Author Archives: matthewilkins

Know Your Enemy and Know Yourself

Know Your Enemy and Know Yourself

Momotaro is one of the oldest and most beloved characters in Japanese culture. Passed down from a time before written history, Momotaro has become “a central figure in Japanese moral education” (Gerow). The story begins with an elderly couple finding an enormous peach floating down a river. The peach opens up to reveal the child Momotaro whom they raise as their own. Momotaro grows into a strong adolescent and leaves home to battle the oni who are tormenting the people of Japan. The story of Momotaro has been told countless times in numerous forms. This paper will analyze three instances of the Momotaro story. In both Iwaya Sazanami’s “Momotaro” and The National Diet Library Newsletter’s “Momotaro,”  the story is told with a combination of text and illustration. In Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the story is told as a cartoon battle resembling the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. All three versions vary in their specific detail, but they all share one important detail. Every version of the Momotaro story clearly differentiates good from evil by depicting the benevolent and courageous characteristics of Momotaro and his retainers in direct comparison to the cruelty and cowardice portrayed by the oni.

The protagonist in any legend is meant to be an ideal representation of humanity. Momotaro is no different; he provides the Japanese people with a hero who is strong, skillful, and dutiful. Momotaro is always depicted as a powerful young man by having him wear a military uniform (Seo) fine clothing (Sazanami 39), or armor (Goro).  He is portrayed as a skilled warrior s with a sword always at his side (Sazanami, Goro, & Seo). While he is depicted as being capable of personally fighting the oni (Goro 4), his ability to command others is emphasized in each version of his story. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Mitsuyo Seo has Momotaro assertively lay out the attack plan to his squadron as well as the audience (Seo). Throughout the film, Momotaro maintains a vigilant gaze over his men as he leads them to victory (Seo). As true leader, Momotaro knows the strengths and abilities of each of his warriors and utilizes them in the most efficient way. Sazanami has Momotaro send the pheasant to scout the Oni’s fortification (33) while Seo’s Momotaro tasks his monkeys with climbing on top of one another in order to destroy the oni’s airforce (Seo). Momotaro’s familiarity with his retainers and his ability to command them decisively causes him to be respected and loved by his followers.

Along his path to fighting the oni, Momotaro came across three strong warriors: a spotted dog, a monkey, and a pheasant (Sazanami, Goro, & Seo). Momotaro was confronted and challenged by each of his retainers as he journeyed toward Demon Island, but he was able to win each of their loyalty and friendship with by offering them one of his prized millet dumplings (Sazanami & Goro). The dumplings are used to represent loyalty and affection in the stories of Momotaro. The retainers show complete faith in their leader Momotaro in all versions of the myth, and they also develop a strong camaraderie with one another. Sazanami writes that the dog and the monkey were enemies prior to encounter with Momotaro (Sazanami-26), but with the guidance and example of a strong leader, the once-enemies can become allies and even friends. Mitsuyo Seo portrays this friendship by having the dog and the monkey embrace one another after the monkey risked his life to save civilians from accidentally being killed by a rogue torpedo.

            In that scene of Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, a torpedo is accidentally launched in the direction of a civilian area; the monkey selflessly dives from the plane and redirects the missile to its appropriate target (Seo). This is a perfect example of how the Momotaro story expresses the importance of generosity and kindness for one to be on the side of good. Mitsuyo Seo shows this again when the monkey and the dog rescue a baby eagle who gets stuck on the wing of their plane. The whole reason that Momotaro and his retainers are engaged in their righteous battle is for the sake of the people of Japan. Momotaro leaves to defeat the oni only because of the harm that they are doing to Japan (Sazanami 18), and once the oni were defeated, the heroes immediately go about returning the stolen treasures to their rightful owners (Goro 5). In order for one to truly do good in the world, it must be done for the sake of others.

            In one scene of Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, a monkey gets stuck in the hatch of a demon bomber plane that is about to explode; when another monkey notices the situation of his comrade, he takes careful aim and with one shot frees his friend from certain death (Seo). Strength and skill are vital attributes to a good warrior. Momotaro and his retainers are all armed with high quality weapons (Sazanami, Goro, & Seo), they work hard to keep them pristine (Seo), and they know how to use them with deadly precision (Sazanami, Goro, & Seo). The Momotaro story is depicting the importance for a warrior of good to be constantly vigilant and prepared to go to battle. When they go to battle, they must be able to do so skillfully. As with the scene from Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Iwaya Sazanami also shows the exceptional skill of the retainers by having the pheasant defeat each of his opponents by easily dodging their blows and killing them with a single strike (Sazanami 35). Good warriors need strength as well as skill. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, a dog and a monkey obtain strength directly from eating millet dumplings, and the audience witness as in popeye-like fashion their biceps grow from the dumplings powerful nutrition (Seo). In the literature, the strength of the retainers is shown in their armor (Sazanami & Goro).

            The physical appearance and clothing are distinct ways of differentiating good from evil in all the various Momotaro telling’s. Whereas the retainers wear sharp military uniforms (Seo) or battle armor (Sazanami & Goro) and carry well maintained swords and pistols, the oni walk around in loin-cloths (Sazanami & Goro) or mismatched uniforms (Seo), and they fight with clubs (Sazanami & Goro). This shows that the oni are disorganized, and that they don’t care about their appearance. This lack of concern is emphasized by Sazanami when one of the oni doesn’t bother to arrange is loin-cloth before attacking the pheasant (34). In contrast, the dog in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle takes specific care to make certain that his headband is on properly before going into battle (Seo).

