Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doraemon ドラえもん

The latest Doraemon movie hit cinema screens across Japan yesterday (Saturday 6th March) to much hoo-har on TV.

Nobita's Great Battle of the Mermaid King (映画ドラえもん のび太の人魚大海戦, Eiga Doraemon Nobita no Ningyo Daikaisen) will quite possibly it'll surge straight to the number one spot in box office receipts in the very first weekend or two it plays here, if previous Doraemon outings are any indication.

This isn’t some recent-hit sensation and in fact the title has a history to roll up and perish for – or at least swoon over in gob-smacked new ways - in terms of anime. It's actually the 30th feature film in the series.

Doraemon (ドラえもん) started out in manga form in the 1960s, fashioned by Fujiko Fujio – a collaborative smoke screen coined by its real creators, Hiroshi Fujimoto and Motoo Abiko.

It did the big switch to TV in 1973, promptly fizzled, then was revamped by TV Asahi six years later - with character designs by Eiichi Nakamura (of Panda! Go, Panda! notoriety).

When you add in the two dozen odd theatrical movies, you're forced to realize that the franchise continues to be a sizzling property in this country over three decades later.

Doraemon hasn’t surrendered its grip on Japanese TVs or the Japanese everyman’s psyche; I swear that every person in this place can draw his happy face and and every third salaryman or office lady uses one of the series’ theme tunes for their keitai (cell-phone) ring-tones.

There’re Doraemon clocks, pop-up toasters, slot machines, turntables, beer-dispensers, ice-blocks, chocolates, drinks, and every other (in)conceivable merchandising possibility.

It's also the country’s second-longest-running animated TV show after Sazae-san.

When I interviewed the TV series’ producer Daisuke 'Dan' Yoshikawa at TV Asahi a couple of years ago, he was at a loss to explain the somewhat miraculous ongoing popularity of the animated mechanoid feline.

“Various elements – combined - made Doraemon a successful property,” he theorized. “But I think that it’s the storyline that makes it so special.”

So what’s that story about?

Our titular character is a blue, dysfunctional mechanical cat from the future (of course) that boasts a magical, four-dimensional pouch the envy of any self-prepossessing marsupial. He’s been sent back in time to sort out Nobita, a good-for-nothing schoolboy ancestor of the people who built him, sans ears, but usually instead complete mayhem breaks out – including subtle, ingenious anime references to Hollywood cinema classics like West Side Story and The Three Musketeers.

The saga also has some serious psychological eccentricities: For starters, aside from regular panic attacks, our motorized feline suffers from an ongoing musophobia that stems back to the future – to a time in the 22nd century, when his ears were consumed by a robotic mouse.

Hapless schoolboy Nobita is not only a lousy athlete and an abysmal scholar but lazy, cowardly, and selfish to boot.

Despite Nobita’s faults, Yoshikawa believed that he’s “just like all of us! People can relate to Nobita, and his story captures a feeling everyone shares. Not all of us get 0% on tests, but we can understand that feeling.”

It’s Doraemon himself, however, who is the undoubted star of the series.

“People love that adorable, cat-like robot,” Yoshikawa confirmed.

While the TV show focus on Nobita’s bizarre everyday family life and neighbours, the movies go for a more exotic, adventurous edge but they’ve been a tad rear-visionist in recent years: Nobita’s Great Adventure Into The Underworld (2007), for instance, may have been the 27th Dora-chan feature unfurled by distributor TOHO (of Godzilla notoriety; they do on average one Doraemon flick per year) but it’s in fact a rebake of the sixth in the series - released way back in 1984.

While he’s easy to sketch, he has a trademark profile and he’s a downright cute and often hilarious character, another reason for Doraemon’s popularity had for years been the quirky vocal effort of Nobuyo Oyama who did his voice all the way from 1979 until 2005.

After such a long haul, that year a bunch of the series’ seiyuu including Oyama and Noriko Ohara (Nobita from 1979 as well as the voice of Nobita’s mum in the 1973 original series) quite understandably bowed out of the series as both people were hitting the age of 70, and made way for new blood.

The transition annoyed some long-time fans of the series but overall passed relatively painlessly for TV Asahi and the show’s producers.

“The main characters are the same,” Yoshikawa said.

Besides, voice changes and exotic locations are not the big issue here, not anywhere as appealing as Doraemon and Nobita themselves, their time traveling exploits and outrageous futuristic devices, their essentially whacked-out neighbourhood buddies and an insane overriding story arc.

These have made Doraemon a hit also in China and South Korea, yet he remains a largely unknown entity in the English-speaking world – a happenstance that I truly believe to be bordering on unforgivable ignorance.

Just look at the evidence: Our fave feline was voted “cool” by 19 votes to 10 (three people opted out ‘cos they didn’t know who Doraemon was) in a two-month poll at the highly esteemed website – just check out:

By the way, we are kidding you. Really. It’s not quite as esteemed as all that.

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