Where to start? Doraemon apparently first appeared in 1969 or 1970 (it ran as a manga series starting about 1974), with the infamous something-wonderful-pops-out-of-the-desk-drawer story. Since then, it has gone on to become one of Japan's most popular and well-loved manga series, and Doraemon is now perhaps one of the most recognized faces in all of Japan. The comedy series is still continuing, though it suffers from the defection of one of the two original writers. From my own point of view, Books 1 through 30 are probably the classic Doraemon, and the stories seem to solidify and improve at around book 6 (before that, the drawing style is a little old-fashioned, and the plots are a little thin).
The first story explains the premise of the entire series. Nobi Nobita (Nobita being the first name), is a fourth-grade boy who wears glasses and lives in a subsection of Tokyo. One day, a strange being pops up in his desk drawer --- a round, blue cat-style robot (minus ears), who fails to introduce himself and instead eats Nobita's afternoon snack and then goes back into the drawer. The matter is eventually straightened out and explained. Nobita's great-great-grandson (or something like that) lives in the 22nd Century --- except, thanks to Nobita's mistakes, the entire family is living in poverty. To rectify this, Nobita's descendent is sending his robot Doraemon (not a very high-quality robot) back to the past, to help prevent Nobita from making mistakes. Of course, this is a difficult task, since Nobita is the weakest and least intelligent child in his class. And initially, Doraemon isn't the smartest of robots, either. He does, however, have a 4-dimensional pocket on his front, which contains all manner of cool gadgets from the 22nd Century, and it is with these toys that Doraemon will try to save Nobita from a future of poverty and failure.
With this premise, Doraemon and Nobita go on to become (as I've said), one of Japan's most famous duos. Nobita, as class weakling and dunce, needs lots of rescuing, and Doraemon is obliged to give him the right gadget to fix his situation. Unfortunately, Nobita also has the bad habit of misusing the gadgets and landing himself in yet more trouble --- unless some of his school friends get their hands on the gadgets and get themselves into even worse trouble. This is usually the source of the series' comedic humor. However, Doraemon has another, more serious side; starting around Book 8, the volumes begin to close with a story that is longer and more serious than the others. Often touched with a bit of educational science, moral teaching and a hint of conservationism, these stories usually involve Nobita and Doraemon and friends working together to solve a larger problem.
(As a warning to sensitive American readers, Doraemon, even though a children's manga, does include things like nudity and streaks of traditional Japanese sexism! For example, poor Shizuka, the main heroine, starts off as the brightest of the children --- yet as the series progresses, becomes more of a bath-addict (facilitating numerous bathtub scenes) and becomes number two in intelligence to the brilliant boy Dekisugi ("Dekisugi" is a pun on the word "overbuilt" or "too good")).
For all his flaws (laziness, stupidity, and cowardice (and occasional attacks of megalomania and selfishness)), Nobita is one of the neighborhood's nicest and most sensitive children, and it is his desire to see justice done that drives the best Doraemon stories. And it is probably why Doraemon himself does not fling up his hands in defeat --- though surely it must be tempting, after so many hundreds of stories starting off with Nobita running home in tears, crying "Doraemon! Do something!"
Among some of Doraemon's most commonly produced gadgets are: the Wherever Door (you can walk through it to wherever you want to go), the air gun (a tube you slip over your finger; it produces a pulse of air to knock out your enemies), the What If phone box (allows user to enter a world in which some condition is changed "What If mirrors didn't exist?" (the name is a Japanese pun)), the personal copter (a little beanie that you stick on your head, which lets you fly), and the Gulliver Tunnel (lets you shrink). Another often used device is the time machine, which is, of course, located in Nobita's desk drawer. But aside from these frequently used devices, Doraemon always seems to have something new in his pocket. He has produced miniature spy satellites, car simulators, water-warding rope, portable holes, cardboard games that you step into to play, super food seasoning, a fashion "bug" (virus), time mirrors, ice construction sets, real-item encyclopedias, and everything else that could possibly make life a little more interesting. (Speaking of which, it's interesting to note that many Doraemon devices would be civil liberty and personal rights nightmares in the U.S.).
Of course, the gadget doesn't necessarily make the story. As far as plots go, Nobita is the protagonist, and usually makes the right decisions in really important matters.
In one story, Nobita's efforts to save a stray dog and cat eventually lead him try to save a whole group of stray animals (his mother is NOT pleased). In desperation, he and Doraemon are forced to send the animals back in time --- after increasing their intelligence and giving the animals a hamburger-making machine. Back in the present day, Nobita's friends find a newspaper article about a lost civilization that left behind miniature buildings --- large enough for maybe a dog or cat --- and even a statue of a godlike, winged creature whose face just happens to look like Nobita's.
In another story, Nobita and Doraemon decide to help a group of hunters who are tracking down a wolf family in the wilds. Nobita, disguised as a wolf, finds the wolves --- who, welcoming him as a friend, tell him about the pain of surviving in a world rapidly being taken over by humans. When his disguise wears off, the wolves try to attack Nobita --- but Doraemon rescues him. When Doraemon suggests turning the wolves in, however, Nobita refuses. Together, they somehow persuade the hunters that the area has no wolves.
Of course, there are utterly silly stories, too.
In one silly story, Nobita uses an illness-transferring device to help his sick father (who needs to go to a business meeting), and then runs around trying to find someone to give his new cold to. Unfortunately, the school bully is unexpectedly sympathetic ("Wanna come to my place? I've got medicine that'll help you"), and Nobita can't bring himself to infect him. Luckily, he and Doraemon happen to run into a man who wants his cold --- because he happens to have a crush on a local nurse. And so, in the end, everyone is happy ... strangely enough.
