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), though I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it. (I wrote a companion post about it here.) A more familiar one is Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). I’ll use that as my example. 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.” So let’s see how it plays out in Kiki:
Kiku: Introduction: We first see Kiki, age 13, at home with her parents. She’s getting ready to leave to find her own place to establish her witchy practice. Her mom says about the only thing Kiki can do is fly, and not well. She regrets that she hasn’t had time to teach her potions or any other skills. Off Kiki flies, with her cat Jiji. A storm blows up and she takes shelter in a train car. When she wakes up, she’s approaching a city.
She’s ill-prepared for life in a big city, and her out-of-control flying causes a ruckus. She stops to rest in front of a bakery, and the pregnant shopkeeper, Osono, calls after a departing customer that she’s left her baby’s pacifier behind. She’ll have a long walk to return it to the customer. Kiki offers to deliver it for her.
Shōku: Development: Osono guesses that Kiki is a witch-in-training, and offers her a place to stay. Kiki mentions she’s planning to start a delivery business, since all she can do is fly. Osono offers to be Kiki’s first customer, and lets her stay at the bakery in exchange for helping out.
Things are going well, and she’s settling into the city and meeting more people. She takes a job to deliver a stuffed cat that looks like Jiji. On the way, she’s battered by a sudden wind gust and loses the cat doll. She delivers the cage, with Jiji standing in for the doll, while she looks for it. After being attacked by ravens, she finds the doll in a cabin window, and meets an artist who helps her repair the doll.
She manages to make the switch. It’s a success! More jobs, more people. It’s not easy, but her work is paying off.
A woman hires Kiki to deliver a herring-pumpkin pot pie to her granddaughter for her birthday. Her electric oven isn’t working, so Kiki offers to help bake the pie in the old wood-fired oven. While it’s baking she helps out with some other chores. This has to be the high point of her journey so far.
It works, but now she’ll be late to a party she was invited to. She takes off for the granddaughter’s house, but a blinding rainstorm hits. Somehow she arrives, with the pie still dry.
The girl doesn’t want it. “I hate Grandma’s stupid pies.” She slams the door. Kiki stands there in shock. All the love, care, and work went into that pie, and Kiki’s shocked at the girl’s disrespect for her elderly grandmother. She flies home through the storm, soaking wet. She can’t go the party, and climbs into bed. On top of all that, she gets really sick.
I see the encounter with the rotten customer as a setup for the approaching twist. Everything up to that point has been meeting challenges, and she’s been rewarded with success. We’re a little past the high point when things turn sour. She recovers from the fever, but says “Flying used to be fun until I started doing it for a living.” We saw her having fun before the pie incident, but a shadow has been cast over the whole thing. Then she sees the ungrateful girl again and the depression comes back. “I meet a lot of people, and at first everything seems to be going okay. But then I start feeling like such an outsider.” Suddenly she can’t understand what Jiji says, and just hears meows. On top of that she can’t fly anymore!
Her artist friend visits and invites her to stay with her in the cabin for a while. She says “Painting and magical powers seem very much the same. Sometimes I’m unable to paint a thing.”
Tenku: The Twist: She tells Kiki that she realized that she hadn’t figured out what or why she wanted to paint, and finally she did. We each need to find our own inspiration. Kiki admits that she’d never given it much thought because she was working on training. Maybe she needs to find her own inspiration.
You could argue that the encounter with the rotten customer was the twist, and I thought that at first, too. But now I think finding the reason she wants to fly is a better one, because her outlook changes. If she’s got a goal she’s dedicated to, it will carry her past the negative experiences.
The twist is usually something outside the main character(s) control. The bad customer would be outside Kiki’s control. Having a witchy education that didn’t talk about motivation might be as well. Though we’re talking about an artistic technique- it’s not a required “check off all the boxes.”
Kiki returns home, feeling much better, and she’s got a second delivery job from the woman who baked the pie. She hasn’t tried to fly yet, but she goes to visit and see what it’s about. The delivery is a cake, to deliver to herself.
While they’re sitting together, a report on TV shows the airship that’s recently landed being hit by a gust of wind. A crowd of men grab the last mooring rope, but it keeps ascending and they drop off one by one. Her friend Tombo hangs onto the rope, and soon it’s too late to let go. He’s hundreds of feet off the ground! Kiki runs through the crowd to get to the scene, is forced off the road next to a streetsweeper.
She grabs his deck broom, takes it to the street, bristles with determination and flies off. It’s not made for flight and she careens from building to building, sometimes zooming inches away from the pavement. She manages to grab Tombo as he falls, saving his life as the city cheers her on.
Ketsu: Conclusion: Her reason for flying is to help people, both in rescuing Tombo, and delivering necessary items and gifts. In the closing scenes we see Kiki accepted by people, making deliveries, helping out at the bakery, and seeing a little girl dressing up as her, with a tiny deck broom. It’s her city now.
The three-act structure doesn’t fit this movie at all. You can’t say the middle is “rising action”- she’s making deliveries, having challenges, and meeting people, but there isn’t an increase in tension or action. There isn’t an antagonist she’s struggling against: she’s shocked by the mean girl’s behavior, but doesn’t say a word to her about it. She isn’t agonizing over two alternate paths to take, or facing an internal struggle. She’s depressed and doesn’t know what to do.
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, but they may not expect it from a grown-up one outside of art cinema. I’d suggest watching or rewatching Garden of Words and seeing how that fits. It may be a favorite structure for Makoto Shinkai, so any of his movies might use 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!