World War IIJapanese
Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors
Medium: film
Year: 1945
Writer/director: Mitsuyo Seo
Keywords: anime, World War II
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 74 minutes
Website category: Anime old
Review date: 29 September 2011
It's the first feature-length Japanese anime. However because it's from 1945, it's also wartime propaganda in which sailor-suited animals climb into planes, hug their machine-guns and help their glorious nation crush its racial inferiors.
It's also too long and gets a bit dull, but to my surprise it's fair and even-handed.
We'll take it as propaganda first, since that's the only reason anyone's going to be watching it these days. It's a historical artefact, like a cute Disney version of The Triumph of the Will. What's interesting about it from this point of view is that that what it's saying is fair. It's even historically accurate, given the Elizabethan costumes in that shadow-puppet flashback story of how the European powers carved up the world for fun and profit. Can't say we didn't do that.
Similarly those craven generals at the end are representing something we really used to do, which flabbergasted the Japanese military. If we got beaten, we'd surrender. This was unthinkable under the samurai code, of course. The Japanese used to think our defeated soldiers' failure to commit suicide was disgraceful and the worst kind of cowardice, which explains (although doesn't justify) a lot of the atrocities committed in their prisoner of war camps. After all, the treatment handed out to the prisoners was hardly much better than what would be dished out to a regular Japanese soldier.
In other words, I agreed with the film. Obviously it's spinning those facts, but to a modern audience it's surprisingly watchable. It's certainly more palatable than the Jap-bashing of many American cartoons at the time, which is far more racist and enough to turn anyone's stomach.
However that said, its timing was a little off. It's a long slog to make an animated feature film. It eventually premiered on 12 March 1945 and did terribly at the box office, since by that point the Americans were already firebombing Japanese cities and children were being evacuated to the countryside. Four days later, after a month's horrendous fighting, Americans took Iwo Jima. Meanwhile the Allies were already in Germany and marching on Berlin. The Potsdam declaration came in July, which Japan of course ignored and duly got nuked. Japan's unconditional surrender followed on 15 August 1945, which of course is exactly what they're mocking our Western generals for doing at the end of this film.
This film on the other hand appears to depict a Japanese invasion of America. Unsurprisingly it sank like a stone and for a while was even believed lost, but a negative was found in 1984.
As a film, it's too long. It's actually a sequel to a 37-minute 1943 original by the same guy, called Momotaro's Sea Eagles, and I have a suspicion that that would play better. There's precious little dialogue in the film, although quite a bit of singing, and most of it plays almost like a silent film. Cute animals bounce around and admire the wonders of nature. Ironically it would be more entertaining if it had more warmongering, but that's mostly confined to the last ten minutes and until then it's just happy bouncing animals. They're charming and occasionally even funny, but with hindsight I'm just impressed I wasn't clawing my eyes out from an hour of the buggers not really doing anything.
Visually it looks a bit 1930s. It's in black and white and it's occasionally doing that rubber-limbed thing you see in old cartoons, from the days before people had skeletons.
The faces are the creepiest thing, if you don't count a scene near the end where animals knife a tank crew to death. There's something wrong about them. The eyes are kind of dead and the mouths have bulging lips and teeth. It's disturbing to look at. I'd have said they were trying to be too realistic, but then along came Momotaro and he looks just as freaky despite being human, so that convinced me that Mitsuyo Seo was trying to imitate traditional dolls. Fortunately there are faces drawn in other styles too, but those doll-people are incapable of looking happy (for instance) and at such times look kind of scary instead.
The songs aren't bad, though. They have children's, men's and women's choirs, which get used both separately and in unison. They achieve some neat effects with this. The AIUEO song might also be useful if you're starting to learn Japanese, although it's too long.
My favourite bit came at the end, with that aforementioned surrender. What's cool about the scene is that it's bilingual. The general speaks British English without subtitles and they've got a native speaker to play him instead of just asking a Japanese voice actor to deliver the lines phonetically. That's better than most modern anime, then. Furthermore the English dialogue is realistic, free of grammatical mistakes and would stand up perfectly well in a British or American movie. Obviously the character who's saying the lines is cartoonish, but the scene gains unintended weight when you bear in mind the bloody ironies around World War Two and the Japanese cultural taboo about surrender. That medieval hang-up is one of the things that got them nuked, after which they had to surrender anyway.
The scene also has things like "The Ogres Island" and "Lake Devils" as names on a map (in English), which is funny.
To be honest, I wouldn't really recommend this one except as a historical curiosity. I'm glad I've watched it, but it's just not that high in entertainment value, deliberate or otherwise. However what's impressive about it is that it's far less bloodthirsty and jackboot-fascist than you'd expect, given the circumstances under which it was made, and for most of its running time is much more interested in feeding baby birds, making packed lunches and being foolishly proud of a cap that's too big for you. (The latter leads to a rescue sequence.) Osamu Tezuka, the father of anime, said that he was moved to tears by the movie's peaceful message, smuggled in along with the planes and machine guns.
I quite liked this film. That's something I never expected to say.