Sunday, 1 April 2012

桃太郎 海の神兵/ Momotarou: Umi no Shinpei / Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945)

Well, here it is, once thought lost forever and remembered by anime historians in a slightly tacit, embarrassed way despite its remarkable quality, deep influence on Tezuka’s work and historical significance. This 74-minute black-and-white film is the very first feature-length animated film Japan ever made, the first step on the path to what is now such a vast industry. Its animation is uneven but on average high-quality, full of the influence of the Golden Age, and it establishes many of the tropes of anime aesthetic long before Tezuka could do so and be so highly lauded for it – indeed, he was there in the audience for this film, purportedly moved to tears by it, and the AIUEO Mambo from Kimba is seen as a tribute.

So, if the animation is both of a good quality and historically significant, why is the film kept rather at arm’s length? Why has the low-quality print not been cleaned up, even lovingly coloured, for a modern update? Why are there no English subtitles available? It’s certainly better overall than what as far as I can tell is Japan’s next animated feature, Hakujaden, and it could be considered Japan’s Snow White, or at least be considered alongside Princess Iron Fan. Well, it’s simple – it’s because it was made in 1944 and released in 1945. That is to say, during WWII, when Japan were part of the Axis Alliance. In other words, those cute little bunnies and puppies are Hitler’s cutest widdle allies, and this is explicitly a war propaganda film, especially at the end. When the Japanese were engaged in such pursuits as (at least according to everyone in the world but them) the Rape of Nanking. And this film isn’t just cute animals training to go off to war: the last section actually takes place on the battlefield.

The conflict that the film centres on is actually one less well-known in the West: Japan’s invasion of the Dutch East Indies, now parts of Indonesia, in the name of liberating Asia for the Asians. Thus, perhaps adding another layer of awkwardness for a modern audience, the enemy are the hakujin – the white men. Who come in all the glory of the kind of caricatures you might expect from a war propaganda film. And in some shots are actually brutally killed (though seem to get better). Ironically, given that only in the last couple of years with the likes of Ika Musume and Edenof the East have weekly anime started to actually get fluent voice actors to do English lines rather than having extremely strained accents presented as perfect, the English here is delivered by someone with impeccable English. If they could find someone to do it when at full-scale war with just about the entire English-speaking world…why not in 2005? Then again, it makes you wonder just who that stuttering Englishman was…

Of course, what happened in the months after the film was that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, forever altering the national consciousness, and Japan surrendered. That was not the end of the conflict in the area, though – in Europe we tend to consider 1945 the end, but in Indonesia there was a huge mess that took quite some time to clear up, and I don’t mean those famous Japanese soldiers dotted about the world who thought the war was still going on into the 70s. Indonesia was officially back under Dutch control, and the Japanese had to be turfed out. But the Dutch were not exactly in any position to reassert control, and under Japanese rule the seeds of Nationalism had become mass consensus, so Indonesia pushed for Independence. The bizarre situation arose wherein the Japanese, having surrendered, had to keep the terms of their surrender by assisting the allies, turning against the Indonesians they had formerly supported (though also arguably starved, robbed of resources and enslaved in the name of their own war effort). Indonesian independence was eventually established in 1949, but whatever fantasy of liberation and victory this film painted had fizzled away.

The plot is loose but straightforward: four cutesy animals are off to war, so spend some last days with their families. The big bear and the puppy play with their siblings, the pheasant sees his little chicks, and the chattering monkey regales all the local youth with his boasts, until his little brother runs off with his hat, falls in the river and has to be heroically rescued. (‘Wasshoi!’)

The four then go to help set up a naval camp, where for whatever reason a classroom is also made and the animals learn their alphabets in the AIUEO song, which I have to say is a great catchy number and a scene that does deserve to endure. Glorious general Momotarou then makes his appearance (Having previously bombed Pearl Habour in director Seo Mitsuyu’s short animation Momotarou no Umiwashi) and drawn in the traditional way the Momotarou figure usually is. Like the animals, he looks pretty cute unless they decide to draw his lips and teeth in a close-up, when he starts to look a bit terrifying. But hey, this was an art style at the beginning of its evolution. Momotarou leads the troops (all but him cute animals) on a heroic parachute invasion of Allied-occupied Celebes, they shoot, bayonet and grenade the huge-nosed and spaghetti-armed allies and accept their surrender. Victory! The film ends with a rather mysterious shot of the animals back home playing a game which makes it look like they are jumping into and stomping on a map of the US – though that may be my misinterpreting.

It’s probably obvious, but this is not the most comfortable subject manner. There’s much of interest in the artistic decisions, from the way the Japanese like to present themselves as cute little animals to the fact that the famous ^_^ expression so deeply associated with anime was already in place in 1944, but it’s hard to get past the white devils and propaganda message.

Seo, the director, was really only doing what he was told. A leftist, he had actually been arrested for work with ProKino, but the Navy funded him to make these propaganda films. Momotarou no Umiwashi, it would seem currently available only through the National Film Centre in Tokyo, was a hit, so this longer feature was commissioned. There is a great deal to admire in it, from smooth animation of shots from ambitious angles to lovely imagery such as dandelion seeds becoming paratroopers. It also shows how remarkably early Japanese popular art established its cute aesthetic. There is some interesting mixing of media – the historical section showing the Dutch to have basically been liars who threatened the happy, kindly sultans with piracy, mixes in the aesthetic of shadow puppetry, and there’s quite a bit of Disney-esque rotoscoping going on – just look closely at the hands of the bear family near the beginning for a good example. But of course, Seo made his film at a very specific time, and though he was able to make one more short – Ou-sama no Shippo – there was no longer a place for him in the world of anime and he would slip out of sight to write children’s books, likely believing his work destroyed for many years: the negative only resurfaced in 1986. Seo himself lived to be 99, dying in 2010 a reclusive legend of anime.  


  1. Yes, I do think it is a map of the US. I found the film both fascinating and extremely disturbing. As a historical artifact, of course, it's priceless, and the animation and storytelling are frequently brilliant. And then there's the subject matter... I think what bothers us is knowing that all those cute little bunnies are really stand-ins for human beings who were sent into war to do some really, really terrible things, which gives it a certain extra "ick factor." The film really does succeed on the kitschiest level, and it makes us uncomfortable to know how easy we are to be manipulated, even when we know the reality it obscures. It's similar to the feeling one gets watching Birth of a Nation, I suppose.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful comment! It is quite a shock to me that when it actually does get to the wartime scenes, things aren't toned down nearly as much as the cute bunnies and monkeys make you expect. There's a definite 'ick factor' to that symbolism, but the fact they eventually just stop the pretence and have the animals slaughter their enemies is a real surprise. But yeah, there's definitely the strange realization that you get with any Riefenstahl that for all we've thought of Nazism as epitomising evil for our entire lives, at one point a sizeable percentage of the world's population thought it their salvation.