Monday, December 19, 2022

Gadget Cat in the Past: Paleontology in Doraemon

If I'm not careful, I'll start a new tradition on here of blogging about anime in December. In this post, I'll be looking at another staple of my childhood, Doraemon. This time though, there is a connection to paleontology!

Most people living in predominantly English-speaking countries might not be familiar with Doraemon. However, it would be difficult to overstate how much of a cultural icon the title character is in East Asia (we're talking about Mickey-Mouse-levels of recognition here), and I've heard that Doraemon is also widely known in parts of continental Europe and Latin America. In light of that, it is downright bizarre how obscure the franchise is in most English-speaking regions by comparison.

The character Doraemon is a robotic cat from the 22nd Century who keeps a vast array of futuristic gadgets in a portable pocket dimension (note the pocket on his belly). The premise of the series is that Doraemon has traveled back in time to help a schoolboy named Nobita, who is meant to be a complete failure at almost everything. The typical formula of a Doraemon story involves Nobita having a problem, begging Doraemon for a gadget to solve the problem, misusing the gadget for selfish reasons, and receiving some form of comeuppance, though many other types of storylines have been explored across the franchise's long history.

The gadget cat himself.

Doraemon has spawned all manner of media over the years, but for this post I will be focusing on the works that can be considered the "core" of the franchise:

  • The original manga by Fujiko F. Fujio, which ran from 1969 until Fujio's death in 1996
  • The 1979 anime series that aired until 2005
  • The 2005 anime reboot that continues to this day

(An earlier anime adaptation aired in 1973, but was produced by a different company from the 1979 and 2005 series, and very little surviving footage from it has been released to the public.)

Given that Doraemon and his gadgets are depicted as products of future technology, it may come as no surprise that science is a common recurring theme in Doraemon, and it so happens that more than a few stories in the franchise have taken inspiration from paleontology. One of the earliest and best known examples is "Nobita's Dinosaur", which started as a standard-length manga chapter in 1975 before being substantially extended into a long-form manga and adapted into Doraemon's first feature-length film in 1980. Since then, Doraemon films have been released almost annually, with most of the entries between 1980–1997 being based on volume-length stories from the manga.

In all versions of "Nobita's Dinosaur", Nobita discovers a fossilized egg that he restores to its pre-fossilization state using one of Doraemon's gadgets, and it ends up hatching into a baby Futabasaurus. Nobita names the baby Piisuke and takes care of him for a while, but Piisuke eventually grows too big to remain hidden, so Nobita makes the difficult decision to release the plesiosaur into the Cretaceous.

Interestingly, though Futabasaurus was discovered in 1968, it was not given a scientific name until 2006, so Doraemon probably introduced countless audience members to an obscure prehistoric animal that had not even been scientifically described at the time. In "Nobita's Dinosaur", it is referred to by the popularized name "Futaba Suzuki Ryu". Scientific understanding of plesiosaurs has changed a lot since "Nobita's Dinosaur" first came out: they are now known to have given live birth instead of hatching from eggs, and they most likely could not move comfortably on land or hold their necks in a swan-like posture as Piisuke is shown doing. (Also, no one in the story points out that plesiosaurs are not dinosaurs.)

The film version of Nobita's Dinosaur additionally features quite an incredible fight between a Tyrannosaurus and a Brontosaurus.

In 2006, a movie remake of Nobita's Dinosaur was released. Mirroring the original movie's status as the first film in the franchise, this remake was the first movie to come out of the rebooted 2005 anime series. Whether by accident or by design, Nobita's Dinosaur (2006) came out during the same year that Futabasaurus was formally named. For most part, minimal changes were made to the storyline in the remake, though there are some interesting visual modifications. The film still retains the inaccuracies about plesiosaur biology from the original story, but many of the other prehistoric creatures received updated designs.

Ornithomimus is now shown with feathers, for example.

This movie is a mixed bag as goes the scientific accuracy of its animal designs though. These Pteranodon still look quite old-school.

In a line added to the remake, Doraemon is unfortunately shown to be a BANDit. (He's warning Nobita that the egg he revived isn't necessarily a dinosaur egg. Well, he's actually right about that part...)

