Author Archives: pikaboom

The Momotaro Persona

 

Robert VanderVeer
Japanese 70
5 Page Momotaru Paper
Discussion 1B Class

 

           

Momotaro’s presence in Japan as a common unifying persona of national pride is undeniably and collectively recognized as a symbol of hope in times of strife and struggle, both personally, and socially on a macro-level amongst many of the country’s people. Securing his position as one of the most popular figures in Japanese folklore, Momotaro has become a nationalist archetype whose character plays out almost like a “guideline” that many of the people in Japan identify with in unifying against a common struggle. The story consists of several archetypical elements, revolving around Momotaro, whose flawless leadership almost seemingly subjugates everyone before him when asserting his presence and determination, glorified by his “pure” and selfless motives to defend the country of Japan from the terrifying red, blue, and black ogres (known as “Oni” within the tale). Momotaro, with his excellent and flawless leadership skills depicted in this traditional tale, knows that he cannot win the battle alone, enlisting would-be enemies along the way as his own personal party members with the help of food (but not just any ordinary kind) as a sort of emulsifier to  relationships that started out on a surprisingly threatening note. As he makes his way toward the evil “Oni Island” to strike down the ogres in the final battle, Momotaro’s victory is secured almost too easily, furthering his character as a symbol of Japan’s national idealism and pride, elements which are expanded and capitalized upon in later and more modern renditions of the story, (especially in the World War II film: Momotaro’s Sea Eagle) in what is now blatantly seen as propaganda for Japan during that time. Although the tale of Momotaro has seen and undergone many iterations and transformations, there is undoubtedly a common unifying element bound in his character across the various versions, being the embodiment of an undefeatable and righteous hero, seen by the people of Japan as a parallel to their own country as a whole over time.

The story of Momotaro dates back to 1753, about a boy who is literally found within a peach floating along a river by an old woman who is married to an old man. In the more modern version of Iwaya Sazanami, the couple raises him, and at the age of 15, Momotaro eventually sets off to defeat the evil “oni” who torment Japan from an island far away. Momotaro, as an “ethereal” being that was mysteriously sent by God himself to the old couple because they could not have children, takes it upon himself to defend his country with no incentive other than to do what is “right” for Japan. Along the way he enlists the help of a variety of animals (a dog, monkey, and pheasant) who all have something to contribute to the team. They make their way to Island of the Ogres, and defeat the common enemy of the people, thus saving the day. One noticeable element to the story is the way in which Momotaro is practical and real in enlisting the help of other animals to help fight against the oni. In this sense, Momotaro is a relatable character, rather than an invincible being that simply swoops down upon the enemy alone with an effortless win. If Momotaro were truly invincible and perfect, he would not need help at all. Rather, he is depicted to be of the highest quality and standard for a human (or humanoid in his case), yet there is still the element of “risk”. For this reason, Momotaro actually is in a sense “perfect”, in that he knows how to secure a victory despite not being able to stand alone. Although he eventually does find help to defeat the oni, the help does not come easily. His first comrade (the dog), was actually wanting to steal all of Momotaro’s provisions, threatening to bite his head off if he resisted. In most cases, the dog would be seen as an enemy, and thus properly disposed of, but Momotaro actually gives the dog a chance to surrender, threatening that should he not, he would cut him in half. Upon surrendering, the dog is rewarded with a dumpling, but not just any kind. Momotaro says that this dumpling is “the best millet dumplings in all of Japan.”  Momotaro, as an exemplary case of righteousness and perfection among human beings, is offering the “ultimate” bun in all of Japan, so these can be assumed to be of the same standard in their own respective category as Momotaro is in his. In this sense, the dumplings are an extension of Momotaro and everything that constitutes him, and thus, the dog takes that extension and consumes it, finalizing their newfound bond in their quest to defeat the evil that plagues Japan from a distance. In this way, the food that Momotaro shares with all of his animal friends is like the contract that binds them all together in his adventure, without the vague and superficial implications that an actual pen-and-paper contract tend to entail. Food, being the sustaining element of all living things, is being used in this case as a more “fair” trade amongst Momotaro and his newfound companions, furthering his portrayal as “righteous” due to the fact that he is sharing with his companions “the best Japan has to offer”, and pure in the sense that he is offering his new companions with something that they actually need. With this symbolic trade, the animals that Momotaro enlists are taking Momotaro’s own ideals and quest as their own as well, serving him efficiently as if to defeat the Oni that threaten Japan is exactly what they want as well.

