Japan Cuts 2014 Review: TALE OF A BUTCHER SHOP, A Sensitively Observed Documentary Of A Working-Class Family

Tale of a Butcher Shop, Hanabusa Aya's sensitively observed documentary on a family of butchers in Kaizuka City in Osaka, Japan, begins in a very startling fashion, with an unflinching depiction of a cow's slaughtering. A man leads the cow carefully down a road to a slaughterhouse, and after he places the cow in position, another man brings it down with a blow to its head from a spiked hammer, killing it instantly. After that, blood is drained from its body, and other members of the family skin it and carve it up in preparation for processing. A narrator talks us through the process, describing how not a single part of the cow is wasted; every part of its body, down to its gristle and bowels, is usable for food or other purposes.

This visceral opening ensures that the practice of animal slaughter is not rendered here as an abstract idea, but one of literal flesh and blood. It also sets things up for the film's deeper historical inquiry into how societal discrimination has impacted the family of butchers that are the film's subject. This elevates the film well above a simple, gentle sketch of local culture, to become a fascinating story of the passing of an era, as well as an inspiring story of resilience and resistance against historically enforced marginalization.

The Kitade family has been running their butcher and meat processing business for seven generations, using a 102-year old slaughterhouse that is about to be shut down. The Kitades own one of the few businesses left that is an all-purpose operation, slaughtering, processing, and selling their meat. The standard industrial practice nowadays is to have those functions performed by separate entities. Because of this mass production, the Kitades' customer base has dwindled and now largely consists of older customers. Some of the family members have branched out into other businesses as a source of additional income. Akira, one of the men in the family, has begun tanning cowhide to make drums and teaches classes on traditional drum making. These drums are used in local festivals and other celebrations.

The film also delves into the Kitade family history, and how they were discriminated against as buraku, a low societal class who usually handled such tasks as animal butchery and others that were considered unclean, although of course these were necessary to society as a whole. This designation of buraku was a holdover from the feudal caste system that was abolished by the 19th century and the coming of the Meiji era. However, the buraku continued to suffer the stigma of being of this low class, and its accompanying societal marginalization, such as not being allowed to go to school, being restricted to live in designated ghettoized areas, where they were provided with fewer resources and subjected to substandard living conditions.

The Kitades were active in the Buraku Liberation Movement, a civil-rights movement that fought for equal rights for the buraku and fought for greater access to resources such as education and housing, as well as greater acceptance by society in general. Through this involvement in the movement, the Kitades were able to gain more pride and assert themselves in establishing their worth and value to society. Stigmatization and prejudice persist to the present day however, especially from older people. One Kitade relative talks of how his fiancé's parents disapprove of his intention to marry her, strictly because of his family background. He notes that the younger generation cares little about these societal distinctions.

Tale of a Butcher Shop may be more or less your standard, garden-variety sort of documentary, but its delicate powers of observation, as well as the deep respect shown for this hard-working and loving family, help to make it a very touching and finely observed film. There is a sense of melancholy you feel near the conclusion, when the closing of the slaughterhouse and the final cow to be butchered there coincides with the death of the family patriarch, who did so much to build the business into a beloved and respected part of the community. Even though the children say that he was a tough man who rarely showed affection for them, there still is a deep love for him that is exhibited at their father's memorial service.

After the funeral, the film ends on a more optimistic note, with a wedding and a symbolic "storming" of a local castle, where the wedding celebration partly takes place, a castle than in older days was the source of the authority that enforced their social oppression. This becomes a potent symbol of how times have changed for the better, even if these changing times have also posed a danger to the family's livelihood. The Kitades, however, continue to survive and thrive, through the old-fashioned, but still valuable virtues of hard work, pride in one's work, and familial love.
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  • owen

    If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!

  • "another man brings it down with a blow to its head from a spiked hammer, killing it instantly. After that, blood is drained from its body, and other members of the family skin it and carve it up in preparation for processing. "It, its, it, its, it, it, it"... Living beings, even the victims of greed and gluttony aren't an "it". This cow, along with all the other butchered slaves and prisoners were not "something" but someone. The idea that the cow was "carefully" or "gently" guided to his death reveals the worst of ultimate betrayals that our species inflicts on innocent others who are helpless against our might. Nothing to be proud of here... But much to be shamed by.

  • Christopher Bourne

    Let me say right off the bat that I completely respect your obviously strong feelings against animal slaughter. I don't happen to share them, but I do respect them. That said, allow me to make a few points. First off, as offensive as it may be to you, standard grammar convention is to refer to non-humans, whether plants or animals, as "it" and to reserve "him" or "her" for humans. Yes, there are exceptions, especially for beloved pets, but that is the standard. So that is what I am following.

    And even though you probably won't, I think you should see this film if you can. Because then maybe you'd appreciate the deeply humane, even reverential way this family goes about their practice. This is not some industrial place where the animals are simply regarded as product to be processed. They are fully aware of the import and meaning of what they do and do not take it lightly. They even perform rituals where they thank the animals they have killed for their sacrifice. The fact is that for many of us, animal meat is a large part of our diet, which make the job of butcher still a very necessary one. And for over a hundred years, the Kitades have been practicing this profession in a very humane and respectful way. What they do provides nourishment for many people, so your equation of that with "butchered slaves and prisoners," whom I assume are humans, is one I simply do not accept.

  • Hello - I tend to shy away from what is accepted as "standard"... There's far too much error in the world viewed as "normal". Thanks but no thanks - I'll continue to see nonhumans as he, she, they, and them - Not "it".

