Momotaro, Sacred Sailors

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/25/16 14:38:26

"Textbook propaganda worth seeing for timing and craft."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is both a crying shame and entirely fitting that "Momotaro: Sacred Sailors" is Japan's first animated feature. Fitting because it immediately demonstrates the signature style and impressive quality that what later become known as "anime" often demonstrates, along with the willingness to reinvent traditional material for a new audience. It is also very much a World War II propaganda film, and as such rather uncomfortable enough to watch in North America seventy years later that it becomes little more than noteworthy.

The Momotaro ("Peach Boy") story is a well-known bit of Japanese folklore, of a human boy found floating inside a peach who later goes on adventures with a talking monkey, dog, and pheasant. Here we meet the sidekicks first, as they return home for a few days' leave from the Imperial Navy and get into some minor adventures before returning to the occupied lands, where they rejoin Momotaro and help open schools to educate all the unfortunate locals before they, as paratroopers, conduct a daring raid on the Allies' base on Devil's Island.

That divides the film into three sections, and while it's clear from the start that the notes in the credits saying that this was made at the behest of the Navy, it's interesting and perhaps instructive to note just how filmmaker Mitsuyo Seo ramps it up - the first third presents the military and war as something almost completely abstract, with monkey Sarukichi talking about the joys of aviation and the group working as a team when his younger brother Santa falls in the river. Then we see the upbeat side, the implication that Japanese forces are "liberating" people, making their life better. Then, finally, the fighting, the killing, the caricatured opponents, the venomous belittling. It maps the way that people either use the noble to insulate themselves from the parts of soldiering that are less so or convince themselves of the activity's worthiness in order to justify the horrors of the conflict. That Seo likely didn't mean this as an examination of military propaganda doesn't matter; by making the nationalistic message something clear enough for children to take in, it's accidentally a perfect distillation of the techniques.

It's a shame, because this is actually an impressively well-made feature. The parachute jump sequence, for instance, could easily fit into a much later live-action adventure movie, as Seo masterfully alternates moments of quiet calm and focus with tension while depicting something that simply could not be done on film without animation at the time. The pacing throughout the film is exceptional, as is the adaptation of a traditional story and the small cartoon gags that add up to a narrative and characterization. It's kid-friendly, given the period and climate of Japan in World War II, but not pandering.

The animation itself is high-quality, as well. The designs, not surprisingly, look like the starting point for the latter explosion in Japanese animation (Osamu Tezuka would cite Seo's films as an influence) even as they are also clearly influenced by early American cartoons, albeit with far less gratuitous motion. The characters and other foreground objects often have the same level of shading and detail as the background, often not the case. There's even a cheeky reference to the Fleischer Brothers, although even eating his spinach won't help a certain American sailor defeat the Imperial Navy.

There's no escaping what a product of its time the film is, with the material often making it a tough watch as anything but a historical artifact. Still, the artistry and craft in this first feature-length production is very impressive; it's no surprise that Japan would become and stay a major force in animation world-wide over the next 70 years.

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