Author Archives: camvuong

THE COVE: A WAKE UP CALL

Superb, well-informed, emotional and inspiring are all the words that one would possibly use to describe The Cove after viewing this documentary. Along with his team of specialists who share great technical skills in their fields as well as their profound connections to dolphins, Ric O’Barry has brilliantly recorded the horrid facts about the dolphins slaughter in the cove of Taiji, Japan. He also shared with his audience his feelings and understandings of dolphins, which are the main drives keeping him move forward in this hard battle against dolphin slaughtering.
Richard ‘Ric’ O’Barry is a former dolphin trainer widely recognized through his TV series Flipper, featuring Flipper, a bottlenose dolphin that performed stunts alongside with Ric. Howecer, in the early 70s after the production of Flipper terminated, the bottlenose dolphin that most often played Flipper stopped breathing in never resurfaced again. Ric claimed to have witnessed Flipper dying before his very eyes. The death of Flipper came to Ric like a ‘shock from a punch’, making him believe that the practice of taking dolphins into captivities, and other practices that result in the deterioration or death of dolphins’ lives are inhumane. He then started working to free dolphins from mistreatment and captivity worldwide starting with cutting off a net to set free a dolphin in Bimini island days after Flipper’s death. This resulted in his arrest, yet he considered it only the beginning of his dolphins saving quest. Forming his own team of experts, he set out for a covert operation of capturing the images and sounds of the dolphins crying for help.
“If you aren’t an activist you’re an inactivist,” – Richard ‘Ric’ O’Barry.
One of the marks of a powerful documentary is that the person directly involving documenting it contrasts the ongoing methods that may help solve the problem with the severity of the problem itself. Here, Ric has directly contacted with the Japanese officials and the International Whaling Commission to evaluate the effort and efficiency put into the matter. Most of the responses that Ric received largely showed the indifference and lack of information from the Commission. The Japanese officials, on the other hand, not only did they not cooperate, but also tried to cover up Ric’s attempt to find out what was happening at the cove of Taiji. During his encounters with several local fishermen, he even heard directly that if he managed to capture the whaling practice at the cove, the fishermen’s business would be shut down. When the fishermen realized that Ric did not plan to stop, they physically confronted Ric, blocked his camera and shouted at him. Such adversity was expected by Ric because he knew himself that the source of dolphins is what the fishermen made a living from. The subsidies from the government for this activity perpetuated the practice while binding the fishermen from going beyond the profits.

According to the documentary, 20,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year in Taiji alone. Most are killed at the sea but thousands are killed at the cove of Taiji as a result of “drive-hunting”, a fishing technique involving a large deployed net by a formation of ships to force the dolphin ashore where they get cornered and stabbed to death. Living dolphins that are chosen for marine theme park will value up to $200,000 while a dolphin killed for meat only valued at $600. However, dolphin meat is extremely cheap and under-demanded for its high level of toxicity, especially mercury at 10 ppm while the average safety level is 1.6 ppm. The only drives for this practice to be supported by the government are the explosion of swim-with-dolphin program and pest control. However those reasons are poorly supported. The main reason of the decline in fish catch is due to overfishing (Pauly, D., & Chua, T. E. (1988)) as a result of unsustainable productivity from fishing.
Dolphins are also very complex and intelligent animals. Closely bonded with his old Flipper and the dolphins that he trained and nursed, Ric learned to understand the feelings of dolphin through eye contacts and body language. He believes that dolphins are “misunderstood because of their natural smile on their faces that hides away the pain they have to endure”. The footage of the desperate bleeding dolphin trying to swim away in the blood bathed sea is heart-wrenching to the viewers. Accompanied with that video and the cries of the wounded dolphins after a long struggle, Ric broke into the IWC meeting to show to the world the horror of dolphin killing in Japan as a way of saying “action must be taken, and taken now!” With the scene of Ric standing in the crowd of people trying to cross the street in Japan, the movie ended.
The Cove is a consistent, complete and powerful movie/documentary that is surely inspirational for people seeking for animals’ rights and justice (dolphins’ in this particular case). The movie went on to win the US Audience Award at the 25th annual Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. Though several claims were made accusing this movie of certain inaccuracies in Japan, it is still certainly eye-opening and informative about the brutality of dolphin slaughter.Image

FOOD: THE POWER OF UNIFICATION

INTRO

As humans, a species among many others that walk the earth, we also breathe, eat, and drink to survive, and live. Just like air and water, food is an integral necessity that fuels our civilization. Thus, food has become the subject of glorification across time and cultures: food used as traditional treatment for special holidays like turkeys for thanksgiving, candies for christmas; food used as ceremonial treatment like the Eucharistic bread for solemn Christian ceremonies. Food possesses in itself the cultural richness so vast and powerful that enables it to connect people within and across different cultures.

