Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors

(Neo Magazine, Uncooked Media)

Previously, we expressed amazement that Belladonna of Sadness, a 1970s erotic “art” animation, could get a British home release. Momotaro, Sacred Sailors is even further out there. It’s a black-and-white kids’ film from 1945, starring a cast of animated animals who often sing or perform cartoon antics. But they’re engaged in serious business; they’re building an army camp and supporting the furry troops about to fly out to the enemy.

For Momotaro is a World War II propaganda film, showing Japan liberating the world from monstrous Westerners. (Some context: wartime propaganda cartoons were no “weird Japan” thing. America made dozens too; one of the most notorious, offensive from its title onward, was “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”.)

The first feature-length Japanese animation ever, Momotaro is fascinating in small doses. The images are often weird and wobbly, but they can be utterly beautiful, crazily ambitious for an industry that’s just learning the ropes. But many viewers may find the film hard to sit all the way through, even at 74 minutes! You may find it more fun to study Momotaro piecemeal, rewinding and analysing its individual scenes.

One thing to be prepared for is that the film’s “war” scene, showing the animals in actual conflict, is only a few minutes at the end. Momotaro actually starts with the animal soldiers on leave, visiting their loving families. Then there’s the long “army camp” section, full of boisterous crowds of animals. For students of world animation, this section has fascinating parallels with the early American short cartoons, full of funny animals, made by the Disney and Fleischer studios.

After the camp, there’s an exciting build-up as the characters fly out to their target in warplanes. The pacing here is measured like a live-action war film, full of real details. Then, suddenly, there’s a sublime bit of visual poetry; the animals’ parachutes resemble billowing flower blossoms. The final battle can’t live up to that, for us, but we’re not the target audience. That was the Japanese people of 1945, praying for impossible victory against the Western devils.