• remind me tomorrow
  • remind me next week
  • never remind me
Subscribe to the ANN Newsletter • Wake up every Sunday to a curated list of ANN's most interesting posts of the week. read more

Fairy Tales in Anime and Manga

by Rebecca Silverman,

Are there any words filled with more anticipation than “once upon a time?” They've moved beyond being a stock phrase in oral storytelling; that four-word phrase has become the signal that we're about to hear something magical and wondrous, and quite possibly bloody and disturbing as well. No matter what your native language, there's an equivalent: il était un fois, c'era una volta, mukashi mukashi - all of them indicate the beginning of a story with history. We've come to call that kind of story a fairy tale, an oral folk story passed down for hundreds of years before being set to paper. Most fairy tales from the oral tradition exist in almost every country on the planet – fairy tales speak to a basic human need or story that is universal. Most cultures came up with the same stories independently of each other, so the girl called Cinderella in English is Cendrillon in France, Yeh Tsien in China, or Pepelyouga in Serbia. In each version of the story, the same basic events take place: a poor girl is forced to work for her wicked relatives before she acquires magical clothing and wins the love of a royal man, thus freeing her from her life of drudgery. Because the same story exists in so many places, the Aarne-Thompson classification system is used to identify tales of the same type. Each fairy tale is assigned a number preceded by the letters AT, so all of the Cinderella stories are known as AT510. Despite this, Western versions have really taken over the general consciousness, largely aided by first Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the first half of the 19th century and later by Walt Disney in his fairy tale films, the first of which, Snow White, came out in 1937.

Anime and manga have not been immune to this focus on Western variants of fairy tales. Although Japanese versions of almost all of them exist, anime and manga tend to focus more on the Disneyfied (or Grimmified) stories, taking them and making them touchstones for themes that everyone can understand. While all sorts of tale types pop up in our favorite form of entertainment, there are a few that are much more prevalent than the rest, and funnily enough, they're the ones we see most often get turned into live action movies or YA novels over here as well. There must be something universal about them…

One of the most interesting stories to be adapted by Japanese pop culture is that of Sleeping Beauty, or AT410. The basic tale is about a beautiful princess cursed as a baby to either prick her finger or get a sliver of flax stuck under her fingernail at age sixteen and then sleep nearly forever. The version in The Arabian Nights Entertainment involved a lot of sex, while the Italian Sun, Moon, and Talia has King Rapist rather than Prince Charming, so there's already a lot of variation within the tale type, but the anime and manga (and in this case manhwa) spin on the story has a lot to add. My personal favorite retelling is the short Satoshi Kon film Magnetic Rose, the first in the Memories triptych. The story is essentially sci fi Sleeping Beauty – space sanitation workers on the vessel Corona receive a distress call from a dangerous area of space known as the Sargasso, a terrible raft of space junk and broken ships. When Heinz and Miguel are sent in to search, they find a perfectly working rose-shaped craft with an interior like an 18th century palace – Sleeping Beauty's castle. Everything appears to be frozen in time, run by efficient computer systems to keep repeating the missing owner's daily routine. The two men find themselves pulled into the ship's mystery, learning that it belonged to an opera singer named Eva, who retired to space once she lost her voice and her fiancé was murdered. She's a willing victim of the curse, casting it upon herself so as to live eternally in her memories of better times…and she wants company. Over the course of the film, we watch her try to woo Heinz and Miguel, playing on the latter's romantic urges and need to be gallant while offering the former dreams of his life before his own daughter was claimed by an eternal sleep. Eva is a predatory princess, both Sleeping Beauty and the evil fairy at once, and she uses her computer-vines to pull would-be princes charming into her endless dream. Miguel becomes trapped in her thorns, but Heinz, once forced to recall why he put his memories of his family tragedy to sleep, is wide awake, and refuses to go to sleep again. In the final scenes of the film we see Heinz floating in space, slowly opening his eyes paired with an image of Eva, long dead and skeletonized, laying on her bed with a perfect red rose in her hands, a grim reminder of Princess Aurora in the Disney film and what happens when Sleeping Beauty doesn't want to wake up.

