Category Archives: History and Culture

The Cove-A Real Life Heist Movie

In the 2009 documentary film, The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos analyzes, questions, and exposes Japan’s dolphin hunting culture. The film serves as a call to action to bring an end to mass dolphin slaughter, to change Japanese fishing practices, and to inform the general public of the atrocities being committed to these animals and the health risks (particularly the increased hazard of mercury poising) associated with consuming dolphin meat. The filmmakers emphasized the secrecy involved in capturing the footage to establish a “spy movie” quality to the movie and, as a result, draw in a wider audience than the typical documentary film fan. However, this secret filming, in combination with the portrayal of the Japanese people, elicited great controversy surrounding The Cove’s release.

Louie Psihoyos undercover

Louie Psihoyos undercover

In the opening scene of the film (featured above) the film’s director, Louie Psihoyos, is featured in the passenger seat of a car driving through Japan. He is shown with a medical mask covering a good portion of his face. He then introduces the audience to the secrecy involved in dolphin hunting in Japan and that exposing the industry is illegal. In this way, a sense of civil-duty and urgency is established and Louie Psihoyos places himself and the crew in a position of importance and power. It is also important that Psihoyos addresses the illegal aspect of their mission in this light because it justifies their illegal actions and argues that illegal actions must be taken if the laws being broken are unjust. However, the opening scene is ironic because of the facemask covering Louie’s face; in attempting to expose the dolphin hunting industry, the filmmakers have to cover and hide themselves. The secrecy also establishes a “spy-like” quality to the documentary. The spy movie feeling is further pushed when the footage is presented in green light for night filming, negative effect, and secret-taping footage. This employment of spy genre movie techniques is vital to the success of the documentary because it is able to appeal to a wider audience and makes the dolphin slaughter appear even more corrupt through the establishing of the “forces of good vs. evil.” However, the film techniques used in the making of this movie, such as secret filming, led to much of the controversy that surrounded its release.

Ric O'Barry in an intimate embrace with a dolphin

Ric O’Barry in an intimate embrace with a dolphin

Another important aspect that led to the success of the film was the personal relationship established between dolphins and humans. The film’s main social actor, Ric O’Barry, discusses his experience with dolphins through his involvement with the Flipper television show. He states that he knows that dolphins are self-aware. This idea is crucial in separating dolphins from other animals like pigs and cows that are also slaughtered for food production. If dolphins are aware of themselves and their surroundings, then they can be viewed as more similar to humans than to other animals and it is then inhumane to slaughter them for meat. This idea is essential in drawing sympathy and compassion on behalf of the dolphins from the film’s audience. The above image of Ric O’Barry in loving embrace with a dolphin epitomizes this concept.

Blood from dolphin slaughter filling a cove in Japan

Blood from dolphin slaughter filling a cove in Japan

This image is taken from perhaps the most important moment in the film. In this screenshot the blood from the slaughter of dolphins is revealed for the first time. The dark red of the blood is significant because it is a visual reminder of just how many dolphins must have been slaughtered and because it is seen in direct contrast with the tranquil blue of the surrounding ocean. This serves as a metaphor that stresses that dolphin slaughter is in direct conflict with nature. It is also important because the presence of dolphin slaughter can no longer be ignored or swept under the rug. From this point forward, the audience is forced to decide to answer the film’s call for action and the Japanese people must face this aspect of their culture out in the open. In this way, consumers must consider what they are willing to look past or abandon morally in order to maintain a diet they are accustomed to.

In the creation of a modern day, real life “heist” film, director Louie Psihoyos turns The Cove into one of the most viewed documentary films released in the past 10 years. As a result, a wide audience of once ignorant viewers has been introduced to a serious travesty plaguing the dolphin hunting industry in Japan. The issue is magnified still through the humanization of the dolphins. As a result, the audience must face the harsh realities of dolphin meat consumption and remember the images of the blood-red cove in making future food purchases. In this way, despite the controversy sparked by the questions of morality sparked by secret filming, the film is effective in bringing awareness to a serious issue in today’s food industry and force the audience to serve as the driving force in creating serious change for both the future of the dolphins and of the human race.

