Author Archives: leonagoto

Culture Wars

The Cove, released in 2009, is an Academy Award-winning documentary directed by Louie Psihoyos. The film examines the issues surrounding the dolphin-hunting culture in the small town of Taiji, Japan. Psihoyos’s film takes a clear stance against the activities in Taiji, and he teams up with activist Ric O’Berry to produce an exposé piece. O’Berry is an eminent global dolphin activist, who was formerly a dolphin trainer for the popular TV show, Flipper. It was O’Berry’s friendship with Kathy, a dolphin who played Flipper on the show, that caused him to reevaluate the ethics behind dolphin captivity and prompted his transformation. The film discusses a variety of concerns: the cruelty of killing cetaceans, problems of overfishing, the dangers of consuming dolphin meat, and the inefficacy of the current bureaucratic forms of intervention. The film takes form as a kind of investigative journalism, while using personal anecdotes to heighten the emotional stakes, and heist-like action sequences to create suspense and drama. The raw footage of the dolphin slaughters are extremely provocative, and at the end of the film one is left feeling as though something must be done. In this sense, the film is extremely well-produced, for it has entertainment value, is deeply thought-provoking, and is rather convincing. But upon further consideration, the film has issues that it does not address. The film tackles the problem as a simple matter of universal ethics, but there is cultural relativism at play. In the case of the dolphin lovers vs. the dolphin hunters, trying to make the two sides see eye-to-eye is a monumental task that requires a lot of cultural understanding. Perhaps in the fervor of their own mission, the filmmakers failed to see the root of the problem. And thus the war remains a stalemate.

From the beginning, the film establishes itself from two main perspectives. The narrator is Psihoyos himself, and he helps unfold the process of making the film. We are then introduced O’Berry, who is the cardinal expert on dolphins. In one of the opening scenes, we see the two driving around in a car showcasing the landscapes of Taiji, Japan. In the shot below, a paranoid O’Berry is certain that some entity is following his car.  He states, “I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

“I’ve gotta hunch over and change my shape so they think I’m just some old Japanese guy domo arigatou gozaimashita.”

 This shot, filmed at close range within the confines of a sedan, shows O’Berry clutching the wheel–which, interestingly enough–is on the opposite side of the car compared to the American standard. O’Berry is hunched over with his face mask on, pretending to be ‘some old Japanese guy’, trying to be discreet so not to reveal his identity. The tone of his statement, along with his hyperbolic gesture of wearing a face mask (without explicating the rationality behind it) suggests a rather ignorant, perhaps even derisive attitude he has towards the local culture.

One of the main tenets of The Cove is that it is immoral to kill dolphins because of their superior intelligence via self-awareness.

“And when you become conscious of this non-human intelligence, you realize after a while that they don’t belong in captivity.”

In the shot above, we see Kathy, a dolphin who played the role of Flipper on the TV show. She appears to enjoy herself as she watches TV. O’Berry explains how on friday nights when Flipper would come on, he would drag out his TV to the end of the dock with a long extension cord, and Kathy would watch herself on the show. According to O’Berry, she could even distinguish herself from Susie, another dolphin who played Flipper. It seems that the life-changing moment for O’Berry was when Kathy died in his arms, for O’Berry believes that she intentionally committed suicide due to a depression caused by her captivity. Through these highly personal accounts as well as allusions to various scientific research, the film show how intelligent and relatable dolphins are. From their perspective, the dolphins’ intelligence raises their status in the animal kingdom to a level almost equal to humans. It is on this assumption that they make the ethical statement that killing dolphins is wrong. But is it fair to place more value on certain animals over others? In the West, livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens have been the primary providers of food protein throughout history. Are we to consider the horrible living conditions and the daily massacres of these animals in slaughterhouses as somehow more ethical than dolphin hunting? Can we somehow prove that these animals suffer less than dolphins? Or that they are less relatable or lovable because of their ‘lower intelligence’? To say that there is a hierarchy in the animal kingdom based on intelligence is inherently mired in issues of relativism. However disturbing the footage of the dolphin slaughter was, would you not feel equally disturbed if the subject were pigs? This is the root of the ethnocentricity that is so problematic in the film. The bottomline is that Japan is traditionally a fishing culture, while the West is traditionally a farming culture. Now, if we are to consider the ethics of killing animals for our consumption, both sides are guilty. The dispute over the killing of dolphins ought to illuminate a greater problem of rampant human consumption. The fact that The Cove fails to even mention this larger ecological problem shows their shortsightedness.

