Fifty years ago this year, a blue robot cat from the future descended on Japan, setting in motion the establishment of a bona fide pop-culture legend: Doraemon.
Doraemon has entertained generations of children in the intervening years, both in Japan and overseas, through manga, anime, video games and a mind-boggling array of toys and other merchandise.
I am a recent convert to the joys of this particular character, having been prompted to dig into him a little after watching a television show over the new year that looked at how the franchise had, to varying degrees of imagination and accuracy, predicted a number of future inventions.
I avoided the video games or toys, and though I tried the anime, it did very little for me. However, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the original manga series, which shows the true heart and soul of Doraemon, his world and his creators. If you want to absorb a little of that, I’d urge you to go right back to the start of the comics, which were first serialized in 1970 and collected in tankōbon (paperback comic book) format in 1974.
Coincidentally, I went and bought the first volume from a book shop in Toyama Prefecture, the home of Doraemon’s creator, Hiroshi Fujimoto, who wrote under the pen name Fujiko F. Fujio. I’m truly glad I did.
The characters that the nation has known and loved for the past five decades drop into our lives fully formed. The first chapter, in which Doraemon appears in a more rudimentary form — his body is bigger than his head, rather than the other way around — gives us a taste of the occasional dark humor that peppers the series, as we see how the ever pathetic and weak-willed Nobita (a preteen boy Doraemon is sent back in time to help) learns that his future is set to be one big disappointment. Meanwhile, Doraemon displays his occasional foibles of a love of snacks and an ambivalence to the gravity of certain situations.
The humor in these original manga volumes is cute and innocent, with only the occasional flash of black comedy or adult-oriented tidbit thrown in. We see the full range of characteristics that young children and their parents can display, from Suneo’s cunning and habitual schadenfreude, to Gian’s enraged buffoonery and Shizuka’s blissful ignorance of Nobita’s longing for her.
But perhaps one of the best reasons to read these books is that they are great for helping you learn Japanese and make improvements in your language ability.
I’m no expert, having so far achieved the JLPT N3 qualification, but I’ve always enjoyed using manga to help me learn. Not necessarily to help with memorizing new words, but simply to practice reading something casual and enjoyable. Before the N3, I read the “Yotsubato!” series, finding the dialogue just about right to enjoy but also to challenge. After passing the N3, I tried “Chibi Maruko-chan,” but struggled. “Doraemon” has been a great replacement.
I’ve figured out three approaches to making the best use of the comics, two of which I actively employ. First, once you’ve got the books — start with volume one and work on from there — just give them a read by yourself and pick up what you can. Look up anything you need to — the kanji in the more recent pressings all have furigana to help with their readings.
The second approach is to simultaneously read the English translations — available from larger bookstores under the title “Doraemon: Gadget Cat from the Future” — and let them help you navigate the tricker parts of the story you don’t understand. Translations in other languages have been published also.
The third way to enjoy these early “Doraemon” comics is to sit with a Japanese speaker and read it aloud to them. I do this with my partner, who reads it back to me in English, so I get a translation of what I’ve just read. My children, who are much closer to being bilingual than I will ever be, also enjoy this, particularly when I use comic voices for the characters (my Doraemon is nothing like the animated version … yet I prefer it).
While it’s true that you could do this with any manga you find in Book Off or on Amazon, I’d argue that it’s much more fun with “Doraemon.” As well as immersing yourself in a real piece of modern Japanese history and a genuine pop-culture icon, you get to pick up on the subtle language changes that have taken place since the Showa Era (1926-89). The young characters aren’t all “yabai” (awful) and “sugoi” (amazing) and other bad catchphrases taken from insufferable YouTube comedians. Suneo’s family speaks a very affected upper-class form of Japanese (Suneo’s mother, for example, responds to her son’s declaration of heading off to study with “kanshin zamasu,” instead of the usual “kanshin desu ne” — both roughly meaning “I’m impressed”), while both his and Nobita’s ancestors from times gone by give you a challenge by using the speech patterns of lords, samurai and farmers.
A large part of the appeal is the nostalgia — or, for many of us, the history lesson. The comics are set when they were written, so Nobita and his pals don’t sit around playing video games or with their smartphones. They’re outside, having races or playing baseball, or they’re doing homework or getting excited about being given a bicycle or a toy.
To have lasted 50 years (and counting), Doraemon must be doing something right.