Momotaro: Unity through Food and Common Knowledge

Momotaro (1938), the story of the Peach Boy, is a Japanese folktale that has been retold and passed down through generations. It is about a young boy who appears from a giant peach and is taken under the care of an old couple who lived by the mountains. The couple named the boy Momotaro, translated as Peach Boy, and raised him as their own child. At age 15 Momotaro journeys through the sea with his companions, the dog, the monkey and the pheasant, towards the land of Ogres and wages war against them to protect the people of Japan. Momotaro became a heroic symbol by defeating the ogres, returning all the treasures back home. This classic folktale has been retold such as in Arai Goro’s 1951 abridge picture book version with more visual images to tell the story. Momotaro, once a local figure and turned into a well-known national figure in Japan, has been applied to different situations in order to appeal and unify the masses. In films such as the animation Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), a propaganda film regarding Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, and Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary about the aftermath of mercury contamination on the people, Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971), both took Momotaro as the ideal leader to galvanize people in partaking in their cause. The use of millet dumpling in the folktale establishes a commonality between Momotaro and his followers which is the catalyst of the development of the relationship between them. It is the consumption of dumplings that provided them with strength to fight and it serves as a contract between Momotaro and his loyal servants. However, it is not only food that creates such unity, but also the use of the folktale in films such as Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Minamata that impels Japan as a nation to come together. Having something familiar such as the story of Momotaro, reminds people of Japan the values they regard as important and using that to work towards a common goal.

In Iwaya Sazanami’s 1938 version of Momotaro, Momotaro comes across the dog who offers his servitude and asks for a dumpling in return. Momotaro gives it half a dumpling as a payment for accepting the dog’s offer. The same thing happened between Momotaro and the monkey and the pheasant that comes a long his way. He gives them half a dumpling before proceeding their journey together to the Ogre’s Island. This interaction between Momotaro and the animals illustrates the authority Momotaro has over his companions. At first he threatens them of being killed if they get in his way, and later giving them half a dumpling. This establishes a clear distinction of the relationship between all of them, Momotaro being the commander, and the three animals being his loyal servants. The millet dumpling acts as a unifier because by accepting the millet dumpling, they have already agreed to the conditions that they must join Momotaro’s cause. In the 1951 version of this tale, this exchange was excluded from the picture book. Instead it illustrates Momotaro sitting along with the dog, monkey and pheasant, and “shared his millet dumplings” (Arai Goro, 3). Momotaro is depicted as friendlier compared to Iwaya’s version, because in the earlier version a barter takes place between Momotaro and the animals; half a dumpling in return for service. However, in this 1951 version, there seems to have more familiarity with their relationship. The picture book allows its readers to have more freedom in terms of interpreting the images illustrated. Since it can be interpreted in different ways, it is easier to take the story and put it in a specific context. In Iwaya’s version there is no mention of Momotaro physically defeating the ogres. It was his servants, with the orders of Momotaro, who defeated them. On the contrary, in the 1951 version Momotaro is illustrated fighting the ogre (Arai Goro, 4). Even though both stories slightly differs from each other, it is the dumplings that provided them with strength, bringing them all together.

The use of the Momotaro folktale in other media such as an animation film, stimulates a sense of nationality among its viewers who are familiar with the tale. The 37-minute feature film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943) directed by Seo Mitsuyo, is a propaganda film to support the Japanese home front’s victorious attack on Pearl Harbor during the WWII in December 1941. Targeted to a younger audience, the film uses Momotaro as Japan’s hero against the Americans because it is a character that children recognize. It can be seen that the soldiers are cute, delicate little critters that are generally loved by children, making it easier to appeal to them. For this reason, Momotaro and his army naturally becomes the good guys and whoever opposes them are the bad guys. Similarly, Momotaro whose built and voice is still very much like a child, still exudes bravery and competent leadership thus influences its younger viewers’ perspective in that they too, like Momotaro, can have the power to lead a nation like Japan. Being unfamiliar with the folktale may not necessarily hinder someone from understanding the film’s plot, but perhaps familiarity with it can bolster the sense of nationalism. Assuming that the viewers of this film are all familiar with the context of Momotaro, it can help unite them simply because of the established knowledge about the folktale. Having a common knowledge and agreement about something can strengthen the unity of a nation. As a result both children and adults that viewed the film may feel stronger towards Japan because it is their national hero, Momotaro, that lead to Japan’s victory. In both the film and Iwaya’s 1938 version, Momotaro embodies the idea of Japan’s emperor. Momotaro possess the characteristics of an emperor, commanding his soldiers and leading his nation to victory. He may have not physically taken part of the war in both text and film, but he oversees what was going on and as shown in the film, as he gives commands to everyone on board, the animals listens attentively with confidence for their leader. The animal soldiers also possess the ideal nationalist ideology; to sacrifice one’s self for the better of the country. By having Momotaro play the role of the leader during WWII, children will want to embody his characteristics and serve Japan.

