With its solemn, haunting atmosphere, Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971) is a poignantly surreal yet heartbreakingly realistic documentary shot solely in tones of grey. From its silent beginning informing viewers of the devastating Minamata disease to its cathartic ending of prayers to the victims, Minamata presents a number of significant issues concerning the mercury poisoning incident, focusing especially on the horrors that pollution inflicts upon people, disrupting their close bond with nature and food. What they had treasured as livelihood and food had been mutilated by human hands into an ugly force that infiltrates human bodies, producing severely mentally and physically disabled children, social stigma and discrimination, and untimely, painful deaths. It can be said that this documentary revolves around certain contrasts, namely in the relationship Minamata residents have with their food and the environment.
Tsucihmoto stresses the disconnection between Minamata residents and their historical companions, the fish and the sea, at the cost of industrial modernization. He delineates this in lingering scenes with the victims of Minamata disease and their families. These vignettes are incredibly compelling, as victims explain how they feel ostracized and burdensome, as families share their worries about the future of their afflicted children and resentment towards Chisso and the government. In one particular scene, the Kamimura family is seated around the dinner table. The scene appears to portray a typical, smiling family engaged in a blissful dinner, until the camera closes in on Tomoko, the oldest—and “smallest”—child out of seven, and the only child with Minamata disease. She cannot take care of herself, but to her family, she is still a “treasure”. Although the scene could easily have a gloomy atmosphere, Tsuchimoto chooses to dwell on this scene for a relatively longer time, showing the world how families touched by Minamata disease have the spirit and strength to function just as well and be just as happy as normal families. The fact that they are crowded around a dining table laden with food serves to symbolize the normalcy and love the family possesses for each other.
Thus, there lies a glimmer of the contrast that Tsuchimoto incorporates into his documentary: there is still hope and faith in the connection between food and humans. For example, he shows clips of fishermen at work throughout the documentary, indicating that fishing is, has always been, and always will be a major part of the lives of Minamata residents, regardless of the disease. There is also a scene where residents are making bait for fishing. It is a careful and very individual matter; everyone has their own secret recipe. This shows how personally and respectfully the residents treat nature and their potential food. Making your own special bait is not just a process. It is an art.
Although Minamata is heavy, with tragic stories and abrupt changes in scene and music, Tsuchimoto strives to show how the carelessness and neglect of a powerful company harmed innocent people and tainted nature, and how people have been affected by the disease. He expresses how humans and nature, particularly sea creatures and thus food, persevere nonetheless. As symbolized by the octopus scene, humans still share an intimate, natural relationship with food, despite all the obstacles thrown in their path.