Tag Archives: Minamata: The Victims and Their World

Impact of Food in the Different Mediums of Momotaro

Momotaro is an iconic folk character in Japanese culture. Momotaro, literally meaning peach-boy, is a child hero who gathers a troupe of animals to defeat the Oni (ogres) and save Japan. Since the original folktale in the Edo period, the Momotaro stories have undergone several alterations in style and tone, depending on Japan’s social and political milieu at the time. This mishmash of elements makes this folk tale an open-source story. The definitive version of Momotaro was published in textbooks by Sazanami in the late 19th century, with the purpose of establishing a national identity during the Meiji period. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, an allegorical anime movie called “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” was produced, pitting Momotaro and his animal troops against the demonized ogres who represented America and the Allied Powers of WWII. Momotaro also loosely influences the documentary “Minamata: The Victims and Their World” by Tsuchimoto. This essay will examine the role that food plays in restoring youth, forming communities, and characterizing Momotaro and the drunken soldiers across the different versions of the Momotaro stories.

First, food is symbolic of youth and longevity in the Momotaro story of the Edo period. In the original plotline, an infertile old woman with no children discovers a peach floating in the river and decides to eat it. Suddenly, she discovers that her beauty and youth have been rejuvenated afterwards, and she proceeds to share the fruit with her husband. They engage in sexual intercourse afterwards, and Momotaro is born as a consequence. Therefore, the peach was symbolic of fertility and youth in this version of the Japanese folk tale. Furthermore, since Momotaro later goes on to defeat the ogres, it is possible that the peach gives one the ability to fight evil creatures.

In the other two versions of the Momotaro story, the plot point in which the old couple makes love is omitted from the story, lessening the power of the peach symbolism. One must consider the historical context in which Sazanami’s story and “Momotaro’s Sea Eagle” took place.  Sazanami’s story was published during the Meiji Restoration, when the Japanese were attempting to embody Western ideals in order to become a modernized nation. This diffusion of Western ideas caused Japanese society to view topics related to sexuality to be taboo. Consequentially, they changed the story to have Momotaro magically appear out of the peach as the old couple was cutting into it. This fantastical element would also appeal to the children who would be reading the textbook. The peach symbolism is not relevant to “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” since the film takes place presumably after his birth, when he’s already a fully developed leader of his animal troops.

In addition, food plays an impactful role in the formation of communities, particularly between Momotaro and his animals. In both the Edo period and Sazanami’s versions of the stories, Momotaro embarks on his journey to defeat the ogres and encounters 3 different animals: a dog, a monkey and a pheasant. The spotted dog threatens to kill him if Momotaro does not give him all of his food. Once Peach-boy convinces the dog to join his voyage, the dog asks for one of the “best millet dumplings in Japan.” However, Momotaro only gives the spotted dog half of a dumpling. By denying them a whole dumpling, Momotaro asserts power over his recruits and puts him on a higher level than the animals. The food in this instance is being used as a material good to pay for the animals’ services to fight the ogres. Momotaro goes through the same initiation with the monkey and the pheasant, using the half dumpling to bind them as his retainers. Their relationship is comparable to an employer paying wages to his employees. As a human, Momotaro is on a higher level in the social hierarchy than the animals. This similarity emphasizes Momotaro’s effective leadership ability. The sharing of the dumpling works to unify Momotaro and his animals on their voyage to Ogre’s Island. The dumplings symbolize the camaraderie they have established with one another in their unified quest to defeat the Oni.

The millet dumplings also play a significant role in “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles.” In the animated film, the tone of the film is more serious than in the textual versions, since Momotaro is presented as a war general figure who leads a force of animal troops to fight the demons at Onigashima. The purpose of the film was to serve as a propaganda piece to improve morale and unify Japan in fighting the Allies in World War II. Consequentially, there is less of a focus on food in the movie adaptation, but the dumplings do appear. For example, one of the monkeys in Momotaro’s forces refuses to take action unless he receives his millet dumplings. Much like the textual stories, these dumplings act as material compensation for the animals to work for Momotaro, and a source of strength and sustenance. Right before the animal troops strike, they all consume the dumplings, an act which unifies them as a national body to defeat the Americans.

Furthermore, food has the power to unify communities in the Tsuchimoto documentary “Minamata: The Victims and Their World.” However, in contrast to the bonds of camaraderie formed in the other versions of the Momotaro stories, the people of Minamata are unified in their suffering. The denizens of Minamata ingested fish that had been heavily corrupted by mercury, causing them to suffer from Minamata Disease, which is a sickness characterized by damage to the nervous system. The fish contained high levels of mercury as a result of the production of fertilizer by Chisso Factory. Tsuchimoto depicts the victims’ unified struggle to survive the disease and receive just compensation from Chisso for their suffering.