The film preserves some of the folkloric elements of the tale such as the animals manifested with human qualities. Seo explores these qualities further in the film by showing the dog’s and the monkey’s interactions with each other, such as the scene when the dog and the monkey were playing with jenga on the plane, teasing each other. This comedic relief alleviates tension in what is supposed to be a heavy topic of war. These simple interactions accentuates their human qualities making them that much more relatable to its young viewers. Such display of these qualities influences children to strive for such qualities to make their nation proud. The film also incorporates a well-known character, Bluto, from an American cartoon called Popeye the Sailor Man. Since Popeye was a well-known cartoon show in Japan during that time, children can immediately detect Bluto as the bad guy. Furthermore, one scene shows one of the monkeys eating a millet dumpling, and flexes its arm to show its muscles gained from eating it, similar to how Popeye eats spinach for strength. This reference to Popeye enables children who are familiar with the cartoon, draw a connection that Bluto is the villain, Popeye is the hero. This makes Momotaro’s side the protagonist because his soldiers had to eat dumplings for strength just like how Popeye has to eat his spinach. This boosts Japan’s national unity because there is a common enemy recognized by many. Knowing where the villain originally came from is not essential in identifying who the evil side is, but it helps viewers recognize the connection instantaneously. Moreover, it is good to note that even though the American’s are portrayed as humans in the film, they lack the human characteristics that the animal soldiers possess. It serves as a juxtaposition between the two sides, depicting the Japanese side as more human like and competent during war, naturally making them better than the Americans. The Americans were dehumanize and are portrayed as drunkards to justify Japan’s view that the Americans lacked leadership and are incompetent on defending themselves. In addition, the alcohol consumed by the Americans serves no benefit to them unlike Japan’s dumplings. The overconsumption of alcohol and portraying Americans as drunkards, reiterates the idea that American soldiers lack cooperation with their comrades on board. It is possible that Bluto was used as the ‘leader’ for the American’s side in the film in order to send the message that even though the Americans are big and rugged compared to the tiny animals, they lack the clever wits of the Japanese. No matter how physically strong you are, it is no match against intelligence.

The use of the folktale of Momotaro in different mediums echoes what characteristics and morals the Japanese value. As a folktale, Momotaro is timeless. Its events took place a “very, very long ago” (Iwaya, 9), with no specific location. This allows the story to be transferred to different times, and still be relevant to what is taking place. Going back to the film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the application of the folktale in this propaganda film extends Japan’s bushido ideology of honor and bravery. In the folktale, Momotaro and his servants displays the way of the warrior to save the people from the Ogres. These same values are applied during the time of WWII and reinforced repeatedly in the film creating a national agreement of “us versus the other” and sends this message to future generations. A scene from Minamata (1971) directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, shows demonstrators of people who were affected by the minamata disease gathered at a train station in Osaka to protest against Chisso Factory. One of the spokesperson alludes to the island where the “blue and red ogres” (Tsuchimoto, 1971) dwell, whom they must confront and defeat. By taking Momotaro and applying it in their cause brings the people together because they each assume the role of Momotaro, and the factory as the evil Ogres. Or perhaps the spokesperson can be seen as Momotaro, and the rest of the demonstrators as the servants, all aiming at one goal. The people voicing out their complaints against the factory enhances our understanding that Momotaro has the values that are important to the Japanese. In order for these demonstrators to succeed they must display the same courage as Momotaro did.

The formation of communities in both Goro’s and Iwaya’s interpretation of Momotaro folktale is rooted from food. The same can be said in Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, where it explicitly shows community building between the animals and juxtaposes it with the lack of community on the American side. By taking this well-known tale and applying it to a real world dilemma in Minamata exposes the injustice faced by its people, and pushes them to come together and fight. The development of small relationships can lead to the growth of bigger communities.


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