Momotaro may have started as a children’s folktale, but over time, has evolved into one of the most influential literary works in Japanese culture. During World War II, Momotaro had become the face of Japanese war propaganda, as illustrated in Mitsuyo Seo’s anime: Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. This anime explicitly depicts the theme of the folktale, which is how camaraderie will help the good triumph over evil in times of dispute. Even though Mitsuyo’s anime, and other Japanese propaganda works altered the folktale’s story line to fit the times of the war, they still depicted the importance of the millet dumplings. The millet dumplings are a symbol of unity within the story, and it is that unity that allowed the comrades to enhance their incentive in defeating their enemy rivals. Whether food is being shared or taken away, the food itself has the power to unite people. As seen during the Minamata disease, many people suffered greatly due to contamination of their main fish supply, by the Chisso Company’s mercury disposals in to the ocean. In the 1971 documentary film, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, Noriaki Tsuchimoto is able to capture the genuine suffering of these people. He illustrates that because the communities of people were losing their main source of food, they all joined together as one, to protest against the Japanese elites. Even though the folktale, Momotaro, and the documentary film seem to be very dissimilar based on the story lines and genres, we are able to connect them on the basis that the main themes of both works are unity, and good versus evil, and that they both establish the importance of food as both a symbol and a material object.
The story of Momotaro starts out with an elder couple. As the older woman is washing the clothes in the river, she comes by a giant peach. She brings the giant peach home, where they realize that within the peach was a young boy. Appropriately, they named the boy, Momotaro, or “Peach Boy.” Thus, we can see the theme being introduced from the beginning of the folktale. The old woman and man were a couple whom lacked the wholeness of a family because they never had children, leaving them somewhat incomplete, and broken. With the arrival of this giant peach, the food, Momotaro became the center of their family, and essentially provided the elder couple with something that was always missing in their lives, a family bond. As food has the power to bring together this broken family in the folktale, it is also able to bring together the families who suffered during the Minamata disease. In the documentary film, Tsuchimoto demonstrates the suffering of the common folk who were losing many family members to the devastating disease, which caused those who were still alive to uphold a stronger union. The remorse these people felt when losing a loved one to the disease is shown best when Tsuchimoto captures the Japanese woman screaming at the businessman during the shareholders meeting about losing her parents, and how much emotional trauma she and her family had experienced. The Japanese woman, and other common people were only able to stay strong during such rough times because they stuck together. In both works, whether it be joyfully or tragically, food is able to unite the family.
Food can sometimes be thought to be the ultimate source of enjoyment, and thus satisfy our souls and stomachs. Before setting out on his voyage, Momotaro makes sure he has his millet dumplings. These millet dumplings are an important element of the folktale, because the millet dumplings are what Momotaro offers to the dog, monkey, and pheasant in token for companionship. In this case, the millet dumplings are being enjoyed by the animals; however, in the documentary film, we see that the tainted fish being consumed by the people is causing them to become paralyzed, and critically ill. The little community of Minamata had enough of the torture and realized that they did not deserve to suffer from the mutations which the contamination caused them. They formed groups, and began to ask for donations and fundraise money so a few members of the community could go to the shareholders meeting in Osaka to protest, and state their issues to the Japanese elite. There is a scene from the film where Tsuchimoto is on the train with the victims going to Osaka, and even though they mentioned being scared of the police, he is able to capture their determination and fearfulness within. In Momotaro, we see how the millet dumplings were a symbol of unity, and helped Momotaro create his own little army to defeat the ogres. Both Momotaro and the victims of the Minamata disease are on a journey to defeat those who are hindering their community’s lives.
The Oni, or Ogres, in the Momotaro folktale are the evildoers who are harassing the good people. Before uniting with the dog, the pheasant, and the monkey, Momotaro intended on fighting the Oni alone. Now, he has support, and as a team they worked together to defeat the Oni. They were able to succeed because of Momotaro’s willingness to share his beloved millet dumplings with them. Behind this is the idea, if we do not work together, we may not stand a chance of winning. This is apparent in both Seo’s anime: Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, and the version of Momotaro that Sazanami recreates. It also brings us back to the documentary film, where we see that the people of Minamata needed unity in order to begin their relentless protests against the Chisso company. As a result of their joint suffering from consuming contaminated fish, a resilient bond among them emerged. Although the ending of the documentary film is vague on how successful the protests went, those who protested at the shareholders meeting in Osaka that day are considered heroes. Thus, both the victims of the Minamata disease and Momotaro are valiant heroes because of their courage to protect their people and prevent the disease from continuing.
Traditionally, we see in Japanese texts and film the role of food is of great importance because, food is more relatable than other inanimate objects. The people of Japan can understand how the sensual aroma, touch, and taste of food evokes certain feelings. Since food usually physically satisfies, symbolically, food acts as a unifier between two people seeking satisfaction. We see that in both Seo’s and Sazanami’s versions of Momotaro, the animals work together after eating their share of millet dumplings which enables them to battle against their enemies. We also see in Sazanami’s version of Momotaro and Tsuchimoto’s documentary film that a familial bond is created due to the fortune or tragedies centered around food. It is a fortune for the old couple to find the giant peach, and it is a misfortune for the people of Minamata to suffer greatly after eating their polluted seafood. Each of these three Japanese mediums depicted food as a symbol of unification, which was ultimately the theme in each work. Another main theme that is seen in both versions of Momotaro, and the documentary film is the theme of good versus evil. Tsuchimoto uses strategic filming techniques in his documentary to portray the Japanese business men as the “evil”, and focuses on the people of Minamata as the “good”. Much like how Sazanami portrays the Oni as the antagonist and Momotaro as the protagonist. In all of the works, these communities, united by food, are on the quest for the greater good, and destroying those who are evil.