The climax of the documentary arguably occurs at the scene in which the victims who seek more compensation visit Osaka, the location of the Chisso stockholders’ meeting. The victims invoke Momotaro as a symbol to unify them together. Their struggle with big business corporations parallels Momotaro, the underdog hero, against the ogres. There is an explicit allusion to Momotaro’s story when one of the speakers states, “We have arrived in the land where red and blue ogres dwell.”  This moment contains a lot of power due to its intertextuality; moreover, by invoking the Momotaro story, Tsuchimoto is dramatizing the victims as good, and Chisso Factory as the evil Oni. Utilizing a national folkloric figure such as Momotaro strengthens their cause by allowing the audience to relate and understand their struggle.

Food plays a large role in the characterization of Momotaro, his parents, and the drunken soldiers.” In the folkloric and Sazanami versions, right before Momotaro departs for his quest, his parents prepare millet dumplings for him. The act of providing food and sustenance for Momotaro characterizes the old couple as loving and caring people who support Momotaro wholeheartedly. Momotaro’s gratitude towards them supports the notion that food can strengthen familial bonds. On the other hand, Momotaro’s relationship with his animal caretakers is fairly different. Momotaro acts very stingy with the amount of dumpling he gives each animal. The act of only giving half of a dumpling to each animal characterizes Momotaro as having the most power. He views himself as superior to them, and is able to violently order them around to do his bidding. In this case, food acts as a way to manipulate the animals to form a community of voyage with him to the Ogre’s Island.

Food is also used to characterize the characters in “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles”. There is a stark contrast between the millet dumpling rations of Momotaro’s naval fleet and the alcoholic beverages on the enemy ships. Since “Momotaro’s Sea Eagles” is an allegorical propaganda film about Pearl Harbor, Momotaro’s fleet represents the Japanese forces while the enemy represents the forces of the United States. Having the animal troops consume the millet dumplings indicates a nationalistic pride in Japanese cuisine. The dumplings have more sustenance to them when compared to the alcohol in the American ship. One of the sailors of the American ship resembles Bluto from Popeye, subliminally characterizing American troops as overweight drunkards who do not have the honor and ability that Japanese troops have. The animated film, targeted towards Japanese youth, masterfully uses the Momotaro myth to subtly cloak the political message of the movie, which is to unite the Japanese nation and encourage them to defeat the Allies in World War II. This film was released after the Battle of Midway, which was a crushing defeat for Japan. Perhaps one of the purposes of this film was to boost the morale of Japanese citizen and give them hope that the war could be won. This method of utilizing the Momotaro myth in political propaganda is also seen in “Minamata: The Victims and Their World.”

Therefore, the different elements of food in the Momotaro variants, such as the peach, millet dumplings, mercury infected fish and the alcoholic beverages work to symbolize youth and life, form communities, and characterize certain characters in the stories. It is clear that since this folk tale was told in the Edo period, it has immensely grown in popularity and is extremely iconic in Japanese culture. Inevitably, the story of Peach-boy will continually be used to unify groups of people who need to unify under a common goal, despite their differences.



Peach-Boy: Food as an Instrument of Community Creation

Monkey eating dumpling in Sea Eagle

In the stories and fables centered on the hero Momotarō or Peach-Boy, food works as a symbol of solidarity as well as authority. Momotarō is a typical heroic character: noble, righteous, and a protector of the interests of the less powerful. In the fables about his exploits, he and his retainers protect Japan from various evil forces, usually in the form of ogres or demons. These two sides are often distinguished via the symbol of food, whether it is the millet dumplings that Momotarō gives his retainers in the original tales or the alcohol that is heavily consumed by the bumbling captain of the demons’ ship in a wartime cartoon. In addition, these relationships are portrayed differently in the various Momotarō stories based on the time period in which they were written. These changes are reflected in the treatment of food within the films and texts. Food and the act of consuming it is a powerful indicator of community and relationships, a fact, which is reflected quite frequently in the myths of Momotarō.

