Pure Propaganda: Momotaro – Sacred Sailors

I’m going to lay off the never-ending discussion of character patterns for a couple weeks. Um, so, yeah…what should I talk about instead? Um…Oh, I’ve got one.

Seen Momotaro – Sacred Sailors?

Some sources say Momotaro was the first anime. It was a feature-length animated film made in Japan during World War II, and, to be honest, I haven’t heard of a Japanese feature-length film made earlier, for what that’s worth.

The neat thing about Momotaro is that it’s clearly a propaganda film. There are a bunch of cute little animals in it, but by the end of the film they’ve all enrolled in the Imperial Japanese Navy, where they do entertaining things like fly reconnaissance missions (in fairly accurately animated Japanese bombers… the Mitsubishi G3M Nell bomber, to be precise), and get bombed by the Allies.

At the end they all climb onto transports for a paratrooper attack on something called Devil’s Island. Guess who wins?


After winning Devil’s Island, the happy animals have a happy brewski or twoski.

I usually come at these discussions from two perspectives, that of a trained animator and that of a writer. Today I can disclose that I used to teach a class called Propaganda and Public Opinion. I know propaganda when I see it. Trust me on this. Consequently, I can bring even a third perspective to Momotaro.

The animator in me says, “The animation is really bad,” and I mean seriously bad. The actors don’t move so much as flow, and the animators seem to have been unable to keep a character’s facial features stable on the character’s head if the head was moving. It’s as though their eyes and mouths are swimming around in a pool that is the face. One wonders whether the animators had decided to mock the people pursuing the war (which I doubt, since it would have been a good way to earn a quick trip to prison).

I’m not sure that would have mattered. I just checked to see when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in Japan, and the answer is 1950! (Although we weren’t at war with Japan until December 7, 1941, relations had started getting tense as early as 1933.) Snow White was the first major full-length animation to get major distribution (the actual first was Lotte Reineger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed, but it never got wide attention); Japanese audiences seeing Momotaro would have had no basis for comparison.

You see, new media go through a phase we call the “Gee whiz” phase. At first, people are so astonished that it does SOMETHING that no one cares what. You can see that in the earliest cartoon, or the earliest Web site, or… So, it’s possible that no one cared that the animation was crap just because it was actually animated and no one had seen anything like it.

To the writer in me, Momotaro is really simple: Its plot is Overcoming the Monster. All the good animals are heroes and all the enemies craven cowards. The director, Mitsuo Seo, seems to have decided to let action rather than character drive the story, so there’s always something happening, even though all the happy little animals are always smiling. The enemy is found, the enemy is conquered, the Monster is Overcome, the end.

Ah, but to the propaganda scholar…

Propaganda, particularly propaganda in the guise of popular entertainment, is supposed to do a few things. Some of them are

improve the morale of the audience,
inspire greater efforts from the civilian population, and
denigrate the enemy.

Improve morale: Every animal in Momotaro is dedicated and devoted to the cause. The sacred sailors take getting bombed with good humor and determination, and even the old folks out hoeing in the fields are happy to support sacred sailors. Plus there are a couple catchy songs and, of course, the moral of the story is that if we all pull together, we win.

The irony of that message in 1945, when the skies of Japan were darkened by B-29’s dropping thousands of firebombs, seems a little thick. Twilight of the Fireflies will let you know what it was really like, or so I’m told. From what I’ve heard, I won’t be watching that masterpiece for a while. Not what I’m looking for in an anime. But that’s what the civilian population saw when they looked up, not happy animals.

Inspire greater efforts: The animals are being told this all the time, of course, but Momotaro wasn’t intended for front line troops in any case. More importantly, there are scenes meant to show how much the extra efforts of civilians make to the sacred sailors. In one, for instance, mail call comes. The courier, a pelican, starts pulling packages for the troops from his beak, and they are all delighted to open their packages from home and get the little gifts inside.

Those little gifts would have been food, tinned meat and vegetables, and they would have been taken from the senders’ already short civilian rations. Here the film encourages the audience to make that sacrifice: go hungry to help your fighting men.

Denigrate the enemy: The allied forces, British and US, are only seen briefly, at the end, during and after the invasion of Devil’s Island. Having been defeated by the happy animals, their commanders sit across the table from the resolute Japanese general. He demands surrender. The Allied commander stutters and mutters inanities. The Japanese general again demands surrender. The Allied commander again sweats, looks a fool, and does not answer. The Japanese general makes it clear that he won’t ask again, and the Allies surrender.

The cool thing about this scene is that it’s probably a story the audience already knew. It’s pretty much exactly how the surrender of Singapore by the British to the Japanese in 1942 took place, with General Yamashita doing the demanding and General Percival doing the prevaricating. The Allied general in Momotaro even looks like Percival (the man had an unfortunately weak chin).

So, they make the British look weak by giving them this fool of a commander. How do they make the Americans look weak? The American generals are Popeye and Bluto.

Yep, that Popeye and Bluto.


Popeye at the highest military rank he reached.

According to what I’ve read, the film was started in 1942. In those days, Japan was winning, Percival’s face would have been all over Japanese newsreels (and so would have been familiar to Japanese theater audiences), and no one could really be sure who the US commanders were or would be. So why not Popeye and Bluto?

Well, for one thing, Popeye (from Fleischer Studios) was a lot better animated than Momotaro. Maybe they shouldn’t have gone there.

Momotaro is an interesting piece of history. It’s badly animated and not very well written, but it hits all the key points as a propaganda piece. In short, it is what it is, and it’s pretty good at being it.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Pure Propaganda: Momotaro – Sacred Sailors

  1. very interesting. I also look at propaganda media with some fascination, since I always wonder what it feels like for the target audience.
    I’ve seen the banned war time Bugs Bunney and Disney propaganda, and they’re chilling.
    btw, do you think Ip Man is propaganda? I’ve always wondered, since it just feels like its promoting something else xD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m unaware of Ip Man…Is it the films about the martial artist? I might call them exaggerated, but would you say that propaganda has some kind of political agenda? I think of films like Roger and Me or Triumph of the Will. Triumph is brilliant and frightening, if you haven’t seen it, an attempt to promote Hitler and Nazi Germany before the war.


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