Momotaro Plays Hide & Seek: Exploring food and heroism hidden in various texts

The legend of Momotaro has been featured in many films, such as Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World, to help the people of Japan relate to the national crises pertaining to each film.  By utilizing the popular and cherished tale of Momotaro as a common theme, viewers of the film are more likely to grasp a firm understanding of unfamiliar and complex topics, such as war and disease epidemics. As the symbol of strength, bravery, and nobility, Momotaro acts as a role model to children and adults alike, just as superheroes act as cultural icons sought to emulate. In the children’s animation Momotaro’s Sea Eagle the director, Mitsuyo Seo, dramatizes the events of the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II by utilizing Momotaro as the commanding leader of a crew of devoted animals on mission to defeat their enemies on Demon Island. On the other hand, the director, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, takes various themes from Momotaro and implements them in his poignant and compassionate documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, to illustrate the cruel and unbearable circumstances those affected with Minamata experienced. Momtaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World both integrate ideas from the Momotaro legend, enhancing the similarities and differences in two central themes, food as the source to ignite community unification and the role of a hero to serve moral justice.

In the legend of Momotaro, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World, the primary theme of food acts as a source to bring a community of people together. In the Momotaro folk tale the theme of food is viewed as both an object of consumption and as a symbol of strength and unification. When Momotaro departs for his voyage to Ogre Island his father packs him millet dumplings for lunch. Food is the primary source of fuel for the body, allowing the necessary endurance and power needed to take on arduous tasks. As Momotaro’s journey commences he encounters and befriends a dog, monkey and pheasant, all of which previously did not get along. Each time Momotaro encountered a new creature he offered them a millet dumpling and they immediately sought to become a member of the team.  Eating one of the millet dumplings which acted as a form of pledging their allegiance to Momotaro, and demonstrating how food as commodity acts as a uniting factor of strength, friendship and teamwork.

In a similar manner, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle presents the uniting force of food as a symbol of strength and celebration. For example, after Momotaro commands his troops to depart to Demon Island one monkey fuels up his stomach with a skewer of millet dumplings.

Food is a source of power and strength.

Food is a source of power and strength.

Upon flexing, the bicep muscle of the monkey’s arm immediately enlarges, signifying his gain of strength needed to carry out his mission. Furthermore, when the dog and monkey soldiers return to Momotaro’s naval ship after the completion of their mission the animals rejoice in celebration by eating rice balls. The consumption of millet dumplings and rice balls as simplistic Japanese cuisine expresses the unification and national pride the animal soldiers have for their country.

Food can also act as a symbol of victory and celebration.

Unlike the legend of Momotaro and Momotaro’s Sea Eagle where food is viewed as a positive source of strength and unity, food in Minamata: The Victims and Their World acts as a symbol of poison and death, rather than a necessity for life. Yet comparably, through the negativity of the Minamata epidemic stirs an uprising and unification of a community. In basic terms, the Minamata disease was methyl mercury poisoning. The Minamata disease originated from the Chisso Corporation factory dumping methyl mercury into the ocean, illegally. The carelessness of this factory caused the poisoning of many underwater creatures, which ultimately caused a significant amount of people who consumed the diseased sea life to contract the disease as well.

The Minamata disease cost the lives of many loved ones.

The Minamata disease cost the lives of many loved ones.

Symptoms of those who became affected included the loss of the ability to speak correctly and the loss of the senses. Unfortunately, the disease affected not only the host, but also the victim’s families and loved ones as well. The survivors of the epidemic resulted in a devastating loss of friends and family, but not hope. From the tears and sorrows caused by broken hearts grew rage and the demand for blame and compensation. Through tragedy people are, once again, observed joining together in unison and rising against a common enemy.

Additionally, another theme presented in all three films is the central figure of the righteous hero, and of course the enemy as well. In the Momotaro folk tale, an old couple’s wish is granted when a giant peach drifts down a river. Inside the peach is a boy, Momotaro, whom the couple adopts and raises. Momotaro grows up to be an intelligent and independent leader who embarks on a journey to Ogre Island to defeat the fierce enemy ogres. Upon success, Momotaro transpors gold, silver, jewels and other riches back home to his parents, safe and sound.  Thus, embodying the qualities of a genuine hero.

Likewise, Seo used many similar tactics from the Momotaro legend in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle to develop his plotline. For instance, the idea of Momotaro and his team of animals as the undefeatable heroes is a reoccurring theme. Momotaro ranks at the top of the social ladder as the commanding officer of a crew of rabbits, monkeys and dogs. He expresses his authoritative powers by commanding his army through specific tasks, yet unlike the Momotaro folk tale, he never comes face-to-face with physical contact in battle. Additionally, to stay consistent with the historical background of the film, Seo developed the enemy character to drastically juxtapose with that of the heroes. Momotaro and his team of cute animal warriors were depicted

The beer bottle was indicative of excessive drinking, causing American’s to be viewed as the “bad guys.”

as the team of “good guys” saving the Japanese nation from the enemies on Demon Island. However, on Demon Island, the single American soldier was illustrated as a human-like figure with demonic accessories, such as horns, a tail, and a beer bottle at hand, indicative of excessive drinking. Alcohol gave a negative connotation that was frowned upon according to societal norms; hence, the portrayal of American’s as the “bad guys”.  At the end of the film, the members of Momotaro’s force return to the ship safe and sound, just as in the tale. Conversely, in the film Momotaro does not return home with treasures, because the treasure to be gained is the satisfaction of justice served against their enemy ogres.

The hero and enemy roles in Minamata: The Victims and Their World are also portrayed in a contrasting manner to that of the Momotaro folk tale. Where the hero plays the protagonist role in the Momotaro tale, the hero of this documentary is the underdog. The role of the hero in Tsuchimoto’s documentary is a group of common people representing all those who have been affected by the Minamata disease, rather than a single being as in the

This quote makes a direct reference to the Momotaro legend’s fight at Ogre Island.

Momotaro legend. The heroes consist of a community of members who journey abroad to Osaka to fight the “ogres” of the Chisso Corporation factory. In one scene an elderly woman speaks, “We have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell,” making a direct reference to Momotaro’s journey to Ogre Island in the legend. Contrasting to the compensation of treasure gained by Momotaro in the legend, the heroes of the Minamata community took action not for the sake of their own merit, but to help those that were innocent. As for the role of the enemy throughout this documentary, the audience gets the sense that the Chisso Corporation should be viewed as the “bad guys.” The Chisso Corporation was indeed responsible for the mercury poisoning; however food in general can also be seen as a coexisting enemy.  Consumption of food is what spread of the Minamata disease and infected the lives of innocent beings. As a consequence, the need to rally up the heroes to fight for justice was essential to defeat these enemies, just as Momotaro and his team of animals had on Ogre Island.

By incorporating the tale of Momotaro in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World national anxieties are made more comprehendible for the general public to interpret. As in the Momotaro legend, both films demonstrate that food is factor for community unification and that leadership and justice are characteristics of a righteous hero. As a result, the viewers of these films easily accept the noble and respectful qualities of the characters representing Momotaro, and the wickedness portrayed in the enemy, ultimately providing for a moving documentary and prized animated propaganda cartoon.


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