Although there are many symbolic elements behind the food and consumption presented in the earlier versions of Momotaro, the later iterations and animations took on a rendition of the story with a more nationalist front, focusing more on identifying Momotaro’s intentions, actions, and ideals with their own battles, rather than his enlightening and exemplary journey as a whole. In “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle”, directed by Mitsuyo Seo and produced by Einosuke Omura, the “nature-like” setting of Momotaro is removed completely and replaced to fit the setting of Japan at the time of the movie’s creation during World War II. Gone are the elements of food, nature, and establishment of bonds, and the movie begins at the very beginning of a preparation to bomb the island of Onigashima, with Momotaro’s bond with the animals already established, and their numbers exponentially increased. This indirectly shows Momotaro’s importance as a national symbol to Japan, as his origins are assumed to be common-knowledge among the people of Japan, and because of this, the movie gets straight to the point in its propaganda agenda by completely removing the origin-story of Momotaro as an unnecessary and already established element to the story. “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” is almost like a middle parallel to Japan at the time of World War II, and the actual theme of “overcoming an evil enemy” in the original Momotaro tale from the Meiji era. This is instantly seen within the first few minutes of the movie aboard airplanes in a more technologically advanced time. Just like in the original tale of Momotaro, the movie rendition sets him off to the island of Onigashima to battle against the evil ogres, which are now presented as evil-looking humans. Japan’s attempt at portraying itself as “innocent” by being represented by animals within the film is furthered by the fact that America is represented by evil looking humans, who have the “choice” to stray away from nature and the natural order of things (as free-will is something that allows humans to have a wide range of motion in their intentions and actions, eliminating any notion of “natural” within the human world). In a similar manner, the contrasting high level detail of the planes, and the fluidity of the animation is representational of Japan’s own assertion in indirectly stating that they are up to date in a technological arms-race with America, using the latest techniques in animation technology to capture the tale of Momotaro in the context of World War II. The fact that Momotaro is chosen to represent Japan’s perspective in World War II as a justifying piece of propaganda is testimony to his importance to Japan as an ideal of righteousness and purity of action.

Outside of the commonly updated world of renditions, Momotaro is seen as a symbolic ideal when unifying to face off against a common struggle or enemy. In Tsuchimoto’s “Minamata: Its Patients and their World”, Momotaro is briefly and indirectly mentioned in by the protestors rising up against the fertilizer company owned by Chisso, calling upon its people to rise up against this evil enterprise. In the rallying of the people on the streets, one of the protestors exclaims that “we are in the land of the red and blue ogres”, a direct implication to the tale of Momotaro, in which Momotaro journies to the land of the red and blue ogres for the final battle. This shows that Momotaro is a figure that is easily adopted and identified with amongst the people of Japan in times of peril and struggle that need unification of its people’ to rise up against a common enemy, and in this sense, they are justifying their own battle to themselves with the adoption of the righteous “Momotaro” persona, which are major attribute to the original story, and in the “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” film.

There are several dynamics to the tale of Momotaro that are emphasized and truncated with each and every rendition of the story, which reflect the changes in ideals and focus of the times. Serving as a blueprint, the original tale of Momotaro had enough space to morph into whatever age chose to adopt it, with its abstract symbolism (the food, and Momotaro’s divinity), and emphasis on archetypical characters. Momotaro’s history, originality, and openness is arguably why it is such a desirable tale to retell in so many fashions, but one thing that remains certain is that Momotaro’s importance to Japan as a character of resolute and justifiable actions solidifies his place for the country and its people for many more years to come, and will continue to greatly influence many works as the prototype “hero’s tale”.

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Spirited Away: Identity Formation, Preservation, and Recollection

Robert Vander Veer
3 Page Analysis on Spirited Away
Japanese 70, Discussion 1B

 It is difficult to pinpoint just one overall theme in Spirited Away, a movie as complex and ridden with symbolism as it is beautiful. Chihiro, the movie’s main protagonist and central character, is not the only one in the movie who experiences her own change and development. As the story unfolds, even the minions who are obstructions on the quest to save her parents naturally turn into allies that walk by her side as she vigilantly keeps her goals in sight despite the oppressive and chaotic nature of the “Bathhouse”. In order to serve their purpose within the hedonist and egoist environment, the characters are given one-dimensional roles via the replacement of their identity by Yubaba, who owns them once she makes them forget their “name” (their true self) and gives them a new one. This may seem odd in the literal sense, but metaphysically and symbolically, there is no better representation that parallels quite accurately how people are “indoctrinated” into society, and how they transform and lose themselves when being swept up in the world of unfulfilling work, losing themselves day by day. Spirited Away thus becomes a story about the preservation, recollection, and formation of identity and of the “self” in a modern society wherein it is easy to lose yourself when becoming a gear in the “machine” of society.

