Author Archives: bmcollins33

Minamata: No Affection Only Infection

Since food is necessary to life, it is instinctive to eat for self-preservation. Beyond this innate urge, food also holds a deeper connotation for family and society. Despite our cultural origins, the preparation and enjoyment of food is a commonality we all share. Food is much more than nourishment; it is the vehicle through which society communicates sentiments, expresses affection and creates bonds. When one thinks of life’s varied occasions, food is most likely at the epicenter. People use food to mark special occasions like birthdays, weddings, holidays, promotions and even funerals. Food is used to comfort people in times of suffering and nurse the weak in times of sickness. Through its loving preparation, the sharing of food with others is what keeps us connected.  Food plays a significant role in our daily lives, so much so, that it often defines ones identity, community, traditions, and relationships – it is the common thread that keeps us connected.

In Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, we visit a small fishing village in southwest Kyūshū sandwiched between the Kyūshū Mountains and the Yatsushiro Sea. We are exposed to a crippled community suffering the consequences of environmental pollution and stripped of their identity, compassion, livelihood and most importantly food. Through Tsuchimoto’s expert use of expository filmography, we gain an intimate glimpse at the severed relationship between food and society via a pandemic outbreak of methyl mercury poisoning.  The result is a disconcerting series of interwoven mosaics highlighting the stark reality of this disease, its impact on the residents, and how food is transformed from one of life’s greatest joys into a deadly quandary.

In this “grass is always greener” cinematic shot, we are transposed into a residents shoes. Unfortunately, our vision of prosperity soon leads to our subsequent demise.

In this “grass is always greener” cinematic shot, we are transposed into a residents shoes. Unfortunately, our vision of prosperity soon leads to our subsequent demise.

With fishing and farming as the only source of monetary income, a
fledgling Minamata revels in the idea of welcoming big industry into their small town. The Chisso Corporation is the means to transform the town into a prosperous society. Unfortunately, it tears apart their community and physically debilitates a preponderance of its residents. Divided between the union workers and the fisherman, the community is left flailing like a stricken fish on the ocean’s surface. Tsuchimoto’s distant use of observational framing allows us to maneuver amongst the chaotic town and humanizes this personal, yet shared, struggle. Through this fly-on-the-wall perspective, we intimately view Minamata’s plight and vicariously experience the intense social shame of such a conservative society. Most residents fear the disease to be contagious, while others are staunch loyalist to the Chisso Corporation through their dependency on the factory for income. The community essentially ostracizes the victims and tries to erase history, without a trace or a memory. As we look around, there is no affection only infection.

Casted out like garbage, a victim is left to learn the game of baseball alone.

Casted out like garbage, a victim is left to learn the game of baseball alone.

With complete disregard for continuity between scenes, Tsuchimoto further
juxtaposes seemingly unrelated shots together in a melodic collage of cinematic
genius. By stressing the fragile relationship between Minamata’s victims and
nature, Tsuchimoto reveals the personal struggle and subsequent destruction of
a community. Through his poetic portrayal, we witness a broad spectrum of
shared relationships –  an elderly man hunting octopus, a widow concocting bait, sardine netting, the ominous factory, concrete pipes pumping chemically laden runoff into the ocean, suffering children, and an infuriated community. This subtle, however, explicit portrayal of daily life shows the moral erosion of Minamata’s community.   Yet, the undeniable truth is that everyone is susceptible to this indistinguishable disease through their interdependency on the local fisheries for sustenance.

The hands of the victims are the same hands that provide the town with food.

The hands of the victims are the same hands that provide the town with food.

As one fisherman poignantly states, “the vital point [to kill an octopus] is between the eyes”, one cannot help but think of this statement as a metaphor for the Minamata community. Methyl mercury poisoning is a neurological syndrome affecting muscle coordination, impaired vision, paralysis, loss of speech, insanity and ultimately death. Ironically, these are the same symptoms affecting the communal bonds of Minamata. Their lack of coordination allows for the continued pollution of their food, their impaired vision promotes further neglect of the victims, and their refusal to speak against the Chisso Corporation’s atrocities eventually leads to a paralyzed town left wallowing in their own chaotic and insecure delusions.