In almost every story of Peach-Boy, there is an appearance of millet dumplings. In the original fable, Momotarō gives these dumplings to the dog, monkey, and pheasant that encounters on his way to Ogres’ Island. After receiving and eating these dumplings, the respective animals become retainers or servants of Momotarō. Thus food is acting as a direct agent of producing community. These dumplings, which were made by Momotarō’s loving parents, represent the mutual acceptance between the hero and the animals to become connected in some way. Food that was originally shared between family members, Peach-Boy and his parents, is now being given to these new characters, suggesting that they are perhaps joining his family or community in some way. Sharing and eating food together is something that everyone in a community, whether it is one of friends, family, coworkers, or etc., does together. Therefore when Momotarō performs this ritual with his new retainers it represents that they have overcome their differences (as each animal initially attacks the Peach-Boy) and decided to join together in some kind of relationship, in this case one of a lord and his retainers. In this case, food also works to build a community because it shows the Momotarō is responsible for the dog, monkey, and pheasant. He provides for them in the form of the dumplings, which are supposedly the best in all of Japan in return for their future service to him. Even in future versions, such as Momotarō’s Sea Eagle, a World War II propaganda film, food is used as a sort of reward for the retainers. For example, in one scene, after the forces of dogs, monkeys, and pheasants have successfully attacked the enemy, one of the monkeys is rewarded with millet dumplings and drink. He has performed his duty to the community, which in the film includes all of Japan in addition to his captain Momotarō, so he therefore deserves the delicious food. Food holds the community together because it incentivizes acting on behalf of the rest of the community. Food is not only a symbol of kinship but is also an agent of community-creation. Another example of food acting as a force to bring characters together in the Momotarō canon is the giant peach from which he is born. Old Woman and Old Man find a giant peach from which Peach-Boy, the son that they always wanted but never had, emerges. Once again, food is directly acting as a means of bringing people together into a community; the peach delivers Momotarō to the old couple allowing a family to form. In addition, being born from the peach also establishes Momotarō as a special character. While his parents are named Old Man and Old Woman and the rest of the characters are also similarly typified, Peach-Boy has a unique name based on his strange birth. Food not only creates communities, it also helps determine the roles of each member. The millet dumplings and peach from the original Momotarō stories are strong examples of food as the basis of a community. Without either one, Momotarō could not have existed because he would have no family to raise him and no retainers or servants to help him on his quest to get rid of the Ogres.

In addition to being a symbol and vehicle of the creation of communities, food also acts as a means of differentiating between different groups, notably Momotarō on the side of righteousness and the ogres or demons on the side of evil. In the original fable, the side of good enjoys the millet dumplings. The old couple makes them for their son, Peach-Boy, who gives them to his retainers as a sign of acceptance and as a reward for joining his quest. The Ogres on Ogres’ Island, with whom he battles, do not get any of the dumplings. Instead the Ogres are said to kidnap and eat people. The differences in cuisine determine that the two forces are not part of the same community, but are in fact distinct and opposing communities. Although this seems counterintuitive when taken along the idea of food as a force for producing community, it is still useful. Community is a group of people who have something in common, whether it is family relationship, aligned interests, or simply friendship.  This suggests that if one community with certain interests exists, than another community with different interests likely exists as well. So though food does not bring the Ogres and Momotarō and his band together, it is still creating community, two communities, in fact. Thus food discerns between differing groups as well as bringing people together to form these groups. In Sea Eagle, we can see another example of food as a distinguishing force. While the Japanese forces of animals use food as an incentive and a source of fuel to perform well, the demon forces on Demon’s Island (thinly veiled caricatures of American forces in Pearl Harbor) are useless, bumbling drunks who cannot perform their duties as successfully as their enemies can. In one scene, one of the Japanese monkey soldiers eats some kind of dish in the cockpit of the plane and immediately gains strength similar to the scenes in the Popeye cartoons where he eats spinach. As mentioned previously, another monkey is rewarded with millet dumplings and a bubbly drink after he returns home safe and victorious from the attack.  Therefore, in this community, aka the Japanese forces serving under Momotarō, food is a productive and helpful thing that holds them together. Meanwhile, on the demons’ ships, their clumsy, blundering captain, who looks like Bluto, the evil character in the Popeye cartoons, is depicted as a useless alcoholic with a copious amount of bottles falling out from his clothes. Hence, the community of Japanese animal soldiers has a very different relationship with food and drink than the community of American demons. The demons have a very dysfunctional relationship to food while Momotarō’s forces have a very healthy one. Food and the way the members of a group interact with it, can show how each group is different than the next because the way that it helps various communities form is always unique.

            Minamata: The Victims and Their World, a documentary that tells the story of a village poisoned by the dumping of mercury by the nearby Chisso Corporation into the water, also shows the important connection between food and the essence of a community. The villagers suffer from a horrible disease as a result of their food supply of fish, which have all been infected with the illegally dumped methyl mercury in the ocean. Therefore, like the demons, the villagers of Minamata do not have a positive relationship to food and rather than helping to build the community, it is literally killing it. The villagers decide to confront the Chisso Corporation who burdened them with the terrible disease. These villagers compare their plight to the quest of Momotarō and even compare the home of the corporation to Ogres’ Island from the Momotarō stories. This places the community of affected villagers in the shoes of the heroic or righteous side (Momotarō) versus the side of evil (Ogres). The villagers, who originally had a rewarding relationship with food, as they were mostly fishermen who provided themselves with their own food have been reduced to the sad state of being tormented by the same very food. The community of Minamata villagers has been unified to fight against a common enemy as a result of their connection with food. The food that made their peers and loved ones sick has provoked a communal response against those who caused the misfortune. Therefore, just like Momotarō and his band of animal soldiers, these villagers seek out justice.

Food is something that is important in all cultures and in all groups of people, In general. It brings us together as well as differentiates us from those who do not share our interests. Food, as seen in the various depictions of the Momotarō myth, is the basic building block of communities. When we sit down at the dinner table with our families and share a meal, we are not so different from the Peach-Boy giving pieces of his millet dumplings to a certain dog, monkey, and pheasant. We are relying on food as a vehicle of building connections and of creating community.

