The image of Momotaro undergoes a transformation that is influenced by the changes that continue to be made throughout Japanese history. The classic Momotaro image originates from a popular Japanese folklore tale in which he is born from a peach and soon becomes a heroic figure of the land. As he becomes older he ventures to distant islands to defeat the evil oni and saves the creatures of distant islands alongside a group of animals he befriends throughout his journey. In these folktales, Momotaro is seen defending the distant islands form the demonic invaders alongside his friends to maintain peace within the island. Nevertheless, as these folktales continue to be passed on to other generations, the new issues that Japan faces calls for inverted images of this well-known character in films and propaganda to promote these issues. Although the character’s actions in these films may resemble the original folktale, there exists a hidden negative image of the character that creates doubts about how heroic Momotaro can be. Momotaro is manipulated into a hero that best suits the time period and the most inverted image of Momotaro can be seen in World War II propaganda.
The story of Momotaro is said to have originated as far back as the Edo Period which was a time of economic growth and balance since Japan had been recovering from instability and inner conflicts. The ideals of the people during this period can be found amongst this folklore tale in the actions and goals that Momotaro wishes to accomplish in the story as well as the beginnings of Momotaro. He is born from a peach which is symbolic of the prosperity of the Japanese empire during this time. In Japanese traditions, the peach represents longevity hence in this case Momotaro is the Japanese empire which was thought to be prosperous by the people and continued to be prosperous for many years. The boy’s attack of the oni symbolizes the past hardships which were overcome leading to a life of living happily ever after similar to the ending of the story. The reason for this success is due to his effectiveness as a leader when it comes to battle. Momotaro keeps full control of his group of friends by presenting them with millet dumplings but limits the amount he gives them as a means of asserting his authority. He manages to keep this group together by demonstrating that he is the clear leader of the group who not only leads but ensures his group is cared for, content, and respected. This method is representative of the means used to create balance in Japan. During this time there is one clear leader, the emperor, and the people are accepting of this social ranking because the people are maintained satisfied and at peace knowing there are no existing problems currently in Japan for the time being. Overall, the tale focuses on the idea of removing the impurities that pose a threat to the peace at hand similar to the changes that Japan made to bring peace to the land. Momotaro is the peacekeeper of the tale, but once World War II began, a more controversial Momotaro began appearing in films and cartoons such as Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.
Once World War II began, Japan began mass producing anti-American propaganda in support of the war. Films, cartoons, and all other forms of media reflected the hatred towards the United States using existing well-known icons of Japan such as Momotaro going up against typical American icons such as Mickey Mouse or Popeye the Sailor. In 1942, a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, an animated film called Momotaro’s Sea Eagles was produced as a Japanese propaganda film.In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Momotaro and his animal crew are at war with the demons of Onigashima and Momotaro must devise a plan to defeat these demons while ensuring his entire crew returns safely. The film follows the basic plot of the story in which Momotaro is destined to lead a group of animals to combat the evils that threaten an island and recover the treasure that is meant for the “good people”. The difference in the film and tale is that the demons in this film represent the Americans and the naval fleet used in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 whereas the demons in the tale symbolized the evils amongst a nation. Although Momotaro is once again represented as a hero of Japan, the measures taken to protect his country reveal the character to be more violent because rather than destroying ogres, he is now shown destroying innocent lives represented as villains. His motives also contribute to this negative image because he not only defends his country because the demons impose a threat to the country, but also because of the inexplicit hatred towards the demons.
In the film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Momotaro is the leader of the army and commands his soldiers to attack the demons of Onigashima which are shown to be American sailors on naval fleets. The sailors which are depicted by a more idiotic version of Bluto, a featured character of the American cartoon Popeye, appear to be helpless in the film. Nevertheless, the reason to attack these “demons” is never specified in the film imposing the question of whether or not the measures taken by the honorable Momotaro are morally correct. He is quick to lead an attack and destroy the villains until they are all gone because the film is a representation of the current war going on. Instead of creating a diversion that will cause the men to surrender such as in the story when he fights until the ogres decide to surrender, he continues to sink all the ships along with all the sailors on board. The idea that these are people being destroyed also contributes to the negative image because he is not dealing with supernatural beings that terrorize his land but rather humans which creates more tensions since it may be difficult to see men lose their lives in war. In the film, Momotaro continues to be the hero since he has saved the country from the Americans as desired by many during the wartime period. Yet the concept of war manages to generate the anti-hero image of this character because he is responsible for the loss of the men aboard the ships. At the end of the war he does not win any treasure that he can give back to his country as in the original story meaning he in reality has destroyed others for the satisfaction of knowing his country is dominant over the United States. Momotaro transforms from being a smiling, child-like heroic figure to a more mature, aggressive, and stern leader willing to do anything necessary to win this war.
Momotaro’s increase in authority in the anime accounts for the lowering of his heroic stature rather than making his image more valiant. In the tale, Momotaro unites with a dog, monkey, and a pheasant and fights alongside them as they recover the treasure of the good people from the ogres terrorizing the island. He exhibits his heroic qualities by sacrificing his life alongside the other animals for the common good and they are successful due to working together. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, rather than fly alongside the pilots of the planes and join them in combat, Momotaro is the leader giving specific orders to the crew but does not leave the ship to join his crew. Instead he gives the crew orders to follow and remains on the boat awaiting the full crew’s arrival after the mission is successful. The crew he has is much larger than in the tale yet here he does not take the initiative of deciding to be involved in the war. Therefore, rather than Momotaro be the hero of this mission, the true heroes of the mission are the monkey and dog pilots who risked their lives bombing the demon ships. Yet because this operation was made possible by Momotaro, he is still considered a hero by all.