Welcome to Exp. Share, Kotaku’s Pokémon column in which we dive deep to explore notable characters, urban legends, communities, and just plain weird quirks from throughout the Pokémon franchise. This week, we’re talking with the English voice actor behind Ash Ketchum as the Pokémon anime prepares to sunset the character in Japan later this week.
As I spoke with Sarah Natochenny, the English voice actor for Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum since 2006, in the week before Ash’s final episode is set to air in Japan, she recalls her original audition for the role and how she nearly missed it. As she’s telling this story, she points out how similar it sounds to the beginning of the anime’s protagonist, who famously overslept on the day he was meant to begin his Pokémon journey when the show premiered in 1997.
“It was on a Monday, and I basically did not flip my at-a-glance calendar till that morning to remember that I had the audition for the biggest job of my life,” Natochenny tells Kotaku. “So I’m very, I’m so Ash Ketchum. It’s ridiculous.”
But it turns out, Natochenny’s life has a lot in common with that of the character she’s voiced for 17 years beyond nearly missing the first step. While she’s provided the voice to the never-ageing Pokémon trainer, she recalls several ways she’s related to the character over the years, even as she’s grown older and he stayed 10 years old. When the anime first began, Natochenny was 10, as well, already presenting parallels between her and the boy from Pallet Town, even though she wouldn’t voice the character until Pokémon was in its ninth season. While Ash was training to be a Pokémon master, his would-be voice actor was learning gymnastics.
“In flashbacks I’ve played, it seems that he was about four or six when he showed interest in training, and that’s about when I started training in rhythmic gymnastics in 1999 or 2000 in America,” Natochenny recalls. “He won the other Orange League and that was in 1999. I won a bronze medal at the Junior Olympics in rhythmic gymnastics. And through all of that time, he wasn’t born a great Pokémon trainer, and I wasn’t born a great gymnast. So we defeated the odds. We worked really, really hard, and we achieved our first wins.”
Shortly after, Natochenny stopped pursuing gymnastics and pivoted to acting. When Ash’s next big win came in the Alola League in 2019, Natochenny was celebrating a win of her own at the Voice Arts Award for Outstanding Animation/Gaming Demo
Now, the Pokémon anime is about to send Ash into the sunset and Natochenny is reflecting on how her relationship with the series began, changed over time, and will continue long after Ash is no longer the star.
Greatness from small beginnings
Natochenny’s Pokémon journey began, like many others, as she watched the show as a kid and was given one pack of cards from the trading card game, which she’s since lost track of. However, she wasn’t allowed to play the Pokémon video games at the time due to strict rules from her parents, who wanted her to spend her time with physical hobbies rather than sitting stationary with a Game Boy.
“My parents wanted me to read books and do gymnastics and ballet and play piano and kind of do more,” she says. “I mean, video games are physical. They didn’t want me sitting, they didn’t want me sitting and playing games. They’re wrong. What I want to be known [is] I think they’re wrong. I think video games are not bad for you at all. On the contrary, I think they’re actually quite useful.”
By the time Natochenny auditioned for the role of Ash at 18, she says she had become “kind of reclusive” compared to when she was Ash’s age and watching the show, but booking the role reminded her of a more “tenacious” version of herself as a child.
“I was studying, I was trying to do well in school. I was staying at home a lot. I didn’t go out that much,” she says. “Then I booked this protagonist and this was my first protagonist and then in the subsequent years, I started booking more and more protagonists like these kind of go-getter adventurous types. And I started asking myself, ‘There’s gotta be something in me that is causing me to book all these protagonist roles. Obviously, I’m not this reclusive person. Maybe I’m making myself that. Maybe that’s what I think I should be.’”
Natochenny describes her mindset during that initial audition as “full panic mode,” as she felt she wasn’t prepared for the process.
“I went to my friend’s house, I’m doing the voice, and she’s like, ‘You’re never gonna get this. You sound nothing like this person,’” she recalls. “And I go to the audition. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to get this. There’s no way. What a waste of time.’ [I was] kicking myself for not being prepared.”
Those feelings of anxiety were only made worse by having to learn how to record lines for a dub at the first audition, which is a separate skill from voice acting. It requires you to be able to fill in a performance in something that’s already been animated, so timing, pronunciation, and matching a visual performance after it’s already set in stone is key. These days, Natochenny’s a pro and has even demonstrated the process for Vanity Fair, but at the time, she didn’t realise what she was getting into.
“I had no idea what dubbing even was,” she says. “I never studied it. Nobody ever taught it. Now, they teach it because it’s gotten so big. But back in my day, I had no idea what it was and they kept me there for half an hour because I sounded right, but they were like, ‘We gotta teach this girl how to dub because this isn’t gonna work.’”
In the moment, staying half an hour longer than her initial audition to learn a voice acting skill she’d never experienced before was stressful. But looking back, she realises that the casting team keeping her longer for the impromptu lesson was a sign that she was right for the role.
“I left the audition crying,” she says. “And then of course I found out that I think there was a callback process, but I remember finding out that I got it that they wanted to book me next week.”
By that point, Natochenny had studied acting for six years, mostly doing short films, and was “pounding the pavement.”Still, it wasn’t the smoothest transition.
A relationship like Ash and Pikachu’s
Natochenny’s casting was part of a transfer in production in 2006 from 4Kids to The Pokémon Company that resulted in a recasting of most of the English cast. The move was controversial and remains a point of contention for some fans. In 2023, Natochenny has inhabited the role of Ash Ketchum longer than any other English performer, but she says some subsets of the community weren’t kind to her or the other actors stepping into the roles. Natochenny once again cites Ash’s own journey as a parallel to her own. Ash and his partner Pikachu get off to a rocky start in the series’ first episode, and while she says her relationship with the community has “really come a very long way” since she took over the role in 2006, it took some time for online fans to warm up to the new cast.
