National ideologies are systems of common thought that serve to unite or mobilize in the name of the values of the country. At war times, these ideologies help to create propaganda as the country takes a strong stance for or against other systems, such as the socio-religious system of their country or the nationalistic system of the enemy. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is an animated film released in 1942 that is one of the most concrete dramatizations of Japan’s WWII national ideology system. It is a masterpiece in propaganda.
The basis of the film is the folktale of Momotaro, “Peach Boy.” While, in general, folkloric stories are timeless, Momotaro’s, takes the very historical stance of paralleling the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The dog, monkey, and pheasant who accompany Peach Boy to the island of the ogres in the original tale now fly torpedo bombers to attack Demon Island and modern warships.
The first step that Momotaro takes in dramatizing a nationalistic system is establishing national identities. War as a subject matter relies on a very black-and-white differentiation between the ally and the enemy. To establish the animals as Japan’s allies, the film offers several visual clues. The characters don headbands of either the Japanese national symbol of the Rising Sun or the Japanese flag. Torpedo Bomber No. 3 has a paper koi hanging in the cockpit and the characters dine on millet dumplings. Once the animals are identified as Japanese, their positive qualities can be associated with Japan. They are innocent animals led into battle for a noble cause, shining examples of bravery and cooperation.
The enemy is far less positively portrayed. The “demons” are represented as humans in American naval uniforms. The lesser sailors are cowardly and clumsy as they attempt to avoid death by torpedo. The commanding officer is a bulky, blundering drunk who is quite literally dripping with bottles of beer. This identifies the American enemy as drunken and without pride or honor.
The second step that the film takes towards dramatizing the Japanese national ideological system is representing the strength of the nation through unconditional success. The attack on Demon Island is, of course, the main focus of the film. From the American perspective, the attack almost resembles a massacre, ending in the complete obliteration of the enemy. From the Japanese perspective, it is a massive success. The Japanese aircrafts drop numerous torpedoes on the enemy fleet, defeating it in its entirety while leaving very little time for return-fire by the enemy. Only one aircraft is shot down with no casualties.
It is with the story of Torpedo Bomber No. 3 that the film alleviates any doubt of the noble character of Japan. Their defeat of the enemy was necessary, not cruel. A sense of humanity and compassion is established with the mutualistic relationship between the crew and the titular sea eagles. Early in the film, the crew takes a momentary break in their mission to help a lost baby eagle find its mother. This selfless act is rewarded in the end when the mother eagle rescues the crew from their destroyed bomber. The majestic shot of an eagle carrying the three crew members back to the aircraft carrier represents the quintessence of Japanese honor and virtue.