Momotaro’s Army: Food

In both Iwaya Sazanami’s retelling of the story and Mitsuyo Seo’s anime version Momotaro’s Sea Eagle, food plays essentially roles in the heroic story. Although it is not explicit, the precedence of food presented in the film is primarily used for symbolism. The symbolism describes the ways food functions as an idea of unity on its own and the effects it can have on people, animals, and nations entirely. For one, the tale of Momotaro implicitly proposes that food unifies not only people but all species that rely on it for the sake of survival and common interest. In other words, food can be molded away from or portrayed as a Darwinian principle throughout the tale. Among other things, the idea of food is also portrayed as communication and language; it can motivate behaviors and establish loyalty.  The tale additionally symbolizes the power of food as a currency to pave the way for victory in a war. Nationalism, pride, solidarity, unity, and cause are all weaved together under the influence of food throughout the story and film as the animals are driven as soldiers to win. Under this approach of food, a corollary exists in which food deviates from being a physical and capitalistic commodity to being a spiritual, emotional, and affectionate medium as well. Finally, the connection of food and Momotaro are strong enough to set an example that practices the morals of Momotaro as a means to unity via food during the Minamata disease events portrayed in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s film Minamata: The Victims and Their World.

Poster advertising the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor with Momotaro's army

Poster advertising the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor with Momotaro’s army

The folktale of Momotaro has solidified a nationalistic symbol for Japan as it was orally passed down, changed, and embraced throughout the years and conditions Japan faced. Nevertheless, food is evidently vital to the overall message the folktale is attempting to get across; unity, solidarity, and strength. Firstly, this idea is illustrated both physically and metaphorically in the beginning of the tale when Momotaro is introduced and found by the old woman.  As the woman says: “The distant waters are bitter! The near waters are sweet! Shun the bitter! Come to the sweet!”  (pg 13) indicates themes of hope, fulfillment, charity, divine intervention, and fruitfulness that are represented by the peach Momotaro is sent in by God. In other words, the peach and Momotaro himself are a poetic symbol that can be interpreted as Japan chosen by divine right to purvey its delicious and superior food charitably; to use that food as a means to fuel the efforts and use it to symbolize national strength and common goals.

The laws of natural selection are evident in their manifestation that animals behave selfishly and serve no one of other species’ competitors in an effort to survive solely for food and its power to survive. However, Momotaro’s food symbolizes more than just food, but a token of power, servitude, and recruitment. Initially, the role food plays in Momotaro is pretty clear-cut: to persuade the animals to join Momotaro. However, the point can be interpreted that food additionally serves to orient the loyalty and establishment of servitude to the animals. Hence, this instilment of common interest in the millet dumplings amongst the animals counteracts the natural orientation of all animals alike in regards to Darwinian natural selection.  In other words, food is greatly emphasized as such a potent motivator of drive to the animals that they are willing to sacrifice their natural and selfish ways of competition evolution programmed them to  and instead serve Momotaro in a fight for a unified common interest of camaraderie and unitary strength. Of course they are still acting in self-interest to feed, but not to the extent animals are supposed to in the natural kingdom practice of “every man for himself.” Hence, food is acting as an impetus of motivation, unity, loyalty, and power beyond levels of natural occurrences.

Militancy and its structural order require a currency of value for the soldiers to obey and function as a group efficiently: that is food. It is commonly said that food wins wars, and in this case, the same can be said about the Momotaro folktale. During the Seyo’s film, the dumplings are portrayed as delicious and crucial for the soldiers to maintain happiness. Along with their pleasure in eating the superior Japanese food, it perfects its role by being nutritionally dense and valuable in energy.  The scene in Seyo’s Sea Eagle in which the monkey bomber eats the dumplings and flexes his instantly grown muscles illustrates such superiority whereas the Americans are portrayed as weak, unfit, disproportional, and dysfunctional. In fact, the dumplings act as a symbol in the same vein as Japan itself does as purveyors of courage and great strength. Food is the ammunition for victory. If not for the finest Japanese dumplings, Momotaro would have never received the aid he was given. In Sazanami’s version, Momotaro’s militancy is recognized by his ability to recruit with food and lead with it as he “[placed] himself between them and carrying his hand an iron fan, according to the custom of all high military officials in those days.” (pg 29).His resourcefulness to attain an army and command it is illustrated in this passage. Nutritionally however, the food was the source of felicity, joy, drive, and ability to fight for a cause with unity.

