by Mike Toole,

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors

Momotaro, Sacred Sailors
It's battle stations for brave Momotaro and his loyal sacred sailors: his storied companions the dog, pheasant, and monkey! The four animal heroes start by taking a break from combat, but soon, incursions from nasty foreign devils start to threaten the stability of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. After the animals team up with friendly local islanders to build an airstrip for the navy, it's up to Captain Momotaro and his unrivaled warrior brigade to sail, fly, and parachute their way to Devil's Island, all the while mowing down scores of foreign invaders.

Watching anime from bygone eras will teach you about the medium. Track down those early Precure episodes directed by Rie Matsumoto, and you'll see her strong visual aesthetic taking shape in front of you. Careful study of Macross: Do You Remember Love? reveals Hideaki Anno's flair for action a decade before Evangelion, not to mention his love of animating explosions. Scrutinize the sound and musical design of Belladonna of Sadness, and you'll see the passion for music that drove Atsumi Tashiro to create Group TAC. There's perhaps no more notable work of anime from a long-gone era than this film. Before Toei, before Tezuka, there was Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, a feature-length animated movie produced by Japan's Ministry of the Navy in the dying days of World War II. Yep, it's a genuine propaganda film!

A few important things opened the door for Momotaro: Sacred Sailors. One of them was the Japanese government's clampdown on foreign media, which effectively opened the door for short Japanese cartoons to get greater exposure in theatres, after years of routinely getting frozen out by wave after wave of polished, funny American cartoon shorts. This was especially auspicious for a certain director named Mitsuyo Seo, who created a couple of cartoons based on the popular manga Norakuro, the chronicles of a black and white doggy in the Japanese imperial army. This sort of work got him in good with the Ministry of the Navy, who'd lately been commissioning animation for wartime training films with a ‘shadow staff’ of about 30 animators. Another factor was the debut of the Wan Brothers' feature film Princess Iron Fan. It was a solid, entertaining movie with a subtle anti-Japan message. So surely, a talented Japanese director could make a better movie than this pair of upstarts from occupied Shanghai?

The final factor is that, by the time Momotaro: Sacred Sailors hit the drawing board, Mitsuyo Seo had already finished and released a propaganda film that crosses battlefield imagery with the Momotaro folk tale, with Momotaro's Sea Eagles. The thing is, while it was wildly successful (school field trips may have played a role in its broad viewership), it wasn't quite a feature film, clocking in at only five reels. Its story, which starts with a baby eagle being helped out by Momotaro's forces and ends with the naval unit just beating the everloving stuffing out of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons (seriously, they sample Gus Wickie's voice and everything), isn't quite enough to carry a movie. (Note: You can see Momotaro's Sea Eagles on Zakka's fine Roots of Japanese Anime DVD.) With Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, Seo delivers on his previous success's promise.

The story is what you'd expect from this sort of film. While the navy wages war against foreign interests in the pacific, a quartet of animals—a dog, monkey, pheasant, and bear—return to their bucolic country village. Sarukichi the monkey is eager to explain warplanes to his excited little brother; Kijisuke the bird has food for his little siblings. Wankichi the dog is just happy to see his family again, as is the bear. (The bear isn't named in this sequence, so we'll just call him Yogikichi.) But soon enough, it's back to combat, which means the viewer is treated to a scene of goofy animals singing cheerfully as they build an airstrip and hangar, the better to launch an attack against those dastardly foreign devils!

How do we know they're foreign devils? The film tells us so, courtesy of an engrossing, shadowy depiction of crafty, conniving western traders bellying up to friendly island countries, promising trade and prosperity, and then just wrecking the shit out of everything, all while insisting, “This is just our culture.” Yep, sounds like the good old USA, alright. It's left to folks like Momotaro's brigade to liberate these islanders, treat them fairly, and teach them the Japanese language, via a jaunty sing-a-long of the A-I-E-O-U song, the Japanese ABCs. Then, it's time for Momotaro himself to arrive, the better to start planning the navy's major invasion of Devil's Island!

From an aesthetic point of view, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is completely, utterly un-anime. This is natural; it predates modern anime by decades, so it has more in common with both its contemporary Japanese fare (almost entirely made up of goofy, cartoony shorts) and similar cartoons from the west. There's something darkly amusing about Seo swiping the aesthetic of Disney and Famous and Van Buren cartoons to craft a film about literally waging war on them (keep an eye out for a cameo by a famous cartoon sailor!). This doesn't make Momotaro unique – after all, plenty of war cartoons came out of Disney, including the acclaimed feature-length Victory Through Air Power. What makes it unique is its interesting perspective, that of a brave, barnstorming Japan, one that contrasted harshly with the increasingly ragged state of the nation during the movie's production. One dark detail about Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is that it wasn't widely seen upon release, because Japan's infrastructure was either crumbling or bombed to smithereens, and its population wasn't thinking about going to see Momotaro lead the nation to glory.

Fortunately, we have this release now. After decades of fuzzy, unsubtitled VHS rips, this is a revelation, a studied look at a baroque, beautifully-crafted film. Its technical prowess is laid bare here – in an animation industry that was making it all up as it went along, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors had an actual multiplane camera, a great leap forward. The presence of the camera (revealed in shots where different scenic elements go in and out of focus) makes me wish that some documentary elements survived, just to get a closer look at how this movie was made. Sadly, not even the entire staff survived the war. I also wish that the film wasn't still so desperately short on credits. We know that, on Momotaro's Sea Eagles, Tamaki Hashimoto played the role of animation director before the function existed, scrutinizing Seo's drawings and doing corrections where necessary. But who did that for this film?

Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is paired up on this release with Kenzo Masaoka's 1943 cartoon short The Spider and the Tulip. It's a pretty basic little tale of a cute singing ladybug, the irascible, predatory spider that tries to charm her, and the tulip that shields her from the storm – but who'll save the spider? It's kind of an odd choice for inclusion – Masaoka worked on actual war cartoons, like Fuku-chan's Surprise Attack. But both of the films included here are owned by Shochiku—them sharing a home video release goes all the way back to the original Momotaro: Sacred Sailors VHS release in the 80s. The Spider and the Tulip is sometimes described as the first Japanese animation to use mostly cels. That's not true, but it was one of the first, and it's also a really neat-looking cartoon that also uses multiplane effects and trick photography to tell its tale.

There's no specific revelation to be had by viewing Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, beyond enjoying the heck out of a technically impressive wacky cartoon version of the Battle of Singapore, complete with General Yamashita (played here by Momotaro himself) stridently bitching out General Percival while hashing out the terms of surrender in the British navy's greatest-ever defeat. I've always wondered who provided the reedy, hapless voice of Percival, who speaks in clear British English. Was it a POW, or simply a stranded expat looking for paying work? Funimation are to be commended for bringing the kind of anime release to the west that's usually the exclusive territory of small academic publishers. If you're a historian, an animation buff, someone with an academic interest in anime, or just looking for a new movie that's like nothing you've seen, you'll find Momotaro: Sacred Sailors well worth watching.

Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : A-

+ A lost treasure of an animated film, depicts the genesis of modern Japanese animation more than any other commercial releases
Still a bit plodding and primitive, scant on extras

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Production Info:
Director: Mitsuyo Seo

Full encyclopedia details about
Momotaro - Umi no Shinpei (movie)

Release information about
Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (Sub.Blu-Ray + DVD)

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