            The oni don’t care about their appearance, nor do they place any importance upon their battle preparation or discipline. Depicting this perfectly in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Mitsuyo Seo has the first oni that the audience gets a glimpse of sleeping against handle of a broom. This total lack of discipline and preparation is further shown when Seo has the oni sailors running around confused in all directions during the attack. To contrast this,  Seo has all of the maneuvers and formations of the animal retainers done with proficient straight lines and coordinated teamwork. All versions of the Momotaro story exemplify the ineptitude and the cowardice of the demonic  oni. In the National Diet Library Newsletter’s “Momotaro”, the oni are illustrated cowering in fear or running away from battle (Goro 4), in Sazanai’s “Momotaro”, the oni’s attacks are easily dodged and they are killed with ease (35), and in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the drunken oni commander has bottles of alcohol falling out of his pockets as he whimpers and cries, never actually engaging in the battle raging around him (Seo).

            Cowardice and selfishness are innate characteristics of the oni. In an attempt to bolster his courage in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the commanding oni quickly drinks a bottle of alcohol in a scene directly mimicking the earlier scene of the dog and monkey eating the millet dumplings; instead of developing muscles and courage, the drink merely causes the oni to fall down and flail like a drunken fool (Seo). The bumbling fool of an oni then runs around the ship haphazardly not caring who he runs into or knocks down (Seo). This shows how the oni have no respect for anyone, whether enemy or ally, and that they are completely shelfih. In Sazanami’s “Momotaro” the oni mock the pheasant for being small (34), in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle the oni commander forces several of his comrades out of a lifeboat in an attempt to save himself (Seo), and one cannot forget the treachery, thievery, and people eating that spurred on Momotaro’s campaign from the start (Sazanami & Goro).

            It is vital in life to distinguish good from evil. In battle, it is necessary to differentiate between ally and enemy. The tale of Momotaro has become a guide for doing just that. Each version of the Momotaro myth clearly depicts the characteristics of the good Momotaro and his retainers the dog, the monkey, and the pheasant as well as those of the evil oni. Wwarriors on the side of good are strong, skilled, compassionate, prepared, respectful, and ruthless when it really matters. Warriors on the side of evil are weak, selfish, crude, incompetent, and cowardly. The three interpretations of the Momotaro story examined in this paper each demonstrate the characters of good and evil in their own way. Even in their vastly different tellings of the story, however, all three still manage to demonstrate the clear cut distinctions of good and evil that are definitive of the legend of Momotaro and his battle against the oni.




Works Cited

Goro, Arai, and Shuppan Koyosha. Momotaro. 1951. Illustration. National Diet Library    Newsletter, Osaka. Web. 15 November 2013.    <;.       

Gerow, Aaron. “Film Comments of Momotaro’s Sea Eagle.” Pamphlet from DVD. (2007): 10.       Print.

Sazanami, Iwaya. “Momotaro” (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1938). 9-40. Print.

Seo, Mitsuyo, dir. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. Art Film Production, 1942. Web. 15 November 2013.




A Field of Change


At high noon they come. These two cowboys have come to fight. They fight for pride, they fight for the woman that they both love, they fight for the honor of the old West, and they fight for ramen. In this scene from Itami Juzo’s 1985 classic “Ramen Western” Tampopo, we see the pinnacle of the struggles of our protagonists as their final obstacle is conquered. The scene is established with a long shot showing the movie’s hero Goro in the midst of a fist fight with Pisken, a drunk who was pit against Goro in his efforts to help the title character Tampopo from the very beginning. As we watch these two warriors battle it out punch by punch, the camera slowly pans out into an extreme long shot portraying the two fighting beneath a major highway interchange with a train line running in the background. As the two continue their duel, cars pass overhead and we begin to wonder about the true scope of their fight.

            This shot is very perfectly planned out in true mise-en-sine style. At first, we see the two cowboys fighting in a grassy field with old dilapidated fencing surrounding them. This gives a strong sense of the rural setting of the old West. This is beautifully juxtaposed by Itami when he pulls back to open the view to the very centralized urban setting where the fight is actually taking place; he is able to achieve this instantaneous transition from rural to urban in one beautifully planned, positioned, and uncut take.

            The dialogue in this scene is minimal; Itami intended for the visuals, the sounds of the fight, and the sounds of the world around them to tell the story. Throughout the scene we hear only the grunts and intermittent smacks as Goro and Pisken exchange blows, and above them we hear the traffic as life in the rest of the city continues unaware of the struggle of the two men below.

            In Tampopo, Itami has used the idea of coming and going throughout. As with the different side vignettes fading n and out through the movement of the film, the general plot itself centers on this concept. Tampopo needs to let go of her old ideas, her old style, her old restaurant, and her old life. Pisken, who we find out has grown up with Tampopo, is the ultimate obstacle of Tampopo’s evolution. We first meet him when we meet Tampopo for the first time, and we learn that he has his own plans for the future of the troubled Tampopo and her restaurant. The first battle between Pisken and Goro sets up this struggle for change; the second time that the two meet on the battlefield ends that struggle. Due to their final fight, the two cowboys develop a respect for one another. In this one-on-one dance, they are able to understand that they both have the same goal. While they were going about it in completely different ways, they each truly want to help Tampopo improve. When the two men catch their breath, Pisken makes peace with Goro and becomes the final piece in the transformation of the restaurant; he agrees to remodel the interior.