Community Building Throughout Three Momotaro Variants

The traditional story of Momotaro has been referenced and repurposed extensively throughout several literary and visual mediums. Both the films Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Minamata: The Victims and Their World rely at least somewhat on folkloric Japanese texts, such as Iwaya Sazanami’s rendition of Momotaro. All three of these textual and visual interpretations explore notions of community construction, yet do so in vastly different ways; all of these mediums depict community in different ways and for different purposes. While there are definite commonalities between all three forms, the distinct treatments of food, location, and leadership all serve to build fundamentally different conceptions of community.

First and foremost, it is important to note that both the Minamata film and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles are somewhat dependent on preexisting knowledge of textual Momotaro stories. For instance, previous awareness of conventional Peach Boy themes reveals the significance behind “blue and red ogres” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World) as well as the strong animal presence in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. Preceding supplemental familiarity with Momotaro, while not completely essential, is acutely important, as it allows the audience further insight into each narrative. While both films reference and largely adhere to the traditional version of Momotaro, clear separations can be drawn between them due to their unique motivations and agendas. The distinct goals and motives behind both films subsequently lead to different portrayals of communal interaction.

Food plays a crucial role in community building throughout traditional retellings of Momotaro. It serves as a representation of familial affection yet also as a physical object to be exchanged with close relations. The old couple in Sazanami’s text exemplify the importance of affectionate exchange; before Momotaro departs, the “Old Man…set about preparing suitable food for” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 21) him. Here, food serves to heighten the communal intimacy between Momotaro and his caregivers. Interestingly, food strengthens subservient relationships between other characters as well. After meeting one of his animal companions, Momotaro offers “half of one of the best millet dumplings in Japan” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 28) in exchange for assistance. It is clear that Momotaro possesses the most power in this relationship; he specifies the reward amount after initially garnering support through acts of violence and intimidation. In Sazanami’s text, food has multiple facets, as it promotes both familial and manipulative communal bonds.

A monkey soldier about to consume his millet rations.

In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Mitsuyo Seo highlights certain aspects of food to construct communities of camaraderie and nationalism. Like Sazanami’s text, food is used a form of payment, yet in this case millet dumplings are treated as army rations. In one scene, two friendly animal soldiers consume their millet rations before engaging their enemy in combat. The millet dumplings, unlike the alcohol present aboard the enemy ship, are substantial and dietarily nutritious. Seo clearly views Japanese cuisine with high esteem; his favorable depiction of the millet conveys a strong sense of national pride and communal fortitude among the animal soldiers.

Alternatively, in Tsuchimoto’s film, food assembles paradoxical communities focused on family yet also on suffering. Tainted food, the primary cause of the stigmatized Minamata disease, marginalizes its victims while simultaneously strengthening familial and communal connections. During one particular mealtime scene, a mother, who’s daughter suffers from Minamata disease, expresses her happiness that her whole family “can all eat together” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). Like Sazanami’s text, food emphasizes familial interconnectedness and facilitates care between relatives; the transfer of food between mother and daughter parallels exchanged intimacy. However, consumption of mercury in the food source is what originally introduced the disease. Food is much more ambiguous in this context; while it does breed familial contentedness, it can also be used to portray communal anger and desperate demands for justice.

Mitsuyo Seo’s animated depiction of Pearl Harbor.

Location, both temporal and geographical, also plays an important role in community building throughout the three Momotaro renditions. Sazanami’s Momotaro takes place “very, very long ago” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 9) in rural Japan. The nondescript time and place bolster the vague, folkloric nature of the text. Contrastingly, Seo and Tsuchimoto’s films, while mythologically influenced, are located firmly in reality. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles creates a community based around nationalism. The propaganda film, created in 1943 amidst the tensions of World War II, was intended to boost Japanese morale and patriotism. Frequent depictions of camaraderie encourage similar wartime attitudes for the collective Japanese public. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle’s connection to real locations, such as Pearl Harbor, leads to a uniquely distinct form of community not present in the other two story interpretations. Seo’s inclusion of real world locales generates a nationally proud community in direct conflict with a contemporary foreign entity.

Protestors draw comparisons between Osaka and the mythic Ogre Island to demonize Chisso executives.

In Tsuchimoto’s Minamata, allusions to Momotaro highlight the peripheral communities who have experience the Minamata disease first hand. One marginalized victim, upon reaching Osaka, declares “[the protestors] have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). He likens the folkloric Ogre Island to Osaka, the location of an annual Chisso executive shareholder meeting. Here, the traditional story of Momotaro is applied to more contemporary dilemmas; use of this well known narrative emphasizes the wrongful subjugation and oppression of the afflicted. Not only does the film’s invocation of Momotaro depict suffering, but also an unyielding plea for reparation. Tsuchimoto’s Minamata attributes a real location to Ogre Island in order to imply a stronger sense of community among mistreated individuals.

Differing portrayals of leadership also establish dissimilar communities among Momotaro variants. In Sazanami’s text, Momotaro, who was “sent down to [Japan] by the command of the god of Heaven” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 14), is divine in origin. He establishes his leadership through his divinity immediately after being birthed from a peach. His existence radiates strong leadership while also demanding compliance; when meeting one animal companion, he states his intention to “take [the animal] along with [him] as [his] servant” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 30). In this story version, Momotaro’s power as a leader is inherent and unchallenged. It is important to note that Sazanami’s Momotaro directly interacts with other characters in lieu of commanding at a distance. He accompanies his companions to Ogre Island and fights alongside them, despite his divinely imparted power. Momotaro active involvement in defeating the ogres produces a sense of community based around unity and common struggle.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles approaches communal leadership in an alternate manner. In Seo’s adaptation, Momotaro is a distant leader; when commanding his troops to attack Ogre Island, he explains that he, as “[their] captain, will await [their] return” (Seo, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles). His detached behavior reflects the regimented, hierarchical chain of command present in naval communities. In this circumstance, Momotaro’s leadership is not divine but rather the product of a socially constructed hierarchy. The servitude and compliance of the animal troops arises from stratified wartime infrastructure rather than divinity. Both Sazanami and Seo depict Momotaro as a commanding general, yet the resultant communities are acutely different. Most prominently, the community that Seo constructs in a much more detached and martially disciplined than Sazanami’s.

There are many similar and dissimilar portrayals of community throughout these three Momotaro renditions. While many themes, such as nationalism or intimacy, are shared throughout the versions, they ultimately are achieved in drastically different ways. The three versions, which possess extensively dissimilar agendas, provide their own unique narrative insight into character relations and interactions. In Sazanami, Tsuchimoto, and Seo’s interpretations of Momotaro, different treatments of food, location, and leadership are employed to construct disparate forms of community.

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