Several weeks ago, the American Folklore Society, the leading organization for the study and advancement of folklore and expressive cultural traditions wordwide, broadly defined, announced that its 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award was being bestowed on Dr. Bill Ellis, emeritus professor, Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Ellis is a pre-eminent folklore scholar – and, over the last fifteen years, he has written extensively on the intersections between folklore in general and fairy tales specifically, and anime/manga. Some of his major publications in this area include the chapter “Folklore and gender inversion in Cardcaptor Sakura”, in the 2009 essay collection The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture, one of the first English-language studies of that particular manga, as well as The fairy-telling craft of Princess Tutu: Metacommentary and the folkloresque, and the chapter Anime and manga: The influence of Tale Type 510B on Japanese manga/anime in the Routledge Companion to Media and Fairy Tale Cultures. Dr. Ellis also contributed the “Anime and manga” section to the Greenwood Publishing Group reference volume Youth Cultures in America.

And, to mark this, I am extremely excited to be able to sit down with Dr. Ellis, and to hear his thoughts on anime, manga, and folklore all fit together!

MK: As an experienced and established folklore scholar, how did you become interested in Japanese comics?

Bill Ellis: To begin with, I should note that I have always been seen as something of an outsider in folklore studies.  My training was in and English program, rather than folklore studies per se, notably Medieval English literature and the American Renaissance.  I was hired by a small campus of Penn State University (freshmen and sophomores only) on the basis of my experience in teaching remedial composition and my work with Ohio State’s Center for Textual Studies, which was preparing a standard edition of everything (yes, everythingI) written by the author Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I edited two volumes of his business letters written when he was American consul at Liverpool and contributed to four other volumes of letters and notebooks.  On the strength of that, I earned tenure from Penn State, which considered my work in folklore a whimsical and irrelevant digression from “mainstream” research.

My first awareness of the anime/manga came in the late 90s by way of my teenaged daughter, who for a time dated a boy who was a fan of Dragon Ball Z.

By disposition I was always something of a lone-walker, doing things not because one gained academic credit by doing so, but because I thought the topics important for some reason.  Examples of these off-beat topics included alien abductions, adolescents’ legend-trips, Satanic cult rumors and panics, topical black humor referencing disasters (e.g., Challenger Shuttle jokes and later the much larger corpus of September 11 humor), and Facebook games.

My first awareness of the anime/manga came in the late 90s by way of my teenaged daughter, who for a time dated a boy who was a fan of Dragon Ball Z.  She and I shared popular culture interests (I was an early Lord of the Rings freak), and so she got me to watch some moments from this saga that she’d found interesting.  It reminded me of Popeye, frankly, but I followed her involvement, which later led her to the Gundam Wing series.  I liked that the story arcs were much more complex and adventurous than American-style cartooning, and for context got an early survey of anime, which gave me a wider perspective.

The first series that I actually made a point of watching was the Oh My Goddess OAV, which had been dubbed into English and was available on DVD. The handling of the “goddess/mortal” relationship intrigued me.

The first series that I actually made a point of watching was the Oh My Goddess OAV, which had been dubbed into English and was available on DVD. The handling of the “goddess/mortal” relationship intrigued me.  I regularly discussed this issue in a “World Mythology” course that I taught, as that was a common theme in many of the texts we covered.   It intrigued that in this story line, the romance works: Keiichi learns about himself and his place in the scheme of things from Belldandy (and her sisters), and, remarkably, the same is true of the goddesses.  It also intrigued me that the three goddesses have the same names as the three Norns in Scandinavian mythology, and also the three Wyrd sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

My interest in this series made me receptive to other series that had magical or mythological elements.  I was aware of Pokemon and Digimon, then running in dubbed versions on TV networks.   At the time WB Kids was beginning to run Cardcaptors in its dubbed and rescripted version.  That, from the start, interested me, though I found the plots of the episodes hard to follow.  On checking this out (it was also the first big boom of the World Wide Web, when suddenly you could find seemingly everything online), I found that there was a controversy over the adaptation, and I found ways to get unlicensed copies of the original episodes that had been fansubbed.  (Got cheated once, but generally I had good experiences with the fansub community.)  And I began watching Cardcaptor Sakura from the beginning.

I remember this period as a series of revelations: the Japanese version had an integrity and a narrative motion that instantaneously struck me as masterful storytelling.  I credit this sense to my literature training: one could, with practice, tell when a given novel, story, or play was – interesting, and when you knew you were in the hands of an author who ‘had it.’  Not all great writers ‘had it’ everytime, but when they did, you could feel it.  In time I got the entire run (including movies) in fansubs, and I kept waiting for the series to get repetitive and mushy, as even great US TV series inevitably did.  But to my surprise it never did “jump the shark.”  A little fall-off in the second movie, perhaps, but otherwise it kept its narrative integrity all the way to the far end of the story arc.  I’ve rarely experienced this reaction to anything, and so I knew it was something that I should begin to explore not just emotionally, but with the help of my professional training.

