Outside of Japan, Mewtwo was once marketed as the most powerful of legendary Pokémon, depicted as a raging, psychic-power wielding megalomaniac. The story went a little something like this: evil Team Rocket scientists built a secret lab in the middle of the ocean and used DNA to create a clone of Mew, the ancestor of all Pokémon—only this clone was modified to be extra powerful. The whole point of the 1999 hit Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back movie was that Mewtwo held a super-evil, invite-only tournament at his exclusive "New Island" so he could steal the Pokémon of "the best trainers in the world". This was in an attempt to clone them all and destroy the plant. Right?
Well…not if you watch the original.
If you were growing up in Japan during the summer of 1998, you might have gotten to hear the (surprisingly) dark Birth Of Mewtwo Radio Drama, spanning the five Sundays leading up to Pocket Monsters the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back playing in theatres. Or maybe you got to watch the "Complete Version" of the film air on Japanese TV the following summer, which included a ten minute animated adaptation of said prologue, focusing on just sweet little baby Mewtwo and his human child friend, AiTwo.
The experience of the Japanese version, in my opinion, was deeply philosophical, setting up Mewtwo's existential crisis where a "bad guy" wasn't as clearly defined as you'd expect it to be for a Western audience. And holy Arceus, it got dark, between the failed cloning attempts and the death of Team Rocket Jessie's mother—but more on that later!
Outside of Japan, the theatrical release was extensively rewritten to cast fully grown Mewtwo in the role of evil villian genius, and omitted critical details, to the point of changing Mewtwo's origin story completely. Additionally, the international versions never included the opening sequence prologue (which was key to clarifying Mewtwo's motivation, deeply rooted in his tragic beginning) from the theatrical release! In March, 2000, Mewtwo Strikes Back (The First Movie) was released on home video format in the United States, and both the VHS and DVD included the first two minutes of "The Story of Mewtwo's Origin."
On some versions of the VHS, this was included at the beginning of the movie as "never before seen footage", but on DVD, this was only included as a special feature "extra." And if you weren't in the US, localized dubs of the movie may have removed this prequel entirely! In 2001, The Uncut Story of Mewtwo's Origin was included in full, as a special feature of the international DVD of "Mewtwo Returns". Keep in mind, though, that the English dub is not a faithful translation of the Japanese script.
Over the years, the manga, the video games, and the anime have all told a more extended, but different, tale of Mewtwo, his origins, and his character. In fact, at one point early on, a version of Mewtwo's story involved Gym Leader Blaine (as a member of Team Rocket) creating Mewtwo with his own blood and DNA, and nearly dying from Mewtwo's cells taking over his own body!
Why are there such drastically different tellings of Mewtwo's story? How come you don't remember anything about the human clone attempt, "AmberTwo" in The First Movie or the other versions of his tale? I think Warner Brothers said it best back in the day:
For various reasons, 4Kids Entertainment felt that American kids wouldn't respond as well to the original Japanese musical scores, references, and food of the main movie (let's not forget Brock's infamous "Jelly Donuts")—not to mention the extremely heavy concepts! So the anime and movies ended up very different, content-wise.
As mentioned earlier, the radio drama leading up to the Japanese theatrical release really sets the tone for the movie itself, and plays a huge part in understanding Mewtwo. I honestly find it more interesting than the film itself.
Broadcast over the radio weekly from June 7 and July 12, 1998, this series was a Japanese exclusive, never officially translated or dubbed (thank you fan efforts!). It was later released on CD with an accompanying booklet.
We are introduced to Mew, the rarest, most elusive, and (possibly) most powerful of all the Pokémon, as well as the money-obsessed Team Rocket and its well-known member, Miyamoto, who is tasked by Team Rocket's leader, Madame Boss, to capture Mew. Motivated by the riches possible through this achievement, Miyamoto pursues Mew for years so she can support and reunite with her daughter who had been placed in foster care. She falls off a mountain ledge in pursuit and is presumably never seen again (but possibly alive). It's later revealed that Miyamoto is the mother of Team Rocket's Jessie, and this left Jessie an orphan with a painfully difficult childhood.
