Momotaro’s Army: Food

In both Iwaya Sazanami’s retelling of the story and Mitsuyo Seo’s anime version Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, food plays essentially roles in the heroic story. Although it is not explicit, the precedence of food presented in the film is primarily used for symbolism. The symbolism describes the ways food functions as an idea of unity on its own and the effects it can have on people, animals, and nations entirely. For one, the tale of Momotaro implicitly proposes that food unifies not only people but all species that rely on it for the sake of survival and common interest. In other words, food can be molded away from or portrayed as a Darwinian principle throughout the tale. Among other things, the idea of food is also portrayed as communication and language; it can motivate behaviors and establish loyalty.  The tale additionally symbolizes the power of food as a currency to pave the way for victory in a war. Nationalism, pride, solidarity, unity, and cause are all weaved together under the influence of food throughout the story and film as the animals are driven as soldiers to win. Under this approach of food, a corollary exists in which food deviates from being a physical and capitalistic commodity to being a spiritual, emotional, and affectionate medium as well. Finally, the connection of food and Momotaro are strong enough to set an example that practices the morals of Momotaro as a means to unity via food during the Minamata disease events portrayed in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s film Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Poster advertising the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor with Momotaro's army

Poster advertising the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor with Momotaro’s army

The folktale of Momotaro has solidified a nationalistic symbol for Japan as it was orally passed down, changed, and embraced throughout the years and conditions Japan faced. Nevertheless, food is evidently vital to the overall message the folktale is attempting to get across; unity, solidarity, and strength. Firstly, this idea is illustrated both physically and metaphorically in the beginning of the tale when Momotaro is introduced and found by the old woman.  As the woman says: “The distant waters are bitter! The near waters are sweet! Shun the bitter! Come to the sweet!”  (pg 13) indicates themes of hope, fulfillment, charity, divine intervention, and fruitfulness that are represented by the peach Momotaro is sent in by God. In other words, the peach and Momotaro himself are a poetic symbol that can be interpreted as Japan chosen by divine right to purvey its delicious and superior food charitably; to use that food as a means to fuel the efforts and use it to symbolize national strength and common goals.

The laws of natural selection are evident in their manifestation that animals behave selfishly and serve no one of other species’ competitors in an effort to survive solely for food and its power to survive. However, Momotaro’s food symbolizes more than just food, but a token of power, servitude, and recruitment. Initially, the role food plays in Momotaro is pretty clear-cut: to persuade the animals to join Momotaro. However, the point can be interpreted that food additionally serves to orient the loyalty and establishment of servitude to the animals. Hence, this instilment of common interest in the millet dumplings amongst the animals counteracts the natural orientation of all animals alike in regards to Darwinian natural selection.  In other words, food is greatly emphasized as such a potent motivator of drive to the animals that they are willing to sacrifice their natural and selfish ways of competition evolution programmed them to  and instead serve Momotaro in a fight for a unified common interest of camaraderie and unitary strength. Of course they are still acting in self-interest to feed, but not to the extent animals are supposed to in the natural kingdom practice of “every man for himself.” Hence, food is acting as an impetus of motivation, unity, loyalty, and power beyond levels of natural occurrences.

Militancy and its structural order require a currency of value for the soldiers to obey and function as a group efficiently: that is food. It is commonly said that food wins wars, and in this case, the same can be said about the Momotaro folktale. During the Seyo’s film, the dumplings are portrayed as delicious and crucial for the soldiers to maintain happiness. Along with their pleasure in eating the superior Japanese food, it perfects its role by being nutritionally dense and valuable in energy.  The scene in Seyo’s Sea Eagle in which the monkey bomber eats the dumplings and flexes his instantly grown muscles illustrates such superiority whereas the Americans are portrayed as weak, unfit, disproportional, and dysfunctional. In fact, the dumplings act as a symbol in the same vein as Japan itself does as purveyors of courage and great strength. Food is the ammunition for victory. If not for the finest Japanese dumplings, Momotaro would have never received the aid he was given. In Sazanami’s version, Momotaro’s militancy is recognized by his ability to recruit with food and lead with it as he “[placed] himself between them and carrying his hand an iron fan, according to the custom of all high military officials in those days.” (pg 29).His resourcefulness to attain an army and command it is illustrated in this passage. Nutritionally however, the food was the source of felicity, joy, drive, and ability to fight for a cause with unity.

