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.

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