Kishōtenketsu in Mario
We provide that concept, let them develop their skills, and then the third step is something of a doozy that throws them for a loop, and makes them think of using it in a way they haven’t really before.
In 2012, Nintendo’s Koichi Hayashida told Gamasutra that the kishōtenketsu plot structure informs the design of the Mario series. It seems that Shigeru Miyamoto drew yankoma manga in his youth; and he imported kishōtenketsu—particularly its signature “twist”—into his games. Hayashida began to notice the structure’s influence himself while developing Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land, but he claims that it has “always been very close to our philosophy of level design”. Its presence gives narrative cohesion and propulsion to levels that might otherwise be static or undirected.
We have stated that plot structure occurs “all the way down”. Sentences, stories and other cultural artifacts adhere, often unintentionally, to the local rules of storytelling. In the Mario series, one finds yet another example of this phenomenon. And the popularity of this series in the West demonstrates, once more, that kishōtenketsu has for decades been gaining traction outside of Japan and China. A generation of Westerners grew up with Mario. As members of that generation inherit the reins, they bring with them a new type of plot structure—and a new type of thought.
Still Eating Oranges
What is realism?
In America, it is often said that great writing captures the world with a “journalistic eye”. That is, the very best writers copy the world in exact detail. They study patterns of speech, construct naturalistic backgrounds for their stories and painstakingly describe environments and characters. All of this is to ensure that their work is “believable”, which is to say that it is “realistic”. The goal is to create characters and stories that are unsentimental, that are not idealized; to show the world as it is. Every type of fiction—written or filmed—has been influenced by this goal, from standard literary fiction to Game of Thrones.
But what, exactly, does it mean to show the world as it is? What is the difference between real and artificial portrayal? This distinction, to which we appeal so readily, is far less clear than we imagine. Supposedly we can point to the difference in realism between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Rabbit, Run. Yet, both works are fictional; non-real. Can one non-real work be more real than another? And what counts as real, anyway? If we are to understand realism, these questions must be answered.
Plot structure all the way down
Exactly one year ago, we posted an article that compared the Western three-act plot to the Japanese and Chinese kishōtenketsu. Its popularity surpassed our most ambitious expectations; and it spread widely. Although it is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of those who contributed to the article’s success, a few high-profile examples are Brian Michael Bendis, Scientific American and Kelly Sue DeConnick. But, despite the buzz surrounding it, the article left questions unanswered and paths unexplored. More remains to be said. One year later, then, we have decided to revisit the subjects of kishōtenketsu, the three-act plot and the significance of plot without conflict.
“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ — as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.”
Taken from “On Fairy-Stories” (1939) by J. R. R. Tolkien.
breathinginsilence asked: hello! I was wondering if you have any examples of books/tv/films that play out with a Kishōtenketsu narrative?
Thanks for your interest. We have received this question several times, but we have answered it publically only once. As we said then, a few examples would be Makoto Shinkai’s She and Her Cat and the shorts within Kunio Kato’s The Diary of Tortov Roddle. A longer-form example would be the first episode of the anime series Allison & Lillia.
At the beginning of the episode, we are introduced to the protagonists Allison and Will; and details about the setting are revealed. These elements are developed in an undirected manner until the third act, when Allison and Will meet an old man who tells them a secret and is then kidnapped. In the fourth and final act, Allison and Will set off to rescue the old man.
Another example would be our writer’s story Unknowable, which was published in Gone Lawn last year. In the first act, a general setting is sketched out, the protagonist and his companions are introduced and a woman appears. The second act tells us more about the protagonist and his surreal, lonely condition, and the woman buys him a meal. A stranger arrives and he and the woman leave together during the third act. In the final act, the protagonist finishes eating and wanders off by himself, which shows the result of the third act’s interruption.
Obviously, there is strife in these scenarios; but it is not uncommon for kishōtenketsu-based stories to contain strife. It simply is not required, and it may be included or excluded at the writer’s discretion. Kishōtenketsu can be used in everything from a war movie to a conflict-free slice-of-life story.
If you are interested in finding other modern examples of kishōtenketsu, you might consider watching anime films or TV shows while paying attention to their structures. The three-act plot is gaining popularity in Japan, but kishōtenketsu is still used regularly.
We hope this was helpful.