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Momotaro: Unity through Food and Common Knowledge

Momotaro (1938), the story of the Peach Boy, is a Japanese folktale that has been retold and passed down through generations. It is about a young boy who appears from a giant peach and is taken under the care of an old couple who lived by the mountains. The couple named the boy Momotaro, translated as Peach Boy, and raised him as their own child. At age 15 Momotaro journeys through the sea with his companions, the dog, the monkey and the pheasant, towards the land of Ogres and wages war against them to protect the people of Japan. Momotaro became a heroic symbol by defeating the ogres, returning all the treasures back home. This classic folktale has been retold such as in Arai Goro’s 1951 abridge picture book version with more visual images to tell the story. Momotaro, once a local figure and turned into a well-known national figure in Japan, has been applied to different situations in order to appeal and unify the masses. In films such as the animation Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), a propaganda film regarding Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, and Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary about the aftermath of mercury contamination on the people, Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971), both took Momotaro as the ideal leader to galvanize people in partaking in their cause. The use of millet dumpling in the folktale establishes a commonality between Momotaro and his followers which is the catalyst of the development of the relationship between them. It is the consumption of dumplings that provided them with strength to fight and it serves as a contract between Momotaro and his loyal servants. However, it is not only food that creates such unity, but also the use of the folktale in films such as Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Minamata that impels Japan as a nation to come together. Having something familiar such as the story of Momotaro, reminds people of Japan the values they regard as important and using that to work towards a common goal.

In Iwaya Sazanami’s 1938 version of Momotaro, Momotaro comes across the dog who offers his servitude and asks for a dumpling in return. Momotaro gives it half a dumpling as a payment for accepting the dog’s offer. The same thing happened between Momotaro and the monkey and the pheasant that comes a long his way. He gives them half a dumpling before proceeding their journey together to the Ogre’s Island. This interaction between Momotaro and the animals illustrates the authority Momotaro has over his companions. At first he threatens them of being killed if they get in his way, and later giving them half a dumpling. This establishes a clear distinction of the relationship between all of them, Momotaro being the commander, and the three animals being his loyal servants. The millet dumpling acts as a unifier because by accepting the millet dumpling, they have already agreed to the conditions that they must join Momotaro’s cause. In the 1951 version of this tale, this exchange was excluded from the picture book. Instead it illustrates Momotaro sitting along with the dog, monkey and pheasant, and “shared his millet dumplings” (Arai Goro, 3). Momotaro is depicted as friendlier compared to Iwaya’s version, because in the earlier version a barter takes place between Momotaro and the animals; half a dumpling in return for service. However, in this 1951 version, there seems to have more familiarity with their relationship. The picture book allows its readers to have more freedom in terms of interpreting the images illustrated. Since it can be interpreted in different ways, it is easier to take the story and put it in a specific context. In Iwaya’s version there is no mention of Momotaro physically defeating the ogres. It was his servants, with the orders of Momotaro, who defeated them. On the contrary, in the 1951 version Momotaro is illustrated fighting the ogre (Arai Goro, 4). Even though both stories slightly differs from each other, it is the dumplings that provided them with strength, bringing them all together.

The use of the Momotaro folktale in other media such as an animation film, stimulates a sense of nationality among its viewers who are familiar with the tale. The 37-minute feature film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943) directed by Seo Mitsuyo, is a propaganda film to support the Japanese home front’s victorious attack on Pearl Harbor during the WWII in December 1941. Targeted to a younger audience, the film uses Momotaro as Japan’s hero against the Americans because it is a character that children recognize. It can be seen that the soldiers are cute, delicate little critters that are generally loved by children, making it easier to appeal to them. For this reason, Momotaro and his army naturally becomes the good guys and whoever opposes them are the bad guys. Similarly, Momotaro whose built and voice is still very much like a child, still exudes bravery and competent leadership thus influences its younger viewers’ perspective in that they too, like Momotaro, can have the power to lead a nation like Japan. Being unfamiliar with the folktale may not necessarily hinder someone from understanding the film’s plot, but perhaps familiarity with it can bolster the sense of nationalism. Assuming that the viewers of this film are all familiar with the context of Momotaro, it can help unite them simply because of the established knowledge about the folktale. Having a common knowledge and agreement about something can strengthen the unity of a nation. As a result both children and adults that viewed the film may feel stronger towards Japan because it is their national hero, Momotaro, that lead to Japan’s victory. In both the film and Iwaya’s 1938 version, Momotaro embodies the idea of Japan’s emperor. Momotaro possess the characteristics of an emperor, commanding his soldiers and leading his nation to victory. He may have not physically taken part of the war in both text and film, but he oversees what was going on and as shown in the film, as he gives commands to everyone on board, the animals listens attentively with confidence for their leader. The animal soldiers also possess the ideal nationalist ideology; to sacrifice one’s self for the better of the country. By having Momotaro play the role of the leader during WWII, children will want to embody his characteristics and serve Japan.

