Somewhat obscure in the U.S., Doraemon is one of the most recognizable characters in Japan. After 80 years of high-tech shenanigans, the time-travelling cat’s two latest films are now streaming on Netflix. Jean-Karlo and Steve freshen up their knowledge of the big blue cat to see what made these films hits in Japan.
These movies are streaming on Netflix
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Steve, the wise men of Styx may have said once that machines dehumanize, but if you ask me I’m fine with this trans-humanist stuff. I mean, if it weren’t fun to think of the kind of gadgets we could get in the future, we’d never get Jean Reno or Bruce Willis doing Japanese commercials in intentionally-bad cosplay!
May aging action stars always and forever find their final resting place in the Japanese advertising industry. And meanwhile, may we at “This Week In Anime” continue to probe all the various nooks and crannies of anime past and present, which takes us this week to one of the biggest multimedia franchises of all time.
Heck yeah, I’d take a bullet for you, earless blue cat from the future!
Being Latino means you get to see a lot of beloved anime shows be treated with utter bewilderment when their discussed in the U.S., like with Saint Seiya or Captain Tsubasa. Doraemon is listed among them, sadly, but make no mistake Doraemon is very big elsewhere. So much so that in 2008, Japan’s Ministry of Affairs appointed Doraemon—the fictional character—as the first Anime Cultural Ambassador. Ever since his debut in 1970, Doraemon has been a fixture in Japanese sequential art and televised animation in ways that many shows in America could only dream of—and yet, the poor robot cat has never been able to get his pudgy feet through the door. Even Disney airing dubbed episodes of the recent Doraemon anime couldn’t bring him into the big time.
And I guess I’m part of the problem. Cultural osmosis guaranteed I already knew who Doraemon was and more or less what his deal is, but I neither watched nor read a single cel nor panel in my entire life. Until now. Because Netflix is streaming the two recent 3D movies, and you don’t get much more convenient than that.
No dead bodies in either of these, sadly.
Or Keifer Sutherland, or projectile vomiting at a pie-eating contest. But you take what you can get. These two movies are part of a package deal, done to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Fujiko F. Fujio, one of the two co-creators of Doraemon. As such, you don’t need prior experience with the franchise to grok its deal—and even then, Doraemon is so formulaic that you wouldn’t need to. To say nothing of there being so much Doraemon that you couldn’t possibly watch it all. Seriously, the 1979 anime went on for almost 1500 episodes, not counting movies…
At any rate, the story is like this: Nobita Nobi is a fourth-grade loser. He has horrible grades, no real skills in anything, is a major dweeb, and absolutely no hope of ever getting better. He’s basically Japanese Doug Funnie, complete with an incurable case of learned helplessness.
He just sucks through and through, which honestly grows on you after a while. Like, I was kind of annoyed by him at first, but by the end of the second film, I came to appreciate his complete lack of redeeming qualities. No lie! But he definitely needs a lot of help—the kind of help that necessitates a talking robot cat and gratuitous time travel shenanigans.
By the way, same image:
Oh god, the two of them are even blue…
I wonder what Doraemon’s class would be. Caster, probably.
Anyway, Nobita meets his descendant four generations removed. It turns out his life doesn’t get much better at all: failing grade school means it’s impossible to catch up when it comes to high school, let alone college. Because he has no skills, no place will hire him, leaving him to start his own company which burns down in a fire. Also, he winds up marrying his bully’s little sister, having way too many kids, and lives the rest of his life surrounded by people he hates and being hounded by loan sharks. His descendent feels so bad he sends the futuristic robot cat Doraemon to stay behind and help him improve his life in the hopes that his family line won’t be cursed for generations to come.
Even Doraemon hates Nobita so much he doesn’t want to stick around, but Nobita’s descendant basically programs him so that he’s incapable of returning to the future unless he helps Nobita become happy in the present. Doraemon takes it about as well as you could expect anyone to.
And I know these are time travel movies for children, so you’re not supposed to think about it this much (the second film at one point literally says this out loud), but his descendant is trying to get Nobita to marry someone completely different. He is, essentially, trying to erase his own existence. He’s pulling off a reverse Back to the Future. That is grim as heck. Nobita, how did you screw up this badly?
But anyway, here are some cool gadgets!
This is where Doraemon‘s claim to fame comes in. See, Doraemon has a fourth-dimensional pocket on his front from which he can pull a seemingly infinite number of futuristic gadgets to try and help Nobita’s every need. Many of these are quite famous in Japanese pop culture, too: there’s the Takecopter (a little rotor you wear on your head that lets you fly around), the Anywhere Door (it lets you go absolutely anywhere you want just by walking through), and countless others that have been introduced in the past 80 years. None are quite so iconic as the time machine stashed in Nobita’s desk drawer. I remember ages ago when Viz published the Faust anthology in the U.S. and one of the stories, Otsu-ichi and Takeshi Obata‘s “F-sensei’s Pocket”, details a pair of high school girls that find Doraemon’s pocket and get into dramatic shenanigans with his gadgets.
