Author Archives: darrenlsf

What makes Kobe Beef famous

Kobe Beef is one of the most prestigious foods nowadays all over the world. The

status of Kobe Beef has even been promoted to a level that it becomes the icon of

Japanese food and foodies.

From Wikipedia, it is said that the origin of Kobe Beef is associated with the

import of cattle to Japan. Japan’s topography is unique, with mountainous region

providing the conditions that can “yield herds that developed and maintained qualities

in their meat that differ significantly from other breeds of cattle”. Japanese people

deeply believed in the idea that meat is dirty, and obeyed the taboo banning meat

eating at that time. Cwiertka states that Western people felt the urge to import meat

from outside Japan in order to feed themselves in the essay about “modernity of food

eating in Japan”. The import caused the interbred between the cattle in Japan and

many other kinds of cattle from outside the world. And one kind of such cattle was

recognized as “Kobe Beef” because it is from Kobe.

The interbred not only happened in Kobe. It is a nationwide phenomenon. Not

only Kobe Beef, the general quality of beef in Japan is very well-known all over

the world. There are other regions in Japan such as Matsusaka, Miyazaki, and Iwate

which are also proud of their native beef. However, it is interesting to notice that

Kobe Beef enjoys significantly more prestigious reputation than beefs from other

areas. As a matter of fact, the actual meaning of the word Kobe Beef has gone through

some changes. And it is the essential reason for Kobe Beef’s prestige.

From Wikipedia, we know that in 1983, “The Kobe Beef Marketing and

Distribution Promotion” was formed. Its website lists all the strict procedures from

breeding to slaughtering to shipping of Kobe Beef. As for the cattle itself, it should

also fulfill many requirements to be certified as a “Kobe Beef”. It actually means

that Kobe Beef is no longer specifically restricted in the area of Kobe or Kansai. It

has become a general concept, or a criterion for beef of high quality. Compared to

other areas in Japan, Kansai area where Kobe is located is more economically well-
developed, so the organization has more sufficient resource for the promotion. On the

other hand, by making details, the image of “Kobe Beef” is clearly established. The

certification is not only for Kobe area, which encourages people in other regions to

participate in joining the “Kobe Beef” family. It is one of the most important factor to

make Kobe Beef popular.

For foreigners, Kobe beef is the icon showing the delicacy and prestige of

Japanese food. There are some myths that Kobe Beef enjoys massage and music when

being fed. On the website of The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion,

“much love, labor and care” are emphasized. All those information creates the sense

of exoticism to foreigners. Its astonishingly high price also marks its value.

In sum, Kobe Beef has gone through some changes in the history. With the effort

of promotion from domestic organization and the qualities that attracts foreigners, its

becoming of Japanese icon is not surprising.

Different perspectives of food in Momotaro

 

Momotaro is one of the most famous fictional figures in Japan’s history. The folktale has endured generations after generations since long time ago. He is of such characteristics as courage, bravery and leadership that Japanese people take pride of. Momotaro is also widely used in different forms of text, both literacy and visual. However, Momotaro doesn’t appear in the same way in every text, especially in  Iwaya Sazanami’s story and the film, which were both released during the wartime. Food is widely used to depict different perspectives of Momotaro and his team. Generally, food is an auspicious icon that connects the community. However, those differences of food in each text demonstrate the authors’ different intentions for different audiences in different time.

The difference shows up at the beginning of the literacy text and movie. Both the Iwaya’s story and the 1999 picture-based story clearly explain the origin of Momotaro that long time ago he jumps out of a peach which is accidentally collected by an old couple. Being casual at the beginning, the story can be interesting to children so that they can easily be absorbed in and have a general background about Momotaro. His origin is a reference to food: He comes from peach. The color of peach is pink, representing passion and joyfulness that makes the old woman “expects it would be very sweet eating”. When introducing himself to the old couple, Momotaro says that he is commanded by the god of the heaven to comfort them because they don’t have child. The food (which is the peach) here acts as the icon of hope and happiness, further corresponding to the author’s intention to stimulate children’s interest. In the Iwaya’s version, the usage of food also reflects the social background that food shortage is still a common phenomenon. The sudden appearance of food is an auspicious harbinger, explaining why the couple has a special affinity to Momotaro. Since 1938 is still at the early period of the war, elements of wartime propaganda are not clearly shown in the story. In the visual text, the director didn’t introduce his origin but directly presented the scene in which Momotaro begins making announcement. The movie can be characterized as a wartime manifesto, publicizing the radical wartime values which advocate of fighting boldly to defeat enemies. The story’s background is unambiguous: Team of Momotaro is going to defeat the Demon Island, and this thesis is emphasized in the whole movie. Although there are still a lot of cute animals in the movie which are used to make the movie acceptable for children, most of the casual parts about Momotaro’s origin in the literacy text are deleted.

