We've always been told that you shouldn't play with your food, but we'll make an exception for the art of Bento. For the uninitiated, Bento is kind of like a Japanese packed lunch - it's a single-portion meal which is often arranged in a visually appealing manner. In Japan, mothers often spend a large amount of time creating Bento boxes for their children which feature famous characters from popular culture — and unsurprisingly, these are often inspired by video games. We spoke to Anna The Red — a US-based Bento box maker — about her own creations, and the entire process made us very hungry indeed.
Nintendo Life: First of all can you tell the readers who you are and what you do?
Anna: I go by the name AnnaTheRed (or Anna The Red). I was born and raised in Japan and came to the U.S. in 1994. After graduating an art school (School of Visual Arts), I got a job as a translator for Japanese films, anime, and manga. Playing video games, making Bento and making plushes were just hobbies then. I started going to PAX in 2009 and got to give my handmade plushes to the people at The Behemoth (the creators of Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid). Ever since then, I'd make plushes from the games by The Behemoth and other independent game developers and gave them to the designers and creators at each PAX. In 2011, I was offered a full-time job as a product designer at The Behemoth and moved to San Diego from Brooklyn, New York.
NL: When and how did you first get into Bento box making?
A: My very first Bento had a sausage-shape like an octopus and a boiled egg that looked like a chicken. It wasn't put together nicely at all. I was packing a Bento box with the leftovers from the dinner for Derek (my boyfriend at the time, and now my husband) and it just looked so boring, and I had an extra couple of minutes so I did it out on a whim. As soon as he saw it, he went "awwwwwwwww". My desire to hear him say it again started me making Bento of stuff he liked.
NL: What is your earliest memory of Nintendo?
A: I grew up in Japan, so my earliest memory of Nintendo is the Famicom (NES in the U.S.). I had an older brother so we got a NES pretty early. My brother and I would ask our parents and relatives for a new NES game every chance we got. Also, we had no restrictions on how long we could play video games and both of my parents weren't at home during the day because of their jobs, so we played a LOT of games. I guess you can say that we were pretty hardcore gamer kids. We also had Family BASIC with a Nintendo-themed keyboard, cassette tape recorder and everything. It's sad that we couldn't do anything with it, though. Maybe we were too young for it and definitely weren't programmer material. We just wanted to play games.
We also bought Famitsu and other magazines that had maps and cheats. There was no internet back then, so you had to learn these tricks from word of mouth or magazines. We spent hours trying to do the invincibility trick in Xevious. We finally got it working but we quickly found out how boring it was if you didn't have to worry about dying.
NL: How do you decide which characters to make, does it rely on certain colours or shapes?
A: The colour of food matters a lot when it comes to Kyaraben (Character Bento) because I do not use food colouring to dye my food. Also, my main focus is always nutrition and the taste, so trying to make a balanced meal while making a character can be challenging.
Another limiting factor is I avoid using any character that has a lot of blue. The colour blue is an appetite suppressant and also blue is very hard to create with natural food. I'd either change blue to green in my Bento, or sometimes I'll dye a hard boiled egg with red cabbage juice. That's why I've never made a Bento starring Mario because of his blue overalls — although I did make Mario Galaxy Bento without Mario once!
About shapes, I realised that organic shapes are easier to make but something man-made is very hard to recreate with food. My Samus/Metroid Bento was a big failure. I'm sure no one would've been able to tell what it was if it wasn't for the Metroids.
NL: What is your favourite Nintendo character, series or franchise?
A: Pikmin from the Pikmin series. Adorable character design yet it's got a sad and dark story in the cutest way. I mean, I don't know how many times I started over because I had so many Pikmins get killed or left to die. Way too many.
NL: You've created some amazing Nintendo Bentos in the past, such as the Super Smash Bros. Brawl Bento. How long does it take to design and make? What are the most difficult parts?
A: I spent much more time sketching the Bento than actually making it. On a sketch, I have to figure out which colour/food I use, the balance of food in the Bento (rice/meat/vegetables ratio), and composition. I guess going to an art school wasn't a waste!
Most of the food is prepped the night before. Like mashed potatoes, meat, some vegetables, seaweed pieces for the face, etc. A lot of times, my Bento is made with the leftovers from the night before. The only thing I almost always cook that morning is rice and boiled vegetables.
