Author Archives: aalthani

Momotarō: The Boy Who Lived (as a national hero)

Momotarō is one of Japan’s most influential fictional characters. Momotarō, or “peach-boy” in Japanese, has been the figurehead of many children’s cartoons, folk stories and the undisputed face of war propaganda in Japan. Existing once as a playful tale told to children, Momotarō became a doctrine attached to World War II propaganda. Nevertheless, Japanese propaganda remained very humble and true to the original story, using various elements from the story to recreate a sense of national pride. One such element is food. In Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotarō, an accurate retelling of the original folktale, there is a clear indication of how food acts as a unifier throughout the story. Unity was not only needed during the war, but was also imperative to locals who suffered from the Minamata disease, as seen in the 1971 Tsuchimoto Noriaki documentary. This essay focuses on the unity achieved through food across the different Japanese mediums, exploring how different narratives in both literary and visual texts dictate the symbolic or material nature of food.

The most apparent reference to food seen in Momotarō is in the boy’s very name. Momotarō, otherwise known as the peach-boy, could easily be interpreted as a symbol of sustenance and longevity. The whole notion of a ripe peach making its way down the river into the hands of a poor old lady strengthens the relation of peaches to longevity. In a way, it hints to youth and the continuity of life. Furthermore, Momotarō arrives from a distant land (personally, this seems very similar to the story of Moses, even though the stories are not to be associated) and his origins are purposely vague for various reasons. One reason is that it helps the public associate with Momotarō himself. Rather than belong to a certain area or people, Momotarō is given to the public through the ambiguity of his origin. In essence, since Momotarō belongs to no one, he belongs to everyone. This idea is resonated in the victims of Minamata who seek justice for the atrocities they have been subject to.

Like Momotarō, the people of Minamata, as documented by the Tsuchimoto film, unite against the exploitative business that has plagued their land. The Tsuchimoto documentary does justice to the people of Minamata, revealing how devastated they were by the spread of the disease. It was only after being ravaged for numerous years that the locals decided that enough was enough. They formed a large group of people that went to Osaka in order to fight the greedy capitalists, and used Momotarō as a unifying anchor. Their efforts, thoughts and principles were all brought together in order to achieve a greater good, with the Momotaro’s public picture holding it all together.  Hence, Momotarō unified these people under a sense of resistance. People were fighting for their rights to life, health and well-being, just as Momotarō fought the “Oni” who plagued the land.

Although Momotarō existing as the peach-boy is a symbol in itself, there are other examples of the importance of food. The most distinct and memorable of these is the millet dumplings that are seen in Momotarō tales across a plethora of Japanese mediums. Whether it is literary, as depicted in Sazanami’s text, or seen through Seo Mitsuyo’s anime: Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), there is an unarguable importance to the millet dumplings. Beginning with the text, Momotarō uses his precious millet dumplings to sanction the relationship amongst the animals he meets along his journey. As described in the story, he gives each animal half a dumpling. This is a clear example of how food is a symbol of camaraderie, and unifies Momotarō and his animal friends under one common goal. In some ways, Mitsuyo’s anime echoes this idea. In one memorable scene, an anthropomorphic monkey refuses to board the plane until he secures his millet dumplings. These dumplings are then consumed moments before the battle ensues, revealing a sense nationalistic pride associated with this type of food.

Essentially, what the millet dumplings reveal is that food symbolizes a sense of unity for the Japanese people. In Momotarō, it brought Momotarō, a dog, a monkey and a swallow together. For children, talking monkeys and birds are sort of magical, and keep children occupied from the underlying message. A message that was at the center of Japanese propaganda and was the central power to the people of Minamata, it was the idea of unity. It was the understanding that different species could align themselves under a common goal, as the Japanese people would need to do if they were to succeed. It did not matter where you were from or who you were. There was a greater good, a vision larger than any single individual, and only in the unity of the Japanese people could it be achieved.

Unity was a central theme across the different texts and narrative platforms seen in both Momotarō and Tsuchimoto Minamata documentary, yet one other theme was equally important. And this was the idea of a struggle between good and bad. For Momotarō, it was the peach-boy’s valiant quest alongside his animal friends to defeat the evil “oni”. In Minamata, it was the plagued victims against the gluttonous businessmen. This idea of good vs. bad was not only central to the propaganda itself, but in allowing the people of Japan to associate with Momotarō. It allowed the story to be “open-source”, or subject to the interpretation of the audience. This helps make association easy, because all that is needed is a figment of good vs. bad, which could be interpreted into each and every one of the above situations.

