Reviews of “Momotaro the Undefeated” (1928) and related work

“Momotaro the Undefeated” (1928Moving picture, 11 minutes)

Seen with recorded benshi narration by Sawato Midori.

The origin story of the folktale figure Momotarō.

Simple animation with detailed figures, no use of depth. True to the literature, Momotarō defeats oni, shown here as brawny horned ogres, in a uchronian past without modern technology. In this production, even the oni do not yet possess the traits of Japan’s enemies in WW2. Only the original title, Nihon-ichi Momotarō (“best in Japan”), suggests a connection to the nation.

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction

“Momotaro’s Sky Adventure” (1931Moving picture, 10 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

Seen with recorded benshi narration by Sawato Midori.

“It’s been a while since our last hunt” says the pheasant mechanic to the monkey, who is seated on the wing of Momotarō’s fighter plane. “You’re right!” answers the monkey, flexing its cartoon muscles so its arm looks like a sausage crammer. “I’m so ready to fight!” Their enemy is the vicious eagle who has broken the peace of an apparently Antarctic island.

A transitional piece between its relatively innocent predecessor and the wartime propaganda projects that followed.

Some pretty good animation, spending more resources on fluid motion and less on detailed armour. The volleys of fire from our hero’s machine gun are drawn as puffs of smoke, which only dissolve into shells when they hit something, indicating the animators had never witnessed gunfire or had no wish to convey an accurate impression of it.

Interestingly, the enemy eagle, likely a weak symbol of the US, fights alone and without technological aid, yet is not caricatured, not even given the ogre horns of the first film. It is also not killed, merely captured and humiliated after an unfair fight against the machine gun. This is an oddly mild propagandistic portrayal, but I suppose it was too early to stir up hatred.

References here: “Private 2nd Class Norakuro” (1933).

moving picture same source material animation Japanese production fiction

‣‣ “Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure” (1932Moving picture, 2 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

I saw the Digital Meme DVD release. It looks like a reconstruction from damaged materials. The opening meeting, where it is decided to ask the “Japanese Momotarō” for help, is just a couple of frames.

For reasons not disclosed in the version I saw, Momotarō is asked to rescue something from a marauding shark. He does so in a modern submarine. His dog and monkey friends are dressed up in sailors' uniforms and the pheasant is left out, apparently not comfortable in the water. This time, Momotarō himself lands the fatal blow with his sword in a detailed cut of animation prefiguring the sakuga of a later era, producing a spray of black blood where a direct hit with a torpedo did no damage. The shark lies dead, the pheasant reads about it in the paper, and the three heroes salute the camera.

This one is war propaganda, taking several steps toward bloodthirsty jingoism.

moving picture sequel animation Japanese production fiction

“Toybox Series Episode 3: Picture Book 1936” (1934Moving picture, 8 minutes)

moving picture same source material animation Japanese production fiction

“Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” (1943Moving picture, 37 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

A human boy, namely Peach Boy from a Japanese folk tale, commands a legion of his original animal companions to bomb “Demon Island”, i.e. Pearl Harbor.

War propaganda planned by the News Division of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1942. Endorsed by the Ministry of Education, for children.

Remarkably artistic considering its purpose. The use of silhouettes in the opening shots at dawn is very nice. One listener to Momotarō’s speech clenches his fist, then wipes his hand against his hip as if to wipe off sweat—despite wearing aviator’s gloves—and finally jiggles the hand as if to cool it off in the breeze. Several shots focus on a koinobori hung as a charm in a torpedo plane’s cockpit. Sea birds and fish are disturbed by the Japanese in the first shots of the assault. The animation is a less skilled imitation of Disney with more of Fleischer’s flexibility and bounciness, presumably to add a playfulness matching the cheerful soundtrack. Close-up facial animation is not a strength of the team, having been little used in earlier productions.