It did not hurt that I was at the time looking for an outlet for my collecting impulse.  Back in the 1960s I’d had a chance to purchase some animation cels from the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine but passed it up.  I regretted this later, and when I learned that animation cels from Japanese anime were relatively common and priced within my modest academic’s salary, I began picking up items that I liked.  Due to the depression Japan was then enduring, Madhouse Studio had raised money by passing on many of their production materials – cels, sketches, original backgrounds, etc. – to dealers who sorted them out and sold them to dealers or put them up for auction on Japanside websites.  So I was able to put together a substantial collection, first of Cardcaptor Sakura, then of a wider range of series including Princess Tutu.  It was enjoyable and not very expensive, and I’m amused that my online display site, Sensei’s Anime Gallery, has received more than 250K individual visits, or a hundred times the total sales of any of my academic publications.

MK: Was there something specific that attracted you to anime/manga and that keeps drawing your attention?

Bill: Besides the aesthetic reaction I’ve described above, I find the twin genres’ connection to folklore and mythology intriguing.  Shinto, like certain “gratitude-focused” factions of Christianity, stresses the divine nature of existence and of every person’s life.  So it has a dimension that is similar to Joseph Campbell’s vision of mythology as being a projected image of the dilemmas and choice that all of us make during our lifetimes.  It also recognizes that some choices are dangerous, physically and socially, but not evil in the Western sense.  So it is particularly interesting to me that characters who function as antagonists (for instance Suigintou in Rozen Maiden, are in the end revealed as similar to the protagonists in their motivations and worldviews.  This blurring of the black/white contrast, which seems so central to Western religion and folklore, creates a wider range of ways fans can use manga/anime to understand their social world in more perceptive ways.  (I had a very similar reaction to the American animation series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which likewise presents antagonists like Nightmare Moon/Princess Luna as complex characters who make bad choices, rather than as folk devils.)

So it is particularly interesting to me that characters who function as antagonists (for instance Suigintou in Rozen Maiden, are in the end revealed as similar to the protagonists in their motivations and worldviews.

This feature allowed me eventually to include a manga volume into my “World Mythology” courses: first from Ah My Goddess! then from Cardcaptor Sakura.  Finally I settled on an economical volume of the first three volumes of xxxHolic, which gave me a wide range of stories, in which the very otherworldly character Yuuko Ishihara steps into the lives of some very ordinary people, making ordinary choices with their lives.  Her observations suggest ways in which we could see these mundane-seeming choices in fact have existential significance.  Unlike the myths studied elsewhere in the course, where otherworldly heroes carry out heroic quests, this way of seeing the mythology of everyday life makes students (readers, anime-watchers) ask how their own lives might likewise be seen as “divine exploits” with deeply moral implications.

As a folklorist, I’m also interested in the complex ways in which folklore is included and reinterpreted.  From the start, I saw connections between Western fairy tales and the storylines of manga/anime.  The trope of a “school play” using the plot of a Western tale particularly intrigued me, especially as these plays were not just window dressing but involved metacommentary on the broader story arc of the manga/anime.  That’s an interesting narrative strategy, notably used in Cardcaptor Sakura in which the tale chosen in “Sleeping Beauty,” and the key characters in the manga/anime are asked to portray characters, an action that connects up with the actions they enact in the larger story arc.  Notably, these “school plays” are disrupted in some way, which marks a dramatic turn in the overall plot, marking an interesting interaction between the Western tale and the Japanese manga/anime.  I’m also interested in the yokai world as it intersects anime/manga plots, as well as some of the folk rituals such as kimodameshi and kokkuri, as intriguing Japanese avatars of traditions familiar in the West as legend-tripping and the Ouija ritual.

…these “school plays” are disrupted in some way, which marks a dramatic turn in the overall plot, marking an interesting interaction between the Western tale and the Japanese manga/anime.

MK: As you work on studying manga, do you rely on your background and training as a folklore scholar, both in terms of methodology and in terms of particular theories or approaches?

