Feed Me…Your Woes and Joys

Without giving much of a thought, food is merely something edible during a hunger pang. Yet, throughout the journey of this particular class, food has transformed into something beyond mere sustenance for the body – it ties together mind, heart, and soul within the individual as well as within the community. Both subtle and conspicuous symbols that food embodies in the Momotaro readings and film as well as Tsuchimoto’s Minamata documentary become the unifying forces in each community’s struggle towards its universal goal.

Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, seemingly placed more focus on the disease’s symptoms and propagating consequences as a result of being rejected from official governmental acknowledgement and aid, but the fact that food was one of the main mediums of transferring the disease unconsciously reoccurring detail. In a livelihood centered so profoundly around the sea and dependent on fishing, the heavy metal and acidic waste produced by the chemical plant located in Minamata contaminated the sea and thus directly damaged the seaside community’s diet. The individuals in the community became “the sufferers”, their rights stripped away by a selfishly constructed reparation contract, ultimately fueling “a war waged by we who hate war”. Social hierarchy and the pace of modernization were only some of the forces behind the injustice the Minamata victims felt, but they brought attention to how large of a role modern politics and economics played in the Minamata victims’ plight – the hypocrisy behind how “you make the sea unfit for bacteria and you talk of rapid economic growth”. Only after testing for some definite scientific proof through Cat No. 400 and years of petitioning and irreparable damages to families, individuals, and livelihoods was the community able to “arrive in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell” and fight on a somewhat more equal ground.

The gap in social classes is so wide that the Minamata victims didn’t even recognize the government as their own kind, instead characterizing them as ogres, an allusion to the beloved Japanese folktale of Momotaro. Iwaya Sazanami’s version of the folktale presents Momotaro as a gift from the gods and the fist of justice, not having actually endured the pain of having loved ones harmed by the ogres. In contrast, while the committee in the Minamata community takes on the role of righteousness, the individuals in the committee have all been in some way directly affected by the disease in their tight knit community. The traditional Momotaro folktale suggests the treasure that the ogres are hoarding is of monetary value, but the treasure the government “ogres” have stolen is priceless in the form of natural resources and livelihoods. Even though reparations were provided and no amount of reparations could ever heal the damages, for many, money was the least of their worries after losing part of what made them human – “mouths that can’t speak or taste, hands that can’t grasp, legs that can’t walk…because as far as life is concerned, there’s no difference between millionaires and paupers”.

Thus whereas food should be a form of nourishment, food takes a form of “poison” representative of poison to the body and poison to the environment in the case of the Minamata disease. In a similar manner, poison takes an alternate form in Seo Mitsuyo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. The Bluto character from the Popeye the Sailor Man series takes the form of an ogre constantly surrounded by beer bottles. The beer bottles leave him rather incoherent to the viewer, exposing him as an incompetent leader in contrast to Momotaro’s demonstration of leadership and instruction back on the ship. His inability to formulate coherent words parallels the regression Minamata disease victims faced in no longer having the capability of controlling their central nervous systems, both of which are recognizable malicious aftereffects of food.

Though the foods under discussion so far are characterized as the “poison” type, interestingly enough, unity is still created from some sense of mutuality. In the Minamata case, the community strived toward retrieving its rights after suffering through the anguish of losing a loved one and birth defects that render an individual handicapped for a lifetime. Even though Bluto is the ogre, his “evil” character serves to unite Momotaro’s crew as well as the audience in an alliance against the mutual enemy.

Food is so highly valued for the Minamata people because they dwell off the sea, not needing too much of anything beyond the natural resources that it provides. Since Minamata Bay was plentiful of fish, fishing became almost like a competitive sport for the community as each fisherman had his or her own formula to creating bait. As one fisherman mentioned, “the secret’s in the bait”, and through this battle of secret recipes, the community show greater gratitude and respect to the food that they eat. In fact, as the documentary shows, food that is consumable to human beings are used as ingredients in the bait, such as butter and lard, suggesting that though of a different species, fish can be considered to be on the same level as humans. Thus, the food that feeds the fish are indirectly nourishing the human consumers. In that sense and as part of cultural and culinary habits, the Japanese tended to consume its fish raw, a likely disadvantage in the spread of the disease.

The value of food is no different for either the Momotaro stories or film. The overlap between the stories and film is most obviously linked through the millet dumplings, the substance that Momotaro offers to his followers in the Sazanami version of the folktale in return of loyalty. The mere idea of sharing food with one another builds a sense of friendship that is further explored in the film. In both the film and the stories, food is consumed prior to the battle, strengthening not only the figurative camaraderie amongst the members of the troop but also the literal physical energy in their bodies. Even though the troop is made of three types of animals, multiplied to a countless amount for battle, there is no sense of tension between the different types. The film presents how the same kinds work together, such as the manner with which the monkeys climb on top of each other to reach the airplane, as well as how different kinds cooperate, such as the effort with which the dog and monkey demonstrate in helping injured baby pheasant. These collaborative efforts highlight the theme of social class being nothing more than a social (and ultimately invisible) construct and the theme of unification that the Minamata community seems to lack. Although the Minamata community did unify against the government officials, it nonetheless faced and endured much fear and neglect through its own members in discovering that a neighbor or family member was infected. Whereas the Minamata community faced its own Japanese people, born and bred on the same land of the rising sun, Momotaro’s troops faced a fictitious enemy in the form of ogres.

In reference to how food takes the form of nutritional strength, the food presented in Momotaro takes a more obvious role and is in coherence with how we usually view food in our every day lives. As already mentioned previously, it provides both literal and figurative strength for the animals prior to battle. In addition, it takes the form of a good luck charm in the paper koinobori that hangs in the front of the airplane, serving to remind them of the goal at hand and to remind them that they are not fighting the battle alone. The millet dumplings were nothing more than a symbolism, as they were not physically presented in the film. Rather, there was simply the bag with the label of “millet dumplings”, and in its place was a toy airplane being given to the baby pheasant to propagandize how it, too, can join their forces. At the return of their journey and battle, celebration takes the form of more food and drinks in congratulations of a work well done and of a safe journey home, further unifying the troop that had been temporarily separated.

While food cannot be specifically classified as “good” or “evil”, a classification that is far too subjective to argue, food acts as a medium that brings a collaboration and unification of community. It is an essential part of survival, but its role has penetrated beyond the obvious, from suffering to friendship.

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