If I had to think of a single item from my childhood that carries the highest concentration of imbued nostalgia, it'd be a Pokemon card. Doesn't matter which one. You could hand me a beaten-up Base Set Diglett and I'd be overwhelmed with Pocket Monster memories. I can remember my first booster pack, my best holographics, and those trades I always regretted. The reason those things stick with me all comes down to one thing: the art. For over 20 years, the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) has delivered thousands of bespoke Pokemon designs that are exclusive to the format. It's like collecting miniature works of art that you curate in ring-bound galleries, mounted in plastic pocket pages rather than on walls.
I have been fascinated with Pokemon cards ever since they debuted on my school playground in 1999. So when I heard legendary artist Mitsuhiro Arita was in town, I jumped at the chance to sit down with him and talk about his inspiration, method, and most importantly, what he thinks of "chubby" Pikachu.
With over 600 Pokemon cards in his portfolio, it's extremely likely you've seen Arita's work. It spans the entirety of the TCG, from the original holographic Charizard to the recent Tag Team cards, where powerful Pokemon team up and drop massive amounts of damage on your opponent. With the next generation of Pokemon on the horizon as part of Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield, I had to ask how he approaches the brand-new creatures.
When a new Pokemon is announced, the first artwork we see is usually by series veteran Ken Sugimori. But it turns out there isn't much collaboration at all between Pokemon artists, as it's mostly freelancers working on the card series. After an initial brief from Creatures, Inc, the company that produces the Pokemon Trading Card Game, they're left to come up with their own impression of a monster. Arita did say that he would love to collaborate with Sugimori, or many of the other Pokemon artists, which is something I'd personally love to see.
So what does inspire Arita when it comes to bringing Pikachu or Mewtwo to life on a blank canvas? "It's actually a lot better to look at real life,'' Arita said. "When you see an illustration it will inevitably reflect that artist's world view, from a creative way of thinking, so it's perhaps not so good for stimulating your own kind of different, new, free thoughts." Arita explained that he watches a lot of BBC nature documentaries and films for inspiration, which surely helps the Pokemon he draws feel more like living, breathing creatures. Anyone who follows Arita on Twitter will know that he has spent a lot of his recent time in Europe at museums, sketching ancient artifacts and sculptures, soaking in dozens of different cultures.
Speaking of Europe, the Galar region of Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield is loosely based on the United Kingdom, so I asked Arita if his trip would have any influence on future cards he works on. "The knowledge of the environment and architecture of European countries is an inspiration, especially the sense of the scale of the architecture." While Arita couldn't go into any detail on upcoming Pokemon cards we might see alongside the release of Sword and Shield, it's clear that his travels in Europe will have some kind of influence on his art for the Pokemon TCG.
Arita has been heavily involved in the recent Tag Team sets, with Team Up, Unbroken Bonds, and the new Unified Minds expansion, where the strongest Pokemon share a card and combine their powers. Zekrom and Pikachu, Reshiram and Charizard, or as we see in the new set, Mewtwo and Mew, are just a few of the dream teams. But the artist doesn't get a say in which Pokemon are paired up.
"The top priority really is from the game designers at Creatures, and they think about how those Pokemon work in the actual gameplay," Arita explained. Arita went on to add that The Pokemon Company might also have some influence on which Pokemon are chosen, depending on current popularity. This might explain the team-up of Slowpoke and Psyduck, which is now, in my opinion, the greatest Pokemon card ever created, regardless of how playable it actually is. Either way, whatever request comes Arita's way, he says he's happy to think about how to bring out each monster’s best side.
The flagship team-up for Unified Minds is the legendary Mewtwo and Mew, who capped off the original 151 Pokemon, and I happen to know that Mewtwo is Arita's favorite Pokemon. "There's a story behind this card," he said. Those with a keen eye may have already noticed, but the art for this new card is a callback to one of Arita's previous works in the Shining Legends set, Mewtwo-GX, which he was particularly proud of. It's a stunning piece of art showing Mewtwo held captive in a laboratory--a must-have for collectors. Arita then pointed out that some of the background details match those in the Mewtwo & Mew-GX from the latest set, so fans can deduce that Mew has come to the rescue and broken Mewtwo out of captivity. This wasn't requested by Creatures; instead, it's an extra level Arita has added to this card to bring it to life.
This isn't the only example of themes and stories hidden within Arita's art. Over 15 years ago he worked on an Umbreon card for the Aquapolis set. In this art, Umbreon is sat atop a roof across from a distinctive clocktower, and this very same clocktower features in the art for the new Umbreon & Darkrai-GX card. "You get kind of sucked into the story, and fans develop their own theories. It's more a kind of participative way of designing these new card illustrations."
The hardest part of creating art for a Tag Team card is actually trying to fit everything in since those cards contain a lot of text. Arita talked me through an example with Lucario & Melmetal-GX, a card featuring both a very popular Pokemon and a very new one. "Everyone knows Lucario, they know what Lucario looks like. So you don't have to show the whole of Lucario for people to get the idea. With Melmetal, even though he is so huge and really difficult to actually fit onto the card, I thought I really should show as much as possible of this new Pokemon or everyone will just be like, 'What is this?'" Arita went on to explain how he had to work hard to make this particular combination work and ended up putting a lot of emphasis on Melmetal's head, which, after all, is just a nut with a ball for an eye hovering inside. "I tried to make it so that even if you look at it from a distance you could see that, and it stood out to make it even more easy to understand what that was."
Pokemon aren't really dark, negative, or depressing. They're happy, they're joyful.
Fascinated by Arita's latest work, I couldn't end without asking about one of his first cards-- card 58 from the first set of the Pokemon Trading Card Game, Pikachu. It's now lovingly known as "chubby" or "fat" Pikachu, since the more recent versions of the electric rodent are a lot slimmer. But which does Arita prefer now?
"I prefer rounder Pikachu," he promptly told me, before explaining how it's difficult to attain the perfect roundness of Pikachu when drawing digitally, and it's much easier to go back to traditional methods to achieve that "soft feeling." Looking at Arita's Pikachu art over the years, I couldn't help but feel that he had managed to capture the same playful and happy side of Pikachu each time. I asked him if this was his own personal version of Pikachu. "Not really just limited to Pikachu, but in general I feel like Pokemon aren't really dark, negative, or depressing. They're happy, they're joyful. So I think that feeling has just kind of come out and expressed itself in these cards."
The latest expansion for the Pokemon Trading Card Game, Sun & Moon: Unified Minds, is available now, with Arita's art featuring on booster packs and many of the new Tag Team Pokemon-GX cards. Speaking to Arita was an absolute pleasure, and I now have a new level of appreciation for the craft of designing a Pokemon card. Next time you crack open a booster pack, take a little more time to look at each card and see if you can spot the influences and hidden stories lovingly illustrated on those 2.5" by 3.5" works of art.