Food is a rich cultural signifier and storytelling device, both ripe for fetishization and so familiar that we often overlook its cinematic affect. In Feast for the Eyes, we seek to chart the gastronomic iconography of the screen, move forward from simple fantasies of edibility, and ponder instead the depths of narrative, character and theme that a simple pastry can encode between its buttery layers. From Chocolat to Chef, from Tarantino to Miyazaki, from The Trip to, well, The Trip to Italy… you’ll never watch a dinner table scene in the same way again.
Former Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki announced recently that the company will soon be undergoing a structural overhaul, a statement that has fans nervous about the fate of the legendary Japanese anime studio. In lieu of twiddling our thumbs while we wait for the North American release of Mami Sunada’s Ghibli documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, we’re reliving one of Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest films, and mourning the fact that the beloved director has decided to retire for good (though hopeful rumors say he may return to work on short films).
Miyazaki’s films are well-known for their feminist and environmentalist themes, but also for the attention he gives to commonplace, routine moments that other storytellers leave out. Miyazaki always makes time for the humdrum banalities of his characters’ lives, as they clean, commute to work, and cook and eat meals. In Howl’s Moving Castle, the mundane task of preparing breakfast becomes a study of family dynamics, wrapped in the microcosm of preparing and sharing a meal.
Let me set the table for you. Howl’s follows Sophie, an 18-year-old milliner transformed into a 90-year old woman. Taken in as a cleaning lady, Sophie settles into the idyllic steampunk smorgasbord that is the walking castle, along with the wizard Howl, his kid apprentice Markl and the fire demon Calcifer.
It’s Sophie’s first day at the castle. Markl examines a table overflowing with vegetables, eggs, and a milk jug full of sausages. He and Howl are obviously used to a surplus of food, since they don’t attend to the practicalities of storing it efficiently. Although he seems annoyed by Sophie’s presence, Markl’s move to break bread is the first signifier that he’ll accept her into his life.
Markl takes a loaf from the drawer and a wedge of cheese from the table. When Sophie asks him why he doesn’t want a hot breakfast, he says, “We can’t use the fire, Master Howl’s not here… Calcifer only obeys master Howl.”
This domestic power dynamic is lost on Sophie, who responds by taking a frying pan off the wall, forcing it onto the protesting fire demon, and sizzling a thick slice of bacon. Her command over the fire, the binding element of the castle and of any home, makes it clear that she is Howl’s match (pun intended – later in the film, Calcifer literally uses Sophie’s hair as fuel).
Sophie requests the kettle for tea, and Markl, who previously disregarded Sophie’s authority, now obeys without question.
Enter Howl, smoothly nudging Sophie out of the way. In true baconnoisseur fashion, he uses the pork grease to fry the eggs (a man after my own artery-clogged heart). He cracks each egg one-handed with the practiced elegance of Julia Child and feeds the shells to Calcifer, a small but eloquent illustration of their symbiotic relationship.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a real breakfast!” says Markl, slurping down his eggs, indicating that despite the plentiful kitchen, Howl runs a household that prioritizes magic (and up-keeping his blond hair-dye job) over cooking and other domestic responsibilities. The castle’s lack of organization can be summed up in Markl offering Sophie a choice between two spoons and a fork. (“You only get one ‘cause the rest are dirty!”) These misfit boys desperately need Sophie, a stabilizing addition to their oddball family.
There are other, more dangerous, forms of ingestion within the film, notably the fact that Howl has gained many of his magical abilities by consuming a falling star, losing his heart in the process. Food, though, is a wholesome comfort and a bonding ritual. After a day of hard work cleaning the castle, Sophie and Markl stretch out washed laundry on a field and reward themselves with sandwiches and tea. Breakfast helps Sophie regain her strength and gives her the gusto to live her first full day in her new old-woman body.
As delicious as the meal is, the not-completely-human Howl, struggling with both vanity and fear, can’t partake in breakfast, trading in the communal experience of sharing food for the solitary pleasure of a bath. He feeds his untouched bacon and eggs to the fire demon and asks him to move the castle, as a security measure (though we later learn the real reason is his cowardly fear of a former lover). In the same breath, Howl asks Calcifer to heat up water for his bath, an intricate ecosystem of perfumes and magics that keep him blonde and beautiful.
Calcifer, as the literal and figurative beating heart(h) of the castle, is the binding element of this shambling home, his warm and boisterous personality far more human than that of his cool and detached master. The way the other characters interact with the fire and with each other reflects their ability to enter into a functional familial unit. Howl feeding his breakfast to the fire rings hollow in comparison with Sophie cutting her hair for Calcifer’s consumption near the end of the film. Sophie sacrifices a part of herself, but in doing so gains much more – giving Calcifer the strength to move the remains of the dilapidated castle, saving our protagonists, and leaving her with a pretty cute bob cut.
Howl’s self-imposed role as Calcifer’s master places him in a contrived position of power, but he still can’t eat breakfast with his friends – both unwilling and unable to participate in the give-and-take dynamic at the core of a true family. Despite his pristine wizardly façade, Howl is flighty, deeply immature and fundamentally selfish – and the emotional subtext of the film largely deals with his growth in an actualized human being and a member of the castle’s household. Until then, he can’t have his bacon and eat it too. MM
Screenshots taken by MovieMaker.
Check out these previous installments of Feast for the Eyes:
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