Tsuchimoto’s documentary reminds us of the alarming importance between food and human welfare.  Food is why we gather, not just to eat, but to talk, share, and connect. It facilitates conversation and acts as the medium by which we strengthen and nurture our relationships. Without healthy food we as humans will literally die, but as a society we will perish in the social context. Tsuchimoto’s ability to cinematically capture this unfortunate disease will serve as an enduring lesson to us all, but more importantly, we are left contemplating the stark reality of foods role in the fragility of society.

Advertisements

The Truth About Kobe Beef

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Cattle are not native to the island of Japan and no one knows exactly when they arrived, but historical records like the Zoku Nihonki and Kokugyu Juzu first indicate their presence during the Kofun Jidai (Tatsumi). According to the Nihon Shoki, Buddhism was also introduced and slowly matriculated Japanese society during this same period (1213, par. 2). Buddhist doctrine strictly prohibited the eating of meat and cattle were strictly used for spiritual rituals and manual labor (Wagyu). Furthermore, the emperors of Japan issued a series of decrees banning meat consumption entirely (Wagyu). Consequently, aside from “so”, a dairy product eaten by aristocrats between the 8th and 10th centuries, beef products were absent from the Japanese diet until the mid-19th century when all laws prohibiting the consumption of beef were lifted (Wagyu).

As beef began to gain in popularity, clearly distinct Japanese beef dishes began to evolve and there was a sudden spike in beef consumption for the first time. As a result, during the Meiji era foreign breeds of cattle were imported and interbreed with “native” cattle to increase their overall quality and yield (Wagyu). Subsequently, four unique hybridized breeds of cow emerged – the Japanese Brown found in Kumamoto and Oichi prefectures, the Japanese Polled found in Yamaguchi prefecture, the Japanese Shorthorn found in cool northern prefectures like Tohoku and Hokkaido and lastly the Japanese Black which is found throughout Japan (Wagyu).

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Unlike most countries that prefer a lean cut of beef, the Japanese prefer theirs to be fattier with a characteristic “shimofuri” webbed marbling effect. Of the four types of Japanese cattle, the Japanese Black has been noted for its ability to retain a fattier content and is typically selected for beef production. In order for this marbling affect to occur, Japanese farmers prohibit their cattle from pasture grazing and partaking in regular exercise that would promote muscle development (Wagyu). They are raised in small byres from birth until they reach approximately 32 months old and fed high quality diets ensuring a succulent and tender meat (Kobe). Since the Japanese beef industry cannot compete with foreign beef markets, Japanese farmers are dedicated to rearing the highest quality beef possible (Wagyu). Through this quality initiative, Japanese beef has gained in popularity and the “Kobe Beef” phenomena thus began.

From the early Meiji era onwards, “gyunabe” and other meat dishes began to appear on the dining tables of Japanese families. Yet, until the late 1970’s, the clear distinction between “Kobe beef” and common supermarket grade meat was not clearly defined (Kobe). There was no way to prove if the meat you purchased as “Kobe beef” was actually real, authentic “Kobe beef”. This was the driving force behind producers, meat distributors and consumers joining forces to establish the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in 1983 (Kobe).

Kobe Beef Stamp

Image by Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (www.kobe-niku.jp)

Through this initiative a strict serialized breeding system was implemented and tending sites were designated within Hyogo prefecture (Kobe). Furthermore, a severe twelve point meat marbling standard was established to grade the “shimofuri” consistency (Kobe). Once the beef has been screened and processed, only the highest quality beef gets stamped by the trademarked chrysanthemum seal from the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association (Kobe).

The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association states that their “Kobe Beef” is unique due to “…a harmony of delicate, dignified sweet lean meat and the taste and fragrance of melt-in-your-mouth fat. The “sashi” fatty content of the meat itself will actually begin to dissolve at low temperatures. This means that it will literally melt in your mouth. An abundant content of inosinic and oleic acids have also been scientifically proven to add to its outstanding flavor.”  (Kobe)

In the United States, wagyu is frequently misrepresented as “Kobe Beef”. Wagyu is raised in many regions of Japan, Australia and the United States. “Kobe Beef”, on the other hand, can only come from Hyogo Prefecture (Freemont). Currently the Freemont Beef Company is the only authorized importer of “Kobe Beef” to the United States (Freemont). As of October 2013, the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association has only exported 508 pounds of “Kobe Beef” to the Freemont Beef Company for American consumption (Kobe). With this staggeringly low amount being exported, it is highly unlikely that the average American consumer has ever eaten authentic “Kobe Beef” at their local neighborhood eating establishment.

With the inception of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, many breeders of non tajimagyu breeds have begun to revolutionize their breeding methods to compete with the booming “Kobe Beef” market. Due to this domestic demand for even higher quality meats, the “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics” is held to identify the healthiest and most productive Japanese black stud bull bloodline (Wagyu). In October 2012, thirty eight prefectures competed in the 10th annual “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics” with the hidagyu breed from Miyazaki prefecture claiming best bull, thus, ousting “Kobe Beef” from their top honors.

10th Annual "All-Japan Wagyu Olympics" Image by NHK World Education Corporation

10th Annual “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics”
Image by NHK World Education Corporation

In closing, “Kobe Beef” has become synonymous with the Japanese beef industries perseverance for quality and flavor despite its recent loss at the “All-Japan Wagyu Olympics”. This is in part due to its popularity amongst foreign countries and commercialization through western media outlets. Unfortunately, it has also become a title frequently used by western free enterprise to loosely identify any wagyu breed slaughtered for commercial sale. As most consumers are inexperienced with the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association’s severe grading criteria, they will continue to be duped by the American restaurant industry into paying enormous amounts of money for an inferior mislabeled product.

Literary Analysis of “The Factory Ship” by Takiji Kobayashi

As we embark upon our literary voyage in the 1929 manifesto “The Factory Ship”, by proletariat author Takiji Kobayashi, we learn of the unscrupulous working conditions aboard a crab cannery ship named the Hakkō Maru. In this story, Kobayashi takes creative license in his portrayal of Shōwa era Japan’s totalitarian, ultra-nationalistic and fascist government through the select use of anthropomorphism and character reification. Ultimately, Kobayashi orchestrates a gripping tale exposing the unrelenting suffocation of Japanese working class citizens by an oppressive government solely focused on rapid industrial development at the expense of human life.

Kobayashi’s foreshadowing of the totalitarian nature of the Hakkō Maru’s leadership is evident with his choice for the opening passage “We’re on our way to hell, mates!”(Kobayashi 3), and becomes increasingly more obvious as he depicts the marginalization of the crew through a strategic sequence of character reification. As we venture below deck to the crew’s berthing, we find the labor workers are treated as commodity resources “…the fishermen were sprawled about like pigs in a pigsty” (Kobayashi 5), and have lost any resemblance as human beings. Kobayashi reinforces this idea again later with another passage describing the same berthing space “The hold itself was like a vast cesspool and the men in the bunks resembled maggots” (Kobayashi 10). Kobayashi’s repeated visceral depiction of this space makes his audience keenly aware that the Hakkō Maru’s leadership makes no distinction between the labor worker’s and its consumable stock. Essentially, each labor worker is inventoried without clear distinction. This idea is reinforced during the scene when the factory superintendent inventories the crew like stock while they sleep “as if inspecting pumpkins, he twisted the heads of the sleeping factory workers” (Kobayashi 15). Even as the crewmen suffer through their daily work, Kobayashi provides the appearance of an animalistic transformation, “their hands, raw and red as crab claws” (Kobayashi 11), further blurring the division between cargo and devaluing the labor worker’s overall worth. Through this recurrent primitive reification of the crew, Kobayashi makes a clear dissimilarity between the socio-economic hierarchies afflicting Shōwa era society. Furthermore, he highlights the countries deplorable working conditions and the government’s complete disregard for human life as the central conflict within his story.