            To understand the central themes of identity reformation and preservation in Spirited Away, it really helps to make sense out of the rules of the world the movie takes place in. At first, they seem very foreign, and just made up to seem “otherworldly”, but the fact of the matter is that they are not very much unlike our own, in that they are metaphysical representations of the conscious and what takes place “inside” rather than actual “cause-effect” physical realities. When Chihiro is first “absorbed” into the Spirit World, she becomes transparent, as if fading from existence. Because she does not belong in the world, and has no ties, it is almost as if she has nothing within that world to “ground” her into that reality, no identity or purpose within this society in which she doesn’t belong, that is, until Haku comes. “Don’t worry, I’m a friend.” As he gives her a small tidbit of food, Chihiro becomes rematerialized, having partaken in a simple exchange of food with Haku. Although this seemed like such a simple moment, it is one of the most significant, in that by eating the food, Chihiro is almost given an identity for this particular society, now having established a bond with Haku, someone being from within the society to indoctrinate her. In this sense, food almost seems to always embody something within the movie, and in this scene, it was the establishment of a bond that kept her from floating away; a new identity, or persona if you will, that enabled her to act upon and exert her presence materially on the other worldly society thanks to Haku.

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An astonished Chihiro holds a panacea that seemingly has the potential to remedy the ailments brought on by the desensitization and traumatizing disenchantment (or malicious enchantments) of the Bathhouse World. This was given to her by the River God that she helped, showing how powerful bonds are in order to be established within a society and to build upon your identity.

            Later on in the movie, When Chihiro helps a River God from another world, he gifts her with a special Panacea that can seemingly “purge” anyone of anything that ails them within the world of the bath-house. Given to her because of her selflessness and lack of presumptions about his character, the River God brings something in which even the hedonist world of desire cannot trample under, and this embodies something from a different, supposedly more tranquil world. In a sense, since only Chihiro could have obtained this gift, it’s almost as if it the manifestation of a 2nd identity for her in the world of the bathhouse, as she is indoctrinated by the semblance of this item bestowed unto her. Whereas the previous exchange with Haku preserved and reformed a new identity within the bathhouse world, this new exchange between her and the nameless River God gave her a new, more empowered identity, one of an objective worldview that could be used to take on the hardships of the bathhouse, rather than just be encompassed by them. Astonishingly, this takes the form of food, which has two interesting and very important qualities central to the film: It can be shared with others, and it is expendable. Because it can be shared, she too, can bestow it unto others, as if to put her own strength of heart and purity into others to purge them of the noise of the bathhouse.

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A newly purged No- Face accompanies Chihiro, who is more than willing to let him come along. Realizing that the bathhouse is what makes him crazy, she knows it is best to take him as far as possible from there.

Much like Chihiro, No-Face is initially transparent, has no place to go, and knows no one in the bathhouse, and thus has no “self” to place him in relation to anyone or anything in the world. When Chihiro opens the door for him in the rain, she is performing a subtle ritual of initiation, establishing an indirect bond with No-Face, although unbeknownst to her. In a sense, you could say he really has “No-Face”, or no identity. The mask he wears is expressionless, and gestures and utterances are his only form of communication. Because he has no identity to establish, he is impressionable to the world of the Bathhouse, and is quickly engulfed by the desire and greed around him. When he sees Chihiro as someone who stands above all of this chaos, he is filled with a strange sort of infatuation for her, almost as if she is like a diamond in the rough. He constantly gives her gifts throughout the story, almost as if he wants her to fall into the world of desire with him, possibly in order to rationalize that there is no one who could possibly resist, that falling into the ordinary flow of the Bathhouse is normal. He is torn between wanting Chihiro, and wanting to be like her. Upon becoming engorged after indulging in every whim of the bathhouse, he comes to find that he is still miserable. Wanting to possess Chihiro, (being the embodiment of tranquility and enlightenment; being free from material desire), he pursues her, wherein Chihiro gets him to eat the Panacea, using the very last bit on him rather than on her parents. No-Face is purged of all the darkness of the Bathhouse, regurgitating everything that he had absorbed as he follows Chihiro. He eventually joins her as a travelling companion, leaving everything behind, including all that plagues him, to walk with Chihiro to Swamp Bottom. In the slower, rhythmic world of nature, No-Face is free to live a life free from the circle of desire and suffering that is commonplace in the bathhouse, and is allowed to stay with Zaniba. Here, he can take the baby steps he needs to find out what he wants to do with his life.