The monkey indulges in pleasure by eating delicious food as a means to celebrate

The monkey indulges in pleasure by eating delicious food as a means to celebrate

As time passed and struggles piled up in Japan during turbulent times of the 20th century, the influence of Momotaro and his messages and ideals were evident and crucial for real life callings. In Tsuchimoto’s film, Minamata disease and its struggle during the 50s called for a union and fight for rights, food, and unity. The same ideals and principles in both iterations of Momotaro were presented; fight for and by food and ultimately triumph over the common enemy together. In the Momotaro stories, the enemies were presented but quite frequently shifted and changed. From ogre to Mickey Mouse, to cartoon depictions of Americans, the enemy has always been in opposition for its malicious ways to harm and disturb the land, environment, and people. Commonly, however, they are all seen as a threat to Momotaro and his justice call. In the case of Minamata disease, the government and establishment of Chisso are perceived oppressive, malicious, and threatening to the community of fisherman and their families for neglecting the cause and being held responsible for it altogether. In a sense, a call for Momotaro and his crew of righteousness seemed urgent; only in this case, it was a real life parallel. Similarly as the tale of Momotaro was used to promote nationalism in its Seyo’s anime version, the idea was considered the same but a different direction was coursed with the Minamata disease. Sazanami’s version of the tale in which ogres are the common enemy is adopted by the Minimata protestors for the same reasons. Aside from the similarity of the Momotaro story, the influence of Momotaro is hinted in the film when the protesters wear the Momotaro headband to symbolize such influence. What was once used as an effort to support the Japanese aggression of the war during WWII, was now being inversely similarly employed for correct and moral causes by the Minimata protestors under Sazanami’s influence to combat demons in Momotaro’s tale. The malleability of Momotaro’s tale illustrates the powerful implications that can be taken in both directions to orient a cause. On one hand, Seyo’s propaganda film presents Momotaro’s common righteous and valiant efforts to justify his malicious acts of violence and resistance during the war in order to promote nationalism. Nevertheless, the Minimata protests are in the same vein for the same cause of unity, struggle, and solidarity in order to receive fair treatment and just causes.

Momotaro and his crew on their way to Ogre Island

Momotaro and his crew on their way to Ogre Island

Lastly food is symbolized as a token of appreciation, affection, consideration, uniform comfort, and ultimately a journey for all to share in the iterations of the Momotaro tale. Apart from all of the capitalistic values of food in Momotaro’s tales, food ultimately acts as a spiritual entity that embodies a group of people into one concoction of care and appreciation. Emotionally, for Momotaro’ parents in Sazanami’s version, it meant their care and regard for Momotaro as the Old Man battled to prepare it when he “brought out millet which had been stored away some time before, and placed a big stone mortar on the earthen floor of the kitchen, and with the Old Woman’s help, the sound of ‘pet-ta-ra-ko!’ ‘pet-ta-ra-ko!” (pg 21).  Clearly Momotaro saw this and demonstrated his appreciation by only giving half of the dumpling to each animal for they were “the best millet dumplings in Japan.” (pg 25) As a means of health, the body physically responds to food from its nutritional intake. The saying “you are what you eat,” is evident and substantiated by the affected farmers of Minimata and their families. Concern for survival and vocational passion drove the fisherman to do Momotaro’s job. Just as Momotaro commenced his journey and shared his compassion and common goal, the people of Minimata traveled to Osaka to take action and outcry. The comfort to have the situation restored motivated both the people of Minimata and Momotaro to uniform conformity and consideration in the name of food. Additionally, the animals in Sea Eagle film celebrated their victory with affection to food as they not only ate away their pleasures but embraced their uniform body of affection towards one another in the group. Consolidated by unity and solidarity, food then became acceptance and acknowledgment of a struggle to find a common goal.

The importance of food is clear in all aspects of life ranging from natural selection to human emotion and to governmental and nationalistic bodies. Momotaro’s immortal message of food has the same aim: to act as a means to come together and fight for something in the name of solidarity and unity. Real life events such as Minimata are examples of such an important idea in food. In a sense, food can act as a separator in which differences can result in conflict and victory as seen the Seo’s portrayal of Americans in his film along with demonization of the oppressors as seen in Minimata during the 50s. Ultimately, food can be both a commodity to survive and fuel any effort possible, but it can also be an emotional entity that unites species and people alike to happiness, affection, and comfort. This the role food has and the power it plays in various aspects of life. Momotaro implicitly illustrates such roles in the story told different versions through time.

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.

Community Building Throughout Three Momotaro Variants

The traditional story of Momotaro has been referenced and repurposed extensively throughout several literary and visual mediums. Both the films Momotaro’s Sea Eagles and Minamata: The Victims and Their World rely at least somewhat on folkloric Japanese texts, such as Iwaya Sazanami’s rendition of Momotaro. All three of these textual and visual interpretations explore notions of community construction, yet do so in vastly different ways; all of these mediums depict community in different ways and for different purposes. While there are definite commonalities between all three forms, the distinct treatments of food, location, and leadership all serve to build fundamentally different conceptions of community.

First and foremost, it is important to note that both the Minamata film and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles are somewhat dependent on preexisting knowledge of textual Momotaro stories. For instance, previous awareness of conventional Peach Boy themes reveals the significance behind “blue and red ogres” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World) as well as the strong animal presence in Momotaro’s Sea Eagle. Preceding supplemental familiarity with Momotaro, while not completely essential, is acutely important, as it allows the audience further insight into each narrative. While both films reference and largely adhere to the traditional version of Momotaro, clear separations can be drawn between them due to their unique motivations and agendas. The distinct goals and motives behind both films subsequently lead to different portrayals of communal interaction.