On a much lighter note, Park Eun-Ah's six volume manhwa series Sweety Gem follows Princess Ruby, born into a medieval kingdom and trapped within a magic jewel on her sixteenth birthday. The gem continues to be passed down the family line until in 1998 high school student Ian accidentally touches his lips to it. This frees Ruby from her slumber, much to Ian's horror. Not that Ruby is thrilled either – she's been kissed by a guy she doesn't know (a nice nod to the nonconsensual nature of the original tales – “true love” didn't really enter the picture until 1811) and she's awoken to a world where her entire family has been dead for centuries and nothing makes sense. What's particularly interesting about Park's version of the tale is that she takes into account some of the details from Charles Perrault's 1697 version, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” where the princess wakes up one hundred years later and the prince keeps thinking to himself that she's dressed like his great-grandmother and how awkward that is for him. But what about how awkward it is for her? How confused must she be? >Park answers this question while having Ian slowly come to care for Ruby, making this a more thoughtful variant of the tale than you'd expect. It doesn't hurt that she's able to mix in some bittersweet qualities when a supernatural being from Ruby's past stops by and a good use of the evil fairy and her continued existence…as Ian's mom. This makes it one of the rare adaptations to use the second half of the story, where Sleeping Beauty and her kids almost get eaten by either the prince's wife or his mother. I guess we can see why Disney (and the Grimms) left that bit out.

Both of these retellings are fairly close to the early tales, but plenty of anime and manga simply incorporate Sleeping Beauty themes. Arina Tanemura's Time Stranger Kyoko has a slumbering character in Kyoko's sister Ui, who is very much frozen in time. This is directly related to Kyoko's own maturation as a character, which is a tie to the tale in that some scholars feel that the Sleeping Beauty tale type is directly related to adolescence. With the reveal that Kyoko is actually living in Ui's body so that she could grow up, there's an interesting link back to the stories, particularly the 1634 version of Giambattista Basile, where the princess falls asleep a girl and awakes as a mother, having slept through her entire adolescence. Ui, in this case, is the Sleeping Beauty figure, while Kyoko is more an incarnation of time itself. This is a similar approach to the one twice taken by Setona Mizushiro, once in her short story Soko wa Nemuri Mori (This is the Sleeping Forest) and later in Black Rose Alice. Both stories feature characters who stop aging physically, both trapped at a young age either in order to escape painful memories (Yui in Soko wa Nemuri Mori) or to keep the body alive, even after the spirit has fled. Both adhere to the idea of the story as a way to prolong innocence – if she's asleep, nothing can soil her. In the mid-19th century when Hans Christian Andersen was writing his literary fairy tales (meaning they have no folkloric roots; he made them up wholesale), he would also use this idea in order to “save” his young heroines. In his case, however, it was by killing them before they could mature physically.

Of course, in the fairy tale canon, Sleeping Beauty is only second fiddle to the most widespread tale of them all: Cinderella. The story of the mistreated maiden is pretty much everywhere, and definitely the tale retold the most often – 90% of romance novels and romantic comedies are Cinderella retellings, and shoujo romances are no exception. In most cases they play it pretty straight: poor girl becomes the object of affection for wealthy guy (Maid-sama, SA,Ouran High School Host Club…), or ends up being a slave/maid for a wealthy guy who secretly likes her (Hot Gimmick, Yokujou © Max ), or in some cases ends up as the wealthy guy in a masquerade, which throws her into the path of a different prospective prince (The Prince in his Dark Days). There are a few, however, that take the basic tale type and tinker with it, although they largely remain faithful to the Disney version, which is in turn based on Perrault's Cendrillon of 1697. Tatsunoko took that and ran with it in 1996 with their twenty-six episode series The Story of Cinderella, which takes Perrault's base tale and expands it, fleshing out the characters and allowing Cinderella and the prince to meet before the ball to develop a fuller romance. One interesting thing to note about almost all versions of Cinderella, however, is that she attends the ball for three nights in a row, rather than just the one we usually think of. So when Tsukushi comments that she feels like a “one night Cinderella” in episode six of the Boys Over Flowers anime series, she's actually making a reference to the fact that the real Cinderella had three nights of magic, while she's only going to get one.