Regardless of the theme, the method of interpretation is equally important. Let’s take Minamata for example, a documentary which used a combination of expository and participatory filmmaking techniques. This approach was important in juxtaposing the sickly people with the newly built factories and profits. It helps the audience identify with the people, as they are subject to interviews by the director. In addition, almost nobody will argue that the “voice-overs” commonly used in expository filmmaking are not important factors in creating sympathy to either side. This could be easily contrasted to Mitsuyo’s anime, where a very different medium in the form of anime is used. Yet as was the case with Minamata, there is a distinct effort by Mitsuyo to help the audience relate to the characters. There was a clear indication that the Japanese were the good guys, most of which was indicated through hyperbole, as one side was almost angelical in their good, and the other demonical in their evil. What this meant for Momotarō was that he transcended his literal characterization, meaning that Momotarō could be anybody, can come from anywhere, but he remained a symbol of good and hope.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that food works as a unifier in various mediums and across a multitude of Japanese stories. Whether it is through the classic tale of Momotarō, the war propaganda, or the symbolism underpinning Minamata, there is distinct omnipresence of unity. Moreover, unity was always in the face of an oppressive injustice, hence asserting the importance of good in the face of bad. In a way, this suggests that unity can only be achieved in the face of a greater evil, in an attempt to achieve the greater good. Ultimately, hardly anyone could argue the importance of Momotarō to the Japanese people, in fact, I have grown quite fond of Peach-boy myself.

New Loyalties: A Modernizing Japan

Masamura Yasuzo’s Giants and Toys originally aired in 1958, and is one of the last films to be released in the golden era of Japanese cinema. The movie follows employees of World Candy Company, and their efforts to outdo their competitors. Through his film, Masamura Yasuzo is able to allude to the issues concerning post-war Japan and Japanese cinema. In fact, Masamura’s film is a retort to the traditional ‘slower’ Japanese films that he feels do little justice in portraying a modernizing Japan.  Rather than the slow, emotional scenes often associated with Japanese cinema at the time, Giants and Toys uses a combination of speed, moving frames and rapid dialogue to shrink outside misconceptions. Moreover, it is Masamura’s choice of characters that reveals the overpowering sensation of corporate culture, the rising importance of mass media and the ever present loyalty of the Japanese people.

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In 1955, Sato Tadao (a Japanese film-critic) pointed out how slow Japanese movies were relative to their Western counterparts. Three years later, Masamura comes out with his Avant-Garde film that is completely out of its time. For starters, the rapid dialogue and moving frames are immediately noticeable. In one scene, we hear employees discussing their manager, Goda. The camera makes its way through the office before finally stopping at Goda’s desk. Throughout this shot, we see office worker’s moving in and out of the frame at different tangents, and in the background everyone is busy working. This element of speed conveyed by Masamura’s film helps define a modernizing Japanese culture. Time has become more precious, people are always busy; in other words it is the rise of corporate culture in Japan.

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Yet corporate culture cannot be influential if it is not equally held together by the money-starved capitalists and a mass media frenzied consumer culture.  Clearly, we see the stereotypical capitalist in Goda himself. In one scene, for example, he claims that World needs only “more publicity, more sales” (01:05:07). This suggests that capitalists were more interested in making money than winning the consumer over. What is even more disturbing is that prior to Goda’s statement, an older man claims the importance of Bushido or a code of loyalty, hinting to the traits of samurai warriors. Goda only sees this as weakness, which could be Masamura’s way of representing a culture that has replaced loyalty with a hunger for wealth. However, in Giants and Toys, the audience is still subject to displays of loyalty. Goda is loyal to his company, as are most character’s in the film to various entities that include corporations, families or certain individuals. Consequently, it is clear that a sense of Bushido lives on in the Japanese people, but it has sadly been twisted by the selfishness of capitalism.

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On the other side of the spectrum, we have a consumer culture that is blinded by mass media. Goda’s brilliant idea is to use the outreach of mass media to bring in more sales. He begins by promoting Kyoko, a silly proletarian girl, in various magazines and sources of media. Then, he uses Kyoko’s now large appeal in the public to bring in sales for World, only to be thwarted by an even better marketing campaign by a rival company. However, the key element in this whole ordeal is the relative resemblance of Kyoko’s journey to a commodity. A poor girl, made famous by external powers, is then farmed as the face of a marketing campaign for a piece of candy. This is how capitalist corporations promote the thingification of people, for them, Kyoko is just an object that could be easily replaced if it meant more sales. Nishi (the film’s protagonist) explains this idea to Kyoko and says “the public is fickle, they’ll soon find another star” (01:23:59). Yet blinded by her own fame Kyoko does not see this, or at least chooses not to because in the end she is a replaceable pawn in the vast landscape of mass culture.

Giants and Toys is, in many ways, an avant-garde film. Even though the film seems way ahead of its time due to the sporadic cinematography, the book it is based on is not. In fact, the book was one of the very first in a series of Japanese “business novels”, which were satirical representations of corporate life in Japan. In hindsight, this makes sense as Japan was experiencing a process of modernization first hand. Large corporations were becoming increasingly important, mass culture was in its embryonic stages and the “salary man” was finally ready for work.

