Category Archives: Minamata

Momotaro and Minamata

Momotaro is a Japanese folk character. In the folk tale, he was born of a peach floating in water. An Old Man and an Old Woman bring him up. When he becomes fifteen years old, he, together with a spotted dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, goes to the Orges’ Island to defeat Orges and save those islanders. In the movie Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, Momotaro is a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier. The troops succeed in the conquest of Demon Island by bomb attacks. In both the folk tale and the movie, Momotaro is not alone; he develops a community of his followers to support himself in the attack. Food is a tool used by to unite “people” in a common struggle.

In the Momotaro stories, food is a symbol of best wishes, responsibilities and trust in the development of community. In the folk tale, Momotaro has three followers – a spotted dog, a monkey and a pheasant. Momotaro forms his own troops by giving each of his followers half of a millet dumpling made by his parents. The homemade millet dumplings are a symbol for the wish of returning home. Momotaro’s parents made him those millet dumplings and expect him to win the war and come back home safely. By sharing the millet dumplings with the three animals, Momotaro is sharing the wish of returing home successfully and safely with his followers. Since Momotaro is sent down by the command of the god of Heaven, he has his responsibilities as a child of his parents and also as a leader of his people. He views saving those suffering people on the Orges’ Island as one of his responsibilities. By sharing the millet dumplings with the three animals, Momotaro is sharing his responsibilities for those islanders and his trust with his followers.

The movie shows nothing of Momotaro’s family and depicts him merely as a commanding officer. Momotaro loses his responsibilities as a child and is only left with the responsibilities for his people. Though Momotaro appears to be alone and does not have much communication with the troops, he is still the spiritual leader of the army. Instead of giving real food, he gives an encouraging speech to the animals. His encouragement is the food for his follower’s soul, supporting his soldiers to defeat their enemies. His troops include rabbits, monkeys and pigs. Before the bomb attack, a rabbit gives some food to a pig, conveying her best wishes and trust.

While the folk tale and the movie both use food to transmit wishes and trust, not like in the folk tale where food is a tool to develop followers, in the movie food is passed from one soldier to another, showing the audiences that the soldiers are solidly united. The folk tale depicts the development of community in details while in the movie the community has already formed. Since the movie is derived partly from the folk tale, it is taken for granted for audiences who know the folk tale that Momotaro has developed a community of “warriors”. Without knowing the folk tale, one might feel confused about who Momotaro is and where the troops come from.

Though the Momotaro movie relies on the folk tale, the movie is different from the folk tale in the background of the story and their targeted audiences. The omitted passing food scene in the movie also helps to show the change from a simple folk tale to a military movie. Unlike the folk tale, the Momotaro movie is closely related to reality. In the folk tale, there is no specific description about the space and time that the story happens, but only some description like “Very, very long ago”, “in a certain place”. However, in the movie the Orges’ Island represents the Pearl Harbor. Momotaro leads the troop to attack Orges’ Island symbolizes Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during WII. The movie conveys a strong belief of Japanese people that Japan is going to defeat the United States just like Momotaro defeats the Oni. In other words, the Momotaro movie is to spread Japan’s military thoughts during WII to audiences, particularly children.

As the media changes from folk tale to movie, the targeted audiences also change from everyone to children in particular. Partly based on the folk tale, the Momotaro movie also borrows American animation figures like Bluto, a villain in Popeye stories. He becomes a captain addicted to alcohol in the Momotaro movie, giving audiences an image of irresponsible captain. For people who know the Popeye stories, Bluto has one more image – “a bad guy”. The Momotaro movie uses Bluto to represent the American army in order to show audiences that Momotaro and his troops are going to defeat those bad guys to maintain justice. Since the targeted audiences are children, the movie uglifies Bluto to make children tend to favor Momotaro more.

By sharing homemade millet dumplings, Momotaro develops his own troops. Similarly, in Minamata movie poisonous fish brings the Minamata disease victims together because the chemical factory Nitsuchi refuses to acknowledge its actions of poisoning the sea and causing the disease. In both the Momotaro stories and the Minamata movie, food is a unifier to form communities of voyage. However, the journeys differ in the roles that water plays in Momotaro and Minamata. Water, as the food for life, is an unstable factor since it is affected by human actions.

Momotaro is the leader of the community that he develops while in Minamata the disease is “the leader” that brings the victims together. Momotaro is a waterborne food sent down by the command of the god of Heaven. He rallies his troops to protect humans from Orges. In the Minamata movie, poisonous fish in water polluted by human actions carries Minamata disease. The Minamata disease victims go on a journey to protect themselves. What Nitchitsu does to the victims is equal to what Orges do to the islanders. Orges can be viewed as human actions that destroy the nature and finally harm humans in return.

Since ancient times, water is the place that gives life; water is the food for life. Similarly, Momotaro comes from water and the Minamata disease spread through water. In Momotaro stories water generates lives while in Minamata water destroys lives. “The water that bears the Boat is the same that swallows it up.” Human intervention of the nature turns the water from a “mother” that generates live into a “killer”.

Food helps to unite people with the same goals together to protect other people or themselves. However, food may also become harmful when humans do harm to the nature.

Feasting Together

It is said that a family who feasts together, stays together. For most people, food is seen as a source of energy and nutrition for the body, a necessity of life, but it is also a way for people form bonds others. In most cultures, families and communities come together to eat which establishes a connection between each other because when people share food at the table, they also share stories and experiences which elicits responses of laughter or even sympathy. Being able to connect on a personal level creates unity and a sense of community with others as illustrated by the Momotaro stories of Japan. Momotaro, a Japanese folk legend, leads his trusty squad into quests and battles in order to destroy the enemies that threaten the safety of Japan. In both visual and literary texts, food ties Momotaro and his crew together while also giving them the strength they need to carry on and become victorious in their quests.

In Iwaya Sazanami’s rendition of Momotaro, food represents providence and good fortune for the old couple as well as used as a sign of respect and trust that creates a band of warriors who are loyal to Momotaro and his quest. When the old couple finds Momotaro, he is actually within a peach which happens to be a fruit that is highly valued and often associated with the gods in Japanese folklore. This implies that Momotaro is a blessing from the gods, meant to bring the couple together and to grant them happiness. Although Sazanami never mentions anything about the man and woman having any lack of nutrition, they work very hard so when the peach comes floating down the river, it is a significant event for the old couple becomes it is a reason for celebration and a reward for their work. It makes their life “healthier” in a sense with the appearance of Momotaro in their lives. He is a healthy addition to their lives and is very beneficial to their lonely life because his presence gives them joy and he helps out the old couple in their daily burdens. The old couple is so grateful for Momotaro and his influence on their lives that they willingly let him leave them for his quest to save Japan.

