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Tampopo’s Success

The "masters" enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

The “masters” enjoying the perfect bowl of ramen.

Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is a bubble era film about an amateur ramen chef, Tampopo, striving to cook the perfect bowl of ramen. Yet, it is more than that. Along with Tampopo’s main plot, interwoven vignettes demonstrate the various messages Itami conveys in his film: satire of the materialism during the bubble era, nostalgia of the past, the breaking barriers and the establishment of new ones, and the importance of food and its role in establishing bonds, among others. The film’s climax, the moment when Tampopo succeeds in her quest for perfection, encompasses all of those central themes.

The satire of the new materialism of the 1980’s, although not obvious, is present in this pivotal scene. Throughout the shot, there are many close-ups of Tampopo’s anxious face, clearly indicating how much her “master’s” opinion of her ramen means to her. She looks like she is about to cry; that is how important this immaterial judgment means to her. The alternating light and dark lighting as well as the orchestral music further create the tense, heavy mood. This significance of ramen, and food in general, throughout the movie contrasts sharply to the emphasis placed on material objects during the ‘80’s. As Japan moved forward to become a modern country, people looked away from the small things of the past and left them behind. However, Itami’s focus on the everyday miracle of food points out Japan’s gradual abandonment of its traditions and expresses nostalgia for the past.

Ironically, Itami’s film also encourages progress and the breaking of barriers while creating new ones. The various vignettes, such as the manners lesson and the gangster’s inventive way to enjoy food with his lover, demonstrate different aspects of culture. The success of Tampopo also illustrates the breaking of boundaries. The old homeless master notes at the end of the scene that he never expected a woman to become a noodle chef, yet Tampopo has done just that. This is also juxtaposed to the fact that all her “masters” are male. She has broken down an old traditional barrier and has become an independent, successful woman, creating a modern social norm.

However, Itami’s focus on food is not just to support incorporation of the past and future, but also to emphasize the importance of food because of its role in establishing bonds. Throughout the film, this theme is constantly apparent, from the homeless’ union over food to the gangster and his lover’s unusual enjoyment of food. This is also apparent in the snapshot. The bright lighting, as well as the close-up of Tampopo’s tearful celebration, clearly demonstrates the importance of this scene. All five men, all with completely different backgrounds- a trucker and his sidekick, a homeless man, a butler, and a thug- all have come together for the sake of ramen. In the snapshot, all men are doing the same thing: enjoying a delicious bowl of ramen.

Tampopo’s triumph in creating the perfect ramen is not just a private, personal achievement, but she also succeeds in creating a food over which strangers from infinite walks of life can come together and bond.

Tampopo Asks a Favor

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Tampopo goes to Goro’s truck to ask him to be her teacher.

The scene from Tampopo where Tampopo goes out to Goro’s truck to beg him to teach her how to be a noodle cook is the most important in the film, because it is the beginning of Tampopo’s journey to becoming a better chef and restaurant owner. It also highlights the level of importance that should be placed on Tampopo and Goro, with the use of low-angle and high-angle shots. In this particular screen shot, the high-angle shot looks down on Tampopo. This emphasizes her lowliness, which is important because Itami uses Tampopo to make a statement about the status of food. Tampopo is humble, like her ramen, and not afraid to ask for Goro’s help. The next shot after this screenshot is a low-angle shot of Goro, which emphasizes his importance in the rest of the movie. Although this scene is short, and seems simple, the cinematography helps viewers feel how much Tampopo wants Goro’s help, especially at the end of the scene when Itami chooses a closeup on Tampopo.

This scene is culturally significant because Itami’s female characters are usually more independent and powerful. By having his female protagonist be more meager, Itami mixes things up from what is expected from him, just like with the rest of the film. This scene connects both Tampopo and Goro to the ramen, when Tampopo says that meeting Goro made her want to become a better noodle cook. This connection sets the rest of the film in motion, and shows that food can connect people and form community, as Goro bonds with Tampopo’s son and the other men that help her. This scene shows an interesting form of intimacy – the intimacy between a student and a teacher, as opposed to the usual romantic confusion that would be happening at this point in other films.

