Trains play a heavy role Pokémon Detective Pikachu—they come and go in key points in the narrative. Sometimes Tim Goodman, the young man at the center of the film, boards a train; other times, he chooses not to. His decisions not only lead to physical closeness or distance from his father, Harry Goodman (recently missing and presumed deceased), but toward or away from emotional intimacy with him. A train ride means a decision to love and forgive, or to harbor bitterness and resentment.
After receiving the call about Harry, whom he refers to by his first name rather than as “Dad,” Tim boards a train to Ryme City under the pretense that he’ll pick up his father’s assets. Peculiarly enough, he doesn’t appear to want to do anything of the sort; instead, he seems to be there to inspect his father’s life since the two became estranged. Later on, Tim admits the true purpose of his journey: to say “goodbye.”
It’s a difficult experience for Tim—not only is he going through the trauma of losing his only surviving parent, he’s also forced to deal with the abandonment he feels, the lack of love he’s experienced from Harry, these things he’d avoided for so long. Tim has struggled with hurt and bitterness toward a father who he believed cared more about detective work than about his own son. He’s not wrong to feel that way—Harry drowned himself in investigations after the death of his wife (Tim’s mother), and though he offered his son a chance to join him in Ryme City, he apparently did not make further overtures after being denied, after Tim decided not to get on that train as a boy.
The story at work here isn’t groundbreaking—it’s a common experience of workaholic dads unable to process their own emotions, unable to be the caring parents their children need after tragedy strikes.
It’s also the stuff of fictional tales. In Clannad and its sequel, Clannad After Story, a similar situation develops when main character Tomoya is raised by his father after the death of his mom. The abandonment here is not physical, but similarly emotional. Tomoya’s dad isn’t able to provide the support he needs; he creates bitterness in Tomoya through his lack of social and job stability to provide for his family and by physically abusing his son. Tomoya is present with his dad, but if he could have taken a train somewhere else, he perhaps would have chosen that alternative.
It’s easy to feel for both Tim and Tomoya, two victims both of tragedy and neglect. But Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Clannad takes us perhaps somewhere unexpected by explaining to use that despite what are at best missteps (and at worse, abuse) by the fathers, they actually do love their children. It’s a lovely thought, but a hard pill to swallow when one realizes that the victims were little kids. In Detective Pikachu, while we eventually see Harry’s sacrifice and know through other characters of his devotion to Tim, we just don’t have enough time to fully buy it; we’re still left with the question of, “Well, what about the lack of parenting for the last 10+ years?”
Clannad, which spans nearly 50 episodes and the better part of a decade, can more fully address the love of a flawed father—and it does so from the perspective of Tomoya, who is by the time of resolution a father himself. Unlike his own dad, Tomoya doesn’t outright physically injure his child, Ushio—though for all we know, his dad hadn’t done that yet by this time in life either—but he has abandoned her to be raised by his in-laws and, like his dad, turned to alcohol. Later, when forced into spending time with his daughter, Tomoya encounters his grandmother, through which he finally understands the sacrifice of his dad: Though he failed profoundly at every aspect of being a father—he was too weak to be a necessary rock for his son after the death of his wife—Tomoya’s dad gave everything he had, as limited as it was. Of the little he had, Tomoya’s father gave his son everything.
Tomoya is of course shook because he realizes that of all he has, which is abundantly more than his father, he has given Ushio nothing.
This moment in the series always brings me to tears because I feel like both Tomoya and his dad—unwilling to try enough with my own children like the earlier, and profoundly insufficient like the latter. I want to love better. And just like these two, I need forgiveness when I fail.
Though only clumsily expressed in the movie, Pokémon Detective Pikachu makes the same argument: Often the “bad” dads really do love their children, if imperfectly, if poorly. When we were kids, we couldn’t see our parents in this light, with all the nuances of needs and issues and challenges—the world is far too black and white, our needs too great. But what I’ve learned is that even into adulthood, our vision is limited: It’s so very hard to understand parenthood if one hasn’t been there. Without empathy and experience, it can be difficult to forgive for the wrongs done against us.
But it’s not impossible.
At the end of Detective Pikachu, Tim is about to board a train and return to his home. But left once again with the decision of whether to get on or off, he goes against the flow, against the path of his life—one blazed by his father’s neglect and by his own anger and avoidance. This time, Tim makes the choice to love by not boarding the train, by deciding to stay with his dad.
For Tim, it took a great adventure, a little bit of magic, and a second chance for him to choose forgiveness. It would be wonderful to be taken on such a path toward forgiving a loved one that’s hurt us deeply, but ultimately we might only be left with only one or two shared pieces of Tim’s journey: a ticket to ride and the promise that grace and forgiveness brings us to what we all need—a better destination.