Author Archives: gloriaxch

Momotaro: Friendship and Family

While Japanese children are growing up, most will have heard the tales of the peach boy, Momotaro. Although there are many variations in the story, the essentials are the same: Momotaro rallies animal allies to help him defeat the demons that are terrorizing Japan. Children know Momotaro as a charming, charismatic hero who goes on a journey with a monkey, dog, and pheasant. In 1943, Japan’s first animated film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, was released. While referencing a major folktale, this anime leads us through the story, not by focusing on Momotaro, but by developing the camaraderie and bonds between the animal soldiers. Through friendship and food, the animal soldiers bond and create a makeshift family to get them through a difficult situation. Although both the anime and folktales encourage similar values of cooperation, hard work, and courage, the community of the anime is held together by closer ties and bonds, in contrast to how the community in the folktales are held together by Momotaro.

Momotaro has a differing image between the anime and the folktale. Even though he always retains his role as a leader, he is portrayed as two different kinds of leaders. In the many versions of the Momotaro legend, he is shown as an engaged leader, leading his animal allies straight to the enemy and fighting alongside them to bring down the demons. Yet in the animated film, he always seems to be at the sidelines, commanding and giving orders while watching over the situation with a pensive attitude. Both versions of him show his abilities as a leader, but his authority comes across to the audience in different ways. Brash and dominating Momotaro from the folktale clashes with the calculating and calm Momotaro from the film, who gives the spotlight to the animals.

Throughout the film, the camaraderie and friendship between the animals are firmly established. In an early scene where the dog attempts to put on his hachimaki, his monkey comrade laughs and taunt his friend as he demonstrates the correct way to wear the hachimaki. With the help of humor, it is immediately evident from the scene that these two are close friends who maintain the façade of a rivalry in which they joke around and enjoy each other’s company. Later on in the plane, the dog tries to build a tower of blocks, but the monkey tries to correct him yet again and shows him how to properly build a block tower. When he succeeds in building the tower, the monkey smirks in satisfaction while the dog fumes. The plane suddenly jerks and knocks over the tower, rousing the dog to laugh hysterically. This scene further cements the friendship between the dog and the monkey. There is a sense that these animals have been through many adversities together, and have come out with this close bond. As the rabbits watch the other animals depart on their planes, they wave enthusiastically, showing their concern and wishes for their comrades to return safely. In another scene, as a group of monkeys are fleeing an explosion, a fellow monkey gets his tail trapped by a door; unable to leave anyone behind, another monkey looks back and shoots the tail of the trapped monkey, allowing him to escape. This scene is undoubtedly comical, yet we can see the unity among the soldiers. The humor and cuteness interweaved throughout the movie serve to make the characters more endearing to the audience, making us feel more attached and concerned about this family-like group of animals who are risking their lives.

Smugly, the monkey demonstrates the correct way to wear a hachimaki.

Smugly, the monkey demonstrates the correct way to wear a hachimaki.

The monkey angers the dog with his arrogance when he successfully builds the block tower.

The monkey angers the dog with his arrogance when he successfully builds the block tower.

Using some simple foods, the bonds between the soldiers are further highlighted. Millet dumplings, which play a key role in the folktales, makes an appearance in the film to provide strength and confidence to the soldiers before they enter the fight. By giving them muscles, literally, and being a commonality that all the soldiers are able to share and find comfort in, the animals are able to come closer and attain greater unity. This humble Japanese snack which the targeted audience can easily recognize and identify with reinforces and supports the image of the animals as a group of close companions fighting for a single, honorable purpose. Another simple food that appears is the onigiri, which the animals enjoy at the end of the film in celebration of the safe return of the troops. After successfully completing such a large mission, there are no lavish celebrations, just a group of friends who rejoice over simple, modest rice balls. There is no need for anything extravagant because these animals are simply happy in knowing that their friends and companions are all safe and sound.

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The monkey who has returned safely celebrates with onigiri as he picks off the crumbs from his face.

