Exploring the Cartoon Noir Cinematography of ‘Detective Pikachu’

"Play it again, Salamence."

My first experience with Pokémon was with the television anime that aired on after-school cartoons when I was five. The cute creatures and story captivated me; I would rush home from kindergarten every day to park myself in front of the CRT TV and watch the next episode of Ash and co.’s adventures, and I imagine many other fans became fans the same way. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the first American-led film in the franchise if we ignore the several anime movies that have come out of Japan, the franchise’s country of origin. So imagine my surprise when I sat down and discovered that the film not only remembers through its cinematography the property’s anime history but pays homage to something else I came to love later in life: film noir.

At first, the visual combination “anime plus noir” is a real odd couple. You wouldn’t assume they go together well. Film noir’s hallmark attributes are its usage of hard, single-source light, which creates those distinct boundaries between light and shadow that make noir, noir. Some examples from our own Noir Shot list:

Scarlet Street

Detective Pikachu begins in a rural, suburban town, but the protagonist, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) soon boards a bullet train, a staple of Japanese transportation, bound for the big city. Ryme City, in turn, is a futuristic hyper-urban metropolis, much like that of Blade Runner, which in turn is itself a sci-fi noir. Tim’s first stop here is the office of Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), which is lit from a single source, casting deep and hard shadows across the walls.

The action quickly moves through colorful neon-lit alleys and streets to the apartment of Harry Goodman (Ryan Reynolds), Tim’s father, which Tim explores in a sort of noir melancholy, reminiscing on his relatively few memories of dad.

Tim subsequently meets the eponymous Detective Pikachu after catching a glimpse of some actual noir detective flicks on TV. Side note: if Pokémon have always existed in this world, why don’t the old movies have Pokemon in them? Tim converses with Pikachu in a crowded night market, a staple of East Asian nightlife which was also present in Blade Runner.

Detective Pikachu proceeds to whisk us through a whirlwind of detective movie-style locations, all lit with that same single-source, hard-light sensibility that characterizes film noir. We visit, in turn, a shady cafe (because you can’t put a gin joint in a kids’ movie) where the protagonists discuss the facts of the case, a shipping yard to meet and interrogate an informant, and an underground Pokémon battling ring with a disturbingly violent portrayal of Pokémon battles that is not often seen in the anime or video games.

But the most striking part of Detective Pikachu’s cinematography is its eye-popping color. While classic film noir is shot in black-and-white, Detective Pikachu frequently colorizes its key lighting to bathe the scene in various saturated hues, emulating the highly saturated tones of the anime. This film understands that a noir look is not so much about a monochromatic look as it is about the contrast between light and dark.

As such, the cinematography of Detective Pikachu manifests as a delightfully unique blend of noir murder mystery and colorful cartoon for kids. The urban environment emphasizes this with its distinct Japanese bent and embodies both the dirty cities that film noir is known for as well as the cyberpunk future of dozens of anime. While it’s definitely an unexpected direction for a Pokémon movie to take, it is also unique and exciting, and the film is a visual delight. Maybe we can get a Blade Runner/Pokémon crossover? It’ll give us a great excuse to put Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling in the same movie.

Hans Qu: Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy