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I rewatched Ponyo recently, and there are quite a few briefly touched on, but not thoroughly explained, mystical elements that left me wondering rather I was missing part of the allusions. I'm not sure which elements are simply part of Miyazaki's usual building of unique/magical worlds, and which are drawn from Japanese myth and legend that a Japanese audience would recognize but an Western audience doesn't.

The one that stood out particularly to me was when the titular character first tastes human blood early on. Her father explicitly asks if she tasted blood shortly after as if it has some major significance. The movie doesn't otherwise explain why it's significant or reference it afterwards. Ponyo also tastes ham early on and shows a love of it, which I think is just character building for her but I couldn't be certain if it was related to the tasting blood reference as something else she 'shouldn't' have eaten that affected her magically somehow?

Is there a Japanese myth or folk-tale relevant to tasting blood, or flesh? Would some or all of a Japanese audience recognize this moment as relevant, and know why, which simply didn't translate to English?

A previous question already explained Ponyo is likely a Ningyo, but why she can work magic and specifically how she is able to change into a human isn't explained so I'm also curious about that. I know Japanese culture has a number of myths about animals (most common foxes, but I've heard swans and others) that can temporarily or perminately turn human, so I imagine it may simply be a reference to that general trend in Japanese myths, but is there a specific myth about a fish turning human that is the basis for Ponyo?

There are a number of unexplained mythical elements, like who Ponyo's father is, how he works magic, why Ponyo leaving caused such an imbalance with the magic and how her being accepted by her friend somehow counteracted that imbalance. These all seem more likely original elements created to drive the story, but I'd love to hear about any folktale references that are relevant to these as well; but I'm mostly asking about how tasting blood was relevant to Ponyo's drive to, and ability, to turn human.

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  • I'm very interested in Japanese mythology, although I only know a little bit about it. I've seen a lot of Miyazake's work (Spirited Away is my favorite anime) and I can tell you it is very influenced by Shinto ideas, so that's a good place to start. PS: you might try asking on Mythology stack. Very good detail on the elements you're wondering about. I'll keep thinking on it and let you know if I have any insights.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 16:24
  • FYI There are two essay/interview anthologies (translated) for Miyazaki : The Starting Point and The Turning Point. I have not read them but they may give some insights about Miyazaki and his thought process.
    – Yorik
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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As stated in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponyo, Miyazaki has said Ponyo is loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, that is, the original Hans Christian Anderson tale. You'll notice a few of the details very specifically match the original fairy tale, like the fact that there's a possibility that Ponyo will turn to foam, as the original mermaid did.

The idea of natural balance (and people upsetting it) is a theme Miyazaki commonly uses in his movies. For example, taking the head of the forest spirit causes an imbalance with nature. Or in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind there's the balance of the toxic spores, the insects, and nomu.

However, I cannot say whether there was no references to Japanese mythology.

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I’m sorry that I won’t be of much help on the Japanese side of things, but:

Consuming flesh or specific organs and gaining their power or wisdom was a relatively common trope in many folklore and stories from long ago.

In a detailed review of early versions of Red Riding Hood, this was mentioned:

Yvonne Verdier likens this ritual meal to a sacrificial act, a physical incorporation of the grandmother by her granddaughter. Such a scene is reminiscent of a wide variety of myths in which a warrior, shaman, sorcerer, or witch attains another's knowledge or power through the ritual ingestion of the other's heart, brain, liver, or spleen. https://web.archive.org/web/20150212191217/http://www.endicott-studio.com/articleslist/the-path-of-needles-and-pinsby-terri-windling.html

Granted, there isn’t much in the way of specifics.

However, after living in Ireland for many years, I’ve heard plenty of stories of food and magic.

Never eat food offered to you by a fairy! While I can’t find a name for the Irish version (much of the lore is oral), an English version exists under the name of “Childe Rowland”. Basically they were stuck in the fairy kingdom after eating their food.

This one weird salmon has a trick to improve your brain! (Okay, that’s a bad clickbait title to a medieval story):

In the story, an ordinary salmon ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom (an Tobar Segais) from nine hazel trees that surrounded the well. By this act, the salmon gained all the world's knowledge. The first person to eat of its flesh would in turn gain this knowledge. The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn

Another Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke, features an Ape Tribe wanting to eat a human to gain strength:

"This is our forest. The human, give it to us. We will not go. We will eat the human. Yes, let us eat the human creature.." (the apes) "Are you crazy? Just what happened to make the ape tribe change this way? Since when do apes eat the flesh of a man?" (San) "If we eat the human, we will steal his strength, and we will drive the other humans away. Give us the man creature." (the apes) "Stop this. You know you can't possess the humans' strength by eating them. All that'll do is make you into something else, something even worse than human." (San) http://coco.raceme.org/films/mononokehime/quotes/moro.php

Spirited Away also saw Noface grow and take on traits of those it ate.

I’d say it’s not specific to Japanese lore or myth, but licking a drop of blood from a finger is certainly easier to put into a kid’s film than eating someone’s flesh.

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