The methods used to create Pokémon cards, from laborious playtests to clay sculptures
This year, enormous Pokémon cards in the shape of gold were laid across the streets of the Japanese city of Yokohama. The city’s interconnected malls paid homage to the Pokémon trading card game, with rare holographics on glass palisades, a Pikachu card the size of a small garden, and tiled floors covered in common creatures. The world’s top players competed in the annual world championships at the Pacifico convention center.
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To far, nine billion of these cards—21 percent of which have been made since 2021—have been sold in 76 nations and thirteen different languages. These cards became so popular in playgrounds during the 2000s that schools frequently prohibited them. This scenario is happening again now that bored youngsters and nostalgic millennials gave the cards a huge boost in popularity. When YouTuber Logan Paul paid $5 million on a single card in July 2021, it made news.
Usually shrouded in mystery, Creatures Inc. is the firm that makes them. The structure, which is situated beneath Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, is everything a Japanophile could ask for. A large wooden decking in the foyer looks out over a lovely field of water lilies, a mess of green tendrils waving in the breeze. As you climb the elevator, it’s easy to imagine a variety of inquisitive animals hiding among the plants and leading secret lives beneath the palace’s shadow. Inside are eye-catching 3D art installations in black and white that portray a Pokémon interpretation that is unexpectedly Tate Modern-ready. These are paired with incredibly brutalist recreations of Blastoise and Charizard cards, which have bits of crystal sticking out from thick ceramic edges. Empty card shells are used to decorate the walls surrounding the area.
Each new card set takes a year to construct, from basic concept to final printed graphics, according to its makers. According to TCG game director Atsushi Nagashima, “the TCG [trading card game] also follows the new Pokémon and their video game mechanics’ logic whenever new game software comes out.” Nagashima is in charge of establishing the game’s real regulations and making sure that card fights continue to be enjoyable and equitable.
Naturally, hardly many Pokémon card collectors ever play competitively with their cards, but Nagashima doesn’t mind. “I think there should be a variety of methods to enjoy Pokémon cards, therefore I don’t mind if people collect the cards without using them. I believe that the primary reason why people like the card game is their underlying love of Pokémon, and collecting them is enjoyable for many more. It’s the sense of being outside as a kid and enjoying playing, exploring, and capturing moments,” he thinks. That’s the reason, in my opinion, why so many generations have cherished the TCG.
Nagashima says, “We’re always trying to improve the game itself.” “We have recently worked very hard on our art cards, which truly capture the environments and personalities of the Pokémon.”
With almost 240 independent artists on staff, Creatures Inc. hopes to ensure that no two Pokémon cards ever have the same design. The striking artwork, which ranges from the anticipated anime-esque look that characterized the early drawings to psychedelic, hallucinogenic interpretations of Pokémon, is largely responsible for the exorbitant prices that booster packs command.
With three of Pokémon’s most well-known painters at his sides, illustration director Haru Saito states, “We are always trying to find more variety in terms of the artist styles.” Thus, the topic of [which musicians] go with which cards the best is a topic of much debate among us. To keep [the cards] interesting, we continuously strive to provide fresh surprises and novel artistic techniques.
As one of the company’s more recent artists, Gidora has gained recognition for his cards that highlight the bond between trainers and their Pokémon. He tells me that his goal is to use his panels to communicate the stories he imagined as a child in order to enhance the larger body of Pokémon history. He states, “I genuinely believe that illustration can offer a new way to express the playfulness of the Pokémon world.”
Saito tells me she thinks it’s important to use each person’s creative freedom to make each Pokémon card unique, even if artists have been commissioned to contribute their own styles. Yuka Morii is the finest illustration of this. She forms her sculptures out of clay, whilst her colleagues utilize pens or paintbrushes. She meticulously carves out her Pokémon, fires them, and then photographs her completed clay creations in actual settings for every card frame, giving life to each of her selected Pokémon.