stevenmlong said: I'm fascinated by the idea of kishōtenketsu: I'd love to write about it and integrate it into my own writing. Do you have any suggestions as to further reading about it? Thanks for the wonderful piece!
Thanks for your interest. Although we receive this question very frequently, our last public response to it was in early 2013. Enough time has passed, and enough additional examples have surfaced, that a new master post is in order.
We recommend beginning with our article “Plot structure all the way down" and our posts "On kishōtenketsu #1”, “On kishōtenketsu #2" and "Kishōtenketsu in Mario”. From there, you may consider Japan Intercultural Consulting’s short but interesting “Kisho-tenketsu and speaking persuasively" and "Overcome kishotenketsu to improve your communication with Americans”. For an academic, sociological take on kishōtenketsu, the research of John Hinds and Ryuko Kubota cannot be ignored.
The links above cite numerous examples of applied kishōtenketsu, but more are available. For instance, the structure is followed by each strip of Totan Kobako’s Sketchbook, and by each episode of the children’s television series Folktales from Japan. The director of the video game Metroid: Other M admitted to using the structure in that work. Our readers have pointed to the manga series Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō and the anime film Wolf Children as further illustrations of kishōtenketsu.
We hope this was helpful.
Samus Aran and sexism
The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?
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 yonkoma 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.