Bill Ellis: I’d say I draw on a rather broader background, including historical and literary background from my earlier days as a literature scholar.  But the folklore training also enables me to move in close when traditional beliefs or stories are introduced into a manga/anime plot.  This is particularly interesting in considering the ways in which Western tales are used to suggest psychosexual issues.  The idea that fairy tales are ways of encoding such “unmentionable” issues was proposed in the 20th Century by a variety of critics, notably Bruno Bettelheim, and it was in the context of these Freudian theories that they were introduced to Japanese audiences.  Mayako Murai has described the “Grimm Boom” that occurred in 1999-2000 when a number of best-selling guides to these fairy tales appeared in Japanese, along with their supposed psychosexual coded messages.  Personally, I’m not sold on this as a one-stop explanation of these tales’ content, but the idea that tales could suggest developmental issues in a child’s development was a concept that did influence manga/anime, in fact well before the Grimm Boom.  I found visual details in several of the episodes of Grimm Masterpiece Theater (Nippon, 1987) that clearly reflected Bettelheim’s reading of (for instance) “Sleeping Beauty” and “All Kinds of Fur.”  What interests me is not so much the idea that these tales really are subconscious internal discussions of sexual identity, but that the producers of anime versions of these tales believed they really were such and so consciously used them to introduce psychosexual issues in the animes in which the tales are included.

What interests me is not so much the idea that these tales really are subconscious internal discussions of sexual identity, but that the producers of anime versions of these tales believed they really were such and so consciously used them to introduce psychosexual issues in the animes in which the tales are included.

In other words, one can doubt whether Freudian analysis explains Western tales, but one can’t deny that Japanese artists used these tales to signal psychosexual messages.  Murai does an excellent job in her book From Dog Bridegroom to Wolf Girl (2015) in showing how more sophisticated writers and artists did this; I’m also influenced here by a newly emerged team of fairy-tale scholars who suggest that fairy tales are not so much the envelopes for cultural conservative ideas (don’t leave the path or wolves will get you) but intriguing ways of challenging norms in transgressive or “queered” ways.  (I saw the same dynamic in MLP:FIM too.)

MK: Are there any theories or approaches that you have found particularly useful in your work?

I’d add that I found ethnographic studies of small fan-based groups extremely helpful in understanding how I and other people interested in this art form responded to it and to each other.  Work on the earlier fan groups inspired by Star Trek were a particular aid:  Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers (1992) and Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women (also 1992) gave me hints on why there was so much attention on same-sex romances (e.g., Touya x Yukito in CCS) and also the role of fanfics in energizing fan bases, especially in a digital environment.  While I did some preliminary work on CCS fan cultures, both online and in real-time con settings, the only part of this that saw print was a detailed study of a virtual group made up of anime art collectors, a rowdy bunch that could be cut-throat at auction time and BFF at many other times.  That essay, “Love and Death and Anime Art Collection,” appeared in a collection exploring the impact of the internet on folklore, Folk Culture in the Digital Age (2012).  It’s not about anime per se but it has a piece on the various ways in which fans became interested in the genre, and why having a physical artifact from that scene in that series or movie is so important to them.

MK: When you were deciding to select an anime or manga title to analyze, what particular features or elements do you look for?

A lot depends on the assignment or opportunity.  First, I’d confirm that the title is really good.  Nothing is worse than a pro-forma analysis of a mediocre work.  Second, I’d make sure that discussing the title relates to a larger issue that colleagues are interested in exploring.  Good example is my article “The Fairy-telling Craft of Princess Tutu” (in The Folkloresque [2015]).  It is indeed an excellent series, inventive in both art and narrative, and as the story arc involves fairy-tale characters who become self-aware of their nature and rebel against their storyteller, it made an excellent example of metacommentary, one of the main themes of the proposed collection. 

I’m having trouble with a new assignment, an essay forThe Routledge Companion to Fairy Tales, which is to discuss manga/anime’s use of Western tales.  I plan to discuss the influence of “Snow White.”  An interesting adaptation of the tale itself is included in Grimm Masterpiece Theater, and it is used in the “school play” trope for another good series, Rozen Maiden. 

The problem is whether to discuss Prétear – The New Legend of Snow White (2001).  It makes sense to do this, as Junichi Sato, the plot’s originator, conceived this as an anime-based reimagining of the tale.  And as Sato’s next project was Princess Tutu, that should work.  Problem is, the anime is awful.

The problem is whether to discuss Prétear – The New Legend of Snow White (2001).  It makes sense to do this, as Junichi Sato, the plot’s originator, conceived this as an anime-based reimagining of the tale.  And as Sato’s next project was Princess Tutu, that should work.  Problem is, the anime is awful.  So I’m thinking about discussing instead Snow White with the Red Hair (manga 2006-present, anime 2015-16).  That anime is pretty good, with the interesting twist that it’s set in a medievalesque world where magic does not exist; instead, Shirayuki is a master of herbal medicine, some of which have spectacular effects, but they have scientific, not magical, properties.  Will this work for a companion on magic tales?  Don’t know yet.

MK: In general, are there any trends or common ways in which manga use Western fairy tales and folklore?

I think this is pretty well discussed in the previous heads. Certainly the exotic nature of Western tales allows audiences to see their own indigenous tales more clearly (a major issue in Tutu, where Drosselmeyer’s Western storyline is cast aside by the characters in favor of a more Shinto-infused plot with no evil nemesis (I think the killing of the Raven at the climax is the successful termination of the original tale in favor of the ending the characters prefer).  