Much more interesting, however, is the fact that there's a B-track to the Cinderella tale – the version we all know and love is technically AT510A, while AT510B is generally classified as Donkeyskin. Donkeyskin (or Thousandfurs, Catskin, or Maria Wood) is also known as “The Father Who Wanted to Marry his Daughter,” and features a much more self-reliant Cinderella figure. In this version, the girl's father or caregiver declares that he will only marry someone as beautiful as his dead wife, and of course that turns out to be their daughter. In order to avoid this fate, the girl disguises herself in a donkey skin, a cloak of a thousand furs, or, in one Egyptian variant, a full-body leather garment that leaves only her eyes visible, and runs away. She ends up as the lowest servant in a prince or king's household, thus beginning the storyline of AT510A with the ball. We don't always see the incest version of this story in anime and manga, but Donkeyskin is actually very much present in the stories. One of the best examples recently is Snow White with the Red Hair, which actually owes much more to Donkeyskin and Rapunzel than to Snow White itself. The story kicks off when Shirayuki, a beautiful orphan apothecary, catches the eye of Prince Raj. Although he is not technically her father or direct caregiver, he is one of the highest authorities in the kingdom and in a similar position of power over her. Rather than bow to Raj's wishes, Shirayuki covers herself in an old cloak and runs away, only to end up a low-ranking member of the household in the castle of Prince Zen in the neighboring kingdom. As Zen visibly pines for her, Shirayuki keeps him at bay for most of the series, a lighter version of Donkeyskin hiding herself away in the kitchens and only seeing the prince for brief moments until she can't let him suffer any more. When Shirayuki confirms her love for Zen, he's earned it, and she in turn is certain that this is what she wants, rather than being another difficult situation. The aforementioned Boys Over Flowers is also more of a Cinderella B story than an A – there may not be the creepy incest vibe, but Domiyoji is both hero and villain of her story, at first pursuing her to the point where she runs away, “disguising” herself by standing by her original friends and lifestyle. When she does get together with him, it's on her own terms rather than because she's charmed by his wealth or gifts. It isn't the most comfortable romance, because let's face it, Domiyoji has a long way to go to reach anything approaching prince charming, but when Tsukushi makes her life her choice rather than his, she's still establishing herself as a Donkeyskin rather than a more typical Cinderella.

On a less charming note, we can also see the infamous ending of Bunny Drop as being a Donkeyskin story, albeit one where the princess completely buys into it. In that version Rin chooses to marry her father-figure, subverting the original tale's warnings about turning a parental relationship into a romantic one. Arguably Yayoi Ogawa's manga Tramps Like Us is a gender-reversed Donkeyskin story, as Momo's guise as Tsumire's pet is his disguise as he flees the life he had been living. His pursuit of her is also in line with the Donkeyskin tale: she's playing the role of prince while he's the princess hiding in her kitchen beneath her nose, and in the end, he does manage to win her over. We don't see many of the male Cinderellas (or Donkeyskins) in any form of literature, although both do exist; Ash-Lads (or Askeladden) are most prevalent in Scandinavian tales, and with a few exceptions like Momo and his yaoi counterpart Chihiro in Norikazu Akira's Honey Darling manga, he tends to stay there.

While Cinderella/Donkeyskin may be the queen of the fairy tales to Sleeping Beauty's princess, there's still one more young woman who makes up the third member of their trinity: Little Red Riding Hood. Probably the most instantly recognizable because of her red headwear (which didn't show up until 1697 – earlier versions have her without any sort of red hat, performing a striptease for a werewolf and escaping), Red gets some of the most contentious, varied scholarship as well as interesting interpretations in Japanese pop culture. (Some of you may have seen this advertisement.) Like in Western media, Red goes from heroine to victim to villain in her incarnations, with Yoshiki Nakamura making her almost all three in the Vie Ghoul storyline of her manga Skip Beat. Volume fourteen even puts heroine Kyoko on the cover in the iconic hood, and a splash page during the story plays with the imagery some more, casting not only Kyoko as Red, but also Vie Ghoul's lead singer Reino as the wolf, Sho as the huntsman, and Ren as the prince, who technically belongs in another story. (It's worth noting that Red is one of the few well-known fairy tale heroines not to end up married.) This deceptively chipper picture, as well as the way Nakamura uses the tale to underline the themes of the Vie Ghoul arc, shows that she has some familiarity with one of the most prevalent theories about AT333, which is that it is an analogy for sexual violence, and that when Perrault added in that red cap (the hood comes from a popular 19th century British fashion), he made it clear that she was drawing attention to herself, and therefore “asking for it.” Reino's fascination with Kyoko, which he assumes she'll welcome because of who he is, works within this interpretation, leading up to the moment when he attacks her in the woods. Although Sho is a relatively active part of getting rid of him (in his own way), it is ultimately Kyoko who must make herself realize what is going on and ultimately defend herself from Reino's predations. By unleashing her grudge demons, she is able to free herself, and her anger at Reino becomes her weapon as she extracts herself from the situation. She's both heroine and villain in this moment, depending on whose eyes you're seeing the scene through, and while the huntsman is there, as he has been since the Grimms added him in 1811, neither he nor the prince is really needed in the moment. Kyoko's transformation speaks of the way the character of Red has changed over the years, making this one of Skip Beat's more interesting arcs.

