Author Archives: esy

Food Ethics

The documentary film The Cove presents a convincing argument on the ethics behind dolphin hunting. A group of marine activists try to break into a secluded lagoon in Taiji, Japan to plant cameras within the site where Japanese fishermen murder an around 2,000 dolphins every year. What makes the film superb is its ability to make the audience really care about its issue. To achieve its powerful impact, the film mainly focuses on questioning the ethics surrounding Japan’s government. Throughout the documentary, we are presented with shocking injustices in Japan that keep escalating. We are presented with issues regarding dolphin slaughter and captivity as well as highly toxic dolphin meat that is sold to the Japanese public. As a documentary, The Cove not only drives home its points about dolphin murder but also educates the audience with the use of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat.

One of the most important issues presented within the documentary is the consumption of dolphin meat as a result of mass dolphin slaughter. As depicted in the film, the dolphins in Taiji are captured in a secluded cove each year. From there, the “best” dolphins are chosen and taken into captivity. The rest of the dolphins are murdered within the cove. As a result of this mass fishing of dolphins, the markets become flooded with dolphin meat. Later, we learn from the film that dolphin meat is actually extremely toxic with high mercury levels. The meat is very unsafe to eat because of this contamination. However, dolphin meat can be found in many markets in Japan; the meat is also sold at a very cheap price because its supply is abundant. These conditions will eventually cause a severe problem for the Japanese people.

The secluded cove in Taiji in which around 2,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year

The secluded cove in Taiji in which around 2,000 dolphins are slaughtered each year

On a physical level, the consumption of mercury contaminated dolphin meat is extremely problematic for consumers. The health risk of mercury poisoning is something that The Cove endeavors to expose. Dolphins are nearly at the top of their food chain, which makes their mercury levels higher because they accumulate it from all of the fish under them in the food chain. This process causes dolphin meat to have high concentrations of mercury that is higher than what is safe for humans to consume. In order to inform the audience, the film connects mercury tainted dolphin meat to Minamata disease, a health disease related to high-level mercury poisoning that was introduced in 1956 in Minamata, Japan. The problem is that Japanese people may have some of the highest mercury levels in the world. This runs the risk of possibly developing Minamata disease in the future and passing it to their offspring. In a simplified perspective, eating dolphin meat is almost equivalent to eating poison. The more poison consumed, the more likely problems will develop for that individual.

The toxic levels of mercury in dolphin meat and its consequences when consumed are explained by Tetsuya Endo

Tetsuya Endo explains the toxic levels of mercury in dolphin meat and its consequences when consumed

The most important aspect of The Cove is its argument about the ethics behind killing dolphins and selling the meat. Dolphin meat is extremely toxic, but the Japanese government has done nothing to prevent the consumption of it. The government has made no effort to stop markets from selling it nor has it attempted to inform the public about the possibility of mercury poisoning. The government isn’t the only party that has questionable ethics. Shockingly enough, dolphin meat has been intentionally mislabeled as whale meat in markets in an attempt to make more money. The fishermen and sellers of the meat are also just as responsible for this issue. They most likely know that the meat is contaminated, yet continue to bring more into the market. Because most people are unaware of risk of mercury-contaminated dolphin meat, the meat has been consumed both locally and globally. Most of Japanese public don’t even know about the incidents of dolphin slaughter and poisoned dolphin meat sold in Japan. Packages of dolphin meat can be found in many supermarkets in Japan. Mercury-tainted dolphin meat was even sold to Japanese schools at one point. Unfortunately, this caused the students to eat high concentration of mercury dolphin meat as lunch. The fact that fishermen and merchants value profit over their ethics is repulsive. Even the government has done little to prevent the possibility of mercury poisoning.

Richard O'Barry holds a package of cheap dolphin meat found at an everyday market in Japan

Richard O’Barry holds a package of cheap dolphin meat found at an everyday market in Japan

Overall, The Cove presents the audience with an extremely convincing argument through its presentation of food as an important ethical issue in Japan. The film does a superb job of educating the viewers of the dangers of consuming mercury contaminated meat and tying it back to the dolphin murder in Taiji. It also provides a convincing argument that has powerful impact due to the numerous examples of injustice in Japan’s food markets that keep mounting higher. Thus, the film inspires change in the way people look at consumption of food and questions what is truly ethical.

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Momotaro: A Tale of Companionship

In Japanese film and literature, food often plays a major role in the overall progression of plot and themes. Food’s many roles include unifying people, celebrating hard work, and comforting individuals. One of the most influential works that embodies this Japanese tradition is the story of Momotaro. This folktale does not have an original source and dates back to the Edo period in Japan. There are many different version of the story as well; however, the trait they will always share in common is the connection to food. Food in Momotaro acts as the unifying symbol for companionship and also as a material object that forms bonds between people. Whether in literature or film form, the theme remains that food can become the connection between all people and allow them to draw together.

