IT’S TIME. After braving the forests of Akala in order to take down the island’s Totem Pokemon, Ash has at last earned the right to challenge Olivia, and compete in her Grand Trial. It’s been a solid twenty-five episodes since Ash last fought in a Grand Trial, and since then he’s gained both Iwanko and Nyabby, along with plenty of fighting experience. Sun and Moon never disappoints when it comes to its action setpieces, and given the clear significance of this Grand Trial, I’m expecting some spectacular feats of animation.
So far Sun and Moon has rarely focused on the tactical interplay of pokemon battles, which makes sense. This isn’t truly an action cartoon, it’s more of an adventure/slice of life production, and thus the stakes of its conflicts tend to focus more on character emotions and personal resolutions than combat supremacy. Characters generally “win” by growing or learning something new – but last episode, Ash’s Totem battle embraced some genuine tactical interplay, leaving me hopeful that this fight will also supplement its visual flare with some crunchy tactics. Either way we’re in for a visual feast, so let’s not waste any more time, and charge forward to the Grand Trial!
We open with Ash prepping for his big match, trying to get his new grass type Z-crystal to work. Mallow getting in a big huff about his poor posework is great – it’s hard to get her genuinely angry, but disrespecting grass type dance moves will clearly do the trick
Arms up, Ash. Jesus christ, this is like the easiest Z stance
Popplio just lounging on Lana’s head is a good look. Incredibly good boy
“Are you ready to train, too?” And Rockruff just friggin’ bites him, ahaha. Something about the sound effect they use for this chomp makes this beat so funny
Ooh, I really like these shots leading us into Akala’s shrine. We’re getting more aggressive use of soft focus than usual, which helps create a sense of intimacy, as well as an understanding that what is not in soft focus is particularly important. There’s a reason why soft focus tends to be used so liberally in claustrophobic character dramas, where your attention must be drawn to specific details of posture or expression work
“Olivia’s Grand Trial! The Hardest Pokemon Match Ever!” That seems a bit much, but I’m all for it
Our Grand Trial is of course accompanied with a bounty of attractive new backgrounds, as we approach the Shrine of Life
Rockruff’s got that bloodlust in his eyes. He’s twice now acted more aggressively than the situation calls for, which basically moves that behavior into foreshadowing territory
Mallow is proven wise in her long-time Olivia fandom, as Olivia demonstrates her badass island guardian demeanor
Oh my god, this wild, manic grin. Olivia is truly a queen
Yeah, Rockruff’s really becoming a problem. He’s clearly only concerned with his rematch with Lycanroc, to the detriment of their overall strategy
“My partners are all adorable, rugged Rock-type pokemon.” Rock type, huh? Alright Rowlett, time to utterly destroy this lineup
Oh, interesting. I was sorta wondering why Ash is the only one who seems to be gearing up for a trial, but it turns out Kaki has already taken his. I wonder how far Mallow and Lana are along their own journeys – though presumably we’ll just be following Ash’s, and just assuming the others are progressing at a similar pace. This show’s ensemble approach results in some interesting wrinkles in the usual pokemon structure
Olivia outright explains that she’s upped this fight’s complexity to a double battle because Ash is further along his journey. Nice to hear a gym leader confirm their genuine purpose here: not to fight with their greatest strength, but to fight just hard enough to bring out the full potential of their opponents. Gym leaders are ultimately just another kind of teacher, and teachers want their students to succeed
Rockruff demands a place on the lineup, but Ash wisely does choose Rowlett for his other spot. So proud of my boy, using type advantages and everything
While some attacks like Rock Slide are fairly straightforward, it’s neat seeing the anime come up with visual interpretations of more complex moves, like how Stealth Rock essentially creates a force field around Ash’s team
“Olivia knows how to divvy up roles in a double battle.” As I hoped, we’re diving deeper into the tactical weeds this fight, with Olivia presenting a classic attack and utility combo
The spires of the Stealth Rock attack look like bars, nicely emphasizing Ash’s sense of entrapment
Probopass was a good choice for Olivia’s second pokemon. Its built-in minions really emphasize its status as a boss-level threat
Excellent shot of Olivia and her team here, balancing their individual poses with the massive, foreshortened threat of Probopass
Alright, there’s the ad break. With Ash now driven into a corner, I am expecting some absurd feats of animation for the second half
Ahaha, Pikachu just cheering as hard as he can on the sideline. I love these creatures
It’s interesting how the sturdy, structured nature of pokemon game battles creates a natural tension in a show like this. In the game you just pick a move that always executes the same way, but here, Olivia’s tactical ingenuity is conveyed through how her pokemon physically manipulate the battlefield (like Lycanroc jumping up Probopass’ minions in order to chase his opponent), something that stands apart from the game design. It’s an effective compromise that pays tribute to the game’s mechanical systems, while still presenting an opportunity for the kind of unique tactical gambits that make action visually compelling. The inherent struggles of translating RPG combat design into visual drama
Iwanko takes initiative, chucking one of Probopass’ minions in front of a shot meant for Rowlett
Ooh, I love how gracefully they’re conveying Ash’s growth here. As Olivia moves, he immediately recognizes she’s preparing a Z-move – and then we get this brief partial flashback to Gladion and Lycanroc, where Ash learned precisely what the rock Z-move does. In light of that, he’s able to immediately come up with a countermeasure – a clear illustration of how experience can become strength
Great animation for the buildup, of course, and I like how the harsh lighting is illustrated, amplifying the sense of tension
Using Rowlett’s speed, Ash is able to turn Olivia’s attack against her, destroying the Stealth Rocks
And right after that, he uses Probopass’ minions against him. They’re doing a great job of finding ways for Ash to appear clever in this fight, while simultaneously making Olivia seem like a terrifying threat. “An enemy so strong only their own attacks can defeat them” is a handy device
And here we go. We shift to gloriously fluid animation the moment Ash announces his Z-move, with that fluidity continuing through Olivia’s response. As always, one of Sun and Moon’s signature strengths is the ambition of its camerawork; because its character designs are so simplified and animation-friendly, it’s possible for a particularly talented animator to pan or even spin the camera as a move is executed, greatly enhancing the sense of drama and impact
Dear lord. Incredible display of effects animation as Rowlett’s move blows up the entire arena
Rockruff’s battle fury at last prompts some consequences, as he accidentally knocks Rowlett out of the fight himself
AW HE LOOKS SO SHOCKED AND GUILTY
Rather than chastising him when he clearly knows he did wrong, Ash literally and metaphorically drops down to his level, reminding him of their mutual training efforts. He really is a great trainer
OP DROP MOTHERFUCKERS
Oh my god, his final rock throw looks so awesome. As the battle takes to the sky, Sun and Moon’s energetic camerawork rises to a new level as well, spinning with Rockruff throughout this attack, and then diving forward into depth to follow Lycanroc’s tumble to the stage. What a series of cuts!
A Rock Z-crystal, and Rockruff is close to evolving. Successful gym battle indeed!
HELL YEAH THAT BATTLE WAS AWESOME. The first half wasn’t quite as fluid in terms of animation, but still managed to thrill through its clever implementation of all these minor strategic obstacles, like the rock wall and the opponent’s minions. And then that second half, with its absurd bounty of attack animation and active camerawork, was just one dazzling sequence after another. I knew Sun and Moon would be pulling out all the stops for a fight like this, and it’s delightful to see this production at the height of its powers. Onward to glory, Ash!