Sylvia Plath, the fig tree, and chick-lit

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a piece of iconic feminist writing, which is dark, witty and extremely painful, outlining and diving into the experiences of a woman who is mentally disturbed and agitated with antiquated gender roles and stereotypes. There are several wonderful things that the book explains with a perceptive and smart protagonist, someone who is self-aware and yet, a part of a tumultuous society that just will not take her seriously. She is not the heroine of the story; instead she is a brilliant woman who is slowly sliding into the inner depths of her own psyche and losing touch with what matters most to her. Personally, the harrowing experience she narrates about being depressed is all too real, and palpably painful.

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In 2013, Faber & Faber came out with a new edition for the book The Bell Jar. The cover featured a lady powdering her face, making it a standard “chick-lit” novel that would be marketed specifically towards women. It hid the actual idea of the book in the recesses of its redness; one of a vehement fight against gender roles and the short biographic account of a ‘madwoman’, the kind that Plath had herself been. Chick-lit is generally defined as literature with a female protagonist whose womanhood is severely thematized in the storyline, and by this definition alone, The Bell Jar is, in fact, chick-lit. Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, says in an interview with The Telegraph,

“If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storyteller chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

The issue with calling books chick-lit is that it gives the false notion that the value of the books is only so far as the audience reading it is a woman. This idea, one that men’s books can be read by everyone, but women’s books can only be read by women, is toxic and unpleasant. When the story of the modern woman is narrated by a female author, the issues it addresses are considered to be frivolous, which is why reading chick-lit authors is a frivolous reading activity. Which brings us back to the definition of what chick-lit is – the fact that a book having a central theme as women’s issues is quickly shelved into “women’s fiction”; a book intended mostly for women to read. There is no real reason why a man should be interested in women’s issues or a female perspective, considering that most of these issues are swept under the rug with an air of silliness.

Shelving Plath’s The Bell Jar in a similar manner angers me. It can no longer be a classic produced by American literature, a testament to mental illness, gender disparities, and female sexuality; instead, it becomes a book intended for women to just relate to and keep men out of. It is a book that I would highly recommend to everyone, not just women, to understand the nuances of how depression can tear down an entire personality, about seething self-doubt in the mind of a brilliant writer, and the quirky enthusiasm of a person to end her own life.

A beautiful representation of one of the best quotes from The Bell Jar appeared in the Netflix original series Master of None, which is created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The show is a gentle reminder of Louie, which kept me captivated with its surreal style of story-writing, exaggerated humour, and the dark wit of Louis CK. Master of None captures the essence of a second generation Indian man living in the US quite well, and addresses issues related to race and ethnography in a humourous manner that I already loved Aziz Ansari for. The show is not merely funny though; the characters seem real and well-thought out, and in one of the episodes they made great use of a quote from The Bell Jar. A man quoting Sylvia Plath as a perfect depiction of what he is feeling at the moment felt to me like a step away from thinking of women’s fiction the way that it is at this point in literary circles.

A summary of what he feels his life could be like is perfectly described in the book with these lines, which is one of the best quotes I have ever had the pleasure of reading:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/the-bell-jar-new-cover-derided

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/opinion/the-snobs-and-me.html?_r=0

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/jodi-picoult-its-really-hard-to-love-America-sometimes/

 

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (Chokher Bali) (2015)

It is deeply satisfying to see that shows like Stories by Rabindranath Tagore by Anurag Basu are finding their way on television, and are being appropriately judged. This is a show that is now available on Netflix after being telecast on the EPIC Channel in India, and traces a few of the stories written by Rabindranath Tagore into a visual format. Anurag Basu is himself Bengali, and his wife Tani Basu led the team in creatively developing the authenticity of the Bengali atmosphere that has been created in the show. It is set in the early 20th century during pre-partitioned Bengal. Although this particular performance of Chokher Bali (which is shown in the first 3 episodes of this 26-episode long anthology of stories by Tagore) does not dwell too much into the politics of those times, it still manages to convey an idea of Bengal that might have existed back then in terms of the social and cultural commentary.

