Momotarō no Umiwashi (1943)

Studio: Geijutsu Eigasha 

Country of Origin: Empire of Japan

First Screened: March 25th 1943

Momotarō the Peach Boy is a popular Japanese folk character who’s been round since the Edo period. Story goes, childless couple see a peach floating down the river, they open it up and inside is a baby who’s been gifted to them by Heaven. The boy grows older, goes on a quest, meets a monkey, dog and pheasant and they all team up to kick the asses of some local demons. It’s a really cool little fable, equal parts Moses, Superman, Wizard of Oz, you can definitely see why it’s remained so popular down through the centuries. And then, World War 2 had to come along and ruin everything.

Figuratively and literally.

American cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were hugely popular in Japan in the years leading up to the war, so the Imperial Regime wanted their own cartoon mascot. Momotarō was an obvious choice what with his cute, boyish appearance and cast of animal sidekicks. This led to series of films starring the character directed by Mitsuyo Seo who would go on to be one of the guiding lights of the animé industry after the war. The first of these films was the short Momotarō no Umiwashi  (“Momotarō’s Sea Eagles.”) I say “short”, but at 38 minutes that’s really taking the piss. Oh well, at least they didn’t stick it in front of a Pixar movie and make everyone watch it all the way through.

Disney: Worse than the Empire of Japan.

So the movie is a retelling of the original Peach Boy myth, with Momotarō commanding an aircraft carrier and dispatching Monkey, Puppy and Pheasant pilots to bomb the island of the demons, Onigashima.

Huh, looks a lot like Hawaii.
Oh.

So yeah, one of the reasons why this thing is so long is because they simply had to have the meticulously recreated bombing of Pearl Harbour using actual footage of the bombing. Oh, and Bluto from the Popeye cartoons is there as well as a stand in for America (not the only instance of Axis Powers using American cartoon characters as we shall see in the next review). And I have to say, kudos to the nameless Japanese voice actor who voiced Bluto because that is a damn good impression of Gus Wickie’s Bluto. That, or they just recorded a walrus eating a ham. Having bombed the “demon’s fleet”, our adorable war criminals return home but their plane has taken too much damage and they have to make a water landing. But fortunately, (or unfortunately) they’re rescued by the mother bird of a chick they saved on the way over to wake the sleeping giant. And the movie ends with Momotarō telling his army of critters that the enemy’s fleet has been destroyed and that it’s all gravy.

“Guys, there is literally no way this can come back to bite us in the ass. We have thought this through, believe me.”

The first thing that struck me is that this is not just a crude, tossed off piece of propaganda like, say, Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland. There is some real craft here. The opening scenes are evocative and effective, and the character designs are downright adorable with the notable exception of Momotarō himself who looks like the alabaster boy prince of nightmares.

He knows.

The short also completely avoids the mistake of Fascist Jackboots by giving the audience compelling protagonists. The Monkey and Puppy are genuinely adorable and are given plenty of comedic business and funny visual gags. Again, it feels like an actual cartoon rather than simply a work of propaganda. Which doesn’t change the fact that this whole thing is completely, um, what’s the word I’m looking for?

Oh yeah, evil.

Obviously, all propaganda is morally iffy and if I’m honest, even something like Der Fuehrer’s Face makes me a little uneasy. But Momotarō no Umiwashi is on another level not just because it’s propaganda for one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century, not just because of its jubilant depiction of an unprovoked attack that killed or wounded over 3000 people but because this short was created for and specifically aimed at children. This would be even more explicit in the short’s sequel Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei, the first full length animé movie. That movie, as well as presenting a sickeningly white-washed depiction of Japanese colonialism, ends with Japan achieving victory in the Pacific. The final scene is of children playing at parachuting onto a chalk outline of the United States.

The next generation being readied. For the next war.

***

 How’s the animation?: Poorly animated, but strikingly directed.

Art or Propaganda?:  Propaganda, excellently executed to a scary degree.

How does this rate on the Jingo-Meter?: Yeah, Imperial Japan is great and all and will bring all four corners of the earth beneath its benevolent tyranny but the short isn’t preachy about it. 3 Godzillas breathing atomic fire while bowing to the Emperor in front of a rising crimson sun out of 5.

What’s going on with the War?: In March 1943, Andrey Vlasov publishes “Why have I taken up the Struggle against Bolshevism”, explaining his defection to Nazi Germany, Erwin Rommel’s final battle in North Africa, the Battle of Medenine, ends in defeat for the Axis and Operation Spark, an attempt to kill Hitler with a bomb disguised as a bottle of booze, fails due to a faulty detonator.

Dude, is this racist?: No. If it’s racism you’re looking for, check out the sequel.

Should I buy bonds?: BUY BONDS!

 

20 comments

  1. I am so glad that you followed my suggestion to include the Japanese propaganda. It is kind of strange because, yes, it is really scary how it specifically aims at children, but at the same time you can’t deny their role in the development of Anime down the line.

  2. Oh, I do not like Momotaro at all. He reminds me of this guy. (Who decided this was the best way to teach Japanese children how to conjugate verbs?)

  3. Oh there is something downright unsettling about this short, something pretty well encapsulated by that shot of the cute cartoon monkey cleaning his gun

      1. It wasn’t TERRIBLE but it was fairly obnoxious and it was just so fucking long. And on top of that I was pissed that we didn’t get our usual Pixar short because I fucking love the Pixar shorts, they’re always delightful.

  4. Tough one to watch, had to do so in fits and starts.

    Yeah, this one is uncomfortable. I mean, I’m sure kids watched the western ones too, they loved Donald and Superman as much as anyone, but you could tell that the darker subject matter of those would go over their heads. This is speaking right to them. The line between propaganda and brainwashing is blurry at best, but this is way on the other side.

    I need a shower and a Miyazaki film to feel clean again.

  5. Interesting note, the carrier this is all based on is clearly Akagi (there were only 2 carriers ever built with port-side islands, Hiryu was the other) and it looks like they rotoscoped in some old newsreel footage for the long shots. The strange note is that by the time this came out, Akagi had been sunk for over half a year (like Hiryu one of the 4 carriers lost at Midway).

    Now this was not common knowledge, in fact it would be another year before the Japanese Navy told the Army about this, but it is still strange seeing it clearly starring in propaganda long after it sank..

  6. “Excellently executed to a scary degree”? Iunno, the pacing feels incredibly inefficient even at the start, and the story-to-filler ratio (especially for a 37-minute “short) is a major put-off. It’s actually kinda impressive that something with so many excess frames could get animated in 1943. The visual design and music are pretty sharp, though.

  7. This is a weird post to make a first comment on, but…

    Well, I’ve just spent the past few weeks clicking reading the blog, and have finally gotten caught up to the present. So, just wanted to take a second and say ‘thanks’. This is a great blog, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it (even as it fills me with a crippling sense of inferiority at your accomplishments curse you mouse curse you).

    So, now that I’ve finally reached “the modern era”, I’ll probably circle back and drop comments on some posts here and there in the past, but… yeah. Wanted to say hello and thanks for the blog.

      1. I see.

        I guess he doesn’t look too accurate a caricature to me, then, because I still kinda can’t see it myself.

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