Author Archives: ashbo2

The Cove: Duality in Documentary

In The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos presents the issue of dolphin slaughter by Japanese fishermen in the context of a participatory and expository documentary film. The film not only provides a background on the subject but also depicts the filmmaker and his group of activists as they actively try to tackle the issue head-on. By presenting the overarching issue in an expository fashion side-by-side with the depiction of the director’s real-life participation in the discussion, The Cove works as an extremely successful piece of propaganda that somewhat demonizes the Japanese fishermen and government. This allows Psihoyos to more effectively win the trust and hopefully support of the audience.

The film makes use of a more expository approach in order to give the audience a basic idea of the killing of dolphins in Japan. The film uses footage from other sources of media including Minamata: The Victims and Their World and Flipper as well as provides a detailed account of the life and accomplishments of one Ric O’Barry, who is one of the main characters in the film. By using a more disconnected, seemingly objective approach, Psihoyos is able to distance his own opinions from the information that he is presenting to the audience. Although it is always obvious what side of the issue he is trying to push when he speaks directly to the camera, for the rest of the time he seems to be simply giving indisputable proof of the vice that is the hunting of dolphins. Viewers witness the transformation of Ric O’Barry from a dolphin trainer and television pioneer to a selfless and regretful protector of sea mammals, the barbed wire and heavy security fences that seal off a cove that is known as a spot where dolphins are caught and killed, and the possible effects of the mercury that taints the dolphin meat that is mislabeled and sold to ignorant consumers. These sections of the film are some of the most persuasive and allow the filmmakers to gain the trust and support of their viewers so that when they begin to participate in the events of the film it is implied that it’s the natural, necessary, and moral thing to do.

For most of the documentary, the director is directly involved in the events that are unfolding and unapologetically fights for one side of the debate, or the side against the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. Through this more participatory approach, the film takes on the tone of a struggle between good and evil since the characters are closely tied to the audience since they address the camera directly. The director and his crew of activists document as they go to Taiji and struggle against the establishment there that supports the killing of dolphins and allows the meat to be sold and mislabeled despite the fact that it is potentially dangerous due to high mercury levels. Seemingly unreasonable fishermen and police follow the team mercilessly and force them to find more creative ways to get the footage they need to raise awareness and get proof that the horrible slaughter is happening. Through all of this, Psihoyos and his crew interview various characters in the film as well as provide their own stories and opinions. This technique of depicting the active participation of the filmmakers in the events of the film causes the viewer to see the events that unfold as a fight between right and wrong and since the director and his team are the ones talking the most, they become the de facto “right” side and the Japanese fishermen and local officials become the bad guys. The filmmakers get more sympathy from the audience because they are more visible and relatable since they provide the most commentary and insight to the audience. Therefore, the audience is likely to side with them after watching them directly trying to stop the hunting of dolphins in Taiji. Therefore, by also relying on the genre of participatory documentary, The Cove can more persuasively present the cause of dolphin preservation.

By mixing the genres of participatory and expository documentary, The Cove makes a more credible and convincing case against the killing of dolphins for their meat. The expository sections build credibility and present facts that can be interpreted as proof of the evil of killing dolphins and whales and the corruption of the institutions that allow it to continue. The scenes in which the director and company intervene in the events of the film are also persuasive as they put the viewer on the same side of the conflict as the filmmaker, which hopefully leads them to also support the cause that the film is trying to raise awareness for. The blending of the genres of documentary in The Cove is not only a successful method of propaganda but also creates a engaging and fresh perspective on a interesting issue.

Ric O'Barry with the original Flipper in one of the expository sections of the film.

Ric O’Barry with the original Flipper in one of the expository sections of the film.

Footage of Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins in the cove in Taiji.

Footage of Japanese fishermen slaughtering dolphins in the cove in Taiji.

The filmmakers/activists plan their next move to get footage of the slaughter.

The filmmakers/activists plan their next move to get footage of the slaughter.

