Author Archives: mikukoach

Ethnocentrism in The Cove

          The critically acclaimed film, The Cove, follows Ric O’Barry, the trainer and star of the television show, Flipper, who has since dedicated his life for the justice of dolphins around the world. The documentary’s premise is to expose the tragic dolphin hunt that happens annually in Taiji, Japan to bring the attention to this inhumane practice and act as a call to action to stop the slaughter. In this sense, the film has succeeded as the shock value of the film has resonated with the American public, and is portrayed as being brought the surface by the courageous efforts of the American film crew. Yet, the aim of the movie is to seemingly change a Japanese practice so it fails to stimulate change within the culture as the movie is targeted so far from a Japanese audience. The film, instead, takes a moralistic stance that tugs on the heartstrings of the American public to bring awareness towards this act. Though the film’s initial objective may have been to expose a small group of people on the shores of Wakayama, it clearly imposes Western standards on Japan’s policies, customs, and values, which is particularly evident in the coverage of Japan’s whaling policies. The film was successful in shedding light on the cruelty of Taiji’s dolphin slaughter and certainly is effective in capturing the tension and playing up the danger, but it has done so at the cost of the misunderstanding of the Japanese people’s food culture. By imposing the Western standards and values on Japanese culture, the film adopts an ethnocentric psyche that discredits the issue at hand.

          The problem with The Cove is that the issue is deeper than “greedy” Japanese fisherman killing dolphins and is instead an intrinsic culturally related problem. It is not stated that whaling and the consumption of dolphins has been a tradition that can be followed back to the Edo period of Japan in the film nor do the filmmakers demonstrate any understanding of the Japanese culture. That is not to say that this is a nation wide tradition, as is evident by the portrayal of the Tokyo citizens in the film, but a tradition that deserves a certain degree of respect nonetheless. Additionally, it is important to note that the idea of tradition not be used as an excuse to conduct inhumane practices but instead it demonstrates that had the cultural aspect of consuming dolphins as a form of food been addressed, the film could actually be effective in achieving their goal. By dismissing dolphin meat as food at all, Psihoyos dismisses the people of Taiji’s food culture altogether as an inhumane practice, and dehumanizes the people themselves by degrading their culture as being less civilized than that of the West. Furthermore, it was not too long ago that meat in Japan was addressed in the same manner as exemplified in Fuzukawa Yukichi’s, “On Meat Eating”, where he states, “There remain many people who blindly dislike [using meat], saying that meat eating is filthy, in accordance with the customs our nation has followed for many long centuries.” He goes on further saying, “This is a specious argument born out of ignorant blindness that demonstrates a lack of knowledge.” Ironically, Fukuzawa strengthens his argument for meat eating by expressing that cow meat is much easier to process than whale meat, as if the consumption of whale meat was an integral food group as cows are to the West, “People never express such misgivings when we catch whales and eat their meat.” This further illustrates the polarized cultural rift between the East and the West that demonstrates how easy it is to perpetuate this misunderstanding and dismissal of cultural practices.

One of the most prominent arguments that Psihoyo makes in his argument against the Japanese consumption of dolphins is the fact that they are high in the food chain, thus mercury levels are biomagnified to a toxic level in their meat. It is evident that by utilizing this platform, O’Barry’s is able to orient their animal rights agenda with a human rights violation that defends his stance against dolphin as a commodity. Regardless of whether O’Barry’s concern over mercury poisoning as a result of dolphin consumption is a byproduct of his initial aim, the fact that there is a prospect that the Japanese market contains possibilities of mercury food poising is still prominent. Clearly, this is the film’s strongest argument against the slaughter of dolphins and yet it seems to be contrived and dismissed instead of grasping the opportunity to be a real informational source for the citizens of Taiji. Although there is an older generation of Taiji who feel as though whaling and consuming dolphin meat is an intrinsic part of their culture, the only realistic approach to ending this dolphin hunt is to cut off the demand by informing and educating the younger generation about the real risks of consuming this meat. It is this generational difference that may be the only feasible act that may stop this dolphin hunt and the fact that the documentary did little to address the Japanese audience as a call to action is counterproductive in its cause.

The differences in food culture and its correlation with one’s values are evident in The Cove but it does little to make an ecological conservation argument. Instead, it underscores how dolphins have human-like qualities that should resonate with people emotionally. By humanizing dolphins and in turn dehumanizing the Japanese fisherman, turns an objective look at a cultural problem into an American versus Japanese story about how these cruel fishermen hunt innocent animals. This sets up a hegemonic role that is able to twist the message of the film into something manipulative that is more interested in enlisting foreign support than informing the perpetrators at hand and victims at risk. If the filmmakers could exhibit the sensibility and sensitivity to the culture they were scrutinizing, it could have had the potential to make a real impact on the cause.