The film preserves some of the folkloric elements of the tale such as the animals manifested with human qualities. Seo explores these qualities further in the film by showing the dog’s and the monkey’s interactions with each other, such as the scene when the dog and the monkey were playing with jenga on the plane, teasing each other. This comedic relief alleviates tension in what is supposed to be a heavy topic of war. These simple interactions accentuates their human qualities making them that much more relatable to its young viewers. Such display of these qualities influences children to strive for such qualities to make their nation proud. The film also incorporates a well-known character, Bluto, from an American cartoon called Popeye the Sailor Man. Since Popeye was a well-known cartoon show in Japan during that time, children can immediately detect Bluto as the bad guy. Furthermore, one scene shows one of the monkeys eating a millet dumpling, and flexes its arm to show its muscles gained from eating it, similar to how Popeye eats spinach for strength. This reference to Popeye enables children who are familiar with the cartoon, draw a connection that Bluto is the villain, Popeye is the hero. This makes Momotaro’s side the protagonist because his soldiers had to eat dumplings for strength just like how Popeye has to eat his spinach. This boosts Japan’s national unity because there is a common enemy recognized by many. Knowing where the villain originally came from is not essential in identifying who the evil side is, but it helps viewers recognize the connection instantaneously. Moreover, it is good to note that even though the American’s are portrayed as humans in the film, they lack the human characteristics that the animal soldiers possess. It serves as a juxtaposition between the two sides, depicting the Japanese side as more human like and competent during war, naturally making them better than the Americans. The Americans were dehumanize and are portrayed as drunkards to justify Japan’s view that the Americans lacked leadership and are incompetent on defending themselves. In addition, the alcohol consumed by the Americans serves no benefit to them unlike Japan’s dumplings. The overconsumption of alcohol and portraying Americans as drunkards, reiterates the idea that American soldiers lack cooperation with their comrades on board. It is possible that Bluto was used as the ‘leader’ for the American’s side in the film in order to send the message that even though the Americans are big and rugged compared to the tiny animals, they lack the clever wits of the Japanese. No matter how physically strong you are, it is no match against intelligence.

The use of the folktale of Momotaro in different mediums echoes what characteristics and morals the Japanese value. As a folktale, Momotaro is timeless. Its events took place a “very, very long ago” (Iwaya, 9), with no specific location. This allows the story to be transferred to different times, and still be relevant to what is taking place. Going back to the film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the application of the folktale in this propaganda film extends Japan’s bushido ideology of honor and bravery. In the folktale, Momotaro and his servants displays the way of the warrior to save the people from the Ogres. These same values are applied during the time of WWII and reinforced repeatedly in the film creating a national agreement of “us versus the other” and sends this message to future generations. A scene from Minamata (1971) directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, shows demonstrators of people who were affected by the minamata disease gathered at a train station in Osaka to protest against Chisso Factory. One of the spokesperson alludes to the island where the “blue and red ogres” (Tsuchimoto, 1971) dwell, whom they must confront and defeat. By taking Momotaro and applying it in their cause brings the people together because they each assume the role of Momotaro, and the factory as the evil Ogres. Or perhaps the spokesperson can be seen as Momotaro, and the rest of the demonstrators as the servants, all aiming at one goal. The people voicing out their complaints against the factory enhances our understanding that Momotaro has the values that are important to the Japanese. In order for these demonstrators to succeed they must display the same courage as Momotaro did.

The formation of communities in both Goro’s and Iwaya’s interpretation of Momotaro folktale is rooted from food. The same can be said in Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, where it explicitly shows community building between the animals and juxtaposes it with the lack of community on the American side. By taking this well-known tale and applying it to a real world dilemma in Minamata exposes the injustice faced by its people, and pushes them to come together and fight. The development of small relationships can lead to the growth of bigger communities.

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The Gourmet Club – Exoticism through Internal Experience

Jui’ichiro Tanizaki’s The Gourmet Club tells a story of five men who are members of their own club, known as the Gourmet Club, on a quest to discover new and unusual cuisines as part of their hobby. Desperate to find something new, Count G ventures out one night in hopes to find something uncommon that will please his appetite. Stumbling upon a quaint little building known as the Chechiang Hall, his senses were enticed by the aroma coming from the building and is determined to discover what lies inside. The sense of exoticism is illustrated through the comparison of food with a symphony orchestra, and Tanizaki’s presentation of the “other”. These ideas builds up by encouraging the characters and the reader as well to use their imagination to create an internal experience.

