by Ray Matsumoto
Animated movies became an influential form of Japanese propaganda during the Pacific War. Its lighthearted nature made it attractive to both children and adults. One of the most famous wartime animations was the Momotarō series directed by Seo Mitsuyo. The films established a new "Japanese" form of animation while finding strong inspiration from American films, such as Disney and Warner Brothers. In March 1943, the Geijutsu Eiga-sha (GES) released Seo's first animated war film, Momotarō's Sea Eagle (Momotarō no Umiwashi). Despite the insufficient funding and resources for its production, Momotarō achieved unprecedented box office success. As the longest Japanese animated film to date, it became the symbol of Japanese cinematic advancement.
The lighthearted movie features Momotarō ("Peach Boy"), a character from Japanese folklore, as a navy captain. He commands a squadron of animals, including dogs, monkeys, and pheasants (characters from the original tale), for an attack on "Ogre Island," a representation of Pearl Harbor. As they attack the island, American seamen panic in comedic fashion. In one scene, a sailor attempts to flee the boat but gets caught on a line and lifted in the air. As he falls on the deck, several beer bottles fly out of his body. He proceeds to take out an opened beer bottle and drink out of it before falling off and drowning. The film ends with a speech from Momotarō stating that the three pilots of a crashed plane miraculously survived. This ending highlights the child-friendly nature of the film since, in reality, sixty-four Japanese soldiers died in the attack (Gilbert 272).
The first Japanese animated film appeared in the 1910s (there is debate over the exact date and film), with most serving as advertisements. The oldest surviving animated film is Dekobō Shingachō: Meian no Shippai ("Bumpy New Picture Book: Failure of a Great Plan"), released in 1917 (rediscovered in 2008). Although Japanese animation saw rapid improvement during the '20s and '30s, American cartoons dominated the market. Characters such as Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop became global icons and were even incorporated into pro-Axis propaganda, such as children's books and the 1936 Olympic games (Hori 163). On the other hand, the Japanese animation industry did not have the funding or resources to produce quality films. Seo echoed this sentiment in 1936, "We can never make good animated films since it is not a profitable business at all" (Hori 163).
Despite their limitations, Japanese animators continued to produce several quality films. One of the most popular was Suppression of the Tengu (Tengu Taiji, 1934) by Ōfuji Noburō. The film incorporated American cartoon features with Japanese tradition to produce a simple yet entertaining narrative. This hybrid of Western and Japanese styles persisted throughout the war era. Seo also incorporated a similar technique when creating war-themed animation films. For instance, he used the multiplane camera, introduced by Disney, in his piece Duck's Army Troops (Ahiru Rikusentai, 1940) and Ari-chan (1941, Hori 167). Seo also used music in a similar style in coordination with animated motion, similar to Disney films.
Seo's 1943 masterpiece, Momotarō's Sea Eagle, also incorporated American-style animation. Most notably, the American seaman in the film bears a strong resemblance to Bluto from Popeye. Moreover, the cartoonish movement of the characters also resembles those from Looney Toons. Although the film's message was anti-American in nature, its distinctly American features contributed to its domestic success. This sentiment is exemplified by a quote by film critic Hazumi Tusneo in a 1942 film magazine: "I cannot hate the dreams of Snow White even though I hate the violent country of America" (Hori 171).
In 1945, Shōchiku released Momotarō: Sacred Sailors (Umi no Shinpei), the sequel to Momotarō's Sea Eagle. The Japanese Navy sponsored Seo for this project, which included a larger budget, equipment, and staff. The film was twice as long as the original, with more dynamic and modern animation, as well as a strong plot and characters. The story depicts the Japanese operations in the Celebes islands (Sulawesi, Indonesia) with a strong emphasis on "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity." The most notable scene of the film depicts a Japanese soldier (a dog) teaching the natives (cheetahs, rhinos, and tropical birds) the Japanese alphabet. The scene is famous for the AIUEO song, a musical rendition of the alphabet. Seo based the song on Japanese culture and language instructions conducted by the occupational government in Southeast Asia. Tezuka Osamu, a renowned Japanese manga artist and animator, heavily inspired by the film, incorporated the AIUEO song in his film Kimba the White Lion (Jungle Emperor).
Although the film failed to reach a large audience following its release, it created the foundation of postwar Japanese animation. Film techniques incorporated by Seo became the industry standard, including underlighting. The movie also highlights the significance of American animation in Japan despite the war. Seo found strong inspiration for the musical aspect of Momotarō from Disney films. The scene of the AIUEO song bears a resemblance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The characterization of the animals also parallels those from Disney. The "cute" features and movements of the exotic island animals, notably elephants, deer, and squirrels, resemble iconic Disney characters, such as Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). This is ironic when considering the propagandistic purpose of Seo's films. Ultimately, these stories were intended to motivate society to fight against American culture and tradition. The irony highlights the conflicting and hypocritical nature of wartime Japanese propaganda. Even though, in many ways, Japanese propaganda succeeded in propagating society into total war, it failed to achieve a unified front in its fight for "liberating Greater East Asia."
Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.
Hori, Hikari. Promiscuous Media: Film and Visual Culture in Imperial Japan, 1926–1945. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.