Author Archives: bettycwx

Momotaro and Minamata

Momotaro is a Japanese folk character. In the folk tale, he was born of a peach floating in water. An Old Man and an Old Woman bring him up. When he becomes fifteen years old, he, together with a spotted dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, goes to the Orges’ Island to defeat Orges and save those islanders. In the movie Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Momotaro is a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. The troops succeed in the conquest of Demon Island by bomb attacks. In both the folk tale and the movie, Momotaro is not alone; he develops a community of his followers to support himself in the attack. Food is a tool used by to unite “people” in a common struggle.

In the Momotaro stories, food is a symbol of best wishes, responsibilities and trust in the development of community. In the folk tale, Momotaro has three followers – a spotted dog, a monkey and a pheasant. Momotaro forms his own troops by giving each of his followers half of a millet dumpling made by his parents. The homemade millet dumplings are a symbol for the wish of returning home. Momotaro’s parents made him those millet dumplings and expect him to win the war and come back home safely. By sharing the millet dumplings with the three animals, Momotaro is sharing the wish of returing home successfully and safely with his followers. Since Momotaro is sent down by the command of the god of Heaven, he has his responsibilities as a child of his parents and also as a leader of his people. He views saving those suffering people on the Orges’ Island as one of his responsibilities. By sharing the millet dumplings with the three animals, Momotaro is sharing his responsibilities for those islanders and his trust with his followers.

The movie shows nothing of Momotaro’s family and depicts him merely as a commanding officer. Momotaro loses his responsibilities as a child and is only left with the responsibilities for his people. Though Momotaro appears to be alone and does not have much communication with the troops, he is still the spiritual leader of the army. Instead of giving real food, he gives an encouraging speech to the animals. His encouragement is the food for his follower’s soul, supporting his soldiers to defeat their enemies. His troops include rabbits, monkeys and pigs. Before the bomb attack, a rabbit gives some food to a pig, conveying her best wishes and trust.

While the folk tale and the movie both use food to transmit wishes and trust, not like in the folk tale where food is a tool to develop followers, in the movie food is passed from one soldier to another, showing the audiences that the soldiers are solidly united. The folk tale depicts the development of community in details while in the movie the community has already formed. Since the movie is derived partly from the folk tale, it is taken for granted for audiences who know the folk tale that Momotaro has developed a community of “warriors”. Without knowing the folk tale, one might feel confused about who Momotaro is and where the troops come from.

Though the Momotaro movie relies on the folk tale, the movie is different from the folk tale in the background of the story and their targeted audiences. The omitted passing food scene in the movie also helps to show the change from a simple folk tale to a military movie. Unlike the folk tale, the Momotaro movie is closely related to reality. In the folk tale, there is no specific description about the space and time that the story happens, but only some description like “Very, very long ago”, “in a certain place”. However, in the movie the Orges’ Island represents the Pearl Harbor. Momotaro leads the troop to attack Orges’ Island symbolizes Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during WII. The movie conveys a strong belief of Japanese people that Japan is going to defeat the United States just like Momotaro defeats the Oni. In other words, the Momotaro movie is to spread Japan’s military thoughts during WII to audiences, particularly children.

As the media changes from folk tale to movie, the targeted audiences also change from everyone to children in particular. Partly based on the folk tale, the Momotaro movie also borrows American animation figures like Bluto, a villain in Popeye stories. He becomes a captain addicted to alcohol in the Momotaro movie, giving audiences an image of irresponsible captain. For people who know the Popeye stories, Bluto has one more image – “a bad guy”. The Momotaro movie uses Bluto to represent the American army in order to show audiences that Momotaro and his troops are going to defeat those bad guys to maintain justice. Since the targeted audiences are children, the movie uglifies Bluto to make children tend to favor Momotaro more.

By sharing homemade millet dumplings, Momotaro develops his own troops. Similarly, in Minamata movie poisonous fish brings the Minamata disease victims together because the chemical factory Nitsuchi refuses to acknowledge its actions of poisoning the sea and causing the disease. In both the Momotaro stories and the Minamata movie, food is a unifier to form communities of voyage. However, the journeys differ in the roles that water plays in Momotaro and Minamata. Water, as the food for life, is an unstable factor since it is affected by human actions.

Momotaro is the leader of the community that he develops while in Minamata the disease is “the leader” that brings the victims together. Momotaro is a waterborne food sent down by the command of the god of Heaven. He rallies his troops to protect humans from Orges. In the Minamata movie, poisonous fish in water polluted by human actions carries Minamata disease. The Minamata disease victims go on a journey to protect themselves. What Nitchitsu does to the victims is equal to what Orges do to the islanders. Orges can be viewed as human actions that destroy the nature and finally harm humans in return.

Since ancient times, water is the place that gives life; water is the food for life. Similarly, Momotaro comes from water and the Minamata disease spread through water. In Momotaro stories water generates lives while in Minamata water destroys lives. “The water that bears the Boat is the same that swallows it up.” Human intervention of the nature turns the water from a “mother” that generates live into a “killer”.

Food helps to unite people with the same goals together to protect other people or themselves. However, food may also become harmful when humans do harm to the nature.


Spirited Away – Food and Chihiro

Spirited away is a story about a 10-year-old girl, Chihiro. She arrived in a “supernatural world” by chance. In the “supernatural world”, she became brave and responsible after working in Yubaba’s bathhouse. At first, she was afraid of everything surrounding her and only received help from others. But as time passed, she learnt how to take responsibility at work and bravely saved Haku’s life with her own power. Food also helps to depict the changes of Chihiro’s characteristics.


