Mer-Maid in Japan

by Mike Toole,

A couple of months back, my friend and colleague Erin Finnegan (keep an eye on her VR Puppet Murder Mystery kickstarter, which just wrapped its initial funding period successfully!) hit me up on social media with a question. She'd just seen Lu over the wall, Masaaki Yuasa's whimsical tale of the spot where mermaids and human society intersect, and she was wondering why parts of it reminded her so much of Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki's whimsical tale of the spot where mermaids and human society interact. I didn't have an answer for her at the time, because I hadn't yet seen Lu over the wall. Well, now I have, and I think I've got an answer for her. The short answer? Mermaids and water spirits are everywhere, man. Scandanavia has their margyr, the Bretons have morgens, Celtic culture has their selkies. The Greeks had a whole system of water spirits, the Mi'kmaq had sabawaelnu, and let's not forget the Yoruba and their goddess Yemoja.

I'll go into the longer answer below, but it starts with the simple fact that, like the rest of the world, Japan has mermaids too! They call 'em ningyo, and they're often depicted as fish with the face of women. Sometimes seeing one is a bad omen; sometimes catching and eating one will curse you, or give you eternal life. Naturally, ningyo, like other mythical beasts, have their place in Japanese animation. Anime is actually lousy with mermaids, including a whole wave of relatively recent TV anime like Seto no Hanayome and Muromi-san. Let's have a look at some of the best mermaid anime and see if we can spot any patterns.

Anime mermaids go all the way back to the dawn of TV anime – there's one that shows up for an episode of Astro-Boy, and you also see them in an episode of the pioneering late-nite adult comedy Sennin Buraku. But as near as I can tell, the first mermaid in anime of any note is Neptuna, Marine Boy's seafaring buddy in the 1966 TV anime of the same name. (It's a good thing the little dude is called Marine Boy and not Land Boy, that'd be awkward.) Introduced without any great fanfare or backstory, she's a simple magical character, a buddy who helps our hero out from time to time using her special pearl necklace and her command of the undersea world. Does Neptuna portend dark times, like the appearance of Japanese ningyo? Will consuming her flesh grant the brave members of the Ocean Police life everlasting? We never find out, they stopped making Marine Boy before they got to that episode.

The 70s yielded one of the ultimate anime mermaids: Marina, the Little Mermaid herself, right out of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale! Directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, he of Captain Harlock and Captain Future fame, this Little Mermaid ran during Toei's big summer “manga matsuri” kids' movie roadshow. This little film casts a surprisingly long shadow, largely because it does something that few animated versions of Andersen's tale does—it has more or less the whole story. Marina is the youngest of a royal family of mermaids. She grows up hearing stories of the surface from her six older sisters. When she visits the surface, she spies on a prince, falls in love with him, and later saves his life. A sea witch grants her human form, but at a terrible, agonizing cost. And if she doesn't secure the prince's affections, she turns into sea foam and dies!

We talk about how movies like this one and Ringing Bell and The Mouse and His Child are nightmare fuel, because they contain scenes of amazingly intense trauma, wrapped carefully in pretty and tantalizing images of cartoon fun. But I think that Katsumata and his peers seized on something primal when they were making this stuff back in the seventies, something that goes right back to Andersen's fairy tale. Kids want conflict in their stories, they want their heroes to overcome adversity. But they also crave consequences, and sometimes they want to see those consequences come crashing home, no matter how weird and sad they are. Katsumata's The Little Mermaid is a movie a lot of viewers encountered as kids, and it stuck with them because it wasn't afraid to go to those dark places.

Now let's look at Marina herself. She's a pretty conventional character, a vivacious young girl who dreams of life on the surface. Does she sing and dance, like Lu, or eat ham, like Ponyo? Nope. She does have a weird dad, though, a widowed king who lives with a dowager and seems to glare disapprovingly at literally everything. Marina also has a little undersea pal, Fritz the dolphin, and here's where I point out that Disney's Little Mermaid totally stole stuff from this movie! It's not nearly as blatant as The Lion King, there's no way the company would ever admit it, and the movies are different enough that they only occasionally evoke comparison, but I have a hard time looking at two separate Little Mermaid movies that both have wacky animal pals and comedy props from the surface and not drawing comparisons.

The big-deal anime mermaids of the 80s and 90s have to be the ones from Rumiko Takahashi's Mermaid Forest manga. The interesting thing is, they're not really characters—in Mermaid Forest, mermaids are like a force of nature. When glimpsed, these ningyo are more like western mermaids, with fishy tails but human torsos, but they have the traditional powers of the ningyo, which include being harbingers of doom and granting immortality to the people who catch them and eat their flesh. Takahashi's story isn't about the mermaids, it's about the people whose lives they affect. The two main characters are immortals, people granted eternal life through eating mermaid meat. One of them, Yuta, is worldly but troubled; the other, Mana, is young and naïve. They travel Japan dealing with their curse, and encountering many others whose lives have been more or less ruined by encounters with the mermaids. Here, we once again see Takahashi's genius—in setting up a simple premise and a pair of neat characters, she can come up with a seemingly endless stream of stories that can take place in any time period.

Naturally, there's no mermaid dad or other wacky stuff in Mermaid Forest. In the anime world, Takahashi's series has been adapted several times. The first one, 1991's Mermaid Forest, is the best, an entertainingly creepy one-and-done OVA. 1993's Mermaid's Scar isn't bad, but it's mostly a curious way to experience the same series done by a totally different production team. TMS's 2003 TV series gives us a way to revisit Yuta and Mana, but that show was part of a trend of using Rumiko Takahashi's best shorter manga and turning them into forgettable TV series.

Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki's lovely and whimsical 2008 movie about the seas rising to consume all of human civilization, is notable because its mermaid, the title character, starts off looking like a ningyo—a fish with a human face. We never do learn if consuming Ponyo's flesh confers immortality, but we do learn that she really likes consuming pig flesh with her new buddy Sosuke. But like the ningyo of myth, Ponyo's appearance to human souls portends disaster—her attempt to leave her father Fujimoto, a weirdo scientist who's literally married to the sea, causes a humongous tidal wave.

Thus begins what I consider the real reason Miyazaki made this movie, the totally adorable destruction of civilization. I think Ponyo a relatively weak film in Miyazaki's oeuvre (and I know a lot of you disagree!), but that's what sticks in my memory, the numerous visions of people floating around on boats and doing their best, even as their cities and towns are under six feet of water. Miyazaki has spoken about how great it would be for the planet if society would just collapse already, and in Ponyo, a see the director getting a chance to present a charming, low-stakes version of that apocalyptic vision.

Adjacent to Ponyo, there's been several anime TV shows starring mermaids. Several years earlier we got Mermaid Melody: Pichi Pichi Pitch, which is actually a really fun, goofy shoujo spin on the Andersen tale. This mermaid is Lucia, who arrives on dry land to seek out the boy she'd saved years earlier. She finds the boy, but this time, the twist is that she can't tell him who she is, or she'll turn into sea foam! At the same time, she has to do battle with a sea witch using her six mermaid buddies, who are also an idol singing troupe. A simple 7-volume manga series begat a sprawling, 101-episode epic TV series; ADV Films once licensed this show, but dropped it when the company started imploding. I wonder if they dubbed any of it…?

2007's My Bride is a Mermaid takes the old chestnut of a pushy gangster princess falling in with regular boy, much to the horror of her large gokudo family, and makes the gangsters merpeople, mainly for the sake of having another layer of jokes. 2013's Muromi-san is a little more grounded (ha!); in this one, a kid named Takuro accidentally hooks a ningyo named Muromi. She looks like a western mermaid, talks like she's from Hakata, and decides that she and Takuro will be pals and have adventures together. Other mermaids, and other wacky mythological beasts like kappa and yeti show up, too.

I think my favorite non-essential mermaid is Mero, the one from Monster Musume. Monster Musume, which I wrote about here, is the standard-bearer for the monster girl boomlet. Mero's part of the protagonist's harem of charming and rather bawdy monster houseguests; what sets her apart is that, like the little mermaid in Andersen's story, she's willing to sacrifice everything in the name of love, and repeatedly tries to be a victim of tragedy. She eventually gets over it, but her tendency towards this sort of theatrics is amusing. She does not look like a ningyo from Japanese folk tales, no sir.

That brings us to Lu over the wall, a wonderful story about a sad kid in a dead-end seaside fishing village. Kai's a talented musician, but he's consumed with ennui and distrustful of his family and friends. His village has a long history with merpeople dating back centuries, to an atrocity that cursed the town and forever drove a wall between the two species. But one particular mermaid, Lu, slips through the wall. She looks like a fish with a face, but when she hears music, she abruptly becomes more humanoid, the better to dance with everyone. She also possesses the power of the siren, who can compel men with their voices. And she wants to join Kai's band!

In her fish form, Lu definitely looks a little like Ponyo. And she has a wacky dad, but her wacky dad is a little different than Ponyo's undersea eccentric, Fujimoto. Ponyo's dad (he is not named) is a massive, hulking shark dude—think Sharko from Sealab 2021, but handsomer—yes, even handsomer than Arlong from One Piece—who comes ashore to see about his daughter. He strides down the street in a natty, Taisho-era men's suit, and quickly moves to build a rapport with the townspeople. When confronted with Kai, he's delighted to learn that his daughter is making friends.

Yuasa's real twist is that merpeople are undead, sort of. Their flesh doesn't impart eternal life, but their bite does, as well as turning people into merfolk. They also can't handle sunlight, like vampires. It's a fun twist on the tale, but the funnest thing about Lu over the wall is something that you see a lot of in Masaaki Yusasa's work: frenetic, zany motion. When Lu sings, people dance to the music. Even if they don't want to, even they aren't aware they're doing it, their limbs flap and flail and spin, and this is a visual motif that you see repeated all the way back to 2004's Mindgame.

In looking at the variety of mermaid anime, the longer answer as to why Ponyo and Lu over the wall seem a bit similar is simply that they're about ningyo specifically, and ningyo aren't charmingly feisty redheads with clam bras, they're fish with human faces rather than more familiar, western-style merpeople. One fish with a human face is going to look similar, at first glance, to another fish with a human face, and honestly Ponyo and Lu's dads aren't all that similar, they're just involved with their kids' lives like any good dad should be. These movies seem especially similar because movies about ningyo are a pretty small sample size.

I'm sure I left out some famous animated fish people, like Aqualad. My favorite movie about undersea fantasy is actually Song of the Sea, but while Tomm Moore's modern-day tale of selkies and shanachies and the return of Manannán MacLir is undoubtedly influenced by anime, it isn't actually anime. Who's your favorite undersea anime character?

Is it Noonsa?! I hope it's Noonsa, I love that guy!

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