Momotaro appears as a leader, associated with the community-building, and the use of millet dumplings illustrates the different perspectives of Momotaro’s leadership in each text. It is written in the two literacy texts that millet dumplings are made by the old couple for Momotaro’s expedition to conquer Orge’s island. The 1999 picture-based story emphasizes Momotaro’s sharing of millet dumplings to the monkey, dong and pheasant, with the result that they decide to serve and help Momotaro. Camaraderie is therefore formed in a “happy” way which children are happy to see. In the Iwaya’s story, Momotaro doesn’t give millet dumplings to those three animals out of his own initiative. Proud of millet dumplings, Momotaro claims them to be “The best dumplings in Japan”. The dog comes first, expressing his willingness to follow Momotaro, but Momotaro doesn’t take out millet dumplings until the dog asks for something to eat. Though Momotaro just gives him half of a dumpling, the dog is still grateful to him because it alleviates his extreme hunger. What happens on the monkey and pheasant is almost the same: They want to join, ask for food, and receive half of a dumpling. In this story, millet dumplings “certify” those animals’ joining. They unite tightly around Momotaro by the millet dumplings. On the other hand, Momotaro is not as approachable as he is in the picture-based story in the way that his doesn’t give the millet dumplings unless those animals ask for him. Therefore, the dumpling can also be considered as a payment or reward for their loyalty. In this relationship, Momotaro treats them condescendingly, establishing himself at a status higher than other three animals. Having full right to decide the time and amount of giving dumplings, he is an authentic leader. However, animals still form a strong sense of gratefulness to Momotaro since they are salvaged from hunger, which gives an ambiguous hint to Momotaro’s wisdom to be a leader.

 

The monkey hurriedly goes back to bring a bag of millet dumplings

 

In the movie, millet dumplings are not formally introduced about their origins, and Momotaro doesn’t give millet dumplings to animals in his team. Millet dumplings are first shown in the scene about a monkey. When the teams are going to depart, a monkey hurriedly gets off the plane to bring a bag of millet dumplings. The director assumed that the audiences have already known that the millet dumplings are brought by Momotaro. The monkey’s action that he places millet dumplings as the priority illustrates his admiration to Momotaro.

 

The monkey gains muscle after eating millet dumplings

Different from literacy texts, only in the visual text is the effect of millet dumplings presented. A funny close-shot scene shows a monkey having muscle after eating millet dumplings. The millet dumpling can not only spiritually inspire the team members but also physically energize them. Millet dumplings here are the symbol of strength and spirits. Among three texts, Momotaro’s role as a leader in the movie is the most superior. He is so distant that he is not involved in any mission, only making announcement and distributing the task to his members, while the members have the most intense admiration to Momotaro: Millet dumplings are necessity for the combat mission, and they even have physical effects. All the information above corresponds to the movie’s essence as wartime propaganda. In order to better govern the army, soldiers are required to obey to commanders without any hesitation, and the authority is unquestionable. It is the unquestionable authority that solidifies the community. When this point is applied to the visual text, the relationship between Momotaro and his member is no longer full of intimacy and joyfulness as depicted in the picture-based 1998 story. Momotaro here represents the superiority of Kougun (皇軍), and his omnipotence can grant the audiences the pride of Japanese army and government.

Food also represents the hope among the members of a union in Tsuchimoto’s movie Minamata: The Victims and Their World. In a distant-shot, all the family members were gathering together having dinner, including Tomoko, a child suffering from Minamata disease, who was fed by her mother. Food is important for Japanese people, and Tomoko’s family didn’t want to leave Tomoko alone. Regardless her disease, Tomoko enjoyed her family’s love. Having meals together is obvious evidence that they didn’t abandoned Tomoko, and their daily gathering is a source of hope for all the members. The emphasis of food in Japanese culture can explain why food is widely used in Momotaro texts to show his characters.