Another cultural point is made through Itami’s highlight of Goro with the low-angle shot. It reinforces a common Western theme of male supremacy. Showing Tampopo’s inferiority is a way for Itami to set up the rest of the movie. At this point, nobody believes in her. Even the camera thinks she is lowly, while Goro is there to save the day. Tampopo is also connected to other characters, like the young employee in the French restaurant, through her portrayal as a humble creature.

Although there is no food in the scene itself, the moment when Tampopo asks for Goro’s help is the most important in the film because it shows the statuses of Tampopo and Goro, connects them to ramen and food in general, and helps readers connect to Tampopo through the use of emotional closeup.

Cook with Joy

Screenshot of Omelette Rice-Cooking

The homeless man is frying rice for the omelette rice dish. The speed of frying is so fast that the screen cannot really take it clearly in one frame.

In the movie Tampopo, the heroine, Tampopo, goes to a group of homeless men to invite their sensei to teach her cooking. During the invitation talk, a homeless man and Tampopo’s son, Tabo, sneak into a kitchen. The man cooks omelet rice for Tabo. The scene of making omelet rice is important because it is the first time the film introduces cooking as something desirable and joyful. Before this scene, Tampopo struggles with cooking and considers it as a way to make a living. The scene marks a turning point where Tampopo changes her attitude towards cooking.

The sneaking results in suspense, so that the audience are surprised by the next scene. This surprise can make a deeper impression on the viewers. When the homeless man and Tabo sneak into a door, the camera takes a bird’s-eye shot, reminding viewers of their identity as outsiders. The shot angle evokes viewer’s desire to look into the door. Thus, when a kitchen shows up on the screen, the homeless man astonishes viewers with his attempt to cook, which leads to more curiosity on how he cooks. Since the scene of the homeless man cooking is the consequence of the sneaking scene, the latter is an amazing start for the crucial part of the former.

As the man starts cooking, the entry of a guard and stealthy background music invoke tension, adding more spice to the cooking. The camera shoots the guard from the front with a slightly low angle. The approaching posture of the guard makes the music rhythm sound faster, causing accumulated tension.

In contrast, the man pays no attention to the risk of getting caught. The frame I choose is the scene where the homeless man fries the rice. It is difficult to keep everything in the pot, not to mention flipping the food in the pot. However, the homeless man does it calmly without hesitation. The screen is filled with a top view of the frying rice, focusing completely on the food and nothing else. This bird eye’s shot of the pot therefore fulfilled the audience’s mind with cooking. The characters and viewers all seem so captivated by the cooking that the guard is not important any more. The existence of guard sets off the concentration of the homeless man and viewers on the cooking. The situation that viewers are so immersive in the cooking scene demonstrates how much they enjoy the cooking, not to mention the homeless man himself.

The homeless group in Tampopo is so unique. Compared to the general definition of the homeless people, who have no home, and, in fact, have nothing, this homeless group do not need anything else, because food enlightens and enriches their life. They enjoy food, and they understand the art of cooking. On the other hand, Tampopo, in a better financial situation, is tortured by the disastrous soup she makes during her research on Ramen before going to the homeless men. At that point, she had no idea how pleasant cooking can be; cooking for her is only a way of making a living. However, things change after Tabo, returning from the journey of cooking omelet rice secretly, and Sensei, who teaches the homeless men how to enjoy cook, joins Tampopo. Hence, this scene is important as it changes Tampopo’s cooking ideology. Rather than merely cooking to make money and support life, she learn to cook with Joy.

Vibrator: Isolated in a Sea of Food

In the opening scene of Vibrator, food is featured in the primary form of pop cultural commodity. In the sequence, food represents pop cultural cliche, or corresponds directly to the protagonist’s social anxiety in relation to such cliches. Such immediate attention to food, and its associated consumer culture helps to quickly frame the protagonist as an outsider. It is this isolation, resulting from her inability to assimilate to the pop culture of her society, that enables her sharp criticisms. This isolation is nuanced by the almost threatening, and overwhelming presence of the collective food around her. This moment provides ample characterization; though it only encompasses the first couple minutes of the film, it helps the viewer to understand the protagonist, especially when she jumps into more spontaneous moments in the film.