Momotaro has many variations in details since it is an open source story. Older versions of the story had erotic and inappropriate elements. Many elements in different versions were subtly altered. Despite these dissimilarities, Momotaro’s theme of food forming a community is powerfully depicted in each variation. In Iwaya Sazanami’s definitive version of Momotaro, companionship clearly forms from the sharing of food. In the very beginning of the text, an old woman finds a giant peach and returns home to share it with her husband. They rejoice and celebrate the wonderful food that is before them. Thus, the very opening of Momotaro already implies how powerful food can be when unifying people. Momotaro himself springs forth from the peach. In a sense, he is the embodiment of unity between people due to food.

Later in the story, Momotaro sets off on his journey after receiving millet dumplings from his father, the old man. As he travels, he meets the dog, monkey, and pheasant on the way. These animals offer their loyalty and camaraderie to Momotaro and in return, receive half of a millet dumpling. The act of using food to form bonds in these sequences is very clear. Despite being completely different, a human, a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant are able to band together because of a simple common food. Symbolically, the dumplings represent the friendship of all these diverse creatures. On a physical level, the dumplings are a medium that allows them all to work together. It is Momotaro’s way of persuading and paying each animal that joins his cause.  The instant the animal accepts Momotaro’s offering, a pact of loyalty and friendship forms between the two parties. Thus, these events in the story signify the role of food in building communities.

Momotaro’s themes can even be connected the real world as well. The story reveals for us that food can be a symbol of unity for the Japanese people. As stated before, the millet dumplings in Momotaro manage to bring together a human and several different kinds of animals on a single voyage. In reality, the idea of communicating with and befriending animals is unlikely, but this idea stresses how powerful food is as a unifier. This ultimately suggests that the Japanese people should be able to assemble regardless of appearance, origin, or any other trivial difference.

The theme of unity through eating returns once again in the film adaptation of Momotaro in 1943. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle is a film made in 1942 and released in 1943 as war propaganda. Despite being almost completely different from the original story, the film retains the central theme of food from beginning to end. In the film, we see the appearance of millet dumplings again, but as war rations. The dogs and monkeys eat the dumplings before heading out to battle. Again, the dumplings become a symbol of companionship between the various animals under Momotaro’s command. The dumplings seem to associate with nationalistic pride that helps with the raid against their enemy which is successful in the end. On a material level, the dumplings are just rations for the soldiers. However, this also means that the dumplings are extremely important for Momotaro’s company. Soldiers need nourishment in order to fight well and keep their willpower high. Without food, soldiers can starve and even abandon their duties; thus, food causes a sense of unity even on a material level.

As mentioned before, the Momotaro’s Sea Eagle’s purpose is to act as propaganda for the Japanese people. The film is based off the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the film was released in 1943. This time gap was because Japan was experiencing major losses in 1943 and needed more support from its people. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle managed to do its job. Like the original story, the themes of the film can be connected to the real world. By connecting the bombing of Pearl Harbor to Momotaro, the audience that watches the film is reminded of the companionship in the original folktale. It reminds Japanese people of how powerful they can be when united together and pitted against a common enemy.

Interestingly enough, the film still does its job without knowledge of the original Momotaro tale. The use of cute animals representing the Japanese military displaying great unity and power is enough to make a young Japanese child swell with pride. The children who watch the film will instantly side with Momotaro and want to win against the Americans depicted as drunken idiots.

With knowledge of the original folktale, the film will have many deeper meanings to reveal. One interesting point is that both text and film depict Momotaro on a voyage to cleanse the land of evil. In the text, the heroic Momotaro goes to battle the ogres who are constantly stealing and causing trouble. This point would imply that the Americans in the film are also completely evil while the Japanese are good and pure. Another interesting point is that Momotaro himself is shown very differently in both works. In the text, Momotaro is a leader who marches into battle alongside his comrades. This means that the animals and Momotaro all face the same battle and struggle and form a close bond through that. However, in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Momotaro is a very detached leader. We only catch a glimpse of him in the very beginning before the battle and in the end after the battle’s success. His commanding from a distance seems to correspond directly to military protocol instead of the original tale. He is giving the animals commands rather than fighting by their side, and this establishes a sense of a military community and discipline. Momotaro is the absolute leader in both versions, but the type of community that he forms is very different in each.

When comparing the film to the written story, they both seem like completely different works with unrelated stories. On the contrary, they both resonate with the same themes of companionship and national unity. Though these themes may be portrayed in different manners, the different styles give us insight as to how food can be used in different ways as a symbol for community. The written version of Momotaro utilizes millet dumplings as offerings in exchange for loyalty while the war film uses them as rations that keep the group together. These different usages cause different kinds of communities to be formed but ultimately cause people to unify no matter how diverse. This theme reaches out to the real world and establishes that food is a powerful joining force for Japanese people.