There is a segment in the film dedicated to the dangers of eating dolphin meat because of the high levels of mercury contained in them. The film claims that dolphin meat contains mercury levels that are 20 times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends to be safe. O’Berry argues that the dolphin hunters are not only poisoning themselves, but also poisoning all those who they are distributing the meat to, including children. This is a valid point. The film claims that because of the general low desirability of dolphin meat in Japan, the distributors of dolphin meat often mislabel them as whale meats or other more desirable types of fish meat. If this were true, a large population of Japanese citizens may be consuming dolphin meat without even knowing, putting them at risk mercury poisoning. The film refers to the Minamata disease as a potential outcome of the long-term effects of eating dolphin meat. But curiously enough, we do not hear of a single person suffering from mercury-related health problems caused by consuming dolphin meat.

Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries

 The shot above was taken from the closing moments of the film. In it, we see Hideki Moronuki, the Japanese Deputy of Fisheries having his hair sample taken to test his mercury level. There are two people whose arms we see, carefully taking a piece of hair from Moronuki’s head. Moronuki himself has a disdainful smirk on his face, though we cannot know for sure what he is thinking. And in the background we see a chart of cetaceans of various sizes. As the caption states, his hair sample tested positive for mercury poisoning. But one must wonder what this test result even means, since the film doesn’t explain to us at all. He doesn’t seem to be suffering from any visible ailments, so what conclusions are we suppose to reach by the fact that he tested positive? If the risk of a Minamata-esque mercury poisoning are real, when will we start seeing the effects? Moronuki states that the health risks of eating dolphin meat are over-exaggerated, but from the perspective of the filmmakers, that is a blatant denial. Regardless, this issue remains inconclusive until we start seeing the effects. Some may say, “Well, is it right to continue doing something that is potentially harmful until it is too late?”. That is a legitimate question. In this regard, we see plenty of parallels in the Western world. Our modern world is overflowing with chemicals. Inside of us. Inside of our foods. In the water. It seems almost inescapable. In America, where there is an abnormally high use of pharmaceutical drugs, the question arises often. Many drugs are put out on the market and distributed to the masses, even before their long-term effects are known. Some drugs prove truly beneficial, but others introduce a plethora of side effects that ultimately makes the drug more harmful than helpful. Every culture takes health risks as an inevitable part of life, and there is no way of judging what is worse. The problem with The Cove is that it singles out a specific health risk that exists for dolphin meat eaters, yet does not address similar kind of health risks that exists in every corner of the modern world. In their eagerness to condemn dolphin hunting, they end up taking an extremely narrow viewpoint. For a person embedded in the dolphin hunting culture of Taiji, The Cove’s assertions may be deemed irrelevant due to these reasons.

Cultural relativism is important to address in our increasingly globalized world. As seen in The Cove, there is cultural relativism at play even within a country as small as Japan (in the case of people in Tokyo not knowing about Taiji’s dolphin eating tradition). If only the film had greater reflexivity and was more conscious of its particular cultural perspective, it could have made for a richer analysis of the issues surrounding dolphin-hunting in Taiji, and even explored ways of resolving this ethical conflict between two cultures. Without this awareness, it appears as an imperceptive affront to a culture that simply has a different way of life.

In his suffering, O’Berry can only seek redemption

The Cove is at its greatest when it acknowledges its highly personal nature. We cannot help but empathize with the pain of Ric O’Berry, who in essence, is just someone trying to protect something he profoundly cares about. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, for if we are to try to understand the root of the dolphin-hunting culture, we necessarily must consider the omnivore dilemma in its entirety.