My perspective on this show is based purely out of watching the show only. Neither have I read the Bengali novel of the same name, nor have I watched the 2003 Bengali film by Rituparno Ghosh. Therefore, there is nothing for me to compare it with. By itself, I found the episodes to be brilliant – in terms of writing, cinematography and acting. The story has been slightly changed as compared to the novel, and that was the only part of the episode that I did not like. While we see Binodini to be a strong, realistically flawed woman with desires like any other person initially, she changes into a woman who sacrifices her desire for the good of who she loves. However, she is my favourite character in this particular story, and for good reason. Her desires take an important role in her life, and she breaks the rules that the society has imposed upon her by the mere virtue of her desire. She feels betrayed by Mahendra because it was him who rejected her hand in marriage because he was not sure, because of which she was destined to a life of widowhood. Her desire to have the life that Ashalata had been served was so strong, especially in the scene where she reads the letter the Mahen has written to Bihari. Binodini is fierce and wants to fulfill her wishes while trying to pursue them in a flawed manner, but you cannot blame her unethical behaviour because you know that her destiny is too bleak for her to accept it without any resistance. The way that Binodini has been shown in the episode is exemplary, especially so because one understands that even though her behaviour is unacceptable in terms of morality, one cannot dislike her for her flaws because they are very real human flaws. While this is the excellence of Tagore’s writing that such a character could be created, it is also important to give the show-makers the credit they deserve, for keeping the soul of the story alive in their episodes.

Radhika Apte is very realistic in her performance as Binodini as usual; she is a seductress who has a deep understanding of the world around her, and knows how to get what she wants, while also being torn when the only man she has shown any real love towards looks at her with disdain. I have always been a fan of Bhanu Uday (from the Aryan Khanna fame of Special Squad) and even though he has been given the role of the pompous Mahendra, he plays the role with great finesse, such that you will dislike the man by the end of it. With Sumeet Vyas playing the role of the good-natured Bihari, I have begun to believe that that actor can play any kind of role with such ease that is only rare in actors. There is some great writing also in the show, with certain scenes staying with you long after the episode is over. The scene with Binodini reading Mahendra’s letter to Bihari is one such scene, and the meeting between Binod and Bihari during the first few minutes of the show is also noteworthy.

The story is beautiful, and one of betrayal, deceit, love and lust. Chokher Bali literally means a mote in the eye, and that is what Binod is in the marital life of Asha and Mahendra, especially so because Binod and Asha describe their valuable friendship with those words. Binod realises the true value of their friendship much later in the film, and it is only Asha who is able to forgive her friend and who is truly good-natured woman in the story.

The music in the movie is sung by great singers like Arijit Singh, Shaan and Shalmali Kholgade, and one such beautiful song from Rabindra Sangeet is Amaro Parano Jaha Chay.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this series as one of wonderment and great film-making. It is definitely true, also, that Tagore’s works break the boundaries of time and are relevant and enjoyable after almost 100 years of its real setting.

My room is disintegrating

My room is disintegrating.

It is melting into a pot

Of empty plastic bags, litter, and dirty footprints. 

There is undone laundry,

A reluctant light bulb.

Tape holding the world (and the window) together. 

At work, 

They pass by and smirk. 

I am on page 52 of the same book

I was reading two weeks ago,

Since I started sinking into the hole.

Pull me out. 

Pull me out from the depth of this bed. 

The color outside changes 

Golden to pink – 

Pink ṭo navy – 

Navy to pearls on the rolling ocean floor –

To the stillness of the entirely hemisphere sleeping.

The darkness of the bed pulls me in. 

My limbs are paralysed. 

My surroundings are disintegrating. 

And I would like nothing more, 

Than to disintegrate with them.

My Favourite Horror Films

Horror is a genre that I think is difficult to be likable. It purposely puts the idea of supernatural occurrences or danger in the viewer’s mind, which can be more uncomfortable than what viewers are used to. However, it is the one of the most adrenaline-filled genre, disclosing the worst of human behaviour and a possibility of something that the human species still cannot understand. It doesn’t matter whether one believes in the supernatural or not, but to fully enjoy a horror film, I think, it needs to be watched with an open mind and a spirit such that one would want to be scared. A horror film cannot be watched with a group of friends where a few are more than eager to prove that nothing scares them; it needs to be watched with as few numbers as possible and with the lights turned off (unless you are alone, in which case, all the rooms of your entire house need to be lit up during or after the movie). My definition of a horror film, in fact, is very loose. I would consider a chilling science fiction movie also a horror film because it evokes emotions in us which we expect a horror movie to evoke. Here is a list of my favourite horror films, not in any particular order.

Pan’s Labyrinth

This movie cannot be directly characterised as horror. It is, instead, a dark fantasy war film which will definitely scare you with its imaginative characters and enthralling storyline. The film is pretty much from the perspective of young Ofelia, who has come to live with her stepfather along with her pregnant and ill mother. Ofelia’s imagination, or the reality she belongs to, is wild and unpredictable, putting her in the path of danger many times. She encounters monstrous creatures in the process of acquiring immortality, which was predicted by a fairy tale.

