Pokémon’s Ash Ketchum Says Goodbye to the Role of a Lifetime

Sarah Natochenny reflects back on 17 years of playing Ash Ketchum, the heart and soul of the Pokémon anime.

Sarah Natochenny attends the "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" New York Premiere at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on November 15, 2021 in New York City.
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris | WireImage

Anime is a medium that lends itself to series that run for hundreds or even thousands of episodes, but none have been able to generate the same success and enthusiasm as Pokémon. Pokémon has produced more than 1200 episodes, nearly two-dozen feature films, and it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Pokémon has featured plenty of changes throughout its 25-year run, but the one constant since the series’ start is that Ash and his humble Pokémon companion, Pikachu, have always acted as the anime’s guiding light. Pokémon is ready for the ultimate makeover and 2023 will mark the farewell of Ash Ketchum and Pikachu as Pokémon embraces a new cast of characters in the Paldea region. 

Since Pokémon’s ninth season in 2006, Sarah Natochenny has been the lovable voice of Ash Ketchum. Just like how Pokémon is bravely saying goodbye to its beloved characters, Sarah is getting ready to part ways with her most iconic role that’s been with her for nearly two decades. Leading up to Ash’s goodbye, Sarah Natochenny opens up on the experience of playing such an iconic character for so long, the emotional highs and lows of representing one of Pokémon’s biggest mascots, the importance of diversity in voice acting, and what the future holds for her outside of voice acting.

DEN OF GEEK: There are plenty of long-running anime that switch up their protagonists, but Ash has stuck around for decades. What has it been like to have the unique privilege to voice one of the few characters in anime who’s been around for this long?

SARAH NATOCHENNY:  It’s an intense honor. An intense honor. As I was doing it, over the course of these 17 years, it didn’t really occur to me how much our work was having an impact on people all over the world. When I started doing more conventions, meeting people face-to-face, and hearing what they have to say, it helped me better understand the effect that our work has had and what an incredible privilege it’s been. It’s so special to be the voice–the soul–behind a character that’s been so beloved for so long. It’s unreal.

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Pokémon has such a passionate fandom, especially when it comes to Ash and Pikachu. How have audiences reacted to the news that these characters are saying goodbye and that you’re leaving? Has it been emotional?

It’s been extraordinarily emotional. I found out three days before the rest of the world found out, so I had some time to think about the reaction, what it would be, and how to support Pokémon. It’s been an amazing outpouring of love. There have been so many sweet messages and I’ve never experienced something like it before. It’s in my inbox. It’s in my comments. It’s just endless love and gratitude, which I also have for the fans, whether they’re writing to me or just quietly enjoying what I’ve done. 

On that note, is there a particular interaction or exchange with a fan that’s particularly stuck out to you in a positive way over the years?

There are a couple. There’s a girl who overcame intense depression who I’ve been occasionally meeting over the years. She’s just been lovely to me and very open about her struggles and how Pokémon has helped her get through them. There’s Jamal, who visits me every time I’m in New York at conventions. This year, it was Christmas, and he gave me a Christmas card, but also an empty Christmas card so I could write back to him immediately and give it back to him. There’s also the Perez family–that little girl is so cute! She dressed up like Pikachu recently and it was just the sweetest interaction. But every fan interaction is so special and unique to me. I try to make sure that every meeting that I have, that every person can walk away with a great memory of it. 

I previously didn’t understand the appeal of autographs until I met Diane Keaton. I stood in line at a book signing, and I wore a hat for her because she always wears hats, and she told me I was beautiful. She signed the book, but the book is just a souvenir. It’s the interaction that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. So I think of that every time I’m at Comic-Con and with fans. 

Why do you think that Pokémon and its characters have been able to endure for so long, between generations, and why has it entered this Renaissance during the past few years?

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The reason that I think Pokémon has survived for all of this time is because parents and older siblings are showing it to their kids or younger siblings. That’s why I think Ash stays 10-years-old, so he can help bond siblings together and parents with their children through a show, a character, and a protagonist who is so universally adored and admired. 

I also think that 2016 was a big year for this Pokémon Renaissance since that was when Pokémon GO came out, which really helped get the series back in first place and on everybody’s minds. The show, too! The show is fantastic! It’s really, really good, and that’s why people continue to watch and talk about it. It’s not just a nostalgia thing. People aren’t coming up to me and telling me that they used to watch the show. They’re saying that the current season is awesome. 

You mentioned Pokémon GO. The Pokémon anime and video games can sometimes exist in their own universes, but do you have much of a relationship with the games? Have you played any of them, or the spinoffs, and are you any good at them?

A little bit! I wasn’t allowed to play video games as a kid and now that I’m an adult and doing all of these things I don’t really have time. I also have a very addictive personality, so if you put a video game in my hands then I’m going to be playing it all day. It’s going to be the thing that starts off my day. But, I did play Pokémon GO, a lot. A lot. My friends were like, “Can you put the phone down?” “No, I’ve gotta’ catch ’em!” I want to start playing games more, but for the fans, honestly. I recently asked at a panel if people would be interested in me streaming Pokémon games and I couldn’t even finish the question before applause broke out. So I have to make time for that, but to also be good at it! I don’t want to be bad at it! 