Of course we can't talk about Little Red Riding Hood in anime without mentioning Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, written by Mamoru Oshii and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. Like its predecessor Magnetic Rose, Jin-Roh takes the well-known tale and uses its themes to tell a different story, one about belonging and struggle. It takes place in an alternate 1950s, where young women in red hoods carry bombs. The “wolf” is a member of the counter-terrorism unit assigned to stop them, the Wolf Brigade, but story protagonist Fuse is haunted by the death of the red hood who blew herself up in front of him. He becomes involved with her sister, Kei, a former Red, and the story plays like a version of Perrault's tale as it goes on, reciting the dialogue between Red and the Wolf as a metaphor for trickery. In the original tales, it is the wolf who tricks Red by disguising himself as someone safe, but in Jin-Roh, it is Red who is hidden, keeping her true nature cloaked with sweet words and sad emotions. When Kei tells Fuse the story, she's warning him – just as the wolf was not Grandmother, she is not the innocent girl from Perrault's tale. It's a dark variation, using death rather than sex as its driving force (Red can't go to Grandmother because another wolf has likely already killed her), and it reads almost like a gender-swapped twist on the original. This time, however, when the wolf wins, there's a bitterness for him as well as her. The clear villain of Perrault and Grimm takes on a muddied role, and we're left to wonder where it all went wrong in a new reading of a classic story.

Seishi Kishimoto (twin brother of Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto) also takes a dark look at the tale type in his four volume shounen manga Crimson Wolf, which relies just as much on Perrault's moral about wolves in sheep's clothing as the actual story. His protagonist, Yoichi, is tormented by his classmates until he meets a girl named Ayame. Ayame is both Red and the wolf as she explains to him that everyone is basically both wolf and sheep, and when the wolf (a metaphor for less socially acceptable behaviors) takes over, he must be taken out. If Yoichi is willing to become her sheep, keeping her in check while she kills wolves, she'll help him to overcome his own issues. It's essentially an expansion of the moral of Perrault's story; he writes, “There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all,” as a way of making sure that his message about girls not standing out and putting themselves in the path of men is received. Ayame's wolf is a hunter who pursues other wolves, who are very likely the people described by Perrault. In helping her, Yoichi learns more about the human capacity for cruelty – and perhaps how to let his own wolf out when he needs to.

More innocently, we can see incarnations of AT333 in almost all werewolf romances or in cute children's fare, like Akazukin Chacha, where Red and the wolf are best buddies living in an enchanted forest. Not that all werewolf romances are particularly innocent, but it's a more common, and commonly accepted, way to use the story that doesn't risk alienating viewers or readers with harsh themes while still making it clear what's going on. In Ookami-san and her Seven Companions, Red and the wolf are also best friends, this time as high school students in what migh be called a fractured fairy tale, or a slightly more grown up version of the Chacha approach. Of course, the flip side of that are the crazy assassin Red Riding Hoods – Kaori Yuki's Ludwig Revolution has a Red who was abused and essentially descended into insanity, becoming a vengeful figure drawn to the spilling of blood. In Benkyo Tamaoki's Tokyo Red Hood manga, Red is a promiscuous, violent girl searching for her “Mr. Wolf” to end her seemingly immortal life, indulging in sex and violence.

If I were to keep going by tale type, this would be the longest article in the history of ANN, so I'll end by mentioning a few series that do interesting things with various stories. A personal favorite is Yun JiUn's manhwa Cynical Orange, which combines Rapunzel (AT310) with The Pied Piper of Hameln (a legend, not a fairy tale) in a strangely beautiful way – the Piper entices Rapunzel out of her tower, giving her more agency in her own rescue but also tapping into the idea that Rapunzel needs to be shown that she's trapped, a variation not often seen. Yu Watase's Ceres: Celestial Legend is an almost straight reworking of the tale type known as The Swan Maiden (AT400), a story better known by its Celtic version about selkies, as she imagines what happened to the children of the captured maiden down through history. Flip Flappers used Hansel and Gretel (AT327) in its first episode (though it has since gone more in the direction of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), and both shoujo and josei manga are filled with Bride Test stories (AT1452) as women struggle to be accepted by their love interests' families. And of course there are the fairy tale mashup series, like the aforementioned Ludwig Revolution and Ookami-san, but also the manga Dictatorial Grimoire and the children's anime Otogi Jushi Akazukin, also known as “Fairy Musketeers.” Obviously there are many more series, anime, manga, and manhwa alike, that take specifically western tales and play with them, creating new and fascinating variants on the old themes, so please stop by the forums and let us know your favorites!

discuss this in the forum (29 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Feature homepage / archives