Momotaro begins his journey after the old couple makes him millet dumplings in order to ensure his well-being. Millet dumplings are a material objects that originally were only to serve the purpose of guarantee Momotaro’s well-being but instead they become a symbol of trust and acceptance into Momotaro’s followers. He offers half a millet dumpling to each of his new followers in order to feast with them and create a fellowship with the dog, the monkey, and the pheasant. Furthermore, by offering food to his followers, this situation begins to mimic the parent-child relationship where the parent provides for the child, which, in this situation, makes the three followers his dependents. Throughout the whole book, Momotaro is referred to as “Peach-boy” and even refers to himself as “Peach-boy” reinforcing the idea that he was a gift from the gods as sustenance to the old couple’s lives. After his quest, his role as sustenance is extended to Japan because he helps the country well-being in his victory over the Ogres.

Misuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle reinforces the idea of food as a way to form bonds but chooses to focuses on food as a unifier of Momotaro’s forces rather than an initiation of his followers as his forces head to the Demon’s island to face the enemy. In the film, the troops consume millet dumplings just as Momotaro and his followers did in Sazanami’s story, however, it is a feast among his many troops. Food becomes something to rally behind because it not only creates unity among the troops, but also gives them the strength to conquer the enemy. This is illustrated when one of the monkeys quickly wolfs down a millet dumpling and he suddenly becomes muscular enough to overwhelm the enemy with whom they are in combat with. As a propaganda film that was premiered in the midst of World War II, it paralleled the events that were occurring in the war and influenced citizens to cheer for Momotaro and his troops. Though it was Momotaro’s great leadership that led to the victory over the demons, the millet dumplings were what gave them the ability to do so and thus they are a representation of the strength of the Japanese people in the war. Millet dumplings were something that could be shared by all and creates a sense of camaraderie among the Japanese people and its troops.

Although the Momotaro tales are often associated with a noble journey and a victorious quest or purpose, Tsuchimoto’s Minimata: The Victims and Their World, alludes to the stories as people victimized because of food. Sustenance united Momotaro’s troops yet was the source of problems in Osaka. When people of Osaka consumed the fish of the nearby polluted waters, they also consumed mercury which resulted in a mass of innocent civilians with severe cases of Mercury poisoning. They relate their suffering to the people of Japan by equating their pain with living in “the land where blue and red ogres dwell” in order to convey the devastating the effects of mercury poising that ravaged their city. In alluding to the Momotaro stories with the ogres, the victims illustrate their situation simply because of the familiarity of the Momotaro stories to the Japanese people. This epidemic caused people to unite against the company that had polluted the water, to fight for justice and reparations. Although food caused this plague, it also brought people together to combat injustice and to band together in order to make a difference in the victims’ lives.

Having a sense of community is hard to find in a world that has many enemies and suppressors, but in partaking with others, a bond is formed between people who defend each other. In the Momotaro tales and film, food is a unifier that brings a group of people together to find strength to defeat the enemy as well as a reminder of one’s roots. The millet dumplings become a tie between the troops as they follow Momotaro into war. As for Minimata, the food that the community often shared together was poisoned, and thus, because of food, the people come together to fight the injustice of the big businesses that have polluted their lives. In each context, it is food that influences their actions and their outcome because it is an act of fellowship. Although food gives them strength to overcome the enemy, their victories did not stem from the consumption of food. Rather, it came from their ability to unite because of the personal connection formed in the act of partaking the food together.

Momotaro Plays Hide & Seek: Exploring food and heroism hidden in various texts

The legend of Momotaro has been featured in many films, such as Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World, to help the people of Japan relate to the national crises pertaining to each film.  By utilizing the popular and cherished tale of Momotaro as a common theme, viewers of the film are more likely to grasp a firm understanding of unfamiliar and complex topics, such as war and disease epidemics. As the symbol of strength, bravery, and nobility, Momotaro acts as a role model to children and adults alike, just as superheroes act as cultural icons sought to emulate. In the children’s animation Momotaro’s Sea Eagle the director, Mitsuyo Seo, dramatizes the events of the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II by utilizing Momotaro as the commanding leader of a crew of devoted animals on mission to defeat their enemies on Demon Island. On the other hand, the director, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, takes various themes from Momotaro and implements them in his poignant and compassionate documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, to illustrate the cruel and unbearable circumstances those affected with Minamata experienced. Momtaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World both integrate ideas from the Momotaro legend, enhancing the similarities and differences in two central themes, food as the source to ignite community unification and the role of a hero to serve moral justice.

In the legend of Momotaro, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World, the primary theme of food acts as a source to bring a community of people together. In the Momotaro folk tale the theme of food is viewed as both an object of consumption and as a symbol of strength and unification. When Momotaro departs for his voyage to Ogre Island his father packs him millet dumplings for lunch. Food is the primary source of fuel for the body, allowing the necessary endurance and power needed to take on arduous tasks. As Momotaro’s journey commences he encounters and befriends a dog, monkey and pheasant, all of which previously did not get along. Each time Momotaro encountered a new creature he offered them a millet dumpling and they immediately sought to become a member of the team.  Eating one of the millet dumplings which acted as a form of pledging their allegiance to Momotaro, and demonstrating how food as commodity acts as a uniting factor of strength, friendship and teamwork.

In a similar manner, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle presents the uniting force of food as a symbol of strength and celebration. For example, after Momotaro commands his troops to depart to Demon Island one monkey fuels up his stomach with a skewer of millet dumplings.

Food is a source of power and strength.

Food is a source of power and strength.

Upon flexing, the bicep muscle of the monkey’s arm immediately enlarges, signifying his gain of strength needed to carry out his mission. Furthermore, when the dog and monkey soldiers return to Momotaro’s naval ship after the completion of their mission the animals rejoice in celebration by eating rice balls. The consumption of millet dumplings and rice balls as simplistic Japanese cuisine expresses the unification and national pride the animal soldiers have for their country.

Food can also act as a symbol of victory and celebration.

Unlike the legend of Momotaro and Momotaro’s Sea Eagle where food is viewed as a positive source of strength and unity, food in Minamata: The Victims and Their World acts as a symbol of poison and death, rather than a necessity for life. Yet comparably, through the negativity of the Minamata epidemic stirs an uprising and unification of a community. In basic terms, the Minamata disease was methyl mercury poisoning. The Minamata disease originated from the Chisso Corporation factory dumping methyl mercury into the ocean, illegally. The carelessness of this factory caused the poisoning of many underwater creatures, which ultimately caused a significant amount of people who consumed the diseased sea life to contract the disease as well.

The Minamata disease cost the lives of many loved ones.

The Minamata disease cost the lives of many loved ones.

Symptoms of those who became affected included the loss of the ability to speak correctly and the loss of the senses. Unfortunately, the disease affected not only the host, but also the victim’s families and loved ones as well. The survivors of the epidemic resulted in a devastating loss of friends and family, but not hope. From the tears and sorrows caused by broken hearts grew rage and the demand for blame and compensation. Through tragedy people are, once again, observed joining together in unison and rising against a common enemy.

Additionally, another theme presented in all three films is the central figure of the righteous hero, and of course the enemy as well. In the Momotaro folk tale, an old couple’s wish is granted when a giant peach drifts down a river. Inside the peach is a boy, Momotaro, whom the couple adopts and raises. Momotaro grows up to be an intelligent and independent leader who embarks on a journey to Ogre Island to defeat the fierce enemy ogres. Upon success, Momotaro transpors gold, silver, jewels and other riches back home to his parents, safe and sound.  Thus, embodying the qualities of a genuine hero.

Likewise, Seo used many similar tactics from the Momotaro legend in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle to develop his plotline. For instance, the idea of Momotaro and his team of animals as the undefeatable heroes is a reoccurring theme. Momotaro ranks at the top of the social ladder as the commanding officer of a crew of rabbits, monkeys and dogs. He expresses his authoritative powers by commanding his army through specific tasks, yet unlike the Momotaro folk tale, he never comes face-to-face with physical contact in battle. Additionally, to stay consistent with the historical background of the film, Seo developed the enemy character to drastically juxtapose with that of the heroes. Momotaro and his team of cute animal warriors were depicted

The beer bottle was indicative of excessive drinking, causing American’s to be viewed as the “bad guys.”

as the team of “good guys” saving the Japanese nation from the enemies on Demon Island. However, on Demon Island, the single American soldier was illustrated as a human-like figure with demonic accessories, such as horns, a tail, and a beer bottle at hand, indicative of excessive drinking. Alcohol gave a negative connotation that was frowned upon according to societal norms; hence, the portrayal of American’s as the “bad guys”.  At the end of the film, the members of Momotaro’s force return to the ship safe and sound, just as in the tale. Conversely, in the film Momotaro does not return home with treasures, because the treasure to be gained is the satisfaction of justice served against their enemy ogres.

The hero and enemy roles in Minamata: The Victims and Their World are also portrayed in a contrasting manner to that of the Momotaro folk tale. Where the hero plays the protagonist role in the Momotaro tale, the hero of this documentary is the underdog. The role of the hero in Tsuchimoto’s documentary is a group of common people representing all those who have been affected by the Minamata disease, rather than a single being as in the

This quote makes a direct reference to the Momotaro legend’s fight at Ogre Island.

Momotaro legend. The heroes consist of a community of members who journey abroad to Osaka to fight the “ogres” of the Chisso Corporation factory. In one scene an elderly woman speaks, “We have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell,” making a direct reference to Momotaro’s journey to Ogre Island in the legend. Contrasting to the compensation of treasure gained by Momotaro in the legend, the heroes of the Minamata community took action not for the sake of their own merit, but to help those that were innocent. As for the role of the enemy throughout this documentary, the audience gets the sense that the Chisso Corporation should be viewed as the “bad guys.” The Chisso Corporation was indeed responsible for the mercury poisoning; however food in general can also be seen as a coexisting enemy.  Consumption of food is what spread of the Minamata disease and infected the lives of innocent beings. As a consequence, the need to rally up the heroes to fight for justice was essential to defeat these enemies, just as Momotaro and his team of animals had on Ogre Island.

By incorporating the tale of Momotaro in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Minamata: The Victims and Their World national anxieties are made more comprehendible for the general public to interpret. As in the Momotaro legend, both films demonstrate that food is factor for community unification and that leadership and justice are characteristics of a righteous hero. As a result, the viewers of these films easily accept the noble and respectful qualities of the characters representing Momotaro, and the wickedness portrayed in the enemy, ultimately providing for a moving documentary and prized animated propaganda cartoon.

Works Directly And Indirectly Referencing The Story of Momotaro: How Folk Tales Are Manipulated For Achieving Different Goals

Momotaro, the Peach Boy, is a famous traditional teenage warrior figure in Japanese culture. His story depicts Momotaro, a divine creature who jumped out from a big peach found by an old lady, goes to fight the Ogres(Oni’s) with the help of his dog, monkey and pheasant fellows that he gathered along the way. In the end of the story, Momotaro returns with victory. The story of Momotaro is ubiquitously famous in Japan, and because of the popularity of Momotaro’s story, the image of Momotaro has been integrated, directly and indirectly, into various works. By comparing the animated film Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and the documentary film Minamata: The Victims and Their World to the national version of Momotaro’s story written by Iwaya Sazanami, we can understand how folk tales can be manipulated to serve different political purposes by making audiences gain empathy toward the issues in discussion, and therefore gaining support and agreement from the audiences. Specifically, The folkloric characteristics of the story of Momotaro, such as ambiguous time period,  ambiguous identity of characters, and inevitability of the presence of food and thus the impact of food, are important aspects for achieving this goal.

As a folkloric story, Momotaro doesn’t happen at a specific historical time; instead it is presented to happen merely “very, very long ago”. Even though this lack of specific time was certainly unintentional when the story was created, however, thanks to this ambiguity in time, later works can fit the Momotaro motif into any time period. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, the story of Momotaro is fitted into the time period of World War II – more specifically, the Pearl Harbor Attack. By fitting in the Momotaro figure straightly into the animation, audience is tricked to think that since the battle of Momotaro is a glorious battle, then the battle in the animation, directly featuring Momotaro as the leader of the army, is also a glorious battle. The ambiguous identity of characters also play a role, enabling the anime makers to transform the small army into a large national army, while changing Momotaro’s image from a chunky, friendly boy to a solemn political leader. Because of the ambiguity of the characters’ identity in the original folk story, nobody would question the new enforced identities presented in the animation. Though the identity of the enemies, or the Oni’s, remain obscure, there are bold images and descriptions that indicate the enemy to be United States. For example, the enemy’s flag consists of stripes and stars on the left upper corner, which is incredibly similar to the national flag of United States; the enemy soldiers are all white figures, resembling Caucasian race; even the image of the island and the battleships are strikingly similar to Pearl Harbor and the ships there. What’s more, there are lines, such as “Blue demon, red demon, chase them all”, describing the American soldiers as the evil Oni’s, while

Scene in which the background music sings the line "Blue demon, red demon, chase them all".