I’ve also gotten into the Trading Card Game, which is a little simpler. I’ve also been becoming friends with all of Pokémon’s creators, and they’re really awesome. They’re so hard-working and knowledgeable. It’s really intimidating, to be honest, but it’s fun! They’re teaching me a lot and pointing me in the right direction. It’s such a fascinating world where there’s this symbiotic relationship between the creators, all of the actors, the producers, and everybody. All aspects of Pokémon create this huge machine of creativity! 

You’ve been involved with voice acting for as long as you’ve played Ash. Has it been interesting to see how much the voice acting industry has changed since you got started and how much you’ve also been able to learn since then?

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Yeah! The industry has definitely changed in some ways in terms of who we’re casting. Understanding diversity has been such a huge thing. During the past few years there’s been more of a shift towards playing the characters that we identify as in real life. There are a lot of different opinions on that, but it’s still absolutely a net positive. As a Russian-Ukrainian, I would love to hear real Russian-Ukrainian people play Russian characters. It’s so easy to slip into stereotypes. So there are moments where you want to do accents that you’ve trained to perfect, but it’s not just an accent. You’re embodying a full human being. A character. 

I’m so happy to be a voice actor, even if there is a bit of a limitation on this moment in time. You still get to play characters that you look nothing like and can be completely different from who you are. That’s very different from on-camera acting, of course. 

Well, you’ve also voiced a number of Pokémon in the series…

And I don’t look like any of those Pokémon!

Is that a fun experience that gets to explore different acting talents and do you have a favorite Pokémon that you’ve voiced?

It’s so much fun and my favorite Pokémon to voice is Buneary. I love coming up with Pokémon voices because I’m so acutely aware of animal sounds. I grew up around cats and I’ve fostered over 100 cats and kittens. Every single creature has its own way of communicating! Once you get to know them you understand when they’re expressing hunger, annoyance, happiness. Picking all of that up and figuring out how to use it as an actor is really fun and exciting. 

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You’ve built an impressive career in voice acting, but do you have any interest in directing and tackling that side of production at all?

Yeah, I do. I would love to direct an episode of Pokémon while I’m still there. We’ve been talking about it for a minute, so I hope that gets to happen. In general, I don’t see myself doing full-time directing any time soon, although I feel like I would potentially be quite good at it. It’s up my alley, just in terms of my personality and interests. We’ll see in the future, but right now I want to focus on my acting and making a live-action film, starring in it, and getting back to what I originally set out to do before I settled into voice acting. That’s my focus right now. 

You have experience in all sorts of acting, but it sounds as if live-action work is what you’d like to prioritize? 

Yeah, live-action, mo-cap…I just took my first mo-cap class, so I’m not ready yet, but I’ve had a few callbacks for mo-cap roles and it’s fascinating to learn that so often people will get hired for that who have never done the work before and it’ll hold up production. I’m sure that can be an exercise in patience and I do not want to be an exercise in patience. I’d like to walk in and know what I’m doing–with Pokémon, I walked in not knowing what I was doing and they had to teach me how to dub at my audition. I don’t want to be in that position again. It’s a funny story to tell, but I’m ready to be good at the thing and to be prepared for it. With on camera work, I’m perfectly ready and fine with it, but mo-cap has a learning curve. 

You mentioned your affinity for animals and you and Lisa Ortiz also founded Voices for Fosters, an animal welfare charity that was actually inspired by an episode of Pokémon about death, correct? Can you elaborate a little on that and what your organization is all about?

Yeah! There’s an episode of Pokémon where a Pokémon passes away–I don’t want to spoil it–and Lisa Ortiz–my director–and I both recently had our cats pass. So we’re recording this episode and crying. While I was grieving, I was looking into adopting another cat to replace the love that I had for my previous cat–you’re not replacing the pet, you’re replacing the being that accepts your love. I was looking into adoption and stumbled upon fostering, which was totally new to me. I looked into shelters who have foster programs and they’re all looking for fosters. I thought this was so incredible and that there should be more people who temporarily let animals into their homes. Lisa and I started promoting Voices for Fosters everywhere that we’d go and we were meeting the people involved with the process. These people always need funds and help, so I started raising proceeds at conventions and donating to the cause.

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The original Pokémon anime is coming to a close, but more Pokémon is still on the way. Will you be involved in that series in a new role or do you want to make a clean break from all of that?

I’d love to be involved. 100%. I love Pokémon and the gift that they’ve given me is tremendous. I can’t imagine being given a better gift in my lifetime. To be struck by lightning again is really impossible. Pokémon has me as long as I love and as long as I’m doing this. I would go anywhere that the show wants me to go, and if they don’t then that’s okay, too! 

Are you the type of person who watches old episodes of your performances? Did you rewatch any of your first episodes as Ash before getting ready to say goodbye?

Yeah, yeah. Every time that the episodes drop I’ll watch at least a couple of them to just see where I’ve landed and what’s going on with the tone. Ash’s tone slightly changes every few seasons. I watch and want to make sure that I’m still in range.

When it comes to earlier recordings, I watch Pokémon TV and occasionally revisit that. It’s really fun to watch my older work. I started  in season nine and that was a tough season for me because we were still finding the voice and discovering who the character would be for me. Over time, Ash would slowly become my character and explore what I wanted to do with the character. Watching that transition happen over the course of maybe two seasons is educational, it’s nostalgic, it’s beautiful, in a way.