Author Archives: oktran

The Construction of “We” and “Them” in The Cove

Released in 2009, The Cove is a documentary meant to expose the corrupt and secretive practices of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, and subsequent distribution of mercury-laden dolphin meat in Japanese markets. In The Cove, Louie Psihoyos creates a sense of a collective struggle against the Japanese people and government who are keeping these practices under wraps, with selective interviews and the deliberate framing of Psihoyos’ journey serving to create a sense of unity among the audience which dehumanizes the Japanese people.

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Psihoyos doing the cool spy film thing

From the opening credits of the documentary, Psihoyos creates a sense of drama, implying that there are secrets to be discovered and inviting the audience to unveil those secrets alongside him. The opening credits are reminiscent of a heist film, with sequences shown as if they are viewed through spy equipment. The soundtrack similarly goes along with this attempt to create an atmosphere of intrigue. In his choice to frame the opening credits like so, Psihoyos draws the viewer into the “behind the scenes” of his documentary, allowing whoever is watching to feel included in the process of uncovering whatever secrets there are to be revealed in the proceeding film. Psihoyos implies from the beginning that in creating The Cove, he has performed some sort of heist of knowledge and justice—and the viewer, from the beginning, gets to feel as if they are part of that heist. Thus the documentary is set up in a way where the viewer feels included. Psihoyos creates a “we” around his mission in the documentary which is intended to be inclusive of the viewers.

As the documentary continues, one notable aspect is the lack of in-depth exploration into the perspective of the Japanese people, both in Taiji and outside of Taiji where the dolphin killings take place. This serves to reinforce a sense of “we”-ness for the viewers while creating a “them”-ness by positioning the Japanese people as a vague and often menacing “other”. In The Cove, Louis Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry encounter a number of Japanese fishermen local to Taiji who attempt to block them off from filming where the dolphin slaughter happens. The fishermen are only seen as obstructions, obstacles to a larger truth. There is no attempt seen in the film to make contact with them as human beings and to illuminate their personal perspective on the dolphin meat trade. Instead, Psihoyos only frames them as nameless enemies to the pursuit of justice.

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An unimpressive attempt to speak with Taiji locals

In addition, Psihoyos’ attempts to “interview” the families of the fishermen is lacking—rather than putting Psihoyos himself and the people he talks to on an equal footing, he only asks them in English leading questions about whether or not they know that the fishermen are poisoning people. There is no effort put into allowing these people to express themselves in their native language, and the footage and backdrop suggests that these questions were posed spontaneously. Through not allowing the local people of Taiji their own voice and not portraying their perspective on the issue at hand, Psihoyos successfully marginalizes them in the film as an unsympathetic “other”, increasing the viewer’s connection to the struggle of the dolphins and Ric O’Barry. The fishermen of Taiji and their families are barely shown as human, with their voices barely heard and their thoughts only haltingly expressed, and as thus, the viewer remains firmly on the side of Psihoyos.

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Some unenthused councilmen—hey, aren’t these the good guys?

Even the Japanese people who are supposed to be treated as sympathetic figures do not receive respectful treatment within the way Psihoyos frames the narrative. The two councilmen who are shown to be aware of the dolphin killing in Taiji and who oppose the dolphin meat being fed to schoolchildren seem to be morally aligned with Psihoyos’ view in the documentary, yet their segment in the film still lacks depth. Within the film, they are presented as passive, shrinking violets, in contrast to Psihoyos and O’Barry, who are men of action. They are also shot against the backdrop of a shrine gate, which positions them in a uniquely “Japanese” environment. Psihoyos deliberately frames the two councilmen as “Japanese” through the setting of the interview, again separating them from what is presumably familiar to the viewer and therefore failing to evoke sympathy for the men by emphasizing their foreignness. So although the Taiji city councilmen seem to be understanding of Psihoyos’ cause, they still fit in with the “other” of the “Japanese” that Psihoyos constructs in the rest of the film.

