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Friday, Sep. 2, 2011
Museum celebrates life of Doraemon creator
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Almost everyone in Japan knows the story of Doraemon, the blue cat who can produce dream toys from a magic pocket in his tummy. Now, the city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, thinks it's time to tell the story of the man behind that iconic character.
On Sept. 4, the city will open the Fujiko F. Fujio Museum, which is named after and dedicated to Hiroshi Fujimoto, the late creator of Doraemon and many other manga. Fujimoto wrote under the pseudonym Fujiko F. Fujio.
However, the ¥1.5 billion, 3,700-sq.-meter structure (owned by the city of Kawasaki and financed and operated mostly by a company set up by the creator's management agency, Fujiko Pro Co.) should not be confused with a cheap character-merchandising ploy, or a theme park for kids. While there's a sizable play area, as well as a cafeteria and souvenir shop, the museum is aimed at people of all ages — after all, Doraemon has now been around for more than 40 years.
In fact, adult visitors could be forgiven for thinking they've stepped into a chic fine-arts museum. The building's dark brown exterior gives way to dimly lit exhibition rooms, and the use of animated characters is subtle in the nonexhibit areas.
The museum's location in Kawasaki's residential district of Tama was chosen because Fujimoto lived in that part of the city. In fact, his home wasn't too far from where the museum now stands, according to museum operators. He was a father of three girls, and died of liver failure in 1996 at the age of 62. He was found after having lost consciousness at his desk while penning the "Doraemon" series at home, according to news reports from that time.
"A while after Fujiko passed away in 1996, we had a proposal from his widow to create a museum," museum director Zenshow Ito, who is also president of Fujiko Pro, told The Japan Times last month ahead of the museum's opening. "Our wish since then has been to find the best way to store and maintain some 50,000 pieces of original drawings he left behind."
The main exhibition room, which can be found soon after passing through the museum's entrance, is spacey and lit just enough to highlight some of Fujiko's treasured original sketches.
"We gave the room a quiet, serene feel, because we want visitors to look at the original drawings with respect," Ito said.
Of the 50,000 sketches, some 150 will be regularly exhibited; other drawings will alternately be brought out from the archive for public viewing in the future. To keep the originals from being damaged by light, the museum will change exhibitions every few months, Ito said, adding that, to maintain the quality of the originals, two-thirds of the displayed sketches will be copies.
Also in the main room are a series of short movie presentations in which Doraemon and Nobita, the young boy who befriends the cat, explain step-by-step how manga is created.
On the second floor of the museum, there is a space for special exhibitions. For a short period after the museum's opening, this second room will showcase how Fujimoto's earlier, lesser-known works inspired certain episodes of "Doraemon," which made its debut in a children's magazine in January 1970 .
Elsewhere in the museum, key features include a 100-seat theater that screens two 10-minute original films, and a reproduction of Fujimoto's study, which displays a vast collection of books and magazines (including foreign titles such as Life magazine and some "Star Wars" catalogs) that the prolific artist stocked at home. All the books and his memorabilia, including electric "N-gauge" train models, are displayed in bookshelves that extend upward from his desk as high as 8.5 meters — to help visitors "take a peek into his imaginative world," museum officials said.
The play area, meanwhile, includes a rooftop garden with statues of characters created by Fujimoto, such as Nobita and Pisuke, a dinosaur that also appears in the series. The museum's cafeteria even offers a variety of food and drinks inspired by the author's works, such as a "Dora-latte," which has Doraemon's face "drawn" on top of the latte's foamed milk.
Longtime fans are likely aware that Fujiko was originally one half of a pair who created Doraemon and named themselves Fujiko Fujio. But the two parted ways in 1987 — as their artistic directions started to diverge.
Fujimoto renamed himself Fujiko F. Fujio after the split and continued creating the "Doraemon" stories. Meanwhile, the other half of the duo — Motoo Abiko — started using the pen name Fujiko Fujio A. Abiko is known for infusing satirical, black humor into his own works. Most notably, "Warau Serusuman" ("The Laughing Salesman"), whose animated version was also aired on TV in the 1980s and '90s, features an ominous middle-age man with an unusually large mouth as its central character. The man approaches people who harbor somewhat dark desires and offers to fulfill their dreams on certain conditions, only to enjoy the tragic consequences suffered by his victims in the end.
In contrast, the world Fujimoto tried hard to encapsulate through his work was void of such sarcasm, and he stuck to entertaining children. The artist had an amazing ability to create subtly different versions of the same story depending on what school year his readers belonged to, Ito also said, noting that Fujimoto drew the "Doraemon" series for several different publications targeting children from kindergarten through sixth grade.
With Fujiko's death, Doraemon is no longer available in manga form, though his assistants at Fujiko Pro keep cranking out a weekly animated TV program and a yearly full-length feature film series.
Mostly through the animated version, and through a plethora of licensed — and pirated — character goods, Doraemon has become well known around the world. The phenomenon has even spawned a few serious "researchers" of its own.
Yasuyuki Yokoyama, professor emeritus of education at Toyama University in Toyama Prefecture, is one such academic. Yokoyama, who has studied the "Doraemon" cartoons for 13 years, explains that the series — already a classic — has the potential to remain popular even up until the date when the fictional character is supposed to have been born: Sept. 3, 2112.
" 'Doraemon' has succeeded in creating universally appealing characters that transcend time and national boundaries, just like the characters in other classics, such as Botchan (the lead character in the eponymous novel by literary giant Soseki Natsume), Hamlet, Don Quixote and even the Brothers Karamazov, have," says Yokoyama, who advocates "Doraemon"-gaku ("Doraemon" studies) as a formal academic discipline. He has analyzed the nitty-gritty of the series, even ranking the frequency of gadgets that appear in the entire 1,300-plus episodes penned by Fujimoto. "For one, Nobita's everyday issues — coming out of his desire to play freely and not to study — are exaggerated, but not inconceivable," he says. "That's why he has won over so many fans, young and old."
Likewise, Xu Yuan, a lecturer in Japanese culture at the People's University of China in Beijing, sought to find the source of the series' enormous popularity among Chinese readers. She wrote her 2006 master's thesis on this topic while studying at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Her conclusion was two-fold: firstly, the simplicity of the story pattern, in which central character Nobita is shown traveling from reality to fantasy and back to reality again. Then she cited a morality lesson that comes with each story, which she said offers a sense of comfort to parents. "It is a story that could resonate well with children in China, because many mothers in China are like Nobita's mother, often telling their kids off for not studying hard," she said.
Indeed, experts point to the way in which "Doraemon" was accepted by people of all ages — unlike many other manga that are adored by kids but scoffed at by parents.
Museum director Ito stressed, however, that Fujimoto himself didn't want his stories to be labeled "educational," noting that he focused on entertaining children and nothing else.
Ultimately, it's up to visitors to decide what message they take home, and they will have ample time to think and muse. The museum operators, modeling the venue on the success of the Ghibli Museum in the city of Mitaka, western Tokyo, ask visitors to purchase tickets in advance and limit entry times to four a day, accepting only up to 500 people at a time.
The Kawasaki City Fujiko F. Fujio Museum is a 5-minute bus ride from Noborito Station on the Odakyu and JR Nambu lines, or a 16-minute walk from Mukogaoka Yuen Station on the Odakyu Line. Tickets cost ¥1,000 for adults, ¥700 for junior and senior high school students and ¥500 for children. They must be purchased in advance by phone, online or at Lawson convenience stores. For more information, visit www.fujiko-museum.com.