I. Food and the tale of Momotaro

The tale of Peach-boy Momotaro, a traditional folk hero well-known among the Japanese, tells the story of a boy born to an old couple from a giant peach the old woman found floating down the river. This boy, Momotaro (Peach-boy), later becomes a young brave general who sets out to defeat the Orges by forming a small army of him, a dog, a pheasant and a monkey. Momotaro was frequently used to symbollically depict the might of the Japanese army in Japanese propaganda cartoons (G. Eigasha, Momotary’s Sea Eagle). The tale also reflects the unifying power of food present in some key events of the story.Image

As he himself admits to the old couple, Momotaro is no mere human (Momotaro, p. 16 – 17). When Momotaro reaches adolesence, he proposes bravely to the Old Man to go find the Orges and slay them. The old couple make no attempt to stop him and so they do the best thing they could: give him food for his voyage. (Momotaro, p. 18)

It is not uncommon that people leaving for long journeys often carry things that remind them of their homes and families; especially with people who form strong bonds with their upbringers/ parents. Here, food becomes the unifying object that reminds Momotaro of his parents. He describes the millet dumplings as the best ones of all Japan (Momotaro, p. 20); perhaps they may not be so, but for the millets to qualify for such entitlement, they carry the passive values that only Momotaro can discern.

On his way to slay the Orges, Momotaro encounters with different animals, who challenge but later yield to Momotaro, knowing his popularity. Their relationships with Momotaro are further enhanced thanks to the millet dumplings that Momotaro decides to share with the animals. They eventually cast aside their quarrels and whole-heartedly entrust him as their leader. A strong community of voyagers is formed through this unexpected unification. From strangers, Momotaro and the animals become friends/ battle comrades, combining their strength to resist the evil force. Such image is once again featured in a modern version Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.Image

Although it is amidst the war, the animals still take time to enjoy meal with one another. Such activity establishes strong sense of camaraderie among them. Food, as distributed by Momotaro, once again displays its power and vital role in building friendship within the community of resistance, and suffering, which are inevitable in every war.

But how so can something like food can possess that much power? First and foremost, food itself is a treatment, it wards off the hunger and embrace the raw ecstatic feelings as we bite down and swallow the food. Sharing the food is the act of sharing the ecstasy of consuming it, and, in certain case, sharing one’s survivability with the other. It is no longer a mere object, but trust and care are also infused within. On a long voyage swamped with the unknown dangers, no one knows what comes next, power lies in the union, and, thus, food manages to become the unifier within the voyage community; and with that power, the animals find security when they stand against sufferings together.

The unifying power of food against suffering is not just fabrication from a children’s cartoon. Throughout history of Japan, food came to unify people under one banner.

II/ Food and revolts in Minamata

The blight of Minamata disease (also known as Chisso-Minamata disease) still remains to the present day. First discovered in 1956 in Minamata city from the sights of abnormal behaviors of diseased pets, Minamata disease soon struck fishermen and people who came into contact with the water or contaminated food supply (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). Minamata disease was no mere bacterial disease, but proved to be caused by methylmecury, a lethal chemical dumped into water. The Chisso chemical factory was responsible for this pollution, making 2265 victims fall ill (of which 1784 did not survive) (Wikipedia, Minamata disease record). Image

Despite the obnoxious effects that methyl mecury had on the fishermen populace, the Chisso corporation chose to avoid the problem by bribing and working surreptitiously with higher officials to cover the issue up. They tried to scare the fishermen into silence by saying that exposing the problem will cause great decline in fishery market. Yet suffering persisted because the cause of illness laid nowhere else but in the food the people consumed itself. Seafood had always been a major source of food in Japan, also being embraced as the symbollic cuisine that represented the Japanese culture. For this reason, food became the unifier of the communities with people suffering from the disease and people who chose to stand up against the wrongful industrial practice.