Kobe Beef: Its Origin and Foreign Prestige

Kobe beef is considered the epitome of fine dining, as it is renowned for its superior flavor, tenderness, and perfectly distributed fat that gives it its famous marbled appearance. Originally it comes from the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle found in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital and the meat’s namesake. It is this geographical factor that can be attributed to having produced this beef as the mountainous terrain isolated the region where ranchers could no longer breed the Wagyu with other types of cattle. Instead, they were able to selectively breed a species that was genetically predisposed to the marbling that Kobe beef has become synonymous with. Along with the herd isolation, distinctive feeding techniques are also said to have led to unique differences in the taste and texture of the beef. The treatment of the cattle and the secrets behind achieving the quality of Kobe beef seem kept under secrecy by the Japanese ranchers but there are particular stories that have surfaced that have reached an almost urban legend status. The first being that the cows are given beer to induce appetite. The second is that in addition to this special diet, they are massaged daily as a substitute for exercise. While there is no hard evidence to suggest that any of these techniques improve flavor or texture, they certainly give the imagery of the cows living opulent lifestyles, adding to the decadence of Kobe beef.

Premium Kobe beef with a "chrysanthemums stamp" proving its authenticity

Premium Kobe beef with a “chrysanthemums stamp” proving its authenticity

With its reputation for excellence, it is unsurprising that the popularity of Kobe beef has extended past the borders of Japan. In the past, however, there have been strict laws that prohibited the export of any Japanese Wagyu cattle. Hence, despite what many restaurants claim to be Kobe beef on their menus, it is disappointingly not the meat that fulfills the strict lineage of Tajima-gyu or to the standards of excellence to actually be considered true Kobe beef. In fact, “the American distributor of Kobe beef is Freemont Beef Co. of Freemont, Neb. Laun Hinkle, Fremont’s sales manager, insists restaurant goers should ask to see proof of authenticity before ordering any meat described on the menu as ‘Kobe beef’.”(Daley, Chicago Tribune) So why are people willing to go to such lengths and pay exorbitant amounts of money to find real Kobe beef? According to Hinkle, “the Japanese have done an excellent job of marketing it like caviar and high-end wines. Also there’s a very, very limited supply, only about 3,000 animals a year.”(Daley) In fact, it is this rarity of the meat and the strict monopoly Japan has on exporting its cattle that has made it so prestigious outside of Japan and has prompted it to become a delicacy. Additionally, the lore of Kobe beef is what makes it special as the stories surrounding its production give it an air of mystery while additionally ensuring that no other rancher can mimic exactly the techniques needed to achieve such a high quality meat. It is precisely in the lengthy and rich lineage of the cattle, the mystery of the treatment of these cows, and the sheer scarcity of the meat that illustrates the prestige and popularity of the beef and makes Kobe beef such a treasured cuisine both within and beyond Japan’s borders.

The Use of Pastiche in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles

Momotaro is a traditional Japanese folktale that has been altered with different iterations and representations across different time periods. As with many folktales, Momotaro transmits a “moral”, or lesson to the audience, advocating humble beginnings and a strong sense of community that seems to be the interweaving thread between the traditional tale and its succeeding adaptations. These lessons however, may also be molded and slightly altered from the traditional to produce a revised version of the story that better reflects the time period. Such is the case in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, an animated propaganda piece that is an adaptation of the traditional Momotaro folktale. In this case, the revision to the original tale can stand by itself as an animated short, but it is at the intertexual level that enhances the animation by giving the story context and offering a point of contrast that adds humor and poignancy.

Both the traditional folktale and Mitsuyo Seo’s film adaptation use food as a device to distinguish between the “good” and the “other” as well as play a crucial role in fostering a strong sense of nationalism. In the folktale, the bag of millet dumplings is used as the building blocks of community formation. Initially, the dumplings are a form of sustenance provided by Momotaro’s adoptive parents as he embarks on his journey to Ogre Island. Even in this sense the dumplings serve as a symbol of the relationship he has with his parents and the sense of familial and community formation is introduced. These millet dumplings continue to represent the development of unity throughout the story as Momotaro uses these as the means for assembling allies for the fight against the ogres. By giving each of the millet dumplings to the animals he encountered on his journey, Momotaro not only asserts himself as the inherent leader, but the millet dumplings are used to build a relationship and create ties. The food presented by Momotaro to the animals adopt the role of representing their unwavering loyalty to the cause as well as demonstrates Momotaro sharing his strength among his follower, illustrating the dumplings as a symbol of camaraderie and unification under Momotaro’s leadership. The use of the millet dumplings in this sense, determines food as being the central motif and symbol of community unification under a common objective of fighting for justice. The dumplings and the metaphor of the animal’s allegiance to Momotaro not only indicate a uniting factor but additionally it demonstrates how food serves as a symbol of national identity. Furthermore it indicates how these symbols can then be used to create powerful emotions among individuals and unite them under one common cause.

