Author Archives: anthonytran1

Impact of Food in the Different Mediums of Momotaro

Momotaro is an iconic folk character in Japanese culture. Momotaro, literally meaning peach-boy, is a child hero who gathers a troupe of animals to defeat the Oni (ogres) and save Japan. Since the original folktale in the Edo period, the Momotaro stories have undergone several alterations in style and tone, depending on Japan’s social and political milieu at the time. This mishmash of elements makes this folk tale an open-source story. The definitive version of Momotaro was published in textbooks by Sazanami in the late 19th century, with the purpose of establishing a national identity during the Meiji period. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, an allegorical anime movie called “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” was produced, pitting Momotaro and his animal troops against the demonized ogres who represented America and the Allied Powers of WWII. Momotaro also loosely influences the documentary “Minamata: The Victims and Their World” by Tsuchimoto. This essay will examine the role that food plays in restoring youth, forming communities, and characterizing Momotaro and the drunken soldiers across the different versions of the Momotaro stories.

First, food is symbolic of youth and longevity in the Momotaro story of the Edo period. In the original plotline, an infertile old woman with no children discovers a peach floating in the river and decides to eat it. Suddenly, she discovers that her beauty and youth have been rejuvenated afterwards, and she proceeds to share the fruit with her husband. They engage in sexual intercourse afterwards, and Momotaro is born as a consequence. Therefore, the peach was symbolic of fertility and youth in this version of the Japanese folk tale. Furthermore, since Momotaro later goes on to defeat the ogres, it is possible that the peach gives one the ability to fight evil creatures.

In the other two versions of the Momotaro story, the plot point in which the old couple makes love is omitted from the story, lessening the power of the peach symbolism. One must consider the historical context in which Sazanami’s story and “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” took place.  Sazanami’s story was published during the Meiji Restoration, when the Japanese were attempting to embody Western ideals in order to become a modernized nation. This diffusion of Western ideas caused Japanese society to view topics related to sexuality to be taboo. Consequentially, they changed the story to have Momotaro magically appear out of the peach as the old couple was cutting into it. This fantastical element would also appeal to the children who would be reading the textbook. The peach symbolism is not relevant to “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” since the film takes place presumably after his birth, when he’s already a fully developed leader of his animal troops.

In addition, food plays an impactful role in the formation of communities, particularly between Momotaro and his animals. In both the Edo period and Sazanami’s versions of the stories, Momotaro embarks on his journey to defeat the ogres and encounters 3 different animals: a dog, a monkey and a pheasant. The spotted dog threatens to kill him if Momotaro does not give him all of his food. Once Peach-boy convinces the dog to join his voyage, the dog asks for one of the “best millet dumplings in Japan.” However, Momotaro only gives the spotted dog half of a dumpling. By denying them a whole dumpling, Momotaro asserts power over his recruits and puts him on a higher level than the animals. The food in this instance is being used as a material good to pay for the animals’ services to fight the ogres. Momotaro goes through the same initiation with the monkey and the pheasant, using the half dumpling to bind them as his retainers. Their relationship is comparable to an employer paying wages to his employees. As a human, Momotaro is on a higher level in the social hierarchy than the animals. This similarity emphasizes Momotaro’s effective leadership ability. The sharing of the dumpling works to unify Momotaro and his animals on their voyage to Ogre’s Island. The dumplings symbolize the camaraderie they have established with one another in their unified quest to defeat the Oni.

The millet dumplings also play a significant role in “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.” In the animated film, the tone of the film is more serious than in the textual versions, since Momotaro is presented as a war general figure who leads a force of animal troops to fight the demons at Onigashima. The purpose of the film was to serve as a propaganda piece to improve morale and unify Japan in fighting the Allies in World War II. Consequentially, there is less of a focus on food in the movie adaptation, but the dumplings do appear. For example, one of the monkeys in Momotaro’s forces refuses to take action unless he receives his millet dumplings. Much like the textual stories, these dumplings act as material compensation for the animals to work for Momotaro, and a source of strength and sustenance. Right before the animal troops strike, they all consume the dumplings, an act which unifies them as a national body to defeat the Americans.