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Social Enrichment Through Food

Evoking sharp, sensory emotions; promoting marvelous, cognitive associations; and communicating traditional, symbolic expressions, food elicits a profound quality throughout many cultures: unification of people. The Momotaro stories particularly embrace the idea of “uniting others” with food—mainly through positive associations of camaraderie. In comparison, Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary highlights community strengthening through food’s symbolic power; instead, however, the characters join together through negative connotations of suffering. Food’s function as a unifier can be analyzed between both literary texts and visual films. Represented through Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotaro = The Story of Peach-Boy and Tsuchimoto’s Minamata: The Victims and Their World, food operates as a figurative symbol and a material object that unifies estranged communities.

Iwaya Sazanami manipulates his writing to indirectly relate a smaller unification with a large-scale unification. In his Momotaro story, he describes an old couple who appears distraught over lack of children. However, once the old woman finds “a huge peach, big enough to fill her arms” (10 Iwaya), a little boy pops out of the fruit to explain his purpose: He intends to provide joy to the couple after “seeing that they are both so sad” (16 Iwaya). Sazanami develops a small, but significant community by employing a peach as a figurative, food symbol—an old woman and an old man become united with a child of their own. Comparably, this community development epitomizes the wide-ranging scale of unification that occurs in contemporary times: how ratatouille encapsulates the French; how pasta envelops the Italians; how lumpia bonds the Filipinos; and how ramēn/sushi unites the Japanese. In this case, the peach revitalizes a couple’s marriage, establishing a novel connection. Food not only has a physical attribute to forming happiness, but it also has a metaphorical element to uniting hopeless souls.

The historical context of Momotaro sets him in the late 19th century, with the English translation coming in the pre-WWII era. He epitomizes the popular hero who remains entangled in Japanese folklore. His figure also appears in countless wartime films and cartoons that appeal to the Japanese citizens as propaganda. In these widespread media portrayals, Momotaro usually represents the Japanese government; the citizens signify the animals; and the United States characterizes the demonic figure. The food and treasure that Momotaro and his animals receive after defeating the demon reflect the lost glory of Japan’s empire. Food’s presence in these stories holds another symbolic meaning: Food represents the attachment between the Japanese government and its people—just like how a chemical bond connects two atoms. Nevertheless, the Momotaro stories utilize food to cultivate strong relationships and lasting communities.

Tokiyoshi Onoue's personal testimonial compares to the whole Minamata community's experience.

Tokiyoshi Onoue’s personal testimonial compares to the whole Minamata community’s experience.

In similar fashion, Tsuchimoto applies food to compare one man’s suffering with a whole community’s suffering. He uses Tokiyoshi Onoue’s testimonial to illuminate a population’s distressful unity. As the Minamata disease forms a resilient community through people’s suffering, the Momotaro stories arrange cohesive communities through people’s comradeship: the contrasting quality between Sazanami’s writing and Tsuchimoto’s media. In the film, Onoue reveals his pain and anguish that the poisoning fish produced. The food’s contamination forcefully disables any consumers—blinding vision, restricting sound, and damaging basic motor skills. Upon recognition of the disease, Onoue begins to lose a certain amount of respect and trust of food’s safety. This personal relationship symbolizes the overall relationship that Minamata residents have with their seafood. The local fishermen, the close families, the dying individuals all start to discount their association with food’s unifying demands. Food’s figurative role as a uniting symbol emerges through the depths of people’s suffering. Minamata’s community develops a strong connection through everyone’s discomfort and torture.

The historical framework of the Minamata disease places it during a post-WWII era—a close similarity with that of Momotaro’s propaganda setting. Minamata’s remote location also sets it apart from the Japanese mainstream culture. This sets the stage for Minamata to create its own society and community. Since the residents did not have plenty of outside interaction, they had to combine their efforts with one another. The poisoned food ultimately matures the population through a tormenting array of sorrow. Even though the citizens become hampered to produce everyday tasks, they still overcome such obstacles to unify. Nevertheless, food embodies the metaphorical epitome of industrializing a spirited community.

