There is not much about Hayao Miyazaki I can write that hasn’t been written already, and his sense of animation that is simply exemplary. It is detailed, very real looking in spite of the heavy use of watercolors and animation, and most of the times, aesthetically beautiful – in terms of views and in terms of food. For example, consider this frame-still from From Up The Poppy Hill, one of my favourite Miyazaki films.
The characters in his films are well-rounded and interesting. The treatment of his female characters is not like most other film-makers. They are given importance whilst also being fair to the male characters, and treating gender as a coincidence. It is fresh to watch a movie like that. But one of the things in his films that is captivating endlessly is how he weaves food into his stories. The movies that I have watched that Miyazaki has made (wrote for, directed, produced and/or animated) have been peppered with beautiful references related to cooking and food. Food is a comfort numerous times in his films – as safety, as guarantees, as familiarity and even as nostalgia. Cooking is an act performed out of a sense of love and duty, and not just to satisfy a hunger.
In From Up The Poppy Hill, Umi cooks food for the entire household, and is quite good at it – making her own lunches to take to school, and quite elaborate ones. Even something as simple as spooning rice out of a container is not devoid of the steam that the rice is producing. A simple mish-mash breakfast with ham, eggs, and vegetables reminds one of communal eating that Umi was responsible for, since her mother was away studying in America. We see her dream of her mother in the kitchen and cooking, showing her fear and her need for her mother, and that in the act of cooking was where her mother’s love was being missed. The people of the household depended on her for delicious food, and she yearned for the dependence on her mother, especially during times of distress.
However, she is regular with her cooking everyday at her home, and is sometimes the only person to be doing to cooking. In fact, it is noted that her interest in her school magazine and working for it, was a hindrance to this daily duty, and in spite of that, Umi is determined and strong-willed. Accomplishing both everyday, even though she is in a rush while tending to both the things, Umi’s character instantly becomes likable and strong. This similar theme of a hard-working young woman is seen in a lot of Miyazaki films, even in Ponyo, in the form of Lisa, Sosuke’s mother.
The communal eating is extremely emphasised several times, as we also see this when the household sits down to eat. This is also a nostalgic theme that is brought to life by animated food. Eating together is of significant importance in many different cultures, including the Japanese culture. It shows camaraderie of a deeper notion – one of familial ties. It is quite commonly known that families who eat together, stay together. However, in this film, Umi lives in a boarding home, and in spite of no familial ties with each other, the women living here are amazing friends, and tend to have their meals together. The appreciation of diversity of women living in this boarding home is apparent in the short film which does not fail to give them highly dimensional characters.
As a vegetarian, the feelings of hunger that Miyazaki films evoke in me are confusing. The clip below of Umi frying fish is deliciously distracting in terms of what real food is like. Fish need not be something I actually like in real life, for me to enjoy looking at it being cooked in thick, bubbling oil, the sound of sizzle making it a very realistic expression of food.
In fact, in Ponyo too, food is comfort. After surviving a major flood around their town, Ponyo (a goldfish who has turned into a human child), Sosuke (a young boy of 5) and Lisa (Sosuke’s mother) come home, there is no electricity and they are dripping wet. In such a condition, all they can make is noodles and hot chocolate with honey. It is similar to the notion of craving pakoras, or Maggi (both served hot) when it’s raining and cold. This is the first time Ponyo has ever had honey or real food (other than a little ham Sosuke feeds her when she is still a fish), and her excitement for the food is infectious. Little motherly affection is showered on her, as shown in the film, while she is still a fish. Someone cooking food and feeding you is something she has never experienced, especially such appetizing meals after a difficult day. Lisa is generous and loving towards her, wiping her with a towel after coming back home. Even with a disaster lurking outside, food makes the inside of their home warm and gratifying.
Here is also a little clip from Howl’s Moving Castle with some exceptional-looking bacon and eggs.
On the other hand, Spirited away shows food in a slightly contrarian tone. Chihiro’s parents would never have transformed into pigs, had they listened to her about not knowing how to pay for the big spread of a feast. The feast was supposed to be tempting and Chihiro’s parents gave into the temptation, and here, it is almost gluttony that Miyazaki is antagonising.
The change of her parents into pigs because of the food reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell.
In Spirited Away, however, food is in excess, and yet Chihiro lives in fear and confusion, trying to save her parents somehow. The majestic spreads of food are not at all tempting for her now that she feels she has lost her parents forever and might never find them. No amount of lavish food could make her feel better, and there is a lot of food. Even from the perspective of the viewer, the Spirit World is scary and uncomfortable, and the food is definitely not trustworthy (it was probably what turned her parents into pigs). This distrust of food is unique and surprising, but in tone with the overall importance of using food to express discomfort or comfort, both – something Miyazaki is very skilled at doing.Comfort food is called comfort food for a reason, and not everything is that. This relationship between humans and food has been a long one, and a lot of cultural factors shape what is or is not comfort food. Homely meals, generally, are comfort foods. Why that is so, is quite obvious. A feeling of homelessness and identity crisis is primarily depicted in our lives in the form of food. The different variety of tastes and ways of cooking have been instilled into our minds, and newer tastes might not be as welcome. A heavy, scrumptious meal every time one eats is exhausting and boring. Comfort food is not fancy – it is simple and everyday – rice, some meat, eggs, and such for the Japanese culture. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Maggi and pakoras are comfort food because they evoke a certain sense of nostalgia of being cooked for at home, or communally deciding to eat a particular item. These are not foods best enjoyed alone.
On the other hand, in The Grave Of The Fireflies, even a small tin can of candy or a jar of pickled plums holds value for the comfort of both Seita and Setsuko. It is the only thing left of their home and their previously beautiful lives, and they hold on to to (along with their mother’s linen) and their dwindling state in the war-torn Japan only gets worse as they lose their familiar belongings.
It is rare to see what filmmakers do with food in their films. It is undeniably one of the most important aspects of people’s lives. A lot of the audiences are people who eat three times a day, and food is the sustenance that is a part of every celebration or sadness. The lack of food brings sadness and gloom, and the excess of it seems wasteful and extravagant – giving filmmakers a great tool to describe the world they are recreating.
Fortunately for Miyazaki, he has already figured it out.