Why are people obsessed with Japanese miniature cooking videos?
We talked to miniature makers and fans about why videos of tiny real food are so strangely appealing.
Nearly a year ago, on December 3, 2014, a video was uploaded to YouTube. It was called “mini food miniature coffee ミニチュアコーヒー”. In the 83 second-long video, we see a small stove—scratch that—a tiny stove. A stove meant for a doll. The video then dissolves to a tiny pot, maybe the size of a thimble, filled with water. Despite the pot’s size, the large hand holding the pot grips it by its handle, as it might grip a normal-sized cooking implement. The pot is placed on the stove, then a small door beneath the burner is opened. A tea candle is lit and placed beneath the tiny pot.
As we wait for the water to heat up, the hands making this coffee get to work on other things. They set a tiny table with two saucers and cups.
They take tiny coffee filters and fill them with grounds using a tiny spoon.
The water in the pot, which I’d eyeball at having a nickel-like circumference, is soon at a rolling boil. In this case, that means just two or three bubbles are breaching the surface at any given time.
The water is brought over to the mugs and, delicately, the hands of our unseen host fill the two cups. The filters turn dark as water seeps into them. For all the delicateness of our chef, capillary action still causes some water to spill onto the table.
At the end of the video, we see the finished product: two white mugs, each with an amount of coffee so small that it has the light brown tint of a cup of tea rather than the shiny black pigment of a good cup of joe.
This video currently has more than 336,000 views.
"mini food miniature coffee ミニチュアコーヒー" by Miniature Space (338,830 views).
The miniature coffee video is just the first of 69 videos featured on a YouTube channel called Miniature Space, which specializes in narration-free cooking demonstrations on a micro scale. Real food, prepared with tiny cookware. The channel is a sensation, with more than 453,000 subscribers. Most of the videos have more than 100,000 views and 17 of them have more than one million. Cumulatively, in less than a year, the channel has amassed nearly 53 million views.
Exactly who runs this channel is a mystery. They never appear on the channel and they never speak. Emails to the address listed on their channel went unreturned, and an email to a Wataru Johnoshita listed as the registrant of jojocreator.com also went unanswered. There is no archive of jojocreator.com on the Wayback Machine.
The most I can definitively say about whoever runs Miniature Space is that they have a serious eye for intricate detail, and that maybe they own a cute dog.
The ASMR theory
Though the videos’ source remains unknown, we can still investigate Miniature Space’s other central mystery: why are these videos so popular? The most pervasive theory regarding their popularity is related, surprisingly, not to the visual component, but to the audio. The sounds of the video appeal to those who enjoy autonomous sensory meridian response, otherwise known as ASMR. The ASMR subreddit defines the phenomenon as “a physical sensation characterized by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp. It is commonly triggered by soft or accented voices, personal attention, ambient sounds or watching people work silently, among others.” Put differently, it’s a tingly pleasure derived from the small, subtle sound effects that otherwise go unnoticed in daily life.
"Mini Food deep-frid chiken 春巻きの皮のお皿と鳥の唐揚げ" by Miniature Space
Take, for instance, this video of the preparation of deep-fried chicken. The sizzle of oil, the chopping of lettuce, the minute clink of the spoon hitting the bowl. All of these sounds are clearly audible, distinct and separable to the point where they seem to have been magnified or heightened in some way.
The aural sensation of watching these videos is one part of the appeal, but I’m not convinced that these videos are successful just because they make a subset of viewers feel tingly inside (anyway, scientists are still unsure whether ASMR is even real).
Big hands, tiny furniture
The videos on Miniature Space are presented without the music or narration present in other cooking tutorials—because they’re not really tutorials. They’re not meant to be imitated. The enjoyment in watching them comes from watching and hearing someone else perform with precision.
I suspect that much of the difficult-to-articulate appeal of these videos comes from the pageantry involved. The channel is, after all, called Miniature Space, not Miniature Cuisine. Each cooking demonstration seems to take place on the world’s smallest Food Network set.
For contrast, let’s look at a similar viral sensation.
The burrito may be tiny, but the focus is entirely on the animal doing the consuming. The food is prepared with normal-sized utensils, as well as repurposed sanitary items like tweezers and dental mirrors. The table is made out of crayon boxes. It’s cutesy, but it’s also practical and unsurprising.
The performative aspect of Miniature Space is different because so much of it is extraneous. As an example, consider this moment from the channel’s most popular video, which shows the preparation of a miniature strawberry shortcake. The establishing shot shows the full kitchen set which contains too many unnecessary adornments to list: light fixtures, bookcases, a utensil rack, a cupboard half open as if that’s where ingredients are actually stored.