In the beginning, Count G compares exotic cuisine with a symphony orchestra. He imagines the hall to have “rows of masterworks…a dazzling artistry of tastes…to the accompaniment of the Chinese violin, a full orchestra of flavors, resonant with luxury and pleasure” (112). This emphasizes the exoticism of Chinese cuisine because it is something out of reach of ordinary people. Usually an orchestra symphony is attended by the higher class, limited to those who are knowledgeable in classical music, and rare for ordinary people who do not have “refined” taste of music to attend. Therefore by having Chinese cuisine compared to a symphony, Tanizaki implies that it is exotic because it is socially-distant on the basis of social class (Johnson & Baumann, 109). Additionally, since this passage is an imagination of Count G, it encourages readers as well to fantasize this place, thus heightening the sense of distance between a real experience and what we dream or expect to experience, making it more exotic to us. Moreover, the obsession of these men have in finding unusual food is intensified when the narrator describes food with music once again as “…once heard, would make men dance madly, dance themselves to death. Food one just had to eat…until at last one’s stomach burst open” (104).  This exemplifies the relentless obsession these five men have in food to the point of driving themselves to the extreme, even death. Dancing one’s self to death connotes an unhealthy obsession for perfection just like Count G’s extreme fascination with unconventional food. It is also interesting to note that such comparison between two irreconcilable ideas together such as food and death, draws attention to the thin boundary that separates the two, suggesting that one’s sanity may be on the line when this boundary is crossed.

Another way food is used to dramatize exoticism is through the idea of consuming the “other”. The consumption of the “other” is established in the story when the narrator describes a dished called the “Deep-fried Woman, Korean Style” (138). The narrator describes it as a woman covered in a deep-fried tempura batter, and the members eats this batter off this woman. This literal interpretation of consuming the “other” displays exoticism in a way that it is a woman that is being used. Many times when we think of something exotic, we relate it to women because women exudes beauty. Furthermore, often times exotic cuisine is seen as mysterious and “norm-breaking” (Johnson & Baumann, 108). The fact that the woman is covered in batter is something that breaks the norm because it violates how food are usually served in the mainstream culinary world. Lastly, it exudes a sense of mysteriousness because as the members consume the tempura batter off her, they are slowly uncovering what is underneath. The consumer in this scene, and the reader as well, is using their imagination of what to be discovered after all the batter has been eaten.

Altogether, this produces an internal experience, for both character and the reader, and encourages the use of our senses to fully appreciate such an exotic experience.

Work Cited

Josee Johnston and Shyon Baumann. “The Culinary Other: Seeking Exoticism.” Ch 3 in Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. New York: Routledge, 2010. 97-126. Print.

Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro. “The Gourmet Club.” The Gourmet Club: A Sextet, trans. Ed. Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy. Tokyo; London: Kodansha, 2001. 99-140. Print.

Spirited Away: Coexistence between Nature and Modernity

Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away follows a story of a young girl named Chihiro who unknowingly enters a spiritual realm with her parents, and suddenly finding herself in the position to save her parents who transforms into pigs and find her way back to reality. Upon entering this unknown spiritual world, Chihiro, determined to save them, assumes a different identity (as Sen) when she signs Yubaba’s, the head of the bathhouse, working contract in order to stay in their world. As she embarks on her journey and meets different individuals, she too grows as an individual eventually leading her to the conclusion of her journey and returns to the other side of the world. In this animation, Miyazaki illustrates the bathhouse as a structured hierarchy in the labor force work as a result of a modernizing Japan, contrasting them from each other. Miyazaki points out the problematic result that can occur in a country that is modernizing rather quickly but also points out that it is finding the balance that will create a harmony between advancements and nature.

When Japan opened its doors to the West, it resulted to foreign ideas, food, technology, clothes and other goods to enter Japan’s lifestyle. Japan started to demand more labor to keep up with the industrialized West and to modernize itself.  Kamaji’s boiler room represents Japan’s labor force that is rapidly growing due to the demand of consumer goods. To keep up with the demand means creating mass production while reducing the required physical labor. This resulted in the use of assembly lines, a process in which different parts of products are created and assembled much faster by machines. Kamaji is very similar to these assembly line machines because with his six arms, he operates the boiler room of the bathhouse on his own. Kamaji as the machine in the labor force is able to provide and meet the demands of the bathhouse, hence when Chihiro first asked for a job, he denies her because he has all the help he needs – the soots and himself.

Kamaji operating the boiler room, keeping the bathhouse running

Kamaji operating the boiler room, keeping the bathhouse running

In comparison, Yubaba’s office found at the very top of the bathhouse is the complete opposite of the boiler room which draws a distinction on the levels of the hierarchical labor force. Yubaba’s office in comparison to the rest of the bathhouse has a very Western influence to it. The halls are grand and tall, the walls and furniture are very ornate, items such as pillows has a lot of embroidery – overall it is very Westernized. Even Yubaba’s clothes compared to the workers is Western. Yubaba’s office being located on the very top of this hierarchy in a way associates the West with luxury and the better economic status. Yubaba runs the bathhouse and has control over everyone that works there. The difference between the boiler room and Yubaba’s office suggests that the accumulation of material goods can establish one’s status.

