I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Early Japanese Animation – Part III: Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors

by Cory Gross
Aug. 10, 2011

Throughout the 20th century, entertainment media has been instrumental for the dissemination of propaganda. Winsor McCay, whose animation has featured on Network Awesome in the past, filmed a rendition of the Lusitania’s sinking to provoke American involvement in the First World War. Today, news networks and satirical television shows drum up support for America's wars in the Middle East and conservative political rallies at home. During the Second World War, Hollywood's considerable talents and resources were deployed to the same effect. Walt Disney produced such varied shorts as Education for Death, supposedly outlining the childhood of an average youth in the Third Reich, and Der Fuhrer’s Face, in which Donald dreams of being trapped in Naziland.

Japan's burgeoning animation industry was also employed to build support for the War in the Pacific. No less a personage than Kenzo Masaoka, one of anime's great pioneers, drafted a parable in The Spider and the Tulip. Yet any wartime Japanese propaganda piece pales in comparison to Mitsuyo Seo's films starring Momotaro. Seo, a strong leftist, joined up with Masaoka's studio shortly after a stint in prison for activities with the Proletarian Film League. From there he started his own studio and later joined another, under which he made his famous propaganda films.

The first, Momotaro's Sea Eagles, was a 37 minute short staring the “Peach Boy” of Japan folk tale recast as a wartime general. Momotaro's story begins with an elderly, childless and impoverished couple who find a giant peach floating down the stream near their home. They capture this peach and prepare to dine when, to their considerable surprise, they discover a little boy inside. “Peach Boy” (Momo Taro) states that he was sent from the realms of the gods to them as a son and the couple adopts him.

Momotaro is a legendary hero in Japan and his most famous deed was raiding a band of demons (Oni) on a distant island. These demons often poured forth from the island to attack the villagers until Momotaro had enough. This classic quest narrative includes him assembling a misfit band of animals including a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, reaching the jagged, rocky island across the sea, and sparring with the demon leader. Emerging victorious, Momotaro brought the riches amassed by the demons back to his adoptive parents.

Such a fairy tale easily lends itself to the purposes of wartime propaganda. In Momotaro's Sea Eagles, the band of animal companions becomes a full army of pilots lead by Momotaro of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. Their target is an island in roughly the middle of the Pacific whereon lies the military base of white-skinned demons. So transparent was the analogy that actual footage of the attack on Pearl Harbour was used. Approved by the IJN, the 1943 short was a success and production began on a feature-length sequel.

Not only was Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors notable as a feature-length propaganda film, but also for being the first feature-length animated film from Japan. A viewer might notice, however, that most of its 74 minutes is not spent explicitly in war. The first act takes place on the homeland where Momotaro's troops have returned. The second shows life on a Pacific island where the engineering corps is setting up an airbase. Only in the final act do we see a victorious offensive by Momotaro's legion.

Since the film was completed in late 1944 and finally released to audiences in 1945, perhaps Seo saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Any propaganda film on his part could only be too-little too-late. His response to this potentially dismal fact is unique. Instead of ramping up the double-thinking jingoism or encouraging a dour brace for impact, Seo reaches out to the largely child audience with a message of optimism. His homeland is idyllic, its only problems stemming from kid sisters not knowing where to fool around. On the tropical island, the engineers teach the servant animals how to speak and sing. Everything is quite joyful and serene, almost to the film's dramatic expense.

Drama wasn't what children in Japan in 1945 needed. They got plenty of bright flashing colours and explosions and so on from the Allied firebombings. Serenity and optimism was the necessary antidote. An aspiring teenage artist by the name of Osamu Tezuka was struck by the message, saying in his later years that he was nearly brought to tears by it. Momtaro's Divine Sea Warriors inspired him as an artist and an animator, and with that inspiration he would become one of the country's most revered figures, period. We'll talk more about Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy, at the close of this series.

Perhaps as something of an apology for his wartime films, Seo made a pro-democratic animated film in 1949. His leftist leanings cropped up again and the film was plagued with distribution difficulties. The studio he was working for at the time went bankrupt in the harsh environment of post-war Japan, finally forcing Seo to pack his pencils and live out the remainder of his career illustrating children's books.

He was not the only one who found the new situation untenable. Scant resources and American oversight affected the whole Japanese film industry, including animation. Yet the 20 years following World War II saw the emergence of modern anime, which has since grown into a global cultural force.

For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age