Food plays a crucial role in community building throughout traditional retellings of Momotaro. It serves as a representation of familial affection yet also as a physical object to be exchanged with close relations. The old couple in Sazanami’s text exemplify the importance of affectionate exchange; before Momotaro departs, the “Old Man…set about preparing suitable food for” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 21) him. Here, food serves to heighten the communal intimacy between Momotaro and his caregivers. Interestingly, food strengthens subservient relationships between other characters as well. After meeting one of his animal companions, Momotaro offers “half of one of the best millet dumplings in Japan” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 28) in exchange for assistance. It is clear that Momotaro possesses the most power in this relationship; he specifies the reward amount after initially garnering support through acts of violence and intimidation. In Sazanami’s text, food has multiple facets, as it promotes both familial and manipulative communal bonds.

A monkey soldier about to consume his millet rations.

In Momotaro’s Sea Eagles, Mitsuyo Seo highlights certain aspects of food to construct communities of camaraderie and nationalism. Like Sazanami’s text, food is used a form of payment, yet in this case millet dumplings are treated as army rations. In one scene, two friendly animal soldiers consume their millet rations before engaging their enemy in combat. The millet dumplings, unlike the alcohol present aboard the enemy ship, are substantial and dietarily nutritious. Seo clearly views Japanese cuisine with high esteem; his favorable depiction of the millet conveys a strong sense of national pride and communal fortitude among the animal soldiers.

Alternatively, in Tsuchimoto’s film, food assembles paradoxical communities focused on family yet also on suffering. Tainted food, the primary cause of the stigmatized Minamata disease, marginalizes its victims while simultaneously strengthening familial and communal connections. During one particular mealtime scene, a mother, who’s daughter suffers from Minamata disease, expresses her happiness that her whole family “can all eat together” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). Like Sazanami’s text, food emphasizes familial interconnectedness and facilitates care between relatives; the transfer of food between mother and daughter parallels exchanged intimacy. However, consumption of mercury in the food source is what originally introduced the disease. Food is much more ambiguous in this context; while it does breed familial contentedness, it can also be used to portray communal anger and desperate demands for justice.

Mitsuyo Seo’s animated depiction of Pearl Harbor.

Location, both temporal and geographical, also plays an important role in community building throughout the three Momotaro renditions. Sazanami’s Momotaro takes place “very, very long ago” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 9) in rural Japan. The nondescript time and place bolster the vague, folkloric nature of the text. Contrastingly, Seo and Tsuchimoto’s films, while mythologically influenced, are located firmly in reality. Momotaro’s Sea Eagles creates a community based around nationalism. The propaganda film, created in 1943 amidst the tensions of World War II, was intended to boost Japanese morale and patriotism. Frequent depictions of camaraderie encourage similar wartime attitudes for the collective Japanese public. Momotaro’s Sea Eagle’s connection to real locations, such as Pearl Harbor, leads to a uniquely distinct form of community not present in the other two story interpretations. Seo’s inclusion of real world locales generates a nationally proud community in direct conflict with a contemporary foreign entity.

Protestors draw comparisons between Osaka and the mythic Ogre Island to demonize Chisso executives.

In Tsuchimoto’s Minamata, allusions to Momotaro highlight the peripheral communities who have experience the Minamata disease first hand. One marginalized victim, upon reaching Osaka, declares “[the protestors] have arrived in the land where the blue and red ogres dwell” (Tsuchimoto, Minamata: The Victims and Their World). He likens the folkloric Ogre Island to Osaka, the location of an annual Chisso executive shareholder meeting. Here, the traditional story of Momotaro is applied to more contemporary dilemmas; use of this well known narrative emphasizes the wrongful subjugation and oppression of the afflicted. Not only does the film’s invocation of Momotaro depict suffering, but also an unyielding plea for reparation. Tsuchimoto’s Minamata attributes a real location to Ogre Island in order to imply a stronger sense of community among mistreated individuals.

Differing portrayals of leadership also establish dissimilar communities among Momotaro variants. In Sazanami’s text, Momotaro, who was “sent down to [Japan] by the command of the god of Heaven” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 14), is divine in origin. He establishes his leadership through his divinity immediately after being birthed from a peach. His existence radiates strong leadership while also demanding compliance; when meeting one animal companion, he states his intention to “take [the animal] along with [him] as [his] servant” (Sazanami, Momotaro, p. 30). In this story version, Momotaro’s power as a leader is inherent and unchallenged. It is important to note that Sazanami’s Momotaro directly interacts with other characters in lieu of commanding at a distance. He accompanies his companions to Ogre Island and fights alongside them, despite his divinely imparted power. Momotaro active involvement in defeating the ogres produces a sense of community based around unity and common struggle.