An Alliance Through Food

After setting sail on the Hakkō Maru, a crab-canning ship’s crew becomes determined to stand up to their harsh supervisor because they cannot tolerate their atrocious conditions any longer. A story of dehumanization unfolds in Kobayashi Takiji’s The Factory Ship as a crew of Japanese proletariat men slowly deteriorate into “objects” due to poor treatment and abuse.  Takiji skillfully uses food to emphasize how the crew members are becoming less like humans and more like objects to their superiors. Food becomes a driving force that eventually thrusts the men into a rebellion against unfair conditions and treatment.

As the ship journeys onward, the fishermen even become the food themselves at some points when the author uses metaphors to depict the environments. The men are juxtaposed with “maggots” in a “vast cesspool.” The significance of this comparison is that the crew members are reduced to beings less than humans and that maggots are usually associated with rotten food. This association might even imply that the vessel as a whole is the rotten meat and the people aboard are the scum and filth that inhabit it. We can even imagine the fisherman living in their own waste.

In addition, Takiji also draws another comparison with the workers’ hands being “raw and red as crab claws” (11). This metaphor gives us a closer understanding of the mens’ transformation from humans into “things.” The raw and red that is used to describe the fishermans’ hands hints at the painful and grueling work the men deal with. The crab claws also tie in to their job of canning shellfish on the ship; therefore, the comparison probably also suggests the way the workers were seen by their supervisors: nothing more than objects for self-profit.

Likewise, another metaphor emphasizing how the supervisor’s poor treatment causes the crew to lose human qualities is the men having “no more feeling in them than giant turnips” (13). The men become so overworked that they reduced to unfeeling lumps of flesh with dangling arms and legs. It’s easy to imagine the men as turnips and their limbs as the shriveled roots of the turnips. The fishermen are more and more like emotionless objects as they stay onboard the factory ship. Several of these associations with food often cause a numbing of the human characteristics in the ship’s crew.

Although food is not necessarily the central theme in the story, it is an extremely powerful influence in the eventual rebellion of the crew against their leaders. In fact, because the men are “obsessed with food,” the lack of any decent food inevitably leads to conflict. The author uses food as metaphor for the crew to stress the impact that food actually has on them. The quality of the food they are given reflects how human they are. Thus, objectification of the proletarians is connected to the food they eat. Because of contrast in living quality, the foundation for revolt is set. Even though the crew is “made up of such a motley, diverse bunch” (9), they are able to unite because of food.

Tampopo: Celebrate Food Culture

Culture is closely entwined with food. Through the story of Tampopo and several short scenes that demonstrate Japan’s food culture, Juzo Itami explores this relationship between Japanese culture and food. In Tampopo, food becomes a celebration, hard work, and even a sensual act.

Watch closely, kiddo

Watch closely, kiddo

Perhaps the most important scene that encompasses Tampopo’s themes is the one of two men sitting inside a ramen shop. The elderly teacher instructs his young pupil with the proper techniques to eating a bowl of noodles. The old man tells the young man to admire and caress the noodles. Throughout the scene, the teacher stresses many elaborate steps to savor the ramen. This glorification of ramen, though hilarious, celebrates the food culture in Japan. The etiquette the teacher displays is a way of saying that all food is worth celebrating. What was once a common bowl of ramen noodles suddenly becomes an object of high cultural status to the audience.

Additionally, this scene demonstrates that food can also be connected to hard work. The teacher stresses the effort that one must exert in order to fully enjoy ramen. One scene in the film that counters the scene of the teacher and his pupil is the one in which an older man overindulges in food. He devours his large meal as if he had been starving for days. Choking on his food, the old man has his meal sucked out with a vacuum to save him. From this scene we realize the importance of savoring food. The hard work that goes into the ramen that we see in Tampopo’s quest for the perfect noodles needs to be appreciated with an equal amount of effort in eating ramen. Thus, the elderly teacher shows us that food should be appreciated because of the hard work that goes into any recipe.

Lastly, this scene also implies that eating food can also be an erotic act. Eating is a way to express love or to pleasure oneself. The older man stares at the bowl of noodles in the way a lover would gaze at his partner. He smells the aromas and appreciates the “jewels of fat” that sit on the surface. The old man then uses chopsticks to stroke the bowl of noodles. This scene indicates that caressing the noodles is related to sensual acts like caressing one’s lover. As the old man begins to eat the noodles, he instructs the young man to eye the pork affectionately while eating. All these small details indicate that eating can be a sexual deed. This idea is later reinforced by the scenes of the man pleasuring his lover with food.

This opening scene of the ramen master in Tampopo is essential in understanding the film’s central themes. The scene is the most significant because it gives the audience a peek into food’s role in Japan’s culture.  Every small detail is a hint to the many connections that food has with culture whether it’s celebration, work, or sex.