Author Archives: minjilee94

Mass Culture or Culturing of the Mass?

            The film, Giants and Toys by Masamura Yasuzo, critiques the mass culture behind the production and promotion of caramel by three different companies: Giant, World, and Apollo. The three companies compete for the highest sales in caramel by creating inventive promotion projects for their product. The promotions, however, do not focus on the caramel, but rather the prize a consumer would receive if he or she was to buy the candy and instead of publicizing the caramel itself the companies advertise people to sell the caramel. The objective of Giant, World, and Apollo is to increase sales, to profit from the item, and to beat each other by using all the commodities that they possess, including people. Kyoko, Nishi, and Goda are examples of human beings turned into objects of production by the new mass culture of Japan that the companies follow for sales. Through the use of avant-garde filming techniques and direct dialogue, Masumura Yasuzo emphasizes the idea that mass culture is not just a collection of what the people of Japan are doing and thinking, but a tool used to cultivate the general mass for benefits of the few.

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Mise-en-scene of the first screenshot displays uniformity in the mass group of Japanese, taking away from the individual.

            Culture is defined as a collectively achieved set of ideas about what a lifestyle and customs are supposed to be; as time passes, culture changes. After WWII, the culture of Japan created new communities and effectively destroyed the individuality of the common folk by putting them into a concrete city and away from their old ways. The screenshot of one of the first scenes above displays a crowd of working men and women all wearing the same type of clothing in neutral colors, walking to their office jobs. They are the entity producing and fueling modern culture. People like Nishi work for companies that promote using whatever means necessary to boost sales, which means that they exploit the media culture; as World did by making a star out of Kyoko. Nishi and Goda work until they are tired, an understatement for the condition Goda is in by the end of the film, trying to build Kyoko so that World’s caramel statistics will rise. Kyoko, just an ordinary girl picked off the streets because she looks unique, becomes a new sensation overnight with her face on the cover of a magazine. Afterwards, she begins to absorb and be absorbed by the media industry and being a star gets to her head. In other words, once seemingly the only chocolate in a pile of caramels, Kyoko turned out to be just like the other numerous caramels punched out by factory machines.

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A double exposure of the uncharacteristic caramels being punched out like a printer prints copies of a picture as Goda flicks the lighter.

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This double exposure replaces the produce of caramels with the produce of Kyoko in different mediums, but still has the flicking of the lighter.

The materialistic culture that allows for supply and demand economy to thrive has negative effects on society. It pushes a person’s idea of what is moral and what is business. For example, Kyoko is told to lie about giving money to her sick father so that her image to the public is that of a pure and innocent young lady. In comparison, Goda makes a radical decision that would put him on the fast track to the top tier of marrying his boss’ daughter. Between the three characters, Nishi, Goda, and Kyoko, Nishi seems to be the only one able to see through the fog of what is trending and see what true happiness is so supposed to be. However, they are all stuck in the never ending loop of consumer and producer set up by mass culture. All three characters are products, producers, and consumers. Companies like Giant, World, and Apollo use workers like Goda to produce people like Kyoko, promote them, and attract more consumers, people like those in the crowd marching to work in their suits as Nishi did. In the end, they are one in the same. So maybe modern mass culture is not about the people, but what can be profited off of them.

 

 

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The Invisible Glue: Food

The folktale of the teenage Japanese hero, Momotaro, is a story that has continuously changed due to the fact that it was passed down throughout history as an oral narrative. However, the distinction between good and evil as well as food shows up throughout all the variations. The millet dumplings that Momotaro carries on his journey are a source of sustenance for himself and his companions, a material object as well as a symbol of power. It helps define the characters as one group that is on the same voyage against the evil ogres, although done differently in the different readings. Momotaro, being the one that shares the dumplings with the animals, becomes the leader of the group; the leader that takes them to victory over the oni that are terrorizing the Japanese people. The dumplings represents not just an object of sustenance, but power. In contrast, food in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary on the Minamata disease and its victims is a method of disease transmission, an object that symbolizes death. Nonetheless, in the two readings of Momotaro and Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, food, especially the sharing or commonality of food, works to tie groups of people, who may have never come in contact, together.

