Meals are an integral part of every culture. The types of food we love and the way we take our meals says volumes about collective ideas of nutrition, family, and comfort. In 1985, Juzo Itami released his hilarious and poignant film, Tampopo, which deals with the Japanese relationship with food. Tampopo‘s main story revolves around a single mother (the titular character) who runs a ramen shop. One day, a trucker named Goro comes by and decides that he needs to teach her how to properly make ramen. Aside from this through-line, there are several short side pieces, many of which follow the foodie exploits of the sort-of narrator, a luxury-loving, white-clad yakuza boss. Not long after Tampopo‘s release, food began to play a prominent role in anime, as well.
But Itami isn’t the only Japanese director paying homage to his country’s cuisine. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (as well as the rest of Studio Ghibli’s films), are known for their exquisitely animated displays of appetizing vittles, such that the viewers’ tummies begin to rumble. And not only is the food beautiful, it’s usually important to the plot. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs because they give in to gluttony and eat the food in the spirit world. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki makes her living partially by working in a bakery; there is also a scene where she helps an elderly woman prepare a herring pie to be delivered to an unappreciative granddaughter. In Ponyo On A Cliff By The Sea, Sosuke gains Ponyo’s trust by feeding her ham, and later his mother makes them both some mouth-watering noodles. In Princess Mononoke, San feeds her wolf brothers by pre-chewing their meat when they are too weak to do it themselves. It is clear that food holds a very special place in Miyazaki-sensei’s heart, and that he understands the immediate recognition of food’s importance with his audience.
Food is just as important to the heroes and heroines of shonen and shojo titles, however. What would Sailor Moon be without Usagi loading her face with dumplings, or Makoto creating beautiful bento boxes? In One Piece, Luffy almost constantly talks about eating (specifically meat), and it was a priority of his to find a ship’s cook before even worrying about the rest of his crew. In Dragonball Z, Goku names his son Gohan, a word which means both “rice” and “meal” (and have you ever seen the two of them going at a bowl of rice?).
Beyond all of this, nearly every single anime features the characters taking part in a meal and chanting the omnipresent phrase, “itadakimasu,” which literally translates to “I humbly receive.” It is a Japanese custom, also, to make sure that every grain of rice is eaten in order to properly honor the rice farmers. And sticking your chopsticks straight up in your rice is poor etiquette, because Japanese mourners leave food offerings for the dead in this manner.
One of my favorite things about being an otaku is learning more about Japanese food and devouring as much of it as possible. Sushi is delicious, as much of the US has realized in the last decade or so, but it’s only the very tip of the gastronomical iceberg. I had the extreme fortune to visit Japan for a week in high school, and I honestly think that eating was a huge part of my very positive experience. Miso soup and rice with every meal, Japanese-style sweetomelettes, Pocky, hand-cooked ramen at a little shop in Nara…in fact, I still haven’t found a flavor equivalent for that ramen stateside. Maybe my interest in food and eating is also a part of my own heritage, but the Japanese are doing something very right with their cuisine, and I think they know it if their television shows and movies are any indication. And learning about food via anime is another great way that viewers in the West are able to bridge the gap between our East Asian neighbors, for to share a meal with a stranger makes that stranger a friend.