I recently listened to a really good Japanese podcast episode that I felt was relevant to animators so I decided to translate a part of it for anyone who is interested. It was an episode from RhymeStar Utamaru's Weekend Shuffle that aired on 4/21/2012 featuring Fukuda Rika, a snack researcher and writer. It's a pretty rough translation and the actual program is conversational so this is a summary, not a transcription.
Fukuda Rika is a writer who has developed a film theory that analyzes how Food is used as a storytelling device. In this particular episode she concentrates on the works of Miyazaki Hayao.
General Food Theory Principles:
1. Good characters eat food enjoyably (like it's delicious).
A character who opens their mouth really wide and scarfs down their food, "shows the bottom of their stomach" (a Japanese figure of speech that means to reveal their intentions and emotions.) The audience unconsciously feels affinity towards and can trust the character who does this.
2. A character who is hiding their true colors does not eat food.
A character who needs to remain out of reach in a story doesn't show "the bottom of their stomach" by eating too extravagantly. For someone to remain shrouded in mystery or, the artist shouldn't hint at the biology of the character that allows the audience room to think "they're just humans after all, like me."
This applies to both good and bad guys, for example characters like Lupin and Jigen shouldn't be presented as too relatable since that diminishes their "coolness" and "super-manness", which is why Fukuda Rika believes that the spaghetti scene in Castle of Caligostro is an instance of failed food grammar. Miyazaki's Castle of Caligostro was heavily criticized by Monkey Punch and Lupin fans for depicting Lupin out of character. This kind of eating works for pure characters like Conan and Jimsee in Future Boy Conan, and probably what was carried over into this film.
3. A villain wastes food.
This applies whether they eat or don't eat food. Food theory has a direct connection to the audience's basic animal instincts, so if you see a person eating food enjoyably you feel good about them, but if you see someone wasting food we feel like our basic biological/preservation instincts are being wronged.
A good example of the use of Food as a device in film, is during the scene in Inglorious Basterds where Colonel Landa is eating the strudel. At the beginning he eats it tastefully and comments on how good it is, and you start to think food-theory wise, "Oh he's starting to be kind of sincere," but at the end of the scene he commits this unthinkable action (of putting his cigarette in his half-eaten strudel.) That's a moment where food is used to twist the audience's emotions. And it's not even a significant performance of his villany, and the action itself is quite minor within the syntagm of the film. But seeing that this character can easily do something that goes against our basic instincts (to waste food by putting out his cigartette in it) connects to the idea that this character is one that can also easily kill other human beings, which also goes against our human instincts. So that's food theory in a nutshell.
Food theory in Miyazaki Anime
A lot of people think of Miyazaki's film and think plainly along the lines of "There are a lot of scenes where the food looks good." But the role food plays in Miyazaki's films is not at such a vague level. Miyazaki is a rare artist who employs the grammar of feeding characters who deserve to eat, and will never allow for communal eating between people that have no emotional connection to each other.
How he got to this point - he originally set out to be a comic artist and fortunately when he entered university there was no Manga research organizations - so instead he joined a Children's Literature research chapter. And in Children's Literature, food is extremely important. Hooking children's interest by depicting food is key, seeing as sexuality is still insubstantial at that point and violence is scary. For example, Nakagawa Eriko's "Guri to Gura".
Lupin the 3rd Castle of Caligostro - Cigarettes play a key role in this film and adds to Lupin's nihilism (and contradicts the spaghetti scene mentioned earlier), but also plays as a device to prevent one from talking = they have something they can't talk about. The depiction of cigarettes in this film is totally spot on. Opening credits sequence/ Clarisa thanks Jigen and he drops his cigarette from his mouth/ Zenigata and Lupin share a half smoked cigarette in the underground tunnel, which has the significance of maintaining just the right amount of distance between the two characters.
Spaghetti acting is much better in Porco Rosso where in Milan the ladies in Picolo's factory make spaghetti before they start working. Miyazaki really wants to show the exchange of energy between his characters' actions and their consumption of food. Also he really romanticizes food, in the same way another director might romanticize guns or love.
Grey Food Theory
Rarely carried out successfully but there is a good example with the herring pie in Kiki's Delivery service. The grandmother and Kiki prepare it in the wood oven (after the electric one fails), then on her way there it starts raining so Kiki goes so far as to cover the pie with her skirt to keep it warm while becoming soaked herself, and when she finally delivers it, the granddaughter ungratefully says "Beh, I don't know why she keeps making this I dislike it." And shuts the door on Kiki. It's easy to hate the granddaughter character, but I'd guess more often than not that the audience can relate more to the granddaughter than to Kiki. Most people have strong likes and dislikes when it comes to food and have had the experience of resenting something prepared by a relative (or a relative who keeps giving you food that you used to like but now don't, or a relative who grew up during the war and continues to serve too much food etc.) And reflecting that for the audience in this character is a stabbing didactic tool on Miyazaki's part. There might be significance in that the word "herring" in Japanese is nishin, a homonym of the word ni-shin, which means to be double-faced/double-dealing.
You can't fight if you're hungry.
Characters in films from Ponyo to Laputa will always pack food when they are about to go out on a journey. Most directors don't show characters eating for energy- say if you watch a James Bond movie, you just assume that martinis are not the only thing they've consumed before fighting. Perhaps this is a distinguishing feature between live action movies and animated ones, where it takes more convincing to give cartoons biological gravity, otherwise they are just drawings. What a character brings with them when they are suddenly forced to run away really reveals what their priorities are, whether it's food, money, weapons, etc. In Miyazaki's films, if a character doesn't pack their amenities they are often seen acquiring them in town, such as with Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Master Yupa in Nausicaa, is a knight, and contrary to the custom image of a knight as a silhouette on a singular horse, Yupa has a second horse/bird who carries the just the supplies for his journey, and it really brings home the point that this man's journey is long and arduous. It's rare for an artist to successfully illustrate this without making it look silly - getting that to add gravity to the story rather than appearing superfluous.
Animals also get hungry.
Nausicaa feeds animals before she eats herself, and this shows her character. (The goji berries, a sign of love for the princess by the village children, plays a key role as a sign of hope in the last shot where its seed has sprouted into a young tree in the miasmic forest where she'd eaten them.) In Spirted Away, Lin - the girl Chihiro becomes friends with, feeds the kurosukes candy, and she brings Kamajii (a yokai, not a human) water and tendon. There are empty dishes by him that suggest that this goes on regularly and necessarily. These subtle visual cues hint at the life and relationships of these characters without verbalizing them and bringing attention to the fact. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka is a prince, but he feeds Yakul first - out of his hand, and then eats the leftovers from the same hand, and then proceeds to feed Yakul from that hand again. This reveals how much he values Yakul and also shows the nobility of his character as a prince who puts his subjects before himself. Jiji in Kiki's Delivery Service starts out by eating with Kiki at the table, but when they grow away from each other and their worlds diverge she starts eating either on the floor, or carries the food away showing the emotional development of these characters as they brecome independent. Animals in Miyazaki's films aren't treated like stuffed animals and are faithful to the fact that forming relationships with animals is often done through feeding them rather than pats or gambols.