Pan's Labyrinth

This is one of favourite fantasy films, especially so because it does not pander to a childish audience in terms of horror. Even though the protagonist is a little girl, Guillermo del Toro, the Spanish director and writer, has not stopped from throwing violent and disturbing images her way, or the audience’s way. It isn’t a sweet and coy film because a child is involved, and it captures the sentiment of war (in which it is set) metaphorically, and yet, very naturally. I have only seen one other of his movies, Crimson Peak. While also a good movie with an enticing story, that movie falls flat when it comes to the horror parts, which seem to be too reliant on special effects, making it almost comedic. Guillermo del Toro has also been involved in the making of Mama which shares more of its characteristics with Crimson Peak in which it also relies heavily on special effects, instead of the subtle but horrifying monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Loved Ones

This film, in particular, relies on gory dread instead of subtle supernatural events. It also doesn’t have an active supernatural element in it. I would not recommend it to someone who is wary of bloodshed in films, because this movie has many moments which will make you more than just cringe and clutch your own body parts in fear. The characters are uncomplicated and includes a dysfunctional family where a spoilt daughter is obsessed with a boy from her school. Her father enables her psychotic behaviour until Brent is on the brink of death. The events occur in a span of a few days, and the story moves forward rapidly, quickly turning into a gorish nightmare that one wouldn’t even dream on their worst enemy. The best kind of horror films are those without a supernatural element; movies which show that humanity is capable of more terror than ghosts are, especially when put under the right circumstances. The film just increasingly becomes cruel and awful, until a major reveal almost at the end of the film.

Coherence

Coherence is a science fiction thriller that released in 2013, which begins with a group of friends having dinner at one of their homes. I am a huge fan of the shaky camera technique in scary movies, as it makes the story of film seem real and absorbing for the viewer. Blair Witch Project was one of the first films I saw which used this technique, and I am a big fan of the movie, considering the fact that similar storylines were adopted by the Paranormal Activity franchise, and ruined the technique and the idea for me. The entire notion of a shaky camera is to ensure that none of the the major supernatural or scary events are captured on it too obviously, keeping the element of surprise and mystery alive, something which Paranormal Activity goes overboard with.

This film, however, doesn’t.

There isn’t much I can write about the story here without giving away the key elements of the story which are best enjoyed as the film progresses, but the movie does not involve a lot of cheap scares that has become a trope in horror films. If a movie has to make sudden movements in order to scare its viewers, in my opinion, the dread of the movie is kept on trembling grounds.

It follows

The concept and the supernatural entity in the film is the best part about it. The entity is out to kill the protagonist Jaime, since she had a sexual encounter with a person she had been on a date with. Only she could see this entity, and it kept following her with the intention to kill her. The entity is kept mysterious and elusive (like Death in the Final Destination franchise, without the overly dramatic descriptions about it), and we know only what the characters know about it, which is that it is like an infection that you cannot get rid of, and need to pass to be able to get away from its view, and even then, it is only a delay. The entity takes on some abhorrent forms which are definitely terrifying and add to the awfulness of the entity.

However, the story does not dwindle into a cheesy explanation about what this entity is. In my opinion, the best horror films are those that leave enough out to make you wonder what it was that haunted the characters so deceptively. This is also the case with Blair Witch Project (which is one of my favourite films also, considering the fact that it was one of the first films to use the shaky camera technique).

The Others

The lesser you know about the film, the more of a surprise it will be. This movie is unlike the others films that Nicole Kidman has starred in, and it was lovely seeing her in the role of an overprotective and paranoid mother, who will go any lengths to protect her children, especially since her husband never came from war. There is a wonderful twist ending to the movie which you might not see coming, which is why I would recommend watching this movie without reading up about it or even checking it out on IMDb.

Session 9

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a great example of what humans are capable of inflicting upon each other when put under pressure. Session 9 explores this concept under the backdrop of a scary shutdown mental hospital where a group of men arrive for a process of asbestos removal. Each of the men have some evils plaguing them – lack of sleep, heartbreak, and even drugs. In an atmosphere that is strangely eerie (not surprisingly), one of them finds tapes that were stored at the mental hospital regarding a girl with dissociative personality disorder. Clearly, that should be enough to catch your attention. The men spiral out of control, getting paranoid about each other quicker than you can say ‘paranoid’, and even without a possible supernatural force, the movie carries the horror very well.


