For starters, this is a pre-world war 2 film. You must understand that anime began looking as we know them today after the war and by the artistic style of Osamu Tezuka. Thus, the animation simply looks alien to most, despite being a lot more Japanese than modern anime. You can say it looks kinda like standard cartoon of the 60’s… only better. For real, this movie was made in the 40’s and looks more well-made than most animated movies of the 70’s! For real! Here I thought that animation went only forward with time but turns out the war actually threw back the industry to the level of Go Go Go (Mach 5 in America). Which is kinda understood as this movie was funded big time by the military of that time and as we all know the military has lots of money. Later shows were only funded by small companies and, well, the result is obvious.
So, you may wonder now what kind of story such an old film could be about. The title says Momotaro; even foreigners are well aware of this famous Japanese fairy tale. You know, that boy born from a huge peach, allying with animals and goes defeat a bad ogre. So, you probably think it is an animated adaptation of that fairy tale.
It is not, despite borrowing the name and the basic animals. It is in fact WAR PROPAGANDA! As silly as it may look today, Japanese people at that time were in war with America and its government, the super-special-awesome emperor Hirohito, did all he could to inspire the new generation to support his cause. You know, hating America and waging a holy war and bring about an earthly paradise were the superior Japanese rule all of Asia with their awesome country.
So, two major movies were ordered to be made, this one titled “Divine Soldiers of the Sea” and “Momotarou no Umiwashi”. Both involve military anthropomorphic animals from the fairy tale, having a stroll in their beautiful country, full of happy animals and then taking orders from Momotaro to bomb the evil American navy… and doing so. They board their airplanes, lift off from their air-carriers, go towards the enemy fleet… and blow everything apart! Then they storm an American base where they arrest the ridiculously stupid looking allied forces and make their chickenshit leaders to surrender unconditionally. Seriously, the film is about making the Americans look stupid and the Japanese cool and powerful. That is all you get to see in the 45 minutes they last; a nice militaristic view of how strong the Japanese navy, how good-hearted its people are, and how great things are supposed to look in the eyes of its people.
And to think this is supposed to be aimed at kids! It has so much violence and misanthropy in it, it makes your average 80’s splatter to feel poor in comparison. Just imagine how a kid affected by watching this turns out to be. Because it is not just harmless entertainment, like in thrillers and stories about alien invasions. No sir, it’s about feeling great to kill human beings of another race. For real! The last scene alone is about kids playing on an image of America, stomping it with their feet like it’s a bug or something. Well, America is not that innocent itself but this was too much to see in a kids’ movie.
And if you think this is lame, just remember how many similar films America did about the righteous Americans driving off the evil Nazis/Japs/Russians/Arabs. It was a very common sight back then. You probably remember Daffy Duck hitting Hitler with a huge hammer or Superman defeating Japanese agents trying to bomb America. Well, Momotaro is a very famous figure in Japan even before the war so it was a great way to use him in a similar fashion, for a similar cause.
Still, although very lame and clearly propagandistic, artistically speaking it is still the best animated film ever made up to that point. All things considered, there are no fillers, no dragging, not a moment gone wasting in this film. The story is clearly simple and the characters are just caricatures; yet you get a full course of the whole deal.
All previous animated films Japan had made so far were no more than 10 minutes of silent, low budget, black and white, silly stories. This movie is actually considered to be a masterpiece and a blockbuster when it was made. You can see special effects like multi-layers and pseudo-perspective in a time such a feat was done manually. Plus, it has lots of action and does inspire feelings of glory (and misanthropy) if you don’t know what it is really about. There are even live action scenes inserted in it, which happen to be genuine footage from the real Pearl Harbor bombing! Yes sir, this movie makes it clear it is not an imaginary story. When it bombs a ship, it really shows people dying; not animated figures. Heck, it even goes as far as making fun of trademark western cartoon figures as well.
… Plus, the animation rocks for that time. I mean hundreds of people got depressed after watching Cameron’s Avatar movie because reality felt so boring afterwards. Imagine how easily people can be brainwashed with good visuals, which for that time this movie was of the same level as Avatar.
So, yeah, you are not supposed to take it seriously and should only watch it as a very good historical cartoon. Just remember that every time a little kid cheers the heroes or boos the villains in any cartoon, for any reason, it is more or less the exact same thing and happens a lot even today. So, before you bash this film for its imagery, remember that even today there is a ton of war propaganda going around, although in a lot more subtle and unconscious level. This film, despite its very good visuals and fast pace, is also a fine example of showing how low can humanity drop if the leadership wants you to believe you are a superhuman and must kill the demonized opposition. No matter who they are or what they did. In a way, it is of the same type as Birth of a Nation, a very famous live action American film promoting racism against black people.
See it and remember it the next time some politician yells at the tv, trying to convince you that you must kill the enemy and protect your ideals (meaning, HIS portfolio).