“On this day in 1997, at about 6:51 in the evening, a children’s cartoon show with bright, flashing lights caused mass hysteria in Japan, sending hundreds of viewers across the country to hospitals due to epilepsy-like seizures, headaches, nausea, and dizziness.
The show was Denno Senshi Porygon, or Computer Soldier Porygon, a video-game inspired Pokemon anime show that follows lead character Ash Ketchum and his friends as they travel the world catching and training Pokemon. In the 38th episode, entitled “”Computer Warrior Polygon,”” the characters go inside a computer to fix a malfunction. There, they encounter a fighter named Polygon who is trying to use a “”virus bomb,”” which the characters counter with their electric powers. On 16 December 1997, at around 6:51 PM Japan Standard Time, a battle ensued onscreen between Polygon and the show’s main characters, depicted by a series of rapidly-flashing red and blue strobe-like lights. The episode was broadcast over 37 stations that Tuesday evening in Japan and garnered the highest ratings for its time slot, approximately 26.9 million household. But the extremely bright strobe lights rapidly blinking in full screen were too intense for many of the viewers who tuned in that December evening. Immediately after the bright battle scene, viewers complained of blurred vision, dizziness, headaches, nausea, even seizures, convulsions, blindness, and loss of consciousness. Some 685 viewers across the country were taken to hospitals, with the majority recovering on the way there.
The show and its deleterious effects made headlines across the Japan, with some evening television broadcasts unhelpfully re-airing the problematic scene and causing a second wave of seizures and sickness. The show, studies revealed, triggered mass hysteria and photosensitive epilepsy, a condition in which intense visual stimuli like flashing lights can cause seizures and altered states of consciousness.
Though the damage was short-lived for most victims, the fallout was serious for those responsible for the cartoon. The next day, TV Tokyo, which aired the episode, issued an apology to the Japanese people, suspended the program and promised investigation and reform. Editorials in foreign papers attacked the entire Japanese animation industry. Video retail and rental stores pulled Pokemon from their shelves. Nintendo, which produces the game upon which the show is based, saw shares fall 400 yen, almost 5 percent, the following day on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. And after the problematic 38th episode aired, the Pokemon anime show went into a four-month-long hiatus, returning only after it changed its format and design to abide by a strict set of visual guidelines.
After its notorious debut on Japanese television, season 1, episode 38 of Pokemon has never been rebroadcast in global markets. It has, however, been parodied in a number of outlets, including episodes of South Park and The Simpsons. It’s also earned the dubious title in the Guinness World Records for “”Most Photosensitive Epileptic Seizures Caused by a Television Show.”””