My definition of a good horror film is one without cheap scares, since I think that it is fairly easy to scare someone when someone on screen appears suddenly and without notice. This is the reason why The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 would not make my list of the best horror films I’ve seen. What also bothers me about these films is the heavy reliance on religion to solve the issue at hand. However, the films listed above barely rely on cliches in filmmaking and in story-telling, which is why they are few of the best horror films I have seen.

 

Kajarya (2013)

I first saw the trailer for this movie in a little television between elevators in my apartment building. It was barely playing any sound, but the scenes looked energetic enough for me to be interested. The trailer was dramatic and loud, and a little too preachy for my taste. The subtitle of the movie is “Let the truth prevail”. It was still interesting because it was obvious the theme was relevant to our country, and because of the fact that its cast had Sumeet Vyas (Mikesh from Permanent Roommates). I wanted to see what kind of an actor he was outside of his comedic scenes. The trailer was definitely misleading.

Kajarya

The movie turned out to be quite calm. It is characterised by its documentary-drama like filming technique, which makes it even more powerful because I didn’t know which parts not to believe. The move talks about a sensitive issue, one that our country has struggled with for a long time – female infanticide. Hence, it is a given that the film will be serious and trying very hard to get a point across.

Kajarya was bold with this message, showing the contrast between the journalist Meera and a woman believed to be possessed by Kali, Kajarya. Meera is shown throughout the movie as a multi-dimensional character, with a persistent belief in justice, and yet she reacts with weakness when the justice is questioned. Kajarya, on the other hand, is dealing with harsher chemicals. Her transformation from a person hooked to opium, to someone who is behind bars but drug-free, is intense to notice. Both actresses have done a fine job of portraying their own characters well, but Ridhima Sud as Kajarya herself was extremely convincing. Her story in the film is riveting, and extremely sad.

The story keeps us in the city of Delhi, and also takes us to a remote village in Haryana where the villages participate in a cruel practice with a cosmological belief. The scenes with the villagers, and not the actors, were a few of the best scenes in the film. One that I especially liked was when Meera goes to the women of the village near their water pump, and the women refuse to trust her again. We also see Meera dealing with her life in Delhi – the parties, her boyfriend (played by Sumeet Vyas) and his family, and his job as a junior reporter where she does not believe she is taken seriously enough.

The cruelty associated with female infanticide is generally not a major point of concern for most who hear about it because it has been talked about so often. However, Kajarya does so in an manner that will give you goosebumps. It is difficult to judge which parts of it were accurate and which were not, because some were so shocking, it was difficult to digest. It is still true that 3 millions girls go ‘missing’ in our country. However, some scenes in the film are too dramatic and not vocal enough about the theme for it to have too much lasting impact.

The music of the film has been composed by Richard Horowitz who is an Academy Award nominee. There is a decent cover of “Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani” in the film which made me hear the song in a very similar light to the original in Mughal-e-Azam. It is suitably placed in the film, and while there is not much else music, this song particular is enough in the narrative as it was being told.

There was some amount of antagonisation of men in the film, and it is difficult for me to tell whether it was an objective narration or a subjective transformation of the truth in order to tell a story. Kajarya’s fate was certain, however, even in that kind of fate, she seems cleaner, purer and dignified in spite of the fact that she did commit the crimes, someone who is too idealistic a character in comparison to a real human being. This is more so done with female characters. While male characters in films are glorified to the point of unrealism, women’s characters are made extremely likable and ideal, as both the genders are perceived as. On the other hand, the men were made to be the villains, even Meera’s boyfriend who is played by Sumeet Vyas. It feels like his character is so antagonised that you are left wondering why he was her boyfriend in the first place; there are no progressions in the movie that seem to denote anything about their relationship other than the fact that he is not a likable character. Meera, on the other hand, is redeemed again and again with some quality that she is not otherwise seen to possess. Whether this is character progress, or a mistake made due to not enough work going into the storyline, is for you to decide.

Certain scenes in the film were too dramatic and sensational, especially some parts that were shot in the village. It becomes difficult to take a documentary-drama seriously when parts of it are weak and unrealistic, especially when it pertains to a serious issue like female infanticide, something that has been discussed in a variety of different ways.

For it’s depiction of a very real issue in our country, Kajarya is a helpful and poignant commentary. However, in terms of filmmaking and in-depth characterisation, it falters slightly, and in spite of this, the movie is definitely worth one watch.

