Ramen, rice balls and herring pie: we dive into Hayao Miyazaki’s clever use of food to tell the fantastical tales of the Japanese animating house
A Studio Ghibli film is a multi-sensory delight, populated by warrior princesses, witches-in-training, sentient and sassy flames, Catbuses and brooding dragons. Millions of us have been drawn into the magnetic universe molded by Hayao Miyazaki, growing up with lessons on coming of age, corruption, honour and strength in character.
“Their emotions will become yours,” Miyazaki once said: though the narratives of Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind inhabit faraway, fictional worlds, we fall deep into these stories because they’re so visually arresting. The Japanese animation powerhouse is renowned for its hand drawn artistry, from the details of twigs shaking on a flying broomstick to wobbling, glistening Siberia cake.
And as much as it has a heart, it also has a stomach: packed bento boxes, steaming mahogany stew, an engorged herring pie. That’s why a new exhibit at the Ghibli museum in Japan, titled Delicious! Animating Memorable Meals (or Taberu wo Kaku in Japanese), is celebrating one of its most satisfying factions of filmic prowess. Here’s how the culinary moments of the Ghibli franchise feeds its fantasy world.
REFLECTING THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD IN JAPANESE CULTURE
Ghibli films straddle the line between fantastical other-dimensions and classic Japanese culture. Food is an expression of identity, of family and state. At times through Japan’s history, rice was an ‘instrument of trade’, used as currency. Rice measured the daimyo (a lord) and their wealth, and provided payment for samurais.
It plays a part in ancient folklore – the moon isn’t a man, but a rabbit with rice cakes. Known as Washoku, Japanese cuisine is protected by UNESCO, and is entwined with social practices and traditions. To stay in the ghostly world of Spirited Away, young Chihiro is warned by Haku she must eat their food or she could disappear – food is her anchor to the place. Eating together is one of the first things the family in My Neighbour Totoro do, and Satsuki and Mei set off to school with Bento Boxes every day – a widespread lunch practice.
There’s also a love for fresh produce ingrained in traditional cuisine, so we see a lot of cooking and shopping at markets – check Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) for bustling market scenes bursting with colour and the lovingly baked herring pot pies. Food itself is also a wider art form – plate arrangement is known as moritsuke – so there’s plenty to play with for a Ghibli animator in the lavish buffets in Anna’s grand house of When Marnie Was There (2015).
BUILDING A STICKY, WOBBLY, SWEET WORLD
The reason why Miyazaki and his team are masters of their craft is the detail that goes into every cinematic snap. In Starting Point, a 2009 collection of essays and interviews focused on their founder, Miyazaki observes: “Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Even if the world depicted is a lie, the trick is to make it seem as real as possible. Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a lie that seems so real, viewers will think the world depicted might possible exist.” Basically, that glistening katsu that No Face drags towards his ravenous self in the bathhouse, and the pastel-coloured konpeito candies Chihiro feeds the soot sprites are meant to look positively delicious to you.
As Asher Isbrucker illustrates in his visual essay, “The Immersive Reality of Studio Ghibli”, the animation of movement is paramount to its realism. The slow dripping of honey as it’s spooned out of a pot in Ponyo (2008), the bubbles popping sharply in a pan of crisping bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), wine swirling in Madame Gina’s glass in Porco Rosso (1992), or the laboured chopping of pineapple in Only Yesterday (1991).
CULINARY CREATURE COMFORTS
Food is used across Miyazaki’s oeuvre as a source of comfort in tough times. In Ponyo, the breathtaking and painfully cute tale of a goldfish sea princess transforming into a child, instant ramen hits the spot. Ponyo, Sosuke and his mother Lisa escape a flood in the town, and with no lights or electricity, they go about making hot chocolate and noodles, adding ham and egg to up the indulgence. It’s slow, deliberate and well-received among the exhausted, soaking wet group.