“Can you imagine legs that can’t walk; eyes that can’t see; mouth that can’t taste…?” said Mayami Sakamoto (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World).

The Chisso corporation tried numerous way to stop the protests by launching a counter-protest against the fishermen. They also offered contract for compensation to ease up the situation, meanwhile trying to abandon the Chisso factory in Minamata to expand to other regions. However, the compensation

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proved to be too insignificant. The will of the community was so strong that the people would not let Chisso get away with their crime. Many campaigns were launched and planned out to demand Chisso for justice: large scale fundraising, public speeches, getting in touch with Minamata patients, etc. They formed a Litigation Group to file a suit against Chisso, which, after 4-year and the impactful last testimony by Hajime Hosokawa, successfully demanded Chisso to compensate a total of 3.4 million dolars to the victims of Minamata.

CONCLUSION:

The tale of Momotaro and the stories of the Minamata disease, in which food played a vital role, still remain remembered today. Beside being just a mere object of satisfaction, food contains the essence of cultures, of human connections and of the entities that it comes from. There are stories of people who also seek to glorify and understand those values like Count G. In The Gourmet Club, whose passion in food brings him closer to the Chinese food-lovers and an unexpected dinner that inspired him for life. Movies likeThe Cove made by social activists trying to save dolphin also mentions the food aspect coming from dolphins that relates to the Minamata disease in Japan. Even in daily life, underlying all the food we have for lunch and dinner are fascinating but no less profound stories.

Cultural capital: Food

I believe that the scene featuring Japanese businessmen in a fancy French restaurant is the most important scene of the movie. This scene captures not only the art behind the enjoyment of food, but also food as a form of cultural capital. The combination of Japanese culture with a French environment produces a comedic yet profound implication of the superiority of Western culture in Japan at that time.

The scene starts out with a group of six well-dressed Japanese men where five of them assume the superior positions and social status to the junior one who appears to be their secretary carrying business material around. These men go to a famous French seafood restaurant. Japan is well-known for seafood culture as its geographical properties give access to great source of seafood. However, French seafood restaurant assumes a higher stance in seafood culture as it is chosen to be the dining place for people of high social status.

The junior ‘secretary’ is constantly punished when he performs actions that other businessmen deem disrespectful. It is also social etiquette in the business world of Japan that people of lower status should always abide to the decisions of the higher ones, who tend to be the bosses, unquestionably. Even when the lower people are to voice their opinions, they are to do so in a humble manner to show respect to their superiors.

The most important part (also most hilarious) of this scene is when the businessmen pick their orders. Since most of them show the lack of knowledge on French cuisine, after only one of them picks the order, the other four follow and order the same thing. Their orders contain a French dish and Heineken beer. The choice of beer also proves their lack of knowledge on white wine, which is a more suitable choice for seafood in French cuisine. The junior, however, shows very good knowledge on French cuisine. He subconsciously assumes the superior status by ordering fancy dishes and beverage, a process that takes sometime. The waiter becomes the judge for the junior’s knowledge, the catalyst for the superior status of the junior. It is not surprising that the businessman sitting next to the junior reacts greatly to the junior’s behavior by kicking the junior’s foot; however, unlike the previous situations, the junior ignores the hint, and ignores his Japanese business etiquette I discussed above. This further proves the superiority of the Western culture to Japanese culture, and that people of young generation of Japan chooses Western culture over Japanese culture in hope of ‘modernizing’ themselves.

Though focusing mostly on glorifying ramen noodles, the movie also takes into account the impact of Western culture to Japan through food in the 90s. It also shows how food relates to many other social theme like sex, crime, poverty, killing, comedy and many other matters of everyday life. Through ‘Tampopo’, we are presented to the beauty, the power and the rich culture embedded in food.

The junior secretary shows his profound knowledge about French cuisine at the great displeasure of his superiors

The junior secretary shows his profound knowledge about French cuisine at the great displeasure of his superiors

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