Biological evolution is a topic that comes up fairly often in Doraemon, with Doraemon discussing the evolution of horses and elephants in the 1982 manga chapter "変身ドリンク" (approximate translation: "Transformation Drink"), and the 1983 movie Nobita and the Castle of the Undersea Devil includes a sequence explaining the origin of life in the ocean as well as the secondary adaptation to aquatic life by some land vertebrates. However, one story that centers around evolution specifically is "進化退化放射線源" (approximate translation: "Evolution-devolution Ray"), first printed in 1975. True to its name, the titular Evolution-devolution Ray is a ray gun that can "evolve" or "devolve" any organism (or even inanimate object) that it shines upon. As is regularly the case in fiction, this is not a very accurate representation of evolution (particularly in implying that evolution operates along a predetermined path), but there are interesting paleontology references to be found here, too. At one point, Nobita uses the gadget to "devolve" a rat into the last common ancestor of all rodents, then the last common ancestor of mammals, then a dicynodont, and finally... a pareiasaur (presumably a stand-in for the ancestral amniote, but probably not a very appropriate one).

Whereas this evolutionary sequence was shown faithfully in the 1979 anime series, it was changed in the reboot series' 2006 adaptation of the story, in which the rat is instead "devolved" into a Estemmenosuchus. Still not strictly accurate, but Estemmenosuchus can at least claim to be a stem member of a lineage that rats belong to.

The episode also adds a scene where Nobita tries to "devolve" a cat to deal with the "devolved" rat, only to end up with a second Estemmenosuchus. Nobita realizes that since rats and cats are both mammals, they would have shared a common ancestor at that point in their evolutionary history. A surprisingly complex concept for a children's show, especially articulated by a character normally portrayed as not very bright! Unfortunately, when the same story was adapted again in 2018*, it went back to showing pareiasaurs as being ancestral to mammals.

*If it weren't evident already, the Doraemon anime is fond of adapting the same story more than once. It's probably one of the ways in which the franchise has maintained its longevity.

The 2006 version of this story adds another scene where a sparrow is "devolved" into a non-avialan theropod. Doraemon even mentions that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Character development...? Well, this episode actually aired before Nobita's Dinosaur (2006) was released. Read on, however...

When Nobita finds some marine fossils near his home in the 1977 manga chapter "大むかし漂流記" (approximate translation: "Prehistoric Castaway Story"), he comes to the conclusion that fishes and mollusks originated on land before colonizing the ocean. Doraemon informs him that this was not the case; instead, the fossils formed at a time when the area that would become Tokyo was underwater. The two visit the Cretaceous Period to see for themselves, and they run into prehistoric fishes and an ichthyosaur (a mosasaur in some anime adaptations) before getting stranded on the back of what is apparently an Archelon... with teeth.

These fishes look more characteristic of the Paleozoic than of the Mesozoic though.

Archelon attack!

More recently extinct life also gets some representation in Doraemon. The 1978 manga chapter "モアよドードーよ、永遠に" (approximate translation: "Moa and Dodos Forever") has Doraemon and Nobita using time travel to try and save certain animals from extinction, including giant moa, dodos, and passenger pigeons. An interesting addition to the lineup were black wildebeest, which are no longer considered threatened now, but were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th Century.

Doraemon is off trying to catch the wildebeest.

This story inspired the 2012 Doraemon movie Nobita and the Island of Miracles, which additionally featured several other extinct Cenozoic animals, including relatively unknown taxa such as Paraceratherium, Chalicotherium, and Ceratogaulus. (Sadly, I also think it is one of the worst Doraemon movies I've ever seen and cannot recommend it in good conscience.)

Promotional image for Nobita and the Island of Miracles showing some of the main characters and extinct animals appearing in the movie.

Popping back into the Mesozoic, there's the 1981 manga chapter "恐竜さん日本へどうぞ" (approximate translation: "Dinosaurs, Please Come to Japan"). In this story, Nobita is upset about the lack of dinosaur fossils in Japan, so he and Doraemon visit the Mesozoic of China and feed various dinosaurs (and a pterosaur) tablets that compel them to travel to Nobita's house—or where it will be tens of millions of years in the future, at least. The two then remember that Japan was mostly underwater during the Mesozoic and are horrified by the thought that they've consigned the dinosaurs to a watery grave. Fortunately, the tablets work by being broken in half, with one piece left in the location one intends others to visit, and they lose their effect if the halves left in place are moved. Nobita's mother tidying up his room removed their effect, so all the dinosaurs turned back before they reached the ocean.