Throughout The Cove, Psihoyos deliberately draws the audience into the “we” that he constructs on the side of what he believes is justice, and just as deliberately leaves the Japanese people out of this group that includes the viewer. With the very limited selections of interviews and clips that he chooses to show of Japanese people speaking for themselves, Psihoyos isolates them from the viewer, making them unsympathetic and alien in order to push his own viewpoint.

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Parallels of Consumption: Food as a Reflection of Social Hierarchies in Japanese Film

The interactions between humans and the food that they consume is more than a simple matter of sustenance or survival. In his documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, Tsuchimoto Noriaki provides an intimate and in-depth portrait of the Minamata residents affected by large-scale industrialization, exploring how the consumption of food and its subsequent effect on a certain community reflects the broader dynamics of society. This idea is carried throughout the films Tampopo and Giants and Toys in the directors’ treatment of their respective female protagonists, revealing a common narrative shared by the women and the food they are surrounded by, and how this parallel between the individual and the object of consumption reflects relationships between marginalized people and structures of power.

Tsuchimoto’s documentary on the residents of Minamata and their victimization by the mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso company factory that was established in Minamata provides a compelling nonfictional example of the close relationship between a community and the food it consumes, and how structures of socioeconomic power profoundly affects this relationship and therefore the individuals which make up the community. Tsuchimoto establishes the intimacy of the film with its very first shot, of a fishing boat on calm waters. The stillness of the scene implies a sense of harmony between the Minamata fishermen and their natural environment which is the source of the food that they consume. In this scene, there is only the ambient noise of the environment serving as the soundtrack. This choice of soundtrack carries throughout the film—there is no background music which would disingenuously dramatize the story that Tsuchimoto wishes to portray, a deliberate choice which creates a naturalistic atmosphere throughout the documentary.

With the stage set for an up-close portrait of the experiences of the Minamata residents, Tsuchimoto goes on to tell their stories through interviews, revealing the parallels between the consumption of food and structures of power. In Minamata, the residents’ lives became deeply and tragically affected by the food they consumed. One resident tells how the fish affected by the Chisso factory’s dumping of waste into the water seemed like an “easy catch”, not realizing that it was because they were, in fact, poisoned. The subsequent consumption of these diseased fish by the residents of Minamata spread the thus-named “Minamata disease” among the population. In the case of Minamata, the ways in which the residents themselves were marginalized by big business and subsequently an apathetic government was made physically manifest in Minamata disease. The residents, who were disempowered by the establishment of the factory and its monopolization of the economic livelihood of the area, became physically disempowered as well by the mercury poisoning caused by Chisso. The consequences of consuming the poisoned fish, then, became a literal representation of how the Chisso company exerted and abused its power over the residents of Minamata. Thus for the residents of Minamata, the food that they consumed became a symbol of their marginalization within the larger structures of socioeconomic and political power.

The idea of food mirroring the individual or the community comes across in fictional films as well in a very pronounced and deliberate way. In the 1985 film Tampopo, directed by Itami Juzo, the eponymous Tampopo rises to success alongside her once-humble ramen shop. In the film, Itami frames Tampopo as humble in a number of ways. To begin with, her name means “dandelion”, a common flower, a weed that grows close to the earth. She owns a ramen shop, and on top of her livelihood being that of serving humble, commmonplace, comfort food, it is not a particularly good ramen shop, either. At the start of Tampopo’s narrative, it is established that she runs her late husband’s ramen shop, focusing her livelihood around a deceased man and as thus providing an example of how Tampopo is indebted to the patriarchal structures of the society that she lives in.

Tampopo surrounded by men

Throughout the film, Tampopo is not only guided by a number of men in improving her ramen and her restaurant, but her main goal becomes to impress certain male consumers of her ramen. Itami chooses to make Tampopo the only recurring female character of importance in the film, the rest delegated to one-shot vignettes. In this decision, Itami isolates Tampopo, contrasting her singular femaleness against a backdrop of men who are both helping and opposing her, thus emphasizing Tampopo’s relationship as a woman living within the patriarchy with the men surrounding her. Tampopo ultimately wins the approval of her male critics through her ramen, and as thus, the product which she makes to be consumed by the general public becomes the vehicle of her own empowerment as a woman. In Tampopo’s narrative, the men are the ones who hold the power to approve or disapprove of her product. As with the residents of Minamata, in the fictional narrative of Tampopo, what one consumes becomes a symbol for relationships of power. As a humble underdog, Tampopo confronts her own marginalization via the production of food for the consumption of others. The victory of Tampopo’s ramen is synonymous with her own personal victory as an individual.