The first few shots are quick, almost overwhelming skims across the supermarket, revealing shoppers and their prospective purchases. First a sea of magazines, panning over to curious customers, and refrigerated beverages in the background. A customer leaving, as another enters. A man on his cell phone walking past a section so quickly the camera cannot even identify its contents. And then a sign “WHITE DAY” and panning from one set of sweets to another, specifically shortbread cookies.

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The camera work, just like the narrator, exudes social anxiety. The quick movements and handicam could either be intended to establish the tone of the film or to express the literal visual perspective of the female protagonist. It isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps what’s essential is the distant relationship enabled by the camera between the subject and the food. All these items are merely evidence of a commercial culture she doesn’t identify with, and that feels alien, and intrusive to her. Furthermore, there are no closeups of any of the food. Each item is not presented as an individual, really, but only in relationship to other food or people. They’re only presented in groupings, in walls  of food items, in crammed shelves. This builds the feel of the protagonist being so overwhelmed, in this scene. Given the implications of the camerawork, how can she not be? There is a constant sense of motion around her, nearly disorienting; yet she cannot escape the presence of the food. The groupings also emphasize the social importance of food; it only has power, in this scene, due to the collective nature.

The scene continues to explore food as a primarily social aspect. The narrator contemplates the vapidity of consumer oriented holidays, like valentines day, prefacing with “Will your valentine buy you chocolates?” Here, the camera is zoomed very closely on her eye, reflecting the introverted nature of her contemplations. She isn’t connected to her surroundings when she says these things. She isn’t part of the valentines day phenomenon. She is clearly differentiating herself, speaking as an outsider. This “outsider” feeling continues into the next couple statements, with “Don’t buy into the chocolate makers’ marketing ploy, you morons.”. As she says this, other shoppers are briefly shown, interacting normally, with the camera framed conventionally around them. When the camera returns to her, she seems distant, with her back turned, almost silhouetted against the artificially lit rows of food. And indeed, the protagonist is distant; she, at this moment, will never understand the happiness most people find in the artifice enforced by popular food culture.

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Life begins at the Konbini

The film adaptation of Akasaka Mari’s novel Vibrator begins and ends under the harsh glare of late-night florescent lights at a convenience store.  I feel the convenience store (Konbini in Japanese) is an important marker of life in post-bubble Japan.  The stores are liminal spaces that act as a nexus for the instability of work and social life in Heisei Japan; the persons working at the store and the people producing most of the products available for sale work in a service industry that (for the most part) provides none of the traditional safety of lifetime employment in Japan.  The prepackaged food that the customers shop for also implies instability, either in the sense that the consumers are too busy to prepare and eat meals, or that they have no real place to eat; the latter is seen in the meal that Rei and Okabe share in the cab of his truck. The wrappers scattered around the space set the stage for Rei and Okabe unwrapping – or declothing – each other.  Not to belabor the metaphor of a disposable society, but the rate at which Okabe seems to shed jobs (or they shed him) and the drifting of Rei into the truck and out of her normal existence (of which the only evidence we see – other than in flashbacks – is the convenience store) seems of a theme with the ephemerality of the fashion magazines and cheap foods stocking the opening shots (one could also make the argument the processed foods and the wrappers that contain them are in no way ephemeral but contribute to a dystopian society of permanent trash, both in our digestive systems and on our streets, but I feel the movie is not engaging this aesthetic but rather one of easy disposability).

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It is notable that one of the final scenes in Vibrator takes place in a Shokudō (often translated as cafeteria, but here more of a small restaurant catering to travelers and truckers).  A restaurant on a highway would also definitely be marked as a liminal space, as it exists for travelers to come and go.  However I think this space, although liminal, symbolizes a type of stability that stands in opposition to the life marked by the convenience store.  The society that passes through the Shokudō is one in transit – on a continuum to and from certain fixed points, while the one passing through the convenience store is unrooted – in a state of constant flux. Rei and Okabe come to a measure of truth over their meal in the Shokudō, while the finale returns them to the front of the convenience store.  The shot composition is interesting here as Rei is stationary but there is movement all around her as the lights of the city flicker and car/truck headlights move in different directions. The final shot of Rei back in the convenience store holds static as she waits for her wine to be rung up, aligning her with the products in the store until the screen fades to black.

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Back in front of the Konbini as the city moves past

Food Has Consumed Us

Spirited Away is an animated movie that talks about a young girl named Chihiro stuck in a different world. The movie starts out by showing her family moving into a different location.