Howl’s Moving Castle (1994) sees young milliner Sophie turned into a 90-year-old woman when she encounters the Witch of the Waste. Lost and miserable on the hillside, she eats a plain and sad meal of bread and cheese – it’s reflective of her life there and then, as she faces a laborious search for the cure. Her next meal is after she encounters the moving castle – after taming Calcifer, a sentient flame, she’s able to rustle up bacon and eggs for the castle residents. As Markl tells Sophie, it’s usually only Howl himself who can cook with Calcifer – here, hearty meals are only possible when they’re all together. And later, when more people come to stay at the castle and the family grows, meals become more refined, using proper cutlery and dishware.
BENTOS, BUNS AND BONDING EXPERIENCES
Some of the films’ most emotional moments are shared over food. A major breakthrough for Chihiro, working in the otherworld bathhouse in Spirited Away as she attempts to restore her pig parents to human form, is when Lin hands her an anman. The steamed bun filled with red beans is an element of Chinese cuisine, and the gesture sees a bond form between the two young women, one Chihiro needs the most, alone in this strange new dimension.
In Princess Mononoke (1997), food helps to break down the barrier San – a young girl raised by wolves – has with the human world. After prince Ashitaka is shot while attempting to save her, he remains weak in the forest. In a moment of compassion, San chews his food and feeds him. Castle in the Sky’s (1986) Pazu and Sheeta share a modest meal in a cave while escaping pirates: over simple bread and eggs we see them join together as a team.
When My Neighbour Totoro’s Mei and Satsuki encounter the huge Totoro creature in the rain, Satsuki offers her umbrella for shelter. In return, Totoro offers them nuts and seeds. When the girls plant the seeds, they sprout into a huge tree. It’s a dreamy metaphor for the growth of a fantastical friendship. Similarly, a picnic with thumbprint cookies on a little row boat solidifies the friendship between Anna and the mysterious Marnie in When Marnie Was There.
GLUTTONY AND EXCESS
Of course, one of the most memorable moments of the Ghibli roster sees food brought to absolute excess in Spirited Away: Chihiro’s parents eat a cursed buffet and turn into pigs. Huge shiny roast chickens nest together in colossal bowls, bulging soup dumplings and dollops of mustard: unfortunately, this spread was prepared for ancient gods, and her parents must pay. According to RocketNews back in 2016, Ghibli employee explained that this moment symbolised Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, highlighting the trappings of greed and excess that led to a serious financial crisis.
Another eye-popping scene takes place in the bathhouse, when Chihiro and the workers must tend to a ravenous No Face. Here, he gorges on a range of sushi dishes, Ikameshi (a delicacy from Hokkaido that’s basically rice-stuffed squid) and slow roasted sweet potatoes known as ishi yaki-imo, opening a scary red mouth to pour in the contents. When he’s finished indulging – even swallowing some people for good measure – he lets out a horrific burp. Later, when Chihiro feeds him medicine from the River Spirit, he throws everything back up and becomes his former self. Food drives many of Spirited Away’s lessons on moral codes: not engaging in gluttony and protecting those you love most.
THE FAMILY UNIT
Cooking and eating together happens often: though they aren’t family, the residents of the boarding house in From Up On Poppy Hill share meals, and Umi acts as a domestic figurehead, turning the aji-furai in a sizzling pan. Satsuki, My Neighbour Totoro’s oldest child protagonist, is seen cooking regularly for her family, packing the lunchtime bento boxes for herself, her father and sister Mei.
For Mei and Satsuki, food and produce is an opportunity to connect with their hospital-bound mother: Mei carves “Mom” into her sweetcorn. Seita and Setsuko, the young protagonists of Grave of the Fireflies who lose their mother in the World War II Kobe firebombing, hold onto a small sweets tin and jars of pickled plums as a link to their old home life. This candy is an emotional treasure.
And for the young witch-in-training in Kiki’s Delivery Service, she recognises familial love that she yearns for in her new life, in the form of a herring pie baked by an old lady for her granddaughter’s birthday. When Kiki delivers the gift, the granddaughter is ungrateful, but Kiki recognises the love and care that went into her pie.
There’s a huge online presence that chronicles the most significant, mouth-watering meals across the Studio Ghibli filmic roster. With that, there’s also a variety of blogs that provide exact replica recipes, from salmon in béchamel that pops up in Porco Rosso, to winter vegetable nimono in Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke’s okayu.