This year, the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away turns 20. Though the film is a breathtaking marvel in animation and a mesmerizing folk tale, it is also an incredible showcase of stylized Japanese cuisine, to a point the main plot of the film is driven by what the characters eat and don’t eat.
“Spirited Away” is one of many additions into the history of Japanese cuisine on film, other stand out’s including the Ramen Western Tampopo, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Midnight Diner. The latter of which telling audiences the recipes of title meals. Food is tied deeply to the culture of Japan, to a point many films and anime feature characters eating and enjoying prepared meals. Something unheard of in the United States.
America has a film culture that nearly abstains from food. There are few exceptions in American cinema, with Ratatouille and Chef. Each being underdog stories of would-be chefs achieving their dreams, constructed in the vein of sports stories like Rudy and Rocky Balboa, respectively. Food becomes a talent, a skill that is separated from the person or rat in question, and this is an issue.
In the article “Organic Fantasy” Nnedi Okorafor talks about the necessity to eat and share food. Describing a scene from Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber where food is shared and in this sharing language is learned. Though, purely fiction it is important to think about how culture and language are baked directly into food.
In the magical realist novel “Como agua para chocolate” or “Like Water for Chocolate” each chapter is named after a dish and has a recipe that follows. Chapter one opens with a recipe for “Tortas de Navidad,” or “Christmas Rolls.” The book uses the form of literature to tie this recipe to language and ideas.
While, the longstanding show The Simpsons explores a similar topic with Bart’s attempts to find help in France, only to find it in the most unlikely of places.
Though food is not the key to learning any language, it opens a door to other cultures. Instead, food is an expression of culture, history and even language in a form that is easily consumed and understood.
Looking to America, however, we see conflicting views of what food is or what it means. The Food Pyramid has alienated food from its cultural roots, by quantifying. Food is not a creation of mind and culture, rather a summation of basic building blocks.
Food has been industrialized, reshaped and re-evaluated as a necessity rather than an art or a cultural artifact. Nowhere is this more prevalent than fast food chains, where food is created and served with a singular vision or cultural identity.
An inherently American invention, fast food has changed the way citizens view food. Speed and calories become quantitative elements that are inseparable from food. Though they are arguably necessary for the health of eaters, they carry a certain stigma.
Instead, the food needs to be re-interpreted and reevaluated. Looking to Japanese cinema and literature, new possibilities exist for the way to see food. Rather than quantitative amounts, eating should mean moments of respite or conversation.
Food should be engaged in small portions as a necessary art. Ovens, pans and microwaves are mediums for creation and discussion, and like the films that have captured such foods, eating should be enjoyed to the fullest.
Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him firstname.lastname@example.org.