In the Ghibli universe (and indeed, our own) the garden is a safe place of beauty, innocence and joy, somewhere to withdraw to and lock out all that's negative. It's full of fragile, fragrant life, and any intrusion of evil is a gross violation of its serenity.
For the same reason, the garden is the symbol of heaven in many religions, and Ghibli films follow this line of thought. Many a hero or heroine turns to the recluse of a garden when they need peace and healing. The love of Porco Rosso spends most of her time in a beautifully manicured garden, and being there with her is his ultimate dream. Porco Rosso, however, doesn't feel worthy and so rejects this blissful heavenly vision.
Howl is not dissimilar. He gifts a garden to Sophie, a wonderful alpine meadow full of wild flowers. This garden serves a dual purpose - it's a happy place for Howl and Sophie to withdraw to from the harsh brutality of war, but it also enables Sophie to start her own flower business. In this way it's a gift to bring them closer to each other, at the same time ensuring Sophie's independence. The dual nature of it withers the blissful Sophie back into an old woman. Ladies, we all know that moment.
However, magical and sacred as it seems, this garden isn't untouched by the war, after all - the gross intrusion I described above happens in the form of war planes appearing on the horizon. The planes and their conscious, living bombs ruin the idyll and prompt Howl to fight. Of all the wartime brutality in the film this defacing of the garden seems perhaps the worst.
Later in the film we learn that this meadow and the adjacent little cottage is where Howl spent the happiest time of his childhood, and this is where he entered into the magical contract that gave him superpowers. Allowing Sophie into this space, into his own childhood and innermost secrets, is more significant than appears at first, and when Sophie understands this there's no more withering back into an old lady.
In The Secret World of Arrietty, the garden is an entire universe for the tiny Borrowers, people the size of your little finger that live a clandestine life in a countryside home. One mint leaf equals a month's worth of tea for them, but of course there are risks involved in scavenging. Niya the cat is just one of them - there are vicious crows, deadly raindrops and the most terrifying of all, Shō the vacationing boy with a heart disease.
For Shō, of course, the garden is a place of healing and serenity, away from the stress of the city. But the Borrowers believe that his presence is an intrusion and threatens their hidden existence - and the garden, perhaps the most beautiful of all Ghibli films, becomes a perilous place that they must flee.
The garden is a place to leave behind in Kiki's Delivery Service, as well. This time it's a safe place, though: it is home and the scene of childhood memories, and the reason it must be left behind is because Kiki must go out in the world, leave her comfort zone and be stretched into an adult.
The garden in Totoro is the opposite of this: when tiny Mei arrives, clueless and always in her sister's shadow, it is the garden that makes her grow, forcing Mei to discover her own world and confront her fears. It's also where the magic happens: this is where she finds healing for her mum, and it's (quite literally) a safe passage into the outside world.
Safe haven or adventurous jungle, the Ghibli garden is a feast for the eyes.
Speaking of feasts, they make up an important part of every single Ghibli movie. I get hungry every time I watch one, but more than just a treat for the body, they also nourish (or harm) the soul.
In Spirited Away, consuming food from the spirit world ensures that Chihiro keeps her flesh and blood body. Ingesting their food means internalising something of their world, and thus becoming part of it. When Haku forces Chihiro to eat until she stops crying and shivering, not only does he replenish her physical energy, he also provides her with mental strength.
However, if your intentions are less wholesome, the food will bite back. When Chihiro's parents greedily devour the food meant for the gods, they are turned into pigs, and I guarantee that no child will forget the "vomit chase" that takes place after No Face polishes off the weekly food allowance in the bath house.
Done in the right way, though, eating together is a form of bonding, like having tea in Zeniba's house, the ramen scene in Ponyo, the first breakfast in Howl's Moving Castle or grabbing street food together in Poppy Hill. This perhaps comes across strongest in When Marnie Was There, where the culinary arts are taken to new heights, even by Studio Ghibli standards.
Marnie and Anna first start building a real relationship when they have a picnic and share personal things about themselves. A ghost and a real-world girl eating the same food is not unlike Chihiro munching away at spirit victuals. But in Marnie even the most ordinary meals are a measure of social integration: the more comfortable you are around the people you are with, the more you eat. Despite the astonishing food creations her aunt churns out daily, Anna doesn't have much of an appetite when she first arrives, but once she's settled in she gobbles up whatever is placed in front of her.
I'll finish this section with an appetising collection of Ghibli recipes on BuzzFeed.
Now please excuse me while I go make some ramen.
The rest of my Ghibli series
Part 1 is about cats, pigs, rural vs industrial, war and guys wearing jewellery.
Part 2 is nothing but trains. Yeah. An entire Ghibli post just about trains.
All images, characters and events referenced © Studio Ghibli