Furthermore, food has the power to unify communities in the Tsuchimoto documentary “Minamata: The Victims and Their World.” However, in contrast to the bonds of camaraderie formed in the other versions of the Momotaro stories, the people of Minamata are unified in their suffering. The denizens of Minamata ingested fish that had been heavily corrupted by mercury, causing them to suffer from Minamata Disease, which is a sickness characterized by damage to the nervous system. The fish contained high levels of mercury as a result of the production of fertilizer by Chisso Factory. Tsuchimoto depicts the victims’ unified struggle to survive the disease and receive just compensation from Chisso for their suffering.

The climax of the documentary arguably occurs at the scene in which the victims who seek more compensation visit Osaka, the location of the Chisso stockholders’ meeting. The victims invoke Momotaro as a symbol to unify them together. Their struggle with big business corporations parallels Momotaro, the underdog hero, against the ogres. There is an explicit allusion to Momotaro’s story when one of the speakers states, “We have arrived in the land where red and blue ogres dwell.”  This moment contains a lot of power due to its intertextuality; moreover, by invoking the Momotaro story, Tsuchimoto is dramatizing the victims as good, and Chisso Factory as the evil Oni. Utilizing a national folkloric figure such as Momotaro strengthens their cause by allowing the audience to relate and understand their struggle.

Food plays a large role in the characterization of Momotaro, his parents, and the drunken soldiers.” In the folkloric and Sazanami versions, right before Momotaro departs for his quest, his parents prepare millet dumplings for him. The act of providing food and sustenance for Momotaro characterizes the old couple as loving and caring people who support Momotaro wholeheartedly. Momotaro’s gratitude towards them supports the notion that food can strengthen familial bonds. On the other hand, Momotaro’s relationship with his animal caretakers is fairly different. Momotaro acts very stingy with the amount of dumpling he gives each animal. The act of only giving half of a dumpling to each animal characterizes Momotaro as having the most power. He views himself as superior to them, and is able to violently order them around to do his bidding. In this case, food acts as a way to manipulate the animals to form a community of voyage with him to the Ogre’s Island.

Food is also used to characterize the characters in “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles”. There is a stark contrast between the millet dumpling rations of Momotaro’s naval fleet and the alcoholic beverages on the enemy ships. Since “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” is an allegorical propaganda film about Pearl Harbor, Momotaro’s fleet represents the Japanese forces while the enemy represents the forces of the United States. Having the animal troops consume the millet dumplings indicates a nationalistic pride in Japanese cuisine. The dumplings have more sustenance to them when compared to the alcohol in the American ship. One of the sailors of the American ship resembles Bluto from Popeye, subliminally characterizing American troops as overweight drunkards who do not have the honor and ability that Japanese troops have. The animated film, targeted towards Japanese youth, masterfully uses the Momotaro myth to subtly cloak the political message of the movie, which is to unite the Japanese nation and encourage them to defeat the Allies in World War II. This film was released after the Battle of Midway, which was a crushing defeat for Japan. Perhaps one of the purposes of this film was to boost the morale of Japanese citizen and give them hope that the war could be won. This method of utilizing the Momotaro myth in political propaganda is also seen in “Minamata: The Victims and Their World.”

Therefore, the different elements of food in the Momotaro variants, such as the peach, millet dumplings, mercury infected fish and the alcoholic beverages work to symbolize youth and life, form communities, and characterize certain characters in the stories. It is clear that since this folk tale was told in the Edo period, it has immensely grown in popularity and is extremely iconic in Japanese culture. Inevitably, the story of Peach-boy will continually be used to unify groups of people who need to unify under a common goal, despite their differences.



Giants and Toys: Dehumanizing Effects of Consumerism and Mass Production

           “Giants and Toys,” an avant garde film directed by Masumura Yasuzo, is a satirical  depiction of post-war Japan’s period of substantial economic growth during the 1950’s. As a consequence, mass corporate culture and idol culture emerges, in which companies hire a star to sell their products. In “Giants and Toys,” the World Company chooses Kyoko, a quirky girl, to be the star of their Space Age Campaign to sell their caramels. The three caramel companies live in such a competitive environment that requires them to dedicate all of their efforts into making a huge profit by selling the most candy. Masumura Yasuzo criticizes this consumerist culture by portraying the dehumanizing effects it has on the characters of this movie.

