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Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945)

I have had many conversations with people about animation. I have lost count how many times I have said "the power of animation...", "open your mind a bit..." or talked about how changing a medium of expression can change the perception of the audience. Like many people who read this website I have an interest in animation and actively seek out new animation-related experiences. Some of those have been ... challenging (like Belladonna of Sadness), extremely moving (for example Wrinkles or Song of the Sea) and others have become firm favourites (like Redline, Summer Wars or Tatami Galaxy). When I heard that Anime Limited were releasing an animated piece of 1940s wartime propaganda I knew it was something that I would have to watch.

From the outset I wanted to approach Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (also know as Momotaro Divine Sea Warriors) with an open mind and without agenda. It's easy to dismiss something because it is "propaganda". For me the word tends to conjure images from history classes I took on World War 2 and also brings to mind papers I've read on how in anime different cultures and communities from other nations are depicted (Speciesism, Part I: Translating Races into Animals in Wartime Animation). Would I like or enjoy the feature? Would I be able to accept the film as a piece of history for what it is?

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors is a tale about four Imperial Navy cadets and their path to success against an unknown antagonist. It is told in three acts. Together the acts create a disjointed whole. There is a narrative connection between the acts but it feels ... flimsy. Each act is beautifully animated, full of detail and movement. Each act feels like its own thing and that they could almost be viewed in isolation, almost as if done by different creative teams. This is highly likely given that it was made during wartime when able-bodied men would be drafted for service and with much of the work being finished by a female staff drafted in at the last minute.

Momotaro Sacred Sailors was directed by Seo Mutsuyo. and was commissioned by the Japanese Imperial Navy Department of Information. It was completed just before the end of World War 2 and was released into the remaining theatres in 1945. Given when it was made it is a technical marvel as there would have been a scarcity of resources as a lot would be directed for the war effort and a dwindling staff as they were called up for more physical services to their nation.

The first act is set in an idyllic forest. You could almost think you were watching an early Disney film it has that kind of quality about it. Bear, Puppy, Monkey and Pheasant return home to the forest and their families. They are decked out in the uniform of the Japanese Navy so it is safe to assume that they have returned from some kind of basic training. They regale family and friends with stories of their exploits and they are welcomed with open arms, almost like heroes. The little sister of Monkey steals his hat and imagines herself in the Navy. A gust of wind takes the hat into the river, she jumps in after it and has to be rescued by the well-trained cadets in a tense and dynamic action set piece.

We jump to the second act and onto a nameless Pacific island where the Imperial Navy engineering bunnies, assisted by the "local" wildlife, level a forest and build an airfield. It's a sequence that would not be out of place in something like the Flintstones. The "native" animals use their physical attributes to fell trees, knock out holes and put it all together. The result is a pristine new air-base ready to be populated by the latest planes, whizzy tech and the forest dwellers we were introduced to in the first act. Once the airfield is built Momotaro arrives- which is handy as his name is in the title.

The final act is the preparation for conflict, the battle and the resulting negotiation for surrender. It shows the Japanese forces as the model of professionalism with top-notch equipment ... and good food. It shows their capability to swiftly capture an objective against a technologically powerful enemy and how they use their brains to get the upper hand. It also shows an uncompromising approach to negotiation. It is perhaps here where the film sponsor, the Japanese Imperial Navy Department of Information, rammed home their messages. The Western forces are shown to be intellectually inferior ogres who look like Western men with a single horn on their heads. They constantly wring their hands and pass the buck as they don't want to take responsibility for whatever is coming next. In the roll call of the defeated forces, we see a bruised Popeye and Bluto, a not too subtle dig at the West.

There is much to like about the forest act and elements of the Pacific island sequence and I found myself smiling at some of what I was watching. It was disarmingly cute and frankly astonishing to see what was happening on the screen. There was a distinct sense of old-school Disney in that forest and if Bambi or Dwarves had appeared they would not have been out of place.

The forest backgrounds were beautifully crafted with a soft, relaxing atmosphere about them. The camera gently pans across to introduce the characters. Monkey Bear, Puppy and Pheasant bound across the screen with the enthusiasm expected of those having just returned home. It is a very innocent, homely sequence full of complex movement of characters and background across multiple layers. One of my favourites scenes is when Pheasant returns home and instantly joins in feeding his brothers and sisters in their nest. He darts across the screen from the forest to the chicks as do his parents. There is also lovely sequence where bear spends time at home unpacking and making kites.