Yet the commitment to the bit is unwavering. At 38 seconds in, the gigantic hand reaches over the tiny industrial refrigerator and opens the door to reveal…
… a single strawberry.
If these videos were a joke, it would be a great visual punchline, but this is something else. It is a complete and total commitment to the act of playing chef on a micro scale. In the hamster burrito video, the only abnormal object was the tiny burrito. Here, the situation is reversed. The only abnormally sized objects are the hands preparing the meal, and, on occasion, the ingredients.
One friend, explaining why she was “obsessed” with the sub-sub-genre, told me that working with miniatures was “something I had control over—I could set up this tiny undisturbed universe to look exactly how I wanted it to, and these videos are a total throwback to that. Watching them feels wicked meditative.”
She added, “The fact that the food is REAL is totally magical.”
That sense of control was pervasive among the experts in miniature that I talked to. Alan Ronay, who runs the Etsy store EverydayMiniatures, emphasized to me that the attention to detail was a large part of the appeal. “The fact that they made a real food item tiny makes it more vivid,” he told me over the phone, explaining, “The cool part of making miniatures is that you could imagine a family using the furniture that you’re making, or living in the house that you’re making. It’s kind of like when you’re little and you envision having your action figures come to life.”
Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos by HelloDenizen (10,700,000 views).
One of the most popular Japanese companies when it comes to miniatures is Re-Ment (a truncated version of “Reform The Entertainment”) but those miniatures are plastic. In a few videos, Re-Ment sets feature prominently, including this one, where our chef prepares a potato salad.
Unlike most of the videos, the food in this one is not actually real (it also notably features a musical soundtrack). Still, our chef performs as if this were any other video, pretending to peel lettuce and grate vegetables to create their plastic meal.
But the Re-Ment videos also emphasize another reason why the videos showing actual food preparation are so entrancing. “The knives that they’re using are actually sharp knives and the stoveware is actually heatproof,” Ronay tells Hopes&Fears. They actually went out of their way to make a little knife or to find a little knife that actually cuts, and to use actual pots and pans you can heat up. This is not Barbie doll stuff that you can buy at the toy store. That makes it more special.”
In fact, miniature maker Léah Fugère told me, Barbie toys are at a 1:6 ratio, roughly twice the size of the 1:12 figures we see on Miniature Space. Fugère says that “1:6 scale seems to appeal more to the crowd who is more interested in things like contemporary culture, fashion and trends while the 1:12 demographic has a lot more older folks and people less interested in customizing the ‘characters/dolls’ in their dioramas and who prefer Victorian dollhouses.”
"Mini Food cake 食べれるミニチュア いちごのケーキ / Cute Miniature Strawberry Shortcake!"
by Miniature Space (3,800,000 views).
What makes Miniature Space so captivating to so many viewers is that for a scant few minutes, we get to see someone achieve perfection. According to miniature retailer Mo Tipton, they show “a level of control we can never really attain in ‘real life’ … Here’s a world where things really can be perfect with enough tweaking, and then they stay that way!” There is an irreconcilable conflict at the heart of working with miniatures, Tipton tells us: “It’s about as far removed as you can get from the chaos of real life, but at the same time it requires you to be a very attentive observer of real life if you hope to capture that in your miniature art. It’s a cool paradox and one that’s really fun to play with as an artist.”
Ronay echoed Tipton’s sentiment:
“Sometimes making a cake in a real kitchen can be a chaotic thing. You’ve got flour everywhere, you’ve got ingredients everywhere, and sometimes you can lose control over things. But seeing a miniature food preparation area and a little tiny stove and everything kind of makes you feel like you’ve got some sort of control. It doesn’t matter if your life is chaotic or not … It’s very reassuring to think, ‘This is a world that I can control. Maybe my life is a mess or stuff’s going crazy. But this tiny thing? I’ve got control over that. I’ve got my hands around it. I can deal with it.’”
Miniature Space’s videos allow the viewer to feel this sense of control, a relief for the majority of people, whose lives are shaped by the forces of nature, aging and economic systems in which they’re an unremarkable statistic. If working with and creating fake, plastic food allows these miniatures creators to feel a comforting amount of agency, then creating real food—something that is not only nourishing but enticing, on furniture so small, is nothing short of a minor triumph—and probably still cheaper than therapy.
COVER SOURCE: Miniature Space