Since food is necessary to life, it is instinctive to eat for self-preservation. Beyond this innate urge, food also holds a deeper connotation for family and society. Despite our cultural origins, the preparation and enjoyment of food is a commonality we all share. Food is much more than nourishment; it is the vehicle through which society communicates sentiments, expresses affection and creates bonds. When one thinks of life’s varied occasions, food is most likely at the epicenter. People use food to mark special occasions like birthdays, weddings, holidays, promotions and even funerals. Food is used to comfort people in times of suffering and nurse the weak in times of sickness. Through its loving preparation, the sharing of food with others is what keeps us connected. Food plays a significant role in our daily lives, so much so, that it often defines ones identity, community, traditions, and relationships – it is the common thread that keeps us connected.
In Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, we visit a small fishing village in southwest Kyūshū sandwiched between the Kyūshū Mountains and the Yatsushiro Sea. We are exposed to a crippled community suffering the consequences of environmental pollution and stripped of their identity, compassion, livelihood and most importantly food. Through Tsuchimoto’s expert use of expository filmography, we gain an intimate glimpse at the severed relationship between food and society via a pandemic outbreak of methyl mercury poisoning. The result is a disconcerting series of interwoven mosaics highlighting the stark reality of this disease, its impact on the residents, and how food is transformed from one of life’s greatest joys into a deadly quandary.
With fishing and farming as the only source of monetary income, a
fledgling Minamata revels in the idea of welcoming big industry into their small town. The Chisso Corporation is the means to transform the town into a prosperous society. Unfortunately, it tears apart their community and physically debilitates a preponderance of its residents. Divided between the union workers and the fisherman, the community is left flailing like a stricken fish on the ocean’s surface. Tsuchimoto’s distant use of observational framing allows us to maneuver amongst the chaotic town and humanizes this personal, yet shared, struggle. Through this fly-on-the-wall perspective, we intimately view Minamata’s plight and vicariously experience the intense social shame of such a conservative society. Most residents fear the disease to be contagious, while others are staunch loyalist to the Chisso Corporation through their dependency on the factory for income. The community essentially ostracizes the victims and tries to erase history, without a trace or a memory. As we look around, there is no affection only infection.
With complete disregard for continuity between scenes, Tsuchimoto further
juxtaposes seemingly unrelated shots together in a melodic collage of cinematic
genius. By stressing the fragile relationship between Minamata’s victims and
nature, Tsuchimoto reveals the personal struggle and subsequent destruction of
a community. Through his poetic portrayal, we witness a broad spectrum of
shared relationships – an elderly man hunting octopus, a widow concocting bait, sardine netting, the ominous factory, concrete pipes pumping chemically laden runoff into the ocean, suffering children, and an infuriated community. This subtle, however, explicit portrayal of daily life shows the moral erosion of Minamata’s community. Yet, the undeniable truth is that everyone is susceptible to this indistinguishable disease through their interdependency on the local fisheries for sustenance.
As one fisherman poignantly states, “the vital point [to kill an octopus] is between the eyes”, one cannot help but think of this statement as a metaphor for the Minamata community. Methyl mercury poisoning is a neurological syndrome affecting muscle coordination, impaired vision, paralysis, loss of speech, insanity and ultimately death. Ironically, these are the same symptoms affecting the communal bonds of Minamata. Their lack of coordination allows for the continued pollution of their food, their impaired vision promotes further neglect of the victims, and their refusal to speak against the Chisso Corporation’s atrocities eventually leads to a paralyzed town left wallowing in their own chaotic and insecure delusions.
Tsuchimoto’s documentary reminds us of the alarming importance between food and human welfare. Food is why we gather, not just to eat, but to talk, share, and connect. It facilitates conversation and acts as the medium by which we strengthen and nurture our relationships. Without healthy food we as humans will literally die, but as a society we will perish in the social context. Tsuchimoto’s ability to cinematically capture this unfortunate disease will serve as an enduring lesson to us all, but more importantly, we are left contemplating the stark reality of foods role in the fragility of society.