October 2, 2022

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Doraemon history: The manga and anime’s best genre hits

On April 7, the world tragically lost Motoo Abiko, a mangaka of nearly 70 years and one half of the comic book-writing duo known collectively as Fujiko Fujio, the creator(s) of Doraemon. During the 52 years since its creation, the titular robot cat, who travels from the future to help out a 10-year-old boy using an array of sci-fi inventions, has become a Japanese pop culture icon. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually designated the character an “anime ambassador,” and Eiichiro Oda even cited the manga as an inspiration for Devil Fruits in One Piece.

But there’s another part of Doraemon’s legacy that rarely gets talked about. Ever since the first Doraemon story was published in December 1969, the franchise has turned out movies and TV episodes in almost every genre ever, and whenever it did, it totally crushed it. Here are a few choice examples of Doraemon’s versatility across genres:

Comedy

Image: Dora-World

Doraemon is essentially the perfect encapsulation of popular forms of Japanese comedy like manzai, the Japanese double-act stand-up that usually features a pitiful “funny man” as the figurative punching bag. It’s not the kindest form of comedy and often relies on meanness, from how the story’s other main character — the good-hearted but lazy/sneaky 10-year-old Nobita Nobi — is constantly the butt of every joke all the way to the franchise’s premise.

Doraemon is sent to the past by Nobita’s grandson to stop him from ruining his life by falling into poverty and, apparently equally importantly since it’s brought up a lot, marrying a fat girl. Yes, she wasn’t Nobita’s true love or whatever, but the story makes dark comedy of a person risking erasing themself from existence because their grandma didn’t conform to traditional beauty standards.

Next up, farts. Fart humor has existed in Japan for almost 1,000 years, with art pieces known as He-gassen or “fart competitions” (which depict, well, their titles) going as far back as the 12th century. Farts are also a big part of the popular Japanese children’s character Butt Detective, who incapacitates his enemies with flatulence. Doraemon similarly did not shy away from booty-tooty stories, like “Melody Gas,” where Nobita ingests Doraemon’s special potatoes that allow you to literally talk (and also sing) out of your ass. Only Nobita of course eats too many of them and blasts/farts off out of his friend’s house like the world’s grossest rocket. There’s probably an “Apoollo 13” joke in here somewhere. And speaking of which: puns.

Entire library wings could be filled with books about the importance of puns in Japanese humor. And many of them would have to mention Doraemons Pun Gun, which can turn any object into whatever wordplay you shout at it, like when one character turns a vampire statue into a vampire cucumber with the pun “Dracucumber!” Wait … does that mean that Doraemon invented the prototype idea for Pickle Rick from Rick and Morty? In any case, while not every joke in Doraemon will work for you, the manga and anime are invaluable compendiums of gags that tickle the Japanese humerus.

Science fiction

Doraemon and pals eat a huge pile of memory bread, which looks like bread with images imprinted on it.

Image: TV Asahi

As Arthur C. Clarke famously said: “How inappropriate to call this planet ‘Earth,’ when it is clearly ‘Ocean.’” And as Arthur C. Clarke famously and more aptly said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Doraemon really took that concept and ran with it so far and fast, it broke the dimensional barrier until it arrived in its own weird little world of imagination that no other comic or show could ever touch.

Doraemon’s futuristic, basically magic gadgets are the calling card of the series, and while a lot of them are pretty basic (like a propeller hat that really makes you fly or a door that can transport you anywhere), some are incredibly creative. (One, the What-If Phone Booth, is basically a practical version of the What-If Machine from Futurama, only invented a few decades earlier.) So you have stuff like Abekonbe, which reverses the function or characteristic of an object. For example, if you treated an eraser with it, the eraser would suddenly turn paper black. Cigarettes would become longer the more you smoked them. If the gadget somehow affected the entire planet, the name “Earth” would suddenly be way more appropriate, and so on.

Then you have Memory Bread, which looks like a slice of ordinary wheat loaf that you press against, say, a book. You then eat the resulting toast and gain all the knowledge that it’s absorbed from a source of information, which will stay with you until you … expel the bread. Or how about the Anything-Controller, a steering wheel that you can stick on anything to turn it into a vehicle through the magic of science? On the show, they use an old couch, but there is so much more you can do with it. Suffice to say, in the wrong (or “right,” depending on how much you want to see the world burn) hands, the term “muscle car” may suddenly acquire a whole new meaning/invent a whole new category of psychological damage. And since we are on the subject…

Horror

On April 13, a diver in Enoura (Kanagawa Prefecture) discovered a sunken Doraemon statue at the bottom of Sagami Bay, which, in a Dark Souls-esque video game, would clearly materialize the cursed Drowned King when touched or something.

This dead-eyed nightmare fuel reminds us that despite its lighthearted tone, Doraemon does have the potential to be scary. And, on occasion, it’s lived up to that potential. In the 2007 movie Doraemon: Nobita’s New Great Adventure into the Underworld, there is a subplot about a mother who discovers that her child is terminally ill, which is such a sudden tonal turn from farting yourself off the ground that it’s enough to give you emotional whiplash. To save her daughter, the woman summons a powerful demon and sells her soul to him in exchange for a cure, being turned into a demon herself in the process.

Throughout the movie, the demoness, who’s lost all memories of her human life, comes close to almost killing her child a number of times until the child’s cries briefly bring her back, ultimately freeing her from her demon form. Then, as her spirit prepares to ascend, her daughter tries to hug the parent she thought she’d never see again but doesn’t make it in time because who said you can have nice things? Definitely not Doraemon.

