite the fact that he doesn’t know pretty much anything about any specific Pokemon or how they work. This fits Ash’s role as an audience surrogate as most of us were in his shoes when we first began watching the anime.
One of the ways the anime demonstrates that he doesn’t know anything is that his first gym battle against Brock went horribly as he kept trying to use electric moves against Brock’s rock/ground type Pokemon, only winning via a complete accident thanks to the gym’s sprinkler system.
This is a recurring theme throughout Kanto as we see as isn’t the best trainer, just a kid with a passion for Pokemon and determination to see it through. He never even beats all the gym trainers, such as when he gets a badge from Erika for saving the gym from Team Rocket and never even fights Giovanni himself. The only gym fight that Ash really won on his own was his fight against Blaine, but that was less due to Ash’s tactics and more because Charizard was very determined.
Ash lucked his way into the Indigo League, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We as an audience expected Ash to win once he got to the Indigo League but our expectations were subverted and he lost because he’s a bad trainer who cannot even control his Charizard. Once Ash loses, his confidence is shaken but he’s still resolute. An important thing to note is that he doesn’t jump to his Johto journey right away. This is a crucial step to his development as the Orange Islands arc between Kanto and Johto is where he truly begins to bond with his Pokemon for the first time, most notably Charizard. As this is where Ash has actual experience under his belt to forge a stronger bond with his pokemon, most notably Charizard.
Ash doesn’t win Charizard’s respect by yelling at him to follow orders but rather through dedication, hard work, and most importantly, compassion. In one episode of the Orange Islands arc Charizard loses a battle to a Poliwrath and gets seriously injured. Ash carries him from the beach and tries to keep Charizard’s flame alight, rubbing his hands together to keep him warm until his hands go numb. Charizard reflects on all the things Ash has done for him since he was a Charmander and brings them closer.
With this development Ash is able to beat Drake, the leader of the Orange Islands. While this is technically a win it isn’t a true league victory and thus not a true redemption for Ash, it does show he has begun to grow and just maybe if he keeps this up he can win a real league.
Right off the bat Johto goes better for Ash. He meets a ton of new people, he wins some good fights, and Charizard leaves for a bit to go on a training journey to be a better partner for Ash. His development during Orange Islands has been showing results in spades.
The Johto League’s big story importance for Ash is that it was the build up for his final fight against Gary. For the entirety of the show from Kanto to the Orange Islands Gary has been this unreachable goal and antagonist force in Ash’s life. He was petty and took every opportunity to show and boast about how he was better than Ash. Gary may not care about Ash at all but in contrast Ash cares about Gary a lot. A big part of his journey is that he wants to prove himself to him. They finally meet in the Top 16 of the Johto Cup, where Ash lost last time in Kanto.
This was Ash’s opportunity to prove himself in two ways: First, to prove to Gary that he is better than him but second, and more importantly, prove that he’s better than who he was in the Kanto League. And he does it! Though he eventually loses the Johto League not too long after this fight, his heart he won the most important battle.
Transitioning to Hoenn a new dawn has begun for Ash. He beat Gary, he placed high in a League, and he was going to a new region to meet new people! This causes Ash to begin to develop a sense of arrogance. It’s even in the dub’s theme song! A lot of the other songs were about journeying to new places and making friends, then Pokemon Advanced Battle comes in and the first thing you hear upon starting the show is: `”I’M UNBEATABLE”
Ash has become a bit of a braggart, talking a lot about how he placed in the Top 8 of the Johto League. He even tries to brag to Max who knows he lost to a guy with a Meowth of all things.
The episode that best epitomes Ash’s character in this region is Vanity Affair where he goes against a trainer named Drake (not to be confused with the Orange Islands Drake). At the beginning of the episode Ash beats a random trainer who is using a bug/steel type with a fire type. After he wins he just doesn’t shut up about how he is the best trainer ever despite his clear advantage. Even Brock says Ash’s bragging is out of hand for such an easy victory.
As this happens Ash meets Drake who immediately doesn’t like Ash because of his arrogance. Deciding to whip this kid into shape, Drake challenges Ash to a Pokemon battle to bring him back down to earth. He utterly decimates Ash but instead of bragging he uses it as a teaching moment and tells Ash that while he may be a good trainer he’s getting in his own way and that until Ash humbles himself he will never be the person he thinks he is.
When the Hoenn League finally comes around the critical thing is that Ash doesn’t do any better than he did in the Johto League. Ash has stagnated as a trainer, because he believed he was already the best; he didn’t improve at all throughout this entire region.
Ash’s pride is hurt and he’s confused. He needs to learn how to do better and decides to travel to the Battle Frontier, the next stop on his character development journey.
Throughout the Battle Frontier arc Ash finally starts to put the pieces together and we get to see the best of Ash. His best traits as a trainer, his spontaneity and ingenuity, is put on full display now. He uses Pokemon such as Snorlax and Charizard in creative ways during fights, combining the way he won fights in Kanto with the experience he got from Johto, Hohen and the Orange Islands.
