Momotaro: Community through Cuisine

Is food simply a means of nutrition and sustenance? Or does the act of eating and sharing food with another individual actually act as a connecting force? In many ways, when food is consumed with others, a bond can be created because meals that are shared are tied within a sense of family and community. Having meals with a family or a group of people is a common fixture of the cultures in the world, and food is a main focus that distinguishes different cultures. However, the most important aspect of food is the ability of the cuisine to bring people together. In fact, in the Japanese culture, food is a definite unifier. Food is utilized in different areas rather than just the dinner table. For example, food is inscribed in the famous Japanese folktale, Momotaro. Momotaro is a popular Japanese hero, and within Momotaro’s story, food is incorporated within the plot and unites characters in a communal and familial manner. The traditional story of Momotaro has been reused in various literal and visual works that include the film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles by Mitsuyo Seo and the text of Iwaya Sazanami’s rendition of Momotaro. Although the many versions of Momotaro focus on him being a superb leader, one aspect that is integrated in these stories is the idea that the sharing of food is a superb consolidating force which can build camaraderie, even with similar results of the lead of a great commander.

Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotaro, which is folkloric in text, is a traditional representation of Momotaro. The role of food in this version of Momotaro becomes present through the offerings of Momotaro’s guardians, the Old Man and the Old Woman. As Momotaro is about to depart on his journey to defeat the Ogres of Ogres’ Island, the “Old Man also set about preparing suitable food for a warrior on a journey” (Sazanami, p. 21). The elderly couple prepares millet dumplings to send off with Momotaro as nourishment on his voyage, but this exchange of food also represents the deep familial affection of the Peach-boy’s guardians. To send off Momotaro with the simple millet dumplings seems to be such a humble offering for the beloved son, but in fact the focus on the offering being food is simply emphasizing the ability of food to act as a unifier and a portrayal of love and care. In the later sections of Sazanami’s Momotaro, the millet dumplings continue to represent communal relationships between other characters. Upon meeting his first animal comrades, the Dog, Momotaro receives the Dog’s compliance to accompany him on his journey after Momotaro presents the hound with half of “the best millet dumplings in Japan” (Sazanami, p. 25). However, in this relationship, Momotaro clearly has more power as before the offering of the millet dumpling and the Dog’s compliance; Momotaro had to intimidate the Dog through violent proclamations as the Dog falsely assumed greater dominance upon the initial point of encounter. Upon meeting the last two animal comrades, the monkey and the pheasant, Momotaro also receives the animals’ compliance to join his squadron after the offering of half of a millet dumpling. This parallel means of obtaining each member of his group represents the formation of camaraderie through each of the animals’ common initiation into the group by the consumption of food: the humble millet dumpling. This sense of the communal bonding ability of food is different from the bonding of Momotaro and his guardians in respect to the type of relationship that exists. Since Momotaro possessed the power in his relationship with his animal comrades the offering of food promotes his control, while in his relationship with his guardians the offering of food promotes their love. This distinction between the offerings of food in Sazanami’s Momotaro exemplifies the familial and communal connections of food and the creation of the consequent relationships.

Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles is a film that reuses the idea of the folktale Momotaro with a focus on the ability of food to form communities, and even introduces the capacity of food to generate nationalism in Japan. To begin with, in Seo’s visual representation of Momotaro, millet dumplings are also the source of food, which is consumed as rations in Momotaro’s army. In this case the millet dumplings are a source of sustenance to prepare the animal army in their mission to destroy Demon Island, but also depict the millet dumpling as a source of strength, camaraderie, and national pride. In one scene, two animal troops consume their ration of millet dumplings right before entering combat in Demon Island. One of the monkey troops suddenly gains strength from the dumpling as a bicep erupts from his arms signaling that his strength will carry out into the battle. Often at times, when adversities are ahead for an individual, familiar food is a reliable source of preparation for the hardship as food provides strength and comfort in believing that the hardship is conquerable. Seo’s choice of including the millet dumplings in his revision of Momotaro shows that he favors Japanese cuisine in great respect because the dumplings reflect national pride. The sense of nationalism is also present through the animal army’s foe, the inhabitants of Demon Island, which represent the same Western adversaries faced in Japan’s fight in WWII. The timely release of the film in 1943 coincided with the Second World War and the camaraderie created within the film between Momotaro’s army is meant to carry over into a boost in national pride and morale for Japan’s real world success in combat. This depiction of millet dumpling in the wartime propaganda similarly serves as a communal unifier, likewise to the traditional reflection of Sazanami’s Momotaro, but Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles conveys a message of food that is also interested in garnering national support and pride.

The influence of Momotaro even reaches such mediums as documentary film. In Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s film, Minimata: The Victims and Their World, the epidemic of Minimata disease in Japan in the 1950s is illustrated. Although food also provides a meaning in this documentary like the other treatments of Momotaro, the implications are equivocal. The consumption of mercury poisoned fish and shellfish inflicts the disease upon the suffering victims, while the sharing of food is also what forms communities in the first place. Once understanding this interpretation of food, one can then observe the films reflection of story of Momotaro. In one section of the documentary, the victims travel to Osaka, Japan, the site of the annual Chisso executive shareholder meeting to protest and plea for reparation to the suffering people in the town where the epidemic struck. One protestor alludes to a location in the story of Momotaro, Ogre Island, and places it in parallel with Osaka. To the victims of the disease, they feel as if they “have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell” (Tsuchimoto, Minimata: The Victims and Their World). This reference to the well-known narrative situates the victims in a familiar, yet unpleasant field as Ogre Island represents suffering and oppression of Japanese people. Ultimately, this comparison of tragic lands constitutes a heightened degree of communal support and togetherness within the mistreated victims of Minimata.

All three representations of the story of Momotaro spotlight the ability of food to construct communal relationships, but do so in ways that result in different themes of community. In Sazanami’s interpretation, the offering of millets dumplings from guardian to son conveys a tender familial bond, and the offering of the same cuisine from general to troops conveys a commanding communal bond within the rank. Through Seo’s interpretation, the consumption of the Japanese dumpling snack as nourishment before battle against the foreign enemies’ reveals a communal connection of the animal army in the form of national pride and camaraderie. In Tsuchimoto’s translation, food offers an ambiguous meaning. Through the consumption of the poisoned fish, food acts as the cause of suffering through the Minimata disease. However, the daily consumption of food within Minimata also acts as the initial aid in creating a sense of community within the town, as the sharing of food with one another is always an active effort of communal relationships. The themes of communal unification generated through the three portrayals of the famous Japanese folktale accomplish similar yet distinct goals, and all successfully achieve these goals with the material and symbolic representation of food.

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