The image above is when the family has gotten lost while driving. As you can see from the image, trees, grass and rocks surround them. There are no sign of people or houses around, which is a sign that nature is telling them they are taking the wrong route. But yet, the Father continues to go further, which is a sign of curiosity. His curious leads him to this temple. Chihiro refuses to continue, but because she did not want to get left behind, she follows along. Evidently, his curiosity leads to him eating away at his stranded location.

The image above shows how greedy his father is and disrespectful. Greedy in a way that although he doesn’t know if the food tastes good, he takes several plates and fills them up with food. And both the mother and father are disrespecting and rude because they just eat without asking. The father thinks just because he has credit cards and cash, he can freely act like a King and get whatever he wants to eat. But in this different world, rules don’t always go his way. As a result, when Chihiro goes off examing the area and returns, her parents turned into hideous pigs- for eating too much.

Out of all the animals, the reason why they turned into pigs is because pigs can be the ignorant and foolish animals that we human encounter. Thus, pigs eat so much; they don’t even realize their capacity; that they should stop eating. Chihiro entered the spirited world and to save her parents, she has to obey by their rules.

Food and money play a huge factor in this movie. It is because of hunger that Chihiro’s parents continually ate and never stopped- until they turned to pigs. Also, in this scene (image below), No Face also known as the “rich man” is praised by everyone because he is rich. He had so much gold, that everyone would do anything to get some. Thus, they kept providing him with food and more food, as if it really does satisfy him.

In the scene below, we notice how Haku gives Chihiro some sort of triangular rice food to give her strength back. In the second image, she starts getting really emotional and eats two of them at the same time. This is a representation of how food can take away one’s sorrow. As long as she eats, she’ll eventually forget about what she is crying for/about.

Throughout the movie, there are multiple scenes that show food and wealth. Money can instantly change people’s perspective in many ways. And in this movie, it’s all about money. People would do whatever they can to get their hands on gold. As for food, food is what takes away people’s emotions. In the couple scenes above, I pointed out that food can take away people’s sorrow and to satisfy one’s need.

From my perspective I feel like the father caused everything that happened. It was not because he was the driver, but because of his curiosity. If he took the sign that nature was telling him, he wouldn’t have continued down the forest, reaching the temple. Instead, he would have U-turned and try to find his way to their new home.

The Effects of Food

Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away presents a world where magic exists and spirits dwell. A young girl named Chihiro stumbles upon the existence of this world where the wicked witch Yubaba is the supreme ruler. Here, Yubaba is the owner of the bathhouse which serves as a central location for spirits to congregate. When Chihiro’s parents eat the food of the spirit world and turn into pigs, Chihiro must work for Yubaba while finding a way to reclaim her parents’ human identities. Along this journey, it is the crucial that Chihiro remembers her own identity instead of the one that Yubaba bestows upon her in order to be able to return to the real world.

Throughout Chihiro’s adventures in Spirited Away, food appears to be of a central importance. Miyazaki affiliates the aspect of eating and the existence of food with happiness, power, and greed. The role that food plays in the film helps establish the circumstances that Chihiro encounters.

 Food is a source of pleasure. As is shown in the opening scenes where Chihiro’s parents are consuming a buffet of roasted meats and delicacies, the act of eating brings about a sense of happiness. Chihiro herself finds joy in consuming the buns that her friend Haku offers her. Moreover, the patrons of the bathhouse are served bento boxes and platters of alluring foods in an effort to make their experiences the most enjoyable.

Pleasure but loss of identity through eating

Through the existence of food, one is able to obtain power. When Chihiro’s parents devour the spirit world food, they allow Yubaba the ability to control their identities. In this sense, Yubaba has the power to decide whether they shall be returned to the human world or be kept as pigs to be slaughtered. On the other hand, the monster No Face gains power through the food that he is fed at the bathhouse in such a way that he is unable to be controlled by Yubaba. As the workers continually serve No Face with the hopes of being tipped with some of the monster’s endless supply of gold, No Face grows in size and strength. The food is the source of No Face’s power since he weakens when Chihiro feeds him food from the river god that makes him throw up all that he has eaten.