Momotaro’s Sea Eagles approaches communal leadership in an alternate manner. In Seo’s adaptation, Momotaro is a distant leader; when commanding his troops to attack Ogre Island, he explains that he, as “[their] captain, will await [their] return” (Seo, Momotaro’s Sea Eagles). His detached behavior reflects the regimented, hierarchical chain of command present in naval communities. In this circumstance, Momotaro’s leadership is not divine but rather the product of a socially constructed hierarchy. The servitude and compliance of the animal troops arises from stratified wartime infrastructure rather than divinity. Both Sazanami and Seo depict Momotaro as a commanding general, yet the resultant communities are acutely different. Most prominently, the community that Seo constructs in a much more detached and martially disciplined than Sazanami’s.

There are many similar and dissimilar portrayals of community throughout these three Momotaro renditions. While many themes, such as nationalism or intimacy, are shared throughout the versions, they ultimately are achieved in drastically different ways. The three versions, which possess extensively dissimilar agendas, provide their own unique narrative insight into character relations and interactions. In Sazanami, Tsuchimoto, and Seo’s interpretations of Momotaro, different treatments of food, location, and leadership are employed to construct disparate forms of community.

March Against Food


Description of the Minamata disease.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971) Directed by Tsuchimoto Noriaki is a documentary about the Minamata disease which, simply put, is methyl mercury poisoning. The disease originated from a Chisso Corporation factory that was dumping methyl mercury (a byproduct of the fertilizer they manufactured), illegally, into the ocean. This careless action poisoned the sea life with the mercury, which in turn poisoned the people who ate the diseased creatures. When it became apparent something was happening, it was too late, the affected people had been stripped of their senses and their ability to think and speak properly. Even when the source became apparent, there was no easy solution, and many were told not to go see doctors or to tell anyone one from the outside about the disease. The Chisso factory had a lot to answer for. The legal battle was settled with money, but as you could imagine many were not satisfied; this is a documentary of those demanding reimbursement besides money. Throughout the film, the audience gets the sense that Chisso are the “bad guys” but even more so, it is depicted that the food has in a sense has become part of the enemy, or rather, the weapon of the enemy. An enemy that the people must rally against to defeat; much like the Oni in the legend of Momotaro.


Picture of one of the fatalities, as well as the victim’s wife’s own emotional struggle as she watched her husband “rot” away.

We see food here acting as a weapon of the enemy rather than a necessity for living. The methyl mercury from the factory is dumped into the ocean, creating a silent enemy to the unsuspecting villages nearby. “Human victims were mostly fishermen or their families, and there was a tendency for successive outbreaks in the same family” (00:00:32). These people are just everyday people trying to get by. This disease caused victims to experience pain and had symptoms such as “heads that loll, eyes that can’t see, ears that can’t hear, mouths that can’t speak or taste, hands that can’t grasp, legs that won’t walk” (00:20:57). Not many were able to recover from the disease; those who survived often were not able to live normal lives and were mentally impaired by the methyl mercury. Most still suffered from the basic symptoms, such as loss of control in movements, pain, and numbness in the limbs. As we see, the poisoned food has condemned these people to a life (if it can be called that) of suffering—if they survive that is.

The victims of this disease, however, were not only those who had the disease, but the victims’ families as well. In the documentary we see many of those who have Minamata disease, but we also see those who are close to them. Many loved ones were lost either in death or in the madness caused by the poisoning; parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, and close friends. Those left behind felt a great loss, as shown especially at the end during the shareholders meeting when the older woman is yelling at the executives to give back her parents. Grief turns to rage and a demand to see someone pay, as money is too easy and does nothing to bring back the people lost to the disease. Thus, we see the people come together in the great tragedy to go against the oni who have turned food into a weapon by poisoning it.


The announcing of the success of the fundraising for the patients of Minamata disease and their cause.

Though the people want to make the Chisso Corporation pay, they themselves seem unsure how. It is then decided that they will take the “patient” and make a journey to a shareholders meeting. To be admitted to the meeting, however, they must each hold at least one share of the company. The shares as well as the trip over would not be easily affordable by those in the poor village (especially since they have to pay for treatment for the patients). So, in order to gain money they begin a fundraising drive. We see people not only from one fishing village help, but several other remote villages which before had basically kept to themselves. The people come together in order to go to different cities and events in order to ask for, or in some cases preform for,  donation as well as inform the people what the Minamata disease is, how the problem was created, and their plan to go against their oppressors; Chisso. The people showed great understanding and donated more than the people of Minamata had expected; even kids came up to the people and donated small change. Through the tragedy of being maimed by the food, or Minamata disease, we see people come together.


After the “pilgrimage” to Osaka, speakers for the Minamata Patients get to talk to their supporters. One references to Momotaro, likening the journey, and the “Minamata War.”

