Last year, I got a small tattoo on my arm of a shiny red bento box filled with white rice, divided in half by a small, whole grilled fish. On one side, the rice is topped with sakura denbu, a cherry blossom-pink condiment made from pulverized cod, along with a small pile of glistening soy beans; on the other, the rice is unadorned save for a lone umeboshi, or pickled plum. The bento is an exact replica of the one that appears in the 1988 Hayao Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro. I saw the film for the first time when I was seven, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that scene since.
The movie is considered by many to be a classic of Japanese animation, which is more commonly known as anime, a term used to refer to animated movies and television series produced in Japan or inspired by Japanese animation styles. Since the 1960s, when hit shows like Astro Boy and Speed Racer were adapted for and exported to foreign markets, anime’s popularity has continued to grow worldwide, which in turn has created a kind of subculture of anime fans across the globe. But within that community there’s a sub-subculture of people, like me, who love anime food.
“Anime food is an escape for a lot of people. It has a very soothing effect." says Christina Song, who created a popular anime food fan Instagram account (@anime__food) in 2017. “It’s like a moment in time that is perfectly frozen.”
Food appears as its best, exaggerated self in anime. The medium takes the most attractive and appetizing aspects of food and enhances them: Every soft pudding has an irresistible luster, and each heaping bowl of noodles is wreathed in just the right amount of steam. While examples of perfectly presented food may be found in many anime, within the anime-food loving sub-subculture, some of the most popular scenes are from movies made by Studio Ghibli. Co-founded by Miyazaki in 1985, Ghibli is seen as one of the most influential animation studios in the world, a reputation built on the critical acclaim and box office success of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003.
“I've loved Studio Ghibli movies since I was a kid, and I knew I wanted to eat the food from the movie one day,” says @en93kitchen, a woman (she prefers to remain anonymous) who runs a cooking school in Kanagawa, Japan, that became popular in the US after she recreated food from the most iconic Studio Ghibli moments.
The food scenes in Studio Ghibli productions, particularly the most famous ones from Miyazaki’s movies, are distinct from other anime in that the narratives slow down to accommodate the cooking, eating, and sharing of food. These scenes are often tightly intertwined with characters’ narratives or the overarching storyline, such as the one in which two parents transform into pigs while gorging themselves at the beginning of Spirited Away, creating the conflict that the protagonist of the film, Chihiro, has to ultimately resolve. From the tiniest details of a cooking sequence, like an eight-year-old chopping vegetables in a way that suggests she’s had to do it for years because of an absent parent, to the presentation of beautiful dishes, like a steaming fish pie with a golden brown fish carved into its crust, the focus on preparing and enjoying food seems to make these animated worlds come to life.
“Food and eating is so closely associated with family and emotion. It’s a really important part of the actual storytelling and scenesetting,” says Dave Jesteadt, the president of GKIDS, a company that produces animation and has handled the North American distribution of Studio Ghibli films since 2010. “Is it made with love and care because it’s an intimate family scene and this is something that shows how close the family is, or is it something that shows how fantastic the setting is?”
To celebrate the culinary excellence of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki’s films, here are some of my favorite food scenes.
Ponyo explores the underwater world of magic through the eyes of its eponymous hero, a fish who transforms into a little girl and becomes friends with a human boy named Sosuke. One of the most memorable moments in the film has to do with ham. “Ponyo’s love of ham is basically a meme at this point,” says Jesteadt with a chuckle.
In this famous food scene, Sosuke’s mother makes instant ramen for the kids in two bright blue and coral lidded bowls. Sosuke gives the package of ramen a hard shake until the dry noodles drop into the ceramic bowl with a thud; Ponyo, still unfamiliar with the human world, tries to mimic him, but she grips it too hard and broken noodles scatter into her bowl. Sosuke’s mother then pours boiling water over the noodles and covers them, and the kids have to wait for, as Sosuke says, “three minutes.” When Sosuke’s mother returns, she tells them to cover their eyes (“No peeking!”) as she adds the toppings. When they open their eyes, a perfect bowl of ramen greets them: half a hard boiled egg, chopped scallions, and two thick slices of ham sit on top of a clear broth with quivering globules of fat on the surface and the noodles visible beneath. Ponyo squeals in delight and immediately grabs a hot piece of ham with her fingers. Then the scene cuts to a small noodle sticking out of Ponyo’s mouth as she falls asleep, satisfied, at the table.
I’ve come to think of ham as a way for Ponyo to relate to her human friends even though she’s from another world. In the beginning, when she’s still in her fish-like state, it’s almost grotesque to see her devour ham with such relish, but as the plot develops, her ham obsession makes her feel like a real little girl. She yells about it, giggles when she eats it, and becomes overwhelmed with excitement whenever she sees it—just like a true child with anything they love. When she eats the ham-topped ramen with Sosuke, she gets to have a fundamentally human experience: sharing a lovingly prepared meal with someone you care about.
My Neighbor Totoro: Bento
My Neighbor Totoro is the most iconic film from the Studio Ghibli collection, so much so that Totoro himself is the studio’s logo. The 1988 film follows two sisters and a father as they settle into a new home in the countryside of Tokorozawa City in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. Throughout the movie, however, the mother is sick in the hospital. Though understated, her absence shapes how the kids cope with their new family unit, and gives context to their self-guided adventures.