Even though I have little prior familiarity with Doraemon, it’s easy to grasp how a cartoon character able to pull an infinite variety of toys out of his pouch might be such a sensation with kids (and marketing departments). But the freedom that conceit provides probably also has a lot to do with the series’ longevity—if you can think it, Doraemon can make it happen. And to that point, the first film adds up to a very loosely connected series of vignettes about Nobita using and abusing these gadgets. Including a giant egg.
Much of Nobita’s concerns involve him impressing Shizuka, a classmate he fancies. But because he’s otherwise such a loser, Nobita doesn’t stand a chance. Invariably, he goes to Doraemon for some kind of gadget to help him out, which only serves to make things worse. Nobita is forced to learn a hard lesson about doing things the right and proper way—which fails because he has the cerebral activity of a sea cucumber. To wit: that giant egg is supposed to cause anyone inside it to imprint upon the first person they see. It not only fails, it backfires for Nobita: Shizuka imprints upon his better-looking classmate, comes to like said classmate even more when he points out he wouldn’t use gadgets to impress people, and Nobita has to deal with his bully Gian being obsessed with his other bully Suneo.
Yeah the casual homophobia in the egg scene is definitely the low point for both movies. Which is a shame, considering how Gian and Suneo grow up to be so handsome a couple.
Look at their future drip here. Unrivaled.
I still don’t get how Suneo goes from pointy hair to brillo-pad hair. I could barely recognize him when he showed up in the future.
Future hairstylists must be on another level.
This leads to one of the more dramatic moments in the movie. Spurred on by his classmate, Nobita decides to actually apply himself for once and works his butt off memorizing his math equations for an upcoming test. He could have used Doraemon’s Memory Bread, which lets you memorize anything you write on it after you eat it, but he does it the hard way to prove a point. Only thing is, the day of the test it turns out he had a Japanese test instead, which he absolutely flunks. Much like with Bart Simpson in “Bart Gets an F”, you can’t help but feel for Nobita after he genuinely put in the work.
I just love how it has this big maudlin framing but like, my dude, how did you even manage to confuse those subjects? This is on you, bro. Not like it matters, though, because despite hoisting his own petard over and over, fate decides to throw him a bone.
The future image of Nobita’s family shifts into a picture of Shizuka spanking a kid that looks like it could be Nobita’s own. Now, I was fully expecting a twist where it was just Shizuka spanking Nobita’s kid without them being married or anything, but that’s a bit too far-flung for a movie like this. With the knowledge that there’s a chance he can marry Shizuka in the future, Nobita decides to go to fourteen years into the future to ensure that his future self actually proposes to Shizuka in the first place. Turns out, in the interim his house is demolished and turned into a public bathroom.
I don’t think that counts as gentrification, but it does count as funny. And both films pick up once Nobita starts interacting with his adult version, because it’s free rein for the two of them to practice some sorely needed self-awareness, i.e. dunking on each other.
This also results in a situation where Nobita needs to rescue future Shizuka from a deadly mountain blizzard, because it’s the third act of the film and we need something dramatic, damn it.
Char Aznable once said people struggle to acknowledge the mistakes of their youth, what does it say when you struggle with your adult self?
Nobita is one-of-a-kind, that’s for sure.
Naturally, his attempt to do something on his own and rescue the love of his life goes about as well as you’d expect.
Nobita, true to himself, completely fails at having any foresight and just… gets lost in a blizzard along with Shizuka. But it’s cool because Doraemon works off of Bill and Ted rules: Nobita pulls himself out of a jam by just remembering to rescue himself and Shizuka from the blizzard in 14 years.
This is also the closest the film gets to anything resembling a “moral,” in that Nobita’s decision to believe in himself is what saves the day. But I actually like that the film eschews almost all of the character arcs you’d expect from a kids’ movie. Another version of this story might have had Nobita learning something new about himself or discovering some latent talent, but Stand By Me is content to let Nobita remain a worthless loser. Because no matter how much you suck and no matter how few redeeming qualities you possess, a cat robot from the future will still help you out. That’s beautiful.
Much like with Golgo 13: The Professional a few months back, Nobita and company are so firmly engrained in Japanese consciousness that anything else would be a betrayal to 80 years of nostalgia. Nobita actually gaining a spine or becoming halfway competent at something would be like an Ys game where Adol settles down with a girl, or Dick Dastardly winning a race fair and square in Wacky Races. It’s not even an interesting subversion of expectations, because… what, now things are better for Nobita? Then what? What fun things could happen if Nobita isn’t a total loser? Which is where the climax of the first movie comes in: happy with the news that he’ll eventually marry Shizuka, Doraemon has satisfied the parameters for returning to the future, and is obligated to go back. More than being a convenient gadget dispenser, Doraemon is Nobita’s friend and the idea of losing him breaks his heart.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t stretch this out too long either, because like you said, what is Doraemon going to do? Not goof around with Nobita? I don’t think so. And sure enough, a liar potion he leaves behind opens enough of a loophole to let him stay indefinitely. Because that’s the right thing to do, plus we have sequels to make!
