Momotaro is a traditional Japanese folktale that has been altered with different iterations and representations across different time periods. As with many folktales, Momotaro transmits a “moral”, or lesson to the audience, advocating humble beginnings and a strong sense of community that seems to be the interweaving thread between the traditional tale and its succeeding adaptations. These lessons however, may also be molded and slightly altered from the traditional to produce a revised version of the story that better reflects the time period. Such is the case in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, an animated propaganda piece that is an adaptation of the traditional Momotaro folktale. In this case, the revision to the original tale can stand by itself as an animated short, but it is at the intertexual level that enhances the animation by giving the story context and offering a point of contrast that adds humor and poignancy.
Both the traditional folktale and Mitsuyo Seo’s film adaptation use food as a device to distinguish between the “good” and the “other” as well as play a crucial role in fostering a strong sense of nationalism. In the folktale, the bag of millet dumplings is used as the building blocks of community formation. Initially, the dumplings are a form of sustenance provided by Momotaro’s adoptive parents as he embarks on his journey to Ogre Island. Even in this sense the dumplings serve as a symbol of the relationship he has with his parents and the sense of familial and community formation is introduced. These millet dumplings continue to represent the development of unity throughout the story as Momotaro uses these as the means for assembling allies for the fight against the ogres. By giving each of the millet dumplings to the animals he encountered on his journey, Momotaro not only asserts himself as the inherent leader, but the millet dumplings are used to build a relationship and create ties. The food presented by Momotaro to the animals adopt the role of representing their unwavering loyalty to the cause as well as demonstrates Momotaro sharing his strength among his follower, illustrating the dumplings as a symbol of camaraderie and unification under Momotaro’s leadership. The use of the millet dumplings in this sense, determines food as being the central motif and symbol of community unification under a common objective of fighting for justice. The dumplings and the metaphor of the animal’s allegiance to Momotaro not only indicate a uniting factor but additionally it demonstrates how food serves as a symbol of national identity. Furthermore it indicates how these symbols can then be used to create powerful emotions among individuals and unite them under one common cause.
In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the motif of millet dumplings is preserved as these dumplings play an equivalent role as a symbol of strength and mirrors the sensibility of food as a means of unification. This is portrayed in the scene where the monkey consumes the dumplings that Momotaro has provided, gaining physical strength and a new capability to destroy the enemy. As the film is a propaganda device made during the war effort, its objective is to promote the idea of nationalism. The motif of millet dumplings successfully achieves this by distinguishing itself from Western culture and being distinctly Japanese. Furthermore, it can be interpreted as a metaphor of the reinvigoration of the nation as a whole because the depiction of the millet still holds the same sense of nationalistic pride and communal fortitude as portrayed in the original tale.
The sequence of the millet dumpling scene in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles parallels that of the spinach invigorating scene that appears all too many times in the Popeye animation series. In the same fashion that Popeye consumes his spinach, the monkey eats millet dumplings and he has the immediate response of enlarged biceps and a new strength to fight. The theme of unity through the depiction of food may not be as evident as it is portrayed to be in the original tale, moreover, it may seem as though the millet dumplings are portrayed in a way that merely demonstrates food as a from of sustenance. However, the use of food in the film still aptly displays itself as introducing the theme of unification through the ideas of “good” and “evil” and the association food has to each of these. The use of millet dumplings as being analogous to the use of spinach in Popeye also offers another layer of intertexuality and introduces to what extent Momotaro was inspired by the American animation. The extent to which Seo was influenced by or perhaps merely satirizing the American animation is important to note, as it highlights the extent to which the propaganda film had an impact on Japanese moral at the time. This apparent influence of the Popeye series is further extended as the enemy portrayed in the Momotaro animation is eerily similar to Bluto, the archnemesis of Popeye. This Bluto clone is the central character that represented the “oni” of Ogre Island as well as the American enemy. Immediately, the use of a character that has already been characterized as the “bad” in a popular American animation delineates the American enemy further as being the enemy and strengthens the national identity of Japan and Momotaro’s navy. Additionally, the use of food as a device to further distinguish this difference is evident by associating Momotaro’s navy with something as culturally specific as the millet dumplings, which are starkly contrasted against the alcohol that the American enemy consumes. This underscores Seo’s use of food as a device to foster national identity and pride as well as to distinguish the contrast between “good” and “evil” to foster the sensibility of solidarity against an enemy.
Not only is the use of food as a means of strength to defeat an enemy the similarities of the animated sequences, but the similarities also lies in the temporal and geographical locations of both animations. Popeye, though the character is by no means a nationalistic hero in the same sense that Momotaro is portrayed to be in Japanese culture, is still depicted to be an American Navy soldier and the animation is during a time of war, much like Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. Furthermore, the distinction between good and evil are directly associated with food and utilizing food in a way that strengthens the figure to defeat the enemy. Contrastingly, however, food used in the animations does not work in the same way in community building as illustrated throughout the renditions of Momotaro. The spinach used in Popeye also lacks the same effect of portraying the nationalistic pride that is incorporated in the adaptation of Momotaro and the use of millet dumplings. Food in the most fundamental sense is a form of sustenance as displayed in the Popeye animation series, while in Momotaro food is also portrayed as such, it is also symbolic gesture, more specifically, the millet dumplings in Momotaro serve as a metaphor to symbolize reward and power, and to emphasize its role as a unifier in face of a greater evil.
Although not all folktale revisions must be read with the traditional version in minds, they are all best understood when placed alongside the traditional texts. Seo Mitsuyo’s reinterpretation of the original Momotaro tale as well as his use of pastiche with his incorporation of the Popeye animations series delineate that the intertexuality adds substance to the analysis of the contemporary film, which reweave the folktale using the threads of the written folktale traditions. One such tradition includes the treatment of food and how it has been employed in both Seo’s animation and the traditional tale of Momotaro to construct forms of community and national identity. Both the film and traditional folktale of Momotaro demonstrate this use of food as a vital factor and motif of the community formation and ultimately a symbol of national identity and unification.