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The way No-Face eats his food in Zaniba’s house in the quiet forest is a far cry from how he had been previously engorged and engulfed by desire and misery in the bathhouse. No-Face sips on a cup of tea, almost serenely with a slight expression of delight on his mask.

In conclusion, it is impossible to confine Spirited Away to one central theme, as there are many things to draw and learn from within this brilliant film. In establishing a believable world that is in its own right a microcosm of many societies today, Spirited Away opens up a world of possibilities to revisit and learn something new from time and time again.

 

Tampopo: A movie About the Deconstruction of Societal Constraints

Robert VanderVeer
Japanese 70
500-word Screenshot PaperImage

“In this scene which takes place not long before the turnaround and renovation of Tampopo’s restaurant, Tampopo opens up to Goro, telling him why she tries so hard to live up to the highest standard as a Ramen Chief. Her words at this moment more or less encapsulate the entire theme of the movie.”

Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” is a light-hearted film which belies the complexity of the societal satyr and themes throughout the entire story. As the lead actress and title of the movie, Tampopo is a movie about a woman (Tampopo) and her climb to the top of the Ramen world, wherein she finds herself and grows as a person along the way, thanks to the help of Goro, and his sidekick Gun (and many others). Although Tampopo is the lead character, the story is not limited to her perspective and struggle, as the focus seems to bounce between characters who are vaguely linked by some activity or setting at the time, if only to show how inexplicably linked we are by the unity of our struggles and conflict (we are all in the same boat, after all). In every scenario, food seems to hold some kind of symbolic significance to convey the message, wherein each person’s individual tale is a theme about the deconstruction of the social constraints placed on us through society, and the conflict between obtaining our own goals and preservation of the sense of self in light of the strains placed on us (and the characters) by the collective order/force.

            In the screenshot that I chose felt best represents the aforementioned themes in the movie (above), we see Tampopo and Goro eating over a not-too-shabby restaurant that overlooks the city at night. Tampopo doesn’t look herself in this scene, as she is dressed up more than usual, showing her multi-dimensionality, simplicity (she has the potential to, but doesn’t ALWAYS get dressed up) and flexibility as a reflection to how much she’s grown. Finally, the conversation steers toward the big question of the movie, asked by Goro (as we know little about Tampopo’s past before the start of the movie): “Why do you try so hard?” Tampopo responds, saying “Well…It’s like…Everybody has their own ladder. Some climb the rungs to the top. But some don’t even know they have one (a ladder). You helped me find my ladder, Goro.” The “ladder” she refers to is what every character in the movie tried to climb, or find for themselves, in the face of the societal limitations and constraints placed on them. The business setting in the French restaurant showed an underdog rookie business man taking a step up when he showed his previous cultural excursions by knowledgeably ordering from the French menu, revered due to France’s rich culture and rituals attached to its food over hundreds of years. Soon after, a group of women learned to let loose of the rituals of femininity attached to eating and enjoy Ramen without worry of appearance and “not making a sound.” A couple is then shown in a hotel room, so lost in each other that the walls of privacy that are inherently placed between humans are completely dissolved by the power of love/lust, as they partake in sexual representations of sharing food. This further extends into other scenes, where an older man gives a young boy ice-cream, despite the fact that the boy was wearing a sign that specifically told others not to share processed foods with him. This scene, although simple as it was, was a microcosm of the entire theme of the film: about getting what you want in the sea of social responsibilities and ties. Food (and more specifically ramen) was like the envelope to this letter, as it is so embedded in the culture of humanity as something that we partake in to live, and something in which we let our guard down when partaking in it.

            We eventually come to see a broken Tampopo rise to the top, with her movements becoming more controlled, precise, and focused as she makes ramen, climbing her own personal ladder with hard work, dedication, and some mentoring. Amidst all the chaos happening around her (and unbeknownst to her), everybody is looking to find their next step, or even their ladder altogether, as they are pulled every-which way by the culture of food and society that binds them.