Purging river god of his greed

Accordingly, greed through temptation and consumption may arise. As No Face gains power from all the food he is served, his desire to consume is also growing. The presence of the bountiful dishes causes No Face to be relentlessly hungry. The greed that No Face acquires as he continues to eat manifests itself as a menacing depiction of a monster that refuses to stop his rampage until he is finally full and satisfied. Similarly, the river god that approaches the bathhouse cloaked in a reeking sludge appears as he does because of his overconsumption of misshapen objects. The temptations of all that the river god could consume led to his greed in eating all that he could. It is not until Chihiro dislodges a bicycle from his body that the river god is relieved of the consequences of his greed. In all, the effects of food and eating are ever present in this film.

Off, Off, and Away With the Spirits: Foods’ Importance in Life

The Japanese masterpiece, Spirited Away is about a girl, Chihiro and her adventure in a mysterious spiritual world.  In the movie, Chihiro is on a quest to free her parents from Yubaba’s control and possession.  However, while on this mission, Chihiro faces many obstacles, most of which were resolved and addressed with food. Thus, proving that food is not only a necessity in life, but it is the root of the character’s existence.

The story begins with Chihiro and her parents exploring the new realm beyond the mysterious tunnel.  Chihiro’s father smells something aromatic and pursues the delicious food, while his wife and daughter follow.  They eventually come across massive piles food, enough to easily feed 30 people.  Chihiro’s parents eat everything and consequently become pigs while Chihiro finds herself trapped in the mystical world.  Then enters Haku, who tries to help Chihiro survive and save her parents.

Haku tells Chihiro that she must eat in order to exist in the mystical world.

While trying to save her parents, Chihiro encounters situations that suggest that her very existence and identity in the spiritual world is completely dependent on food.  When Haku first meets Chihiro, he urges her to leave and escape.  The second time he sees her, Chihiro is disappearing, becoming more and more translucent.   He makes her eat telling her that if she does not, she will disappear and cease to exist.  The people of the bath house are also identified by what they eat, ergo proving that “you are what you eat”.   In a scene, the nonhuman workers of the bath house complain about Chihiro’s stench, disapproving of her existence in their world.  Haku quickly responds to the critism by telling them that she would smell like them after three days of eating their food.  As soon as she ate their food and smelled like them, she no longer received any criticism about being human.  Essentially, they have accepted her as one of them.

Chihiro feeds the wounded and sick Haku some of her herbal ball, inadvertently freeing him from Yubaba.

Chihiro also learns that food is liberating in almost all aspects of life.  After visiting her porcine parents, Chihiro feels as hopeless as ever, but tries to hold everything in.  She runs away from the pig pen, realizing that her parents no longer have any recollection of their human existence, and sits in the corner of a shrub. Haku then gives her food, and as she eats the rice cakes, Chihiro breaks down and expresses her true feelings.  Haku used food to help liberate Chihiro, but she returns the favor.  When Haku was sick and hurt, Chihiro fed Haku some of her magical herbal ball, unknowingly freeing him from Yubaba’s control.  Afterwards, he is able to remember his name, disobey, and do what he truly believes in.

Food plays a huge part in Spirited Away.  Food represents power.  In the movie, those who eat the most proved they are the most economically powerful.  A roasted newt is also able to be used as a power tool for bribery.  Food is not only representative of power, but it also symbolizes liberation, existence, and identity.  Food plays an integral role in life.

Vibrator: Information Overload and the Need to Be Loved

by: Natalie Jongjaroenlarp

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Okabe’s first physical contact with Rei.

The “talking” advertisement that explains why she needs to buy the product in order to look better.

In Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator, Rei travels around Tokyo with a stranger she unexpectedly meets at a convenience store on a whim. In her life, Rei has trouble trying to understand the world around her. Her main problem lies with how she processes the things that she encounters in her life. “Voices” in her head come from the environment around her. Because of this, she develops an eating disorder. For Rei, food is her defense against the information and “voices” around her that bother her. For instance, in the opening scene, Rei comes into contact with a “talking” advertisement that provides criticism on her physical appearance in an attempt to sell a product. Her eating disorder allows her to feel secure within the confines of society. She is insecure because she feels the need to conform along with society’s standards and expectations.