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The mass manufacturing of Kyoko

In the 1958 avant-garde film Giants and Toys directed by Masumura Yasuzo, the parallel relationship between a woman and products of consumption comes through in the character of Kyoko and her rise to stardom through the sponsorship of a caramel company. In Giants and Toys, Kyoko’s role as a product to be consumed is foreshadowed in the opening shot, in which her static image is multiplied and repeated ad nauseum, recalling the production of a mass-manufactured good for the consumption of the general public. Like Tampopo, Kyoko is a common girl, literally picked up off the street in order to become the face of the caramel company. Like Tampopo, Kyoko’s key to succeeding in a world dominated by mass production and consumption is through food.

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…I’ll help you out.”

As the narrative of Giants and Toys progresses, it becomes clear that, in acting as the face of Giant Caramel, Kyoko herself becomes an object that is commodified and sold like the caramels themselves. Masumura comments on it outright when he has one of the characters state that the general public will buy anything sold to them if they are repeatedly told to do so. The fact that Kyoko is initially said to be unattractive attests to this—she is successfully “manufactured” and “sold” just as the caramels she advertises are because the company mass produces her image and repeatedly sends the consumers messages that she is desirable. This reflects her position as an individual within a consumer society—as a person, she can be exploited and marketed to the general public by the corporations with money and influence. Yet despite her objectification both by the company and by the public, Kyoko herself finds empowerment in her commodification. It is through her connection with food that Kyoko becomes wealthy and influential in her own right—she is brought into the spotlight by the consumerist structure and the men who run it, but ultimately is able to exploit the system herself to live how she pleases, shown in the end by how she rejects Yosuke’s attempts to bring her back to the company. Thus like in Tampopo, Kyoko’s personal empowerment as an individual woman is brought about by her connection to food that is meant to be consumed by the public. Society’s acceptance of the caramels that she peddles in turn means its acceptance of herself, making the caramels the medium through which she is able to succeed within a materialistic world.

Both Tampopo and Giants and Toys can be read as success stories for the women that they center around—in both these films, the women come out in the end as victors, with their respective links to food being the vehicle which allows them to overcome institutional power that would otherwise oppose or exploit them. The story of Minamata, however, is different—due to being a documentary account of nonfictional events, there is no neat narrative conclusion to the way in which the plight of the residents is portrayed. What ties these stories together across their disparate genres, however, is how food becomes a medium through which human relationships of power are reflected. What Tsuchimoto’s documentary establishes is a real situation in which food becomes the symbol of human experience. In the fictional accounts of Tampopo and Kyoko, the treatment and consumption of food also come to represent the stories of the women themselves. As thus, the directors of all of these films use food to examine power in society and how it affects individuals who may not initially supported by institutions of power.

Superficiality and Exoticism in The Gourmet Club

Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Gourmet Club follows the journey of Count G, the leader of a group of Japanese men whose main aspiration in life is to experience culinary pleasures, as he attempts to discover the next experience that will titillate their palettes. In a scene where Count G is taken into a room used for smoking opium, Tanizaki’s use of contrasting diction reveals an awareness of the superficiality of this culinary experience, providing a subtle criticism of culinary exoticism.

The language that the Count uses to describe the hall upon his initial encounter with has positive connotations, indicating how enticing he finds the idea of the cuisine promised by the hall. Count G envisions it as “a place where a purely Chinese style of life prevailed,” a description which points towards how he essentializes what “Chinese” life is (Tanizaki 112). The cuisine promised by the hall tempts Count G because it promises authenticity—something “purely Chinese.” Tanizaki’s word choice here indicates the Count’s positive impression of the hall. It is “flooded with light” (113), the interior furnishings shine “brightly” (114). By choosing these descriptions, Tanizaki indicates that the hall is a place that the Count regards highly. Thus what Count G finds in the hall’s resplendence is this “Chinese style of life,” the promise of something authentically “Chinese” and exotic which will sate his weary palette.

