The Distasteful Conclusion to Minamata Disease — by Amy Yagi

The film, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, is a documentary explaining the occurrence of Minamata disease through heart-rending clips of the sufferers. Minamata disease is caused by mercury poisoning and causes the victims to lose functioning in their bodies to the point of being unable to swallow or defecate. Their nervous systems are destroyed. The disease was perpetuated by the Chisso Factory that dumped mercury wastewater into the bay area and contaminated the fish in the sea. When the fishermen and the families in the area ate these fish, they ingested the mercury and acquired the horrific disease.
The director of the documentary, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, uses intimate scenes of the families afflicted with Minamata disease to invoke sympathy and create an understanding of what happened to these people. With this deeper understanding, we become unable to accept the way Minamata disease was dealt with by both the Chisso factory and the Japanese government. Two particular scenes involving the use of food create such an understanding: The elderly fisherman catching his own octopuses, and the mother feeding her diseased daughter at the dinner table.

Tsuchimoto uses the scene with the fisherman to show how Minamata disease not only poisoned bodies, but also ruined traditions and affected good people. The interview with the aged man clearly shows how experienced he is in catching his own food, the octopuses—he nonchalantly explains how biting the octopuses between the eyes is the most effective way of killing them. He is quick to demonstrate, digging his teeth right into the head and squinting his eyes with satisfaction when he accomplishes his task. The scene is touching because we see how happy the man is with this way of life—his laugh lines are prominent and he looks up at the sky with a contagious smile, shown expertly by an upward angle of the camera. As a society and part of food ideology, people who catch their own food tend to be respected and looked up to, so Tsuchimoto makes us view this elderly fisherman as someone we like already. We can understand that he has been doing this his whole life, and sympathize with this good-natured man because these octopuses are now contaminated with mercury. By showing that not only the people were being killed, but also that their ways of life were being destroyed, Tsuchimoto makes it harder for us to accept that the victims never received a direct apology from the Chisso factory. He also makes the injustice harder to ignore by showing how such an incident could affect people we could know and be fond of. These same people were just given monetary compensation in return for their lives.

The fisherman smiling after a big catch. You can't not like him.

Delving deeper into our emotions, Tsuchimoto uses the scene of a mother feeding her daughter to invoke sympathy for the victims and anger towards Chisso. The Minamata diseased daughter was already in her preteens, yet still had to be force-fed by her mother because she couldn’t sit up or swallow properly by herself. The shot focuses directly on the daughter’s face and shows a close-up view of the mother inserting liquidized food into her mouth, the food dribbling back out, and the mother patiently scooping it all back up with the spoon into her daughter’s mouth again. Here, Tsuchimoto utilizes the ideology we have as a society that eating food is a pleasure and a basic right to make us feel pity towards the girl who can’t enjoy her meal, much less get it into her stomach and compassion towards the mother who has to live her life caring for her child forever. For example, The Gourmet Club clearly illustrates how some people revere eating to the point of wasting their lives away just for the purpose, and in our society now, we try to make sure everyone is able to eat so they can survive. Also, in Japanese society especially, parents are expected to be taken care of by their children, so the reversal of these roles in this scene is unnatural and culturally repulsive. By showing us a scene where the daughter looks crippled, relying completely on her mother to sustain her, Tsuchimoto makes it impossible for us not to understand how terrible the whole Minamata incident was concluded.

In taking advantage of the ideologies our society has about food, Tsuchimoto makes the viewers believe the victims of Minamata disease have been wronged in compensation. Like one woman says in the film, she just wanted an apology and to make the people at Chisso understand. Unfortunately, what the victims got was a numerical value attached to their lives.


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