The third entry in our Food on Film series, covering the significance of food in Miyazaki’s animations.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of entering the mystical and magical dimensions of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, then you’ll have noticed their many unique charms. For over 35 years, the veteran Japanese animation director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli has delighted us with worlds that are at once touchingly simple and overwhelmingly fantastical. But what remains underappreciated is how rich his films are with tummy-rumbling depictions of food.
Much like the old-fashioned hopping lamp pole that guides Chihiro and her companions through the dark forest in Spirited Away, food is not a necessary part of the narrative — it is a gift from Miyazaki. The vast range of functions that food serves in the auteur’s canon is quite remarkable. In one film it is a metaphor for the grotesque consumer culture that has engulfed modern capitalist society. In another, it is simply part of the furniture — understated yet profound.
Amid Spirited Away’s ominous opening scenes, in which 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble upon an abandoned amusement park, her parents are enticed by the smell of food. The scent leads them to an empty restaurant stall that is scattered with freshly-cooked juicy meats and glutinous rice cakes. As we are witnessing these events through the eyes of Chihiro, we are alarmed by their reckless and obsessive devouring of the food, as well as their blind assumption that it is theirs to take. Little do they know that food is sacred in Miyazaki’s spirit realm and therefore, in-keeping with fairy-tale tradition, their ignorance initiates their downfall. As night falls and the procession of the spirits commences, they are transformed into revolting pigs. While you initially drool at the sight of the masterfully animated food, the animalistic mistreatment of it at the hands of her parents leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The ugliness of excessive consumerism underpins this scene and it is a metaphor that is recalled later in the film.
In one of the most colourfully exotic scenes in Spirited Away, the mass bathhouse workforce prepares a banquet for the wretched No-Face monster who, in return, grants them an endless stream of gold. This banquet consists of almost every traditional Japanese meal imaginable and is an extraordinary sight to behold. However, the allure of the food is undermined by the fact that it is both produced and consumed from a place of greed. While the workers scramble and scream for gold, No-Face goes from one platter to the next in a matter of seconds, tipping them into the bottomless pit of his body and carelessly creating mounts of discarded food and crockery around him. Moments such as these remind us that good food can turn unpleasant, just as innocent people can be corrupted by their environment.
It is in Miyazaki’s follow-up epic, Howl’s Moving Castle, that we experience food as an expression of love and comradery. The frying of a typical Sunday brunch lies among the many charms and incantations that the wizard Howl practises over the course of the story. He applies the same skilful elegance to cooking a pan full of eggs and bacon as he does to redesigning the interior of the castle with a spell. In this film food is a product of magic — a ritual that has the power to bring people together in distinct ways. Departing from the rush of daily life, the dysfunctional residents of the castle take a moment to tuck into a delicious meal and enjoy each other’s company in the process.
Of course, slowing down and observing the smaller moments of life is a staple feature of Miyazaki’s films and classical Japanese culture in general. It is nowhere more present than in the heart-warming world of Ponyo — a world in which food amplifies the themes of love and adventure. Ponyo, half-girl and half-fish, has befriended a young boy named Sosuke from the surface world and is soon introduced to the wonders of human food. Miyazaki takes his time to show us Ponyo’s avid curiosity and anticipation as Sosuke guides her through the process of bringing packaged ramen to life. As Sosuke’s mother lifts the lid, unveiling the boiled noodles, eggs, and ham, Ponyo jumps into the air with delight. And yet it does not feel overly romantic — there is an inspiring truth to this depiction of a child being presented with ramen for the first time. Perhaps we forget the warmth and excitement we once felt when we were served our favourite meal surrounded by the comforts of our family home. The portrayal of food in Spirited Away may be visually grander, but in Ponyo it is deeper.
At the heart of Miyazaki’s long-running interest in food is gratitude. An acknowledgement that food, much like life, is essentially beautiful and precious. And yet too many of us fall for the corrupt outlook of No-Face — taking it all for granted, forever wanting more and never having enough; seemingly incapable of just existing and enjoying. But there is always the option of following the philosophy of Ponyo: living out of the pure yearning of your spirit and embracing the riches of this very moment. Life is food for the soul. Food is life for the soul.
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