The most important fight in this arc is his fight against Brandon. While Ash loses the first fight (then getting possessed and unpossessed by an evil spirit but that’s neither here nor there) after that he makes some phone calls to various characters he met back in Kanto to use his original Pokemon team and Ash wins.
So Ash has done it, right? Close. He’s not a perfect trainer but he’s beaten his rival, has a good relationship with his Pokemon, and has become a great trainer in his own right. All that’s left is to win a League, which brings us to Sinnoh.
Right away in Sinnoh we see a difference between how Ash acts here and how he acted in previous regions. Before fighting Brock he was acting very giddy and hopping up and down in excitement. When about to fight Roark he’s focused and confident, he’s still excited but experience and maturity have aged him and made him more resolute.
Even after all of this development though he beats Roark the same way he beat Brock, the key difference though is how he reacts to it. In Kanto he just celebrated beating Brock but in Sinnoh after this victory he goes back to the drawing board to think of ways to fight that won’t require him to rely on a tactic like that.
Throughout all of Sinnoh we see Ash act in this manner. Not only does he see every victory as an opportunity to learn but also uses defeats to try and figure out his own weaknesses and aim to make himself better.
This allowed the anime the opportunity to introduce Ash’s first true foil since Gary: Paul. Paul is different from anyone that Ash has met on his journeys up to this point. Paul is the anti-Ash. Ash is a compassionate boy who loves Pokemon whereas Paul is cruelty incarnate and doesn’t see Pokemon as beings worthy of affection.
The part of this that bothers Ash the most is that to him it seems like Paul’s method works. He and Paul are evenly matched and their very first fight ends in a draw. Paul’s dismissive nature to Pokemon causes him to disregard his Chimchar for its lack of control over it’s signature ability, Blaze, and deem it worthless as a result. Ash doesn’t see Pokemon in this way and decides to take the Chimchar with him and train it.
Things then begin to ramp up in their second battle, Ash and Paul are neck and neck again and we are led to believe Ash will beat this new rival but he fails. The biggest reason for this failure is ironically Monferno, which is the very same Chimchar that Paul threw out in the first place, still unable to control its true power. To Ash and Paul this proves that Paul’s harsher methods do work, and Ash can’t accept that.
Ash’s ego may be bruised but not destroyed, he’s not the same boy from Kanto who would sulk in failure. He’s determined to prove that love is more powerful than hate and that even this neglected Chimchar can become something great.
Which leads us to the Sinnoh League. Ash and Paul meet in the Top 8, the same position where he had lost in the last few times. Sinnoh has been a culmination of everything Ash has been through so far. He brings back all the Pokemon he has access to, learned from all his past failures, and is now facing off against his antithesis in a position where he failed before. It truly feels like the past 14 seasons of anime were building up to this.
And how does the fight go? It doesn’t start great for Ash, as he and Paul are evenly matched as trainers and Paul has switched up his team. Ash meanwhile chooses to use the exact same team Paul beat before just to prove a point. It’s a rough fight but in the end, after finally mastering Blaze, Ash wins with Infernape, which evolved from the same Chimchar that Paul abandoned before, proving that Paul’s method isn’t the superior way and that Pokemon should be nurtured with love.
This causes Paul to rethink how he treats his Pokemon, and change his entire outlook on life. What’s interesting is that like Ash, Paul has been doing this for a while. Paul had been journeying to multiple regions like Ash but hadn’t won a single League and likely had similar feelings to Ash from those losses. Now he is going through a similar arc that Ash went through in Hoenn where he is forced to accept that he isn’t the best and that there are other methods and paths to greatness. Infernape also gets to rest easy, knowing once and for all that Paul’s declarations of worth were not absolute, and everyone can change with the right mixture of patience, empathy, and resolve.
Now that we’ve gotten the great emotional payoff out of the way, all that’s left is for Ash to win the Sinnoh League and finally become a Pokemon Master.
Ash then lost the Sinnoh League to some rando 🥴.
Which brings us to the final region we’re going to talk about: Unova. Unova was different from every other season up to this point narratively. Ash is still Ash and he still has a Pikachu but character wise it would be perhaps too kind to sum it up as the character being completely reset back to his Kanto personality.
He doesn’t know how Pokeballs work, he loses a fight to a guy with a Snivy, and he acts completely immature. This is not the same character we went through Sinnoh with.
Unova isn’t all bad of course, this season had some really good episodes and Kalos would later fix things by bringing Ash back to his Sinnoh personality, but the cohesive character development throughout the first 14 seasons was disrupted and that brings down the Unova season as a whole.
I hope everything we have talked about so far has made the point clear. Claims that Ash Ketchum has no character or that he’s never evolved beyond a 5 year old self insert just aren’t true. It can be easy to forget because Pokemon is a slice of life monster-of-the-week franchise most of the time and he is admittedly a little tropey but he had a consistent arc for several decades of television and that’s not something many fictional characters can say for themselves.
Thank you for joining us for this deep dive, I would like to give special thanks to my friend CJ as this entire thing was his idea and he has been talking to me about Ash’s character for years, he even put Ash on his favorite character square at one point.