A view of Yubaba’s ornate office

A view of Yubaba’s ornate office

Miyazaki illustrates this as one side of industrialized Japan, where the people itself are so caught up to the luxurious lifestyle associated with the West that in the end it hurts them. For example when the filthy river god, who Yubaba thought was a stink spirit, enters the bathhouse it turns out he had consumed all these materials. It was not until Chihiro helps him that he is able to cleanse himself away from the filth that was dragging him down. This suggests the idea that filth can come along with consumerism when it gets out of hand. After Chihiro helps the river god, he gives her a healing cake which she uses later on to help Haku and No-Face. This herb-like healing cake she uses for No-Face to vomit everything he consumed suggests that a balance between nature and the growing industrialization in society is needed for sustainability.

The river god spews out various objects with the help of Chihiro

The river god spews out various objects with the help of Chihiro

However, Miyazaki also includes that industrialized Japan is not always a bad thing. Nature and industries can coexist harmoniously if people control their consumption of consumer goods. For instance, Yubaba’s twin sister Zeniba also lives in a Western-influenced place but it is much more simple and humble. Zeniba’s humble home paints the idea that adopting Western influence does not automatically means it will end in a disaster. It really depends on the people how they will balance both sides, and how to control their desire for materials. Zeniba’s home is a depiction of this balance, with her Western furniture that are not over the top, and her house not containing a superfluous of items. Furthermore, the plants she has hints on nature coexisting with modernity.

Chihiro and friends entering Zeniba’s humble home

Chihiro and friends entering Zeniba’s humble home

Miyazaki carefully highlights the problem and consequences that arise from a growing industrial country like Japan, and the rise of consumerism. As seen in the cases of the spirit god and no-face who over consumed, lost their true identity and it was not until they were cleansed that they gain their true identities back. Some may lose their sense of self because of their desire for wealth. However, it is also depicted in the animation that such coexistence between the two is possible as long balance is sought.

Tampopo: Formation of Community

Throughout Tampopo, Itami Juzo illustrates the formation of community through food – specifically ramen. Ramen can be seen as a comfort food; affordable and easily accessible. It is the type of food that can be enjoyed by anyone from different social and economic standings.  In the film, ramen is the food that unites all the different characters into one community and despite their differences, they work together to reach a common goal.

In the beginning Tampopo begs Goro and Gun to help her with her failing ramen shop in order to become a better cook. It is through this simple dish that brings the protagonists together. The formation of different relationships through the film is all tied together with one goal – they all want to help Tampopo’s ramen shop. For example the old homeless ramen master forms a bond with Tampopo and is in charge of making her ramen soup better. Later on they meet Shohei, the old rich man’s (who almost had a heart attack) driver who is surprisingly knowledgeable about ramen noodles. Lastly, probably the most surprising, is the bond formed between the protagonists and Pisken, the gangster Goro meets when he first entered Tampopo’s ramen shop.

When Goro and Pisken cross paths again, the scene starts with them in a typical western one on one duel to prove which of them is the better man. This type of scene is very typical of a western film where power and masculinity are proven through a one on one battle, where the last man standing wins. However, to our surprise none of them wins.

Pisken and Goro after their duel. And suddenly Pisken offers to help to reconstruct the interior of Tampopo's ramen shop

Pisken and Goro after their duel. And suddenly Pisken offers to help to reconstruct the interior of Tampopo’s ramen shop

This medium shot of Pisken and Goro lying down on the ground exhausted gives a sense of equality between the two because they are on the same level platform. It suggests these two characters are not that different from each other after all. Furthermore the fact that it is a shot of them on the ground rather than a shot of them both still standing up implies that this “common” thing that they share is one of the basic needs all humans have, therefore making no one better than the other.  Itami reveals that social statuses are all socially constructed and is constantly being reinforced through how we treat people, and what we consider “high-class” food and a cheap food and who we associate these foods with. Itami choosing ramen as the main food for the film suggests that it is a dish many Japanese people are familiar with especially during the time where Japan is adopting many unfamiliar western foods.  Itami focuses on the work that goes into the ramen which suggests that a simple dish can require a lot of work to reach perfection just like any other high-class western cuisine. Moreover, it can be enjoyed by everyone just like the characters that were brought together because of ramen.

Despite the changes that take place constantly in society, the value of food will never go away. It is true that what is considered an elite cuisine can change overtime, however, the purpose of eating food will stay the same. Whether you are someone enjoying a meal in a five star restaurant or someone in a fast food chain, our purpose is to nourish and to indulge ourselves in food. Therefore we are all tied together by food.