The first dinosaurs that Doraemon and Nobita seek out are Tsintaosaurus and Tuojiangosaurus. (That's an interesting choice of crest shape for the Tsintaosaurus and I'm not sure what it's based on.)

Dsungaripterus and Yangchuanosaurus join the party.

The protagonists in awe of Mamenchisaurus.

There is a curious case of anachronism in this story, as not only do Nobita and Doraemon find all of these different Mesozoic reptiles in the same time period, but they are also specifically stated to have traveled to the Early Cretaceous. In reality, the only one of the aforementioned genera they would've been likely to encounter at this time would be Dsungaripterus, with Tsintaosaurus being from the Late Cretaceous and the remaining taxa being from the Late Jurassic. Nobita actually points this out at the beginning of their adventure, to which Doraemon responds that species can have time ranges beyond those indicated by their fossil record. Although Doraemon is proven right in the story, individual vertebrate species persisting for tens of millions of years is generally not very plausible based on our current understanding.

Nobita would probably be happy to find out that many Mesozoic dinosaur fossils are now known from Japan. In the anime reboot's 2006 adaptation of this chapter, the line that Japan lacks dinosaur fossils is not said, and Nobita is instead simply envious of how spectacular the Chinese dinosaurs are (at least if Chinese subtitles are to be believed). The episode also adds an Oviraptor to the list of dinosaurs that Nobita and Doraemon come across, though it does not receive an invitation to Japan. It is portrayed with feathers, but is in need of wings.

Furthermore, the episode takes the time to showcase some more recent Chinese dinosaur discoveries, such as Dilong and Microraptor, though these taxa don't appear in the flesh, so to speak. (The Chinese subtitles here misidentify Microraptor as Archaeopteryx, but it is said to be Microraptor in the original Japanese dialogue.)

Fujio evidently paid attention to recent scientific ideas of his time, as shown by the 1987 Doraemon movie Nobita and the Knights on Dinosaurs. In this film, Nobita and his friends meet an underground civilization of sapient dinosaurs directly based on Dale Russell's dinosauroid, a thought experiment that was first published in 1982. The dinosauroids in the movie even identify Stenonychosaurus as their Cretaceous ancestor. A bolide impact is also depicted as the cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, a hypothesis that was still being actively debated in the 1980s.

The next Doraemon movie to address prehistory came in 1989 with Nobita and the Birth of Japan, in which Nobita and his friends all independently choose to run away from home. After running afoul of property ownership laws, they decide to travel back 70,000 years to the Late Pleistocene, when humans (and property laws) were not yet present in Japan. As their adventure unfolds, they learn about the dispersal of humans around the world and the glacial periods of ice ages, among other topics. This movie got a remake in 2016, which I happen to think is really solid and may actually be one of my favorite Doraemon movies.

A visualization of human dispersal across the globe. (This scene comes from the 2016 remake.)

Naturally, the main characters also run into some Pleistocene fauna. They marvel at the abundance of crested ibises, which were very rare in Japan when the original movie was released, and locally extinct in the wild by the time of the remake. In addition, they get on the wrong side of a woolly rhinoceros and a crocodile, though the remake has them encounter a bison and a giant salamander instead. This change may have been a deliberate effort to avoid anachronisms; rhinos and crocodylians are known from the Pleistocene of Japan, but don't appear to have survived into the Late Pleistocene in the region. However, a Pleistocene giant salamander large enough to see children as prey is, to my knowledge, fictitious.

You might not be able to get a sense of the scale in this shot, but this salamander is very big.

The 1992 movie Nobita and the Kingdom of Clouds also features some notable appearances from extinct animals. In this one, Nobita and his friends find another hidden civilization, this time started by sky people living in the clouds. The sky people are shown to have established a sanctuary for species thought extinct by the people on the ground, including thylacines, Glyptodon, and Phorusrhacos (which is depicted with classic Burian-esque coloration).

