Momotaro: A Tale of Companionship

In Japanese film and literature, food often plays a major role in the overall progression of plot and themes. Food’s many roles include unifying people, celebrating hard work, and comforting individuals. One of the most influential works that embodies this Japanese tradition is the story of Momotaro. This folktale does not have an original source and dates back to the Edo period in Japan. There are many different version of the story as well; however, the trait they will always share in common is the connection to food. Food in Momotaro acts as the unifying symbol for companionship and also as a material object that forms bonds between people. Whether in literature or film form, the theme remains that food can become the connection between all people and allow them to draw together.

Momotaro has many variations in details since it is an open source story. Older versions of the story had erotic and inappropriate elements. Many elements in different versions were subtly altered. Despite these dissimilarities, Momotaro’s theme of food forming a community is powerfully depicted in each variation. In Iwaya Sazanami’s definitive version of Momotaro, companionship clearly forms from the sharing of food. In the very beginning of the text, an old woman finds a giant peach and returns home to share it with her husband. They rejoice and celebrate the wonderful food that is before them. Thus, the very opening of Momotaro already implies how powerful food can be when unifying people. Momotaro himself springs forth from the peach. In a sense, he is the embodiment of unity between people due to food.

Later in the story, Momotaro sets off on his journey after receiving millet dumplings from his father, the old man. As he travels, he meets the dog, monkey, and pheasant on the way. These animals offer their loyalty and camaraderie to Momotaro and in return, receive half of a millet dumpling. The act of using food to form bonds in these sequences is very clear. Despite being completely different, a human, a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant are able to band together because of a simple common food. Symbolically, the dumplings represent the friendship of all these diverse creatures. On a physical level, the dumplings are a medium that allows them all to work together. It is Momotaro’s way of persuading and paying each animal that joins his cause.  The instant the animal accepts Momotaro’s offering, a pact of loyalty and friendship forms between the two parties. Thus, these events in the story signify the role of food in building communities.

Momotaro’s themes can even be connected the real world as well. The story reveals for us that food can be a symbol of unity for the Japanese people. As stated before, the millet dumplings in Momotaro manage to bring together a human and several different kinds of animals on a single voyage. In reality, the idea of communicating with and befriending animals is unlikely, but this idea stresses how powerful food is as a unifier. This ultimately suggests that the Japanese people should be able to assemble regardless of appearance, origin, or any other trivial difference.

The theme of unity through eating returns once again in the film adaptation of Momotaro in 1943. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle is a film made in 1942 and released in 1943 as war propaganda. Despite being almost completely different from the original story, the film retains the central theme of food from beginning to end. In the film, we see the appearance of millet dumplings again, but as war rations. The dogs and monkeys eat the dumplings before heading out to battle. Again, the dumplings become a symbol of companionship between the various animals under Momotaro’s command. The dumplings seem to associate with nationalistic pride that helps with the raid against their enemy which is successful in the end. On a material level, the dumplings are just rations for the soldiers. However, this also means that the dumplings are extremely important for Momotaro’s company. Soldiers need nourishment in order to fight well and keep their willpower high. Without food, soldiers can starve and even abandon their duties; thus, food causes a sense of unity even on a material level.

As mentioned before, the Momotaro’s Sea Eagle’s purpose is to act as propaganda for the Japanese people. The film is based off the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the film was released in 1943. This time gap was because Japan was experiencing major losses in 1943 and needed more support from its people. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle managed to do its job. Like the original story, the themes of the film can be connected to the real world. By connecting the bombing of Pearl Harbor to Momotaro, the audience that watches the film is reminded of the companionship in the original folktale. It reminds Japanese people of how powerful they can be when united together and pitted against a common enemy.

Interestingly enough, the film still does its job without knowledge of the original Momotaro tale. The use of cute animals representing the Japanese military displaying great unity and power is enough to make a young Japanese child swell with pride. The children who watch the film will instantly side with Momotaro and want to win against the Americans depicted as drunken idiots.

With knowledge of the original folktale, the film will have many deeper meanings to reveal. One interesting point is that both text and film depict Momotaro on a voyage to cleanse the land of evil. In the text, the heroic Momotaro goes to battle the ogres who are constantly stealing and causing trouble. This point would imply that the Americans in the film are also completely evil while the Japanese are good and pure. Another interesting point is that Momotaro himself is shown very differently in both works. In the text, Momotaro is a leader who marches into battle alongside his comrades. This means that the animals and Momotaro all face the same battle and struggle and form a close bond through that. However, in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Momotaro is a very detached leader. We only catch a glimpse of him in the very beginning before the battle and in the end after the battle’s success. His commanding from a distance seems to correspond directly to military protocol instead of the original tale. He is giving the animals commands rather than fighting by their side, and this establishes a sense of a military community and discipline. Momotaro is the absolute leader in both versions, but the type of community that he forms is very different in each.

When comparing the film to the written story, they both seem like completely different works with unrelated stories. On the contrary, they both resonate with the same themes of companionship and national unity. Though these themes may be portrayed in different manners, the different styles give us insight as to how food can be used in different ways as a symbol for community. The written version of Momotaro utilizes millet dumplings as offerings in exchange for loyalty while the war film uses them as rations that keep the group together. These different usages cause different kinds of communities to be formed but ultimately cause people to unify no matter how diverse. This theme reaches out to the real world and establishes that food is a powerful joining force for Japanese people.

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