In another silly story, Nobita is deeply touched by his teacher's morale-raising lecture, but can't seem to convey the "touching" part of it to anyone else. Doraemon then produces for him a microphone/speaker that makes anything he says deeply inspiring. Nobita of course runs off to show it off to his friends; they are all busy watching the local videotaping of a popular idol. Nobita is determined to inspire and move them more than the celebrity can; unfortunately, he has gotten his microphone switched with a baby's toy, and has to recover it. Finally, with the microphone in his back pocket, he rushes over to his friends to impress them --- but accidently farts while trying to pull the microphone out of his pocket. There is a moment of stunned silence. The last panel shows Nobita fleeing in sheer embarrassment from a mob of pursuing people who are shouting, "What a deeply moving fart that was!"
Doraemon manages to slip in the moral teachings with a good amount of subtlety.
For example, Nobita once manages to pick up a cloning device, with which he makes clones of his "friends," the cunning Suneo and brutish Gian. The clones arrive at 4th-grade age but with the minds of babies. Nobita raises them in a trans-dimensional room, thinking of raising the clones into his well-behaved, friendly, (submissive) friends/"children." However, the clones' minds mature rapidly, and they begin to figure out that Nobita is weaker and not as bright as they are. Since they watch TV, they realize there is a world outside their room which Nobita is not showing them. So they revolt. Doraemon finds out what has happened, but explains to Nobita that since the clones are living people, they can't be arbitrarily destroyed. ("Maybe we can convince them to live on another planet," Doraemon suggests). However, the clones discover the cloning apparatus by accident, and hit the equivalent of the "Undo" button, thus un-creating themselves and saving everyone a lot of headache.
Other fun stories:
Nobita's father wants to get a driver's license, even though the mother makes the side comment that since he isn't cut out for driving, it would be safer for the world if he didn't. Nobita and Doraemon set up a miniature roadway for the father to practice with, using the Gulliver Tunnel to shrink him. (Of course Doraemon and Nobita have to test-drive the roads first). Nobita's father, deeply touched, starts using the roadway. Becoming bold, he takes his miniature car out to the real roads ("Where of course I can't hurt anyone!") and promptly has a major accident with a little boy's toy truck, demolishing the miniature car. "Maybe he really isn't cut out for driving," Nobita and Doraemon mutter.
Nobita finds an egg that Doraemon has left lying around, and adopts it. Doraemon takes too long to remember what egg it was --- a wind storm egg --- and it hatches. (Yes, future science has created a sentient wind storm). The cute little whirlpool of air, lovingly raised by Nobita and fed with hot air from candles, gradually becomes a minor menace. Nobita's parents demand that the little whirlpool leave. But that night, a major typhoon arrives off the Japanese coast and threatens the Nobi house. The little whirlpool leaps out into the howling winds and battles the far larger typhoon, subduing it and saving the house. In the morning, both storms are gone, having dissipated in the battle....
One day, Doraemon has to leave on business. Unfortunately, Nobita's parents have already left town on other business, thinking Doraemon would be around to take care of Nobita. This now leaves Nobita alone. Desperately, Nobita begs Doraemon to stay. To help him, Doraemon leaves a robot rope that can take up the shape and function of just about anything. At first Nobita doesn't like the odd-looking thing, but after it kicks out an intruder, helps him with baseball, cooks dinner, and acts as a horse, he's converted. Meanwhile, Doraemon is so worried about Nobita that he cuts short his business and returns home --- only to find Nobita engrossed in a game with the rope, and practically oblivious to Doraemon's return.
In another story, Nobita has to read a book for a class assignment. Since he hates reading books (as opposed to comic books), Doraemon produces a book-helmet that causes the wearer to recite the contents of a book. The brilliant boy Dekisugi is convinced to recite a book for Nobita (he's shown around the future as a pre-payment). He does so, and Nobita is drawn into the adventure story. Finally, late at night, Dekisugi is too tired to continue, and is allowed to go home. Nobita wants to find out what happens in the story so much that he sits down and starts reading the book himself. His parents come in and tell him not to stay up all night reading, but Doraemon holds them back. "Don't make him stop --- he's finally discovered the joy of reading!"
Doraemon co-creator Fujimoto Hiroshi (Fujiko F. Fujio) died on Sept. 23, 1996, of liver failure at age 62; he is survived by his wife Masako and three daughters. Co-author Motoo Abiko (Fujiko Fujio A), who split off in 1987, said "We separated because we would go our own ways. But we both wanted to create the same comics." (From CNN and the Japan Times)
Apparently, Mr. Fujimoto initially came up with Doraemon in 1969 (or 1970) after tripping on his young daughter's toy, hearing a neighborhood cat fight, and wishing he had a machine to generate a new manga concept. Between the toy's shape, the cats' yowling, and the longing for a machine to solve his problems, he came up with a robot cat with a pocket containing all sorts of problem-solving gadgets. (From a supplement to a children's manga magazine many years ago).
The maintainer would like to thank both creators of Doraemon for writing a manga that helped the maintainer to understand and come to terms with Japanese culture. Many times as a child, the maintainer found the family life within Doraemon to be a mirror of the maintainer's own home life, a home life not reflected in the American TV sitcom shows. For a young nisei in America, the mirror and the dreams within it were a priceless gift. Domou arigatou gozaimashita, sensei!