Momotaro, the Peach Boy, is a famous traditional teenage warrior figure in Japanese culture. His story depicts Momotaro, a divine creature who jumped out from a big peach found by an old lady, goes to fight the Ogres(Oni’s) with the help of his dog, monkey and pheasant fellows that he gathered along the way. In the end of the story, Momotaro returns with victory. The story of Momotaro is ubiquitously famous in Japan, and because of the popularity of Momotaro’s story, the image of Momotaro has been integrated, directly and indirectly, into various works. By comparing the animated film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and the documentary film Minamata: The Victims and Their World to the national version of Momotaro’s story written by Iwaya Sazanami, we can understand how folk tales can be manipulated to serve different political purposes by making audiences gain empathy toward the issues in discussion, and therefore gaining support and agreement from the audiences. Specifically, The folkloric characteristics of the story of Momotaro, such as ambiguous time period, ambiguous identity of characters, and inevitability of the presence of food and thus the impact of food, are important aspects for achieving this goal.
As a folkloric story, Momotaro doesn’t happen at a specific historical time; instead it is presented to happen merely “very, very long ago”. Even though this lack of specific time was certainly unintentional when the story was created, however, thanks to this ambiguity in time, later works can fit the Momotaro motif into any time period. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the story of Momotaro is fitted into the time period of World War II – more specifically, the Pearl Harbor Attack. By fitting in the Momotaro figure straightly into the animation, audience is tricked to think that since the battle of Momotaro is a glorious battle, then the battle in the animation, directly featuring Momotaro as the leader of the army, is also a glorious battle. The ambiguous identity of characters also play a role, enabling the anime makers to transform the small army into a large national army, while changing Momotaro’s image from a chunky, friendly boy to a solemn political leader. Because of the ambiguity of the characters’ identity in the original folk story, nobody would question the new enforced identities presented in the animation. Though the identity of the enemies, or the Oni’s, remain obscure, there are bold images and descriptions that indicate the enemy to be United States. For example, the enemy’s flag consists of stripes and stars on the left upper corner, which is incredibly similar to the national flag of United States; the enemy soldiers are all white figures, resembling Caucasian race; even the image of the island and the battleships are strikingly similar to Pearl Harbor and the ships there. What’s more, there are lines, such as “Blue demon, red demon, chase them all”, describing the American soldiers as the evil Oni’s, while
promoting how righteous Momotaro and his army are. By directly putting Momotaro’s story in the World War II setting, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles serves as a propaganda, educating Japanese citizens that the attack of Japan on Pearl Harbor is a righteous act.
Minamata the documentary movie, on the other side, fits the Momotaro motif indirectly into the time period in which Minamata disease wreaked havoc. In the movie, though none of the explicit Momotaro figure, the dog, monkey and pheasant soldiers are present, the spirit of the Momotaro story is subtly integrated, as the victims of Minamata gathers and goes on a quest fighting against the Chisso Corporation, the company whose factory mercury release contaminated food. The united victims resemble Momotaro and his army, and the Chisso Corporation resembles the Oni’s. A part of the movie records how victims go on a march to where Chisso Corporation locates, protesting and fighting for a responsible solution. This march represents the journey Momotaro has, and his fighting against the Oni’s in Sazanami’s Momotaro story. In fact, the Chisso Corporation is directly associated with the Oni’s, as one speaker during the march announces: “We have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell”. However, in Minamata, the allusion to Momotaro is not a filming technique, nor a technique for creating political propaganda, but a real-life application of the story since the film is a documentary. By making allusion to Momotaro’s story, the victims of the Minamata gain tremendous empathy and support from bystanders who are of course very familiar with the story of Momotaro, and these bystanders then join the march, or the “army of Momotaro”, to keep on fighting. In conclusion, by fitting the motif of Momotaro into different historical time periods and onto different characters and persons, different goals can be achieved, depending on the issue in discussion.
