The Momotaro Persona

 

Robert VanderVeer
Japanese 70
5 Page Momotaru Paper
Discussion 1B Class

 

           

Momotaro’s presence in Japan as a common unifying persona of national pride is undeniably and collectively recognized as a symbol of hope in times of strife and struggle, both personally, and socially on a macro-level amongst many of the country’s people. Securing his position as one of the most popular figures in Japanese folklore, Momotaro has become a nationalist archetype whose character plays out almost like a “guideline” that many of the people in Japan identify with in unifying against a common struggle. The story consists of several archetypical elements, revolving around Momotaro, whose flawless leadership almost seemingly subjugates everyone before him when asserting his presence and determination, glorified by his “pure” and selfless motives to defend the country of Japan from the terrifying red, blue, and black ogres (known as “Oni” within the tale). Momotaro, with his excellent and flawless leadership skills depicted in this traditional tale, knows that he cannot win the battle alone, enlisting would-be enemies along the way as his own personal party members with the help of food (but not just any ordinary kind) as a sort of emulsifier to  relationships that started out on a surprisingly threatening note. As he makes his way toward the evil “Oni Island” to strike down the ogres in the final battle, Momotaro’s victory is secured almost too easily, furthering his character as a symbol of Japan’s national idealism and pride, elements which are expanded and capitalized upon in later and more modern renditions of the story, (especially in the World War II film: Momotaro’s Sea Eagle) in what is now blatantly seen as propaganda for Japan during that time. Although the tale of Momotaro has seen and undergone many iterations and transformations, there is undoubtedly a common unifying element bound in his character across the various versions, being the embodiment of an undefeatable and righteous hero, seen by the people of Japan as a parallel to their own country as a whole over time.

The story of Momotaro dates back to 1753, about a boy who is literally found within a peach floating along a river by an old woman who is married to an old man. In the more modern version of Iwaya Sazanami, the couple raises him, and at the age of 15, Momotaro eventually sets off to defeat the evil “oni” who torment Japan from an island far away. Momotaro, as an “ethereal” being that was mysteriously sent by God himself to the old couple because they could not have children, takes it upon himself to defend his country with no incentive other than to do what is “right” for Japan. Along the way he enlists the help of a variety of animals (a dog, monkey, and pheasant) who all have something to contribute to the team. They make their way to Island of the Ogres, and defeat the common enemy of the people, thus saving the day. One noticeable element to the story is the way in which Momotaro is practical and real in enlisting the help of other animals to help fight against the oni. In this sense, Momotaro is a relatable character, rather than an invincible being that simply swoops down upon the enemy alone with an effortless win. If Momotaro were truly invincible and perfect, he would not need help at all. Rather, he is depicted to be of the highest quality and standard for a human (or humanoid in his case), yet there is still the element of “risk”. For this reason, Momotaro actually is in a sense “perfect”, in that he knows how to secure a victory despite not being able to stand alone. Although he eventually does find help to defeat the oni, the help does not come easily. His first comrade (the dog), was actually wanting to steal all of Momotaro’s provisions, threatening to bite his head off if he resisted. In most cases, the dog would be seen as an enemy, and thus properly disposed of, but Momotaro actually gives the dog a chance to surrender, threatening that should he not, he would cut him in half. Upon surrendering, the dog is rewarded with a dumpling, but not just any kind. Momotaro says that this dumpling is “the best millet dumplings in all of Japan.”  Momotaro, as an exemplary case of righteousness and perfection among human beings, is offering the “ultimate” bun in all of Japan, so these can be assumed to be of the same standard in their own respective category as Momotaro is in his. In this sense, the dumplings are an extension of Momotaro and everything that constitutes him, and thus, the dog takes that extension and consumes it, finalizing their newfound bond in their quest to defeat the evil that plagues Japan from a distance. In this way, the food that Momotaro shares with all of his animal friends is like the contract that binds them all together in his adventure, without the vague and superficial implications that an actual pen-and-paper contract tend to entail. Food, being the sustaining element of all living things, is being used in this case as a more “fair” trade amongst Momotaro and his newfound companions, furthering his portrayal as “righteous” due to the fact that he is sharing with his companions “the best Japan has to offer”, and pure in the sense that he is offering his new companions with something that they actually need. With this symbolic trade, the animals that Momotaro enlists are taking Momotaro’s own ideals and quest as their own as well, serving him efficiently as if to defeat the Oni that threaten Japan is exactly what they want as well.

