Mitsuyo Seo, “Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors” (1945)
Japan’s first full-length animated movie is a World War II propaganda film aimed at children and centred around a young boy Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) and his animal friends who represent military sailors. The film is available for viewing on Youtube.com though there are no English or other language sub-titles. Non-Japanese speakers won’t find the movie hard-going anyway as it features music and singing and there’s no over-arching plot. The film’s aim is to instill love and loyalty for Japan and belief in its military invincibility and inevitable victory over British and American forces. The importance of the group over the individual is stressed and collective action based on absolute obedience and loyalty is preferred over individual action which the film suggests can cause a person to go astray.
What plot exists is very loose and falls into three parts that are related only through shared characters. The film-makers’ grasp on history, geography and sociology is precarious. In the first part Momotaro and his sailor friends are on leave and visiting their families. A young child gets lost chasing a runaway sailor cap and its life is in danger. The sailors and others in their community hear a rescue call and rise as one to save the child. In the second part Japanese naval forces take over a tropical island where they are welcomed by the natives who are represented by exotic species of animals; the sailors build an airbase and take time to teach the locals their language and culture. In the third part of the film the Japanese invade islands in Southeast Asia from the air and force the British overlords there to relinquish control. After parachuting to the ground and ambushing a tank together, Momotaro takes charge of negotiating with the Brits while his friends take notes.
The animation is very uneven: the main characters of Momotaro and his friends (bear, monkey, cat, pheasant) are drawn well with bodies and limbs in correct chubby proportions. Their faces are usually serene and confident with shining eyes though creepy lipsticked lips don’t always syncrhonise well with speech. Momotaro resembles a plump-cheeked kindergarten-age boy straight out of old Chinese Communist propaganda posters. The animals that represent the Pacific Islanders are all very cute and include creatures not usually native to the Pacific islands: elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, squirrels, bunnies, small wildcats and kangaroos all co-exist happily. Perhaps lacking high-order predators like lions and tigers among them gives the folks that open and hospitable attitude towards the invaders. The animals’ portrayal varies from cute and sweet for small critters to rubbery and comic for the crocs and elephants which could have come straight out of old 1930s cartoons. Just as rubbery, dated and definitely caricaturish are a trio of three adult monkeys who look and act suspiciously like 1930s blackface minstrels and the British who are shown as lacking in discipline, cowardly and spineless. Against backgrounds that look solid and almost three-dimensional and the fairly detailed depictions of machinery, the variable standard of animation means the film doesn’t have a distinctive visual style.
Whatever comedy exists in the film seems forced and the songs have been written and played to urge singing along by children. No point in preaching to audiences unless they can be pushed to participate in the message!
The film plays hard and fast with the history and geography of Southeast Asia and its colonisation by Europeans. Most likely the islands “freed” by Japan in the third part of the film aren’t a specific reference to Singapore but representative for eastern Asia and the western Pacific region. Parts of the plot are cut off unexpectedly and the film never returns to them. At the end of the film various small animals practise parachute-jumping onto a map of North America; the implied message is that Japanese domination of the entire Pacific region amd beyond is the next step. Given that when the film was released Japan had already been retreating from US-led forces for two years, and the country was in dire economic as well as military straits, the message is desperate and shrill.
Viewers may note the tone of the whole film can be strident: the pace is steady and fast, the story trajectory is onwards and upwards, and the animals obey orders and act promptly and efficiently without hesitation. The portrayal of some animals as rabbits has an unintended and slightly amusing suggestion of cloned conformity especially in scenes where they prepare the airfield for military planes to land and to take off with almost pre-programmed foreknowledge. A message of unquestioned obedience with one’s heart, mind and soul being at the service of the nation, its government and emperor is strong. Characters might pause only to look at photographs of loved ones and realise how much they miss their families but that’s the only kind of reflection and character development allowed here.
Not a film I’d recommend for children until they’re of an age to understand how seductive and inviting propaganda can be and the different forms it can take to persuade people to adopt particular beliefs and actions.