The entry coming up next is one in which Doraemon does not appear at all. Instead, it stars his younger sister, Dorami. (Yes, they are siblings even though they're robots. The lore is that their motor oil came from the same canister.) Dorami is a recurring character in the main Doraemon series, but she's also taken center stage in a few spin-off short films. One of these is Dorami-chan: Hello, Dynosis Kids!!, which was made as a pre-movie short accompanying the Doraemon film of 1993 (Nobita and the Tin Labyrinth). "Dynosis" is presumably a play on the word "dinosaur", though I don't know why it's translated that way.

Dorami spends most of her time in the 22nd Century, looking after Nobita's great-great grandson, Sewashi. To settle an argument among Sewashi and his friends about whether birds evolved from dinosaurs (guess that still won't be common knowledge in the 22nd Century!), Dorami takes them to the Cretaceous. As far as I'm aware, this is the oldest work in the Doraemon franchise to acknowledge the dinosaurian origin of birds. When the film was made, birds being dinosaurs was gaining mainstream scientific acceptance, but feathers in non-avialan dinosaurs were still unknown, so the filmmakers apparently decided to illustrate bird origins using… Maiasaura. After all, it cared for its young, "just like birds"! 

This short includes a sequence in which a hadrosaurid is killed by a Tyrannosaurus while browsing on flowers at night, in what I suspect is almost certainly a homage to Phil Tippett's 1984 short film Prehistoric Beast!

Like in Nobita's Dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus fights a sauropod here, though this time the sauropod is said to be an "Ultrasauros". Despite updated dinosaur designs, there are clear parallels in the fight choreography. (Ironically, the nostril position of the sauropod in the 1980 movie is more in line with what is typically thought likely today.)

Paleontology and deep time got another nod in the 1995 Doraemon movie Nobita's Diary on the Creation of the World. To help Nobita with his summer homework, Doraemon brings out a gadget that allows one to create and design their own universe. Nobita's project ends up closely paralleling the history of our universe and the Earth, originating its own dinosaurs, humans, and even paleontologists. (Yep, Doraemon has gadgets that can just casually create new universes, complete with sapient life forms...) A similar plot was previously used for the 1973 manga chapter "地球製造法" (approximate translation: "Making the Earth").

Nobita is eager to see dinosaurs and humans on his planet, so Doraemon helps him fish up a Eusthenopteron and accelerates its evolution. The Evolution-devolution Ray makes a return here.

So far, I've mostly brought up the ongoing anime reboot series to discuss its remakes of older Doraemon stories. However, it also contains completely new stories with no counterpart in the manga. One that provides an interesting look at how much the franchise has kept up with the march of science is the 2017 episode "雪と恐竜" (approximate translation: "Snow and Dinosaurs"). Doraemon takes Nobita and his friends on yet another Cretaceous trip, this time to the region that will become Alaska. The kids are surprised to find Mesozoic dinosaurs in the snow, and they see the usual suspects from the Prince Creek Formation, including Edmontosaurus, Pachyrhinosaurus, and troodontids.

They also help a baby feathered theropod reunite with its parent, which turns out to be a tyrannosaurid.

The children are baffled by all the feathered dinosaurs they keep coming across, so Doraemon references Mesozoic avialan diversity and explains to them that birds are a surviving lineage of dinosaurs! Doraemon is no longer a BANDit.

The attention to scientific detail continues in the 2020 Doraemon movie, Nobita's New Dinosaur. Although it shares similarities with and could be considered a spiritual successor to Nobita's Dinosaur, it is overall another original story not based on the manga. Like in Nobita's Dinosaur, the movie starts with Nobita reviving a fossilized egg and incubating it. In this case, it's a double-yolked egg that hatches into two feathered theropods belonging to a species unknown to science.

This is one of the first lines in the movie. Things have changed a lot since "Dinosaurs, Please Come to Japan"!

