In today’s world, food is known as a great unifier that brings people together. Families come together, business deals are negotiated, and we rekindle and make friendships all while having meals. However, in Minamata, Japan the food does quite the opposite. Rather than bringing people together, eating the seafood from the ocean tore village life apart. Minamata disease, which is essentially mercury poisoning, is caused by eating contaminated seafood. The Chisso industrial factory spills toxic waste into the ocean, contaminates the seafood, and thus, severely affects the villagers’ health. In Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary, “ Minamata: The Victims and Their World,” he makes use of the observational and participatory mode, as well as, the portrait genre to show the severe reality of the disease, the impact it has on the villagers, and how food can become something deathly.
Tsuchimoto’s use of observational mode is a key element in delivering insight into the bleak lives of the Minamata victims. He opens the documentary with a wide shot of a fishing boat and proceeds to film in observational mode. As we proceed to watch the fishermen bring in their catch, the foreboding music, foreshadows how the horrible disease has affected the villagers’ lives. The observational mode allows us to see that for these fishermen, this is their daily life and they see nothing wrong with catching these fish that have been poisoned by toxic waste products. Because the fishermen are unaware of the repercussions that will follow after eating these fish, the dramatic irony of the observational scene allows us to sympathize; we know that their health and reality will soon be greatly affected by the disease.
Likewise, Tsuchimoto’s use of participatory mode allows us to see how food becomes an antagonist in the lives of the villagers, as well as, the reality of the disease. As Tsuchimoto speaks to the boy who is affected by the disease, one gets a sense of how these victims function in daily life. We are able to see that this victim is particularly witty with his words, thus allowing us to sympathize with him because he is not completely incapacitated. But rather, he is a functioning human boy who has feelings and thoughts similar to us. If the mercury that his mother consumed had not affected him, he could be a completely functioning human being. This goes to show, how toxic the fish his mother ate was. It was passed through the womb—food is truly the villain in this miserable story.
Lastly, the portraits Tsuchimoto uses to introduce and identify victims allows us to further see the horrible role that food plays in the lives of the Minamata villagers. By introducing the victims with portraits, one gets a sense of the formal and foreboding sense of the disease because we know that the victim has either or passed or is suffering. However, the portrait humanizes the victim because we are able to see what the victim looked like before he/she became ill. This contrast allows us to see how severely the patients changed, and this is directly related to the food that they ate.
Although food usually has positive connotations, in the case of the Minamata victims, it is anything but positive—it is deadly.