Enter Dr.Fuji, a scientist specializing in Pokémon genetics. He's also a grief-stricken father consumed by the tragic death of his young daughter, Ai, who was killed in an auto accident. The doctor's mourning manifests into an obsession with bringing back Ai though cloning. This fixation drives his wife away from him, thus reinforcing Fuji's determination to master cloning so he won't be alone. Because technology's limitations cause all of his experiments to die before they can awaken in their glass tubes, he needs funding that Team Rocket can provide.
Madame Rocket's son, Giovanni, funds the cloning research to profit off cloning Pokémon, with no interest in Fuji's human cloning. Finally, Dr. Fuji succeeds in creating clones and being able to speak with their consciousnesses, but sadly, they never make it past their childhood stage. He discovers that Pokémon have a stronger lifeforce than humans, with Mew having one like no other. Well, you guessed it—Dr.Fuji becomes fixated on cloning Mew.
By the second episode, Ai has told her father his obsession to bring her back is trouble and her consciousness meets a baby Mewtwo, since clones can communicate through telepathy. She gets really excited about being a big sister to him. In Part 3, we get to hear a tiny, adorable Mewtwo voice asking who he is and why he is there, though physically still asleep in his test tube. Ai begins a friendship with him and the other clones, explaining they're really all copies with a "two" at the end of their names.
The doctors are alerted that Mew and Ai are communicating with each other through the test tubes, which seems unexpected. The little clones continue using Ai's memories and explaining things about the world in a very child-like way. Little Mewtwo is taught about cake and milk, how to count, and the joy of feeling sunshine. AiTwo talks about how everyone is here because of a mama and a papa and when Mewtwo asks if they have one, she replies it must be "kami-sama" or 'the gods.'
Shortly after, Mewtwo finds he can't hear his friend and asks where she is. The narration reveals that Ai, who was in the liquid of the cultivation chamber, started to disappear as her cells deteriorated. She tells Mewtwo to live because surely, living is fun. Mewtwo senses that his physical body is crying and Ai explains it's probably tears which are normally only for humans when it's emotional and not physical pain. All of this clearly establishes that Mewtwo is more than "just" a Pokémon and she urges him to live.
When Baby Mewtwo overhears the scientists talking about how Ai's clone failed, Dr.Fuji callously states that it was okay as long as they had the original DNA sample, and that he can create as many copies as he wants until he succeeds in bringing his daughter back. This doesn't sit well with Mewtwo and he becomes agitated to the point scientists have to give him a sedative, in the hopes of preventing losing the clone like the others, presumably due to stress.
As the scenes progress, Mewtwo's voice ages from preschool age to an older-sounding child before finally transitioning to an adult, describing his memories of Ai and the other clones disappearing under his sleep as he screamed aloud, over and over again, "Where is this place", "Who am I?" and "Who brought me here?". Mewtwo finally awakens, shattering his glass tube, and completely confused. The laboratory computer security system goes haywire, thinking Mewtwo is a threat due to his power, and attacks him. This enrages Mewtwo and he attempts to defend himself. Ultimately, it is explained by the scientist that Mew is neither his mother or father and that humans, not Mewtwo's guess of a god, are what created Mewtwo. When Mewtwo, with his human consciousness, realizes he exists only to serve humans as the strongest Pokémon, his emotions spiral out of control, blasting away the lab.
Finally grasping that he is the strongest Pokémon in the world, Mewtwo shifts his focus on speaking with Mew and finding out which one is stronger. When Mew declines, Mewtwo is left with godlike powers, but no direction or purpose in life. A now-older Giovanni shows up, introducing himself as one of the strongest and smartest humans qualified to rule the world. He tells Mewtwo that if he proves he is strongest, Mew wouldn't ignore his challenge. Playing upon Mewtwo's emotional vulnerability and strong need to prove himself, Giovanni convinces him to join forces and earn Mew's recognition as "the best Pokémon in the world."
