Miscellaneous Myths: Momotarō

Array Anyone familiar with popular culture from the past decade or two will tell you that Japan is WEIRD. I mean just look at anime! What with their beach episodes, festival episodes, and five minutes of yelling, and the power of friendship, and all that nonsense? It’s easy to look at the prevailing Japanese tropes and call them bizarre, but to put this in perspective, I’d like to point out that there is a stock episode in Western animation in which several characters are shrunk down and go on an adventure inside another character’s body. ”But Red!” you might say, ”That’s different, That’s a combination of elements from Fantastic Voyage and Jonah and the Whale, that’s not weird, it’s just a reference!” Yeah, crazy how that works. It’s almost like it’s much easier to see why certain tropes appear when you have something to connect them to. For instance, let’s talk about a trope that we no longer question: the Magic Kid from Somewhere Else trope. It may seem ubiquitous and nigh universal now, but in its oldest form, this trope is Japanese in origin. Plenty of cultures have legends about children conceived by magic or born with odd characteristics, but the story where a child just…appears? That is grounded solidly in two Japanese myths: Momotaro and the Tale of Princess Kaguya. We’ll get to those in a minute. First, I’ll tell you why we Westerners don’t question this trope anymore, and I’ll do it in one word: Superman. (That could be two words). Think of how weird his origin story is when looked at in isolation. An alien spacecraft crashes to Earth, and instead of an invasion or a monster, a BABY comes out??? Who thinks of something like that? He doesn’t count, that’s a Japan thing too. Shush. If Superman’s story had never been told, Western media would have nothing to ground the Super Adoption trope into. And it’s a weird one! Now, Superman is actually intended to be a Moses reference, but the parallel still stands. Without Superman, the Magic Baby Appearing from Nowhere trope, would be as weird to us as the Beach Episode. But let’s talk about one of the original Babies from Nowhere: Momotaro. The story of Momotaro starts off pretty simply. A childless old woman is washing her clothes in the stream, when all of a sudden a huge peach floats by. She carts the thing back to her house where her husband prepares to cut it open; whereupon Lo and Behold, the peach splits in half and a baby boy pops out. (Yeah, kind of like that, but this time the spaceship was edible). Anyway, So they named the kid Momotaro which means “Peach Boy.” So Momotaro is raised by the old couple and grows up to be an unusually strong young man. Which wouldn’t be a particularly relevant trait, if it weren’t for the nearby island full of ogres that started marauding around stealing stuff. Momotaro decides his ideal course of action is to go beat them up and take their stuff, and his parents send him off on his merry way, geared up with a suit of armor and a bag full of Kibidango. So as he’s heading to the island he takes a moment to rest under a tree, whereupon an angry dog runs up to him and threatens the young man, ordering him to “Just leave the Kibidango and walk away.” I imagine that this must be commonplace in mythical Japan, because Momotaro hardly bats an eyelid, and instead pulls a “Don’t you know who I am?” manuver, and somehow the dog actually DOES know who he is, and immediately backs down. They share a Kibidango, and the dog agrees to help him on his journey. Hey, that’s another anime thing! So they continue island-ward, whereupon they encounter a monkey, (No, not that one). who has also heard about Momotaro, and wants to help. The dog gets all defensive, and jealous, but Momotaro agrees, he and the monkey share a Kibidango, which is apparently how you make friends in mythical Japan. (I always thought it was beating each other up). So bla bla journey, bla bla new location, next up is a pheasant, who the dog immediately attacks. Momotaro breaks up the fight, the pheasant joins the party, yada yada Kibidango. but by now Momotaro is getting pretty tired of his sidekicks fighting all the time, and decides they need to learn a valuable lesson in the Power of Friendship. So he tells them, ”THE NEXT TIME ONE OF YOU STARTS A FIGHT, I’M KICKING YOU ALL OUT!!” So the sidekick squad calms down a little and they set sail for the island of the Oni, and because there is literally nothing else to do on a boat, they all get to know each other better, so by the time they arrive on the island, they’re like a well-oiled teamwork machine. So the Oni live in a big scary stronghold, so while Momotaro, the dog, and the monkey try and find a way in from the ground the pheasant flies in first, announces their presence, then starts taking on the Oni single-handedly. (And no, I have no idea how he pulled that off either). Momotaro, the monkey, and the dog sneak around to the back entrance and break in that way. So they fight the Oni and win and when only the Chief Oni is left the demon surrenders. So Momotaro and the Animal Sidekick Crew rescue all the Onis’ prisoners, take all their stuff, and somehow managed to sail everything back home without capsizing. They win glory and fame and stuff as well as the retirement fund to end all retirement funds, and that’s pretty much the end of that. Well, that story was kinda…boring. Not a whole lot happens, there’s hardly any drama, and Momotaro just kind of…wins. So how’d it become so popular? Weeellll, World War Two. Don’t follow? Check this out: let Momotaro represent Japan as a whole. The animal sidekicks are the citizens, so the story stresses the importance of the citizens working together to back up the country and provide it with strength. “But what’s the Oni island represent?” I don’t know how to tell you this America, but… I mean, think about it: as those of you who’ve seen that awesomely hilarious History of Japan video know, World War Two is when Japan was at the height of its world conquering ambition. America was a dangerous superpower in the game, but if they managed to take it over, fabulous wealth and power would be theirs! We all know that didn’t work out too well, and I’m pretty sure our countries are bros now, but at the time, Momotaro was an ideal underdog to associate the country with, and his story perfectly mapped the ideal scenario Japan wanted to end the war with. What had just been a folk tale was catapulted into culture- wide fame. So, like, even though our countries are bros now, and we kind of try to pretend like we never tried to kill each other, this story we’ve adapted in so many ways is only popular *because* of that one time we tried to kill each other. Hey, that’s anime too!
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXs3g2AcUc4

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