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Food, Power, Myth

Humanity’s most basic physiological needs consist of air, water, and food. Among these, food holds a special role as an architect of culture. From our hunter-gatherer past, to the industrial revolution, to even the growing movement of organic farming today, our ever-changing ideas and relationship to food has played a fundamental role in defining the epochs of our civilization. Japanese culture in particular has unique relationship to food. Up until the Meiji Restoration, Japan was predominantly a rice-based economy. In other words, capital was synonymous with sustenance. As one of the most well-known and celebrated folk tales in Japan, the story of Momotaro alludes to this deeply enmeshed ontological relationship between food and power distinct to the Japanese psyche. As a folk hero, his strong and upright character captured the minds of many. And with the radical changes that came with modernization, the image of Momotaro evolved with the spirit of times. As Japan joined the imperialist bandwagon at the turn of the 20th century, Momotaro was transformed from a simple folk hero into a national symbol of the empire. As seen in Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the appropriation of the myth was used to establish and assert Japan’s new place in the global arena, and his militant image saw an increasing departure from the folk hero of the past. Yet with the dissolution of the empire after Japan lost the war, so too the militaristic Momotaro soon vanished. In the 1971 documentary, Minamata: The Victims and their World by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, the symbolic imagery of Momotaro reemerges in the national consciousness in the form of a grass-roots hero. The victims of the Minamata disease equated their pilgrimage throughout the country to Momotaro’s quest to conquer evil. In this sense, Momotaro is able to live a fluid existence, adapting to the psychic needs of the Japanese people through various contexts. In all its manifestations, the myth provides a framework to challenge and negotiate power, as well as deliver a catalyst for community-building through food. If we are to consider myths as public dreams, we can see Momotaro as the Japanese embodiment of the unconscious and universal drive for empowerment. And he carries with him the boon, the humble yet satisfying millet dumpling, which perhaps symbolizes “life force” itself.

As with most folktales, the origins of Momotaro are uncertain. In the standard version of today, the tale of Momotaro begins with an old lady’s encounter with a giant peach drifting down a river. She takes the peach home and presents it to her husband, and in their attempt to cut the peach–lo and behold–out comes a little baby boy. The rejoiced couple names the boy Momotaro, and raises him as their own. Years pass, and Momotaro grows up to be strong and righteous. One day, he resolves to embark on a journey to defeat a gang of ogres in a far away island. His parents, though reluctant at first, concede to his wish, and sends him off with some homemade millet dumplings. On his journey, Momotaro wins the loyalty of a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant; to each he gives a millet dumpling in exchange for their alliance. When they reach Onigashima, the island of ogres, they swiftly defeat the ogres, and the story ends on a triumphant note. Even in this most basic, stripped down synopsis, food plays an explicit role. Moreover, the offering of food appear to symbolize a significant transmission of power and spirit. The dumplings that the old couple prepare for Momotaro’s journey are an embodiment of all that they have to give. And when Momotaro gives each animal a millet dumpling, the transaction binds and unites them. Through the exchange of food, power is negotiable. The social contract between Momotaro and the animals could not happen without mutual agreement of the terms. The fact that the animals are willing to risk their lives in exchange for a millet dumpling suggests the value placed onto food in the story and perhaps even in a broader cultural sense. Survival necessitates sustenance, and thus food becomes the ultimate binder of people.

