While Japanese children are growing up, most will have heard the tales of the peach boy, Momotaro. Although there are many variations in the story, the essentials are the same: Momotaro rallies animal allies to help him defeat the demons that are terrorizing Japan. Children know Momotaro as a charming, charismatic hero who goes on a journey with a monkey, dog, and pheasant. In 1943, Japan’s first animated film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, was released. While referencing a major folktale, this anime leads us through the story, not by focusing on Momotaro, but by developing the camaraderie and bonds between the animal soldiers. Through friendship and food, the animal soldiers bond and create a makeshift family to get them through a difficult situation. Although both the anime and folktales encourage similar values of cooperation, hard work, and courage, the community of the anime is held together by closer ties and bonds, in contrast to how the community in the folktales are held together by Momotaro.
Momotaro has a differing image between the anime and the folktale. Even though he always retains his role as a leader, he is portrayed as two different kinds of leaders. In the many versions of the Momotaro legend, he is shown as an engaged leader, leading his animal allies straight to the enemy and fighting alongside them to bring down the demons. Yet in the animated film, he always seems to be at the sidelines, commanding and giving orders while watching over the situation with a pensive attitude. Both versions of him show his abilities as a leader, but his authority comes across to the audience in different ways. Brash and dominating Momotaro from the folktale clashes with the calculating and calm Momotaro from the film, who gives the spotlight to the animals.
Throughout the film, the camaraderie and friendship between the animals are firmly established. In an early scene where the dog attempts to put on his hachimaki, his monkey comrade laughs and taunt his friend as he demonstrates the correct way to wear the hachimaki. With the help of humor, it is immediately evident from the scene that these two are close friends who maintain the façade of a rivalry in which they joke around and enjoy each other’s company. Later on in the plane, the dog tries to build a tower of blocks, but the monkey tries to correct him yet again and shows him how to properly build a block tower. When he succeeds in building the tower, the monkey smirks in satisfaction while the dog fumes. The plane suddenly jerks and knocks over the tower, rousing the dog to laugh hysterically. This scene further cements the friendship between the dog and the monkey. There is a sense that these animals have been through many adversities together, and have come out with this close bond. As the rabbits watch the other animals depart on their planes, they wave enthusiastically, showing their concern and wishes for their comrades to return safely. In another scene, as a group of monkeys are fleeing an explosion, a fellow monkey gets his tail trapped by a door; unable to leave anyone behind, another monkey looks back and shoots the tail of the trapped monkey, allowing him to escape. This scene is undoubtedly comical, yet we can see the unity among the soldiers. The humor and cuteness interweaved throughout the movie serve to make the characters more endearing to the audience, making us feel more attached and concerned about this family-like group of animals who are risking their lives.
Using some simple foods, the bonds between the soldiers are further highlighted. Millet dumplings, which play a key role in the folktales, makes an appearance in the film to provide strength and confidence to the soldiers before they enter the fight. By giving them muscles, literally, and being a commonality that all the soldiers are able to share and find comfort in, the animals are able to come closer and attain greater unity. This humble Japanese snack which the targeted audience can easily recognize and identify with reinforces and supports the image of the animals as a group of close companions fighting for a single, honorable purpose. Another simple food that appears is the onigiri, which the animals enjoy at the end of the film in celebration of the safe return of the troops. After successfully completing such a large mission, there are no lavish celebrations, just a group of friends who rejoice over simple, modest rice balls. There is no need for anything extravagant because these animals are simply happy in knowing that their friends and companions are all safe and sound.
Millet dumplings are utilized by Momotaro to his advantage in the folktale. As he meets each animal along the way, he offers the dumplings, which his parents made for him with love and care, as a bribe for them to come along and help him in his quest. In these situations, Momotaro’s headstrong and obstinate nature become apparent as he threatens the animals to accompany him. Momotaro declares “there will be no mercy” (24) for anyone who tries to hinder him. The animals accept his offer because they are in awe of him and his authority and also need the food for sustenance. The dumplings are used by Momotaro as a reward and as a way to keep his control, depicting him slightly as a bully, which contrasts with how food is used in the anime. The anime seems to allude to these instances by using the millet dumplings in a different way. When trying to comfort a lost baby eagle that has landed on one of the planes, one of the monkeys pulls a toy plane out of the millet dumplings bag instead of actual dumplings. With this single plane, the soldiers gain an important ally in the baby eagle’s mother, who swoops in at the end of the film to save soldiers who are plummeting into the ocean. The toy plane, which references the dumplings of the original stories, is used by the monkey in a kind and gentle way to comfort a despairing animal. The film is able to illustrate the animal soldiers in a more flattering light than Momotaro is portrayed in the folktales.
While the folktale version of Momotaro left home for his journey and later returned home again to his parents, there was no apparent family unit in the anime. Yet the values of family were not absent from the film. The soldiers under Momotaro may not be family, but they all act in support of each other, rooting each other on and anticipating their return home together. At the end of the day, these animal soldiers have forged a bond arguably stronger than of that between Momotaro and his parents. The animals leave the ship and also return to the same place, reunited with the other members of their crew. It’s possible to consider that ship their home, at least temporarily. Through the pair of friends who tease each other playfully or the rabbits that cheer for the rest behind the scenes, it is clear a family has formed. Although the folktale is centered around Momotaro, the bond and community built between the animal soldiers in the film is what cohesively holds the story together.
Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is a wartime animated film targeted towards a younger audience, just as the Momotaro folktales are largely children’s stories. Yet the stories told by these two different media are not the same. The folktale works to build up Momotaro as the hero, who happens to be accompanied by these three animals, the dog, monkey, and pheasant. Momotaro is the protagonist of the story and Momotaro is the one who returns home with the treasure and glory. In the film, the story centers around the hard work of the animals, who work together to bring down the enemy. In the end, the story is about them and the family and friendships they have created.