In contrast, Kobayashi’s anthropomorphic portrayal of inanimate objects, used by both the crewmen and factory superintendent, underpins his view on fascism. The ship itself is commonly referred to as a “stallion” (Kobayashi 13), “ox” (Kobayashi 3), and “giant” (Kobayashi 11) in numerous passages reinforcing Kobayashi’s elucidation of imperialistic economics as a vicious beast. Comparatively in other scenes, the ships ropes become “snakes” (Kobayashi 25) while weapons of death become “toys” (Kobayashi 15). Kobayashi uses these metaphorical inferences to describe the constrictive nature of Japanese capitalism, its obligatory adoration of state, blind devoutness to the emperor, and over emphasis on ultra-nationalism. Moreover, it underlines the government’s blasé practice of corporal punishment to abate those who dare retaliate.

Every aspect of “The Factory Ship” is representative or symbolic, of Kobayashi’s larger abstract concept of an oppressive Shōwa era Japanese government.  Subsequently, through his literary use of anthropomorphism and character reification, he is able to convey a more graphic portrayal of the working class citizen’s plight. Kobayashi tugs at the reader’s emotions and attempts to ignite the same revolutionary spark witnessed within the text of his story. In the end, Kobayashi is calling for immediate action and pleading for the working class to “unite as one solid body” (Kobayashi 75) and fight the injustices against humanity by a foreboding imperialistic government.

Tampopo: A lesson on Moral Values

The Chase Ensues

In this now infamous scene of Itami Juzo’s 1985 film Tampopo, we follow a seemingly harmless old lady on a late night excursion to the local supermarket, but quickly realize this particular customer is far from typical. As she enters the store, the scene becomes void of music and dialogue; we are drawn closer into the scene and are acquainted with her real intentions. As she pokes her way through the aisles, we are captivated by her obsession with the store’s most malleable of items.  Immersed in the delight of her exploits, she catches the eye of the supermarket’s sole proprietor and is feverishly stalked like a rodent. Reminiscent of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the two are left battling over control of the supermarket’s merchandise.  Lost in her exploits and unable to control her insatiable infatuation with food, the store clerk is finally able to close width and destroy this parasitic intruder with a swift wallop from his fly swatter.

Confused yet intrigued, we the audience, are left contemplating the allegorical mystery Itami Juzo reveals in this short and profound scene. Questions arise – Is he ridiculing Japanese consumerism and commodity fetishism? Is this a statement about eroticism? Or does it delve deeper into religion and the four pillars of human impulse: food, sex, sleep and self-preservation? It is hard to say for sure, but each of the aforementioned questions can be plausible if scrutinized hard enough. Maybe that in itself is the purpose of this scene, to have us question the questionable.

As we are inundated with information in our daily lives, we must coherently choose between what is right and wrong. We must resist our impulses and  make educated decisions. Essentially, we reap the fruits of our actions and these fruits motivate future actions. A moral dilemma ensues; do we succumb to our primitive urges, quench our lustful cravings, become coerced by fashionable trends or follow our moral compass?

If our actions were governed by our insatiable desire to consume and replenish, we would lose sight of the value of life.  We ourselves would be consumed by gluttony and become morally and spiritually bankrupt. Principally, we would be transformed into parasites, aimlessly dashing about, ravaging the landscape in an attempt to satisfy our voracious appetite for the exotic, self-fulfilling and fashionable. The old lady in the supermarket is just like this, a rodent pilfering the store, haphazardly moving from item to item, leaving a trail of waste in her wake only to eventually be eradicated by the store clerk. She is our internal struggle, our true desire, as old as time itself, genetically imbedded into our existence. The store clerk is our moral obligation to suppress those desires and fall in line with societal values; those common laws that govern what is right and what is wrong.

In this scene Itami Juzo is merely immortalizing this struggle and addressing a common issue that afflicts us all, regardless of social ranking or cultural origin.  As a whole, this film is a sophisticated cinematic portrayal of the timeless battle between good and evil. Almost every scene, relationship and character possesses this moral undertone. Essentially, this is his way of tutoring us on life’s eternal struggle – a human struggle as inhabitants of two worlds, one both internal and external.