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Peach-Boy: Food as an Instrument of Community Creation

Monkey eating dumpling in Sea Eagle

In the stories and fables centered on the hero Momotarō or Peach-Boy, food works as a symbol of solidarity as well as authority. Momotarō is a typical heroic character: noble, righteous, and a protector of the interests of the less powerful. In the fables about his exploits, he and his retainers protect Japan from various evil forces, usually in the form of ogres or demons. These two sides are often distinguished via the symbol of food, whether it is the millet dumplings that Momotarō gives his retainers in the original tales or the alcohol that is heavily consumed by the bumbling captain of the demons’ ship in a wartime cartoon. In addition, these relationships are portrayed differently in the various Momotarō stories based on the time period in which they were written. These changes are reflected in the treatment of food within the films and texts. Food and the act of consuming it is a powerful indicator of community and relationships, a fact, which is reflected quite frequently in the myths of Momotarō.

In almost every story of Peach-Boy, there is an appearance of millet dumplings. In the original fable, Momotarō gives these dumplings to the dog, monkey, and pheasant that encounters on his way to Ogres’ Island. After receiving and eating these dumplings, the respective animals become retainers or servants of Momotarō. Thus food is acting as a direct agent of producing community. These dumplings, which were made by Momotarō’s loving parents, represent the mutual acceptance between the hero and the animals to become connected in some way. Food that was originally shared between family members, Peach-Boy and his parents, is now being given to these new characters, suggesting that they are perhaps joining his family or community in some way. Sharing and eating food together is something that everyone in a community, whether it is one of friends, family, coworkers, or etc., does together. Therefore when Momotarō performs this ritual with his new retainers it represents that they have overcome their differences (as each animal initially attacks the Peach-Boy) and decided to join together in some kind of relationship, in this case one of a lord and his retainers. In this case, food also works to build a community because it shows the Momotarō is responsible for the dog, monkey, and pheasant. He provides for them in the form of the dumplings, which are supposedly the best in all of Japan in return for their future service to him. Even in future versions, such as Momotarō’s Sea Eagle, a World War II propaganda film, food is used as a sort of reward for the retainers. For example, in one scene, after the forces of dogs, monkeys, and pheasants have successfully attacked the enemy, one of the monkeys is rewarded with millet dumplings and drink. He has performed his duty to the community, which in the film includes all of Japan in addition to his captain Momotarō, so he therefore deserves the delicious food. Food holds the community together because it incentivizes acting on behalf of the rest of the community. Food is not only a symbol of kinship but is also an agent of community-creation. Another example of food acting as a force to bring characters together in the Momotarō canon is the giant peach from which he is born. Old Woman and Old Man find a giant peach from which Peach-Boy, the son that they always wanted but never had, emerges. Once again, food is directly acting as a means of bringing people together into a community; the peach delivers Momotarō to the old couple allowing a family to form. In addition, being born from the peach also establishes Momotarō as a special character. While his parents are named Old Man and Old Woman and the rest of the characters are also similarly typified, Peach-Boy has a unique name based on his strange birth. Food not only creates communities, it also helps determine the roles of each member. The millet dumplings and peach from the original Momotarō stories are strong examples of food as the basis of a community. Without either one, Momotarō could not have existed because he would have no family to raise him and no retainers or servants to help him on his quest to get rid of the Ogres.