Scene in which the background music sings the line “Blue demon, red demon, chase them all”.

promoting how righteous Momotaro and his army are. By directly putting Momotaro’s story in the World War II setting, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles serves as a propaganda, educating Japanese citizens that the attack of Japan on Pearl Harbor is a righteous act.

Minamata the documentary movie, on the other side, fits the Momotaro motif indirectly into the time period in which Minamata disease wreaked havoc. In the movie, though none of the explicit Momotaro figure, the dog, monkey and pheasant soldiers are present, the spirit of the Momotaro story is subtly integrated, as the victims of Minamata gathers and goes on a quest fighting against the Chisso Corporation, the company whose factory mercury release contaminated food. The united victims resemble Momotaro and his army, and the Chisso Corporation resembles the Oni’s. A part of the movie records how victims go on a march to where Chisso Corporation locates, protesting and fighting for a responsible solution. This march represents the journey Momotaro has, and his fighting against the Oni’s in Sazanami’s Momotaro story. In fact, the Chisso Corporation is directly associated with the Oni’s, as one speaker during the march announces: “We have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell”. However, in Minamata, the allusion to Momotaro is not a filming technique, nor a technique for creating political propaganda, but a real-life application of the story since the film is a documentary. By making allusion to Momotaro’s story, the victims of the Minamata gain tremendous empathy and support from bystanders who are of course very familiar with the story of Momotaro, and these bystanders then join the march, or the “army of Momotaro”, to keep on fighting. In conclusion, by fitting the motif of Momotaro into different historical time periods and onto different characters and persons, different goals can be achieved, depending on the issue in discussion.

Other than the ambiguity in time and identity of characters, the ubiquitous presence of food in stories also show how folk stories, the story of Momotaro in this case, can be manipulated. First of all, food exists in every story. No matter if it’s a folk tale, a prose, or any other genre, as long as there is a storyline, there exists food. The ubiquitous existence of food makes the impact of food tremendously important in all stories. In this case, food serves as a power that unites people in all three stories.

Food in both Sazanami’s Momotaro story and the Momotaro’s Sea Eagles unite people by giving them strength, faith and making them loyal to Momotaro. In both stories, the millet dumplings are the food Momotaro gives to his animal fellows. In Sazanami’s Momotaro story, by sharing millet dumplings, Momotaro makes friends with dog, monkey and pheasant, and he resolves conflicts between them using millet dumplings as well. By using millet dumplings, Momotaro is able to create his small army, with his fellows respecting and admiring him, willing to fight for him. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, millet dumplings also serve similar purpose, uniting the army together as Momotaro’s soldiers.

However, the detailed indication of food is different between the Sazanami’s Momotaro story and the Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. In Sazanami’s Momotaro story, millet dumplings build a rather intimate connection – friendship, and loyalty due to admiration and respect. The monkey, the dog, and the pheasant and Momotaro are more like brothers than merely a political leader and followers, in the sense that they develop intimate relationship with each other, and the animals all respect Momotaro. Millet dumplings also resemble kinship in Sazanami’s story: when Momotaro is leaving home, the Old Man and the Old Woman, who take care of Momotaro as parents, carefully prepare the millet dumplings for Momotaro.This symbolistically indicates that the millet dumplings contain the power of love, and that’s why the millet dumplings can have such a cohesive force that binds the fellows together. With the power of love and kinship coming from the millet dumplings, Momotaro and the animal fellows become brothers and fight together. This brother-like relationship between the dog, the monkey and the pheasant is carried on in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, however with a new layer of meaning and indication, as the millet dumplings also posses a new layer of meaning. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, the soldiers are also united by the millet dumplings like brothers, but not brothers in an intimate way, but rather in the sense that they are all sons of Japan, the motherland, and they all fight for their motherland patriotically. Instead of showing kinship and friendship, the millet dumplings in the animation represents nationalism, which is the power that ties all the soldiers of the army

A monkey soldier happily eats a millet dumpling ration

A monkey soldier happily eats a millet dumpling ration

together. What’s more, the millet dumplings shows great literal dietary support, contrasting with the terrible diets of the enemy: the army of Momotaro is energetic, passionate and brave eating the millet dumplings, while the enemies, drinking alcohol, are sluggish and cowardly, only able to run away. In one scene, a monkey soldier becomes ultra-muscular after eating millet dumplings – the allusion of Popeye the Sailor here is integrated to exaggerate the literal dietary power of millet dumplings. Meanwhile, one captain from the enemy side is

A drunk, fat enemy general struggling on the ground, but unable to get up and run. There are alcohol bottles scattering around him on the ground.

A drunk, fat enemy general struggling on the ground, but unable to get up and run. There are alcohol bottles scattering around him on the ground.

presented to be obese and drunk, unable to get up from the floor, with several alcohol bottles lying by him, indicating his drunkenness, and thus reflecting on the terrible diets of the enemy’s army. By giving a contrast between the diets of the two sides, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle advocates Japan as the righteous side while bashing the Oni’s – United States, in this case.

While food positively unite people together in both stories that directly reference to Momotaro, food, or contaminated food in specific, unites people negatively in Minamata: The Victims and Their World: victims suffered from Minamata disease the contaminated food unite to fight against Chisso Corporation. Even though food in Minamata is a negative factor, it still unites the protagonists in the story just like millet dumplings unite protagonists in the other two stories, and the protagonists go on a quest fighting against the “evil Ogres”.

With the national version of Momotaro’s story by Iwaya Sazanami as an original story to refer to, the animated video Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, and the documentary film Minamata: The Victims and Their World both manipulates the story of Momotaro by playing with the ambiguity of time and characters, and inevitability of the presence of food and thus the impact of food as a uniting power. By playing with these characteristics of the story of Momotaro, folk tales – not just the story of Momotaro, but all folk tales in general – can be manipulated to serve different purposes by making audiences gain empathy toward the issues in discussion, and therefore gaining support and agreement from the audiences.