Although there are many symbolic elements behind the food and consumption presented in the earlier versions of Momotaro, the later iterations and animations took on a rendition of the story with a more nationalist front, focusing more on identifying Momotaro’s intentions, actions, and ideals with their own battles, rather than his enlightening and exemplary journey as a whole. In “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle”, directed by Mitsuyo Seo and produced by Einosuke Omura, the “nature-like” setting of Momotaro is removed completely and replaced to fit the setting of Japan at the time of the movie’s creation during World War II. Gone are the elements of food, nature, and establishment of bonds, and the movie begins at the very beginning of a preparation to bomb the island of Onigashima, with Momotaro’s bond with the animals already established, and their numbers exponentially increased. This indirectly shows Momotaro’s importance as a national symbol to Japan, as his origins are assumed to be common-knowledge among the people of Japan, and because of this, the movie gets straight to the point in its propaganda agenda by completely removing the origin-story of Momotaro as an unnecessary and already established element to the story. “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” is almost like a middle parallel to Japan at the time of World War II, and the actual theme of “overcoming an evil enemy” in the original Momotaro tale from the Meiji era. This is instantly seen within the first few minutes of the movie aboard airplanes in a more technologically advanced time. Just like in the original tale of Momotaro, the movie rendition sets him off to the island of Onigashima to battle against the evil ogres, which are now presented as evil-looking humans. Japan’s attempt at portraying itself as “innocent” by being represented by animals within the film is furthered by the fact that America is represented by evil looking humans, who have the “choice” to stray away from nature and the natural order of things (as free-will is something that allows humans to have a wide range of motion in their intentions and actions, eliminating any notion of “natural” within the human world). In a similar manner, the contrasting high level detail of the planes, and the fluidity of the animation is representational of Japan’s own assertion in indirectly stating that they are up to date in a technological arms-race with America, using the latest techniques in animation technology to capture the tale of Momotaro in the context of World War II. The fact that Momotaro is chosen to represent Japan’s perspective in World War II as a justifying piece of propaganda is testimony to his importance to Japan as an ideal of righteousness and purity of action.

Outside of the commonly updated world of renditions, Momotaro is seen as a symbolic ideal when unifying to face off against a common struggle or enemy. In Tsuchimoto’s “Minamata: Its Patients and their World”, Momotaro is briefly and indirectly mentioned in by the protestors rising up against the fertilizer company owned by Chisso, calling upon its people to rise up against this evil enterprise. In the rallying of the people on the streets, one of the protestors exclaims that “we are in the land of the red and blue ogres”, a direct implication to the tale of Momotaro, in which Momotaro journies to the land of the red and blue ogres for the final battle. This shows that Momotaro is a figure that is easily adopted and identified with amongst the people of Japan in times of peril and struggle that need unification of its people’ to rise up against a common enemy, and in this sense, they are justifying their own battle to themselves with the adoption of the righteous “Momotaro” persona, which are major attribute to the original story, and in the “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” film.

There are several dynamics to the tale of Momotaro that are emphasized and truncated with each and every rendition of the story, which reflect the changes in ideals and focus of the times. Serving as a blueprint, the original tale of Momotaro had enough space to morph into whatever age chose to adopt it, with its abstract symbolism (the food, and Momotaro’s divinity), and emphasis on archetypical characters. Momotaro’s history, originality, and openness is arguably why it is such a desirable tale to retell in so many fashions, but one thing that remains certain is that Momotaro’s importance to Japan as a character of resolute and justifiable actions solidifies his place for the country and its people for many more years to come, and will continue to greatly influence many works as the prototype “hero’s tale”.

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