One of the feathered dinosaurs that Nobita raises is (SPOILERS) revealed to be the ancestor of modern birds that survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. It must be said that this is not accurate to the real-world timeline of bird evolution, given that modern-type birds had already appeared before the Cretaceous ended. However, I have to give the movie props for integrating the dinosaurian origin of birds into the storyline, and having Nobita’s desire to see a living dinosaur essentially answered by "actually, dinosaurs did not go extinct" is certainly appropriate for a modernized take on the same premise as Nobita’s Dinosaur

Something I didn’t expect was how big Nobita’s feathered dinosaurs turned out to be. Based on the movie poster (and the evolutionary history of actual birds), I thought they’d remain shoulder pets for the entire film, but they end up growing big enough for a child to ride.

The designs of the other prehistoric animals in the movie are actually pretty good, for the most part, especially by mainstream film standards. (Your mileage may vary on the CGI.)

Stegosaurs in the Late Cretaceous? Well... that's a plot point, actually.

Tapejarid pterosaurs (which could use larger keratinous extensions to their crests) and Olorotitan.

The Mesozoic pennaraptorans in this film have wing feathers now (even if they still have naked hands).

I was particularly excited to see this alvarezsaur make an appearance! (They’re obscured in this image, but in more distant shots it clearly has alvarezsaurid forelimbs.)

They evidently copied the Sinoceratops from the Jurassic World series (complete with the unlikely holes in the parietal fenestrae) though, oops.

By far the most fanciful prehistoric creature design in the movie is this ginormous azhdarchid-inspired pterosaur.

The tracks it leaves behind are clearly based on real pterosaur tracks, however! The filmmakers did their homework.

They even use the up-to-date figure of 66 million years ago for the end of the Cretaceous, unlike some other recent dinosaur movies that shall not be named.

This is not a complete list of paleontology references in Doraemon by any means, but I think it will have to do as a highlights reel. I have, however, tried to compile a catalogue of Doraemon manga chapters and episodes related to paleontology elsewhere. It is meant to be reasonably comprehensive, so even fairly minor references to extinct or prehistoric life are included. Being such a long-running franchise with somewhat spotty online availability, Doraemon contains numerous works that I have not seen myself, so I have no doubt that there are some relevant entries I have forgotten about or missed. If you notice any errors or omissions, let me know!

Now hypothetically, let's say an English speaker's curiosity in Doraemon has been piqued. How would they be able to experience the franchise if they don't understand Japanese (nor any of the other languages that the series has been widely released in)? Well... it's certainly not impossible to do so in many cases, but it can be tricky.

  • Most of the manga chapters (including the volume-length stories that the earlier movies were based on) have been released in English... but only on Kindle... and on top of that, only in North America.
  • Two series containing a smaller selection of manga chapters (including "Moa and Dodos Forever" and the short version of "Nobita's Dinosaur") have been released in bilingual (English–Japanese) format, and are available as hardcopies.
  • A short-lived English dub of the 2005 reboot series aired in the USA between 2014–2015. It has not been officially released on home media or streaming services, but can be found archived online. It should be noted that this dub contains numerous edits meant to "Americanize" the content.
  • A different short-lived English dub of the 2005 reboot series aired in the UK between 2015–2016. It includes some episodes that were not adapted for the American dub (and vice versa). It also contains far fewer edits to the original material. However, it has not been released on home media either and many of the episodes are currently lost, which I find surprising given how recently it was on air.
  • Two of the movies, Stand by Me Doraemon and Stand by Me Doraemon 2, are currently on American and British Netflix with English dubs and subtitling available. These two movies are unusual among the Doraemon films in that they use a 3D-animated art style and have narratives compiled from some of the best-known slice-of-life chapters from the manga, instead of the usual "Doraemon and friends go on a long adventure" storyline.
  • Fanmade English subtitles for the remaining Doraemon movies and a select number of episodes from both the 1979 and 2005 series are out there... if you know where to look. Be warned that the quality of the translations and subtitling can be... highly variable.

So... good luck! If nothing else, I hope this was an interesting look at a media giant that ironically gets little attention in English-speaking spaces. Considering how frequently paleontology has come up in Doraemon, it's probably only a matter of time before the franchise revisits the subject again. I think we can expect Doraemon to continue inspiring young paleontology enthusiasts around the world for a long time to come.

This image is here just because I really love the end credits artwork for Nobita and the Birth of Japan (2016).

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