 

Tomoko’s family had dinner together.

Another point distinguishing the movie special from the literacy texts is the usage of alcohol. A leader of the Demon Island is drinking alcohol when he is on duty, unaware of the approaching planes from Momotaro. He tries to escape, but it is too late. Japanese highly value the rules when completing tasks. Drinking alcohol means that the leader doesn’t take full responsibility, which is contrary to the value. What Momotaro does can also be interpreted as a punishment to his laziness. Although the main purpose of the movie is to advocate Japanese wartime value, it is still an animation, which means quite a few children will watch it. Depicting Momotaro’s defeat as a punishment to laziness makes the thesis easier to understand for children.

Nevertheless, three texts share something in common. All stress that the expedition to Orge’s Island (or Demon Island, in the movie) is long distance and Momotaro is to eliminate injustice. When the story started to be circulated, there was no wartime value. In this way, it reflects the expectation placed by the old generation on young children, hoping them to be brave and justice.

The same content in the three texts shows what is valued by Japanese continuously from past to present, while the differences mirror the crux each text wants to show in different period. Food in Momotaro brings us hope and joyness. Characters in the text and audiences are all bonded around Momotaro by food. And the usage of food contributes greatly to the variety of depictions, which makes Momotaro still popular in Japan.

Different food, different relationship

Food plays an important role in several scenes Spirited Away, but is not always used in the same way. While some scenes illustrate food as the symbol of materialism and people’s insatiable desire, others show food as the icon representing genuine friendship. In this way, Miyazaki presents food in a two distinctive ways: extravagant but grossing food eaten by parents, and simple but natural food from Chihiro’s friends.Image

The pig greedily wants more food but was hit by something.

 

Parents’ turning to pigs might be surprising for most audience. After entering the “new world”, Chihiro’s parents find delicious food. They can’t help enjoying themselves since no one is nearby, regardless Chihiro’s begging. They pretend to have appropriate demeanor at first but can’t resist the temptation for free food, eating as fast as possible. They are so indulged that they turn into pigs. Although something hits the pigs to stop them from eating, they don’t stop even though they are completely full. Various big-size foods are presented on the table. But they look small with obese pigs nearby. Their insatiable appetite is demonstrated by such comparison, along with the grossing saliva from their mouths.

 

The film was shown when Japan’s economy was in stagnation after the bubble economy blew up. The free high-class food is the symbol of human’s insatiable desire. For a lot of people, monetary benefit is their priority like the parents: although Chihiro and parents have seemingly intimate relationship at first, faced up with free food, the parents ignore Chihiro and focus on food exclusively. Human can control their minds while pigs can’t, so the parents are more like pigs. The transformation can be understood as a punishment from Miyazaki corresponding to their greedy behavior. Miyazaki has always been urging adults to escape the utilitarian and monetary world, an appeal that is presented as the pigs being hit. In sum, food is presented in an absurd way, and parents’ ugly characteristics are exposed to the audience through their reactions to food.

 

Her parents’ transformations push Chihiro to be brave and independent. In her adventure, she met friends who change her life, and friendship is the other important part of the movie. The moving friendship is the antithesis of the avariciousness. During the interaction between her friends and her, food, through which Miyazaki praises true friendship, appears in a different way as that of the extravagant food in the former scenes.

 

Haku is the most important person during Chihiro’s adventure, willing to sacrifice himself to help Chihiro find her way back. Chihiro also helps him return to human and remember his real name. They have met each other before, predestining their encounter.

 

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Haku feeds Chihiro a berry to prevent her from disappearing.

 

This is a close-shot of Haku when he gives her a berry, which prevents her from fading out. His big eyes reflect his tender solicitude for Chihiro. The berry not only saves Chihiro but also reassures her that she does have friends. The reassurance is invaluable especially when she is helpless. Her recovery proves Haku’s true heart, and starts their friendship.

 

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Chihiro bursts out into tears after eating the rice ball from Haku.

Chihiro doesn’t cry until she eats the rice ball from Haku. Since being brave is her only choice, she conceals all negative emotion to herself. However, the rice ball evokes her sense of nostalgia, and Haku is so approachable that she really wants to confess her sadness. The venting of the emotion is moving.