Millet dumplings are utilized by Momotaro to his advantage in the folktale. As he meets each animal along the way, he offers the dumplings, which his parents made for him with love and care, as a bribe for them to come along and help him in his quest. In these situations, Momotaro’s headstrong and obstinate nature become apparent as he threatens the animals to accompany him. Momotaro declares “there will be no mercy” (24) for anyone who tries to hinder him. The animals accept his offer because they are in awe of him and his authority and also need the food for sustenance. The dumplings are used by Momotaro as a reward and as a way to keep his control, depicting him slightly as a bully, which contrasts with how food is used in the anime. The anime seems to allude to these instances by using the millet dumplings in a different way. When trying to comfort a lost baby eagle that has landed on one of the planes, one of the monkeys pulls a toy plane out of the millet dumplings bag instead of actual dumplings. With this single plane, the soldiers gain an important ally in the baby eagle’s mother, who swoops in at the end of the film to save soldiers who are plummeting into the ocean. The toy plane, which references the dumplings of the original stories, is used by the monkey in a kind and gentle way to comfort a despairing animal. The film is able to illustrate the animal soldiers in a more flattering light than Momotaro is portrayed in the folktales.

Baby eagle is comforted by the toy plane withdrawn from the millet dumplings bag.

Baby eagle is comforted by the toy plane withdrawn from the millet dumplings bag.

While the folktale version of Momotaro left home for his journey and later returned home again to his parents, there was no apparent family unit in the anime. Yet the values of family were not absent from the film. The soldiers under Momotaro may not be family, but they all act in support of each other, rooting each other on and anticipating their return home together.  At the end of the day, these animal soldiers have forged a bond arguably stronger than of that between Momotaro and his parents. The animals leave the ship and also return to the same place, reunited with the other members of their crew. It’s possible to consider that ship their home, at least temporarily. Through the pair of friends who tease each other playfully or the rabbits that cheer for the rest behind the scenes, it is clear a family has formed. Although the folktale is centered around Momotaro, the bond and community built between the animal soldiers in the film is what cohesively holds the story together.

Rabbits from the crew wait in worry and rejoice to hear that all soldiers are returning back safely.

Rabbits from the crew wait in worry and rejoice to hear that all soldiers are returning back safely.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is a wartime animated film targeted towards a younger audience, just as the Momotaro folktales are largely children’s stories. Yet the stories told by these two different media are not the same. The folktale works to build up Momotaro as the hero, who happens to be accompanied by these three animals, the dog, monkey, and pheasant. Momotaro is the protagonist of the story and Momotaro is the one who returns home with the treasure and glory. In the film, the story centers around the hard work of the animals, who work together to bring down the enemy. In the end, the story is about them and the family and friendships they have created.

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Momotaro: Unity Through Food

In the traditional folktale of Momotaro, a bag of millet dumplings made with care and love by Momotaro’s parents go a long way to helping Momotaro assemble allies for the fight against the demons on Ogres’ Island. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, millet dumplings play an equally important role as a symbol of comfort, warmth, and strength. These dumplings are used to bring people together. Unlike in the folktale where they are deployed by Momotaro as a way to attract allies, the millet dumplings in the anime are passed around by the animal army to help them through their mission of destroying Demon Island, which stands to represent Japan’s Western adversaries.

As the planes are preparing for take-off, one plane appears to be missing a monkey soldier. As the dog soldier searches for his comrade, the monkey runs up, grasping a bag of millet dumplings.

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“Millet dumplings!” This monkey urgently holds up a bag of millet dumplings to the departing soldiers.

This early shot in the anime establishes the importance of the dumplings. With his mouth open wide, the monkey clearly displays his panic and unwillingness to leave behind the dumplings. The monkey risks missing take-off just to ensure that they will have this food for their trip. With this early scene, it is foreshadowed that these dumplings will appear later to play a crucial role in the film.

Monkey takes a delicious bite of the millet dumplings.

Monkey takes a delicious bite of the millet dumplings.

Muscle springs from the arm of a monkey who has just eaten a millet dumpling.

Muscle springs from the arm of a monkey who has just eaten a millet dumpling.

Millet dumplings reappear to provide support before the war. With a bit of humor in the scene, a muscle springs from the arm of a monkey, due to the millet dumpling he has eaten. While the scene is certainly depicted to be one full of levity and comic relief to appeal to its young target audience, the scene also draws on the symbolism of millet dumplings. Before going on to fight, the animal soldiers find comfort, strength, and assurance in this simple, humble Japanese snack. In this way, we can see how food is often used as a source of strength to prepare people for upcoming difficulties. In a similar fashion, other traditional Japanese symbols and foods such as the hachimaki, koinobori, and onigiri are used in the anime to show unity and confidence among the animal soldiers, who represent the Japanese armies.