            Iwaya Sazanami’s version of Momotaro the folktale depicts the relationship between Momotaro and his companions much more hierarchical than that of Arai Goro in his picture book variation of the story. In the translation, Momotaro is called Lord Peach-Boy throughout Iwaya’s story by each of the animals that eventually accompany him to Ogre’s Island. They also march as soldiers would in a war with Momotaro being the general figure in the back and the animals like foot soldiers in front of him. Peach-Boy is depicted as a spectacular leader that is able to control and mediate disputes and receive only positive feedback all the time. As a folktale, similar to a fairy tale, the good always beat the evil in the end, no matter how hard the circumstances; Momotaro is a perfect fit for it. However, in Iwaya’s narration, Momotaro seems to be so powerful that voyaging to OgresIsland and beating them is an easy task for him. The decisions that he has to make on his way to the island do not seem to deter him at all. When the first animal asks him for a millet dumpling, he firmly says that the dog does not deserve a full dumpling and gives him half of it. If Momotaro had never brought anything to eat, he may not have been able to have the animals as his soldiers because they would have needed energy to fight the ogres. Therefore, food is the material object that gives energy and also the symbol for strength and power that built Momotaro’s small army.

            In contrast to Iwaya’s militaristic Momotaro folktale, Arai Goro’s picture book version uses many jumps in time, drawings, and captions to create a sense of a friendly group of friends going on a trip, rather than a voyage against the vicious oni. The specific picture that has the caption talking about the sharing of the millet dumplings looks displays a scene much like a circle of friends eating a picnic; drastically different to the way the story was portrayed in the narration by Iwaya. Even though the representation may be different, the presence of food in the first picture that shows both Momotaro and the animals exemplifies the idea that food is the glue that brings others together. The dumplings are not mentioned or seen in the pictures prior to this picture, the one that presents the community that is going off to fight the ogres. As it did in the Momotaro story of Iwaya, if food was not present in the story, the following of Momotaro by the other animals would be difficult to explain in the context of the story itself, assuming that one does not already know the previous variants of the folktale. The sudden appearance of different animals would require much more captions to explain compared to the other jump in times that occur, as the picture book only shows pictures of events in the story that are important to the narrative: the birth, growth, and specific points in the journey to and from the island.  A question may arise then, why is the scene of Momotaro sharing his food with the animals important? The sharing of the millet dumplings with the animals immediately puts the animals on Momotaro’s side in the fight against the wicked ogres. Soldiers on the opposite sides of the frontier line do not share food with each other; comrades of the same army do. In the folktale, the ogres are not seen or mentioned eating anything, from that and the fact that Momotaro and the animals defeat the oni, food can represent the supremacy of Momotaro and what he represents, the Japanese, at least in Iwaya’s rendering. In Goro’s take of the story, Momotaro may just be a hero that children can relate to and try to strive for as nationalistic ideas declined after World War II.

            Furthermore, folktales are not the only types of mediums where food brings people together for a common cause. For example, in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, food is the common link that connects the hundreds of people who became a victim to the Minamata disease and the people who decided to rally against the Chisso factory that was harming their neighborhood. The seafood being caught by the fishermen in Minamata were the first casualties of the mercury poisoning and became the material object that transferred Minamata disease to the people of Minamata and other small towns around it. This commonality of the reason and the consequence created a community of resistance against the Chisso Company. The individuals who took part in the rallies for the disease victims in front of the factory gates may have never met if it not had been the community that gathered because of the pollution done to the water and food supply. However, in the case of the documentary film, the food does not represent vitality, instead it represents disease. The contaminated fish and shellfish are the cause of an extensive and aggressive disease affecting hundreds of people directly and indirectly. This commonality led to a common consequence and formation of a community of mistreated individuals             who became the patsies of the Chisso Company. Although they protested and rallied for an apology and meaningful resolution to the troubles and lives the company had cost through the pollution from their factory, unlike the folktale of Momotaro, the citizens of Minamata were unable to defeat the ogres that sat behind the microphones during the stockholder’s meeting.

