Kishotenketsu: Asian Story Structure & Anime (Garden of Words)
Garden of Words is an excellent example of the Kishotenketsu story structure. If you haven’t seen that movie, I also look at Kiki’s Delivery Service here.
Did you ever notice that things play out differently in some anime movies? They just don’t follow the familiar pattern of action that we’re used to in Western fare. For fans expecting something like a typical action movie, it’s a disappointment. The reason? It’s a different story structure than we usually see.
Anime fans usually don’t talk about story structure, it’s more of a writer thing. And many writers are “discovery writers”, who sit down and start writing without a general plan on what happens when. (They’re also called “pantsers”, because they fly by the seat of their pants.) They don’t worry about story structure when they’re writing. The opposite are “plotters” who think of what shape their story will take, and when things take place, to keep things moving along. They’re more in-tune with structures. Both types will have to do a lot of revision when they’re done, but in general you’ll do less revising if you do the planning up-front. A lot of people fall somewhere in between the two camps.
The common Western story uses a 3-act structure built on conflict (Inciting incident, Rising action, Climax/resolution) Most Asian cultures traditionally go for a 4-part structure that uses a twist instead. It’s a structure used in poetry, stories, and even in the way people present an argument in debate. Of course, by this time people in Asia have seen Hollywood and European movies, so they know how to use 3-part structure when they want to. There are other Asian structures as well.
In Japan, the 4-part structure is called Kishōtenketsu – and one fine example is Shinkai’s beautiful Garden of Words (2013). Here’s how Wikipedia lays it out the structure:
kiku (起句) is ‘ki (起)’: introduction, where 起 can mean rouse, wake up, get up
shōku (承句) is ‘sho (承)’: development, where 承 can also mean acquiesce, hear, listen to, be informed, receive
tenku (転句) is ‘ten (転)’: twist, where 転 can mean revolve, turn around, change
kekku (結句) is ‘ketsu (結)’: Conclusion, though 結 can also mean result; consequence; outcome; effect; or coming to fruition; bearing fruitWikipedia – Kishotenketsu
It’s often called “Conflict-free story telling”, though that tends to make it sound dull, or a comforting slice-of-life at best. While it may not involve a struggle between two people, it’s certainly not “challenge-free.” Let’s take a look at how it’s used in Garden of Words:
Kiku: Introduction: We first see 15-year-old Takao Akizuki commuting to high school on a train. The first thoughts we hear are:
“Until I entered high school two months ago, I didn’t know the dampness of my uniform’s hem, soaked by someone else’s umbrella, the smell of naphthalene clinging to someone’s suit, the warm body pushed up against my back, the chill breeze of the air conditioner against my face. When I was little the sky was closer… so much closer. That’s why I like the rain, as with it comes the smell of the sky.”Garden of Words
He steps out of the train into rainy rush-hour Tokyo traffic. He makes his way to a park entrance.
He often stops at a shelter house to sketch shoe designs. There’s a woman already there, eating chocolate and drinking beer. They sit for a while as he sketches.
There’s distant lightning and a soft rumble of thunder. She stands up to leave, says “Maybe it’s fitting…”, and quotes a poem:
A faint clap of thunder
Perhaps rain comes
If so, will you stay here with me?
from the Man’yōshū, – a poetry compilation from the 8th century with over 4.500 poems (wikipedia)
Shōku: Development: At home, Takao works on learning the craft of shoemaking. If it’s a sunny day, he goes straight to school. He looks at costs for going to a vocational school for shoemaking. But it’s the start of the rainy season. They meet at the shelter frequently. She asks him if he’s skipping school, and he asks her if she’s skipping work. Eventually he tells her that he wants to make shoemaking a career, but he’s still terrible at it.
More days pass. Being late for school causes problems. He makes the woman a sandwich, since beer and chocolates aren’t a healthy meal. At her apartment we see her talking to her ex on the phone about how her sense of taste is finally beginning to return, and starting the paperwork for her quitting. She gives Takao an expensive book on handmade shoes. He mentions that he’s working on a pair of women’s shoes, but he can’t get them right. She lets him do a detailed measurement of her foot. The rainy season ends, and they don’t see each other. Tadako works hard at his part-time job to save for vocational school. September arrives, and he returns to school.
Tenku: The Twist: Takao is walking past the teacher’s office, and SHE walks out. Girls run up to her, calling “Miss Yukino!”, wanting to talk with her.
He had a different teacher for literature. His friends tell him: “Yukino was always having trouble with the 3rd year girls. Someone’s boyfriend fell for Miss Yukino, and as payback everyone in the class treated Miss Yukino terribly. They spread so many rumors even her parents heard about them. It went so far she couldn’t come to school any more. Yukino’s just too kind. She should have brought it right to the police.”
“We told Mr. Itou again and again! But he didn’t want to make trouble for the school in public.”
Takao tracks down the girl who started the rumors and confronts her. She says she doesn’t care if Yukino is quitting, and calls her a slutty hag. He slaps her and the boyfriend decks him.
Eventually he returns to the park, searching for her, and finds her under the wisteria. He quotes the answering poem from the Man’yōshū collection:
A faint clap of thunder
Even if rain comes not
I will stay here
Together with you
A heavy rainstorm strikes, and eventually they make their way to her apartment to dry off. He tells her he loves her, and she says she had decided to move away. She’ll be leaving next week. He runs out, she runs after her, and they argue. She tells him every day she put on her suit to go to school, but couldn’t. He saved her. She tells him he helped her to walk again.
The twist is usually something outside the main character(s) control rather than a decision they make. I think that fits here. Though we’re talking about an artistic technique, not a “check off the boxes” requirement.
Ketsu: Conclusion: She moves, and his life goes on. He wonders how she’s doing. In the final credits, we see the seasons changing in the city. He walks through the park in the falling snow, and reads a letter from Yukino. He takes out a beautiful pair of shoes, and admires them. “I was practicing how to walk, too. I believe that now. One day, when I can walk much farther on my own, I will go see her.”
(If you’re wondering what happens with Takao and Miss Yukino, Shinkai continues the story in a novel.)
I think this movie fits the kishotenketsu structure perfectly. If you’ve watched other movies by Makoto Shinkai, do you think they fit as well? It’s worth remembering that we’re talking about works of art, so they may follow a structure, but the creator isn’t going to be totally bound by them if they want to do something different.
I’m not sure if the Tanka poems follow that structure or not. It’s not as large a twist, but the third line switches from description to speculation in the first one.
Can you think of other anime that fits kishotenketsu? I suspect Americans are more tolerant of a children’s movie that doesn’t have a grand conflict (like Kiki’s Delivery Service), but they may not expect it from a grown-up one outside of art cinema. I’d suggest watching or rewatching Kiki’s delivery service, and checking out the companion blog post to see how that movie uses it.I’m wondering if a whole series can be structured as one big kishotenketsu arc. Another idea to explore: Must it necessarily be a calm story? Could Madoka Magica use a variant of this structure? In that case, maybe the development happens when they discover where witches come from, and the twist when Madoka makes her wish.
Let’s talk about it!