Other than the ambiguity in time and identity of characters, the ubiquitous presence of food in stories also show how folk stories, the story of Momotaro in this case, can be manipulated. First of all, food exists in every story. No matter if it’s a folk tale, a prose, or any other genre, as long as there is a storyline, there exists food. The ubiquitous existence of food makes the impact of food tremendously important in all stories. In this case, food serves as a power that unites people in all three stories.
Food in both Sazanami’s Momotaro story and the Momotaro’s Sea Eagles unite people by giving them strength, faith and making them loyal to Momotaro. In both stories, the millet dumplings are the food Momotaro gives to his animal fellows. In Sazanami’s Momotaro story, by sharing millet dumplings, Momotaro makes friends with dog, monkey and pheasant, and he resolves conflicts between them using millet dumplings as well. By using millet dumplings, Momotaro is able to create his small army, with his fellows respecting and admiring him, willing to fight for him. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, millet dumplings also serve similar purpose, uniting the army together as Momotaro’s soldiers.
However, the detailed indication of food is different between the Sazanami’s Momotaro story and the Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. In Sazanami’s Momotaro story, millet dumplings build a rather intimate connection – friendship, and loyalty due to admiration and respect. The monkey, the dog, and the pheasant and Momotaro are more like brothers than merely a political leader and followers, in the sense that they develop intimate relationship with each other, and the animals all respect Momotaro. Millet dumplings also resemble kinship in Sazanami’s story: when Momotaro is leaving home, the Old Man and the Old Woman, who take care of Momotaro as parents, carefully prepare the millet dumplings for Momotaro.This symbolistically indicates that the millet dumplings contain the power of love, and that’s why the millet dumplings can have such a cohesive force that binds the fellows together. With the power of love and kinship coming from the millet dumplings, Momotaro and the animal fellows become brothers and fight together. This brother-like relationship between the dog, the monkey and the pheasant is carried on in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, however with a new layer of meaning and indication, as the millet dumplings also posses a new layer of meaning. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the soldiers are also united by the millet dumplings like brothers, but not brothers in an intimate way, but rather in the sense that they are all sons of Japan, the motherland, and they all fight for their motherland patriotically. Instead of showing kinship and friendship, the millet dumplings in the animation represents nationalism, which is the power that ties all the soldiers of the army
together. What’s more, the millet dumplings shows great literal dietary support, contrasting with the terrible diets of the enemy: the army of Momotaro is energetic, passionate and brave eating the millet dumplings, while the enemies, drinking alcohol, are sluggish and cowardly, only able to run away. In one scene, a monkey soldier becomes ultra-muscular after eating millet dumplings – the allusion of Popeye the Sailor here is integrated to exaggerate the literal dietary power of millet dumplings. Meanwhile, one captain from the enemy side is
presented to be obese and drunk, unable to get up from the floor, with several alcohol bottles lying by him, indicating his drunkenness, and thus reflecting on the terrible diets of the enemy’s army. By giving a contrast between the diets of the two sides, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle advocates Japan as the righteous side while bashing the Oni’s – United States, in this case.
While food positively unite people together in both stories that directly reference to Momotaro, food, or contaminated food in specific, unites people negatively in Minamata: The Victims and Their World: victims suffered from Minamata disease the contaminated food unite to fight against Chisso Corporation. Even though food in Minamata is a negative factor, it still unites the protagonists in the story just like millet dumplings unite protagonists in the other two stories, and the protagonists go on a quest fighting against the “evil Ogres”.
With the national version of Momotaro’s story by Iwaya Sazanami as an original story to refer to, the animated video Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, and the documentary film Minamata: The Victims and Their World both manipulates the story of Momotaro by playing with the ambiguity of time and characters, and inevitability of the presence of food and thus the impact of food as a uniting power. By playing with these characteristics of the story of Momotaro, folk tales – not just the story of Momotaro, but all folk tales in general – can be manipulated to serve different purposes by making audiences gain empathy toward the issues in discussion, and therefore gaining support and agreement from the audiences.