A Crowd of Worker with No Individuality

A Crowd of Worker with No Individuality

In this first screenshot, Masumura Yasuzo portrays the people of the corporations on their way to work. All of the workers are primarily clad in the same uniform: a black suit, white shirt and a tie. Yousuke Nishi, one of the protagonists of this film, is briefly noticeable until the director zooms out of the shot, displaying the dozens of corporate workers. In this long shot, Nishi becomes lost in the crowd, which indicates his insignificance in the corporate world. To the leaders of the big corporations, he is simply a tool to be used to gain profit and success to the company. He therefore becomes dehumanized as a consequence of corporate cultures.

One of the first images the audience sees of Kyoko is a photo of her in the middle of stretching. The photo appears youthful and organic, showing off Kyoko’s personality. However, the image soon turns into two images, four images, and then continues to replicate itself into what seems like an infinite amount of copies.

Kyoko's image being mass produced.

Kyoko’s image being mass produced.

The perpetual copying of her image echoes the pop art by American artist Andy Warhol featuring Marilyn Monroe, who was also a pop culture icon. This first image enforces the idea that Kyoko is being objectified for the purpose of promoting the product that World Company wants to sell. The development of the multiple images of Kyoko alludes to one of the major themes of mass culture- more is always better. More pictures of their star leads to more people demanding caramels, which contributes to more profit. However, as this image of Kyoko constantly replicates, it becomes difficult to notice any distinct features that show off her unique identity. This process of mass replication of Kyoko’s image results in the loss of her identity and individualism. It also parallels her journey in the film, because her transformation into a star results in the loss of her individuality. She becomes just like any other icon, being used for the success and profit of the corporation.

Kyoko’s photographer tells a reporter about her tadpoles.

Kyoko’s photographer tells a reporter about her tadpoles.

This screenshot from the film shows one of the many unique qualities that Kyoko had before she lost her identity and became a run of the mill pop icon. At the beginning of the film, Kyoko’s character could be described as being a modest girl who cares for her younger siblings by working with a taxi company. She also owns several pet tadpoles, a fact that her photographer marks as the only thing distinguishing her from other girls. This description implies that the tadpoles are symbolic of Kyoko’s character before she got swept away by fame and idol culture. When Kyoko is promoting the company, she has to undergo a radical makeover in order to boost World Company’s prestige and reputation. Besides her physical appearance, she has to lie about her family and private life in order to maintain her image as a popular icon. For example, she must lie about spending her wages on herself, since World Company’s spokesperson cannot be perceived as greedy. As time passes and Kyoko lets the fame change her character, the tadpoles gradually begin to die off. This is a symbolic representation of Kyoko’s transformation into a commodity that World Company uses to amass money.

Therefore, Masumura Yasuzo harshly criticizes the corporate and icon culture of the 1950’s in “Giants and Toys.” By displaying how the attitudes and actions of the greedy corporations of the 1950’s were based mainly on making the most profit, he emphasizes the theme of the dehumanizing effects of a mass production society. Kyoko started out as a charismatic, quirky girl, yet by the conclusion of the film, she has been manufactured by the corporations into a mouthpiece with no individuality, existing solely to benefit the company’s reputation and finances.

Eroticism and Sensory Experience: Exoticism in The Gourmet Club

            In “The Gourmet Club,” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki depicts a gluttonous group of men who desire to eat the most delicious and exotic foods in Japan. Their leader, Count G, tired of the ordinary Japanese and pseudo-Chinese food, eventually discovers an authentic Chinese restaurant called Chechiang Hall and adopts their techniques into the Gourmet Club’s own feasts. Tanizaki utilizes food to dramatize the idea of exoticism in regards to two aspects: the undercurrent of eroticism in exoticism and viewing exoticism in terms of sensory experience instead of distance.

            As a decadent novelist, Tanizaki often acknowledges the perverse connection between food and sexuality. In the beginning, Tanizaki introduces this connection through the comparison of paying a “genius of a cook” the same wages as one would pay to “monopolize a first-class geisha” (99). In the Gourmet Club’s eyes, these epicurean pleasures are synonymous with pleasures of the flesh. Accordingly, whenever Tanizaki is describing the food of Chechiang Hall, he uses extremely erotic and feminine language. The first sight of the Chinese food that the Count sees was pigs’ legs, “soft, white and luscious as any woman’s” (114). The erotic language serves to emphasize the extent that that Count lusts and desires the idealized, exotic Chinese cuisine.