 

In these two close-shots of Haku and Chihiro, Miyazaki tightly connects the feeling of the audience to theirs. We feel Haku’s kindness, Chihiro’s sorrow, as well as the tight emotional bond between them. Miyazaki’s presentation of food in these scenes reiterates his advocacy of pure human nature. Though small in size, the berry and rice ball are both granted great function: the berry saves Chihiro physically, and rice ball heals Chihiro mentally. Two foods here illustrate Miyazaki’s emphasis on nature and simplicity. They are much more adorable than extravagant food in former scenes because they represent Haku’s solicitude for Chihiro. Miyazaki wants to tell us that, as long as with warm-hearted nature, even a small object can make a difference for a friend. Genuine friendships don’t need monetary decoration; they need true heart. The relationship between Haku and Chihiro is the paradigm of “genuine friendship”, and food here is simple but emblematic of that.

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Chihiro feeds Haku with the medicine.

Chihiro uses the medicine, which she planned on using save her parents, to Haku. This is the point when Chihiro is mature enough to make her own decisions. From a dependent girl without any nerve to a savior, she has made a huge transition. Food from her friends gets her out of the desperation, makes her realize who really cares about her, and helps her be a true good girl.

 

Miyazaki depicts the parents as materialists, and Chihiro and her friends are the opposite. The food presented also shows Miyazaki’s two different judgement to them. Chihiro is the angel, standing for a person of innocuous nature, the role model Miyazaki intends to create. He places his great expectation on Chihiro, making her fly away from the past. Chihiro will be an independent and helpful girl, and the spirit she got from berry and rice will never disappear. 

Food in Tampopo: Back to simplicity

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The movie Tampopo consists of several short stories, presenting with a comprehensive and unique insight of the food culture in Japan. One of the earliest stories shows the appreciation of ramen. In this particular medium two-shot, two men sit in a traditional Japanese restaurant ready to have ramen. The old man shows the custom before eating, staring at the ramen, apologizing to the pork, etc. For us audiences, we watch the actions with curiosity and confusion as the young man. He pays full attention to the old man, trying to imitate his action. On the other hand, the old man enjoys the procedure. He makes pork and ramen sunk in the soup with chopsticks, and looks at the ramen as if he were communicating with it, with pleasure and expectation in his eyes.

 

This shot shows the audience the theme of the movie from the very first time: food. In 1985 when the film was made, Japan was still at the climax of its economy growth. High international culture flowed in Japan with labors and money, established as an icon of prestige. This point is illustrated by the scenes of ordering French food and eating spaghetti later in the film. Contrasted with those scenes, elements shown in this shot, such as ramen, chopsticks and wood-made table, are rooted in Japanese traditional culture.

 

The motif of the movie is that everyone is equal in the field of food culture. In this shot, two men sit on the same table and eat same ramen. The young man, though awkwardly, followed the old man’s instruction carelessly and happily. The old man, though dressed formally, is willing to respond to the young man’s questions which seem stupid to him. The statuses of these two men are equal. This presentation was a breakthrough in Japan where social classes are highly emphasized. And equality is the crux the director wants to express in food culture.

 

Let’s think about other scenes in Western restaurants in the movie. In the French restaurant, the young man must sit after everyone else has done so, and his fluency in ordering food is considered as an insult to other high-class people. The female is the authority when teaching how to eat spaghetti. And ironically, the luxurious decorations in western restaurants create stiff and unfriendly atmosphere. On the other hand, director uses red as the main color, with yellow light in the ramen scene. As I mentioned before, two men have equal statuses. They have casual conversation. Everything makes an intimate and friendly environment for not only the two men but also the audiences. Itami intentionally stresses this scene, which Japanese audiences are most familiar with, as the paradigm of enjoying food to remind people not to forget the pure pleasure of food.

 

Furthermore, Japanese people are good at finding pleasure from ordinary things. A bowl of ramen is much less noticeable than haute western food. However, Itami shows a complex procedure before eating ramen. Pork, noodles and seaweed all have different way to treat with. At the time when people were fascinated by incoming western culture, this shot reminds Japanese people of their food culture which different from western ones. For Itami, it’s better for people to get rid of the rapidly-changed popular fashion and return back to simplicity. Even a small bowl of ramen can give us warmth and make us as happy as the two men are.