The beginning of 1945 was inauspicious for Japan. The first four months of the New Year saw the Empire lose Rangoon and Mandalay in Burma, Iwo Jima, and much of the Philippines. In February, the United States Army Air Force started using fire bombs and incinerated 100,000 people in just one raid in March. On April Fool’s day the Americans invaded Okinawa, four hundred miles from Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan. Okinawa would soon fall, then a country that hadn’t seen invasion since the days of the Kublai Khan would face the might of America on its home soil.
Early 1945 also saw the release of a new film, funded by the Japanese Navy. It had four main characters: a Monkey, a Bear, a Pheasant, and a Dog. These four animals were the stars of the first feature length animated film in Japan. Their story was a take off on the traditional tale of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. Like the original story, the animals would join Momotaro and travel to the Demon’s Island. Except in World War II, the Devil’s Lair was the Celebes Island and the monsters who occupied it were the British.
The films creator was a thirty-four year old animator named Mitsuyo Seo. Seo was an artist and a socialist, a man allowed to pursue his art only if it was done for a military regime. By World War II, Seo had his own production company and pioneered the use of the multiplane camera in Japan. His 1945 movie, called Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, was a sequel to his 1943 film, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles also funded by the Navy.
Momotaro’s warriors do what is expected in a propaganda piece. They use the friendly population to build an airstrip, they teach the natives culture and letters as a kindly benefactor. Then, the warriors unite to defeat a cowardly, ridiculous enemy.
Seo’s vision was not just of war and victory. By 1945, a Japanese victory was something only attainable in the movies. Its improbability was brought home daily with every bomb that fell, with every soldier that died, and in every Kamikaze pilot that flew his last mission. Seo the man, not the conscripted propagandist, wanted to create something beautiful. In his vision, there were flowing rivers and forests under Mount Fuji. There were rice fields and mountains. Children played and sang and parents welcomed their son home. In his film Seo created a Japan that people would know. A Japan of family and beauty. He hoped what he was making was something people would want not to die for, but to live for.
The movie brought a sixteen year old boy named Tezuka Osamu to tears. He had recognized its message, hidden beneath the layers of propaganda. Osamu decided the day he saw the film to become an animator and would go on to be the “Father” of modern Japanese Animation and Comics, creating works such as Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy.
A few months after Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was released, two Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the War came to a close. Seo’s dreams of peace had arrived, but Post War Japan was not easy for an animator. By the 1950’s Seo had left the animation business and had become an illustrator for children’s books. His wartime work disappeared from public consciousness and became a sense of shame for him, having helped a regime that went so much against his ideals and principles. Seo largely vanished from public view and even his death in 2010 was largely unreported.
The film, like its author, faded into obscurity. It remained unseen until a copy was rediscovered in 1983. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was Mitsuyo Seo’s greatest work and his biggest shame. But in it he succeeded in sharing his dreams with the generation of people that would take Japan from a totalitarian regime to a new, freer society. It would be the precursor and inspiration of the Japanese animation that would eventually captivate the world. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors came at a time when young Japanese people needed hope for a future without war; when they had nothing more than film to animate their dreams for tomorrow.
For those interested in watching Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei 桃太郎海の神兵in its entirety, you can do so here (Japanese Language only) :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ne-0e6P4jo