Finally once the funds had been raised, the people who had come together because of the poisoned food, go together in a march to go face these “oni” who poisoned their food supply, much like the Momotaro legend. Though in this documentary we don’t see a conclusion, but we do see the people make their way, despite many obstacles. And from the periphery (near Minamata) we see them supported not only by those in the village back “home,” but also by those who donated to their cause, as well as by the people who meet them at the station to show their support. As we have seen, food acts as a common enemy for those affected, bringing people together in order to fight for what is right, no matter how hard, or long it takes.

Minamata: No Affection Only Infection

Since food is necessary to life, it is instinctive to eat for self-preservation. Beyond this innate urge, food also holds a deeper connotation for family and society. Despite our cultural origins, the preparation and enjoyment of food is a commonality we all share. Food is much more than nourishment; it is the vehicle through which society communicates sentiments, expresses affection and creates bonds. When one thinks of life’s varied occasions, food is most likely at the epicenter. People use food to mark special occasions like birthdays, weddings, holidays, promotions and even funerals. Food is used to comfort people in times of suffering and nurse the weak in times of sickness. Through its loving preparation, the sharing of food with others is what keeps us connected.  Food plays a significant role in our daily lives, so much so, that it often defines ones identity, community, traditions, and relationships – it is the common thread that keeps us connected.

In Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary, Minamata: The Victims and Their World, we visit a small fishing village in southwest Kyūshū sandwiched between the Kyūshū Mountains and the Yatsushiro Sea. We are exposed to a crippled community suffering the consequences of environmental pollution and stripped of their identity, compassion, livelihood and most importantly food. Through Tsuchimoto’s expert use of expository filmography, we gain an intimate glimpse at the severed relationship between food and society via a pandemic outbreak of methyl mercury poisoning.  The result is a disconcerting series of interwoven mosaics highlighting the stark reality of this disease, its impact on the residents, and how food is transformed from one of life’s greatest joys into a deadly quandary.

In this “grass is always greener” cinematic shot, we are transposed into a residents shoes. Unfortunately, our vision of prosperity soon leads to our subsequent demise.

In this “grass is always greener” cinematic shot, we are transposed into a residents shoes. Unfortunately, our vision of prosperity soon leads to our subsequent demise.

With fishing and farming as the only source of monetary income, a
fledgling Minamata revels in the idea of welcoming big industry into their small town. The Chisso Corporation is the means to transform the town into a prosperous society. Unfortunately, it tears apart their community and physically debilitates a preponderance of its residents. Divided between the union workers and the fisherman, the community is left flailing like a stricken fish on the ocean’s surface. Tsuchimoto’s distant use of observational framing allows us to maneuver amongst the chaotic town and humanizes this personal, yet shared, struggle. Through this fly-on-the-wall perspective, we intimately view Minamata’s plight and vicariously experience the intense social shame of such a conservative society. Most residents fear the disease to be contagious, while others are staunch loyalist to the Chisso Corporation through their dependency on the factory for income. The community essentially ostracizes the victims and tries to erase history, without a trace or a memory. As we look around, there is no affection only infection.

Casted out like garbage, a victim is left to learn the game of baseball alone.

Casted out like garbage, a victim is left to learn the game of baseball alone.

With complete disregard for continuity between scenes, Tsuchimoto further
juxtaposes seemingly unrelated shots together in a melodic collage of cinematic
genius. By stressing the fragile relationship between Minamata’s victims and
nature, Tsuchimoto reveals the personal struggle and subsequent destruction of
a community. Through his poetic portrayal, we witness a broad spectrum of
shared relationships –  an elderly man hunting octopus, a widow concocting bait, sardine netting, the ominous factory, concrete pipes pumping chemically laden runoff into the ocean, suffering children, and an infuriated community. This subtle, however, explicit portrayal of daily life shows the moral erosion of Minamata’s community.   Yet, the undeniable truth is that everyone is susceptible to this indistinguishable disease through their interdependency on the local fisheries for sustenance.

The hands of the victims are the same hands that provide the town with food.

The hands of the victims are the same hands that provide the town with food.

As one fisherman poignantly states, “the vital point [to kill an octopus] is between the eyes”, one cannot help but think of this statement as a metaphor for the Minamata community. Methyl mercury poisoning is a neurological syndrome affecting muscle coordination, impaired vision, paralysis, loss of speech, insanity and ultimately death. Ironically, these are the same symptoms affecting the communal bonds of Minamata. Their lack of coordination allows for the continued pollution of their food, their impaired vision promotes further neglect of the victims, and their refusal to speak against the Chisso Corporation’s atrocities eventually leads to a paralyzed town left wallowing in their own chaotic and insecure delusions.

Tsuchimoto’s documentary reminds us of the alarming importance between food and human welfare.  Food is why we gather, not just to eat, but to talk, share, and connect. It facilitates conversation and acts as the medium by which we strengthen and nurture our relationships. Without healthy food we as humans will literally die, but as a society we will perish in the social context. Tsuchimoto’s ability to cinematically capture this unfortunate disease will serve as an enduring lesson to us all, but more importantly, we are left contemplating the stark reality of foods role in the fragility of society.