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.

Symbolic Food

The traditional folklore of the famous “Peach-Boy” or Momotaro is wildly used in many children’s books and animation. Some of the popular anime have mini episodes where characters reenact the Momotaro story, though not very authentic reenactment. The story about Momotaro is about a boy who is born form a peach and goes off on a journey to defeat the ogres in Ogres’ Island, with a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant as his comrades, then goes back home to his adoptive parents, and elderly couple, after completing his quest. Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotaro is a re-telling of the traditional folklore, while Mitsuyo Seo’s animation Momotaro’s Sea Eagle is more of modernized reenactment of the battle in Ogres’ Island. Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s film Minamata: The Victims and Their World shows a journey very similar to Momotaro’s journey against the ogres, and the film even makes references and the protestors wear a head band similar to Momotaro’s as well. In these three textual/visual media, food serves as a unifier to form communities of family, comradeship, and rebellion because it represents certain emotions that lead to the formation of families, comrades, and resistance. These emotions lead to the formation of communities because these are emotions that bonds people to be together.

Old Man and Old Woman Making Millet Dumplings for Momotaro's Journey.

Old Man and Old Woman Making Millet Dumplings for Momotaro’s Journey.

In Sazanami’s Momotaro, food represents love, affection, care, of a family because the motive in giving and preparing food lead to the formation of a family and strengths the relationship in a family. For example, when the Old Woman first sees the large peach she says “I expect it would be very sweet eating! I will go pick it up at once and give it to my Old Man as a present—that will be the thing to do.” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.11) In this scene, the peach represents the Old Woman’s love and affection for her husband because her first thoughts are not to keep the peach for herself, but to give to her husband as a gift. This selfless thought of the Old Woman towards the Old Man is called love because when you love someone you will put them before yourself. This love the Old Woman has for the Old Man is precisely what forms a community called family. Also, after Momotaro’s initial meeting with the elderly couple, Sazanami writes “this child came to be brought up as their own, and as he was born from a peach, the name ‘Peach-Boy’ was given to him, and all the care which love could give was given to him.” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.16) The peach is in a sense the vessel that brought the Peach-Boy and the old couple together. The peach brought these three characters together to form a family, and without the peach, which gave birth to Momotaro, there would be no son for the Old Man and Woman to love and care for. Therefore, the peach is the unifier to this family because it was the vessel that creates the meeting between Momotaro and the elderly couple. As Momotaro prepares to leave on his journey, the Old Man and Old Woman prepares a “suitable food for a warrior on a journey” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.21), which are millet dumplings. Though the Old Man was surprised by Peach-Boy’s request to go defeat the ogres in Ogres’ Island, the Old Man gives Peach-Boy his blessings and prepares food for him for the trip. The millet dumplings are the result of the Old Man and Old Woman’s hard work because to make the dumplings that had to beat the grains in a big stone mortar, like in the picture above. The Old Man and Old Woman are very old, with the woman being sixty years old, making the millet dumplings must be very difficult for them, yet they make it not for the purpose of feeding Momotaro because if they were worried about Momotaro’s hunger the elderly couple could have given Momotaro some money to buy food. The Old Man and Old Woman made the millet dumplings out of love and wanting to send off their son with a meal made with the love of a parent. Making the dumpling could be the very last thing that the elderly couple can do for Momotaro and with these dumplings are their love and hope that Momotaro will have a safe journey. These dumplings symbolizes this love and wich for Momotaro’s safe return unifies Momotaro, the Old Man, and the Old Woman as a family and solidifying their bond as a family until they meet again.

Momotaro giving the Spotted Dog, Monkey, and Pheasant each half of a dumpling.

Momotaro giving the Spotted Dog, Monkey, and Pheasant each half of a dumpling.

In Sazanami’s Momotaro and Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, food symbolizes emotions such as kindness and happiness which unifies a group of individuals into become comrades. In Sazanami’s Momotaro, Momotaro gives the Spotted Dog “half-a-one” of the millet dumplings the elderly made for him, which he describes as “the best millet dumplings in Japan.” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.25) The dumplings in this scene symbolize kindness because Momotaro gave half of a millet dumpling to the hungry Spotted Dog which attacked Momotaro in the first place. Although the Spotted Dog wanted to join Momotaro on his quest before receiving the dumpling, this dumpling solidifies the bond between Momotaro and the Spotted Dog because by sharing a meal together they become friends/comrades, instead of just acquaintances. When Momotaro meet the Monkey, Momotaro said “in consideration of your good intentions, I will give you half of one the best millet dumplings in Japan, and you may follow.” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.28)  The dumpling again represents kindness because though the monkey came to follow Momotaro on his journey, Momotaro gives him half of a dumpling as a sign that he accepts the Monkey as a comrade before answering the Monkey’s request. Momotaro did not have to offer his dumplings to the Monkey, but he did it to show that he accepts the Monkey because you truly become friends/comrades with someone you shared a meal with. Again, Momotaro gives half a dumpling to the Pheasant when they first meet. (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.30) Though Momotaro seeked the Pheasant and made the Pheasant join him, Momotaro offered the Pheasant half of a dumpling as a sign that they are now comrades.

Monkey eating onigiri at the celebration after the battle

Monkey eating onigiri at the celebration after the battle

In Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, after the monkey, dog and bird came back there was a celebration for the success of the attack on Ogres’ Island. The rabbit gave the monkey a rice ball to eat during this celebration. The rice ball, or onigiri, symbolizes the happiness that the other animals feel not only for the victory but for the safe return of the monkey, dog, and bird after everyone thought they were dead. This happiness makes the bonds between comrades even stronger because this happiness proves that your comrades care about you. This celebration with food and drinks symbolizes that bond between comrades because if it was for the strong team work and trust these animals have for each other, they would not make a feast to celebrate the accomplishment and safe return of the animals in the fighter planes.

