Search form

Momotaro's Gods-Blessed Sea Warriors: Japan's Unknown Wartime Feature

Fred Patten takes a look at Japan's first animated feature, a propaganda tract made at the behest of the country's military government.

World War II is now over fifty years in the past. For animation fans, those days can be relived every time a retrospective screening of wartime cartoons is held. There seems to be a campus or a fine-arts program every few years in most cities. It's an opportunity to see Confusions of a Nutzy Spy, Der Fuehrer's Face, Tokio Jokio, Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips, You're a Sap, Mr. Jap, and those other classics that grow more embarrassing as wartime memories fade.

The Japanese also made many propaganda cartoons, including one notable 37-minute featurette and a 74-minute feature. Unlike the American films, these have not been continuously available over the past half-century. Due to wartime Japan's own cannibalizing of film prints to reuse the film stock, and the destruction by the American Occupation authorities of all propaganda materials that could be found, most of the wartime cartoons were thought to no longer exist. However, the earlier film has been preserved by Tokyo's National Film Center while at least one print of the feature also survived. Today, thanks to the home-video in Japan, the latter is available to a much larger audience than ever saw the original film. It is too primitive to be of much interest to the fans of modern action-adventure Japanese anime, but it is fascinating to anyone with a serious interest in World War II propaganda art and animation, and in the evolution of anime.

Before World War II there were no animation studios in Japan. There were individual enthusiasts who would personally create a short film every year or two. Not all of these were cartoon animation. Cutout silhouette animation, inspired by Lotte Reiniger's 1926 Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, was very popular with some artistic hobbyists. The major Japanese film studios and theatrical distributors were happy to pick up these shorts. Some of the studios even subsidized the more reliable animators.

Mituyo Seo and Momotaro

All film production was tightly controlled by the military-dominated government during the war (which started for Japan in 1937 in China). This ironically turned out to be very good for animation, because the Japanese Navy felt that theatrical cartoons were an ideal medium to instill the patriotic spirit in children. Effective production could not be handled by individual artists, so the first animation shop was organized under Mituyo Seo, who was born in 1911 and who had made more than a half-dozen short cartoons during the 1930s. Seo and a small staff created the 37-minute Momotaro no Umiwashi (Momotaro's Sea Eagles), which was released on March 25, 1943. Momotaro is a popular Japanese fairy-tale boy-hero, roughly similar to Jack the Giant-Killer in Western folklore. In this featurette he is portrayed as a young naval commander leading a squadron of funny-animal monkey fighter pilots (his "sea eagles"). This was popular enough with the public that the government authorized Seo to produce a feature-length sequel. Momotaro Umi no Shimpei (roughly Momotaro's Gods-Blessed Sea Warriors), 74 minutes long, was released by Shochiku, one of Japan's largest film companies, on April 12, 1945. This is the feature that has been available on a Shochiku home-video cassette off and on since 1984.

American wartime cartoons were made for family audiences with much adult-oriented political satire. But Momotaro Umi no Shimpei was clearly designed primarily for young children. The characters are cute animals with the look of plush nursery toys. They play their roles with a minimum of dialogue, almost pantomime, to a choral accompaniment of lullaby-like songs and simple martial melodies.

Momotaro's Sea Eagles. Courtesy of Fred Patten.

The opening sequence (16 minutes) shows four young animals (a bear cub, a monkey, a puppy and a pheasant) in sailor dress uniforms walking along a country road into a forest, where they meet their friends and families. They have just completed their training and are saying their farewells before shipping out. There are tearful partings and a happy send-off party. The monkey's little brother plays with his sailor's cap, which is blown into a swift river. The infant falls in while trying to retrieve it, and is rescued by all the animal children acting cooperatively just before he is swept over a waterfall.

The continuity jumps abruptly to a large South Pacific island which is a composite of Borneo, Indonesia and New Guinea. Rabbit sailors of the Imperial Navy are clearing the jungle to construct a base and airstrip. (Aside from the four animal buddies who are meant to stand out as individuals, the mass of the Japanese Navy is portrayed as bunnies or monkeys.) They are watched in wonderment by the native jungle animals, who come out and help. The scenes are brief but detailed enough that they could almost serve as a training film on how to build a tropical base. The airstrip is barely completed when transport planes arrive bringing troops (which include the four buddies). Finally a VIP plane lands and Commander Momotaro (the only human, a young boy in officer's uniform) steps out.

The next few scenes depict the joys of naval life. The puppy begins a language class to teach Japanese to the friendly natives; everybody sings a peppy nursery-school A-E-I-O-U jingle to teach A-Sa-Hi ("Rising Sun"). We see wash day, getting mail from home, athletic military exercises, and the Japanese sailors marvelling at the Equatorial tropical climate.

Why We Fight

The mood turns dramatic. A reconnaissance plane brings aerial photographs of an entrenched British colonial base on the other side of the island. The sailors switch from general combat practice to parachute training. The monkey, bear cub and puppy join the parachutists, while the pheasant becomes a fighter pilot. Commander Momotaro completes his plans. A rather artistically-jarring "why-we-fight" history lesson in cut-out silhouette animation shows 17th-century Dutch "pirates" conquering the independent Malay sultanates and imposing European rule over the East Indies. The sailors don their paratroop gear and board the transport planes. After a flight through a storm a British base comes into sight. The troops parachute out and capture it after a violent but brief battle. Commander Momotaro presides over the surrender conference, where the cowardly British officers each try to avoid taking the responsibility for signing the surrender. (The British voices sound authentic--inmates of a prisoner-of-war camp?--speaking in English with Japanese subtitles, in the feature's only major scene with considerable dialogue.) The ending shows the animal civilians back home getting the news of the Navy's victory, while children play at being paratroopers and jump down upon an outline map of the United States-- presumably suggesting the next goal; but since this movie was released barely four months before the war's end, this must have been too exaggerated for even wishful dreaming by then.

Momotaro Umi no Shimpei is a black-&-white film, about technically equivalent to the American theatrical cartoons of the early 1930s. The art style and direction show a greater Chinese than Western influence. The film is extremely slow paced, and there are many "artistic" shots emphasizing the beauty of falling rain, or comparing parachuting soldiers with drifting dandelion seeds.

But while the story is more dramatic than those of America's cartoon comedies, the movie is about equal in racial stereotyping. The animals that depict the Japanese are all handsome and intelligent. The East Indies animals, although friendly, are carefree "happy but simple natives" (including a humorously grotesque proboscis monkey, an orangutan and a long-armed gibbon, in ethnic dress) who caper about foolishly. They are treated in a clearly patronizing manner by the sailor animals. The British are drawn as humans but with exaggerated Western characteristics: they are either tall and gangly or short and Colonel Blimpishly stout, with pop eyes and great noses. They also each have a single demon's horn on their heads: foreign devils. If our own propaganda cartoons look embarrassing to us today, we can take relief in the knowledge that ours weren't any worse than were the Axis'.

*According to History of Japanese Animation Films (a booklet published by an early Japanese animation magazine, Film 1/24, Tokyo, June 1977; co-edited & translated by Edward D. Herscovitz), Mituyo Seo was born on September 26, 1911. He created eight short anime films between 1933 and 1939; he directed the two Momotaro films released in 1943 and 1945. His final film, a musical featurette, Osama no Shippo (The King's Tail), was released in 1947. He then became an author and illustrator of childrens' books, and was apparently still active in this field in 1977.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He currently writes a regular anime column for Animation Magazine. An earlier version of this article appeared in Get Animated! January 1986.