Unnatural Struggle

The film documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, is about the public health crisis that affected the Minamata area, beginning in the 1950s.

The first portion of this film shows viewers several Minamata disease victims. One such five-minute scene begins with a seemingly normal Japanese family eating dinner.  Both the adults and the children chat amongst themselves while eating from communal dishes. Then, the camera shifts to the left, and one sees a child being spoon-fed by her mother. This act is commonplace, one that all parents go through in raising children. However, the more one sees, the more wrong this action feels. The child being fed seems too old to require parental assistance. While the other children eat, drink, and fidget as children do, this one seems somehow unnaturally still. Only her eyes move. Her lips only move when prompted to eat.

Through watching this one family, one can see how devastated natural relationships by this disease. When the afflicted child, Tomoko, was very young, she seemed to be growing normally. But as she grew older, the effects of the disease became apparent. Tomoko should be able to feed herself, just by nature of growing up, but this is clearly not the case. Tomoko also cannot stand, or speak. Although Tomoko’s parents are chatty people, Tomoko can only make wordless noises. Tomoko will never be able to fulfill hopes her parents once had for her, such as becoming independent or getting married. Her parents still need to take care of her, because she will never be able to care for herself. Even so, the only other alternative, having the hospital take care of Tomoko, is unacceptable to her parents.

Tomoko is the eldest child, and, because of this, should naturally be the one her siblings look up to. This is clearly not the case, here. Throughout the entire dinner scene, none of Tomoko’s siblings touch her or even look at her. Despite being the eldest, Tomoko is the smallest. Her siblings have strong legs, good for the walking and running around expected of children. But as Tomoko cannot even stand, her legs are weak and undeveloped. Her siblings can feed themselves from the dishes made for them, their chubby fingers grasped around spoons and chopsticks. In comparison, Tomoko cannot even be fed solid foods.

Like many scenes in this film, the selected sequence is a study in contrasts, in both the filmmaking elements and its subject matter. The scene starts off with a burst of normal dinner chatter, letting the viewer take in the family atmosphere. Then, prompted by the filmmaker, the parents begin to talk about their daughter. Narration weaves in when needed to explain the family’s situation.

The scene begins abruptly and ends even more so. After this scene is played out, the film’s focus suddenly changes, switching instead to demonstrators. This abruptness makes the juxtaposition of intimate family struggle and community advocacy even more marked.


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