“I had a negative experience in the beginning. And you know, replacing someone is not an easy thing to do, and audiences can get very upset about it and place blame in various places,” she says. “And that was one of those places. So I stayed off the internet for a long time. I was private on every social media. I didn’t even think about posting anything or declaring myself, you know, as ‘the voice of Ash Ketchum,’ I was like, ‘This is my job. I love my job, but this is my job.’”
Despite voicing the character for a decade prior, Natochenny says it wasn’t until Pokémon Go launched in 2016 that she started to engage with the community more. After being asked to do press for the mobile phenomenon, she moved beyond the comfort zone she’d made for herself by making convention appearances and engaging with fans online over Twitter and TikTok.
“I was like, ‘Oh, ok, I guess I can come out now,’ and I allowed myself to do that,” she says. “And then I realised that this is now not only enjoyable, but now it’s kind of my duty to do it. The fans want to engage, so I started engaging. There’s not much of a strategy — and maybe there should be — but it’s whenever I have time, whenever I see something that inspires me, and I want to chase an Ash Ketchum cosplayers through a convention, I do that.”
In the years since, Natochenny has watched many Pokémon fans grow up over the years, and her connection with the community has become strong enough that she recognises names and faces at different conventions.
“There’s one guy Jamal who comes and visits me at every New York convention. And last time, it was Christmas time, and he brought me one card that he wrote to me,” she says. “It was really sweet and then he gave me a blank card so that I could write it to him and he picked it up end of the day.”
Natochenny says this is why she thinks Ash has always remained 10 years old. While Ash has never aged despite having been in more episodes than the days it would take to reach his eleventh birthday, he’s a constant for all Pokémon fans regardless of their age. For just a little bit longer, anyway.
The beginning of the end
In November 2022, Ash and Pikachu won the Masters Eight Tournament, dethroning Leon as the Monarch of the World Corornation Series. He’s a world champion now, something Natochenny learned about alongside the rest of the world after the episode aired in Japan.
“I was in Michigan at a convention at Grand Rapids Comic Con, and it was early morning and I woke up really early for some reason,” she says. “It was like six in the morning and I looked at Twitter and I’m like, ‘What is happening?’”
Natochenny initially didn’t acknowledge Ash’s big win publicly, having made it a rule for herself not to talk about things happening in the anime until those episodes aired in English-speaking territories. But then The Pokémon Company started acknowledging it on English social media and she made her own video about it.
“Over the course of that day, people were coming up to me at the convention and they were like, ‘What do you think is gonna happen? Is this the end for Ash?’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not possible.’ And it slowly started to dawn on me that, that is very much possible.”
The Pokémon Company announced on January 16 that it would retire the character, capping off his story with a series of farewell episodes and making way for new protagonists Liko and Roy. The company told Natochenny earlier that week, at which point she says they were “very gracious and grateful” for her contribution to the series over the years.
“I had a very, very sad day of like, walking around Astoria and in very cold weather with no hat on,” she says. “It was really sad. And then I got it together and thought about — when you take the focus off yourself, it becomes easier when you think about the multitudes of fans who are going to be affected by this, and that made me sad to think about how sad other people are. I’m still kind of crying about it.”
“Now that you’ve become the champion, how close are you to becoming a Pokémon Master?”
While the news has broken, the delay in English episode releases means Natochenny still has some time to play Ash before she and English-speaking fans say goodbye. She’s still recording the remaining episodes, which will premiere in the US on Netflix as part of the streaming service’s deal with The Pokémon Company. She says the episodes that are left are “some of the best” in the series’ 26-year run. However, she’s also looking forward to new roles, like Yuzuha in Tokyo Revengers and Prince Purpleton in Unicorn Boy alongside Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford. She’s also part of Across from Jericho, a historical podcast about anarchist Emma Goldman, in which Natochenny portrays Goldman.
But beyond voiceover work, Natochenny’s juggling several projects. She’s writing her own live-action film about a voice actor who is fired from a lead role and then “self-sabotages her way to rock bottom until a YouTuber rescues her.” She says the script is still a work in progress but that it’s a story she’s been hoping to tell for some time. Given her current situation, Natochenny thinks now is “definitely time” to see the plan through.
In the more immediate future, Natochenny is looking into livestreaming. While she says there may be some Pokémon games and card pack openings, she wants to focus on live segments with other actors.
“It’s gonna be cold reads that I do with actors,” she says. “Like really silly material. Like the sillier, the better. I’ll hand it to an actor. We’ll do a little interview, and then we’re gonna cold reads and stuff. I think that’s going to be the focus because I want to, you know, I want to be acting. I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be playing video games.”
Outside of creative works, Natochenny co-founded Voices for Fosters alongside Lisa Ortiz, the voice director for the English Pokémon dub in 2018. The organisation provides information and resources for those looking to foster rescued animals and was inspired by the death of their own cats, as well as a Pokémon episode titled “One Journey Ends, Another Begins…” that dealt with death, both of which happened within a short period of time.
But regardless of which language you speak and which actor you’ve listened to play Ash over the years, the young trainer’s story is set to conclude with one final episode airing on March 24 in Japan. Natochenny has plenty of projects in the works, but given Ash’s achievements and the parallels between her and the newly-crowned Pokémon champion, she says she’s hopeful for whatever comes next.
“The world championship just happened, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” she says. Hopefully, there’s some great big win. I don’t know. We’ll see.”