The First Anime Film: Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors

Posted by Michael Pinto on Oct 15, 2007 in Animation |

Released in April 12, 1945 Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors was the first full length featured anime film (74 minutes long) made in Japan. The film was directed during World War II by Mitsuyo Seo and produced as propaganda for the Imperial Navy Department of Japan.

Special thanks to Nicholas D. Kent for finding this! Nick also had these other great insights to share:

“The film previous to this was Momotaro, Eagle of the Sea which was only 38 minutes long. I’m slightly unfortunate not to get the earlier one as from what I’ve figured out it’s more outrageous. The first one has the little boy and his animal friends battling American sailors who all look like Bluto.

Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors only has the Peach Boy and his animal pals ridding Asia of the British. I’ve not had the time to watch it all yet. I located it on a possibly 20 year old VHS that I saw at a really big video store in Tokyo 2 1/2 years ago but needed someone to rent and dub it. Fortunately (Amazingly) it wasn’t chewed up! The box really looked old and faded.

As a bonus feature the VHS also has the more often seen “The Spider and the Tulip” (1943), the not quite propaganda but obviously allegorical 15 minute anime about Japan and the West by Kenzo Masaoka. I think most people consider it the first anime masterpiece. It is markedly more sophisticated than anything made before it. I think Masaoka taught Seyo to animate and Masaoka was an animator on the 38 minute one:

Sadly after “Spider and Tulip” he did a sort of Fantasia short set to music that was beautiful but underbudgeted and not what a post war audience found commercial and then he did some more conventional talking animal shorts in the late 40s and left animation by the early 1950s. His 1930s animation is pretty primitive though not without some charms.

One of the oddest DVD bonuses I’ve ever seen on the Masaoka DVD set is a 1970s home move of what appears to be a group of old friends and possibly animators visiting the cemetery. From what I could tell they were unveiling a really first class figurative sculpture monument for Masaoka’s grave and seemed to be enjoying the occasion with Masaoka himself who was quite alive and the guest of honor. At least that’s what looks like is happening in the home movies. About the only other possible scenario I can think of was Masaoka became a sculptor in later years and he was the guest of honor because he made the sculpture for someone else. But the way he’s sitting by it makes me think it’s him enjoying it rather than a memorial occasion.

Oh another rarity I got a hold of (which has very rarely been screened in the U.S.) is Vladislav Starevich’s (Lithuanian director living in France) “The Story of the Fox”, which is a feature length stop motion film with musical numbers that might have been completed as early as 1930 but wasn’t finalized until 1941 (and likely had some wartime German associations that couldn’t have helped it’s posterity.) It’s an amazing achievement in animation that comes off as pretty scary for kids in my eyes. I have no idea how intentional it was but the animals are rather menacing and feral though they wear cloths, walk upright and sing. He also went through the trouble of animating his characters breathing and using motion blur when speed needed to be emphasized. Starevich’s “Devils Ball” sequence from “Fétiche – Mascot” is his best known work, but Americans who’ve seen that one and a good number of his silent shorts rarely know he did an all animated feature.”

Below: A still from Vladislav Starevich’s “The Story of the Fox”:

Vladislav Starevich's The Story of the Fox

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