            Furthermore, one of the major examples of the sexualization of food occurs in the description of the Ham with Chinese Cabbage. Tanizaki personifies the dish with feminine imagery like the “sensuous swish of silk” and the suffocating “smells of hair oil and perfume” (132-133). The woman’s fingers begin to sensuously massage the diner’s lips, giving sexual pleasure as well as increasing the anticipation of the consumption of food. Tanizaki portrays the men’s appetite as aroused, cleverly hinting at the double entendre of sexual arousal and epicurean arousal.  The explicit sexual imagery of licking and sucking the fluid-emitting “bok choi fingers” serves to enhance the connection that eroticism has to exoticism (136). The taboo nature of the cannibalistic consumption of the woman’s fingers augments the concept of exoticism. The exotic foods of Chechiang Hall satisfy both the men’s hunger and sexual drive.

            In addition, food is also used to dramatize the idea of exoticism in that it clarifies the concept of viewing exoticism in terms of imagination and experience instead of geographical distance. When an object or experience is described as exotic, it usually means that it originates from a culture that exists far away from your homeland. However, in the story, the authentic Chinese food of Chechiang Hall is perceived as exotic, yet it is not geographically distant from Japan. Tanizaki instead emphasizes how distinct and magical the Chinese food is when compared to the Japanese and fake Chinese food they had grown tired of. The cuisine of Chechiang Hall was the “product of utterly different tastes and conception” (131). Because the experience of food is so bizarre and unique, one can consider it to be exotic. In order to truly savor these eccentric foods, the narrator claims that “every part of them had to become a tongue” (131). Tanizaki’s technique of surreal hyper-focalization to describe these sensory experiences stresses the exoticism that is inherent in these types of dishes.

Tampopo: The Power of Comfort Food in Forging Personal and Communal Bonds

In the bubble era ramen western, Tampopo, Itami Juzo depicts Tampopo’s journey to have the best ramen shop in the city. The structure of the film is interesting in that seemingly unrelated vignettes related to food are interspersed between scenes of this overarching plot. This screenshot is from the scene in which a husband sees his wife on her death bed. In an attempt to revive her, he orders her to go make dinner for their family. Surprisingly, the wife recuperates and shakily cooks a pot of fried rice. After serving her family, she dies with a smile on her face; glad that her last act was spent satisfying her family’s culinary needs. I believe this scene is one of the most significant because it stresses the power of comfort food in forging personal and communal bonds.



A family enjoys the last meal made by their dying mother.


Analyzing the mise en scene, the mother is the closest to the camera, signifying her important role in feeding her family. Her family is captured in a medium shot at eye level. This angle allows the audience to sympathize and connect more with the family’s emotions. The family clearly indicates their gratitude, since both the husband and his little girl are gazing at their dying mother in admiration. The scene also features the train motif, which foreshadows the mother’s transition from life to death.

This vignette parallels Tampopo’s story in that they both feature lowly, humble foods. This movie was released when Tokyo was in the process of becoming a global city. This process gave rise to a postmodernism ideology, in which people believed that it was in society’s best interest to constantly throw out old things and focus on the future. This post-modernist perspective was strongly emphasized in Japanese culture. With food, Japan emulated French haute cuisine during this time period. Therefore, Itami chose to feature the lowly ramen and fried rice dishes to enhance the cultural status of traditional Japanese comfort foods and prevent those aspects of their culture from being thrown away. This scene builds upon the idea that beautiful concepts such as love and familial bonds can be produced from humble beginnings.

This scene also highlights Itami’s idea of female social roles in Japan. In Tampopo, he features several women as nurturing, food providers. For example, in this screen shot, the mother is literally on her death bed, yet she manages to recover enough strength to create a delicious family style meal and serve her family. In this final act, she manages to not only nourish her family, but also give them hope that she might survive. The act of nourishing her family also allows her mental state to be at peace with her death. She dies with the satisfaction of knowing she has given her kin the pleasure and biological nourishment that comes with food. The profound, multi-layered sentiment connected to providing food is echoed in Tampopo and the breast-feeding mother at the end of the movie.