Friday, April 25, 2014

"V" is for Vladimir Propp

Propp Meets Anime and Manga

Anime Wallpaper source. Vladimir Propp source.

For today's A to Z Challenge post we have something totally different. 

I am a fangirl for those of you who haven't noticed, but at the same time I love looking academically at popular culture in all its forms. So for today I'm going to share the foundation of a larger essay I have been wanting to write for a some time now. It concerns a Russian scholar and the world of long running shonen anime/manga (shonen means targeted to boys but many girls love these series as well.)

Let us start with Mr. Propp whose major work concerns studying the structure and morphology of Russian fairytales. He basically dissected as many fairytales as he could and put together a list of functions that take place within any given story. While each story may be different they all follow a particular pattern that he divided up into 31 functions. Not every fairytale will have all 31 functions and they won't always be in the same exact order he lists them as but more often than not, they fall under the same path he laid out. If you are interested in looking at the list of functions you can do so here.

He also came up with seven broad character functions that can be found in each story: the villain, the dispatcher, (magical) helper, princess or prize and her father, the donor, the hero, and the false hero.

Again, not all seven have to be included and their functions can overlap. Two or three character functions can belong to one specific character in a story or the same function can belong to two or more different characters.

Now Propp isn't without his critics but it is true that his functions will work on narratives other than fairytales; movies and novels in particular. 

This is where anime and manga come in. A movie and a stand alone novel, even a book series, while being longer than the average fairytale, are still at a reasonable length of making the Propp functions work. Long running manga and anime narratives however can last for years. Popular anime and manga One Piece has been running for over 10 years and there is still a few years to go before the end. 

These long standing narratives function by working through story arcs. Mini narratives within the larger narrative that move the story along. Yet each of these arcs can still last for months at a time. And we are fed the narratives in small doses, about 20 minutes an episode (excluding commercials). Each episode with its own beginning middle and end. Although anime episodes and chapters do tend to end in cliffhangers for the most part.

Now what I find interesting is that Propp can still work within these types of narratives, he just has to be tweaked a bit because many of the functions HAVE to repeat themselves several times. Because they have to repeat so often, one would think that after a while such a series with an intended story line and specific ending thought up in advance, would become tiresome or boring.

Yet, when done correctly, it never does. The writers and artists of these types of Japanese cartoons manage to keep us hooked and entertained as long as need be to end the story. That is the reason I've been drawn to study them in a more academic fashion. They manage to maintain a similar structure for YEARS and still manage to work.

These animated series are different from the avarage Western cartoon, which while having the same characters, will not have an overall single plot line. Children's cartoons in the West follow the pattern of each episode standing on it's own or will sometimes have smaller narrative arcs that will rarely have anything to do with each other. 

The only exception I can think of off the top of my head is Avatar: Aang the Last Airbender (with a four year run). Yet this story was based on an Eastern style cartoon narrative.

Whoo! Okay I think I'll leave it at that. I could go on forever with this. But like I said it is a larger essay I've been wanting to write. I still would need to do a lot of research but I think it would be worth looking into.

Any thoughts? Or do you guys have any future projects you have in the planning stages?

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  1. I agree essentially with Mr. Propp: there are broad categories into which every story character can fit. Likewise, there are really only a handful of basic story lines, and you can boil any story down to one of those plots. The creativity is not in trying to come up with a new type of character, or a new plot line, but how those characters are written, and what you do with that plot.

    One of my daughters loves all things Asian, and is a huge fan of a number of different Anime, so I have seen a few and understand what you say about their story arcs, etc. What makes them interesting is not that Naruto is this kind of character, or Gara is that kind of character, or this story arc follows this kind of narrative pattern. It's how the writers develop the characters within their type. What they throw into that narrative to make it interesting. In other words, it's the details that make Naruto Naruto and not Full Metal Alchemist.

    This is an interesting topic, Cely, and you've written a good introduction to it here. I hope you get to write your essay/paper/book on the subject soon! :)

    1. Thank you Colin. You're right about the details. These writers know how to write within the given structure and make it work for them in such a great way. I really should start working on this soon. =)

  2. Another interesting post! Have a great weekend :)

    1. As always thank you for dropping by (n_n)/

  3. Fascinating post! As a former high school English teacher, I used to teach a fairy tale unit every year that essentially followed the same idea that, no matter the differences, there are archetypal characters and plot events spanning every culture's oral or written story traditions. We focused on variations of the Cinderella tale--after reading a broad sample and dissecting it for those universal archetypes, students then had to research a culture of their own choice and write a Cinderalla story including the same elements but within that particular cultural framework. The result was fantastic; it was such a template for creativity and awareness.

    1. I would have loved to have an unit like that in my English class. I can only imagine the variety of Cinderella versions you must have read. Thank you so much for visiting by the way, I appreciate it.

  4. You gave me a lot to think about there. Now I'm analyzing my novels and TV shows I watch, seeing if they fit the model. Very cool post. Not into anime but my daughter is a fan of one of those series.

    1. Oh yeah you can definitely find this in novels. It would depend on the type of TV show though whether it has it or not. For example Big Band Theory wouldn't have it but maybe something more like a mini series would.

  5. I'm not aware of Propp's work, but I bet if someone told me one of his stories I'd recognize it.



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