In the stories and fables centered on the hero Momotarō or Peach-Boy, food works as a symbol of solidarity as well as authority. Momotarō is a typical heroic character: noble, righteous, and a protector of the interests of the less powerful. In the fables about his exploits, he and his retainers protect Japan from various evil forces, usually in the form of ogres or demons. These two sides are often distinguished via the symbol of food, whether it is the millet dumplings that Momotarō gives his retainers in the original tales or the alcohol that is heavily consumed by the bumbling captain of the demons’ ship in a wartime cartoon. In addition, these relationships are portrayed differently in the various Momotarō stories based on the time period in which they were written. These changes are reflected in the treatment of food within the films and texts. Food and the act of consuming it is a powerful indicator of community and relationships, a fact, which is reflected quite frequently in the myths of Momotarō.
In almost every story of Peach-Boy, there is an appearance of millet dumplings. In the original fable, Momotarō gives these dumplings to the dog, monkey, and pheasant that encounters on his way to Ogres’ Island. After receiving and eating these dumplings, the respective animals become retainers or servants of Momotarō. Thus food is acting as a direct agent of producing community. These dumplings, which were made by Momotarō’s loving parents, represent the mutual acceptance between the hero and the animals to become connected in some way. Food that was originally shared between family members, Peach-Boy and his parents, is now being given to these new characters, suggesting that they are perhaps joining his family or community in some way. Sharing and eating food together is something that everyone in a community, whether it is one of friends, family, coworkers, or etc., does together. Therefore when Momotarō performs this ritual with his new retainers it represents that they have overcome their differences (as each animal initially attacks the Peach-Boy) and decided to join together in some kind of relationship, in this case one of a lord and his retainers. In this case, food also works to build a community because it shows the Momotarō is responsible for the dog, monkey, and pheasant. He provides for them in the form of the dumplings, which are supposedly the best in all of Japan in return for their future service to him. Even in future versions, such as Momotarō’s Sea Eagle, a World War II propaganda film, food is used as a sort of reward for the retainers. For example, in one scene, after the forces of dogs, monkeys, and pheasants have successfully attacked the enemy, one of the monkeys is rewarded with millet dumplings and drink. He has performed his duty to the community, which in the film includes all of Japan in addition to his captain Momotarō, so he therefore deserves the delicious food. Food holds the community together because it incentivizes acting on behalf of the rest of the community. Food is not only a symbol of kinship but is also an agent of community-creation. Another example of food acting as a force to bring characters together in the Momotarō canon is the giant peach from which he is born. Old Woman and Old Man find a giant peach from which Peach-Boy, the son that they always wanted but never had, emerges. Once again, food is directly acting as a means of bringing people together into a community; the peach delivers Momotarō to the old couple allowing a family to form. In addition, being born from the peach also establishes Momotarō as a special character. While his parents are named Old Man and Old Woman and the rest of the characters are also similarly typified, Peach-Boy has a unique name based on his strange birth. Food not only creates communities, it also helps determine the roles of each member. The millet dumplings and peach from the original Momotarō stories are strong examples of food as the basis of a community. Without either one, Momotarō could not have existed because he would have no family to raise him and no retainers or servants to help him on his quest to get rid of the Ogres.
In addition to being a symbol and vehicle of the creation of communities, food also acts as a means of differentiating between different groups, notably Momotarō on the side of righteousness and the ogres or demons on the side of evil. In the original fable, the side of good enjoys the millet dumplings. The old couple makes them for their son, Peach-Boy, who gives them to his retainers as a sign of acceptance and as a reward for joining his quest. The Ogres on Ogres’ Island, with whom he battles, do not get any of the dumplings. Instead the Ogres are said to kidnap and eat people. The differences in cuisine determine that the two forces are not part of the same community, but are in fact distinct and opposing communities. Although this seems counterintuitive when taken along the idea of food as a force for producing community, it is still useful. Community is a group of people who have something in common, whether it is family relationship, aligned interests, or simply friendship. This suggests that if one community with certain interests exists, than another community with different interests likely exists as well. So though food does not bring the Ogres and Momotarō and his band together, it is still creating community, two communities, in fact. Thus food discerns between differing groups as well as bringing people together to form these groups. In Sea Eagle, we can see another example of food as a distinguishing force. While the Japanese forces of animals use food as an incentive and a source of fuel to perform well, the demon forces on Demon’s Island (thinly veiled caricatures of American forces in Pearl Harbor) are useless, bumbling drunks who cannot perform their duties as successfully as their enemies can. In one scene, one of the Japanese monkey soldiers eats some kind of dish in the cockpit of the plane and immediately gains strength similar to the scenes in the Popeye cartoons where he eats spinach. As mentioned previously, another monkey is rewarded with millet dumplings and a bubbly drink after he returns home safe and victorious from the attack. Therefore, in this community, aka the Japanese forces serving under Momotarō, food is a productive and helpful thing that holds them together. Meanwhile, on the demons’ ships, their clumsy, blundering captain, who looks like Bluto, the evil character in the Popeye cartoons, is depicted as a useless alcoholic with a copious amount of bottles falling out from his clothes. Hence, the community of Japanese animal soldiers has a very different relationship with food and drink than the community of American demons. The demons have a very dysfunctional relationship to food while Momotarō’s forces have a very healthy one. Food and the way the members of a group interact with it, can show how each group is different than the next because the way that it helps various communities form is always unique.
Minamata: The Victims and Their World, a documentary that tells the story of a village poisoned by the dumping of mercury by the nearby Chisso Corporation into the water, also shows the important connection between food and the essence of a community. The villagers suffer from a horrible disease as a result of their food supply of fish, which have all been infected with the illegally dumped methyl mercury in the ocean. Therefore, like the demons, the villagers of Minamata do not have a positive relationship to food and rather than helping to build the community, it is literally killing it. The villagers decide to confront the Chisso Corporation who burdened them with the terrible disease. These villagers compare their plight to the quest of Momotarō and even compare the home of the corporation to Ogres’ Island from the Momotarō stories. This places the community of affected villagers in the shoes of the heroic or righteous side (Momotarō) versus the side of evil (Ogres). The villagers, who originally had a rewarding relationship with food, as they were mostly fishermen who provided themselves with their own food have been reduced to the sad state of being tormented by the same very food. The community of Minamata villagers has been unified to fight against a common enemy as a result of their connection with food. The food that made their peers and loved ones sick has provoked a communal response against those who caused the misfortune. Therefore, just like Momotarō and his band of animal soldiers, these villagers seek out justice.
Food is something that is important in all cultures and in all groups of people, In general. It brings us together as well as differentiates us from those who do not share our interests. Food, as seen in the various depictions of the Momotarō myth, is the basic building block of communities. When we sit down at the dinner table with our families and share a meal, we are not so different from the Peach-Boy giving pieces of his millet dumplings to a certain dog, monkey, and pheasant. We are relying on food as a vehicle of building connections and of creating community.