As for the Super Smash Bros. Bento, even though there are actually two Bentos, it did not take too long compared to some other Bento. The Yoshi & Kirby side was for Derek, and the Pikachu side was mine — which is why there's less food on that side! The meat cubes were cooked the night before and Yoshi, Kirby, and the mushroom were pretty easy. The Game & Watch guy was cut the night before so I just had to put it on at the end. The most difficult part was Pikachu... I just couldn't get his face and body right. His eyes looked blank and soulless...but it was my side, so I didn't care too much.
NL: What is your favourite Nintendo game?
A: Mario Bros. was my first game, so I do have strong attachment to that. Also, it was one of the games my brother and I could play together cooperatively without fighting. We would try to "beat the game" not knowing that it'd just loop forever, so we played it endlessly. The enemies would just get faster and faster and it would get pretty intense. We fought a lot as children, but not when we were playing Mario Bros.!
Once I started playing games by myself, my favourite was Devil World. I just loved the character design. Also, the gameplay was simple (it was like Pac-Man with a twist) but at that time it felt like so many things were going on and you really had to keep focus to figure out which way you'd go.
Off topic, if you ask my mom what's her least favourite Nintendo game, it'd be Balloon Fight. It was banned in the house many times. My brother and I would try playing co-op mode together, but the fact that you could accidentally pop your partner's balloon caused a lot of trouble. We'd always end up fighting and I hated my brother so much when we played Balloon Fight...but we kept playing it. So my mom took it away every now and then.
NL: When are you going to make some more Nintendo inspired Bento? Do you have any in mind already now that 3DS and Wii U have launched?
A: Hopefully real soon! I don't have an Wii U yet, but I'm definitely getting it in the near future and I have a game picked out to make a Bento of. I don't want to spoil the surprise but I've been thinking about making a Bento of one of my favourite games, which has a lot of colours. I've always wanted to make it but seems like it'll be a big project so I've been putting it off.
NL: What is your favourite gaming platform of all time?
A: I have to say Xbox 360. Sorry! I think the biggest reason is Xbox Live Arcade and the third party games they have. Ever since I started going to Penny Arcade Expo, it made me want to play more Indie games and support them. I think it's because I can actually talk to them in person and see games being made on their blogs. I do think that Satoru Iwata or Shigeru Miyamoto on Nintendo Direct definitely is making me feel a bit closer to Nintendo but I feel like he'll be always on the other side of the TV screen.
Having said that, I hear Wii U will be more indie-friendly, I'm quite excited to see how it'll affect the indie game industry!
NL: What do you think the future holds for Nintendo?
A: I want Nintendo to keep making Nintendo games!
NL: Do you think Bento is getting more popular in the west? What makes it so popular in Japan?
A: The kind of Bento I make is called "kyaraben" (Character Bento) and many moms in Japan started making kyarabens so picky eaters (their kids) can enjoy eating the food. I know it's probably weird to think kids would want to eat their favourite characters, but Japan is all about putting faces (cute faces most of the time) on everything including food, so it works.
Having said that, I do see a lot of people making Bento in the West, both kyaraben and regular Bento and I think it's absolutely awesome. It's a great way to control what and how much you eat and learn how to prepare food for yourself.
By the way, Derek is not a picky eater. He eats everything. I just make it for him too see him say "Awwwww!"
NL: What do you love most about video games?
A: To experience the adventure and the world within the game. I've always loved fantasy films, and that's probably why I like role playing games the most.
NL: What makes Nintendo particularly special to you?
A: I like that the Nintendo still keeps its style of "entertaining games" for everyone. I don't mean it to be "limited" or "family friendly" but with so many games trying to be realistic or as shocking as possible, it feels refreshing to see Nintendo keeps making what they're good at, unique characters with unique stories in a colourful & magical world filled with stories and adventures.
NL: If our readers wanted to get started with Bento, what advice would you have for them?
A: Start simple. Don't go full-kyaraben from the beginning. It can be overwhelming. Also use food that you're comfortable with. I use certain ingredients a lot because I'm used to them. If you don't eat rice, you don't have to use rice. Be creative with what you like. The important thing is to have fun making and eating food.
Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.