fables of the peach: momotaro, mingus, and imperial consolidation

04May10

My friend Marié clued me in to this incredible “modern jazz opera” version of the famous legend of Momotaro, who was born from a giant peach and went on to conquer demons.  The video is vertiginously entertaining and the combination of modern jazz, Japanese sprechgesang, mythological imagery, and comedic stagecraft work together surprisingly well.

The legend of Momotaro is — like the story of Urashima Taro — one of the few Japanese folk tales that is widely known outside of Japan itself.  My guess is that this is because both stories have elements that are familiar to in some way or other to a European and American readership; Momotaro is, like Moses, found orphaned in a river, while the story of Urashima Taro reads very much like a kind of transposed version of Rip Van Winkle.  Here’s the Momotaro legend as presented by Wikipedia (though I personally prefer the version told on the tourist information site of the Okayama Prefectural Government):

According to the present form of the tale (dating to the Edo period), Momotarō came to Earth inside a giant peach, which was found floating down a river by an old, childless woman who was washing clothes there. The woman and her husband discovered the child when they tried to open the peach to eat it. The child explained that he had been sent by Heaven to be their son. The couple named him Momotarō, from momo (peach) and tarō (eldest son in the family).

An older form of the story has the old, childless woman discover the giant, floating peach and take it home with her, as she finds it to be of good color and tasty-looking. After eating a piece of the peach, the old woman is suddenly rejuvenated and regains the beauty of her youth. When her old husband comes home from the hills, he is astounded to find a dazzling young lady in his house. At first he does not even recognize his own wife in her rejuvenated form, but she explains to him how she has picked up an unusual peach floating in the river and brought it home to eat it and was magically transformed. She then gives her husband a piece of the peach to eat, and he also regains his youthful vigor. That night, the newly invigorated couple make love, and the woman becomes pregnant as a result. She eventually gives birth to their first child, a son, whom they name Tarō, as that is a common Japanese name for a first son.

Years later, Momotarō left his parents for an island called Onigashima to destroy the marauding oni (demons or ogres) that dwelt there. En route, Momotarō met and befriended a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant, who agreed to help him in his quest. At the island, Momotarō and his animal friends penetrated the demons’ fort and beat the demons’ leader, Ura, as well as his army, into surrendering. Momotarō returned home with his new friends, and his family lived comfortably from then on.

Momotarō is strongly associated with Okayama, and his tale may have its origins there. The demon island of the story is sometimes associated with Megijima Island (an island in the Inland Sea near Takamatsu) due to the vast manmade caves found on that island.

However, there’s a much darker side to the story of Momotaro as well, and that’s the role that this story has played in the construction of Japanese national identity during the Meiji and Showa periods, and especially the use of this story to justify Japanese imperial aggression during the Japanese colonial period and the period leading up to WWII.  According to Klaus Antoni — who has written an incredibly informative essay on the subject called “Momotarō (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Shōwa Age” — the Momotaro tale has served two purposes in terms of the consolidation of Japanese national and imperial identity.  The first of these was to unite the disparate localized identities of the Japanese population (the various principalities subdued by the Shogunate would have thought of the idea of a singular “Japanese” identity as something quite strange) by teaching the legend of Momotaro on a national level in the schools and creating a series of identifications between the heroic Momotaro and the Japanese emperor himself.  As Antoni puts it,

The ideological goal of these attempts at unification was applied to the creation of a Japanese “family state” that joined all its citizens, or subjects, with one another on the basis of kinship, and then projected this mystical-mythical community onto the figure of the emperor as the father of this national extended family.

The second purpose for which the legend of Momotaro was used was as a justification for Japanese colonialism in Korea, China, and (later) across the entire Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  In the allegory at work here, the Koreans and Chinese are figured as primitive demons who, once subjugated, can be civilized and learn to follow in the ways of the brave Momotaro (i.e. imperial Japan).  A fantastic example of the use of the Momotaro legend as imperial propaganda can be seen in the 1945 animated feature Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (桃太郎 海の神兵), Japan’s very first full-length animated movie.  In the last reel, Momotaro and his paratroopers successfully defeat the demon invaders (British troops in a setting that looks like it could be Singapore), who are depicted as having a single horn on their heads just like the classic Japanese oni (demon or ogre).  You can watch the entire film (with English subtitles) below.

I love the Momotaro jazz opera video and find it full of endless delights, but as my friend Anne quipped after watching it, “given the baggage of Momotaro being basically an allegory for imperial consolidation is it OK that Charlie Parker is the devil who gets whooped by the good guys?”  Watched in this light, the jazz opera becomes pretty sinister — even given that the comic silliness of the piece is over-the-top enough that a lack of intentionality on the part of the opera’s creators can probably be safely assumed.  The moment where the demons bow down and and relinquish their treasure to the tune of Mingus’s deeply anti-racist and anti-fascist tune “Fables of Faubus” is remarkable in the sheer density of subtle ironies that are involved, not to mention the use of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” which brings up, in a different way, America’s very own deeply troubled and extremely violent history of nation formation and imperial expansion.

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5 Responses to “fables of the peach: momotaro, mingus, and imperial consolidation”

  1. 1 Gary

    Awesomely great vid and analysis. Thanks.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Gary —

      And thank you, sir, for leaving your awesomely kind and great comment. Glad to share this tremendous video of the unexpected meeting of Momotaro and modern jazz.

  2. Hi Trane,

    This post is so great I had to share the link with friends. The clip and your reading of it is really out of sight.

    • 4 Trane DeVore

      Rodney —

      That’s too kind of you to say! And thanks for passing the link along. Sorry it’s taken me way to long to reply to your comment, but the semester became busy and I got lost in the fog of course preparation, paper grading, and exam marking. Things are starting to cool off a bit now, and hopefully I’ll be back to posting at a somewhat decent rate soon.


  1. 1 Momotarō jazz opera « edible education–Modernology Fall 2010

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