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Seo Using Popeye’s Own Spinach Against Him

Historically, convincing propaganda must have aspects that people subconsciously identify themselves with, in order to truly persuade them of a cause. Therefore, it only makes sense that the most common element to incorporate in any type of propaganda is food. As an everyday commodity, as well as a human need, food is one of the very few common interests of all beings. Thus, propaganda manipulating food’s power is an obvious tactic, and the 1942 war animation, Momotarō no Umiwashi, or Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, is no exception. Its director, Mitsuyo Seo, plainly makes use of food’s undeniable authority in society to justify Japan’s actions and opinions during a very controversial time.

Produced during World War II, this short film uses a classic Japanese childhood story and American utilizations of foods to rally positive support for Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the original tale, Momotaro, a boy born out of a peach goes on a journey to destroy the terrorizing inhabitants of Demon Island. Along the way, he feeds millet dumplings to a dog, pheasant, and monkey, who join him to succeed in his quest. Seo ingeniously twists this anecdote into an eerily similar, yet nationalistic, version that subconsciously pushes his audience toward believing the war actions of the Japanese were just.

Keeping the elements of the millet dumplings and animal characters from the original story in the film, Seo skillfully exhibits his purpose. Along with the adorable use of seemingly harmless cartoon animals, he puts in a very familiar American theme as well: the consumption of food as a symbol of strength. This theme is consistent with the infamous American series, Popeye. However, instead of eating a can of spinach, the animal minions of Momotaro consume the kibidango millet dumplings to gain strength and courage before dropping bombs on “Demon Island”. With demented tropical background music playing and visible Hawaii-like elements, “Demon Island” unquestioningly portrays Pearl Harbor. In the true fashion of Popeye gobbling his spinach, a monkey consumes the kibidango in one swift gulp, has the immediate response of expanding biceps, and flashes a comforting and trustworthy smile. There is an immediate sense of rightfulness created when the protagonists use food sources to grow historically honored traits as bravery and strength, especially in wartime. The darkness of such a violent concept of bombing another land is merely overshadowed by the consoling images of charming animals fighting the “bad guys”, with patriotic and joyful music infused. Also, animations are normally intended for younger audiences, and children are easily impressed by characters doing simple actions, such as eating, to gain the ability to do “great” things.

Food is a commanding tool once again when the animals destroy “Demon Island” and all fly back to the home ships to celebrate their victory. Internationally, food is constantly used in celebratory manners during parties and events. There is an unavoidable cheerful association with food wherever you go, and it is a universal staple in festivities. When the rabbits gather together to hear about the monkeys, pheasants, and dogs’ adventure, there is the observable presence of onigiri, or rice balls. In a particular scene, a monkey tells the story of how the bombing happened with descriptive gestures. He eats the rice ball with vigorous intensity, consuming it in only a few bites, with an overbearing sense of pleasure and pride on his face the whole time. In his haste to tell his account, he carelessly ends up getting rice grains all over his face, which he speedily wipes off. He holds his arms out wide like an airplane and signifies an explosion with his hands, smiling with glee as the listening rabbits around him laugh and enjoy this moment of accomplishment. Seo manipulates the accepted concept that the presence of food in this merry get-together would resonate with his audience in a purely happy and subconsciously relatable sense, despite such ominous circumstances.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles was produced in a sinister time in Japan’s past, but Seo’s propaganda film applies the universal influence of food and associations with the item for his purpose of nationalistic pride. All in all, the powers of strategically innocent characters and recognized cartoon themes, were pulled together by this universal concept that food can be utilized to get any message across. Using this propagandistic approach of exploiting such a relatable item, Seo successfully made a convincing perspective about Japanese war tactics and motives.

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