Aesthetics of the bento box
(I've posted about bento before, here and here. Recently I gave a short talk for a museum audience on "the aesthetics of the Japanese bento box." Some excerpts ...)
Roland Barthes once wrote on the bento: "The dinner tray seems a picture of the most delicate order: it is a frame containing against a dark background various objects (bowls, boxes, chopsticks, tiny piles of food) ... However, such an order, delicious when it appears, is destined to be undone, recomposed by the very rhythmn of eating ... the painting was actually a palette."
Indeed; shown above is an example of a squared and partitioned shokado bento box, said to have been inspired by the paint boxes of Shokado Shoji, a Zen monk and painter of the early 17th century. Since its invention the shokado has become the prototypical bento box and the most popular in and outside of Japan, including non-Japanese restaurants which have adopted the format in a twist on the idea of the prix fix menu, where multiple courses are served simultaneously in one elegant box.
Now what are the formal characteristics of the shokado? The first thing that leaps to the eye is segmentation. The lacquered box is divided into four separate compartments and although the bento includes a wide array of bounties from the ocean, mountains, fields and forests, there is no sense of clutter, disorder or congestion. Every element seems to be contained in its proper place and there is no blurring of boundaries.
Let's take a closer look. In the lower right compartment you have a mound of rice shaped to resemble a hill blooming with spring flowers; on the upper right an assortment of delicacies from land and sea; on lower left, tsukemono pickles garnished with paper-thin slices of carrot and radish in the form of cherry blossom petals, and a little ceramic bowl holding dipping sauce.
Numerous readings are possible. Designer Kenji Ekuan has theorized about the bento's relation to the spatial packaging of the city of Edo for which the shokado provides a map, and the four social classes (shi-min-ko-sho) instituted during that period. According to this view the four boxes would correspond to the living quarters of samurai (strongly tied to the clergy class, therefore represented by the shojin, vegetarian compartment), farmers (rice compartment), artisans (delicacies) and merchants (soysauce and preserves.)
The bento box and its partition walls might also be read as the kanji character for ta, signifying "rice paddy," where the agricultural drama of the four seasons are played out. It could even be, as Ekuan suggests, an arial view of the Japanese islands themselves, the bento box offering a scenic tour of Japan's different regions.
What strikes me most, though, is the utter lack of hierarchy in the shokado's organization. Unlike the Western formula of meat, vegetable & starch, there is no one element that seeks to dominate and reduce the rest as side dishes. There is no totalizing center, no single point perspective or depth. It is a flat, all-over composition, almost like a rolled picture scroll with multiple, traveling vantage points.
Post-banquet scenes are generally appalling but after a bento meal the lid is placed back on the box and resumes its initial pristine appearance. This is very much like a computer's "re-set" function and I think it is interesting that the shokado provided the first inspiration for IBM's ThinkPad design. Here we have a bento box providing a blueprint for digital organization, using bite-sized nuggets of information stored in non-hierarchical order. We are reminded that the flat, compact, portable format of the laptop is essentially that of a bento box...