    But since you're so enthusiastic about proper linguistics - I challenge your use of the word "humane":

    From Webster’s New World Dictionary:
    Hu·mane / hyoomáyn / adj. 1. having what are considered the best qualities of human beings; kind, tender, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate. Benevolent.

    Where does the orchestrated, for profit or personal benefit, killing of healthy, sentient beings fit into the "kind" or merciful act of slaughter when there are other alternatives?

    I also reject the notion that one can be "respectful" towards another while stealing their most valuable possession: Their lives. Granted in some circumstances doing so is a matter of survival and the harm isn't condemned as it is an issue of self preservation. Even humans eating other humans is forgiven under such desperate scenarios. But this documentary isn't about "survival" or not having other options.

    Lastly - Praying or ritualized "holy" words do nothing to benefit the nonhumans as their lives are brutally ended.

  • Christopher Bourne

    It's pretty obvious that this discussion isn't advancing anywhere. It's not even a discussion really, you're just interested in a monologue restating positions that are already abundantly clear, and positions that leave no room for nuance or the validity of alternative points of view. I've seen your profile and I know you like to leave comments like this on lots and lots of sites, some of which look like they've been copied and pasted to multiple ones. What that tells me is that you're not interested in actual discussion, but simply proselytizing for your cause.

    To get back to the subject of this post, which is the film I reviewed, there is so much more to it than the one aspect that you're fixated on, so much more. So unless you're willing to actually try to see this film and engage with the issues and ideas in it -- which are many, and far more than the narrow focus you insist on retaining -- I'm not really interested in discussing things that really have nothing to do with this film. You can respond to this if you like, but you'll be seeing no more responses from me.

  • You're right, I am fixated on uncompromising justice. I'm wondering if you'd hold the same position if you were the one being utilized and discarded when no longer "useful"? I'm wondering if in advocating for the liberation of humans from slavery would you be interested in the more "positive" and gentler "nuances" of keeping humans against their will?

    Simply put as a final summation of my case - I hold that no one has a right to an Other's life. That no matter how "profitable" or seeped in "tradition" the killing is, unless it is for absolute survival, it can never be justified or condoned by a civilized culture. Fair enough?

  • Christopher Bourne

    OK, I said I was no longer going to respond to you, but I just can't let you get away with that last statement. What you're arguing now is just complete bullshit. To equate a practice that feeds and nourishes people with slavery, an institution that involved the killing, torture, sale, and brutal subjugation of countless people, a sin the US has not yet been absolved of ... there's just no correlation. And for you to lecture to me about slavery -- a black man living in America who must contend daily -- and I mean daily -- with the lasting legacies and racism of this, for you to presume to have anything to say to me about slavery, is just the absolute height of arrogance. Not to mention deeply and utterly offensive.

    And with that, I'm done with you. In case you haven't noticed, this is a film website. Movies are the topic we discuss here, not fundamentalist fringe ideas born from first-world privilege. So I think it's time for you to move on. Use your Google keyword search again, and look for another forum for your fanatical rantings, other than my reviews.

    I'll end by quoting one of my favorite films; I'll remind you once again that this is a film website. And you're clearly not interested in discussing film. So, as Paul Sorvino said to Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas," now I have to turn my back on you.

  • The film attempts to glorify a hideous practice. You too attempt to validate butchery of innocent life when the necessity for it, has long outlived its excuses. My conscience would not let me remain silent throughout.

    As to the similarity of slavery and to the industrial slaughter of billions of nonhumans I'd suggest reading The Dreaded Comparison by Marjorie Spiegel and Eternal Triblinka by Charles Patterson. I'll also leave you with a quote: "Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who possessed it" -John Stuart Mill

    And: "Not all traditions are worthy of admiration and respect. Tradition should never be an excuse for cruelty, and surely harmful practices should not be condoned just because they are cultural practices.”
    Michele Pickover, a spokeswoman for Animal Rights Africa

  • Niels Andersen

    Comparing the breeding of animals for slaughter (and even disregarding the discussion of the conditions under which it is done), with slavery of human beings, is retarded. Go stop predators in nature from eating other animals, or even their kin, if that is yor reasoning.

    I can respect that you do not wish to have animals die for you to eat, other than that, you´re being an idiot.

    And you do realize that plants have nervous systems that react to stimuli, right? Can you eat them?

    What do you do, when you step on an ant?

    I´m all for free range animals and limiting the transport and discomforts attributed with slaughter, and even limiting animal products in my diet, but trying to make this into a black and white issue disgust me just as much, as the food industry´s disregard of any ethical considerations.

  • The fundamental premise of using others (against their will) for your own ends is still the same... For all living beings. The comparison is valid.

    Stop predators in nature? Why? They, (sharks, alligators, cats, etc.) MUST eat meat to survive. Humans can thrive without. Further --- They aren't moral agents. We are.

    I realize animals "die" all the time... It is the unnecessary KILLING that I'm opposed to.

    Stepping on an ant would be accidental harm... I'm assuming you aren't suggesting that anyone DELIBERATELY step on/violate another creature, if there were options not to. That would be sociopathic.

    Lastly, plants aren't sentient. They have no nervous system that feels pain. And again... We MUST eat plants to live --- Even IF plants could "suffer", it would be justified as a matter of survival. Meat certainly doesn't qualify for this excuse.

  • ToryK

    And as a young black man living in America, I'll throw in an, "Amen." I'd say more, but none of it would be nice.

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