Analysis of the Role Played By Food in Society Based on Momotaro Stories

Momotaro is one of the most influential mythical characters in Japan. He is also referred to as “Peach-Boy” and has been featured extensively in folk stories, children cartoons, and war propaganda.  In the film “Sea Eagle”, Momotaro is used as an animated character to dramatize the events that took place during World War II.”Sea Eagle” was produced to influence viewers to celebrate the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. According to the original folk tale, Momotaro emerged out of a peach. Momotaro’s fight for justice against the demons has made him an icon among people who are fighting for their rights. Momotaro’s character inspired the victims of Minamata to fight against the environmental pollution caused by the Chisso fertilizer company. This paper discusses the role played by food in the society through analysis of visual and literal Momotaro stories.

In Sea Eagle, Momotaro’s crew comprised of dogs, monkeys, and rabbits that worked together to defeat forces of evil. Momotaro is depicted as the military leader commanding a crew of animals in a naval ship. The ultimate objective of the mission is for the animals to conquer Demon Island. Demon Island in the film represents America. Momotaro embodied the leadership, strength, and loyalty that the Japanese required to defeat America and win the war. The film was directed by Seo Mitsuyo, and the legend of Momotaro was included to target children by using animated propaganda. Mitsuyo contrasted the relationship between humans and animals to show how heroism, humor, and teamwork are important in gaining victory. The other aim of use of the character of Momotaro was to spreads ideas about Japanese nationalism to younger generations and to make light of the seriousness of war.  The film passed the message that the Japanese were the superior good “guys” while the Americans were the inferior “bad guys”. Momotaro commanded the other animals and issued orders to them. Monkeys and dogs acted as soldiers and pilots flying to Demon Island to conquer the island while rabbits used their floppy, large ears to direct the planes during landing and takeoff.  An American character was used as a villain, and he had demonic accessories such as horns on his head and a tail. The use of Momotaro’s character made the war seem like more of a game than a battle in the eyes of the children of Japan. Momotaro and the animals were exaggerated and glorified as invincible heroes. There was not a single casualty in the film.

In the original fairy tale, as portrayed in Arai Goro’s picture book, a grandmother and a grandfather were living together. One day when the grandmother was washing clothes in the river, a large peach came floating down the river. The grandmother took the peach and went home with it. She then cut a peach, and a boy emerged. Since the boy emerged out of a peach, he was given the name Momotaro meaning “Peach Boy” in Japanese. When Momotaro grew up he was unusually strong.  One day he spoke to the grandmother and the grandfather about going to conquer devils in Devil’s Island. He carried millet dumplings with him. On the way, he met a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. The three animals agreed to help him if he gave them millet dumplings. In the Devil’s Island, the animals assisted Momotaro to enter the compound. The dog tormented the devils by biting them, the monkey scratched them, and the pheasant picked at their eyes. Momotaro fought the Demon’s general using his sword. Momotaro forgave the devils when they promised him that they would never torture humans again. They then gave Momotaro treasures, and he returned to his homeland as a hero.

Unity and nationalism was needed during the Minamata disease. In the 1971 documentary by Tsuchimoto Noriaki, various locals suffered from the Minamata disease. Momotaro fought for justice to save all human beings from being tortured by devils. The idea resonated with the victims of Minamata who featured in Tsuchimoto Nariaki’s documentary since they were also seeking justice.  The Chisso Company produced fertilizers for export. The purpose of producing fertilizers is to increase the production and supply of food. Chisso legitimized its harmful business by claiming that it was its business was solely for the interest of the empire. The people of Minamata ate poisoned fish and shellfish resulting in mercury poisoning. Fatal illnesses and deaths resulting from the mercury poisoning continued for more than thirty years before the company and the government took any measures. Food is a symbol of power because the Minamata people could not do anything about the dangerous environment and the bad working conditions because they were relying on the jobs provided by Chisso to feed their families. The victims of the disease faced stigma and discrimination from the community as most people depended on the company for their food and livelihood. Just like Momotaro, the victims united against the exploitative pollution that had plagued their land and pursued compensation. The legend of Momotaro unified the people of Minamata during their team of need. They fought for their rights to well-being, health, and life just as Momotaro fought the demons that plagued the land.

In the visual and literary texts about Momotaro, food was used literally and symbolically. The first reference to food is Momotaro’s name since it refers to a peach. A peach was used in the tale since it is a symbol of longevity and sustenance.  In the Japanese culture, the peach is seen as a symbol of productivity, sexual relationship, and life. The fact that a ripe peach tumbled and floated down a river into the hands of an old lady hinted at the continuity and longevity of life. Just like the peach in the fairy tale, food also provides sustenance and longevity in life.

The other memorable and distinct use of food is the use of millet dumplings as seen in all versions of Momotaro tales in Japanese literary and visual mediums. In the texts, Momotaro uses the millet dumplings to form binding relationships with the animals that he comes across on the way. He gives each animal a piece of the millet dumpling. Food is, therefore, a symbol of companionship and camaraderie since it unites the animals and Momotaro to fight for one common purpose. Seo Mitsuyo echoes the idea of food as a symbol of camaraderie in his film. In one scene from the film, a monkey refuses to board the airplane until he is given millet dumplings. In the film, the millet dumplings are also the source of the miraculous and infinite power possessed by the animal pilots. The millet dumplings reveal that food represents a sense of togetherness among the Japanese people. In the original version, it brought a pheasant, a monkey, and a dog together. The idea of unity was communicated in Seo Mitsuyo’s “Sea Eagle” since children could learn nationalism by associating with the talking birds and monkeys. The depiction of different animals combining forces and defeating a common enemy made Japan had the justification to wage war in the pacific.

Food is a symbol of power in the Minamata documentary since people were willing to be subjected to pollution because they depended on the Chisso Company for sustenance. They ate poisoned fish just so they could earn their daily bread. Food is a fundamental influence in human life. It can serve as a unifying factor like it did to unite Momotaro and the animals in the original play and in the “Sea Eagle” film.  It can also act as a divisive factor like it dead when people living in the Minamata region refused to support the victims of mercury poisoning. Food is also used by leaders to influence and control their subjects. In the original fairy tale, Momotaro used food to get the support of the dog, the monkey, and the pheasant. In the film, the monkeys agreed to work after receiving millet dumplings which gave them invincible power. The Chisso Company was able to continue polluting the environment for a long period because the local population depended on the jobs it provided for daily upkeep. The main reason people work is to get food to sustain their livelihoods.  Food is, therefore, a very strong force and power in human relationships and communities.



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