This is Doraemon
I was first introduced to Doraemon in Spain, where he appeared as a tiny KinderSurprise toy inside of my friend’s chocolate egg. The toy was just a little figurine that didn’t do much of anything, so the instructions simply explained who Doraemon was.
“Doraemon es el amable gato robotico del siglo XXIV. Tiene un caja extradimensional en su pachuco por ayudar su amigos.
I remember reading that in Spanish and having to ask a friend if I was translating it correctly because it just seemed bizarre. But no, I had understood the description correctly: “Doraemon is the friendly robot cat from the 24th Century. He has an extra-dimensional box in his stomach to help his friends.”
Wow. They had me from robot cat, but the box in his stomach really clinched the deal. That is how you create a compelling cartoon character. I didn’t have to watch a Doraemon cartoon show or read a Doraemon comic to understand the guy, and since he hasn’t made it to the shores of the USA yet, I couldn’t if I wanted to.
On the other hand, he’s
big ubiquitous in Japan, where he simultaneously starred in six monthly comic series, each for a different age of children, plus a weekly anime series which produced well over 1,000 episodes from 1979 to 2005, only to be replaced by a new Doreamon anime in 2005 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary. There are upwards of 30 Doraemon feature films, more if you include spin-offs, dozens of video games, and probably gazillions of toys and stationary items. Time Asia magazine named him an Asian Hero in 2002.
Here’s Doraemon’s first appearance, in which he arrives from the future … in a desk?
Unlike fellow superstar Hello Kitty, who is simply a girl kitty-cat with no mouth and a bow, there appears to be an actual story behind Doraemon. He has been sent back in time from the future to make sure that an inept fourth-grader passes his classes and doesn’t screw things up for his descendants. That’s right: it’s like a grade-school version of The Terminator. However, Doraemon assists his young charge not by blowing up everything in their path, but by using that extra-dimensional pocket on his tummy to pull out helpful items from the future when the going gets tough. Who wants a friend like that? I do.
Now, if I were confronted with images of the bubbly blue robo-cat every day of my life, I would probably not find him quite so appealing. But he has successfully crossed over into many other countries, from Algeria and Argentina to Vietnam and Qatar. Doraemon is broadcast around the world, in Italian, in Tagalog, in Hindi, you name it, but Singapore is currently the only place you can watch Doraemon cartoons in English. So unlike a huge percentage of the world’s population, Doraemon is still a novelty to me. After that Kindersurprise wrapper in Spain, I didn’t really encounter him again for years, until I was in Borneo with my sister.
On our first day there, Elizabeth needed to buy a watch before we set out for the jungle, so we risked our lives crossing the main highway into town to go to the shopping mall. We found a little cart there where all sorts of watches were on display at about three US dollars a pop. As the three pre-teen girls who ran the cart helped Elizabeth pick out the perfect watch, I perused the selection to see if there was anything I might like to get. And that’s when I met Doraemon again.
My Doraemon watch was something I was very proud of, because it gave me a reason to talk about a robot cat. People I talked to either had fond childhood memories of the helpful mechanical feline, or they had never heard of him at all. I wore it every day I was in Borneo, along with a bracelet of prayer beads I had bought in Taiwan. I liked to think that the prayer beads signified my quest for spirituality while the Doraemon watch epitomized my thirst for pop culture; on one wrist the sacred, on the other the profane. In reality, I probably just looked a bit silly.
Among my traveling companions however, my watch quickly became notorious for another reason: it broke almost immediately. It continued to tick and to tell time, but the clear plastic cover fell off on the first day I got the watch, which meant there was nothing protecting the hands from being jostled. As a result, my watch told reasonably correct time unless it brushed against something the wrong way. Whenever someone asked me for the time, I had to give them the time “according to Doraemon,” which was something you just had to take on faith.
Having a Doraemon watch, particularly one that couldn’t tell proper time, was a bit absurd. But Doraemon himself is absurd. I suppose for me that’s part of the appeal — he is happy not making any sense at all. If you do a Google image search for “Doraemon” you’ll get a lot of crummy, cutesy pictures that don’t do justice to the idea of a robot cat on a mission from the future, which suggests that a huge part of his global appeal is not that he is absurd, but that he is cute and happy. Fair enough.
I don’t really know that much about the global empire of Doraemon, so I don’t know what drives the franchise. But I did pick up a Doraemon comic while in Borneo, which is reprinted in Chinese on crummy paper, and it is certainly more absurd than it is cute.
On the cover, Doraemon looks blissfully happy (and possibly on drugs), but on the inside, he spends most of his time either frustrated, confused or in a blind rage. For example:
(Doraemon is furious!)
(Doraemon is melancholy [and flying sideways].)
(Doraemon is simply doing all he can!)
These images are all taken from the same two page scan. I don’t really know what’s going on, but it seems to have something to do with magic straws? On the next two pages, part of the exact same story, they decide to build a rocket ship. A rocket ship made of paper and propelled by straws:
Then they go to a jungle planet, get their space ship stolen, and return to earth thanks to propellers which grow out of their heads. I’m not sure if being able to read Chinese would make this comic better or worse.
In just this one poorly printed, pocket-sized comic book, there are more amazing things than I can possibly count or scan for my blog. However, I will post the one panel which convinced me I had to buy this book. Please prepare yourselves, because it is actually horrifying.
Taken on its own, I believe it is a portrait of existential terror, the conflict and overlap between the idealized machine and the deficiencies of the human flesh:
OH NO, DORAEMON!
It’s like something from a David Croenberg movie. It’s even greater because of the page that immediately follows it:
Stay strange, robot cat. You’re adored by millions and you have a human crawling out of your chest.