In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the motif of millet dumplings is preserved as these dumplings play an equivalent role as a symbol of strength and mirrors the sensibility of food as a means of unification. This is portrayed in the scene where the monkey consumes the dumplings that Momotaro has provided, gaining physical strength and a new capability to destroy the enemy. As the film is a propaganda device made during the war effort, its objective is to promote the idea of nationalism. The motif of millet dumplings successfully achieves this by distinguishing itself from Western culture and being distinctly Japanese. Furthermore, it can be interpreted as a metaphor of the reinvigoration of the nation as a whole because the depiction of the millet still holds the same sense of nationalistic pride and communal fortitude as portrayed in the original tale.

Popeye like biceps after consuming millet dumplings.

Popeye like biceps after consuming millet dumplings.

The sequence of the millet dumpling scene in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles parallels that of the spinach invigorating scene that appears all too many times in the Popeye animation series. In the same fashion that Popeye consumes his spinach, the monkey eats millet dumplings and he has the immediate response of enlarged biceps and a new strength to fight. The theme of unity through the depiction of food may not be as evident as it is portrayed to be in the original tale, moreover, it may seem as though the millet dumplings are portrayed in a way that merely demonstrates food as a from of sustenance. However, the use of food in the film still aptly displays itself as introducing the theme of unification through the ideas of “good” and “evil” and the association food has to each of these. The use of millet dumplings as being analogous to the use of spinach in Popeye also offers another layer of intertexuality and introduces to what extent Momotaro was inspired by the American animation. The extent to which Seo was influenced by or perhaps merely satirizing the American animation is important to note, as it highlights the extent to which the propaganda film had an impact on Japanese moral at the time. This apparent influence of the Popeye series is further extended as the enemy portrayed in the Momotaro animation is eerily similar to Bluto, the archnemesis of Popeye. This Bluto clone is the central character that represented the “oni” of Ogre Island as well as the American enemy. Immediately, the use of a character that has already been characterized as the “bad” in a popular American animation delineates the American enemy further as being the enemy and strengthens the national identity of Japan and Momotaro’s navy. Additionally, the use of food as a device to further distinguish this difference is evident by associating Momotaro’s navy with something as culturally specific as the millet dumplings, which are starkly contrasted against the alcohol that the American enemy consumes. This underscores Seo’s use of food as a device to foster national identity and pride as well as to distinguish the contrast between “good” and “evil” to foster the sensibility of solidarity against an enemy.

Not only is the use of food as a means of strength to defeat an enemy the similarities of the animated sequences, but the similarities also lies in the temporal and geographical locations of both animations. Popeye, though the character is by no means a nationalistic hero in the same sense that Momotaro is portrayed to be in Japanese culture, is still depicted to be an American Navy soldier and the animation is during a time of war, much like Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. Furthermore, the distinction between good and evil are directly associated with food and utilizing food in a way that strengthens the figure to defeat the enemy. Contrastingly, however, food used in the animations does not work in the same way in community building as illustrated throughout the renditions of Momotaro. The spinach used in Popeye also lacks the same effect of portraying the nationalistic pride that is incorporated in the adaptation of Momotaro and the use of millet dumplings. Food in the most fundamental sense is a form of sustenance as displayed in the Popeye animation series, while in Momotaro food is also portrayed as such, it is also symbolic gesture, more specifically, the millet dumplings in Momotaro serve as a metaphor to symbolize reward and power, and to emphasize its role as a unifier in face of a greater evil.

L: original Bluto in the Popeye series R: "Oni" with an uncanny resemblance to Bluto

L: original Bluto in the Popeye series
R: “Oni” or American enemy in Momotaro’s Sea Eagles

Although not all folktale revisions must be read with the traditional version in minds, they are all best understood when placed alongside the traditional texts. Seo Mitsuyo’s reinterpretation of the original Momotaro tale as well as his use of pastiche with his incorporation of the Popeye animations series delineate that the intertexuality adds substance to the analysis of the contemporary film, which reweave the folktale using the threads of the written folktale traditions. One such tradition includes the treatment of food and how it has been employed in both Seo’s animation and the traditional tale of Momotaro to construct forms of community and national identity. Both the film and traditional folktale of Momotaro demonstrate this use of food as a vital factor and motif of the community formation and ultimately a symbol of national identity and unification.

