Momotaro and Reality

            The “Peach Boy” called Momotaro is often used to represent the ideal Japanese boy. His tale is so widespread and popular that one of the first long form animated films in Japan, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, was a version of his tale set in the modern (World War II) era that connected his noble fight against the Ogre’s Island to the Battle of Pearl Harbor. In both this film and Iwaya Sazanami’s telling of the Momotaro story, food unites Japan and allies the nation with the forces of nature. While the Momotaro story can be a symbol of Japanese values and culture, these adaptations do not properly convey the reality as depicted by the documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Both the film Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Iwaya Sazanami’s retelling of the Momotaro story feature food as a unifying force that settles disputes and forges friendships. In Iwaya’s retelling, each animal that joins Momotaro’s band of heroes is initially belligerent to the others. They think that they are above the other animals and represent a kind of person who beats down on others instead of being friends. Momotaro offers them a millet dumpling, which eases the conflict between the animals and eventually makes the whole gang a bunch of great friends. In the animated film, the animals are already friends and thus the story is not about making peace with others. Instead, the values espoused in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle are of being empowered by being united under a common flag and leader. Millet dumplings instead represent a connection to those you are indebted to. For instance, the millet dumpling bag is used by the monkey to give a toy airplane to the baby bird crying on the airplane’s wing. The bird and his mother are now indebted to Momotaro and they, too, are part of the fighting force.

In the documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, it seems that food does not unite as much as separate in real-life Japan. The region around Minamata’s local fish is contaminated by the Chisso Corporation’s toxic waste that increases mercury levels. The community is heavily affected by the Minamata disease caused by the consumption of these fish. Those who eat the infected foods become intensely sick and barely recognizable while being relegated to shortened lives of suffering. Even those who avoid the infected foods are separated from those who do not have access to either infected foods or infected people. They are in the uncomfortable position of fighting for the afflicted against those for whom the disease means nothing.

Each Momotaro story shows a united Japan led by Momotaro. In the Iwaya story, the animals band together under Momotaro to fight the Ogres who terrorize Japan. In the animated film, Momotaro leads an unquestioning group of animal soldiers against what appears to be the United States in World War II. And even outside the story the character of Momotaro himself unites the real life citizens of Japan as a shared heritage and culture.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle teaches children that your leader empowers you, shown by Momotaro’s characteristic millet dumplings that help the crying bird and strengthen the protagonist animals in their fight against the Americans. But real life Japan is not united unquestioningly. Minamata shows a Japanese company contaminating the environment in a way that causes the titular Minamata disease and kills many Japanese citizens. But instead of being like the Momotaro story and feeling compassion for countrymen in need, the company denies responsibility. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, a monkey shoots the tail off another monkey in order to save the latter from dying in an explosion. The Chisso Corporation would instead ask the trapped monkey not to blame them for leaving them because it’s not their fault the monkey remained trap before it exploded in a mist of blood and guts. They only offer reparations to the sick with the clause that “even if it becomes clear in the future that the Minamata disease is caused by industrial wastes from [the company], [the patients] will not demand any further reparations.” When the government does not aid those afflicted with the disease, the culture of Minamata changes from the rest of the country that generally trusts the government.

Because Iwaya’s story is folklore and not grounded in reality, it’s generally OK for it to simplify character’s motives. For example, Momotaro is good, ogres are bad. However, the actions in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle seem so overly simplified and wrong because the filmmakers attempted to tie the folk tale of Momotaro slaying the ogres to the real-life event of Pearl Harbor. In making the otherwise non-human ogres American caricatures in the film, the morals are twisted to convincing children the opposite of what the Momotaro tale as told by Iwaya advocates. The story features fighting animals coming to peace with each other because they have a common friend in Momotaro and a common enemy in the ogres. But the film features a human, Momotaro, leading an army of animals against another human, the caricature of Bluto from Popeye. The opposing sides of the war have no motives, so as a propaganda tool for children, Japanese youth are taught by the film that no matter what their leadership is right and the enemy is wrong.

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The Minamata documentary shows that blind support in leadership doesn’t work out because the government isn’t omnipotent or purely benevolent. When the motives and actions of fellow countrymen are confused and sometimes downright evil, it’s hard to believe in the government that also tells you to shut up and refuses to help you. The government is not seen as accountable for aiding those afflicted by Minamata disease.

Each tale of Momotaro paints the picture of a Japan connected firmly to nature. The nation’s folkloric hero is sent by a god, the ruler of nature, to help those in need. In Iwaya’s retelling, the forces that fight against the ogres in the name of Japan are animals. In Momotoro’s Sea Eagle, the army of World War II Japan is represented by countless little bunnies, puppies, birds, and monkeys. Nature fights for Japan, and Japan is the force of nature.

In Minamata, a Japan is shown that fights against nature. Witness accounts by the local fisherman describe the Minamata-afflicted fish as flopping around as if they were drunk. The human victims of Minamata disease become shells of people. Their skin falls off and they lose control of their body. Footage in the documentary shows house cats who can barely move and hardly resemble normal cats.  This disease that has no basis in nature affects the fish who merely inhabit Minamata Bay. And this all comes from a culture that represents itself by cute, smiling animals waging its wars.

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In a way, Japan really is as connected to nature as the Momotaro folk tale and animated film purport with their armies of animals. There really are cultures like those who live near Minamata Bay where their lives revolve around catching and eating fish. If in the fiction of Momotaro, the animals represent the brave people of Japan, then the fish of Minamata Bay represents those who are the subject of Minamata. As the fish, surrounded by the toxic wastes that they swallow and consume, become sicker and sicker with the Minamata disease, the people, surrounded by the same toxic fish that their lives are so strongly concerned with, follow suit. Here lies the difference between the ideals of a folk tale and reality: that animals and people are united in their food, suffering, and environment, not their leadership and personalities.

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One response to “Momotaro and Reality

  1. that last diptych of images is a very haunting comparison. The question of conflict by proxy is an interesting one–i.e. what is “behind” the fact that animals are more accessible in Japanese wartime storytelling than they seem to be to US/American characters and storytellers. A scholar named Thomas Lamarre has written a lot about (companionate) animals in animation in a journal called Mechademia–tons of interesting examples. You might be interested–also, in the growing interest in animals, animal welfare/rights in films like The Cove, as we will see (and with luck, discuss)…

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