And the sequel is a doozy! Right off, it starts with a surprisingly genuine tone: Nobita wants to see his grandmother, who passed away when he was very young. There are a lot of tender moments of Nobita humoring her desire to see him older. Problem is, she also wants to see Nobita get married, so it’s back to the future for Nobita and Doraemon as they try to follow up on the wedding between his future self and Shizuka.
From that plot skeleton alone, you can tell that Stand By Me 2 is pretty much more of the same—Nobita’s marriage is in trouble thanks to Nobita, and only Nobita can stop him. But in practice, it makes for a much better film with more connective tissue between its gizmo galleries and a more emotionally evocative through line. The grandma stuff in particular really hit me hard and yanked me back to my own childhood and the time I spent with my own grandparents.
I dunno, I found it a bit meandering towards the end. See, the big obstacle in this movie is that Future Nobita is a bit spineless and insecure because he’s worried he can’t give Shizuka the life she deserves. So he steals the time machine so he can revel in the nostalgia of his past life. Doraemon and Nobita even use a gadget so that both Nobitas trade bodies for the afternoon, so that Future Nobita can really enjoy being a kid again.
Note that I’m already skipping over a huge chunk of the movie that involves Nobita and Doraemon even finding him in the first place; this involves sending Nobita’s soul back into his own body at the beginning of the movie and carting Past Nobita back to the beginning but wiping his memory so that the timeline is maintained. The intro even teases these bits, for a fun bit of continuity.
It definitely leans harder into those kinds of fun time travel shenanigans. I kept secretly hoping it would go full Primer on us, but alas. It still adds some neat wrinkles and set pieces to the story. I particularly liked the toy versions of Doraemon and Nobita used when they were explaining the time travel mechanics. Would have been nice for the film to explore more varied aesthetics like this.
For once, the movie breaks from the Bill and Ted rules and goes into Back To The Future rules: they have a time machine, so they could feasibly take as long as they wanted getting Future Nobita back because they could just return to the very minute they left.
But there’s still a time limit: as it turns out, the body-swapping gadget had a fatal defect and if you spend more than an hour in another person’s body you lose all your memories. The future gadget salesman even shows up in a pathetic attempt at saving face.
Nice to be reassured that even in the future, nothing works. On the other hand, the future gets holographic Tezuka money, so it’s impossible to say whether it’s bad or not.
As it turns out, there is collectable fun-money emblazoned with Tezuka characters in Japan, but not Tezuka himself. I fully expect Japan to make commemorative mangaka currency in the future. Put Rumiko Takahashi on the 100000-note or go to hell!
I’d concur though that the body-swapping drama ends up being the weakest part of the second film. It’s the most tenuously connected segment, and it drags for too long. In abstract, though, I like its central joke: adult Nobita thinks that he can do his childhood over and fix his mistakes, but because Nobita’s whole deal is that he never matures, he’s still just as arrogant and bad at everything.
And the irony is that because of the defective gadget, even if he did stick around he wouldn’t remember anything in the first place. So it’s a failure of a plan before it even begins!
But yes, this bit of the movie lasts for too long, and even though both Nobitas end up catatonic they’re able to make the switch back into their proper bodies and Future Nobita is able to deliver a proper speech at his wedding. Nobita even manages to sneak his grandma to the ceremony!
There’s another vignette where Nobita addresses a throwaway joke from the beginning of the movie and sees whether he’s actually his parents’ son, where we learn why his parents named him Nobita. It’s a bit of a pun, “Nobita” comes from “Nobiru”, which can mean “to grow”. In a cruel twist of fate, his parents hoped Nobita would grow. Uh… yeah, about that…
Both Nobitas cringing to death behind the door makes for an extremely good bit, especially with Doraemon there dunking on them.
Like, man, they really rub it in. Zero mercy.
But it all works out: Nobita gets married in the future, so Nobita goes back home happy that he can see his grandmother in the past whenever he wants. Only one of Doraemon’s gadgets erases his memory so we’re back to square one with Nobita forgetting everything he learned, just as he should.
And so ends my three-hour crash course on Doraemon and his many cat gadgets. And my verdict is: pretty okay! These are films made for children, not me, but I still had a reasonably good time with both of them. And furthermore, I’m glad I have more of a reference point now for this big round blue boy.
These stand as perfectly good family movies: the plots are simple, the vignettes are engaging, and the emotions are genuine enough to draw in even adults. It helps that these movies are perfectly stunning as 3D films: much like with the CG Lupin the Third, they perfectly capture the design of the Doraemon stable and bring them to life by maintaining their stretchy antics. Also, more than a few shots are just out-and-out flexing. Doraemon is one of the most beloved characters ever in Japan and by God, they were gonna do him justice.
Yep, seems like this Doraemon fellow is here to stay. And who knows, maybe in Stand By Me 3 they’ll finally go looking for his missing ears.
Oh no. Please don’t go giving Doraemon lore.
Perhaps we should just forget this whole conversation ever happened.