Admittedly, the story isn’t anything too terrifying — unlike the Dictator Switch, a gadget that first made an appearance in a 1979 episode of the anime and which has the power to … erase a person from existence, including other people’s memories of them. Just push it and the target has the cosmic flame inside them extinguished, being cast into oblivion without a moment’s notice and leaving absolutely nothing behind. And remember: A 10-year-old boy has access to it. That’s solid horror material.

Drama

Nobita and his grandmother kneel at a table in Stand by Me Doraemon 2.

Image: Netflix Japan

In the 2000 short movie Doraemon: A Grandmother’s Recollections, Nobita travels back in time to once again see his late grandmother and … that’s it. There’s no threat or villain to overcome, no twist ending where Nobita advises grandma to not ignore the “loose tiger” warning a few weeks from now so that she doesn’t die. It’s just a story of a kid who really missed his granny, so he put the laws of physics in a headlock and noogied them until he got a few more moments with her, and that was more than enough.

Grandmother’s Recollections packs in a surprising amount of philosophy into its half-hour run time. The movie is ultimately about how life only has meaning because it ends. Yes, there are a lot of things we miss out on when we die, but the finality of life is why we create and form close bonds and love with all of our hearts. Because that is how we leave pieces of ourselves in the world, which will remain after our bodies are gone. Unless someone uses the Dictator Switch on you, that is.

While Doraemon is primarily aimed at kids, it can and does occasionally offer something for adults. The 2020 movie Doraemon: Nobita’s New Dinosaur, in which Nobita takes care of two dinosaur hatchlings, is another great example of that. It would have been so easy to go the E.T. route and make the movie about a little kid trying to hide his sci-fi friends from his parents. Instead, we got a story of Nobita becoming a parent to the dinos, trying to do what’s best for his “kids,” panicking when they get sick, sacrificing for their happiness, and feeling their pain when they fail. It’s a remarkably layered, dramatic story of what it means to have children. There aren’t that many franchises that can deliver adult messages like that and show a little kid nearly achieving escape velocity by butt-burping.

Romance

Nobita and Shizuka’s wedding in Stand by Me Doraemon 2.

Image: Netflix Japan

Doraemon: A Grandmother’s Recollections was actually adapted twice, with the storyline being reused in the 2020 movie Stand by Me Doraemon 2, where the adult Nobita has managed to change his future and is about to marry the love of his life: Shizuka. Let’s talk a little more about her. She is a unique cartoon love interest because she actually has a personality. In most animated shows aimed at kids, the love interest is usually blander than dry chicken on cardboard because they are not actually a real person. They’re a goal or a reward for the main character, with very little agency or a personality beyond “has pulse; maybe likes the protagonist.”

Not Shizuka, though. She’s studious, brave, and kind to those who need help, but also still a kid prone to jealousy, outbursts of anger, and the like. However, young Nobita has an idealized view of her, which is understandable since he’s a kid. But as an adult, that would not fly. Adult Nobita’s relationship with Shizuka should be … more. And that’s precisely what Stand by Me Doraemon 2 is about. Here, young Nobita travels back in time to see his grandmother, but while all that’s happening, the adult Nobita gets cold feet on the day of his wedding to Shizuka and bolts. Why? Because after decades of putting her on a pedestal, he has a moment when he asks himself: Is he good enough for her? Is Shizuka only marrying him out of pity? In short, he sees her as a person, not his reward.

The film’s final message isn’t revolutionary, but it isn’t surface-level either. The movie explores how you can know someone all your life and still not be 100% sure of their inner self, because that’s just how humans work. It also emphasizes the importance of shared experiences and how they can become a foundation of a lasting relationship. Just like the foundation for the success of the Doraemon franchise is its mastery of…

Action and adventure

Doraemon and crew looks very surprised by what they see from their pirate ship in Doraemon: Nobita’s Treasure Island.

Image: Amazon Prime Japan

Even if the Doraemon franchise had the fartiest gags, the science-fictioniest inventions, the deadest demon parents, or the cryingest reunions between grandmas and grandsons, that probably still wouldn’t be enough to make the Doraemon films the huge pop-culture events they are today in Japan.

So, what keeps people coming back to the Doraemon films? The action, because it’s always different, but always massive in scale and inventive. The latest installment of the series, Doraemon: Nobita’s Little Star Wars 2021, features massive space battles and a global rebellion on an alien planet. The 2018 movie Doraemon: Nobita’s Treasure Island was conversely a pirate-themed adventure. The movie before it, Doraemon the Movie 2017: Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi, was about discovering a lost ancient city in the South Pole, and it doesn’t end there. Whatever kind of action-adventure you’re into, there’s a chance Doraemon has a movie about it. Giant robot fights? Doraemon: Nobita and the Steel Troops. A suspense-mystery set on a train? In space? Done. Doraemon: Nobita and the Galaxy Super-express. Do you … want knights on dinosaurs? Then you’ll want to check out the kind-of-unimaginatively-titled Doraemon: Nobita and the Knights on Dinosaurs.

The best part is, none of those movies rely solely on their premises, instead constructing fascinating character stories around them. Little Star Wars, for example, has scenes of a child trying to sacrifice their life to preserve life and freedom, while Treasure Island is a story about a person being driven mad with grief after losing a loved one. Kids might not notice or care for those details, but they are essential to making the action in Doraemon movies more than just a gimmick.

Maybe that’s ultimately the legacy of Fujiko Fujio and Doraemon: always going that extra mile until your brain stops caring that these beautifully crafted tales that span every genre revolve around a bobblehead, earless robot cat from the 22nd century. And when a series can make you suspend your disbelief so much, you know that you have something timeless on your fingerless ball hands.

Stand by Me Doraemon and Stand by Me Doraemon 2 are available to watch on Netflix. Many episodes of the show can be found on YouTube.