In the final installment, we find the dream team defeating and capturing every monster in sight without breaking a sweat. Mewtwo feels strong and Giovanni has monsters to sell. But when Giovanni weaponizes Mewtwo to attack a Trainer and steal its Pokémon, Mewtwo begins to despise Team Rocket and the greedy humans. As the most powerful being, he declares himself to be worthy of ruling the planet instead of Giovanni, but is still tormented by not knowing who he is. His emotions are in turmoil, and the world is not turning out to be fun as promised. And this, friends, sets us up for understanding the first movie.
"The Birth of Mewtwo" was created as a visual adaptation prologue for Mewtwo's Counterattack ( ミュウツーの逆襲 ), focusing only on the story of Mewtwo and AiTwo as baby clones.
This visual storytelling truly sets the mood for the movie and provides a deeper understanding of Mewtwo's motivations. Unfortunately, it deals with some pretty heavy content and outside of Japan, copies of this ten minute short have become almost as elusive as Mew itself.
During the events of the first movie, Mewtwo attempts to prove his right to exist through challenging and battling the world's strongest Pokémon. Eventually, the main protagonists, Ash (Satoshi in the original Japanese) and company arrive to prove themselves, as well. Through flashy battle scenes and great deal of dialogue, Mewtwo eventually comes to terms with the fact that clone or original, we all exist to live, imperfections and all, rather than fight against the nature of life. Don't remember that message? That might be because the English dub promoted the contradictory message at the end that "violence is wrong," understandably drawing the ire of many film critics at the time.
Originating in Japan, the movies also filled with references unfamiliar to a Western audience, such as wabi-sabi (i.e. the acceptance of and appreciating the imperfection of life) and referring to the moon, which did get lost in translation.
Ultimately, Mewtwo takes off with his clones in search of peace and his story picks up with the events of "Mewtwo Returns." In the first few minutes of the film, Mewtwo recounts his life so far, touching upon his creation, how he was taught by Team Rocket Boss Giovanni to control his abilities, but also how he was betrayed and treated solely as personal property. He reveals that the selfless act of sacrifice by Ash stunned him and opened Mewtwo's eyes and heart to accepting the existence of both the clones and natural-born in the world. At the same time, he adamantly assures those around him he "could never feel compassion for humans."
Thankfully, after "The First Movie," we see greater consistency with Mewtwo's character development between localization versions. Grappling with the internalized message of being an outcast who is unable to see the world like others who belong in it, Mewtwo watches over his fellow clones on a secluded island, stressing that fighting is pointless, and demands to live in peace. Giovanni shows up, still in pursuit of his weapon, and acts of friendship by Ash serve as a catalyst for Mewtwo's personal growth, including sacrificing himself to save the clones that he now calls friends.
He develops a strict adherence to newly found beliefs (boundaries), protectiveness over those like him (the clones), and eventually narrates to the audience that the pain of the past isn't meant to be erased from your mind, but rather, we should look to the past just as much to the future. The film then gives commentary on how everyone, even genetically, should have the right to know who they are and where they come from
In 2013, we check back in with our monster-turned-hero in "Pokémon the Movie: Genesect and the Legend Awakened," where he is living harmoniously with other Pokémon, taking it upon himself to defend those he can sympathize with, such as the Pokémon Genesect (who was also born in a human science lab). We see that Mewtwo is still struggling with his birth story and relationship with humans (i.e. his parents), and not altogether at peace. He experiences flashbacks and having to overcome his own tendency toward ultra-independence, which we might recognize as a trauma response. Mewtwo eventually discovers his newfound powers of mega evolution, resulting in Mewtwo Y using its power to protect and restore peace in the world. He declares a newfound belief that they can open up to others and forge friendships, and finally obtain a sense of belonging. As a final thought, Mewtwo notices how they always felt alone, but that no one is ever truly alone.
But, isn't this all getting a little deep? Surely I must be looking too much into a children's story. Over the years, my appreciation for the more philosophical nature of Mewtwo's story arc has deepened—mainly through being able to watch the originals. They speak to some of the concerns of the times (like cloning and racism), but also explain the very real concept of human trauma in a more or less kid-friendly way. Of all the stories in the Pokémon universe, I consider Mewtwo's to be one of the most underrated, and definitely worth exploring deeper.