Anime Review: Momotaro, Sacred Sailors

By Drew Hurley 19.03.2018

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Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (UK Rating: 12)

Released in 1945, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors was the first ever feature length animated film in Japan. It has a dark reason for being, though, much like how the older Disney and Warner Bros. films are filled with regrettable elements. Momotaro was created as a propaganda film for the Japanese Navy during the tail end of World War II.

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors was made by Mitsuyo Seo and is actually a sequel to a short entitled Momotaro's Sea Eagles. This previous film mixed up the story of the famous Peach Boy fable of Japanese folklore - Momotaro - with propaganda about the West, and even spliced in some actual footage from the attack on Pearl Harbour. This sequel again takes the Peach Boy characters and sees them assaulting an island to take it from the evil British Empire.

For those unaware of the fable of Momotaro, it's old folklore that has been used as the basis for numerous stories in Japanese pop culture over the years. The story goes that an elderly couple finds a giant peach, and when they cut it open a baby is inside. This baby is Momotaro, or Peach Boy, and his story sees him embark on an adventure where he befriends a trio of talking animals - a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant - and then battles against a clan of Oni. This may seem familiar to some who are unaware of the source material, whether it be the admirals of One Piece, the animal dress spheres from Final Fantasy X-2 that match with Momotaro's animal companions, or even the episode of Samurai Jack that used the characters.

Here the movie opens with the talking animals first. They have recently finished their training with Japanese Navy and have returned home to say their farewells before heading off to war. This part is heavily filled with propaganda, with the trio talking to the young children of the village and through the screen to the young children of Japan, telling them how much fun it is to fly planes and shoot guns. What comes next is worse as the British villains are introduced - horrendous caricatures - and the cute animals are joined by the hero, Momotaro, in mercilessly gunning them down. They even take out Popeye - fittingly, really, considering Popeye's history of propaganda, with productions like You're a Sap, Mr. Jap.

This film was thought lost for almost forty years until a print was discovered, and this release is a beautifully restored version of that print. The black and white animation shows clear influences from the early days of Disney, while also showing some of the early facets that eventually became core elements of the early days of anime. Sacred Sailors inspired an entire generation of filmmakers in Japan, including the father of Astro Boy. Osama Tezuka has previously spoken about how watching the film brought him to tears and made him want to become an animator.

Also bundled with this release is the short film entitled The Spider and the Tulip. This is a simple little story about a spider in the forest trying to lure a poor little ladybird into its web. It could be a rather innocuous little story. The film is part of Kenzō Masaoka's catalogue, a godfather of anime who produced some of the very first cel-animated anime. The story suffers from the same sort of regrettable content as the main feature, though. Not in propaganda, however, but in its depictions of the villain of this tale. The spider is the quintessential black minstrel and it makes for plenty of cringe-worthy scenes. Much like the main feature, it's interesting from a historic perspective, seeing such an early form of animation, but the story is nothing special and the racially discriminatory scenes may be off-putting for many viewers.

Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10
Ultimately, watching Momotaro, Sacred Sailors is a very awkward experience, in the same way that early Disney and films from this era are. However, it's a fascinating study. Seeing the inspiration of today's anime, seeing the mindset of the Japanese empire of the time, and especially because considering today's climate and the truly scary nature of the world, it's important to learn from humanity's mistakes. Warner Bros. shows a message before its old cartoons now and it couldn't be more fitting for this release. It reads as follows: "The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in the US society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed."

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