A seasoned anime viewer, over long and dedicated hours of reading subtitles, may well notice some things come up again and again (the tropes counted over at TV Tropes), while other staples of Japanese life are never mentioned, or rarely and indirectly. A good example: I cannot count how many onsen resort or “love hotel” episodes I’ve seen, but if there’s ever been a capsule hotel episode, I must have dozed off in the middle.
When it comes to history, aside from the Imperial Family—which I’ve only seen when the Emperor shows up in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, a must in keeping with the original—World War II remains, understandably, something only haltingly brought up in popular culture. Otaku favorites Hetalia: Axis Powers and Kantai Collection are in some sense based on the war, but their lightheartedness feels like indirection. Grave of the Fireflies, that almost too sad to watch classic, shows the devastation wrought on Japanese civilians. The shadow of Japan’s defeat comes up in Zankyou no Terror, and glimpses of the war overseas from the home front perspective come up in Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. But nothing like the long tradition of war flicks that has remained a staple of American cinema every decade since; the earlier Sengoku and Meiji periods have a much larger presence. The irony here is, the 74-minute 1944, released in 1945 film Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei, or Momotaro, Sacred Sailors, intended as war propaganda and sponsored by the Japanese Naval Ministry, was the first full-length anime movie. It is a groundbreaking and, I think, it remains a great, even uplifting film.
Sequel to the 37-minute 1943 Momotaro no Umiwashi, or Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, which fictionalizes the attack on Pearl Harbor but is a more primitive and “cartoony” film, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is one of the first places we can see what we know and love as anime come into being. While at first glance the rounded, anthropomorphic animal characters and faded black and white of the film (the sole surviving negative was rediscovered in 1983) may seem a poor imitation of the day’s Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons, the unique stamp Japanese artists would leave on the medium is already present. I don’t like spoilers either, so I’ll try to end off this post soon, but let me just say the treatment of war is moving and heartfelt. Director Mitsuyo Seo, interestingly, was known before and after the war for his leftist sympathies, but somehow the Naval Ministry’s choice of this antiwar and pro-democracy animator was perfect. With none of the speechifying that is the bane of much later shonen anime (okay, there is some demonizing, just not in face-to-face elocutions), Momotaro, Sacred Sailors communicates the gravity of war astoundingly well—it almost feels like the true first Studio Ghibli film. And he definitely makes an interesting use of pastoral folk hero Momotaro; must see to believe. Lastly, anyone viewing this not-so-long movie may want to keep a mental checklist of all the tropes they can spot; I wager you’ll be surprised just how many of anime’s must haves it already had so near its dawn.