Original designer reveals that the real inspiration for the “electric mouse” was a different animal altogether.

Perhaps my strangest experience with learning Japanese has been having to remember two sets of names for Pokémon species. For example, the Pocket Monster called Magikarp in English versions of the game/anime? In Japan, he’s “Koiking,” since he’s essentially a koi (“carp”) with a crown-shaped fin on his back. Slowpoke? Over here he’s “Yadon,” a syllabic jumbling of doya, which refers to a sort of blissful cluelessness.

But Pikachu’s name is the same around the world. As a matter of fact, the franchise mascot is so famous that even most non-Japanese speaking fans know that his name comes from a pair of Japanese onomatopoeias: pika, referring to a flash of light, and chu, the squeaking sound mice make. It’s the perfect name for a character that’s essentially an “electric mouse,” right?

Except, it turns out that Pikachu’s visual design wasn’t based on a mouse at all.

▼ “Whaaaaat?”

Ken Sugimori, head of Pokémon video game developer Game Freak, and Atsuko Nishida, an illustrator who contributed monster designs for the series’ original Pokémon Red and Green installments in 1996, recently reminisced about Pikachu’s origin. The only specific guidelines Nishida was given were that the character should be cute, use electricity-based powers, and be able to evolve twice.

Aside from those criteria, Nishida was free to do whatever she wanted in terms of design. So she turned to the animal kingdom for inspiration, and took design cues from…a squirrel!

▼ Pika?

So why did the character end up being called Pikachu instead of Pika-whatever-squirrels-say-in-Japanese? Probably because there’s no set onomatopoeia for a squirrel’s cry in Japanese. As a matter of fact, squirrels themselves aren’t nearly as common in Japan as they are in rural and suburban communities in America, and if you live in a Japanese city, you could easily go several years without seeing one, even in parks. Odds are when Nishida showed her design to the rest of the staff, the reaction from many was “looks like a mouse,” making the name “Pikachu” a perfect fit.

But wait, what about the stipulation that the character be able to evolve twice? Pikachu can only evolve once, into Raichu (though later games added in the diminutive Pichu as the lowest level of the evolutionary path). Sugimori and Nishida don’t explain why the two-evolution requirement was dropped, but it’s pretty easy to imagine it was a result of Pikachu’s design being unbelievably adorable. Consider that in 20-plus years of anime adventures, human protagonist Ash has never evolved his Pikachu into Raichu, and the same can be said for many Pokémon gamers. In the case of Pikachu, even one evolution is one too many, so why waste time designing a second evolution that no one is ever going to use?

Source: Livedoor News/Yomiuri Shimbun via Jin
Photos ©SoraNews24

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