Caption: Any human in the supernatural world will disappear unless they eat the local food there. Here Chihiro is becoming transparent because she did not have any food in that world. At this time, Haku comes and asks Chihiro to have something like a red meat ball from the supernatural world. Chihiro is afraid of this “intruder” and she is reluctant to eat the food from someone unknown.

Argument: When Chihiro feels afraid, she just runs away and imagines everything happens in a dream. She can only receive help at this point and does not have any courage to face the future.

Analysis: At this moment, Chihiro acts just like a 10-year-old kid. Escaping and crying is the way she deals with problem.  She does not want to try anything in this new world even when Haku tries to help her and gives her the red ball. The red ball shows that Chihiro is powerless in this new world. She knows nothing about this world and without other people’s help she cannot even manage to live.


Caption: Chihiro now learns her situation and knows the only way to survive in this world is to work for Yubaba. But since she does not know how to save her parents and leave this place, she feels depressed. Just after Chihiro got a job from Yubaba, Haku takes Chihiro to see her parents, gives her clothes back and tells Chihiro her real name. Chihiro is depressed so Haku brings her some Onigiri to cheer her up.

Argument: Right now is the turning point for Chihiro. She is no longer the one who always cries. This time, she tries hard to stop her eyes from watering. This is a sign that she makes up her mind to take the responsibility of herself and her family. She is growing up.

Analysis: Haku is the first person that helped Chihiro. As for Chihiro, he is knowledgeable, powerful and respectful. By giving the Onigiri, Haku is giving hope, expectation to Chihiro. He lets Chihiro begin to believe that she can bring her parents back and go back home together. Chihiro receives the Onigiri, eating and tearing. Though she is moved and begins to sob, she still wants to become brave and tries to stop tearing. This is the first time she decides to do something instead of just escaping. This is also the time that she begins to believe in herself. Before this time, she has no ability but to receive help. But since then, she works hard at the bathhouse and deals problems with braveness and wisdom. Onigiri is just the marker of the change.


Caption: The green medical ball is Chihiro’s reward at work. Huku helped Yubaba to steal a seal from Yubaba’s twin sister and got injured. Chihiro intends to use this medical ball to save Huku’s life. However, Haku is so painful that he has already passed out. Chihiro does not give up; instead she cuts the ball in half and forces Haku to eat a half.

Argument: Chihiro decides to save Haku’s life without hesitation. Before deciding what to do, Chihiro asks Kamiji about Haku’s state. She is no longer the little girl that is always standing behind someone else. When she faces problems, she learns about the situation first and then deals with them. She is an independent and mature 10-year-old child now.

Analysis: Chihiro got the medical ball from the River God for her diligence. This medical ball is the power that Chihiro gathers through hard work. She has the power to protect herself and also help other people. Children are not the symbol for coward or dependency. Chihiro shows audiences a brave, independent and determined “child”.

The red meat ball, the Onigiri, and the medical ball show the change of Chihiro’s role in the relationship of helping and being helped. She grows up from a powerless and timid girl to a responsible and independent Chihiro. “Food is the witness”.

Tampopo and the employee

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 下午8.23.14

I think the shot above in Tampopo is one of the most important scenes. It reveals the social hierarchy and the etiquette for a business meeting by an employee, indicating an analogy to the situation that Tampopo faces in her Ramen restaurant. Through the comparison of the shot and rest of the movie, the employee and Tampopo are similar in three ways. They share comparatively similar social status; their lack of ability impedes their self-development or adaptation to the society; however, their destination is not determined by where they start.

At first, others do not treat people with low social status politely. In this shot, the supervisor drags the employee from the back rudely, suggesting that the employee is not of the same social level as him and the others. Tampopo as its name is an ordinary person. Her restaurant is also a “Tampopo”, comparing with the fancy French restaurant – “Sakura”. As the employee, at the beginning of the movie, Tampopo is flirted by an uncultivated guy. Therefore, can we conclude that “small people” are not being respected in Japanese society simply because they are “small”?

The employee and Tampopo both show a lack of knowledge of the their fields and their responsibilities. People in the scene are apparently of various ages. According to the etiquette in Japan, the elder or those with higher social status should seat first and usually farthest from the door. The small employee, the youngest with lowest status in the room, should seat after everyone else, but he seems to be unfamiliar with this convention. Tampopo owns an unpopular Ramen restaurant because she almost knows nothing about how to make proper Ramen and how to offer customers with the best service. For me, Tampopo is not a responsible owner and chef. Not only because her insufficiency of knowledge, but also she does not even have the desire to improve her work before the advent of Guro. The coming of Guro is a present from god. Tampopo is always waiting for the present to come by itself and never go to find it actively.

However, later in the movie, “small people” are elevated. The employee humiliates the other men by his mastery of French and French cuisine even though the others try to pretend that they make their serious decisions of the meal after thinking for a while. Under the rigorous training of Guro, Tampopo improves her proficiency in making Ramen and learns how to get feedback by customers’ facial expression and gestures. With Tampopo’s constant efforts, she finally succeeds.

The former inferiority of “small people” partly shown in the shot gives a contrast to their latter success. On the contrary, the arrogant are ashamed later in the movie. In my point of view, director uses those plots to convey that people are all equal. Even “small people” can have dreams and succeed. What one used to be does not decrease any chances of having a nice future.

Since Tampopo is a comedy, it can show a happy ending that might not be able to happen in the real world. The happy ending in the movie is another contrast with the hardship in out real life. In Japan, does “small people” really have a great chance to achieve upward movement?