The countless iterations of Momotaro greatly differ in emphasis, tone, and detail. For example, in the highly condensed 1951 Osaka Koyosha Shuppan version, the encounters between Momotaro and the animals are simple and straightforward. The narrator states, “Momotaro shared his millet dumplings with a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant. They went along with him to Momotaro to serve him and help him.” Similarly, the 1885 version by Hasegawa Takejiro maintains a relatively neutral tone in the encounters between Momotaro and the animals. In comparison, the 1894 version by Iwaya Sazanami exhibits a much more aggressive tone in both Momotaro and the animals. When Momotaro first encounters the dog, the prideful dog threatens to bite his head off. In response, Momotaro says, “You wild dog of the woods, what are you talking about! I am traveling for the sake of the country and am on my way to conquer “Ogres’ Island.” My name is Peach-Boy. If you try to hinder me in anyway, there will be no mercy for you; I, myself, will cut you in half from your head downwards!”. Immediately, the dog retracts his hostility and swears his loyalty to Momotaro. And when the dog politely asks for a millet dumpling, Momotaro gives him only half, reasoning that they are the best millet dumplings in Japan. The dog accepts the half-dumping earnestly, and they continue on their journey. Their encounters with the monkey and the pheasant thereafter continue to display aggression and hostility (particularly between the animals), until each one is tamed by Momotaro’s authoritative command, though they ultimately become friends. It is curious that the first two versions mentioned–written over half a century apart–maintain a similar neutrality in tone, while the Sazanami version is charged with an overtly militant one. It is also strange that Momotaro gives each of the animals only half of a dumpling, for this detail is unique to Sazanami’s version. Overall, the animals have less negotiating power in this version, which may be indicative of the increasingly oppressive power structures during the time it was written. In addition, in this version Momotaro is associated with the divine. Upon his birth, Momotaro tells his parents, “The truth is, I have been sent down to you by the command of the god of Heaven.” The reference to a heavenly mandate is highly reminiscent of the kind of apotheosis that the emperor achieved during the Meiji era. These factor suggest that Momotaro in this incarnation is an allegory for the growing Japanese empire. 1894 is a notable year for Imperial Japan, for it was the year the First Sino-Japanese War was waged, thus marking the Japan’s debut as a world class military power. Perhaps Sazanami, as an eminent figure in children’s literature at the time, felt it was fitting to calibrate the folktale with the national ‘zeitgeist’. And indeed he would not be the last one to do so.

In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, a 1943 animated film directed by Mitsuyo Seo, we find a version of Momotaro that is far removed from the tale’s traditional depiction. Here the folk hero has been appropriated to fit the militaristic values of Imperial Japan. Released at the height of the Pacific War, it was used as propaganda to inspire patriotism in the Japanese youth. The traditional structure of the folktale is replaced by a narrative embedded in the realism of modern warfare. The film is set on a ship in the open ocean, with a Japanese fleet of animals (including dogs, monkeys, pheasants and rabbits) preparing for an attack of Demon Island: the allegorical Pearl Harbor. Although Momotaro is the commanding officer of the ship, his presence in the film is limited and somewhat detached. This might be surprising considering that the title of the film denotes that the adventure is his, but instead the plot focuses on the actions of the animals. The animals are depicted as comical, endearing, and their playfulness implies the sense of youth. In comparison, the American antagonists are collectively depicted as Bluto, a character from Popeye. The animals’ aerial attack of the Americans can be compared to Momotaro’s attack of Onigashima. Interestingly enough, the film does not depict the Americans as evil, as the Momotaro folktale depicts the ogres. Instead, the Americans are portrayed as lacking basic integrity. The many bottles of alcohol littered on their ship deck suggests a sloppiness. And the commanding officer is a disheveled, blundering drunk who exhibits very little honor or dignity in the face of calamity. In comparison, Momotaro’s dignified presence reinforces the superior character on the Japanese. The triumph of the Japanese cartoon animals over the American Blutos is certainly allegorical of a broader cultural victory of the Japanese empire over the West.

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The youth of Japan

Thus, in this incarnation of the tale, the negotiation of power is happening on an international scale. Meanwhile, the unequal power relations between Momotaro and the animals seem to be taken for granted. For example, Momotaro is the only human on the ship. The distinction between man vs. animal is one that evokes the image of domesticated animals being dependent on their owners. And the fact that Momotaro is the only character with that speaks throughout the film suggests the lack of power the animals actually have. It would also be wise to mention the minimal role that food plays in this version of Momotaro. Unlike the other incarnations of the story, there is no exchange of the millet dumplings between Momotaro and the animals. While there are scenes that do feature millet dumplings, it doesn’t seem to have the same weight that the dumplings normally have in the plot development. In the various versions of the Momotaro tale, the exchange of food for service is crucial to the bond created between Momotaro and the animals. Without it, power relations between Momotaro and the animals become opaque and abstracted. But considering the intended audience of the film, it makes sense that the focus is on the camaraderie between the animals, for it fosters national pride, a fairly new concept at the time. Ultimately, this film delivers a truly modern take on Momotaro as being the symbol of the Japanese national character by re-contextualizing the hero altogether.