Now implemented as a material object through the Momotaro stories, Sazanami employs food as a physical unifier between characters. He uses millet dumplings to bond Momotaro and a dog: “he accepted the half-dumpling and having eaten it he went on with Peach-Boy” (25 Iwaya). He continues to use millet dumplings to connect Momotaro and a monkey: “I will give you half of one of the best millet dumplings in Japan, and you may follow me” (28 Iwaya). He finally unites another pairing between Momotaro and a bird: “I now charge you to accompany me in the same way as the dog and the money in my expedition” (31 Iwaya). Once again, this small community of a hero and his comrades exemplifies the larger picture—how a massive community between the Japanese government and its citizens ripens. Food’s function as a unifier travels beyond the scope of just forming a community; it reaches the extent of establishing companionships and relationships. Sazanami manipulates food to serve as his community development initiative. He implements food to directly institute a bonding association—since the monkey, dog, and bird openly accept the dumplings. This illuminates how food works to build communities through certain respects of camaraderie and materialism.

The comparison between “Momotaro and his companions” and “the Japanese government and its citizens” signifies Sazanami’s purpose to portray community progression. The millet dumplings operate as a food symbol in the story, and the food represents the Momotaro stories in reality. Since the dumplings form a community between the hero and his acquaintances, the Momotaro stories form a community between the government and its people. Together, both communities develop a passionate sense of unity and accord to battle worldly evils. In Momotaro’s case, they travel to defeat the ogres at Ogre Island; in Japan’s case, they journey to conquer the Unites States at Pearl Harbor. Food manages to characterize a potent unifier that continues to produce fervent societies.

Community outreach and development.

Community outreach and development.

Through another comparison, Tsuchimoto highlights how food can symbolize the basis of constructing a vehement community. He chronicles the Minamata residents as they band together to confront the death-providing Chisso Corporation—the instigator who polluted the Minamata waters with mercury compounds. Indirectly speaking, the diseased food connects the people of Minamata as a single neighborhood, fighting to voice their harrowing pain and traumatic anger. An example of this cohesive community can be described through the documentary’s dramatic climax: Tsuchimoto films the residents attending a Chisso biannual, shareholders meeting. They collectively demand that the company president accept full responsibility for Chisso’s offenses against the environment and humanity. Food resumes its constant duty to unify communities—with love in its intentions and conviction in its production.

The story of Minamata’s fight for justice not only suggests historical importance, but it also reveals the determined spirit that a group of people is willing to deliver. This community struggle holds the potential to inspire other communities who also suffer from the hands of an indifferent bureaucracy. Although each family and individual embrace their own personal account of sorrow, they all combine their efforts and tales to form a community of simple, conscientious people. Tsuchimoto’s filming tactics fully epitomize the meaning of how food brings people into unison.

While Tsuchimoto and Sazanami develop contrasting works of art, they both succinctly illustrate the same, basic message: Food not only functions as a figurative symbol to unify communities, but it also works as a material object to unite others. Whether a situation expounds anguish, happiness, friendship, or violence, people always find a way to become intertwined through food’s bitter taste; food’s sweet taste; food’s rare taste; or food’s repulsive taste. Food grasps that special power to unify communities under the best conditions, or the worst conditions. It remains as a symbol that refers to any aspect of a culture’s or individual’s history and identity.

Nourishment to Fraility

Eyes that cannot see, hands that cannot grasp, minds that cannot process, the senses of Minamata victims remain diminished after a severe intoxication of mercury poisoning. Noriaki Tsuchimoto—director and editor of Minamata: The Victims and Their World—depicts the current condition and distressing plight borne by affected families. He not only portrays the impassive Chisso Corporation and the delayed government reaction, but he also highlights the neglect and insolence that society inflicts upon the victims. He chronicles food as a disease that forces a struggle between casualties and polluters. Through a practice of dramatic, poetic shots and rhythmic, intense soundtracks, Tsuchimoto illustrates the corrupted relationship between Minamata’s humanity and food: transforming food’s role from a symbol of nourishment to a source of fatality.

