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Folklore and Mythology as a Source for Anime and Manga
Stories as old as civilization
By Niko Silvester
February 16, 2011
You’ve probably heard the saying, “there is nothing new under the sun,” often paraphrased in creative writing contexts as, “there are no new stories.” And you may even have encountered the short list of possible plots--“person vs nature,” “person vs person,” “person vs self”--cited in every intro English lit course.
Like fiction, folklore can be reduced to its “tale types” and “motifs” (a system devised for European folklore by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson) for the purposes of comparison. One such system—Joseph Campbell’s ultra-simplified “hero’s journey”—has even been applied to everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.
Such academic exercises may seem useless to the layperson, but one thing they do show is that what matters in storytelling is not so much the structure of the tale, or even the pieces assembled to tell it (because those are the things that repeat over and over and have done so since stories were first shared from one person to another). What matters, instead, is how those underlying plot structures are made new in the hands of a talented storyteller, and how those motifs and symbols and archetypes are assembled in interesting and creative ways.
Like many forms of contemporary storytelling, anime and manga often draw on the stories that came before them for plots, for characters, and for images. You can pop just about any anime disc into your DVD player, or flip open nearly any manga volume, and somewhere along the way you’ll encounter something borrowed from folklore.
And what is “folklore” anyway? It is sometimes defined as “artistic communication in small groups” (a phrase coined by folklorist Dan Ben Amos), a definition that allows for the inclusion of music and dance and theatre, and even sculpture and craft. Folklore is more usually understood, however, as traditional stories, and while the phrase “folklore and mythology” is common, myth is really a sub-set of folklore. Myth is sacred stories (or stories that were once sacred) about gods and the creation of the universe.
So where do folklore/myth and anime/manga intersect? Let’s take, for example, the Dragon Ball franchise. When Akira Toriyama began to formulate the ideas for his manga, he borrowed from the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, which was in turn based on even older elements from Chinese religion and mythology. The main character of Dragon Ball is Son Goku, who has a monkey tail, who becomes a great martial artist, who (at least sometimes) fights with a staff, and who gains the ability to fly on a small cloud. One of the principal characters in Journey to the West is a monkey god who, you guessed it, is a great martial artist who fights with a staff and flies on a cloud.
Dragon Ball is not the only anime that borrows from Journey to the West. A somewhat more direct borrowing occurs in Saiyuki, beginning with the title—Journey to the West is usually titled Saiyuki in Japanese. The first anime called Saiyuki was a 1960 anime movie adapted from Osamu Tezuka’s manga Boku no Son Goku. Another Saiyuki, perhaps more familiar to younger fans, was a manga series by Kazuya Minekura (published 1997-2002) that got the anime treatment as an OVA in 1999 and a TV series in 2000-2001, followed by a movie, more manga and more OVAs.
You can follow this same kind of trail from anime or manga, to source folktale or myth, to other anime and manga based on the same folklore and so on and so on. There may be no new stories, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t new interpretations, new ways of using motifs, or news ways of looking at old plots. And that’s really what all those tale type indices and motif indices are all about: not to show how stories are similar (as Joseph Campbell seemed fixated on), but to show how they are different. Similarity gets boring after a while, but differences—even small ones that make a monkey god into an alien Saiyan but keep his tail and his staff and his magic cloud—are what makes life, and anime, and manga, interesting.