The Banned Pokémon Episode That Gave Children Seizures

On December 16, 1997, an episode of the then-unstoppable Pokémon animated series was broadcast in Japan. Barely thirty minutes later, nearly 700 children were on their way to hospital.

The episode, called "Electric Soldier Porygon", is now part of Pokémon folklore. Centring around the adventures of Ash and his friends as they travel inside a Pokéball transmitter machine, its story and premise are innocent enough. The machine is broken, and the kids embark on an adorable little cyberspace adventure to fix it.

What caused all the problems were the animation techniques employed in the episode. There comes a point, around twenty minutes into the show, when Pikachu uses his lightning attack to blow up some missiles. Because these are virtual missiles, and Pikachu is currently residing in Pokémon's version of cyberspce, a regular explosion just wouldn't look right.

So the animators used a rapidly-strobing technique that flashed red and blue lights on the screen, to make the explosion look "virtual". Like something you'd see in Tron, or the Lawnmower Man.

And then all hell broke loose.

Straight away, children across Japan were struck down with various ailments. Some kids passed out, or experienced blurred vision. Others felt dizzy, or nauseous. In extreme cases, some even experienced seizures and cases of temporary blindness.

While the exact number of children legitimately affected by the show will never be known, in total 685 kids (375 girls, 310 boys) were put in ambulances suffering some kind of medical problem after watching the episode. While most made speedy recoveries - some within minutes after the show's conclusion - a small number were diagnosed with epilepsy, which had been triggered by the rapidly-blinking display.

The incident, which became known in Japan as "Pokémon Shock", was a disaster for children's animation in Japan, Pokémon and Nintendo, whose stocks took a hit. The show was taken off the air for nearly four months while its producers and health professionals scrambled to discover what had caused such a concentrated outbreak of health issues. It also resulted in a wave of negative, if ill-informed comments from the American media.

When it eventually returned, it did so with several changes. The show's opening credits had been altered to eliminate the possibility of a repeat incident, and the first episode back was preceded by an "informercial" of sorts (left), which sought to explain what had caused "Pokémon Shock" and reassure viewers that steps had been taken to ensure that it never happened again.

As a result of "Pokémon Shock", "Electric Soldier Porygon" has never been broadcast again in any region, even in edited form. And despite having nothing to do with the incident, the Pokémon most closely-associated with the show, Porygon, was never shown in the series again either.

So what caused "Pokémon Shock"? Ultimately, it was found to be a combination of the effects of strobe lighting combined with the sheer popularity of the program. It's estimated that around 1 in 4000 people are vulnerable to "photosensitive seizures" and other health issues when viewing strobe lighting. That may sound minor, but when you consider over four million kids were watching that particular episode, it's easy to see why so many were struck down.

While it's easy to look back on the incident now and laugh - as South Park famously did two years later - we also have to remember that epilepsy is a serious condition, and that while the photosensitive seizure warning messages before Nintendo (and other company's) games may be a hassle, this episode showed they're there for a very good reason.

If you'd like to see the sequence in question, you can view it in this clip, but be warned, you obviously do so at your own risk!

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Comments

    I remember this, one of three episodes which never made it to western shores.

    Of the other two, one was the safari zone episode where the zone keeper pulls a gun on Ash, the other one Misty, Jesse and James enter a bikini competition, James wearing a pair of huge, realistic fake breasts.

    While James crossdressing wasn't an uncommon event in the series, this particular incident was deigned too extreme.

      Other episodes not to make it include a bunch of clip shows. Nothing controversial in the episode, they just decided not to translate them.

      Also there was one which had to be played at a later date because it had something to do with Digletts and an earthquake or something. It was around the time Japan had a big earthquake or mud slides or something.

        Of course, there are more games that were banned in some countries, for example Bulletstorm in Japan and The Witcher 2 in Australia. You can read more about this problem here: https://codeswholesale.com/blog/the-reasons-for-banning-games-in-different-countries/

    My eyes....! The googles they do nothing!

      Goggles* >.>

    Also important is the broadcast format, NTSC-J.
    The problem was so isolated that most of the people that had problems wouldn't have problems again if they watched it on a newer TV or TV anywhere else in the world. Even NTSC-US is a different enough format to prevent the problem.

      Actually, NTSC-J is almost identical to NTSC. The difference is mostly in blanking, which isn't a visible effect anyway. At best, it would just look a little darker on an American set.

      The episode should still be able to cause harm on a modern TV - 60Hz, 120Hz, 240Hz, all are close enough to show 29.97fps as-is.

    Obviously they just read the article on IGN and decided to copy.

      Thats what i was thinking... Two articles about pokemon anime in the same day regarding the same episode that aired almost 12 years ago. IMPOSSIBLE *head exploads*

    Was it only that 10 second clip that got them? Wow!

      Was it only the children with seizures that made you surprised?

    Dear writers,

    Google minecraft. Make the explosions look like that. Problem solved.

    I'm surprised you actually posted the video... I'm tempted just to watch it over and over until something happens!

    I'm scared to watch it i don't wanna have a fit.

    I thought the episodes had to be cleared through some kind of health and safety organization before being broadcasted, the system must be pretty loose in Japan I suppose.

    Since Kotaku's back in 1997 now, can you post about the upcoming sequel to System Shock? Thanks!

    i didnt get no seizure from watching it, but my eyes are feeling a little funny.

    Luke, as an Epileptic (for 16 years now) myself, I ask that you guys at Kotaku PLEASE put the warning ABOVE the video, with a warning in BOLD ALL CAPS.

    I ask this because I'm on meds yet suffer small electrical bursts and sometimes full seizures.
    They are FRAKKING PAINFUL and FRAKKING HORRIBLE.
    (Your body as a puppet with strings cut, muscles unresponsive, flopping around like a fish with muscle spasms, vision blurred. Sound fun?)

    If you must post the article, at least put an idiot proof disclaimer BEFORE the video, please?

    Cheers.

    P.S: Smart enough to read the whole article, did not watch the clip.

    Why are we still talking about this episode like it's something amazing? There are lots of t.v shows and movies which cause kids and adults to have seizures. Whats so special about one Pokemon episode that caused 700 kids to have them?

      The sheer number beats ALL recorded cases.

    Moral of the story is Pikachu is so awesome he causes seizures.

    Only watched about half a centremeter of the bottom of the clip for all of 2 seconds.

    Had to turn it off. bleh

    Didn't The Simpsons make fun of this kinda thing with the episode where they go to Japan?
    Hilariousizzle.

    I was like haha, how could 10 seconds make people have seizures--Now: Ow. My head hurts. *Faceplant*

    No, it was longer than 10 seconds. Around 2 minutes i think.

    man, my body jumped just when the the light came. good thing i put pause before anything happened

      Why? Why?
      Feels like only 300 people in USA have epilepsy
      300 Seems Lika lot
      Also The Legend of Dratini was banned cauz guns were pointed at people but so it is aired in Japan and Asia only

    I actually remember that episode when I was in Japan. Though nothing happened to me. I fell sorry for those kids who were rushed to the hospital. Also it was on the news hardcore!

    Also Porygon didn't cause the seisures, Pikachu did. If I had a choice of banning one of them, I would choose Pikachu. He caused the whole problem. R.I.P. ~Porygon~ Born: December 16, 1997. Died: Either December 16, 1997, or four months later.

    I have had epileptic seizures since I was born and im 27 yrs old so I only got so far into the pokemon series ......thank god I didn't make it to this episode cuz epilepsy is no joke

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