Rabbits’ ears are used for signalling as in “Our Baseball Match” (1930), just one example of how Japanese animators portrayed Japanese protagonists as disarmingly cute “little brothers” even before the defeat and occupation that led to the state of affairs in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005). In one scene, Japanese troops—shown as monkeys—try to jump up to the belly of a B-17 on the ground, and cannot reach it. They use team work, climbing a ladder of one another’s tails and swarming the enormous plane, adorable in their martial intent. The plane explodes in a fireball.

As in reality, the surprise attack appears to be unprovoked. The US victims are not vilified, except that one captain appears to be a cowardly alcoholic. He is scared and sad, not angry, though he resembles Bluto, an American-produced villain from the Popeye cartoons. US aviators run, butts on fire, singing “Ouch, this hurts!” No one is shown to die.

As a whole, this is much less racist and self-aggrandizing than US WW2 propaganda, but equally creepy, insipid and dishonest.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”, Robot Carnival (1987), “Room to Be Free: Speaking About Spirited Away at the Press Conference Held Upon Completion of the Film” (2001).

moving picture same source material animation Japanese production fiction

‣‣ Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945Moving picture, 74 minutes)

Seen in 2016.

Momotarō and his troops return home to a peaceful Japanese village near Mount Fuji to regale children with tales of training for war, then ship out to a tropical island where they fight apparently British occupiers. In a flashback meant to explain the war, European traders of an earlier era conquer the island by force, effectively enslaving the natives with their trading schemes.

A wind chime stirs in the gentle breeze at home, as repeated in countless modern Japanese productions. Seven shots in a row, including a tracking shot with multiplane parallax effects, depict arriving airmen placing their bags of parachute materials in neat rows, and these seven shots are soon followed by an eighth of all the bags. Other amazingly long and detailed sequences depict uneventful guard duty and a team of skilled technicians assembling freshly developed photographs from a damaged spy plane into a composite image of an enemy installation. One scene shows a quick sketch being made of one of the characters, obviously inspired by the animation process. There are interesting attempts at naturalistic shadows, and numerous realistic touches in one scene of paratroopers waiting, jumping and fighting. Enemy soldiers, scattered by the paratroopers’ assault, drop a deck of playing cards and scatter it beautifully as they run to and fro.

The use of funny animals here is even stranger than in the original. The pheasant hero, in his scene at home, alternates with his “wife” to feed his chicks continuously, none of them saying a word. I get the impression that the audio production was hurried, the film being released only four months before the war ended. Native islanders are goofy, both when depicted as humans in the historical flashback, and as monkeys of three species, one some kind of white-maned proboscis monkey. All three native monkeys are silly in the patronizing racist manner expected of a cartoon like this. They wear fez-like headgear, the stereotypical barrel organ mascot monkey hat, which resembles the single fat horn of the “demon” humans.

A wide variety of species including alligators, rhinos, elephants and big cats have trouble sitting through a class on the Japanese language. They use their natural advantages as animals to build an airport, rejoicing at the hard labour that will “liberate” the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. It is unclear to what extent the more powerful animals represent natives, or any people. As in Sea Eagles, the cognitive dissonance is quite severe, despite the Disney influence being more dominant.

The combat sequence, though brief, is almost humourless, unlike in Sea Eagles, and involves more screaming. Momotarō’s character design has smaller eyes, no lashes, and thicker brows. He looks more plump than last time, giving him a strong resemblance to Kim Jong-un. The final scenes are curious. British officers, fairly well voiced, conspire to delay surrender, apparently thinking that the Japanese forces are about to collapse, as would have been entirely accurate. Cut to Japanese children at home, eerily playing at being soldiers in a push against the US.

Unlike Sea Eagles, this is just as racist and self-aggrandizing as American WW2 propaganda. Still, considering it was made by one of the aggressors of the war, and so very late in the day, it is paradoxically peaceful and beautiful for its time. I’m glad it survived the US purge of Japanese propaganda materials.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”.

moving picture sequel animation Japanese production fiction