Contact with the disease

Contact with the disease

The opening sequence devotes priceless seconds to understanding the lifestyles and close connections among Minamata residents. Representing an array of close-up and long-range shots of the sea, fish, and boats, Tsuchimoto examines the intimate interactions and relations that Minamata citizens have with their environment. This close-up scene exemplifies Tsuchimoto’s goal to portray the bond between nature and man: Even though he knows about the fish’s toxicity, he still remains in contact with the sea creature. At the time of water pollution, food acts as a symbol of sustenance and support in the town of Minamata; the community depends on its fisheries and seafood as a foundation of economic stability and basic survival. Food epitomizes the producer of life in such a remote location—it feeds the children, it supplies the livestock, it develops the ecosystem. Food’s positive allure starts to transform into a negative appeal: If a person consumes seafood, then he/she might acquire severe consequences. This unfortunately strains the indirect association between food’s objective and the people’s trust.

Grief in expression

Grief in expression

Since the documentary presents a low-budget cost, money becomes difficult to attribute to each aspect of the film—including sound. The lack of synch between soundtracks and images bestows an unorthodox film quality: generating an interesting dilemma to considering Tsuchimoto’s message. The emotionally distressing stories that Tsuchimoto’s characters describe are paired with an assortment of images picturing the dead, their families, and unappetizing food. The unparalleled synch between sound/image compels the audience to listen to the words more intently and to analyze the speaker’s face more cautiously. It becomes apparent that the infected fish and food have fully digressed from an archetype of positive nutrition to a symbol of deplorable death. Through the suffering voices and hopeless faces, Tsuchimoto represents the pain that Minamata residents feel. He innovatively manipulates the soundtracks to demonstrate how the polluted food causes calamitous disruption in these peoples’ lives: the citizens express their testimonials with sadness in their vocals and gloominess in their grimaces. Food’s blissful intentions diminish into nothingness.

Tokiyoshi Onoue enhances the sympathetic appeal

Tokiyoshi Onoue enhances the sympathetic appeal

To emphasize this heartbreaking tragedy further, Tsuchimoto illuminates an individual account of Minamata’s disease—Tokiyoshi Onoue’s experience. Tsuchimoto utilizes Tokiyoshi as a representation of Minamata as a whole. While Tokiyoshi explains his personal affliction by the disease, Tsuchimoto films the resident’s everyday fishing and eating routine. This allows the audience to gradually sympathize with the storyteller; acknowledge how much anguish and pain he feels; and identify the role of food in an altered environment. Upon recognition of the disease, Tokiyoshi—and the other fishermen, families, and residents—established a perception of trust with the sea and its inhabitants. However, the fishes’ attainment of mercury poisoning damages that trust between Minamata’s people and food’s safety. The positive role of food continues to dwindle and disappear.

Seen through a historical lens, the Minamata disease affects a handful of Japanese people—set within a remote location, the town becomes isolated from mainstream Japanese society and culture. Emerging from the industrial wastewater produced by Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory, the disease starts to affect the fish and shellfish since they begin to accumulate toxic chemicals. Tsuchimoto begins to chronicle the struggles of families who attempt to obtain reparations from Chisso. Factually represented, the victims’ loved ones join together in song to voice their misery over death. They conclusively storm the representatives of the corporation to demand proper compensation for afflicted pain.

During the 1950s in Japan, a heavy concentration of industrial facilities in populated areas began to cause environmental pollution—large-scale industrialization develops because of the substantial damage suffered from World War II. This detail explains the abrupt consummation of Chisso’s growth. Tsuchimoto uses this historical fact to represent the quality of life issues, population densities, environmental pollution, and quality of housing as a problem in Japanese society.

Tsuchimoto offers emotional anecdotes, passionate shots, and powerful soundtracks to emphasize the affect of Chisso’s wrongdoing and the transition of food’s function. Food first acts as a life-giver, delivering the citizens a mode of basic subsistence and financial profitability. Because of unforeseen circumstances, food then evolves into a death-provider—forcing the citizens to live with sickness and disabilities. Tsuchimoto not only defines food as health and wellness, but he also expresses food as duplicitous and deceitful.