In the bento scene, the older sister Satsuki wakes up early to make lunch for her father and Mei, her younger sister, before running off to school. There are several pots bubbling and steaming away at once, yet Satsuki manages all of the cooking with an ease that hints that she’s done it a million times before. Over three rice-filled bento boxes, she spoons on sakura denbu, edamame, one umeboshi, and a shishamo. Satsuki hands her lunch to Mei, who admires it. The care with which she makes the lunch demonstrates Satsuki’s love for her family—but also the responsibilities she’s been forced to take on due to her mother’s illness and the father’s busy work schedule. And while the fact that they’re often alone results in them having magical adventures with Totoro, a magical forest spirit, it can also make them feel lost when they enter back into the reality of their everyday lives.
Howl’s Moving Castle: Calcifer’s Breakfast
Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantastical adventure featuring demons, wizards, and witches in a medieval European-inspired world. In the beginning, a young woman named Sophie gets cursed by a witch and transforms into an old lady. Her only chance to break the spell is to befriend a heartless wizard named Howl.
This scene begins by showing a bounty of food on an old, dusty table. At first glance, it looks like a feast, but upon further inspection, you can see the details of neglect: the potatoes are sprouting and the onions have fully grown green tops. Sophie has just snuck into Howl’s moving castle, but she confidently grabs a glistening plate of thick bacon and a basket of eggs like she’s been there before. A fire demon named Calcifer lives in the castle and controls its movement; he also happens to control the fire used for cooking. After some banter, Calcifer spitefully gives into Sophie’s request to cook bacon. She places a thick skillet on top of the red-hot demon, reducing him to a small flame. Sunny-side-up eggs and fatty slices of bacon bubble away. “May all your bacon burn,” Calcifer angrily says. Shortly after, Howl shows up and finishes making bacon for everyone. Sophie is at first apprehensive with Howl’s seemingly kind act, but she eventually gives in and eats breakfast.
The entire meal showcases the notable attributes of each character: strong-willed Sophie, rebellious-but-kind Calcifer, and uneasy Howl.
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Herring and Pumpkin Pie
Kiki’s Delivery Service is about a young witch named Kiki who leaves home for the first time to try and make it on her own in a big city. Along her journey for independence, she meets several characters who are dealing with a loneliness and isolation that mirrors her own experience. There’s a woman who has retreated into the woods to pursue her art; there’s a boy who’s often treated like an outcast among popular kids in the town; there’s a couple, who ultimately take Kiki in, that struggles with the changes that come with having their first child. While they all individually grapple with their own form of isolation, it draws them to each other as well.
In the food scene, Kiki meets an elderly woman and helps her around the house. Many areas of her home are dusty—small tasks have been left undone, indicating that her family has forgotten her. Out of empathy and kindness, Kiki decides to take on the additional task of helping the woman bake a herring and pumpkin pie for her granddaughter’s birthday party. It is covered with pie crust and a neatly decorated fish in the center accents the olives at the edges. Kiki struggles to build a fire from scratch for baking. After some time and care, the pie is done with seconds to spare. She rushes off in the rain to deliver it. When she arrives, she is greeted by an ungrateful young girl who looks at the pie in disgust before closing the door in Kiki’s face. It’s a rare moment in Studio Ghibli where food is used to signify rejection.
“It really highlights the idea of loneliness and isolation that the whole film deals with,” says Jesteadt.
Spirited Away: Onigiri
Spirited Away is the most food-centric of all the Studio Ghibli films. Set in an onsen, or bathhouse, patronized almost exclusively by spirits, almost every scene contains food of some kind, whether it's the sumptuous feasts served to the clientele or the relatively simple fare eaten by the bathhouse employees.
The entire story is built on a food scene: A family is moving to their new home, but before they even arrive, they take a detour to visit an abandoned amusement park. As they wander, they come upon rows on rows of empty stalls with mountains of food. Piles of shimmering sausages, rice cakes, and various kinds of roasted meats are left unattended and have an aura of sinister temptation around them. Chihiro, the main character, looks upon the food uneasily and urges her parents to leave, but they don’t listen and begin to gorge themselves on someone else’s feast. Soon they are transformed into pigs, and Chihiro spends the rest of the film trying to find a way to rescue them.
But one of my favorite scenes from the movie is focused on a simpler food: After Chihiro is shown where her pig-parents are being held by a boy named Haku, she sits down to try to make sense of this entirely familiar and forbidding world. Haku offers her some onigiri, to help comfort her, and she takes a bite and she immediately begins to cry. This moment speaks to Chihiro’s vulnerability; it is the first time she allows herself to break down. It speaks to me of how intimate it can be to share even a commonplace dish with someone who cares.
My obsession with anime food has only grown over time and my love of Miyazaki films has grown with it. Whenever I look down at my arm and see the shiny red bento tattoo from My Neighbor Totoro, it reminds me to take a deep breath and relax. It allows me to imagine a more peaceful world, and creates a brief, gentle escape, if only for a moment.