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To comfort the lost baby eagle that landed on his plane, this monkey pulls out an unexpected surprise from his millet dumpling bag.

Young eagle displays a face splitting smile as it forgets its sadness and is comforted by the toy plane.

Young eagle displays a face splitting smile as it forgets its sadness and is comforted by the toy plane.

In this scene, a toy plane emerges from the dumplings bag instead of actual food. The lost baby eagle that has ended up on one of the troop’s planes is in tears and wishes to return to its mother. After the monkey fails to cheer up this eagle by making silly faces, the toy plane is what finally brings a smile to the eagle’s face. While no longer directly using food, yet still referencing the millet dumplings, the toy plane that appears instead serves a similar purpose to that of the millet dumplings in the folktale. The plane that is used to comfort the young eagle lands the animal troops a very important ally, the baby eagle’s mother. Nearing the end of the mission, one team finds their plane in ruins, headed straight into the deep waters. While hanging on for their lives, they are saved at the last moment as the mother eagle swoops in for the soldiers and brings them to safety. No food is explicitly portrayed in these scenes, but the underlying idea is that the toy plane stands in for the millet dumplings as an object that brings security and relief to those in distress. While Momotaro offered dumplings to the pheasant, dog, and monkey that were in need of food, the monkey in the anime offers his toy plane to the infant eagle who was in need of some comfort. In the end, the plane contributes to Momotaro’s success of taking down Demon Island and guaranteed that all the troops returned back to the home front safely and without casualties.

As wartime propaganda, food in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles helps glorify the Japanese army, as the food in this anime is employed to unify allies, showing off a national identity, while providing support and reassurances to the soldiers. With the help of the millet dumplings, the audience is able to understand and identify with the animal army.  Although it now acts to benefit propaganda, food is a central part in this anime, just as it is in the original folktale.

Tampopo: Around the Dinner Table

Just a short vignette from the movie Tampopo becomes one of the most touching scenes. Juzo Itami introduces the inevitable and despairing theme of death, yet is also able to show how much happiness can be taken from some of your last moments. In this scene, a man hurriedly runs home to his wife on her sickbed. In a slight state of denial, he insists that she get up and cook him and their three children dinner. Without hesitation, this mother and wife cooks her last meal and watches her family eat her food exuberantly before she passes away.

This family enjoys their last meal together.

This family enjoys their last meal together.

Although undoubtedly one of the saddest scenes of the movie, the joy displayed by the family transcends the feeling of death. These last moments of happiness center on the pervading theme of the movie: food. Food is a way to connect, a way to show kindness, a way to feel a heightened sensuality; food is universal. The family in this scene decides to spend their last night together gathered around the dinner table, enjoying a delicious meal. This is certainly not how I think about spending my last day, yet the smile of the dying mother right before passing is undeniably genuine. The close up on the mother shows that her smile is one of no regrets. It’s enough for her to see her family happy. While watching this scene, I realize something that’s easy to forget when we all become obsessively immersed with our lives; some of the simplest, essential things such as a meal with family can bring the most happiness.

A humble smile, stemming from her joy of seeing her family enjoying her cooking.

A humble smile, stemming from her joy of seeing her family enjoying her cooking.

Some of my best memories of my dad are of the dishes that he’s cooked for me and my family. As food engages all of our senses, food becomes something incredibly memorable. Just cooking a meal for someone shows how much you care about them. The heart that goes into making food seems like it radiates out from the steam that escapes a dish. Feeling the heat hit my face gives me such warmth. As the three children devour their food, do they realize how much joy their mother must feel? This mother and also wife clearly cares so much about her family that she wants to cook food for them despite being on her deathbed. This scene from the movie shows how food can take care of people, how food nourishes people. Even after death, the father prompts his children not to cry over their dead mother, but to simply enjoy this last meal that she has painstakingly cooked for them. After his wife is pronounced dead, he digs into his bowl with a revived rigor. Even though the scene may seem slightly exaggerated, it only serves to highlight the importance of food as a way to show care, happiness, and bonding.

The next time someone cooks for you, I hope you can see how much love and care was put into the food. Simply enjoy it!