Tsukiji Wonderland (Japan, 2016) [Reel Asian 2016]

Documentaries supposedly present actualities: the so-called “reality” that is non-fiction. First hand and un-paraphrased, so to speak. In Tsukiji Wonderland, however, director Naotaro Endo tries to illustrate the fantastic from the fish market’s very system and realities.

It semes to be fitting that the film’s title compares the world-famous fish market to Carroll’s world beyond the rabbit hole. Tsukiji Wonderland depicts the fish market as a flourishing and modernized trade center which respects tradition and human interaction, and makes less consideration to profit, gain, and loss. It’s a place that might seem strange to those who follow free-market logic; even those who participate within the market still find what happens inside fascinating. Tsukiji Wonderland is clear on its aim: it serves to re-introduce Tsukiji Fish Market to the rest of the world, specifically to the west, without the confusion of its maze-like architecture and chaotic everyday transactions — to try to make sense of the world beyond the rabbit hole.

Seafood lovers will find the film stimulating as it present the various products the market offers, but interestingly, the does not allow itself to fall into just focusing on their many colors. The wonder comes when the film highlights the relationship of these products to the community that the market has developed: its economic, political and cultural implications. Taking active roles are the different sides and industries that collide within the market which moves not as fragments, but as a body. The documentary follows how immediate wholesalers move in accordance with a system of competition and cooperation as chefs and restaurateurs depend on their preferred wholesalers for their pick of good fish to serve in their establishments. “They live symbiotically”, one of the immediate wholesalers says. This approach saves the film from two dangers of today’s documentary filmmaking: from being just another “humanistic” (in a bourgeois-existentialist sense) piece, and becoming a mere promotional video.

More than just an introduction, the film provides the market community an opportunity to present its current challenges the way a lot of Japanese films present such issues – with subtlety. The film makes you fall in love with the community, then exposes the challenges that it is facing in its last arc. This market, deeply rooted in deep tradition, is facing the same problems as its country’s food culture, which have been brought by the expansion of globalist-capital agenda: from the fast food boom which caused the diversity of their populations’ tastes, eating and shopping habits, to the proposed relocation of the market to Toyosu before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The greatest success of Endo’s film is not just providing knowledge and new insight, but in trying to build a relationship to its audience grounded on the understanding it generates. It presents a situation ripe not just for deeper understanding but for interrogation. It is necessary — or the grin will lose the cat.

Re-reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice, it might seem that the strangeness does not seem bother Alice at all and only made her more curious. It is only in the last two paragraphs of the story that Carroll names this place Wonderland. For Alice to realize that she came from Wonderland, she has to wake up and organize her thoughts. Early this year, Tsukiji workers demanded answers for soil pollution and other safety concerns over at the new site. If left unresolved, this matter might be the end of the market.

Tsukiji Wonderland does not fail to acknowledge the very structure which governs and affects the market and the effect of post-war global economic development on the very life of Tsukiji. The industry issue is also a community issue. Issues that are relevant to each of the subjects from different industries are weaved as though they are one and the same under the community that Tsukiji has created.

Tsukiji Wonderland was shown on November 11 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.

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