Natu, Xatu

#177 – Natu

I’ve got mixed feelings about Natu and Xatu. But “mixed” still involves some great stuff.

Purely as a bird-monster, I love this little thing. He’s been reduced to just a round, birdy head with limbs, which is as adorable as it is accurate-to-life. Seriously, a lot of urban songbirds are positively rotund, so abstracting an adolescent avian away to a roly-poly bird (but, importantly, one that retains features rather than just going all blobby) feels natural. Those vibrant colors can make him feel a little plastic-y, but overall I like the idea of a colorful little bird-head hopping across the prairie.

On the other hand, it’s tricky to directly portray a stereotype without getting into very icky territory very quickly, and Natu and its evolution are playing pretty clearly into some common depictions of indigenous Americans (both North and South) and elements from their culture. The bit that gets me in particular here is the narrowed, “squinty” eyes, which historically have made a handy visual shortcut to mocking folks.

It’s not nearly a Jynx situation, especially since I’m not clear on whether a Japanese designer is privvy to the stereotypes get thrown around in North America, and in that Natu’s evolution is pulling from a wider pool than just “Native American”. Assuming we could write that eye off for reasons we’ll get into later, though, Natu is an all right little dude.

Plus, Psychic and Flying is a unique and dead-interesting type combination at this point in the series. Hard to rag on that.

#178 – Xatu

Xatu gets even deeper into Natu’s theming, for better and for worse. He seems to be a melting-pot of various native peoples across both American continents. I’m really not equipped to comment on whether it’s a great melting-pot, but he definitely gets the point across. I’m catching elements of headdresses in there, bodily markings, ponchos and using feathers as clothing decorations, and even a totem-pole motif with how smooth and symmetrical his body is.

I kind of like that he resembles an doll or carved figure while being distinctly alive. Its clean, geometric body and overt symmetry belie an unnaturalness that fits well with his uncanny, fortune-teller backstory and Psychic element, which is a strong choice. I’ve always been a bit weirded out by him, but I’m going to assume that’s the point considering the bizarre seeing-eye pattern across his chest.

The one thing that kind of bugs me is how Xatu is portrayed when flying: with those arm-flaps spread wide and completely unmoving. Again eerie, and the only way it makes much visual sense is if we assume Xatu is holding himself aloft with some psychic power rather than physically generating lift with his wings. Dunno if it’s the intended reading, but it’s definitely one that fits with the rest of his “otherworldly oracle” schtick.

Really, Xatu is a bag of odd decisions that all work together because they’re just odd enough without straying too far from a cohesive design. If I had to nitpick something, though? His single-toed feet are decidedly less functional after he evolves, and that change doesn’t seem to have a purpose behind it. It’d be more boring, but perhaps less distracting, if they’d stuck to a the normal set of three birdy claws here.

Xatu is kind of just okay statwise – slightly above average speed and special attack, but everything else is pretty middling. He does get a couple of fantastic passive abilities, though -one that makes him largely immune to status afflictions and another that forces the opponent to be equally afflicted, which is a nice consolation for otherwise not being very stand-out. His moveset is all over the place, which definitely makes the guy flexible and great for the main game, but a two-stage monster that peaks at Level 25 probably isn’t going to be the star player in your squad.

So, while these two are clearly going for a “native” theme, the games don’t seem to be going for any particular native group for their inspiration, apart from “The Americas”. There’s a laundry-list of flavorings that appear in their Pokédex entries and design details, including:

  • Sun-Gazing, a meditation practiced by Aztec and Mayan peoples
  • Stiff wings and a barrel-shaped body resembling kachina (spirits represented by carved dolls to the Pueblo)
  • Additional visual resemblance to Totem poles (used across cultures), plus Xatu being named for Xat (a western North American totem pole)
  • Visual queues from the Resplendent Quetzal, important across Mesoamerican mythology
  • Feathers being used as head decoration, used notably by Great Plains nations but not uncommon across antiquity
  • Older Pokédex entries specifically noting Xatu’s presence in South American mythology (real-world reference number three – and the second to a vague “South America”)

…which makes the Natu line a real grab-bag of different native traditions across North, Central, and South America. Now, their eyes aside (which could be charitably interpreted as them peering into the future, totally in-line with their given flavor), this appears to all be done in good faith.

That said, it also conflates a lot of peoples and nations together, from across two separate continents and many centuries (potentially two millennia, depending on how widely you want to read the grab-bag of elements here). That’s a very dangerous business for still-living peoples, especially considering how it’s not unheard of for people still to lump racial categories like “Asian” and “Middle-Eastern” together, including in modern schooling (be honest, U.S. readers – how many African countries can you name? Out of how many?). To be transparent, as much as I learn about funky niches about animal biology for some of these articles, I broadened my understanding of the Maya and Aztec peoples: how historically recent their heights were, and how many nations are still populous today.

I’m not saying that Xatu and Natu are inherently bad designs for drawing on these influences, but that they represent a danger in creating a view of a collective “other”, whether or not we do so with ill intent.

Heard?

Great. Onto the fun stuff.

For one, I adore that Natu’s flavor text repeatedly calls it out for its inability to fly. Most young birds are nest-bound, and plenty of prairie birds are more keen on hopping across the ground to scout for food just because perches are so few and far between. So why not combine the two ideas? You get a hopper with all the inquisitive playfulness of a toddler, but one that’s suited to do so in its environment. Cute bugger.

This little line gets me too: “The look in its eyes gives the impression that it’s carefully observing you. If you approach it, Natu will hop away.” Nah, friend, I get that from the chickadees at my bird feeder, and I’m pretty sure they’re not psychic. Birds are just paranoid and skittish beings.

Unfortunately for Natu and Xatu, the only place they’re found in the wild in the original Gold & Silver series of games is in the Ruins of Alph, which is not only optional, but also isn’t widely explorable the first time you visit. So unless you liked the initial sidequest there and felt like coming back to catch more variants on the same useless-in-a-fight trophy Pokémon (more on them in the future), there’s a fairly high chance a player would never encounter a wild Natu. This gets slightly better in later games, but in their initial offering and for some time after, these guys were terribly easy to miss.

Rather than one interpretation of meditation or the other, Xatu seems to straddle lines with its interpretation: it gains power from the sun (though not in actual gameplay), and is said to see both the past and the future at once, one in each eye. And that ability to see into the future is supposedly why it stands motionless from sun-up to sundown: that it’s paralyzed by the terrible futures that it has seen. Maybe Xatu was seeing the near future that was 2020, har dee har har.

Natu and Xatu are intriguing little monsters. Their unique, stalwart “soothsayer” theme cuts a striking image, and while I’m not the one to make a call on whether they’re a fair depiction of the various dead and still-living inspirations they’re pulling from, they seem to be doing so with intent and good-naturedness. These two add some great flavor to the games, and despite their underwhelming gameplay features, I’m happy to see them rotate in and out of Reserve.

Any and all appreciation for Natu and Xatu is available in the comments!

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