When I was a kid, Pokemon whimsically captured what it was like to grow up. Every day, I’d run home from school to catch Ash’s latest adventures, and on the weekends I would get to play Pokemon Red on my dad’s Gameboy.
Pokemon was legitimately one of the formative forces on my life. I loved it. And Butterfree was (and is) my favourite Pokemon. Butterfree isn’t glamorous: it isn’t incredibly powerful, ridiculously cute, or even particularly creative. But if Pokemon is a microcosm of life, then Butterfree perfectly captures everything that that entails. If you had to describe Pokemon in one word, a good candidate would be ‘evolution.’ People and pokemon are both dynamic, but we rarely possess the capacity to change as dramatically and suddenly as they can.
As children, we can feel trapped; every day of school drags forever and every Summer day is elusively short. It feels as if we will never grow up. Our experiences are so unadulterated that we can’t imagine them ever changing. Still, we crave the agency of adults. We naively want a later bedtime, the freedom that money will bring, liberation from school, and maybe even a boyfriend or girlfriend. We’re forced to wait years for these responsibilities, for the ability to have our thoughts taken seriously, and indeed to be a fully developed human being. But Butterfree does it at level 10. For many players, a Caterpie (Butterfree’s initial form) will be the very first Pokemon that they ever catch. Within a few battles, that small Caterpillar will cocoon itself in silk and become a Metapod. I mentioned before that Butterfree wasn’t the most creative Pokemon.
It isn’t; this caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly change happens in real life too. And this is the message Butterfree sends to us as awkward, pubescent adolescents: evolution is natural. It’s supposed to happen, and it happens everywhere. The transition will be strange and difficult, and indeed you may feel odd and protective, but it’s all OK. Metapod only has a single attack: the defensive ‘Harden,’ and as the stings of puberty crystallize in a cocoon of voice changes and growing pains, we may feel the desire to withdraw into our shells as well. But Butterfree also gives us hope. In just a short time (level 7 to 10) we will emerge, new and graceful. Other than epitomizing the game’s theme or the period of adolescence, Butterfree also teaches us about the bigger picture and about what it means to be a trainer and a human being. In the cartoon, Butterfree is the first pokemon that Ash releases. It is the show’s first real goodbye. In fact, when Ash, at the age of ten, leaves his home town and mother, he is given no more ceremonious farewell than the instruction to “pack clean underwear."
This is the fantasy of every young child: the Calvin and Hobbes-like pseudo adventure. The comfort of knowing that you can achieve your dreams, exercise your imagination, save the world, and still be home for dinner. The ease with which Ash leaves his family sets a false precedent that goodbyes can be straightforward and benign: a quick hop on the way to grander things. This is how all young kids feel: short-sighted and whimsical. Ash’s heartfelt goodbye when he releases Butterfree shows us that this is not the case. There is a dramatic difference that we all must learn between the idealized “quest” and the real world. This realization can be a shock. I confess that I cried when Ash let Butterfree go. He was the culmination of hard work and instruction: a fully-evolved friend and companion, and now he must be released to find his own happiness. (In the show, Butterfree is freed to go find a mate and continue on with his life.)
Is this how my parents feel? After all, at that age, I was making the transition from being predominantly raised by my parents and teachers to existing mostly in relation to my peers.
Just as Ash had to release Butterfree and let him be with others of his kind, so too did my parents have to release me and let me spend my nights out playing with friends rather than sitting with them watching Bill Nye. They, like Ash’s mom, didn’t say much. I, like Ash, didn’t think much of it – after all, I was off on adventures! But what they didn’t vocalize was the exact same sadness that Ash felt letting Butterfree go. The knowledge that a loved one’s life is slipping out of your hands, and that they are growing up and no longer the small caterpillar they once were (I’m sure it feels just like yesterday). In the game too, players will eventually remove Butterfree from their team; his stats simply can’t hold up against the game's strongest enemies. Realizing this fact is a formative, eureka-like moment for every child wanting to be a Pokemaster.
It also hurts and is the first step down the irreversible path to "maturity". Eventually, the desire to succeed, defeat your enemies, and reach your goals overpowers your sentimentality and nostalgia. It means growing up and accepting reality. It means being the master of your own destiny, and it means saying goodbye to a friend. It might be your first breakup, your first funeral, or the first time a good friend moves away, but every child must endure this moment. It’s crushing. But what can feel even more sad is the fact that you survive. You continue battling. And eventually, that Butterfree or that friend is just a distant memory. You’re a new person now. You’ve got a new life. Did they forget you too? Or have you both just evolved?
The relationship between Butterfree and Ash is a microcosm of puberty, parenting, and life. It teaches kids about loss, growth, and maturity. And that’s why Butterfree is my favourite Pokemon.