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In several Miyazaki films, eating seems to hold strong weight as a method of performing magic. For example:

Spirited Away:

  1. Chihiro's parents are transformed after eating the spirits' food
  2. No Face grows and absorbs people by eating them
  3. The river spirit's medicine is taken orally and induces vomiting
  4. Haku steals Zeniba's golden seal by eating it

Ponyo:

  1. Ponyo begins her transformation into human form by eating human blood
  2. There are multiple scenes involving mundane eating of food

Howl's Moving Castle:

  1. Howl makes a pact with Calcifer by eating him
  2. The Witch of the Waste eats the hearts of magical men

I'm sure there are others, but I'm still in the midst of watching more of these movies. Is there any part of Japanese culture that could lend more significance to this? Or is this just something specific to Miyazaki?

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  • 1
    Possible dupe of Why do manga characters love to eat a lot of food?
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 17:15
  • Is there answer different when discussion eating as a means of magic, though?
    – Dan D
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 17:17
  • @DanD Probably not a very different answer. If eating is important to the culture, basing magic off eating is either just highlighting that or using it to subvert it (thinking Spirited Away mostly there).
    – Radhil
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 18:19
  • 1
    I don't think this is specific to Japan, really. Fairy/spirit food being dangerous to eat is a common trope across the world. Drinking blood for power, also (like vampires). Howl's Moving Castle is based on a book by a western author that also has the theme of eating hearts. But I would be interested in learning if there is some special connection to Japanese culture.
    – wyvern
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 3:32
  • 2
    I've studies Japanology with a focus on religion and folklore for five years and never came across magic associated with eating. Which doesn't rule out it exist, but it doesn't appear to be common. Might be one of Myazaki's personal style symbols. In Princess Mononoke the monkeys want to eat Ashitaka to get his human powers.
    – Yora
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 19:57

3 Answers 3

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I don't know that the concept is unique to Japanese culture or Anime/Manga. There's a couple of concepts this touches on

The first would be, what TV tropes calls, Cannibalism Superpower. The name is a little deceptive, in that real cannibalism involves eating the flesh of your fellow beings of the same type (which generally means you've killed them first). The broader concept here is that the character with this power absorbs the power of the other beings they consume or somehow merge with. So Howl eating Calcifer, or Ponyo eating human blood to become human fits here. The TV Tropes site lists at least a dozen instances of this in Anime alone, but there's a lot of others as well.

The second is this: food has a general significance in everyone's lives, and it's something most societies do communally ever so often (i.e. Thanksgiving). If you've never seen it (and it's a somewhat obscure movie), you need to watch Babbette's Feast. The general gist of the movie is there's a woman (named Babbette, obviously) who wins the lottery and wants to cook a feast for the two sisters she works for. To say that's an oversimplification would be an understatement. The movie turns a meal into something far deeper. It connects the characters in a unique and fundamental way with food (I've never seen another movie like it, although Eat, Drink, Man, Woman came the closest).

When I watch Miyazaki, I think he's simply building on this simple truth. I'm not claiming that he's been influenced by that film, but he's trying to make the characters relate-able. Another movie that did this was Summer Wars where one main character is staying in the home of the other. They share meals (amongst other experiences) in the movie and it's a way to show their bonds and draw you, the audience member, inside.

When the grandmother dies, you, like the main character who is the guest, will likely feel a sense of loss even though she is not your relative.

The meals help with that aspect of the story. Miyazaki is masterful in making you care about his characters (which is why his movies are so popular).

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In many of Miyazaki's films, consumption is manifested in two ways, the desire to sustain and the desire to possess which leads to gluttony. Food is exemplified as a life sustaining force but only when held lightly without thought of possession and ownership. At every indulgence, a corresponding state of existence (merit or demerit) is created. The general premise that the food we eat is life and if we can eat with gratitude, food will behave very differently within us (that which you termed as "magic"). I won't ascribe these concepts as unique to Japanese culture although they are certainly inspired by ideas of purity, renewal and reconciliation.

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Of course it does, but it's not unique to Japan.

Take, for instance, the Greek myth about Persephone, who was abducted by Hades. When her mother Demeter secured her release, it was discovered that Persephone had eaten 6 pomengranate seeds, and so was forced to stay in the underworld for 4 months of the year (winter).

Or at least modern European beliefs about vampires and werewolves, where being in part consumed changes the victim's nature.

The central act of Communion in Christianity is one of eating God (or at least His son). "Take, eat this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood which was shed for you."

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