March Against Food

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Description of the Minamata disease.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971) Directed by Tsuchimoto Noriaki is a documentary about the Minamata disease which, simply put, is methyl mercury poisoning. The disease originated from a Chisso Corporation factory that was dumping methyl mercury (a byproduct of the fertilizer they manufactured), illegally, into the ocean. This careless action poisoned the sea life with the mercury, which in turn poisoned the people who ate the diseased creatures. When it became apparent something was happening, it was too late, the affected people had been stripped of their senses and their ability to think and speak properly. Even when the source became apparent, there was no easy solution, and many were told not to go see doctors or to tell anyone one from the outside about the disease. The Chisso factory had a lot to answer for. The legal battle was settled with money, but as you could imagine many were not satisfied; this is a documentary of those demanding reimbursement besides money. Throughout the film, the audience gets the sense that Chisso are the “bad guys” but even more so, it is depicted that the food has in a sense has become part of the enemy, or rather, the weapon of the enemy. An enemy that the people must rally against to defeat; much like the Oni in the legend of Momotaro.

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Picture of one of the fatalities, as well as the victim’s wife’s own emotional struggle as she watched her husband “rot” away.

We see food here acting as a weapon of the enemy rather than a necessity for living. The methyl mercury from the factory is dumped into the ocean, creating a silent enemy to the unsuspecting villages nearby. “Human victims were mostly fishermen or their families, and there was a tendency for successive outbreaks in the same family” (00:00:32). These people are just everyday people trying to get by. This disease caused victims to experience pain and had symptoms such as “heads that loll, eyes that can’t see, ears that can’t hear, mouths that can’t speak or taste, hands that can’t grasp, legs that won’t walk” (00:20:57). Not many were able to recover from the disease; those who survived often were not able to live normal lives and were mentally impaired by the methyl mercury. Most still suffered from the basic symptoms, such as loss of control in movements, pain, and numbness in the limbs. As we see, the poisoned food has condemned these people to a life (if it can be called that) of suffering—if they survive that is.

The victims of this disease, however, were not only those who had the disease, but the victims’ families as well. In the documentary we see many of those who have Minamata disease, but we also see those who are close to them. Many loved ones were lost either in death or in the madness caused by the poisoning; parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, and close friends. Those left behind felt a great loss, as shown especially at the end during the shareholders meeting when the older woman is yelling at the executives to give back her parents. Grief turns to rage and a demand to see someone pay, as money is too easy and does nothing to bring back the people lost to the disease. Thus, we see the people come together in the great tragedy to go against the oni who have turned food into a weapon by poisoning it.

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The announcing of the success of the fundraising for the patients of Minamata disease and their cause.

Though the people want to make the Chisso Corporation pay, they themselves seem unsure how. It is then decided that they will take the “patient” and make a journey to a shareholders meeting. To be admitted to the meeting, however, they must each hold at least one share of the company. The shares as well as the trip over would not be easily affordable by those in the poor village (especially since they have to pay for treatment for the patients). So, in order to gain money they begin a fundraising drive. We see people not only from one fishing village help, but several other remote villages which before had basically kept to themselves. The people come together in order to go to different cities and events in order to ask for, or in some cases preform for,  donation as well as inform the people what the Minamata disease is, how the problem was created, and their plan to go against their oppressors; Chisso. The people showed great understanding and donated more than the people of Minamata had expected; even kids came up to the people and donated small change. Through the tragedy of being maimed by the food, or Minamata disease, we see people come together.

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After the “pilgrimage” to Osaka, speakers for the Minamata Patients get to talk to their supporters. One references to Momotaro, likening the journey, and the “Minamata War.”

Finally once the funds had been raised, the people who had come together because of the poisoned food, go together in a march to go face these “oni” who poisoned their food supply, much like the Momotaro legend. Though in this documentary we don’t see a conclusion, but we do see the people make their way, despite many obstacles. And from the periphery (near Minamata) we see them supported not only by those in the village back “home,” but also by those who donated to their cause, as well as by the people who meet them at the station to show their support. As we have seen, food acts as a common enemy for those affected, bringing people together in order to fight for what is right, no matter how hard, or long it takes.

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