Screening July 10 – 20 at Japan Society
Aya Hanabusa’s Tale of a Butcher Shop begins and ends with the processing of a cow into packaged meat. Each cow is led down the backstreets of Kaizuka City in Osaka, Japan. They are ushered into a nondescript building, a slaughterhouse that has been in business for over 100 years. Once inside, the cows are weighed and positioned in a large empty room. In the first instance, someone calls out to “hold your breath!” and a hammer is driven into the cow’s forehead, causing it to instantly lift its feet up towards its stomach and collapse, dead, onto the floor. The second time, shortly before the film’s conclusion, the cow somehow survives the initial blow, shaking its head as if in disbelief and snorting loudly. It is then repositioned and hit a second time, which succeeds in killing it. Members of the Kitade family, owners of the Kitade Butcher Shop, are waiting in the wings. They rush in to quickly disassemble the cows: drain their blood, which gushes into a nearby drain, remove and clean their bowels, and saw their carcasses in half. The parts are stamped with a seal of inspection, measured and separated, packed, and priced. At some indiscernible point in the process corpses are transformed into meat.
In between these bookending slaughters, we learn about the history of animal butchery in Japan, primarily from the point of view of the Kitade family. It’s a history that weaves personal, historical, economic, and cultural threads together. The Kitade Butcher Shop has been owned and run by the same family for seven generations, and during that time, they have faced a series of hardships. They were ostracized and routinely discriminated against as Burakumin, a leftover term from Japan’s feudal caste system, which refers to people whose livelihood is centered around death. The lives of Burakumin were historically under strict governmental control, banned from receiving an education, and isolated into cordoned off communities, a legacy of discrimination whose effects continue to this day. In the face of this, many members of the Kitade family joined the Liberation Movement, a social activist community that fought for equal access and social status for the Burakumin. At the same time they struggle with the traditional designation of their field, the mom and pop brand of butchery that they practice is quickly being replaced by operations of a much larger scale. The last butchering that we see in the film will also be the last in that slaughterhouse, whose doors will be shuttered for good soon after.
The history told in Hanabusa’s film makes it easy to sympathize with the Kitade family. And yet, this history surprisingly lacks the presence of animals, such that the second killing comes as quite the shock. There was a fascinating disconnect between my experience of this penultimate scene and the way Tale of a Butcher Shop had prepped me for it. For, while I was completely appalled at the notion of butchers being relegated to the status of second class citizens, I was still equally appalled, even horrified, by the actual scene of the cow being butchered. In the face of this shivering, huffing, struggling beast obediently moving into position so that it could have its head hammered in again, the cultural history that I had spent the last hour absorbing fell away and was simply replaced by revulsion. I was left wondering if there is not some other way of telling their story that would also include the animals whose bodies are so central to it. As members of the Kitade family are quick to point out, the deaths carried out by the Burakumin hardly exist in a vacuum, but the sheer visceral quality of these scenes eclipse the previous institutional critique leveled by the film. Obliquely, the audience is placed in the position the filmmakers and their subjects criticize, a position that condemns the violence of the Burakumin’s trade, and the official violence that surrounds them is not compellingly represented.
If Tale of a Butcher Shop leaves the logic of traditional and historical consumption of animal bodies largely intact, The Horses of Fukushima demonstrates a new stage in this relationship during the age of the Anthropocene. The evocation of a postapocalyptic extinction permeates the film’s introduction. Images of radiation burns, infection, and starvation linger on-screen. The film evokes the imagery of a genocide: piled up emaciated flesh covered in lacerations, bodies hardly recognizable as bodies at all. Here, the processing of fuel in Fukushima contrasts with the processing of meat in Butcher Shop, as a technique spiralling out of control, with deadly consequences on a global scale.
In the summer of 2011, Yoju Matsubayashi filmed and assisted a rancher, Shinichiro Tanaka, in the recovery and rehabilitation of his horses, who were previously held in a stable approximately 11 miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As most will recall, this power plant suffered a disastrous meltdown in three of its six reactors after being hit by a massive tsunami in March 2011. Early in the film we watch as Matsubayashi and Tanaka return to these stables just 23 days after the incident. Uprooted trees and caved-in buildings greet them. Despite the fact that all the horses managed to survive being engulfed by the tsunami, the evacuation of Fukushima left no one to feed them for two weeks, causing nine to die of starvation.
The remaining 29 are gaunt and mangy, their eyes wildly bulging, their ribs and spine all but exposed due to malnourishment. Tanaka refuses to comply with a governmental mandate that all livestock from the no-go zone surrounding the plant be exterminated, but his motives for doing so are muddled. The contradictions that underlie the relationship between so many humans and the livestock they make their living from—contradictions between an intense affective understanding of their animals and the necessarily violent actions enacted upon them—are exacerbated here. On the one hand, Tanaka clearly has a sentimental connection to these horses as remnants of his destroyed home, as symbols for a lifestyle quickly becoming untenable, and as living beings whose suffering should be alleviated. On the other hand, his business and livelihood is in serious jeopardy, and Tanaka would be all too glad to sell his horses off for meat if he could. Yet, they are left in a strange limbo, by living through the disaster at Fukushima they became (literally and figuratively) contaminated like the town and nuclear plant themselves. The radioactivity they carry in their bodies leaves them unsuitable for ingestion as meat and the trauma of their experiences leaves them mostly too skittish to ride.
The film’s surprisingly upbeat ending points to a razor-thin silver lining in the face of ecological and human tragedy. If the meltdown at the Fukushima plant made everything surrounding it into a toxic entity, this very toxicity removes the area from the cycle of exploitation and consumption that caused the meltdown in the first place. Life lives on in the blasted landscape of the no-go zone, cordoned off from capitalist intervention, its deformity becoming its defense.
BENJAMIN SCHULTZ-FIGEROA is a Ph.D. candidate in Film and Digital Media at The University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on the history of film’s use to study animals in laboratory settings.