Parallels of Consumption: Food as a Reflection of Social Hierarchies in Japanese Film

The interactions between humans and the food that they consume is more than a simple matter of sustenance or survival. In his documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, Tsuchimoto Noriaki provides an intimate and in-depth portrait of the Minamata residents affected by large-scale industrialization, exploring how the consumption of food and its subsequent effect on a certain community reflects the broader dynamics of society. This idea is carried throughout the films Tampopo and Giants and Toys in the directors’ treatment of their respective female protagonists, revealing a common narrative shared by the women and the food they are surrounded by, and how this parallel between the individual and the object of consumption reflects relationships between marginalized people and structures of power.

Tsuchimoto’s documentary on the residents of Minamata and their victimization by the mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso company factory that was established in Minamata provides a compelling nonfictional example of the close relationship between a community and the food it consumes, and how structures of socioeconomic power profoundly affects this relationship and therefore the individuals which make up the community. Tsuchimoto establishes the intimacy of the film with its very first shot, of a fishing boat on calm waters. The stillness of the scene implies a sense of harmony between the Minamata fishermen and their natural environment which is the source of the food that they consume. In this scene, there is only the ambient noise of the environment serving as the soundtrack. This choice of soundtrack carries throughout the film—there is no background music which would disingenuously dramatize the story that Tsuchimoto wishes to portray, a deliberate choice which creates a naturalistic atmosphere throughout the documentary.

With the stage set for an up-close portrait of the experiences of the Minamata residents, Tsuchimoto goes on to tell their stories through interviews, revealing the parallels between the consumption of food and structures of power. In Minamata, the residents’ lives became deeply and tragically affected by the food they consumed. One resident tells how the fish affected by the Chisso factory’s dumping of waste into the water seemed like an “easy catch”, not realizing that it was because they were, in fact, poisoned. The subsequent consumption of these diseased fish by the residents of Minamata spread the thus-named “Minamata disease” among the population. In the case of Minamata, the ways in which the residents themselves were marginalized by big business and subsequently an apathetic government was made physically manifest in Minamata disease. The residents, who were disempowered by the establishment of the factory and its monopolization of the economic livelihood of the area, became physically disempowered as well by the mercury poisoning caused by Chisso. The consequences of consuming the poisoned fish, then, became a literal representation of how the Chisso company exerted and abused its power over the residents of Minamata. Thus for the residents of Minamata, the food that they consumed became a symbol of their marginalization within the larger structures of socioeconomic and political power.

The idea of food mirroring the individual or the community comes across in fictional films as well in a very pronounced and deliberate way. In the 1985 film Tampopo, directed by Itami Juzo, the eponymous Tampopo rises to success alongside her once-humble ramen shop. In the film, Itami frames Tampopo as humble in a number of ways. To begin with, her name means “dandelion”, a common flower, a weed that grows close to the earth. She owns a ramen shop, and on top of her livelihood being that of serving humble, commmonplace, comfort food, it is not a particularly good ramen shop, either. At the start of Tampopo’s narrative, it is established that she runs her late husband’s ramen shop, focusing her livelihood around a deceased man and as thus providing an example of how Tampopo is indebted to the patriarchal structures of the society that she lives in.

Tampopo surrounded by men

Throughout the film, Tampopo is not only guided by a number of men in improving her ramen and her restaurant, but her main goal becomes to impress certain male consumers of her ramen. Itami chooses to make Tampopo the only recurring female character of importance in the film, the rest delegated to one-shot vignettes. In this decision, Itami isolates Tampopo, contrasting her singular femaleness against a backdrop of men who are both helping and opposing her, thus emphasizing Tampopo’s relationship as a woman living within the patriarchy with the men surrounding her. Tampopo ultimately wins the approval of her male critics through her ramen, and as thus, the product which she makes to be consumed by the general public becomes the vehicle of her own empowerment as a woman. In Tampopo’s narrative, the men are the ones who hold the power to approve or disapprove of her product. As with the residents of Minamata, in the fictional narrative of Tampopo, what one consumes becomes a symbol for relationships of power. As a humble underdog, Tampopo confronts her own marginalization via the production of food for the consumption of others. The victory of Tampopo’s ramen is synonymous with her own personal victory as an individual.

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The mass manufacturing of Kyoko

In the 1958 avant-garde film Giants and Toys directed by Masumura Yasuzo, the parallel relationship between a woman and products of consumption comes through in the character of Kyoko and her rise to stardom through the sponsorship of a caramel company. In Giants and Toys, Kyoko’s role as a product to be consumed is foreshadowed in the opening shot, in which her static image is multiplied and repeated ad nauseum, recalling the production of a mass-manufactured good for the consumption of the general public. Like Tampopo, Kyoko is a common girl, literally picked up off the street in order to become the face of the caramel company. Like Tampopo, Kyoko’s key to succeeding in a world dominated by mass production and consumption is through food.

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…I’ll help you out.”

As the narrative of Giants and Toys progresses, it becomes clear that, in acting as the face of Giant Caramel, Kyoko herself becomes an object that is commodified and sold like the caramels themselves. Masumura comments on it outright when he has one of the characters state that the general public will buy anything sold to them if they are repeatedly told to do so. The fact that Kyoko is initially said to be unattractive attests to this—she is successfully “manufactured” and “sold” just as the caramels she advertises are because the company mass produces her image and repeatedly sends the consumers messages that she is desirable. This reflects her position as an individual within a consumer society—as a person, she can be exploited and marketed to the general public by the corporations with money and influence. Yet despite her objectification both by the company and by the public, Kyoko herself finds empowerment in her commodification. It is through her connection with food that Kyoko becomes wealthy and influential in her own right—she is brought into the spotlight by the consumerist structure and the men who run it, but ultimately is able to exploit the system herself to live how she pleases, shown in the end by how she rejects Yosuke’s attempts to bring her back to the company. Thus like in Tampopo, Kyoko’s personal empowerment as an individual woman is brought about by her connection to food that is meant to be consumed by the public. Society’s acceptance of the caramels that she peddles in turn means its acceptance of herself, making the caramels the medium through which she is able to succeed within a materialistic world.

Both Tampopo and Giants and Toys can be read as success stories for the women that they center around—in both these films, the women come out in the end as victors, with their respective links to food being the vehicle which allows them to overcome institutional power that would otherwise oppose or exploit them. The story of Minamata, however, is different—due to being a documentary account of nonfictional events, there is no neat narrative conclusion to the way in which the plight of the residents is portrayed. What ties these stories together across their disparate genres, however, is how food becomes a medium through which human relationships of power are reflected. What Tsuchimoto’s documentary establishes is a real situation in which food becomes the symbol of human experience. In the fictional accounts of Tampopo and Kyoko, the treatment and consumption of food also come to represent the stories of the women themselves. As thus, the directors of all of these films use food to examine power in society and how it affects individuals who may not initially supported by institutions of power.

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