Momotaro: The Symbol of Propaganda

The tale of Momotaro is widespread and has long been established as one of Japan’s classical heroic folklores. Due to its widespread knowledge amongst Japanese society, many derivations have been created from the original folklore in the form of intertextuality and intermediality. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is but one example of intertextuality that achieves its propagandist goal through its manipulation of the original folklore of Momotaro. The commonalities between Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and the original Momotaro are quite evident, as both stories contain themes of unity, themes of triumph over evil, themes of leadership, as well as themes of animals as soldiers. Although these two stories contain similar themes, their driven purpose is drastically different.

The folktale of Momotaro tells us the story of a boy sent by Heaven, birthed inside a giant peach, to be the child of an elder couple. The boy then grows up and leaves his parents to combat a group of notoriously evil demons on a nearby island. On his journey there, Momotaro befriends a dog, monkey, and a pheasant, who ultimately help Momotaro defeat the island of demons and return home with the pillaged treasure. The main themes that are presented in Momotaro are simple: they’re traditional themes that are common with folklore stories, such as themes of unity, themes of triumph in adversity, and themes of bravery against unmatched odds. Momotaro’s purpose is also simple: it doesn’t quite have one! As folklore stories tend to simply be stories of pleasure and culture building, Momotaro did not have a directed purpose to its creation.

Contrast this to Momotaro’s Sea Eagles however, and many elements and themes are replicated, but not simply for the sake of cultural binding and the quick laugh (as it may seem through the adorable and hilarious animation style), but rather used by Mitsuo Seo to further his propaganda that this army composed of cute and cuddly animals is the “good” army, and their actions against the Americans are justified as righteous simply because “the Americans” are the enemies and who would be so evil enough as to oppose these cuddly animals? Now Mitsuo Seo obviously wasn’t advancing for the rights of cuddly animals by this film, but rather was advancing the propaganda of Japanese victory over at Pearl Harbor.

The film weaves intertextuality by taking the ever beloved Momotaro from common folk legend and making him this respected commander of an army of cute animals.  Contextually, the propaganda’s perfect target audience is the younger Japanese generation, and by the use of intertexuality, Mitsuo Seo really hits home.  The text from the original solidifies Momotaro and his animals as the heroes of the plot, and the demons as obviously the opposing evil force, and this context is indubitably influential and similar to the context in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.

The film also utilizes the original Momotaro’s very vague nature and steers it heavily to transpose a concrete and specific meaning to its audience. There are several mediums between the two stories that differ slightly for the sole purpose of telling a different story. Examples of this include Momotaro’s changed role from a primitive pack leader to a stern military general, the change to represent Momotaro through cartoon-like animations, and also the massive, almost factory-produced army of animals replacing the meager three that accompanied the original Momotaro. This use of different mediums is what conveys the ultimately different message in Sea Eagles. Placing Momotaro as a military general does many things. For one, Momotaro is already established as a credible figure, and placing him as commander of an army that is similar to his target audience is a formula that is made to deliver on his propagandist idea – which is convincing the younger Japanese generation of Japan’s actions as “good” deeds at Pearl Harbor. Placing Momotaro as a military general also has the effect of over-glamorizing, belittling, and ultimately censoring the real brutality that comes as a consequence of war.  Military leaders typically aren’t going to be your favorite folklore hero, but rather the hardened, stern and strong-minded character that would never give an ounce of true respect until proceeded by in rank. This misleading portrayal of a leader ultimately does serve to lure and entice kids to believe in this propadanda.

The censorship of war also goes hand-in hand with the cartoony animation style of Sea Eagles. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles delves knee deep into the very unstable and emotionally charged topic of war, and this topic normally associated with bloodshed and loss of human life is instead sugarcoated with images of cute animals that seem to siphon all the grim seriousness that wartime brings. Death and struggle, which are commonplace issues during wartime, is never addressed as a theme in the film, but is instead replaced by the hilarious antics and mishaps of these adorable animals who face very miniscule resistance in achieving their goal. This cartoony style, innocent and fruitful in nature to captivate young audiences, is another medium different from the original Momotaro that serves to advance Mitsuo Seo’s propaganda that the Japanese’s actions at Pearl Harbor were righteous and dutifully so, regardless of the true massive loss of human life (which was never outright illustrated in the film).

Another aesthetic element that makes Momotaro’s Sea Eagles different from its original counterpart is the film’s portrayal of Momotaro’s companions as soldiers; the “depersonalizing” of the dog, monkey, and pheasant, and replacing these companions with an outright army, a seemingly innumerable, disciplined, factory-produced force. Mitsuo Seo uses this different aesthetic to advance his propaganda of Japan’s superiority as a world power, and to also engrain to the Japanese youth the idea of their “victory” at Pearl Harbor. This army of animals is representative of Japan’s own forces, it is representative of an army constructed in unity and tasked with the heroic opportunity to defeat a foreign enemy. This military mindset of sacrificing oneself for the greater good of your country is certainly an ideal that is illustrated and capitalized on through the army of animals. The selflessness of the animals simulates the amount of selflessness that Japanese soldiers have faced, and in some extreme cases of death for a greater cause (i.e Japanese kamikaze suicide bombers) this military like structure presented in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles serves as a subtle maneuver to get the younger Japanese generation to sympathize with the military’s efforts. This military presence is yet another form of intermediality that transforms the original story’s purpose through the manipulation of this medium.

Instead of simply cheering the spirits and putting children to sleep at night (which is the effect that a perfect folklore story like Momotaro has)  Sea Eagles conveys a different story, and ultimately a different purpose by drilling the subliminal message in the young audience’s mind Many mediums  differ between the two stories,  and in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, each medium is tactfully integrated to advance their different purpose.

Food, specifically millet dumplings, is also a common object amongst both the text and the film. In Momotaro, millet dumplings serve as a powerful symbol of trustworthiness, and stands strong as a symbol of unity. Each animal that accompanied Momotaro initially were skeptics of him and it was only after a slight battle did they decide to join his ranks and consume half a millet dumpling. In the original context, half a millet dumpling was sacred to the animals and symbolized a strong connection with Momotaro.  In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the context of the millet dumpling changes a little. Millet dumplings still do symbolize a form of community, but is altered so that the millet dumplings seem to be crucial, almost drug-like and heavily relied on as a source of strength and comfort.  There was a humorous scene in the film with an animal refusing to take off without his generous bag of millet dumplings, which signified how different the millet dumplings are perceived in both the text and the film. In the text, a single dumpling is split amongst the dog, monkey, and pheasant, as if it is some sort of church communion bread, holy in all its glory. In the film, dumplings are taken and consumed with quickness, for a sense of strength and security, but also with a strong level of dependence, it is almost drug-like. Ultimately, millet dumplings serve as a symbol of unity for both Momotaro and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. Intertextuality amongst both the film and the text adds a far deeper meaning to the millet dumpling, which otherwise would appear to be just a simple food. Through the original Momotaro, we can interpret just how complex and symbolic this simple dumpling is.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Momotaro have the same themes, and in context, the film is repackaged with different elements to really hit home with its propagandist message. Intermediality as well as intertextuality allows certain elements to be changed and manipulated while still retaining the base themes and story, and this film is a classic example of that. Minutiae details come in to result in such a largely different story, as we see an original, classic folklore story with a simple enough premise transformed into a propagandist tool used to captivate and sway an entire young Japanese generation of millions.


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