In addition to being a symbol and vehicle of the creation of communities, food also acts as a means of differentiating between different groups, notably Momotarō on the side of righteousness and the ogres or demons on the side of evil. In the original fable, the side of good enjoys the millet dumplings. The old couple makes them for their son, Peach-Boy, who gives them to his retainers as a sign of acceptance and as a reward for joining his quest. The Ogres on Ogres’ Island, with whom he battles, do not get any of the dumplings. Instead the Ogres are said to kidnap and eat people. The differences in cuisine determine that the two forces are not part of the same community, but are in fact distinct and opposing communities. Although this seems counterintuitive when taken along the idea of food as a force for producing community, it is still useful. Community is a group of people who have something in common, whether it is family relationship, aligned interests, or simply friendship.  This suggests that if one community with certain interests exists, than another community with different interests likely exists as well. So though food does not bring the Ogres and Momotarō and his band together, it is still creating community, two communities, in fact. Thus food discerns between differing groups as well as bringing people together to form these groups. In Sea Eagle, we can see another example of food as a distinguishing force. While the Japanese forces of animals use food as an incentive and a source of fuel to perform well, the demon forces on Demon’s Island (thinly veiled caricatures of American forces in Pearl Harbor) are useless, bumbling drunks who cannot perform their duties as successfully as their enemies can. In one scene, one of the Japanese monkey soldiers eats some kind of dish in the cockpit of the plane and immediately gains strength similar to the scenes in the Popeye cartoons where he eats spinach. As mentioned previously, another monkey is rewarded with millet dumplings and a bubbly drink after he returns home safe and victorious from the attack.  Therefore, in this community, aka the Japanese forces serving under Momotarō, food is a productive and helpful thing that holds them together. Meanwhile, on the demons’ ships, their clumsy, blundering captain, who looks like Bluto, the evil character in the Popeye cartoons, is depicted as a useless alcoholic with a copious amount of bottles falling out from his clothes. Hence, the community of Japanese animal soldiers has a very different relationship with food and drink than the community of American demons. The demons have a very dysfunctional relationship to food while Momotarō’s forces have a very healthy one. Food and the way the members of a group interact with it, can show how each group is different than the next because the way that it helps various communities form is always unique.

            Minamata: The Victims and Their World, a documentary that tells the story of a village poisoned by the dumping of mercury by the nearby Chisso Corporation into the water, also shows the important connection between food and the essence of a community. The villagers suffer from a horrible disease as a result of their food supply of fish, which have all been infected with the illegally dumped methyl mercury in the ocean. Therefore, like the demons, the villagers of Minamata do not have a positive relationship to food and rather than helping to build the community, it is literally killing it. The villagers decide to confront the Chisso Corporation who burdened them with the terrible disease. These villagers compare their plight to the quest of Momotarō and even compare the home of the corporation to Ogres’ Island from the Momotarō stories. This places the community of affected villagers in the shoes of the heroic or righteous side (Momotarō) versus the side of evil (Ogres). The villagers, who originally had a rewarding relationship with food, as they were mostly fishermen who provided themselves with their own food have been reduced to the sad state of being tormented by the same very food. The community of Minamata villagers has been unified to fight against a common enemy as a result of their connection with food. The food that made their peers and loved ones sick has provoked a communal response against those who caused the misfortune. Therefore, just like Momotarō and his band of animal soldiers, these villagers seek out justice.

Food is something that is important in all cultures and in all groups of people, In general. It brings us together as well as differentiates us from those who do not share our interests. Food, as seen in the various depictions of the Momotarō myth, is the basic building block of communities. When we sit down at the dinner table with our families and share a meal, we are not so different from the Peach-Boy giving pieces of his millet dumplings to a certain dog, monkey, and pheasant. We are relying on food as a vehicle of building connections and of creating community.

Corporate Food

The Factory Ship depicts the plight of the Japanese proletariat, through the example of mistreated sailors, fishermen, crewmen, and factory boys on a crab cannery factory ship. The workingmen are constantly mistreated and overworked by their superiors, especially the superintendent and are treated no better than objects. This objectification or “thingification” of the crewmembers onboard the ship is represented by both the food that they consume and through the extended metaphor of the workers as food themselves.

Those on board the factory ship are divided distinctly into two groups: the lazy and mean managerial figures (like the superintendent) and the workers who are abused and overburdened. While the lazy upper class is given good food, the lower classes are basically starved: “Like prisoners, they were obsessed with food” (14). Even when they are given meals, the sailors still do not receive the same luxuries afforded to their superiors.  On one particular occasion, “the fishermen had their usual meal of rice so crumbly that they couldn’t pick up a satisfying mouthful on their chopsticks and salty bean soup with shavings of something or other floating on top of it”, while “the cooks took all kinds of foreign-style food to [the superiors]” (55). Therefore, in The Factory Ship, food serves as a representation of unfair social difference. The crew does not receive the meals that they have earned while the seemingly worthless officers dine on unmerited cuisine. Therefore the crew is not treated as human, but as things with one purpose: to work.