MK: Do you have a personal favorite example of a Japanese take on a non-Japanese fairy tale or folklore element or motif?

I’m very fond of the series Mushishi, which I have also used in the classroom.  This series nominally consists of stand-alone episodes in which the wandering shaman Ginko encounters some situation for which mushi or spiritual “bugs” are responsible.  In fact, as the notes provided by the mangaka point out, they are often adaptations of Japanese legends or beliefs, some of them cognate with internationally distributed traditions.   So Akatsuki no hebi [The Snake of Dawn, manga v. 5, anime Ep. 16] is a variant of a migratory legend known as “The Bosom Serpent” and recorded in versions dating to medieval times.  But while the actual account of how the serpent (actually one of Ginko’s mushi) invades the main character’s body is very similar to Western accounts, the story that develops is quite distinctive, referencing the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and the way the patient and her family respond.  So the folklorist can supply the international “ground” against which Urushibara tells her story, which makes the mangaka’s originality all the more patent. 

In the “Next Passage” season, “Thread of Light” is also very interesting, as it is a clever rethinking of a storyline known in both the West and in Japan, in different forms. In both, a magical woman casts aside a garment to dance or bathe – in the West, it a silkie’s sealskin, and in Japan it’s the feathered garment of a tennyo, or celestial woman.  In both, when a human observer appropriates the garment, the woman cannot return to her native element.  Urushibara’s telling is quite different, involving a woman with special senses who is able to weave garments from a thread that only she can see.  That strategy  slips in another Western motif, the clothiers who fabricate “The Emperors’ New Clothes” in Hans Christian Andersen’s literary folktale (which had been adapted to anime in 1971 in Mushi’s Andersen Monogatari.  The result is a fascinating interweaving of narrative threads that generates a new tale out of three (at least) old ones.

I haven’t figured out any way to work this series into any academic writing, but the connections are there for any good folklorist to handle.

MK: Finally, do you have any advice for someone who is a new scholar who is interested in manga and/or folklore, and is looking to establish themselves in the field?

While manga/anime will be recognized for its integrity and social impact, I would expect this to happen sometime in the next generations.  That doesn’t mean that work being done now, with the works still fresh and their impacts still observable, isn’t worth doing.

Bill Ellis: Basically, don’t quit your day job.  While manga/anime will be recognized for its integrity and social impact, I would expect this to happen sometime in the next generations.  That doesn’t mean that work being done now, with the works still fresh and their impacts still observable, isn’t worth doing.  But my experience is that academic economic policy will trump innovative research every time.  In no case was my work, whether conference presentations or publications was given any praise by my supervisors at Penn State.  In one case, I was scheduled to give a reprise of one oral paper at the campus, but at the last minute the IT staff, who were needed to set up the visual part of the talk, refused to support the event. (It came off with a little informal help from a colleague of mine, but it was awkward, like trafficking in contraband.)  In another case, I was invited to another university to give an undergraduate course in the folk aspects of manga/anime.  It enrolled well, and students were enthusiastic.  But too many of their friends went to the English department to ask when the course would be given again, and in time the authorities were spooked, concerned that I was generating this kind of support as a back-door avenue to a permanent teaching job there.  Orders were given, and I was given a disdainful teaching report (by a faculty member who had not visited the class itself) plus told that the course would never be offered again.  

Stories could be multiplied, but the bottom line is that academics and their administrators party like it’s fifty years ago.  This has always been the case: I’d remind my Penn Students that Fred Pattee, after whom the library at main campus was named, experienced similar opposition when in the 1890s he proposed to teach a course on American literature.  That included all the books students were reading on their own when deans and teachers expected them to be studying Shakespeare and Co.  Two generations later, Pattee’s initiative gathered momentum, and now of course it’s taken for granted that any good college would have someone on the faculty who could teach American literature. 

I expect the same will in time be true for manga/anime, especially as media studies critics are increasingly challenging the logocentric assumptions that great works need to be published in lines of words.  The conventions of graphic novels are being increasingly appreciated (and banned! – a sign that they are seen as important), and animated storytelling now is getting more attention, mainly the American-side studio works.  In time early work on these genres will be seen as useful, even prescient, and so it is well worth doing for its own sake when the works are new and the fanbases are active.  But one won’t see any results until old age.  Even in folklore, many of the works for which I’m being honored now were written and published in the 1980s when I was a hungry post-doc and probationary faculty member.  (On afternoons when I wasn’t doing Hawthorne’s business letters.) Then my articles were – as seen by my supervisors – weird, disturbing and definitely not “mainstream.”  Now they are considered seminal by the Young Turks.  So I expect good work on manga/anime will be appreciated by the coming generations, rather than seen as in any way valuable by the present-day academic scene.

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