Food Things: People as Food

The whole notion of people as “things” is paradoxical at a most basic level, yet in the struggle between the proletarian and bourgeoisie classes, it is a common form of classification. Kobayashi Takiji’s The Factory Ship illustrates how people can be treated as lifeless, inanimate and (as is often the case with Kobayashi) grotesque “things”. His story describes the unrelenting life of laborers turned sailors on-board the Hakko Maru, a Japanese factory ship of the coast of Kamchatka. Kobayashi uses food related metaphors and images to intensify the thingification of people, thus helping him convey the inequality of Japanese society at the time.

Kobayashi often uses repulsive metaphors when referring to the laborers. A commonly used and vivid metaphor is seen when mentioning the factory hands. These young men who are living under absurd conditions were described by the narrator as “rotting, fly covered corpses infested with maggots” (43). Such a metaphor links the image of food; in particular, rotting meat. This image is very accurate; for like rotting meat, the laborers are not totally worthless, but they will end up rotten anyway. Yet this is of very little importance to the capitalists who are profiting of the dying laborers. The bourgeoisie “don’t think of any of you as human beings” (24), one laborer complains, and this is the essential dilemma they face. Laborers, in the opinion of capitalists, are expendable pieces of rotting meat, which will inevitably be replaced as they rot into oblivion.

Kobayashi also uses food to help dramatize the violent environment laborers faced on a day-to-day basis on-board the factory ship. The laborer’s hands are described as “raw and red as crab claws” (11). This image portrays the workers struggle and hardship, as the comparison to crab claws reveals a sense of suffering that can be perceived in the laborer’s hands. In addition, the use of words such as “raw” and “red” alludes to the blood laborer’s lose as they are forced to work. Kobayashi does not stop there, and describes the flesh being “torn from the workers’ bodies like filets of fish” (40). This image is a sort of continuation of the previous one, but the toll the factory ship has taken is now evident in the workers’ bodies. Nonetheless, this struggle was justified because it was for the “sake of the nation” (40), but no one believed that in the end, especially those who stood at the very top.

Kobayashi used food to help dramatize the thingification of the laborers on board the Hakko Maru. The images he chose to use were those of despair, lifelessness and deterioration. These images help reader’s understand how laborers were seen by the capitalists in charge. Consequently, the underlying propaganda used to motivate the worker’s reveals itself. The laborers were told to work for the empire and its people, only to find out this was a facade the bourgeoisie employed for personal gain. In conclusion, it was the proletarian realization of unity that would overcome abuse, thus making laborers more than just things.

Ramen: An Innocent Meal

Even if Tampopo wasn’t necessarily your ideal bowl of ramen, it would take a rather cynical individual to not admire Juzo Itame’s tasteful interpretation of an evolving Japanese cuisine. At its heart, Tampopo is a tale of struggle and triumph, driven by the innocence of Tampopo (a small-time ramen chef) who perfects her ramen cooking abilities. Through the magic of cinematography, food becomes subject to its context. Itame skillfully weaves through different images of Japanese cuisine, all of which carry distinct references to Japan’s culinary landscape.

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In one scene, an old lady squeezes a ripe peach until it seems to lose its value, much to the dismay of the store owner. The scene continues with a very satirical cat-and-mouse pursuit, until the owner finally catches the old lady red handed. In ways, this scene conveys the sense of innocence typically associated with traditional foods. Furthermore, it could also represent the struggle between so-called high and low culture foods in modern Japanese cuisine.

Itame uses a satirical approach to help portray the innocence of food as the old lady is being chased by the store owner. In a sense, the scene alludes to Tom and Jerry, Hannah-Barbara’s iconic Sunday morning family fixation. Such an allusion promotes the thought of childish innocence and warmth often found in traditional foods. Itame’s choice to use an old lady solidifies this idea. She seems to be looking for something specific in her food, but seems unable to find it. Could she be looking for the innocence food has lost as Tokyo ascended modern food’s globalized plane?

Itame comically adds to this through his editing. Much like a high-stakes action movie, the scene uses quick cuts in between frames. After all, the store owner is after the bad guy. Using images such as close-ups of the store owner with the old lady quickly moving through the background creates a sort of Bond-esque spy thriller. Disappointingly, the old lady stops when she receives a slap on the hand with a fly swatter. In my opinion, Itame’s chase is not limited to the store owner and the old lady, but the underlying chase of an older Japan and the innocence of the food it once held so dear. A struggle seen clearly in the contradicting nature of high and low culture foods. Nevertheless, Tampopo’s pursuit of ramen, which in its essence is the most basic of Japanese dishes, rekindles this sense of innocence. Ramen is Food that is mutually loved for its sincerity, rather than its adherence to a vision of a global food city.

This struggle between low and high culture foods is the essence of Itame’s film. Whether it is Tampopo herself, or through this very scene, Itame constantly reminds the audience that food is one of the most sincere forms of culture. Losing this could be as devastating to culture as losing a language. In a way, food is language. It speaks through its innocence, its love and even today as a rather dominant form of high culture. Tampopo is not just about how to make ramen, but if it was, I’m pretty sure I would make a pretty good bowl if I was asked…