Exoticism

Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Gourmet Club follows a group of five gastronomers seeking to fulfill their appetites for fine foods and exotic new flavors. Their conviction that cooking is an art is what fed their passion to find new flavors. Yet, the five men found themselves exhausting their resources, and becoming desensitized to the point where “Chinese food – that rich cuisine said to be the most developed and varied in the world; even that had become tasteless and boring as a glass of water.” It was in this quest to find the next “splendid new culinary achievement” that Count G finds himself looking toward the exotic. Tanizaki’s Gourmet Club introduces the idea of exoticism through Count G’s incessant quest for new cuisine. The story begs the question of what exotic food is and how the exoticism of food changes if taken out of its native environment. Furthermore, Tanizaki challenges the relationship between exoticism and authenticity to question what it is about modernity that eradicates exotic authenticity and how Count G’s overnight culinary success as illustrated at the close of the story reflects this question of exotic authenticity.

Exoticism in its simplest form means foreign but has taken on the connotation of being exciting, unique, and at some times grotesque. This is certainly the case in The Gourmet Club as the story is riddled with unusual and even disturbing dishes from Deep-fried Woman, Korean Style, to Phlegm-and-Spittle Liquid Jade. The Count’s need to fuel his passion for indulgent and exotic foods leads him to an opium den where he witnesses a Chinese banquet of unfamiliar yet enticing cuisine. It is important to note here that the notion of race underscores the exotic nature of the cuisine being served at the banquet. The Count’s racial identity separates himself from the experience of this food that he so longs for which further asserts the exotic nature of the cuisine being served. Additionally, this raises the notion of authenticity and how Tanizaki challenges the relation between exoticism and authenticity.

The count’s quest to find food manifests a yearning for authenticity through exoticism. The Gourmet Club exemplifies the ideal that the more exotic their discoveries are, the closer they are to the authentic form of cuisine which ultimately leads to the finest form of food. However, this authentic form of cuisine that the count yearns for is guarded by the President of the Chinese banquet as well as the narrator himself as neither character reveals the “naked facts of what went on that night” and is “strict on [its] choice of reader”. This indicates the extent to which authenticity and corresponding exoticism is guarded from being appropriated into the dominant culture. The food and pursuit of new and enticing cuisine by Count G in The Gourmet Club dramatizes exoticism by defining the notion of what it means to be exotic through the clear distinction of the other and underscoring it relationship with authenticity.

Conventions of Japan’s Food Culture

           Itami Juzo’s 1985 film, Tampopo, portrays a series of vignettes where food and the social conventions of food play defining roles in the film. In the very opening scene, the doors of a theater burst open to present a yakuza member, dressed in a crisp white suit, with his entourage trailing behind him. The gangster and his girlfriend take their seats in the front row as the camera gradually zooms in, framing the lavish basket of food and champagne being unpacked before them. From this very beginning scene, it is clear that the intention of the film is to reveal that food plays a role in every facet of life. Champagne is poured into two flutes, and as the gangster lifts the flute to his lips, he looks at the camera, speaks to us directly, and the first lines of the film are used to ask us, the audience, what we are eating.

"Oh...So you're at a movie too. What are you eating?"

“Oh…So you’re at a movie too. What are you eating?”

           The opening scene of a film usually sets the tone of how viewers should interpret what follows, however, in the case of Tampopo, with is various subplots, the scene does little to allude what is to follow in the film. Yet, it still illustrates the satirical take of challenging conventional ideas regarding the experience of food. It also introduces the various cinematic techniques of Itami, as the yakuza, played by Koji Yakusho, breaks the fourth wall to blur the boundary of film and reality. It should be noted that this fourth wall is not broken immediately as Yakusho enters the theater but only after he catches sight of us, further closing the gap between cinematic reality and our own. Furthermore, as he recognizes that we too are viewing a movie it leaves us contemplating whether we are watching the same film as we find ourselves becoming part of his theater experience.

           The notion of strict social conventions in regards to food is illustrated as a man loudly crunches his curry chips, only to be grabbed by the lapels by the gangster and threatened to be killed if he were to make another sound.  The gangster figure in the film reflects the overarching themes of pleasure associated with food while at the same time manifests an obsession of societal rules surrounding food. At times, it may seem as these two ideas are contradictory in that the conventions associated with food is what restrains one from openly enjoying it. However, it is these two contradictory themes that allude that Itami is both praising the importance of customs in Japanese life, while at the same time making a criticism of the invisible societal rules that the culture instills. Perhaps Itami is making a statement of how Japan’s food culture’s tendency to impose strict etiquette inhibits the true enjoyment of food.

           Food is used as a narrative device in order to express a satirical rebuttal to the formalization and strict conventions in Japan’s food culture. The fact that the opening scene breaks the fourth wall, establishes immediately that Itami is not telling a conventional story. More importantly, it is this break from conventionality that allows the film to portray a new perspective on food. By breaking the fourth wall, it dissolves the border between reality and film, which underscores the social satire about contemporary Japan. While some will argue, Itami’s intention with Tampopo is to celebrate Japan’s food culture, it can also be seen to make a bold statement about Japan’s social conventions in regard to food.