In contrast to the diction used to describe the restaurant initially, there is a shift in Tanizaki’s word choice when Count G enters the room used for smoking opium, with the negative connotation of the language serving to indicate the superficiality of Count G’s desire for Chinese cuisine. In direct opposition with the light-filled first impression of the hall, this room has a “shadowy interior,” a deliberate comparison which goes to show how there is a shift in understanding on a narrative level (127). To underline this general feeling of unease and negativity, the room has “dim light” and is furnished with “tired-looking couches” (127). As Count G enters this room, the reader slowly comes to realize how the temptations offered by the restaurant are only one level of significance to the culinary establishment of the hall and to Count G’s desires.

What Count G sees initially on the surface level of the hall is the glamor—he commodifies this glamor as the “purely Chinese” experience that he seeks, marveling at the exoticism of the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and tastes. However, this is only a superficial understanding of what is “Chinese,” and the narrative points this out by showing the less desirable side to the hall. Tanizaki now describes Count G’s guide, who had previously been “tall,” “good-looking,” and “honest-looking” (122), as “unpleasant” and “lifeless,” with “the look of a ruined race” (127). While the Count is enticed by the culinary pleasures of the hall, he ignores the complexities and nuances of actual life in China, only seeking a superficial exotic experience through what is specifically desirable to him. Thus in establishing this disparity, Tanizaki shows an awareness of how shallow Count G’s culinary exoticism is.

Relationships and Food

In Itami Juzo’s film Tampopo, social hierarchies are deconstructed and communities are built through the cooking and shared consumption of food. While the scene featuring the man and the oyster diver does not involve any of the main characters, or even any named characters, it is of central importance to the film because it most clearly demonstrates the idea of forging new and unorthodox social relationships through food.

The shot is framed such that the two characters share an equal amount of space onscreen and therefore are visually suggested to be equally significant. It is shot straight-on, thereby emphasizing the two people and their interaction as opposed to anything else that might be going on in the scene. The equalizing of these two players in the scene is notable if we take into account who they actually are. The man seems to be of a higher social class, judging by his attire and how he readily offers to buy one of the oysters. The woman, on the other hand, is a oyster diver, a laborer of a lower social class. However, the shot ignores these distinctions of social class, instead giving the same consideration to both the man and the woman with its equalizing camera angle and composition.

Examining the characters themselves, although their styles of dress clearly distinguish them as belonging to different social spheres, there is still a sense of similarity in the way Itami presents them. So while their styles of dress are obviously different, their color schemes coordinate. The choice of wardrobe brings them into visual unity, underlining how these two different people are brought into contact and how they connect in this scene despite their social backgrounds.

In roughly the center of the shot is the point of physical contact between the man and the woman. By placing this in the center, Itami emphasizes how these two people of different social classes come into contact through the act of eating an oyster. The two people are not only sharing food in this scene, they are sharing it in an incredibly intimate and visceral manner. Thus one of the prominent themes of Itami’s film comes through clearly in this shot. Through sharing and consuming food, people are brought together—more notably, people of disparate social classes and backgrounds are brought together, coming into literal, physical contact through the medium of food. The idea of food bridging social divides is made clear by the physical intimacy of the interaction in this shot.

Also notable is the woman’s reaction to the physical contact in this scene—it tickles, but instead of pulling away from the man, she maintains contact and reacts by laughing. This emphasizes the physicality of their interaction, but it also becomes an expression of happiness and joy at their shared experience and the bond that is created through it.

Although this particular shot may be an odd choice considering it has nothing to do with the eponymous Tampopo or any of the other main players in the narrative, this particular vignette brings the ideas of community- and relationship-building to the forefront, making it visually obvious through an intimate, tangible, physical interaction between two people of differing social classes.