Many fans of Pokémon focus primarily on the creatures themselves as shaping the Pokémon games, splitting them into six “Generations” marked by a new region and new group of monsters to train and battle. What is often overlooked by the more casual fans is that we see a number of themes and motifs that occur in each game that shape the different dynamics of the franchise. Some of them are exclusive to their generation, but each entry shares a few primary themes that encapsulates the entire series.
The world of Pokémon is often left mysterious or abstract compared to the primary mechanics of the video games. It is fair to say that the world, or the “regions“ in each game, serve as flavor text to the purpose of the Pokémon adventures, but this is also a narrow, practical point of view. For others, the world of Pokémon is fascinating in of itself, and does deserve some recognition and analysis to better understand the Pokémon franchise and the thematic overtones it contains.
The following discussion will analyze the six major regions in the Pokémon world: Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova, and Kalos. In covering the six main regions, I will discuss the history of each region, geographic features, and finally end with the game’s primary theme and how each region is connected to it through their own storylines and mythology.
Kanto is the setting for the first generation of Pokémon games, Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow. Since it was the first game in the series, the Kanto region is perhaps the most well known of the six regions in the Pokémon world. Geographically, it is based on the actual Kanto region in Japan, where modern day Tokyo is situated. Up until the Unova region, Kanto was widely considered the most technologically advanced region in the Pokémon games, as each of the cities representing either a financial, commercial, or recreational center, e.g. Saffron, Celadon, and Fuchsia city, respectively. Kanto also contains the most cities than any other region, subtly marking the area as a developed nation.
The Kanto region is often depicted with light grasslands and giant plains, with few outstanding geographic features. There are also a smaller number of forests, caves, and mountains than other generations. There is a large bay in the South, but unlike the other regions it is mostly landlocked, with each of the cities in very close proximity to each other. While this can be attributed to the fact that the Game Boy technology was not able to make a ton of geographic locations unique, this also easily fits into the history of the Kanto region as a more developed land, both economically and industrially.
Historically, because the Kanto region is among the most modern and cosmopolitan regions in the game, it has a major history in regards to scientific discovery. The game holds several Pokémon labs and the technology conglomerate known as the Silph Company. It is also arguable that the technological expertise of the Kanto region led to a distinct lack of legends and myths in the Kanto region. It is the only region to this day that has no direct legend or myth that revolves around legendary Pokémon for Kanto, and the five legendary Pokémon in the game are completely non-native.
Inventions and scientific pursuits are instead rampant in Kanto. Cinnabar Island is perhaps the most prominent example, as it was hinted very heavily in-game that genetic engineering with the Pokémon Mew occurred, eventually creating the Pokémon Mewtwo. The Kanto region also created the Master Ball, the fossil reviver, the PC storage system, and the Experience Share machines. This all fits into the themes of the Kanto region: the adaptation and abuse of technology.
The world of Kanto is sophisticated, but it is also devoid of ancient customs and culture. The use of technology is instead seen as a major theme of Kanto, and is represented as a force that is uncontrollable. We see positive effects in the tools created such as the Master Ball and the PC storage system, but the use of genetic engineering shows science gone awry, and it is not represented by just Mew or Mewtwo either. The Pokémon Voltorb, Electrode, and Porygon also represent this, as they are man-made Pokémon that exist because of technology, as hinted in the games themselves. Even Bill is at one point genetically modified and has to be reverted to his original state by the player.
Because the technology in the first Pokémon game has been constantly improved on in the other five generations, it also shows that, despite the strong emphasis on being a technological center, technology is still outpaced as time goes on. Kanto is emblematic of one of the ironies, and one of the lessons, about science and technology: it is always changing, but it is impossible to control, even if you have good intentions.
The Johto region was first introduced in Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal, officially starting the second generation of Pokémon games. Gameplay additions include adding 100 new Pokémon into the mix and the Dark and Steel type, which sought to balance out the over-powered Psychic type from the first generation. Geographically, it is directly east of Kanto, the only region to be directly next to a previous one, and the only region that has full access to the previous region post-game. Unlike the Kanto region, the Johto region is often seen as more rural. It does contain many cities and ports, including the major Goldenrod City, which has the highest population of all cities until the Unova region, but it has a higher emphasis on culture and tradition than the Kanto region. Its cities are named after nature, specifically plants and trees.
The Johto region is actually based on the Kansai region of Japan, which is directly east of the real-life Kanto region of Japan. The dichotomy between culture and technology is also present in Japan, so it is clear that the Johto region had been planned in some form by Tajiri to be a sister city for the Kanto region, and it shows. Many aspects in Johto emphasize the natural world more than Kanto, including a world with deeper traditions rooted in nature and Pokémon.
Historically, Johto also has several connections with legendary Pokémon. The “Tower Pokémon” of Lugia and Ho-oh were venerated by the people in the recent past, the Ilex forest is rumored to have a Pokémon guardian named Celebi, the Ruins of Alph contain several puzzles and tables of letters made by the mysterious Unown Pokémon, and are credited for the foundation of the Latin alphabet in game. We also see towns gain local customs. For example, Azalea Town venerates Slowpoke because they ended a long drought in the town centuries ago, and Mahogany Town’s Lake of Rage is said to have violent weather due to the Pokémon Garydos.
Due of this, the emphasis on the past is often seen as the theme for the Johto region. This was the first generation to have a history for legendary Pokémon, with each featured in a legend from the past specific to that region rather than being genetically engineered or, in the case of the legendary birds, a temporary resident. The set of starter Pokémon in this generation are, to this date, the only set that remain “traditional,” or a mono-typing throughout their entire evolutionary lines. The look of Johto is more rustic; buildings are made of wood and have more Japanese iconography to them (possibly due to the enhanced graphics of the Game Boy Color system), there is a larger amount of caves, mountains, ruins, and forests in game, and the introduction of berries and apricorns showcase a more natural world over Kanto. There is also an emphasis on creating new life through nature, as the second generation introduced a breeding mechanic.