In Sazanami’s Momotaro and Tsuchimoto’s Minamata, food symbolizes suffering which helps unify a group of individuals to become a community of resistance. Suffering is an emotion that can cause people to either crumble or rise to an occasion, in both the text and the film, Momotaro and the protestors rise to the occasion, creating a group that resists the ‘oni’ or ogre. In Sazanami’s Momotaro, Momotaro asks his father, Old Man, for permission to go on a journey to Ogres’ Island to defeat the ogres that “take people and eat them!” (Sazanami, Momotaro, pg.18) Momotaro, who is now fifteen, feels that Japan, as a country, is suffering at the hands of the ‘oni’ or ogres because they see humans as food and seize all the humans’ treasures. In this scene the food is humans because that is what the ogres eat and what makes humans suffer because like all the animals, humans are now on the menu for ogres. This suffering causes Momotaro to want to be the hero that rescues Japan and return the treasure, so he goes off on a journey where he will meet with a Spotted Dog, a Monkey, and a Pheasant, and create a group of resistance against the ogres and fight back.  Minamata

In Tsuchimoto’s film, fish and shellfish contain mercury compounds that cause the Minamata disease cause major health issues where very few patients have a full recovery and most surviving victims suffer the basic symptoms. The fish and shellfish in this case are the food which symbolizes suffering because many fishermen and their families suffered because of these infected fishes and shellfish. The victims did not just wallow up in their suffering, but rose to the occasion and fought for what was right. They gathered a huge amount of supporters and protestors and marched their way to Osaka to prove that the Minamata disease is real. They used this suffering as a motivation to push forward just as Momotaro did. The food in both the text and the film symbolized suffering, but lead to the unification of groups that resistant to continue suffering and fought back with all their strength.

In conclusion, the foods in Sazanami’s Momotaro, Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, and Tsuchimoto’s Minamata symbolize emotions that unify groups of individuals into a family, comrades, or a group of resistance. These emotions are love, affection, care, kindness, happiness, and suffering. Emotions of love, affection, care leads to the formation of a family because that is what a family is built on. Emotions of kindness and happiness form bonds of comradeship because these emotions are what begins and strengths the relationship between comrades. Although suffering is a negative emotion, it can be the motivation that leads to formations of a resistance group that protest and fights for what their members believe are right. Though these three media are depict and re-tell that traditional folklore Momotaro differently, they all show that food is an important unifier of communities.

 

Momotarō and Food: Unifiers of the Japanese

Although Momotarō originated as a simple folk hero in the early Edo period, he has transformed into a national symbol capable of creating strong bonds within the Japanese people. His portrayal has also changed with his evolution. The adult themes of the Edo period transformed to become more child-friendly before again morphing to a more militaristic attitude in war propaganda. However, the use of food in Momotarō stories has remained consistent: the establishing and strengthening of strong community bonds. Between media and through time, Momotarō is a national symbol and the use of food in his portrayals act as a way to cement community bonds.

In the original tale, Momotarō uses food to establish both camaraderie and loyalty among his vassals. The original story narrates how an old couple finds Momotarō in a large peach and raises him. “Peach Boy”, as Momotarō translates to, grows up and journeys to Oni Island to defeat the demons living there. On his voyage, he enlists the help of a dog, monkey, and pheasant using the millet dumplings his parents prepared for him. He returns from his expedition triumphant and laden with treasures. The food in the original version is instrumental in the story. The millet dumplings Momotarō gives to the animals wins him their loyalty. While winning their support, he also establishes dominance and leadership between him and his vassals. This is especially apparent when he “[places] himself between them [the dog and the monkey] and carrying in his hand and iron fan, according to the custom of all high military officials in those days […]” (28, Iwaya). Momotarō clearly establishes himself as a strong leader and the dominant figure of his vassals. He is seen as an assertive person to be looked up to and trusted. The comparison to a high military official furthers this idea s well as hints at Momotarō’s coming military might against the demons. His leadership is also apparent when he “pushed them [the dog and monkey] both apart […]” (26, Iwaya). He is responsible enough that he stops them from fighting and even has the foresight to recruit the monkey as another one of his vassals. The millet dumpling shared between the dog and monkey establishes camaraderie between the two. The food also binds the band together on their journey to Oni Island. Not only do they no longer argue, they fight alongside each other with loyalty and bravery. The millet dumplings convey the theme of camaraderie and loyalty on their journey.

In Mitsuyo Seo’s 1943 film Momotarō’s Sea Eagles, Momotarō and the millet dumplings are used to mobilize the Japanese people for the war effort. In the film, Momotarō leads a “Japanese” army of dogs, monkeys, pheasants, and rabbits against the evil demons of Oni Island, representing the American and British enemies in World War II. The film’s main purpose is to promote World War II and rally the Japanese people; in contrast, the original tale is aimed to teach and entertain children. However, the propaganda film gains power from using Momotarō as a symbol because people already identify with the original folk hero as a good, strong leader. This idea is furthered with the utter defeat of the Western “demons” and the fact that the “Japanese” army is completely unharmed. This idealized view of war only serves the film’s purpose as propaganda. Millet dumplings also rally the Japanese people together. Strong community bonds and intense loyalty are the Japanese’s strengths and the key to winning the war, and the millet dumplings represent this. In the film, the food does not simply establish these bonds, but actually makes the animals physically stronger.

The monkey's muscles become visibly larger after eating the millet dumplings.

The monkey’s muscles become visibly larger after eating the millet dumplings.

The millet dumplings, and symbolically the camaraderie between the Japanese, give strength to Momotarō’s army. The food in the films not only encourages camaraderie but also distinguishes the good Japanese and the demonized Westerners.

The beer makes the demons drunk and cowardly

The beer makes the demons drunk and cowardly

In contrast to the strength the millet dumplings give to the Japanese, food and drink make the Westerners lazy and cowardly. This distinction further unites the Japanese. The biased portrayal dehumanizes the enemies and makes their total defeat more righteous, again typical of a propaganda film. Food in Sea Eagles helps promote enlistment in the war and draws power from the national symbol of Momotarō.

Momotarō is not used only in literature and film, but also as a real world rallying point. In Tsuchimoto’s 1971 documentary, Minamata: The Victims and their World, the citizens of Minamata suffer from mercury poisoning caused by polluted waters. A neighboring factory owned by the Chisso Corporation had been pollution the water for thirty-four years. The film documents the victims’ fight for justice. One scene portrays the march of the victims to the annual Chisso Corporation shareholder meeting in Osaka. In one particular moment, a victim alluded to Momotarō, and the folk hero becomes a rallying point. In fact, the speaker for the victims referenced the corporation as “blue and red ogres”, a clear reference to Momotarō’s Oni Island.

The speaker references Momotarõ as a way to gain sympathy from the strangers in Osaka.

The speaker references Momotarõ as a way to gain sympathy from the strangers in Osaka.