With the advent of industrialization, we having become increasingly alienated from our food sources. Thus in our capitalist world, power has become vastly abstracted. The problems that come with such abstraction of power may not be so obvious on a daily basis, but becomes evident in certain circumstances such as when our food security become jeopardized due to entities more powerful than us. An example of this illustrated in Minamata: The Victims and their World, a documentary film made in 1971 by Noriaki Tsuchimoto. The film is about the rural communities in Minamata, Japan affected by a debilitating disease caused by acute mercury poisoning. The disease was caused by mercury being released into the ocean by a factory owned by Chisso Corporation, and gradually reached epidemic proportions. The coastal fishing communities were affected the most, for their main food source was directly being poisoned.

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A fisherman’s life depends on the sea

The Minamata disease became an embodiment of a large corporate entity’s oppression of rural, marginalized communities. During their country-wide pilgrimage to publicize their plight and protest the corporation at fault, the members equated their journey to that of Momotaro. Even though victory would not be as clear-cut for the Minamata people as it was for Momotaro,  their quest was in the same grass-roots spirit. In a way, the function of food in the documentary is inverted from that of the folktale. In the folktale, the goodness of the food is the uniting force. But for the people of Minamata, it is the damaged state of their food source that brought the community together. Either way, it is food that ultimately brings the people together. In the Minamata documentary, we find an incarnation of Momotaro that reveals considerable tension between 20th century capitalism and the rural communities that struggle against the grain.

The potency of the Momotaro myth is twofold: first, that it uses food to bring people together, and second, that it uses food to negotiate power relations. The ways in which the myth of Momotaro is reinterpreted throughout Japanese history provides profound insights into a culture where food and power are very much entwined.

The Gourmet Club and the Erotically Grotesque

Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Gourmet Club is a story of overwhelming sensuality. The act of eating is exalted to the highest level of sensory pleasure, and the members of the Gourmet Club are held in bondage to the lure of experiencing the ultimate culinary delights. In fact the lust for food is so extreme, that at times, the sensual turns sexual, and the whimsical turns grotesque. An artistic movement in Japan that originates in the 1930s, called Eroguro Nonsense, seems to embody the story’s fetish with food. While Tanizaki’s 1919 novella predates the movement by about a decade, one can argue that his story was written in the same spirit, which perhaps may have influenced future eroguro writers. Eroguro Nonsense is a pseudo-Anglicist term that combines the words “erotic” and “grotesque” alongside the word “nonsense”. It is characterized by “prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous, as manifested in the popular culture of Taisho Tokyo during the 1920s” (source: wikipedia). Through its aphrodisiacal sexual undertones, as well as its vivid descriptions that often meander towards the grotesque, Tanizaki takes a subject as innocuous as food, and deviates into the bizarre underbelly of the newly modern Japanese psyche.

As we are introduced to the nature of the Gourmet Club at the beginning of the story, we can already sense that this is no ordinary club of foodies. Through food, the members of the Gourmet Club are seeking to attain the sublime, and their devotion to food is more religious, than simply a form of diversion. Alas, the members of the club are no longer satisfied with the usual fine dining fare, and so they deviate into the obscure. Even their senses, having become so refined, could no longer be satisfied with simple gustatory pleasures. After Count G. serves his club members the Chicken Gruel with Shark Fins dish, he astutely asserts, “A dish where, the more you eat of it, the more delectable the belches that follow become–thats the sort of food we can fill our stomachs with and never get tired of!” (pg. 130). Such observation may be deeply perceptive in a way, but it is also rather grotesque and bizarre in its imagery. The many graphic descriptions of eating and belching are salacious in nature, and it seems that ‘belching’ as a motif represents the aberrant pleasures of eating, according to Count G.

