Life is already pretty strange in Penguin Village but then genius inventor Senbe 'Slump' Norimaki (voiced by Kenji Utsomi) creates a little robot girl named Arale-Chan (Mami Koyama). Amassing data from a stack of pop idol photos and porno mags, Slump planned to create the 'perfect' woman. What he gets instead is a bespectacled, hyperactive, inquisitive little tyke with superhuman strength and a knack for trouble. Pretending Arale is his sister, Slump enrolls her at the local school where beautiful blonde teacher Midori Yamabuki (Mitsuko Horie) becomes the object of his prurient fantasies. Meanwhile Arale-Chan befriends mischievous Akane (Kazuhiko Sugiyama), would-be cool kid Taro (Toshio Furakawa) and pint-sized Piisuke (Naomi Jinbo). Madcap adventures ensue involving time machines, quantum cloning devices, an invisible gun and X-ray spectacles.
In Japan and much of Asia Doctor Slump and Arale-Chan is justly considered a children's comedy classic. Among the most beloved anime of all time its original incarnation on television in the early Eighties drew huge ratings that dwarf many more heralded genre outings today and spawned eleven movies to date. Creator Akira Toriyama went on to create the equally popular Dragonball franchise that might have a higher international profile but pales by comparison in terms of creativity. While later Dragonball films devolved into repetitive, videogame-style fight-fests Doctor Slump remained throughout its varied incarnations (including a TV revival in the late Nineties) a hilarious, surreal sci-romp rife with verbal and visual wit and no small amount of charm.
Set in a surreal pastel coloured fantasy world of anthropomorphic animals, inanimate objects that come to life, folkloric characters, aliens and bizarre pop culture cameos from the likes of Ultraman, the Frankenstein Monster, Gamera and Bjorn Borg (!), Doctor Slump parodies and subverts motifs from classic Seventies anime. From Osamu Tezuka's seminal Tetsuwan Atom a.k.a. Astro Boy (1963) to stoic superheroes from Tatsunoko Studios like Casshan: Robot Hunter (1973), the mad genius that invents the robot crimefighter was an anime staple. Here however the crackpot inventor has far less noble intentions. Shortly after being brought to life Arale-Chan excitedly asks whether she was created to fight bad guys. To which Doctor Slump replies that is ridiculous. His main goal in inventing a robot girl seems to be to show off although, in an amusing running gag extended throughout the series, the residents of Penguin Village take his amazing inventions for granted. By contrast with the angst-ridden anime adventure yarns of the Seventies, Doctor Slump reflects the Eighties preference for domestic farce with a fantastical twist not too different from another long-running anime franchise that began the same year: Urusei Yatsura.
The show centres on an unorthodox family dynamic between put-upon, sexually frustrated bachelor Senbe 'Slump' Norimaki and wide-eyed innocent (if inadvertently destructive) robot child Arale. It is a family that only grows more eccentric later with the arrival of Gachan, a green-haired fairy-like baby hatched from a prehistoric egg whom Arale adopts as her kid sister. Seemingly modeled on Toriyama himself, the titular hapless mad scientist is a lovable, accident prone goofball whose face morphs hilariously from cartoon doofus to handsome, debonair hero during his many self-aggrandizing speeches. Slump's priceless facial expressions sell many a gag but it was the adorable Arale-Chan who endeared herself to generations of children and spawned a merchandising behemoth the equal of Dragonball's Son Goku. In a dynamic similar to the early Dragonball stories clueless innocent Arale relies on other, more worldly characters to teach her about life while causing endless mayhem with her super strength. Much like Tezuka's Goku's Great Adventure (1967) and Nagai's Shameless High School (1969) the show was dogged with controversy over the main character's, entirely innocent sexual curiosity. In this instance however Toriyama's stories deftly turn the tables on the Parent-Teacher's Association with a number of preemptive satirical gags. For example when Arale asks Slump why she has no genitalia, the good doctor clamps her mouth shut declaring all this racy talk will outrage their viewers. At various points bizarre non-sequitor characters pop up waving banners with inane child-friendly morals like "Don't play with fire, kids" as a jokey sop to the P.T.A. Although many of Osamu Tezuka's works had a unique postmodern component, Doctor Slump stands among the earliest 'meta' anime and constantly draws attention to itself as a work of animated fiction. When comely waitress Aoi (Naomi Jinbo) notices Arale has no nostrils, Slump explodes that neither does she because this is a manga. No-one has nostrils. Along with the meta element Toriyama combines Monty Python-style surrealism with social embarrassment humor and Carry On-style sex farce, all ingredients likely to resonate as strongly with a western audience as they do with the Japanese. For all its wild and wacky weirdness there is a heartwarming aspect to Doctor Slump that suggests, despite cultural differences, deep down we laugh at the same things.