Momotarō’s popularity as a defender of good and a strong leader made him an ideal symbol for the victims. His story is well known; likening the corporation to the infamous ogres serves to unite the strangers in solidarity and bring the issue closer to home. The long journey and gathering of supporters is also a parallel to Momotarō’s journey and gathering of vassals, again around food. However, the poisoned food is a weapon of the enemy rather than something to encourage camaraderie.  The reference to the familiar character of Momotarō as a defender of good also elicits sympathy for the victims, and the strangers as well as the audience join and support their cause. The ability of the victims to garner that much attention using Momotarō is a testament to the folk hero’s power. From page to screen to the real world, Momotarō retains his popularity and power.

Despite moving between media, or even because of it, Momotarō is a national symbol with a lot of influence, and he serves as a rallying point for multiple causes. Food also connects the various genres and becomes a unifier for the people involved, whether through camaraderie, or sadly, suffering. While the goal of each media was different, the three portrayals of Momotarō all shared the folk hero and food as the banners under which people came together. People tend to rally around strong leaders, and Momotarō is the ideal unifier for the Japanese people, even across time periods and media.

Momotaro and Reality

            The “Peach Boy” called Momotaro is often used to represent the ideal Japanese boy. His tale is so widespread and popular that one of the first long form animated films in Japan, Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, was a version of his tale set in the modern (World War II) era that connected his noble fight against the Ogre’s Island to the Battle of Pearl Harbor. In both this film and Iwaya Sazanami’s telling of the Momotaro story, food unites Japan and allies the nation with the forces of nature. While the Momotaro story can be a symbol of Japanese values and culture, these adaptations do not properly convey the reality as depicted by the documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Both the film Momotaro’s Sea Eagle and Iwaya Sazanami’s retelling of the Momotaro story feature food as a unifying force that settles disputes and forges friendships. In Iwaya’s retelling, each animal that joins Momotaro’s band of heroes is initially belligerent to the others. They think that they are above the other animals and represent a kind of person who beats down on others instead of being friends. Momotaro offers them a millet dumpling, which eases the conflict between the animals and eventually makes the whole gang a bunch of great friends. In the animated film, the animals are already friends and thus the story is not about making peace with others. Instead, the values espoused in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle are of being empowered by being united under a common flag and leader. Millet dumplings instead represent a connection to those you are indebted to. For instance, the millet dumpling bag is used by the monkey to give a toy airplane to the baby bird crying on the airplane’s wing. The bird and his mother are now indebted to Momotaro and they, too, are part of the fighting force.

In the documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, it seems that food does not unite as much as separate in real-life Japan. The region around Minamata’s local fish is contaminated by the Chisso Corporation’s toxic waste that increases mercury levels. The community is heavily affected by the Minamata disease caused by the consumption of these fish. Those who eat the infected foods become intensely sick and barely recognizable while being relegated to shortened lives of suffering. Even those who avoid the infected foods are separated from those who do not have access to either infected foods or infected people. They are in the uncomfortable position of fighting for the afflicted against those for whom the disease means nothing.

Each Momotaro story shows a united Japan led by Momotaro. In the Iwaya story, the animals band together under Momotaro to fight the Ogres who terrorize Japan. In the animated film, Momotaro leads an unquestioning group of animal soldiers against what appears to be the United States in World War II. And even outside the story the character of Momotaro himself unites the real life citizens of Japan as a shared heritage and culture.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagle teaches children that your leader empowers you, shown by Momotaro’s characteristic millet dumplings that help the crying bird and strengthen the protagonist animals in their fight against the Americans. But real life Japan is not united unquestioningly. Minamata shows a Japanese company contaminating the environment in a way that causes the titular Minamata disease and kills many Japanese citizens. But instead of being like the Momotaro story and feeling compassion for countrymen in need, the company denies responsibility. In Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, a monkey shoots the tail off another monkey in order to save the latter from dying in an explosion. The Chisso Corporation would instead ask the trapped monkey not to blame them for leaving them because it’s not their fault the monkey remained trap before it exploded in a mist of blood and guts. They only offer reparations to the sick with the clause that “even if it becomes clear in the future that the Minamata disease is caused by industrial wastes from [the company], [the patients] will not demand any further reparations.” When the government does not aid those afflicted with the disease, the culture of Minamata changes from the rest of the country that generally trusts the government.

Because Iwaya’s story is folklore and not grounded in reality, it’s generally OK for it to simplify character’s motives. For example, Momotaro is good, ogres are bad. However, the actions in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle seem so overly simplified and wrong because the filmmakers attempted to tie the folk tale of Momotaro slaying the ogres to the real-life event of Pearl Harbor. In making the otherwise non-human ogres American caricatures in the film, the morals are twisted to convincing children the opposite of what the Momotaro tale as told by Iwaya advocates. The story features fighting animals coming to peace with each other because they have a common friend in Momotaro and a common enemy in the ogres. But the film features a human, Momotaro, leading an army of animals against another human, the caricature of Bluto from Popeye. The opposing sides of the war have no motives, so as a propaganda tool for children, Japanese youth are taught by the film that no matter what their leadership is right and the enemy is wrong.

momo1

The Minamata documentary shows that blind support in leadership doesn’t work out because the government isn’t omnipotent or purely benevolent. When the motives and actions of fellow countrymen are confused and sometimes downright evil, it’s hard to believe in the government that also tells you to shut up and refuses to help you. The government is not seen as accountable for aiding those afflicted by Minamata disease.

Each tale of Momotaro paints the picture of a Japan connected firmly to nature. The nation’s folkloric hero is sent by a god, the ruler of nature, to help those in need. In Iwaya’s retelling, the forces that fight against the ogres in the name of Japan are animals. In Momotoro’s Sea Eagle, the army of World War II Japan is represented by countless little bunnies, puppies, birds, and monkeys. Nature fights for Japan, and Japan is the force of nature.

In Minamata, a Japan is shown that fights against nature. Witness accounts by the local fisherman describe the Minamata-afflicted fish as flopping around as if they were drunk. The human victims of Minamata disease become shells of people. Their skin falls off and they lose control of their body. Footage in the documentary shows house cats who can barely move and hardly resemble normal cats.  This disease that has no basis in nature affects the fish who merely inhabit Minamata Bay. And this all comes from a culture that represents itself by cute, smiling animals waging its wars.

momo2

In a way, Japan really is as connected to nature as the Momotaro folk tale and animated film purport with their armies of animals. There really are cultures like those who live near Minamata Bay where their lives revolve around catching and eating fish. If in the fiction of Momotaro, the animals represent the brave people of Japan, then the fish of Minamata Bay represents those who are the subject of Minamata. As the fish, surrounded by the toxic wastes that they swallow and consume, become sicker and sicker with the Minamata disease, the people, surrounded by the same toxic fish that their lives are so strongly concerned with, follow suit. Here lies the difference between the ideals of a folk tale and reality: that animals and people are united in their food, suffering, and environment, not their leadership and personalities.