            Positively or negatively, real life or folk tale, food parallels unification or a unified body of people. For example, when a family enjoy their dinner at the table together every night it brings a stronger sense of unity to the family. Also, a personal observation I made during my job at a restaurant was that the customers who came to eat there everyday recognized each other and look to have bonded after a period of time. Regardless of who a group of people contains, a situation where food has a place in, a kind of congruity is made; an agreement that dinner at home was more important than being out with friends for dinner. What a person eats is closely linked to his or her emotions, so when there is a similarity in the food consumed, presuming that they had the same feelings toward the experience, an invisible connection is made; one that can be powerful enough bring individuals together to fight off evil in the fictional and nonfictional world. As shown through two different versions of the written story of Momotaro and the documentary film Minamata: The Victims and Their World, eating the same food link people with each other often, without being conscious of it, forming communities of voyage, resistance, and camaraderie.

Tampopo: Integration not Assimilation for Both Ramen and Japan

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In Juzo Itami’s ramen western, Tampopo, there are many things told about culture, society, and food both subtly and blatantly. I regard the scene where the characters plan out the transformation of Lai Lai into a three star ramen shop to be most important because it gives meaning to the title of the film. It reveals the goal of making the best simple, but profound ramen there is. With the help of Goro and many teachers, Tampopo creates a bowl of ramen that has the customers drinking every last drop of their soup. It also reveals the subtle message Itami’s opinion of the modernization of Japan through Western culture. The West is the teacher that revolutionizes Japan into a modern and powerful country with its own distinct culture heightened by that of the West. 

The dialogue Goro says in this scene emphasizes the simplicity of the menu, as well as the ingredients that will go into the noodles of the newly reformed noodle shop, Tampopo. Instead of a menu with items in the double digits, there are only two items, setting the shop’s atmosphere: a humble noodle shop that follows its name. This scene marks the start of the transformation of the Lai Lai noodle shop, even if it is just a conversation between the characters. Though shot in darker lighting than the last scene once the reform is complete, it is the scene that gives shape to the reformation and the collaboration of all the teachers for the best outcome.

Up to and beyond this point, Goro, Tampopo, and Shohei go around to many different noodle shops to compile ideas for their own ramen, looking at the good and bad.  Instead of stealing one full recipe, they bring the best parts of different recipes to produce Tampopo’s signature ramen, a new image for her store and separate her noodles from the rest. It also distinguishes her traditional noodle shop from a French restaurant, in an earlier scene, that has everything from appetizers to desserts, which is portrayed to be for the rich, but ironically isn’t always understood by the rich.

Some may ask, why would Itami want to separate Tampopo from a French restaurant instead of being associated with one, especially when French cuisine and culture was thought to be stronger than that of Japan at the time? Throughout the film, Juzo Itami criticizes the trend of thinking of French culture so highly as to hold proper French food etiquette, while thinking of doing the same for Japanese food is foolish; a line Goro says himself about the story from the book Gun is reading. Itami satirizes the views of the Japanese towards French cuisine by emphasizing it greatly and juxtaposing it to ramen, a humble commoner’s food. So maybe ramen isn’t as fancy as a full course French meal, Japanese cuisine is much of an art as is the French. In the end of the film, Tampopo is a modernized Japanese shop with Western touches made to it, much like how Japanese culture modernized in the end of the Meiji period. All of which is the outcome that sprouted from conversation between Tampopo and her teachers in Lai Lai noodle shop, like a dandelion.