There’s a certain pleasure in spotting pop culture references in animated shows aimed at kids, whether it’s unmistakeable allusions to Goodfellas in Animaniacs or The dude from The Big Lebowski showing up in an episode of Powerpuff Girls. An early episode of the animated TV series Pokemon, meanwhile, took the unusual step of spending a large chunk of its duration on paying homage to one of America’s most distinguished genre writers.
Mystery At The Lighthouse was the 13th episode of Pokemon, which made its first Japanese airing in 1997 and appeared on US screens the following year. Arriving near the start of Pokemon’s global explosion in popularity, it continued 10-year-old hero Ash Ketchum’s quest to catch and train the cute creatures of the series’ title, all in the hope of becoming a Pokemon master. The story sees Ash and his friends (among them his loyal rodent companion Pikachu) arrive at a lighthouse on a foggy coast, where a character named Bill spends his time studying rare Pokemon.
In the episode’s second half, mysterious noises are heard emanating from the sea. It’s the sound, the professor explains, of a giant, mythical Pokemon responding to plaintive sounds made by the lighthouse’s foghorn. The creature, Bill says, is convinced that the lighthouse is a mate, and appears on the coast every year to respond to its call.
If this sounds at all familiar, that’s because it’s lifted directly from a Ray Bradbury short story commonly known as The Foghorn. First published in 1951, it too told the story of a lighthouse keeper who observes the arrival of a gigantic, prehistoric creature emerging from the waves each year. Related with Bradbury’s characteristically elegant prose, it’s a slight yet beautiful mood piece. Here’s an excerpt:
A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness.That was the sound.
To hear Bradbury describe how he came up with this finely-crafted little tale is no less evocative. In the preface to the first volume of the author’s short stories, originally published in 1983, Bradbury wrote that he was inspired to write The Fog Horn while walking along a Californian beach. While strolling with his wife late one evening, Bradbury “Came upon the bones of the Venice Pier and the struts, tracks and ties of the ancient roller-coaster collapsed on the sand and being eaten by the sea.”
“What’s that dinosaur doing lying here on the beach?” Bradbury asked. The following evening, the author was woken up by the sound of a fog horn bellowing across the Santa Monica coast. “Of course,” Bradbury concluded. “The dinosaur heard that lighthouse fog horn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur arisen from the deep past, came swimming in […] and died of a broken heart there on the shore.”
The Foghorn was originally published as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – a title producers Jack Dietz and Hal E Chester liked so much that they bought it and used it for his monster movie. That Ray Bradbury was already a celebrated author by this point also helped, of course, though the film’s makers did more than just take Bradbury’s title; one scene showed its title creature looming up next to a lighthouse in the dead of night.
Released in the summer of 1953, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms would soon become famous for its glorious stop-motion animated sequences, brought to life by the late Ray Harryhausen. A late scene in which its giant monster, the Rhedosaurus, attacks a Coney Island rollercoaster, is among the most celebrated in Harryhausen’s career – it’s possible that this scene, too, was loosely inspired by Bradbury, or his telling of The Fog Horn’s creative genesis. Bradbury and Harryhausen were already firm friends by the early 50s, and it was Harryhausen who first brought Bradbury’s short story to his producers’ attention.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was such a huge hit that it became far more influential than anyone connected with it could have predicted, with a string of atomic monster movies – some great – some less so – following in its wake.
Inarguably the most famous of these was Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda and released in 1954. It took Beast’s premise – that of a prehistoric creature raised from its slumber by atomic testing – and lashed it, quite brilliantly, to the raw memories of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. What began as a B-movie premise was transformed into something far more heartfelt and disturbing – and to this day, Godzilla remains the king of the monsters, with dozens of films, spin-offs and merchandise ensuring that the beast’s legacy will survive well into the 21st century.
Perhaps that 90s Pokemon episode, written by Takeshi Shudo and animated by Team Ota, was an acknowledgement of the small debt the Japanese kaiju subgenre owes Bradbury – that the monster, Kabuto, makes distinctly Godzilla-like noises seems to lend weight to this theory. Or maybe it’s an affectionate, extended bow to one of the most important genre writers of the 20th century.
Whatever the reason for The Fog Horn showing up in the show, it does a surprisingly good job of evoking the lonely mood of Bradbury’s text; Ash and his friends watch from the top of the lighthouse as the creature makes plaintive sounds as it wades towards the shore, shrouded in mist. It’s doubtful, however, that Bradbury would have considered what ultimately scares the monster into returning to the deep: a few well-placed bazooka rounds from the villainous duo, Team Rocket.
Still, it’s an arresting moment while it lasts, and it’s fun to think that, for a generation of kids around the world, this may have been their first exposure to quiet power of Ray Bradbury’s writing and imagination.