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.

Momotarō: The Boy Who Lived (as a national hero)

Momotarō is one of Japan’s most influential fictional characters. Momotarō, or “peach-boy” in Japanese, has been the figurehead of many children’s cartoons, folk stories and the undisputed face of war propaganda in Japan. Existing once as a playful tale told to children, Momotarō became a doctrine attached to World War II propaganda. Nevertheless, Japanese propaganda remained very humble and true to the original story, using various elements from the story to recreate a sense of national pride. One such element is food. In Iwaya Sazanami’s Momotarō, an accurate retelling of the original folktale, there is a clear indication of how food acts as a unifier throughout the story. Unity was not only needed during the war, but was also imperative to locals who suffered from the Minamata disease, as seen in the 1971 Tsuchimoto Noriaki documentary. This essay focuses on the unity achieved through food across the different Japanese mediums, exploring how different narratives in both literary and visual texts dictate the symbolic or material nature of food.

The most apparent reference to food seen in Momotarō is in the boy’s very name. Momotarō, otherwise known as the peach-boy, could easily be interpreted as a symbol of sustenance and longevity. The whole notion of a ripe peach making its way down the river into the hands of a poor old lady strengthens the relation of peaches to longevity. In a way, it hints to youth and the continuity of life. Furthermore, Momotarō arrives from a distant land (personally, this seems very similar to the story of Moses, even though the stories are not to be associated) and his origins are purposely vague for various reasons. One reason is that it helps the public associate with Momotarō himself. Rather than belong to a certain area or people, Momotarō is given to the public through the ambiguity of his origin. In essence, since Momotarō belongs to no one, he belongs to everyone. This idea is resonated in the victims of Minamata who seek justice for the atrocities they have been subject to.

Like Momotarō, the people of Minamata, as documented by the Tsuchimoto film, unite against the exploitative business that has plagued their land. The Tsuchimoto documentary does justice to the people of Minamata, revealing how devastated they were by the spread of the disease. It was only after being ravaged for numerous years that the locals decided that enough was enough. They formed a large group of people that went to Osaka in order to fight the greedy capitalists, and used Momotarō as a unifying anchor. Their efforts, thoughts and principles were all brought together in order to achieve a greater good, with the Momotaro’s public picture holding it all together.  Hence, Momotarō unified these people under a sense of resistance. People were fighting for their rights to life, health and well-being, just as Momotarō fought the “Oni” who plagued the land.

Although Momotarō existing as the peach-boy is a symbol in itself, there are other examples of the importance of food. The most distinct and memorable of these is the millet dumplings that are seen in Momotarō tales across a plethora of Japanese mediums. Whether it is literary, as depicted in Sazanami’s text, or seen through Seo Mitsuyo’s anime: Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (1943), there is an unarguable importance to the millet dumplings. Beginning with the text, Momotarō uses his precious millet dumplings to sanction the relationship amongst the animals he meets along his journey. As described in the story, he gives each animal half a dumpling. This is a clear example of how food is a symbol of camaraderie, and unifies Momotarō and his animal friends under one common goal. In some ways, Mitsuyo’s anime echoes this idea. In one memorable scene, an anthropomorphic monkey refuses to board the plane until he secures his millet dumplings. These dumplings are then consumed moments before the battle ensues, revealing a sense nationalistic pride associated with this type of food.

Essentially, what the millet dumplings reveal is that food symbolizes a sense of unity for the Japanese people. In Momotarō, it brought Momotarō, a dog, a monkey and a swallow together. For children, talking monkeys and birds are sort of magical, and keep children occupied from the underlying message. A message that was at the center of Japanese propaganda and was the central power to the people of Minamata, it was the idea of unity. It was the understanding that different species could align themselves under a common goal, as the Japanese people would need to do if they were to succeed. It did not matter where you were from or who you were. There was a greater good, a vision larger than any single individual, and only in the unity of the Japanese people could it be achieved.

Unity was a central theme across the different texts and narrative platforms seen in both Momotarō and Tsuchimoto Minamata documentary, yet one other theme was equally important. And this was the idea of a struggle between good and bad. For Momotarō, it was the peach-boy’s valiant quest alongside his animal friends to defeat the evil “oni”. In Minamata, it was the plagued victims against the gluttonous businessmen. This idea of good vs. bad was not only central to the propaganda itself, but in allowing the people of Japan to associate with Momotarō. It allowed the story to be “open-source”, or subject to the interpretation of the audience. This helps make association easy, because all that is needed is a figment of good vs. bad, which could be interpreted into each and every one of the above situations.

Regardless of the theme, the method of interpretation is equally important. Let’s take Minamata for example, a documentary which used a combination of expository and participatory filmmaking techniques. This approach was important in juxtaposing the sickly people with the newly built factories and profits. It helps the audience identify with the people, as they are subject to interviews by the director. In addition, almost nobody will argue that the “voice-overs” commonly used in expository filmmaking are not important factors in creating sympathy to either side. This could be easily contrasted to Mitsuyo’s anime, where a very different medium in the form of anime is used. Yet as was the case with Minamata, there is a distinct effort by Mitsuyo to help the audience relate to the characters. There was a clear indication that the Japanese were the good guys, most of which was indicated through hyperbole, as one side was almost angelical in their good, and the other demonical in their evil. What this meant for Momotarō was that he transcended his literal characterization, meaning that Momotarō could be anybody, can come from anywhere, but he remained a symbol of good and hope.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that food works as a unifier in various mediums and across a multitude of Japanese stories. Whether it is through the classic tale of Momotarō, the war propaganda, or the symbolism underpinning Minamata, there is distinct omnipresence of unity. Moreover, unity was always in the face of an oppressive injustice, hence asserting the importance of good in the face of bad. In a way, this suggests that unity can only be achieved in the face of a greater evil, in an attempt to achieve the greater good. Ultimately, hardly anyone could argue the importance of Momotarō to the Japanese people, in fact, I have grown quite fond of Peach-boy myself.