The consumer-dependent economy and culture today has become so engrained with cartoons directed at trapping the short attention span of children that it becomes difficult to imagine a world without. Yet, the objective less than a century ago was no different than it is today, hatched out of wartime politics and patriotism in the form of wartime propaganda. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, one of the earliest Japanese animations preserved today, director Mitsuyo Seo transforms the beloved traditional folktale of Momotaro and its subtle elements of food into a propagandized family feature relatable to the wartime effort prominent in Japanese society during that time period.
Whereas Momotaro fights alongside his newfound acquaintances – a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant – to defeat the onis in the traditional tale, Momotaro is characterized as the leader behind the attack, the actual attack carried out by the armies of the three types of animals. Even so, Momotaro’s legacy lives on through the monkey that brings along the bag of millet dumplings, later used to gain another ally in the form of a parent pheasant and baby pheasant. Interesting enough, the millet dumplings do not actually take the form of food but rather the form of a toy airplane. But by showing the toy airplane as the only way to appease the lost and injured baby pheasant, Seo introduces the idea of feeding the youthful and ignorant mind, metaphorically paralleling the role of food in feeding the body.
Like most stereotypical wartime propaganda, the message received is meant to induce courage and strength for the sake of fulfilling one’s duty for his or her country. In that sense, the subtle yet still significant symbol of the koinobori or “carp streamer” hangs inside the airplane as a reminder for these warriors to remember their goal at hand. While the koinobori is made of paper and not actually edible as a food, it takes the shape of a koi fish, an organism with a mythical background in Asian beliefs. Originating from a Chinese legend and adopted into Japanese culture, the legend tells of a koi fish that relentlessly tries to swim upstream on a noble endeavor to obtain enlightenment, ultimately overcoming the obstacle and is transformed into a flying dragon. While the koinobori moves “upstream” and “downstream” according to the laws of physics and velocity, the film symbolically presents the “upstream” phase as it hangs on the inside of the plane prior to the attack and the “downstream” phase after successfully executing the attack. Despite the mythology behind the koi fish, Seo reminds the viewers that the Japanese aren’t invincible by burning the koinobori as one of the casualties faced in battle while the actual members in battle return in one piece, propagandizing against the negative image of the suicidal kamikaze warrior and promoting the extreme patriotic spirit that they carry.
By overlapping the legend of koi fish and the folktale of Momotaro, Seo provides a profound social commentary of the nobility in being part of the war effort that all Japanese people should take part in, no matter the struggles and obstacles that lie in the path. Furthermore, though this short film was created in 1943, it is interesting to note that koinobori today is traditionally flown on Children’s Day in Japan, even though the national holiday wasn’t officially named such until 1948. Though not explicitly stated in the film, the anthropomorphic characters are characterized as the youth of the Japanese society, as suggested by the probably unintentional reference to koinobori in addition to their childlike behavior and playfulness in conducting their tasks.
In coherence with the original Momotaro story, the heroes set off to Devil’s Island, immediately displaying the motif of good versus bad, as is typical in a fictional story. Even for those somehow unaware that the story is specifically about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it becomes apparent through the cliché Hawaiian music that trails into the scene as the planes fly toward Devil’s Island, even though the film itself once again doesn’t explicitly define Devil’s Island as Hawaii. On the other hand, by explicitly naming the island “Devil’s Island”, it is easy for the viewer to assume that all the inhabitants of the island are devils and thus the enemy to the heroes. Even before actually coming into contact with the enemy, the classification of good and bad is already well subconsciously established in the viewer’s mind, enforcing the message intended by the propaganda. Only after this manipulation of the order of images does Seo introduce the enemy character, immediately recognizable to the public as America.
Originating from the classic American cartoon, Popeye the Sailor Man, the same villain Bluto is characterized as the enemy in this Momotaro film. Even for those unfamiliar with the Popeye cartoon can detect his evil because not only is he fighting against the good (the animals), he is characterized with devil horns and numerous bottles of beer, both of which are defined as “bad” in the mindset of a child. His frustrated words are incoherent to the viewer, due either to alcohol or for intentional characterization, blatantly exposing him to be an incompetent leader in contrast to Momotaro’s leadership and clear instructions. Above all, he loses any possibility of honor and nobility when he lowers the US flag and shakes off all of the stars and stripes to make his white flag of defeat, ultimately revealing the overall Japanese mentality of accepting defeat.
Through the well-defined line of good and bad, contrasting characters, and significance of food symbols, Seo creates a masterpiece of propaganda to the Japanese public of all age ranges, promoting both national pride and national participation. Withholding the gruesome details unavoidable in the war effort as is characteristic of propaganda, Seo romanticizes war as a glorious phenomenon in which no Japanese soldier is left behind, rooting this mentality into the youth of the time period.