The Transformation of a Classic Tale into Pro-War Propaganda

Momotaro is a classic piece of Japanese folklore that is prominent throughout the culture and known to a majority of the Japanese population. Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro no Umiwashi, also known as Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, was produced in 1942 as a propaganda film that utilized the story of Momotaro to promote the war effort, and specifically the event at Pearl Harbor. In the original folk tale, Momotaro is born from a peach, raised by an old couple, and becomes a warrior whose purpose is to destroy demons with the assistance of power-wielding animals. In the anime, there is more emphasis on the battle with “western” demons that employs the use of large-scale weaponry and attack tactics, distinguishes who the audience is supposed to support, and softens the realities of a full-scale war while using the familiar plot of Momotaro to effectively appeal to the target audience as a pro-war propaganda film. 

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Momotaro and his crew upon a modern and large battleship.

 

Throughout the film, the employment of war machines and plans of attack is evident. One of the first pieces of war strategies in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles involves Captain Momotaro briefing his fleet of monkeys, dogs, and pheasants about the upcoming plan to infiltrate Demon Island. In the scene, Momotaro and the crew are on a large naval ship that is carrying many warplanes. Along with the battleship and planes belonging to Momotaro’s army, the enemy also possesses huge ships, aircrafts, and a military base that are eventually destroyed by the animal soldiers. The destruction is caused by weapons consisting of torpedoes and arson, which are directed by Momotaro and carried out by the animals. The portrayal of Momotaro’s battle with the demons in the anime aims to relate and promote the modern war effort of World War II, unlike the battle of the original folktale. The image of a full-fledge war and the technology for battle in the anime familiarizes the subject of war itself to the target audience of Japanese children, with the intention that they will support the war and fight for their country.

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The “western” enemy is portrayed as a beer-drinking brute who is no match for Momotaro’s army.

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The animal soldiers are much more dignified than the enemy and are able to use skillful tactics to destroy Demon Island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another method in which Seo transforms Momotaro into a persuasive piece of propaganda is the way in which he displays the enemy with a deterring manner and actions. Because this film was produced as a result of the occurrence of World War II, the enemy is clearly a western army, and symbols in the film further hint that the enemy is the American military. To further distinguish the classic division between the “good guys versus the bad guys”, the leader of the opposing group inhabiting Demon Island is seen as an alcoholic brute who does not have clear authority over his men, as seen in the above left image. Contrastingly, the animal soldiers of Momotaro’s military are cute, and even have a sense of innocence about them while they also hold themselves to a higher integrity and capability than the western military leader.  The stark contrast between the characters leads to the audience sympathizing with Momotaro’s side and feeling unsympathetic towards the “bad guys” when they are destroyed and lose the battle. This particular battle and bombing of Demon Island also parallels the events at Pearl Harbor and is meant to show the young Japanese viewers that the attack on Pearl Harbor was necessary and a heroic battle. The overall effect of the different representations of the two fighting sides promotes a greater sense of national identity, unity, and pride for the Japanese people.

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Although ships are destroyed, explicit combat between the opposing sides is not present.

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The animal soldiers safely escape what would otherwise be a deadly plane crash in a real war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is able to portray a war in a manner that is appropriate for children and does not frighten them entirely of war. Seo accomplishes this by a lack of explicit violence between the animals and the humans of the demon army, and no indication of death although the characters are in a war. The above left image from the film shows the destruction of the enemy ships from the battle and are not overly violent, which does not evoke a sense of fear. The lack of direct fighting between the humans and animals creates a break of reality and is not necessarily an accurate view of war. This masking of the realities of war is more appealing and citizens are more likely to enlist and support the war since they have not been exposed to the actual events of battle. Similarly, the subject of death that is part of war is not openly presented in the movie. The above right image of the three animals riding away on the sea eagle after their plane crashes into the ocean is an alternate ending that removes death as a possible scenario. Death is often times viewed as an event that people want to avoid for as long as possible. By eliminating the presence of death and blatant killing from war in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the more positive aspects of war such as camaraderie within the military and the pride of fighting for one’s country are more easily displayed and even romanticize the idea of war. The film also does an effective job of evoking a prominent sense of nationalism. This surge of nationalistic pride may even cause some to willingly go to war and die for their country even when they are aware that death often accompanies war. Idealizing war further develops the original plot of Momotaro into propaganda for the Japanese fight in World War II.

By taking a familiar and deeply rooted cultural story, Mitsuyo Seo creates a non-threatening and uncontroversial promotion of Japan’s participation in the war. Although a well-known piece of folklore is used, there are distinct differences between the folk tale of Momotaro and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles that turn the original story into a propaganda film in favor of Japanese efforts in the Second World War. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles focuses on the modern depiction of battle, unlike the battle of the original story, which was created in the late 1800’s. By employing warfare technology, having two clear divisions in the battle, and disguising the cruelties of war, the propaganda film appeals to the young target audience and motivates them to fight for their country in the actual war.

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