Over the weekend I was at Sunnycon, the Sunderland based anime convention that became so popular it had to move to Newcastle (something that as a Teessider I find very amusing). Among the many things there was a screening of one of the earliest anime ever made. Indeed, this is the earliest anime I have ever covered since this column started, and it is one of the most controversial, given that it was premiered in 1943. Yes, we are looking at some wartime propaganda.
Momotaro’s Sea Eagles was written and directed by Mitsuyo Seo, although what is more interesting is the organisation that funded the anime’s production: the Japanese Imperial Navy. Running at 37 minutes long, it is not quite feature length. The first feature length anime is the sequel to Sea Eagles, Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, released in 1945 and soon to be released in the UK. However, what people will probably find most disturbing is the fact that both of these works were aimed at children, with Sea Eagles based on the real-life attack on Pearl Harbor.
The anime also uses a much older children’s story as a backdrop. The original story of Momotaro is about a boy who is born from inside a peach, who then travels to fight the demons on Demon Island, taking with him some millet dumplings (kibi dango). Along the way he meets some talking animals: a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, who agree to help fight the demons in exchange for some of the dumplings, and together they defeat the demons.
In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Momotaro and his animal friends are all navy sailors, with Momotaro the commander, and he orders the soldiers on his ship to attack Demon Island, which is actually Oahu, where the US Navy was based at Pearl Harbor. We follow the crew, in particular the pilots of bomber plane three, flown by a pheasant, a dog and a monkey. On their journey they help a sea eagle chick who is crying by playing with him, and they successfully bomb Demon Island and vanquish all the evil demons (i.e. the Americans), but their plane is badly damaged. Whether they can reach the ship in time is something that is up in the air (quite literally as they are on a plane).
It is hard to know where to start when examining this anime. This is a piece of propaganda, which features among other things propaganda songs popular at the time, codes sent in semaphore and on Morse code signal lamps, and the rising of a Z semaphore flag as the Pearl Harbor attack was known in planning as “Operation Z”; when the operation is a success the animals send the message “Tora! Tora! Tora!” back to the ship. As a piece of propaganda, it was arguably more successful than the more well-known Divine Sea Warriors because children were forced to watch it during school trips. By the time the Divine Sea Warriors came out, the Japanese were losing the war and thus such mass screenings were harder to arrange. Concerning the technical aspects of the film, The Anime Encyclopedia writes that much of the anime’s budget was blown on get the plane landings and take-offs animated correctly, not leaving much the way of plotting the actual plot.
However, equally as interesting as the propaganda and the imperialist war message is that fact that this anime was specifically aimed at children. Yes, it is a disturbing animation looking back, but it also features all kinds of comic antics to keep children entertained. For example, the semaphore signals are sent by rabbits moving their ears around; not only do the animals bomb the island, but they manage to land on it by monkeys climbing out of the planes one at a time, and then climbing down each other’s tails like the runs on a ladder; they plant bombs in plane (something which the Japanese navy didn’t actually do), and when one monkey gets his tail trapped the solution is to shoot the monkeys tail off.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the movie is the depictions of the Americans as demons. In common with Japanese folklore, the demons are depicted with a single horn coming out of the head, but the rest of their bodies look like anything else you would see in an American cartoon at the time. Some of the demons however, are more familiar than others. You might be familiar with the fact that in the USA, many cartoon characters during the war appeared in shorts that attacked the Japanese and the Germans, even attacking Hitler. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles one of the demons attacked is Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, who is depicted as a drunk.
It safe to say that Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is not for everyone. The people who are mostly interested are people those wanting to know more about the history of animation, propaganda, and World War II in general. However, with the future release of Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors later in the year, it might be worth looking at it to get an idea of its context.
Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is released as part of the Region 1 anime collection “The Roots of Japanese Anime until the End of WWII” from Zakka Films.