The monkey indulges in pleasure by eating delicious food as a means to celebrate

The monkey indulges in pleasure by eating delicious food as a means to celebrate

As time passed and struggles piled up in Japan during turbulent times of the 20th century, the influence of Momotaro and his messages and ideals were evident and crucial for real life callings. In Tsuchimoto’s film, Minamata disease and its struggle during the 50s called for a union and fight for rights, food, and unity. The same ideals and principles in both iterations of Momotaro were presented; fight for and by food and ultimately triumph over the common enemy together. In the Momotaro stories, the enemies were presented but quite frequently shifted and changed. From ogre to Mickey Mouse, to cartoon depictions of Americans, the enemy has always been in opposition for its malicious ways to harm and disturb the land, environment, and people. Commonly, however, they are all seen as a threat to Momotaro and his justice call. In the case of Minamata disease, the government and establishment of Chisso are perceived oppressive, malicious, and threatening to the community of fisherman and their families for neglecting the cause and being held responsible for it altogether. In a sense, a call for Momotaro and his crew of righteousness seemed urgent; only in this case, it was a real life parallel. Similarly as the tale of Momotaro was used to promote nationalism in its Seyo’s anime version, the idea was considered the same but a different direction was coursed with the Minamata disease. Sazanami’s version of the tale in which ogres are the common enemy is adopted by the Minimata protestors for the same reasons. Aside from the similarity of the Momotaro story, the influence of Momotaro is hinted in the film when the protesters wear the Momotaro headband to symbolize such influence. What was once used as an effort to support the Japanese aggression of the war during WWII, was now being inversely similarly employed for correct and moral causes by the Minimata protestors under Sazanami’s influence to combat demons in Momotaro’s tale. The malleability of Momotaro’s tale illustrates the powerful implications that can be taken in both directions to orient a cause. On one hand, Seyo’s propaganda film presents Momotaro’s common righteous and valiant efforts to justify his malicious acts of violence and resistance during the war in order to promote nationalism. Nevertheless, the Minimata protests are in the same vein for the same cause of unity, struggle, and solidarity in order to receive fair treatment and just causes.

Momotaro and his crew on their way to Ogre Island

Momotaro and his crew on their way to Ogre Island

Lastly food is symbolized as a token of appreciation, affection, consideration, uniform comfort, and ultimately a journey for all to share in the iterations of the Momotaro tale. Apart from all of the capitalistic values of food in Momotaro’s tales, food ultimately acts as a spiritual entity that embodies a group of people into one concoction of care and appreciation. Emotionally, for Momotaro’ parents in Sazanami’s version, it meant their care and regard for Momotaro as the Old Man battled to prepare it when he “brought out millet which had been stored away some time before, and placed a big stone mortar on the earthen floor of the kitchen, and with the Old Woman’s help, the sound of ‘pet-ta-ra-ko!’ ‘pet-ta-ra-ko!” (pg 21).  Clearly Momotaro saw this and demonstrated his appreciation by only giving half of the dumpling to each animal for they were “the best millet dumplings in Japan.” (pg 25) As a means of health, the body physically responds to food from its nutritional intake. The saying “you are what you eat,” is evident and substantiated by the affected farmers of Minimata and their families. Concern for survival and vocational passion drove the fisherman to do Momotaro’s job. Just as Momotaro commenced his journey and shared his compassion and common goal, the people of Minimata traveled to Osaka to take action and outcry. The comfort to have the situation restored motivated both the people of Minimata and Momotaro to uniform conformity and consideration in the name of food. Additionally, the animals in Sea Eagle film celebrated their victory with affection to food as they not only ate away their pleasures but embraced their uniform body of affection towards one another in the group. Consolidated by unity and solidarity, food then became acceptance and acknowledgment of a struggle to find a common goal.

The importance of food is clear in all aspects of life ranging from natural selection to human emotion and to governmental and nationalistic bodies. Momotaro’s immortal message of food has the same aim: to act as a means to come together and fight for something in the name of solidarity and unity. Real life events such as Minimata are examples of such an important idea in food. In a sense, food can act as a separator in which differences can result in conflict and victory as seen the Seo’s portrayal of Americans in his film along with demonization of the oppressors as seen in Minimata during the 50s. Ultimately, food can be both a commodity to survive and fuel any effort possible, but it can also be an emotional entity that unites species and people alike to happiness, affection, and comfort. This the role food has and the power it plays in various aspects of life. Momotaro implicitly illustrates such roles in the story told different versions through time.


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