 

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster, released in 2015, marked the debut of the Greek filmmaker – Yorgos Lanthimos into English films; he directed, co-wrote and co-produced it. This absurd comedy is dystopian and could be characterised by its continuous lack of emotions portrayed in the film. It is the description of a world where being single is a criminal act – and people are sent to a hotel where they are supposed to find another mate in 45 days, or they would be turned into an animal of their choice. The protagonist David (Colin Farrell) has been left by his wife for another man, and is hence escorted to the hotel to find a suitable partner for himself. He is an aging man, with average looks, and in that sense, he represents a perspective that could be extended to anyone watching the film. He is shown to have little to no self-awareness initially, and that is the feel of the entire film.

The movie is slow-paced but interesting, ominous yet funny at certain points, and reminded me in some ways of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (a better movie, in my opinion). Dystopian stories are always interesting to the effect that they portray a deeper sense of fear of society in a way that can only be understood if we focus on the current world we live in. While Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is deals with a more personal desire, a desire to get rid of all memories that are painful (and the fear that that concept is flawed and painful by itself), The Lobster deals with a more ordinary fear – a fear of being alone. The movie has an absurd plot, and the importance of being a couple is greatly exaggerated in this dystopian movie. And why not? In our current society, a lot of importance is placed on the existence of romantic love and how to find it. This may be in the form of advertisements, films, music and any other media that is consumed by the masses. The industry around Valentine’s day is pegged to be around Rs. 15 billion in India alone, keeping in account the six days leading up to it. Indian films are not exempt from this obsession of happy endings in terms of romantic love. The need to belong to a couple is recreated by advertisements everyday – take the example of Closeup toothpaste advertising. Not only this, an app like Tinder is generating huge amounts of traffic, with close to 800 million swaps in a day and more than 1,00,000 subscribers around the world, and this is just Tinder; there are a variety of other similar apps that people use. The notion of needing to find a romantic interest, in whatever form, is heavy and undeniably strong.

In this scenario, The Lobster does not seem as outlandish an idea. People in the film are supposed to find one matching quality between each other which will then be approved by authorities to be appropriate. Since none of the people in the film (other than David) are given names, I will use the characteristics that we know about them, that eventually become their defining characteristics. The man with the limp hits his face hard against a surface to be able to get frequent nosebleeds so that he could match with another woman who seemingly got nosebleeds for no reason. This characteristic of getting nose bleeds randomly is seen to be an acceptable criteria of match-making in the film. Other such characteristics include heartlessness, short-sightedness, having a limp, and possibly even liking butter cookies. These shallow ways of looking at people becomes the heart of the film, drawing inspiration from the world we actually live in.

In such a world, the conversations between people with the intention of finding a suitable partner are absurd and vexatious in nature. There is no real discussion, and the characters are reduced to being robotic when it comes to dealing with other people. This hostile scenario has also led to the beginning of a group of people who are all single, and live outside of the law, in a jungle. This is the part of the film that was relatively weaker in my opinion, and I yearned to see more of the inside of the hotel and how people behaved there. However, amidst the people who were single, being a couple was forbidden. Any kind of flirting was punishable. David is then thrown into a scenario where not being able to find a couple results in death, and finding a perfect partner for himself is impossible, even after he meets the woman who is short sighted (Rachel Weisz), who had been narrating the story the whole time. Her narration is flaccid and unappealing, completely in harmony with the rest of the film. The way the actors speak, as well, made me feel like they were reading from a script directly without emoting it all, which adds to the feeling of how robotic they had become.

So what is the real fear the movie is trying to portray? Is it the fear of being alone? It seems like the movie’s ultimate discomfort lies in the fact that choosing romance and love has become too automated and shallow, that it is difficult to judge why exactly a partner is required at all. If falling in love and getting married is only so to the purpose of having company while growing old, someone to save you when you are drowning or choking, or even getting raped, love becomes a futile concept. This futility is described in the film in full detail, with love being a process for both the protagonists. Is this futility a symbol of our world today, where the process of finding love or even sex becomes a matter of quick judgment and superficial thinking? If you believe this to be a crucial way in looking at romance and sex, then this movie is a wonderful commentary about what we should be fearing if we keep heading towards this path.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-7-09-15-pm

Miyazaki and his food

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.

From up the poppy hill

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.

lunch
Lunch made by Umi for school

 

from_up_the_poppy_hill

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.

from_up

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.

from_up_the_poppy_hill2

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.

ponyo

Here is also a little clip from Howl’s Moving Castle with some exceptional-looking bacon and eggs.

hows_moving_castle

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.

Parents eating like pigs

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.

sprited_away_sponge_cake

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.

Candy in the Grave of the Fireflies

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.