On the Pacific island, an element of comedy is introduced for what feels like a light-hearted sequence where the ground is cleared and constructed. On the one hand, it is fun where the "native" animals (including elephants and rhinos!) chop trees, uproot stumps, build the frames for the aircraft hangers and get everything just so before Momotaro's arrival. On the other, there was a feeling that the Japanese had arrived and the native population will do as they are told ... and will then be educated accordingly. Puppy has a challenging time teaching the monkeys, rhinos and the other animals the Japanese alphabet. As war materiel arrives it is neatly laid out across the base and starts to hint at the Japanese military might. It suggested that the Japanese are organised, disciplined, in-charge and superior in all ways. These concepts are not out of place in a piece of propaganda. Surprisingly these elements didn't feel forced within the story. Seo incorporated them neatly by just showing the detail of life in the camp.

It was in this Pacific island scene that some of the imagery and story started to jar. We have cute, anthropomorphosised animals in realistic planes with detailed representations of weapons and equipment. We even have a masterclass in parachute folding! Had it been slightly more "cartoony" it would have been a bit easier to accept. As the tone changes towards the final conflict you really see the craft and skill of the team working behind the scenes. There is a marvellous sequence of rain falling on planes in flight which stands up to anything done today.

There is also a stunning sequence presenting a "history lesson" where using silhouettes the story of the islands and their ancestry are told. It makes it clear that the islands were taken from the Japanese by the Europeans. This simple shadow-puppet style sequence was a really effective way of presenting the flashback or history within the feature. The change in style also gave a break from the other imagery which I was beginning to find uncomfortable. With the change in tone both visually and narratively this third act really felt like it was its own thing, tacked onto two acts of another film.

Much of the feature is expressed through actions, music and sound more than spoken dialogue. It felt as though the dialogue was there for emphasis. A stark contrast to some modern anime where expositionary dialogue is used to get viewers up to speed or *tell* the viewer the story rather than show it. The bulk of the dialogue comes in act three culminating in Momotaro's negotiation. He is strong and definite in his speech and demands. There is no ambiguity in what he wants and you know he will get it. The British ogres are sweating, fidgeting and wittering on to each other about whose responsibility it is ... in perfect English.

This negotiation scene has stayed with me since I watched Sacred Sailors. The use of Japanese and English dialogue had a huge impact. Where did the English voices come from? Even without subtitles you were under no illusion who was in charge and who the victor was. It is a triumph of the animation that Momotaro and his aims are clean and understood. This was all shown through the body language of Momotaro and his tone of voice. Could show act 3 on its own and still get the majority of the messages of the film? I think so but contrasting it or setting it after the previous acts magnified its impact. There was something unnerving about it that I still can't quite put my finger on.

I stated earlier that I thought the connection between the acts in the film was a bit flimsy. As I have been reflecting on what I have written and the more I think about it, that was unfair of me. I have no doubt the application of censorship to the feature contributed to part of that disjointed feeling. Some of that detail could have been chopped out to keep some secrets. The link between the acts and the thread running through Sacred Sailors is how good the Japanese Navy is, what it will do for your life, for the country and for the people overseas. In act one the returning cadets are local heroes ready to act at a moments notice. In act two it is all about how the military brings civilisation and order to foreign shores. Act three is all about power, might and success. When considered together the final scene of forest animal children playing at paratroopers landing on the outline of the USA has quite a chilling edge.

After watching the film I did a bit of extra reading around Momotaro and found that he is a semi-divine folk hero who had animal companions and whose sworn enemies were the ogres. Now it made sense why they were the enemy and why the sole human was surrounded by animal companions! Amongst other things Momotaro also featured in government approved books for young readers, so he was a familiar character to the audience and a model for the youth of Japan. This showed how the intended audience would understand what is going on even without the titular character.

With the Anime Limited release is a great book by Jonathan Clements on the work of Seo Mitsuyo. I read it after watching the film and it provided some additional context and background information. I think watching the film again with this extra information, and re-reading the sections in Anime: A History will be a very different experience compared to the first.

I'm glad I watched Momotaro, Sacred Sailors and putting the propaganda element to one side it was entertaining if a bit disjointed. It is remarkable to see something that was created under challenging conditions and that survived the intervening years during which the both the US lead administration and Japanese were destroying wartime films. It is a piece of history that animation fans and those interested in World War 2 history should watch. Given what this feature is and its purpose I feel uncomfortable using the word entertaining but it was. I in no way felt connected with the narrative but I found the animation on display fascinating. The shadow-silhouette sequence is the standout moment from the feature. I was taken back by the amount of complex movement throughout the film. Given the constraints the animation teams were working under including tight timescales and availability of materials they have created something that still holds up well today, over 70 years later.

FROM All the Anime
RATINGNot Rated [US]
1hr 14m [Movie]

IN A NUTSHELL: Fascinating animation and a slightly uncomfortable viewing experience make Momotaro Scared Sailors a must for those looking new animated experiences.