The proletariat crewmembers are also objectified as food throughout the text. They are stuffed into their quarters like rotting food in a storeroom. The storeroom where “several dozen pickle barrels were kept, and the pickles feces-like stench mingled with the other foul odors” is juxtaposed with their quarters, which were “dark and gloomy, and the fishermen were sprawled about like pigs in a pigsty. A foul nauseating smell pervaded the room” (4-5). The conditions in which the men live are almost identical to the conditions of the pickles: foul smelling and cramped. This exemplifies the comparison of the deteriorating men as rotting food. As conditions for the men worsen, the comparisons become darker. They work until “their hands [are] raw and red as crab claws” (11) and the superintendent continues to treat them inhumanely, as if they are merely food; for example, when checking the bunks: “Roughly, as if inspecting pumpkins, he twisted the heads of the sleeping factory hands towards him” (15). These metaphors imply that the men are not considered human beings by the officers and the corporation that employs them, but are only as useful as food is to a person. They serve their purpose and then are consumed or thrown away when no longer useful. The superintendent checks the bunks like one would check a storeroom for inventory, rudely and mechanically. The workers are not important as human beings to the company, but instead, they are fuel or food for the corporate entity. This sad truth is most explicitly exemplified in the idea that, “In Hokkaido, workers were referred to as ‘octopuses’ since, to keep itself alive, the octopus will eat its own tentacles, if it must” (39). Therefore, the text implies that workers must unify and revolt because otherwise they will be objectified as things only useful for providing fuel for the company, then discarded when rotten or sucked dry of all nutrition or worth, like some kind of corporate food.

Spaghetti vs. Noodles

The Japanese instructor explains that slurping spaghetti is taboo.

The Japanese instructor explains that slurping spaghetti is taboo.

Tampopo is a film that revolves around food, including its consumption and its production. Throughout the film, many of the characters focus on the proper way to prepare, consume, and enjoy food, treating the entire process as art and as an intellectual pursuit. However, there is one scene that provides a basic theme that should be one of the main messages taken away by viewers: food is not only meant to be a piece of culture or art, but first and foremost, it is meant to be enjoyed.

In this scene, a straight-laced female teacher addresses many younger women who are arranged formally around a table in the corner of a French restaurant. She demonstrates the “proper” method of consuming spaghetti, picking up a few strands with her fork, twirling them around the spoon, and noiselessly slurping them into one’s mouth. At the same time that these proper girls are learning to eat spaghetti, an overweight and jolly-looking American businessman has ordered spaghetti across the room and is humorously slurping while the teacher is asking them not to make noise. His slurping is so convincing that one by one all the women begin to slurp and gobble down their noodles, even eventually the teacher. This scene is in stark contrast to the earlier ideas presented in the film of enjoying food by taking one’s time and ceremony. Instead, the businessman shows that food can be enjoyed quickly and even impolitely, as long as it is enjoyable.

This scene also makes a cultural statement, which addresses the idea that Western food is more high class than local Japanese food, so it has to be enjoyed in the proper way. This Westerner is directly showing the Japanese etiquette instructor that Westerners can be just as eager to eat good food and that they treat their food in a normal human way just as the Japanese do. In showing that a Westerner can be sloppy and carefree when appreciating a meal, Itami shows that food is just that, food. Just as various native Japanese throughout the film hastily and happily scarf down their local food, this businessman does the same with his familiar meal. In addition, the fact that the etiquette teacher understands that what she has been taught is immediately incorrect when she sees the American man’s behavior implies that overthinking the process of eating is unnatural, not in human nature. This goes along with the idea that that comes up throughout the entire film, the idea of the pleasure of food as universal and human. Food, though it varies from culture to culture, is part of the human experience. It is vital to social interaction, which is the basic necessity for society to exist. Though it is apparent that food can be an important symbol of cultural identity, the fact that every society values food, in general, is proof of its significance. Though this scene presents the idea of food as cultural power in the beginning (the Japanese are learning the proper way to eat spaghetti in an attempt to Westernize), it ends with the opposite idea. All people enjoy food and accept its value as a social tool. We are more alike then we are different.