Momotarō: The Boy Who Lived (as a national hero)

Momotarō is one of Japan’s most influential fictional characters. Momotarō, or “peach-boy” in Japanese, has been the figurehead of many children’s cartoons, folk stories and the undisputed face of war propaganda in Japan. Existing once as a playful tale told to children, Momotarō became a doctrine attached to World War II propaganda. Nevertheless, Japanese propaganda remained very humble and true to the original story, using various elements from the story to recreate a sense of national pride. One such element is food. In Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotarō, an accurate retelling of the original folktale, there is a clear indication of how food acts as a unifier throughout the story. Unity was not only needed during the war, but was also imperative to locals who suffered from the Minamata disease, as seen in the 1971 Tsuchimoto Noriaki documentary. This essay focuses on the unity achieved through food across the different Japanese mediums, exploring how different narratives in both literary and visual texts dictate the symbolic or material nature of food.

The most apparent reference to food seen in Momotarō is in the boy’s very name. Momotarō, otherwise known as the peach-boy, could easily be interpreted as a symbol of sustenance and longevity. The whole notion of a ripe peach making its way down the river into the hands of a poor old lady strengthens the relation of peaches to longevity. In a way, it hints to youth and the continuity of life. Furthermore, Momotarō arrives from a distant land (personally, this seems very similar to the story of Moses, even though the stories are not to be associated) and his origins are purposely vague for various reasons. One reason is that it helps the public associate with Momotarō himself. Rather than belong to a certain area or people, Momotarō is given to the public through the ambiguity of his origin. In essence, since Momotarō belongs to no one, he belongs to everyone. This idea is resonated in the victims of Minamata who seek justice for the atrocities they have been subject to.

Like Momotarō, the people of Minamata, as documented by the Tsuchimoto film, unite against the exploitative business that has plagued their land. The Tsuchimoto documentary does justice to the people of Minamata, revealing how devastated they were by the spread of the disease. It was only after being ravaged for numerous years that the locals decided that enough was enough. They formed a large group of people that went to Osaka in order to fight the greedy capitalists, and used Momotarō as a unifying anchor. Their efforts, thoughts and principles were all brought together in order to achieve a greater good, with the Momotaro’s public picture holding it all together.  Hence, Momotarō unified these people under a sense of resistance. People were fighting for their rights to life, health and well-being, just as Momotarō fought the “Oni” who plagued the land.

Although Momotarō existing as the peach-boy is a symbol in itself, there are other examples of the importance of food. The most distinct and memorable of these is the millet dumplings that are seen in Momotarō tales across a plethora of Japanese mediums. Whether it is literary, as depicted in Sazanami’s text, or seen through Seo Mitsuyo’s anime: Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), there is an unarguable importance to the millet dumplings. Beginning with the text, Momotarō uses his precious millet dumplings to sanction the relationship amongst the animals he meets along his journey. As described in the story, he gives each animal half a dumpling. This is a clear example of how food is a symbol of camaraderie, and unifies Momotarō and his animal friends under one common goal. In some ways, Mitsuyo’s anime echoes this idea. In one memorable scene, an anthropomorphic monkey refuses to board the plane until he secures his millet dumplings. These dumplings are then consumed moments before the battle ensues, revealing a sense nationalistic pride associated with this type of food.

Essentially, what the millet dumplings reveal is that food symbolizes a sense of unity for the Japanese people. In Momotarō, it brought Momotarō, a dog, a monkey and a swallow together. For children, talking monkeys and birds are sort of magical, and keep children occupied from the underlying message. A message that was at the center of Japanese propaganda and was the central power to the people of Minamata, it was the idea of unity. It was the understanding that different species could align themselves under a common goal, as the Japanese people would need to do if they were to succeed. It did not matter where you were from or who you were. There was a greater good, a vision larger than any single individual, and only in the unity of the Japanese people could it be achieved.

Unity was a central theme across the different texts and narrative platforms seen in both Momotarō and Tsuchimoto Minamata documentary, yet one other theme was equally important. And this was the idea of a struggle between good and bad. For Momotarō, it was the peach-boy’s valiant quest alongside his animal friends to defeat the evil “oni”. In Minamata, it was the plagued victims against the gluttonous businessmen. This idea of good vs. bad was not only central to the propaganda itself, but in allowing the people of Japan to associate with Momotarō. It allowed the story to be “open-source”, or subject to the interpretation of the audience. This helps make association easy, because all that is needed is a figment of good vs. bad, which could be interpreted into each and every one of the above situations.

Regardless of the theme, the method of interpretation is equally important. Let’s take Minamata for example, a documentary which used a combination of expository and participatory filmmaking techniques. This approach was important in juxtaposing the sickly people with the newly built factories and profits. It helps the audience identify with the people, as they are subject to interviews by the director. In addition, almost nobody will argue that the “voice-overs” commonly used in expository filmmaking are not important factors in creating sympathy to either side. This could be easily contrasted to Mitsuyo’s anime, where a very different medium in the form of anime is used. Yet as was the case with Minamata, there is a distinct effort by Mitsuyo to help the audience relate to the characters. There was a clear indication that the Japanese were the good guys, most of which was indicated through hyperbole, as one side was almost angelical in their good, and the other demonical in their evil. What this meant for Momotarō was that he transcended his literal characterization, meaning that Momotarō could be anybody, can come from anywhere, but he remained a symbol of good and hope.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that food works as a unifier in various mediums and across a multitude of Japanese stories. Whether it is through the classic tale of Momotarō, the war propaganda, or the symbolism underpinning Minamata, there is distinct omnipresence of unity. Moreover, unity was always in the face of an oppressive injustice, hence asserting the importance of good in the face of bad. In a way, this suggests that unity can only be achieved in the face of a greater evil, in an attempt to achieve the greater good. Ultimately, hardly anyone could argue the importance of Momotarō to the Japanese people, in fact, I have grown quite fond of Peach-boy myself.

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One response to “Momotarō: The Boy Who Lived (as a national hero)

  1. The Moses comparison is quite interesting (as you say, it is not very motivated historically, but structurally it certainly leads to similar narrative moves, and “breakways” from certain kinds of communities assumed to be natural, causing a break of sorts). A foundling is such an interesting way to start a story, especially one about leaders. Its accidental appearance allows for new beginnings, futures, prophecies, transmissions, etc. (Also, it seems hard to imagine M as a girl, so this particular version of heroism/futurity does seem rather ideological in its gendering, with all the protagonists of history being boys, signalling that this is an ideological, rather than a fantastic or even a realist world…what are the odds, really, that a girl would not wash up at some point, if all things are possible?).

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