In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), the classic Japanese folktale of Momotaro (Peach Boy) is used as groundwork for the production of a World War II-era propaganda film. Made for children, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles still tells the ancient story of a young boy named Momotaro who, out of his own strong sense of duty and justice, sets out on a quest with his animal friends to defeat a band of demons that live on a faraway island.
However, in this 1943 propaganda piece, these basic elements of the folk tale are adopted and manipulated for the film’s specific place and time: Japan and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In this new narrative, Momotaro is commanding officer of his own navy, sending troops of monkeys, dogs, and pheasants off to destroy the inhabitants of Demon Island who, in this film, symbolize Western colonist aggressors. While demonizing the enemy, Mitsuyo’s classic propaganda film enlists the use of familiar images of Japanese culture and comforts in order to establish a strong national identity. Food, in particular, is one piece of culture that the film uses to rally the people.
One aspect of the original Momotaro folk tale that carries over into the animated film is the role of millet dumplings, or kimidango. In the folk tale, Momotaro uses millet dumplings to persuade the animals to join him against the ogres. In this scene, as Momotaro’s troops are prepping to take off for Demon Island, one monkey soldier scurries to grab a bundle of millet dumplings.
Having the dumplings seem to be so important that the little monkey nearly misses takeoff, running towards the plane, waving the bag of kibidango in the air. When it comes time for the soldiers to take action, the monkey prepares itself for battle by eating the millet dumplings. They seem to possess magical powers as they give the little monkey muscles and strength. Like in the Momotaro folk tale, the millet dumplings act as a source of motivation and strength to fight. By featuring kibidango, a food so simple, yet so close to the heart of Japanese culture, the film establishes a connection with its viewers. The kibidango comes to symbolize the strength, support, and camaraderie of the Japanese people. Alongside images of the rising sun, a carp kite, and celebrations over beer and onigiri, the kibidango is one of many comforts of Japanese culture presented that satisfies the film’s aim to establish a proud, united national identity for Japanese audiences.
As classic propaganda, the film also makes sure to establish who the enemies are. Food is again utilized as means of characterizing the demons. While Momotaro’s fleet attacks Demon Island, we see the island inhabitants and sailors running around frantically to save themselves. The main demon character is a giant, yankee-looking sailor who, in his clumsy and panicked behavior, is portrayed as idiotic and unprepared for battle. Alcohol becomes a frequent image used to support this point of view.
One scene features bottles flying around the ship deck, while another shows the frantic sailor consuming alcohol, hoping the drink can be for him what kibidango was for Momotaro’s monkey. Rest assured, that is not the case because, in the end, the demons are defeated and it is Momotaro’s fighters who get to celebrate in the end.
By associating alcohol and drunkenness with the enemy and juxtaposing that with the comforting images of cute animals eating kibidango, this WWII era appropriation of the classic Momotaro folk tale manages to successfully portray the hero in Japan and the demon in the West.