Nothing if not controversial, Pokémon is once again hogging the headlines, just as it did on first making the news in Hong Kong, 19 years ago.
On that occasion, the Japanese media franchise was under fire for putting hundreds of viewers in hospitals.
On December 16, 1997, about 4.6 million Japanese households tuned in to watch an episode of Pokémon. In one scene, the show’s beloved Pikachu uses a “Thunderbolt attack”, involving flashes that caused some viewers to experience seizures.
“More than 520 people, mostly children, were rushed to hospitals last night after feeling sick” while watching Pokémon, the South China Morning Post reported a day later. The count later rose to almost 700.
One boy recalled, “I was watching TV but I cannot remember anything at all when it was all over. I felt so sick.” For another, “everything turned white”. One mother, Yukiko Iwasaki, said, “I was shocked to see my daughter lose consciousness. She started to breathe only when I hit her on the back.”
One Post headline on December 18 read, “Illness episode may lead to extra TV controls”, as a result of the “mass outbreak of nausea and tremors” and “television-induced seizures”. An opinion piece on the same day asked, “Are Japanese cartoons just too intense for children to handle?”
Demand for fast-paced action had grown as animation techniques advanced but the incident taught an important lesson: just because visual effects are possible, that does not mean they are safe.
“Kids don’t watch this programme the way most people watch TV. You can’t take your eyes off it without missing crucial visual clues,” said Toshio Okada, a writer specialising in animation.
After the incident, new guidelines and health warnings were issued by animators and government regulators. As Pokémon continues to push the boundaries, we can only wonder whether there will be a need for more guidelines.