In addition, Rei has an alcohol disorder. She believes alcohol relieves her stress that stems from the voices that she wishes to escape. As the plot continues, she progressively learns more about herself and consistently questions her beliefs and opinions. For instance, she questions why women must get caught up in their physical appearances. She finds it unnecessary as men do not worry about such trivial things such as this. In her opinion, she states that she can only be herself and that is enough for her.

Her strong desire to fit into society is especially prominent in the scene where Rei has her first encounter with Okabe. It reveals the more sensitive side of her, which reflects her absolute need to be with someone and have physical contact with another person. The “vibrations” that Rei gets as Okabe walks through the door and looks at her are not only as a result of her phone vibrating in her pocket, but also the emotional attachments she establishes with him once she sees his face. This becomes increasingly pronounced as he walks toward her and lightly taps her on the back pocket of her pants. The sound starts off in a relatively slow rhythm and develops into full being as the scene continues. The sound coupled with the short, abrupt sequences that recite what is going on in her head, at each given moment, provide for an artistic scene that relates the barriers society puts up as a key element to which she uses to learn more about herself and the world in which she lives. It makes it realistic in the fact that what she chooses to say in her head is not expressed outwardly. The encounter, while staying true to the realistic aspects of the scene, is also equally as imaginative as a fantasy that could have easily been thought up by Rei herself. The camera angles also add to the realistic aspects of the scene because they follow the subject in naturally jerky motions. It is clear that the angles are not meant to be pristine and clear-cut, they are meant to assure the audience that what is happening on screen is a real encounter and not merely a figment of Rei’s imagination. The scene itself provides a good example of how Rei’s disorders are a result of her need to be loved and live in the free world as her own unique self.

The conflicts and restrictions that society provides are what cause Rei to take a chance to learn more about herself. She extends beyond the confines of her disorders and ultimately learns that she does not need to take what society considers “ideal” and make it a reality. For, there simply is no such thing as perfect.

A Prideful Entity

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle effectively portrays a unified Japanese force that appears almighty. This propaganda film is meant to instill nationalistic pride amongst the youth of Japan. By doing so, the director Mitsuyo Seo creates a sense of loyalty and obligation in young viewers to their country. The Japanese military can then play off of these childhood established mind-sets to enlist these viewers when they are of age to serve.

The animal soldiers are the primary example of how the Japanese population can be a united entity. Amongst the Japanese, there are people who live in different provinces, have different occupations, and hold different views on daily matters. Similarly, the soldiers have their differences in their animal species; the soldiers consist of dogs, monkeys, birds, and rabbits. As established in the folklore that this film borrows characters from, there are ever present tensions between the dogs, monkeys, and birds. And as is true in the story tale, Momotaro is the higher power that causes these animals to set aside their differences for the good of their task at hand. The animal soldiers are able to come together and work cooperatively; they willingly accept each other’s presence for the needs of their commander Momotaro.

Diversity amongst the soldiers

In this sense, Momotaro is a symbol for Japan. He represents the nation to which all of these animals will always find their commonality. The loyalty that the animals show Momotaro resembles the dedication and pride that they contain for their nation. By following Momotaro’s commands, the animal soldiers are helping show off their nation’s strength to the world. In this way, the mission to conquer Demon Island can be seen as a nationalistic promotion of Japan’s power to the world.

Moreover, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle effectively dramatizes a system of national ideology by displaying the Japanese flag in multiple scenes. By including images of the flag frequently, the film places an emphasis on the encompassing reaches of Japanese nationalism. In support of their nation, Momotaro and all of his followers adorn their headbands with the Japanese flag. These headbands are representative of a constant reminder for why the soldiers are undertaking their current mission. They also demonstrate the pride in which Momotaro and the soldiers have in their country.

Presence of the Japanese flag

In observing the effect that this propaganda film has on young viewers, it is evident that children are being reminded that they too are a part of the Japanese nation. Hence, the film plants a seed of obligation and loyalty in the viewer’s mind. The children are stirred to action at a young age in such a way that there is a psychological connection formed between nationalism and their childhood hero, Momotaro. The advocates for the propaganda film then play off of the young viewers’ fanciful desires to follow in Momotaro’s footsteps and show the world the strength of Japan. Through Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, children are shown that together the diverse population of Japan can put aside their differences to do something great in the name of their great nation.