The eroticization of the act of eating is another crucial element. Throughout the story, the sensory satisfaction that food provides is likened to the allure and seduction of a beautiful woman. The Bok Choi Fingers scene is overwrought with pornographic vivacity, with phrases like “licking and sucking persistently” and “suddenly inserted inside,” blurring the lines of food and sex. When Count G. introduces the dish, Deep-fried Woman, Korean Style, the narrator remarks, “In terms of Chinese food, it would have to mean literally the flesh of a woman, deep-fried as tempura. So it takes no great imagination to picture the excitement it aroused when the members of the club discovered this item on the evening’s menu.” (pg. 138). In search of exotic gastronomical experiences, the club takes a turn for the cannibalistic. And not only that, it is specifically a woman’s flesh, which takes on a perverse eroticism.

The Gourmet Club is a fantastical story about the earthly delights of food, but it also offers a glimmer into the deviant fetishizations that such ardor can produce. The result is a form of absurdity that is at once erotic and grotesque. The story’s elegant eroguro sensibility provokes the mind to think deeper of the delirium of modern hedonism.

Tampopo: A Celebration in Temporality

Itami Juzo’s Tampopo (1985) is a joyous celebration of food through its many representations in Japanese culture. While in essence, it’s a collection of many seemingly unrelated vignettes, the main plot follows Tampopo in her quest for empowerment, as she seeks to revitalize her late husband’s ramen shop. With the help of Goro, Tampopo rallies up an unlikely team of knowledgeable mentors as she takes on the task to become a bona fide ramen chef in her own right.

Early on, as it becomes evident that Tampopo needs some major help with her soup-making, Goro decides to introduce her to his go-to gourmet, an elderly man who lives in a park with a community of food-loving homeless men. His fellow homeless comrades affectionately call him Sensei, denoting a teacher of sorts. It is revealed that Sensei was once a doctor, but lost everything due to his deep preoccupation with his ramen-making hobby. Despite this tragedy, Sensei, as well as the rest of the gang, appear cheerful and ever-enthusiastic about good food and drink. As sensei accepts the request to help Tampopo with her ramen, the homeless gang gathers together to sing a song of farewell to their beloved teacher. This song happens to be Aogeba tōtoshi, a well-known song that was commonly sung at graduation ceremonies throughout Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

we must part

In this long-distance shot, we see the group of homeless men standing on a flight of outdoor stairs in the dark of night. As they sing in harmonious unison, they are facing up towards Sensei, who is standing atop a platform at the top of the stairs, at the very apex of the shot. He is facing back towards them, smiling benevolently. Next to Sensei stands Goro, then Tampopo’s son, then Tampopo, and they watch on sympathetically as the men sing their sincere gratitudes. The lighting highlights the upper-right part of the screen, as though the spotlight is right on Sensei. This particular shot was taken from the end of the song, which is also the very end of the scene. After the men sing the words, “We must part,” there is a poignant pause in the song, and when they resume into the final line, “Goodbye,” the scene diverts away to a medium-range shot of the gangster, who appears to be overlooking the park scene from his hotel room.

I chose this particular shot, specifically with the words “We must part,” because it elucidates a recurring theme in the film: a parting of ways. There are 4 dynamic instances of farewells in Tampopo, each portraying a different type of human relationship as well as a unique association with food. These include the death of the mother (who cooks her last meal), the death of the gangster, and the departure of Goro at the end of the film. The farewell scene with Sensei not only exhibits the gang’s deep respect for the teacher, but also their awareness of temporality, and the inevitability of an eventual farewell. It also seems to foreshadow the parting of ways between Goro and Tampopo, who share a mentor/student relationship akin to Sensei and his comrades. The thematic relevance of ‘parting ways’ is further signified through the use of urban landscape shots that highlight crossroads, intersections, and passing trains. These shots symbolize the constant coming and going, and the contingent nature of any given encounter in the urban macrocosm. It seems that on a deeper level, Tampopo may be a meditation on impermanence, something we must all face as mortal beings. So too is the act of consuming food an exercise in ephemerality, thus by celebrating it, we are celebrating life itself in all its sensual temporality.