Essay: On Kishōtenketsu
It has always concerned me that the primary force of Western narrative has been driven by a need to overcome conflict. As I have been moving towards a more circular, Eastern existence, it has become clear to me that the typical journey of a Western hero is no longer the kind of narrative that can sustain a conscious, awakened life: the oppressed man or woman overcoming great obstacles to achieve timeless, everlasting success.
This is an extension of my experiments into how I approach my own writing, as well as philosophy on life itself. Since my mid-twenties, the notion of a life with a single-pointed focus has gradually been losing its appeal. Charging blindly towards a goal one thinks is all encompassing does not only bring significant distress when one realises it is no longer, or never was, the thing one wanted, the effort of breaking free can cause more confusion, or even despair over the very definition of failure and success. In reality, life is hardly a straight line, but a series of circular motions that bring the self back to his or her original state: consciousness, and also nothingness.
I know this all sounds rather depressing, but bear with me; there is a flame of hope.
The other day, while falling through the cascading holes of the Interwebs, I came across an article describing the 'significance of a conflictless plot.' In the article, the writer described his dissatisfaction with Western narrative's obsession with conflict, and how other forms, such as those demonstrated by narratives in East Asia, suggest a way of thinking that is more embedded and less destructive than the structures with which Western society has become accustomed. In citing the post-modern and post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida on his theory of deconstruction, whereby words only have meaning when they are placed in relation to other words, the writer puts forward the idea that the three-act structure so perpetuated by superhero movies and other traditional narratives is aggressive, violent, and conflict-oriented, and therefore not a satisfactory (or at least the only) way of constructing plot. According to Derrida’s theories, when two concepts are placed in relation to one another, the conquering of one over the other must naturally occur.
On the other hand, the author argued, kishōtenketsu (qǐ-chéng-zhuǎn-he in Chinese, or beginning-following-turning-concluding), a four part narrative structure most commonly seen in East Asia, requires no conflict in the development of its plot, and thus no violence. Deriving from Chinese and Japanese poetry, more specifically from the tradition of four line, seven syllable poetry that was popular among poets in the Chinese Tang dynasty, the kishōtenketsu structure can be explained as follows:
1. Ki/qǐ (起), 'to rise'. This is the introduction of the narrative and the characters, and where the scene is set.
2. Shō/chéng (承), 'to undertake'. This is the development of the plot and exposition.
3. Ten/zhuǎn (転), 'to turn', a twist. Often it can be a non-sequitur.
4. Ketsu/he (結) 'to form', where the ideas introduced in the third segment are brought together to compare and contrast with the first two sections, not necessarily confirming the central thesis, but reflecting on how the three sections fit together, and providing a context for the whole piece.
An example of this can be found in the following quatrain by Chinese poet Du Mu (AD 803-852). In this poem, each element of kishōtenketsu is demonstrated in the successive lines:
Far away on the cold mountain, a stone path slants upwards,
In the white clouds is a village, where people have their homes.
I stop the carriage, loving the maple wood in the evening,
The frosted leaves are redder than the second month's flowers.
(Note the introduction of the poet in the third line of the poem. As well as arresting the action literally, the presence of the poet is the shift that elevates the poem towards the final, autumnal image of the flower, propelling the narrative forward and placing everything that has come before it into context in a subtle and poetic way.)
Most commonly found today in four panel yonkoma manga, as well as Western essays and short stories, kishōtenketsu, according to the author of the kishōtenketsu article, is preferable because there is no need to be violent towards any aspect of the narrative, that is, no need to call on the Western narrative’s need for conflict and confrontation. Here Derrida’s difference can still exist but without the brutality of the three-act structure, ultimately allowing the elements to sit harmoniously without the need for any one part to submit to another, and moving the narrative away from an attitude of deconstruction towards one of compassion and non-violence.
‘Is it possible that deconstruction could never have been conceived in a world governed by kishōtenketsu, rather than by the three-act plot? Is the three-act structure one of the elements behind the very worldview that calls for its deconstruction?’ asks the author (emphasis the author’s own). Indeed, as I wondered if kishōtenketsu might be the narrative structure upon which to meditate, I considered the deconstruction of this very question.
But let us pause. Despite my immediate alignment with the kishōtenketsu article’s author, and my growing excitement at the idea of a kinder, less traumatic narrative path (do all stories have to end with a violent battle with the subconscious? I feel I am missing something with my own lack of fire), the concept of the three-act structure still beckoned me. The three-act structure has been part of Western storytelling for centuries. How did it grab such a hold on us? And from where did the three-act structure arise?
Although the origins of dramatic structure can be said to have arisen from Aristotle’s Poetics, the most significant influence on the three-act structure is the concept of the hero’s journey, first discussed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949. An Irish-American who later developed a deep passion for American Native Indian mythology, Campbell came into public recognition with the book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which illustrated his now ubiquitous theory of the monomyth. The monomyth can be defined as a basic pattern for narrative that serves as the template for many heroes’ journeys around the world, including those of Christ, Buddha and Moses. In the foreword of his book, Campbell summarises the monomyth as the following:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Although Campbell’s work was mostly observational, rather than prescriptive, and grew out of an examination of the universal themes of different cultures’ mythologies, the hero’s journey has been used by Hollywood and other storytelling faculties to build plot (Christopher Vogler, a former Disney executive, adapted Campbell’s concepts for his widely read The Writer’s Journey). In a typical monomythic journey, a protagonist, who begins in the ordinary world, is called to a new and strange world (the call to adventure), and then faced with a series of challenges to overcome, either alone or with assistance (a road of trials). Overcoming this, the hero is then rewarded with a gift (a boon, usually involving some kind of self-discovery), which he or she may then return to the normal world with to improve mankind (return to the normal world/application of the boon).
These events can also be laid out in three stages, which Campbell describes as departure (the hero embarking on the quest), initiation (the hero’s adventures on his or her journey), and return (the hero returning home with the knowledge and power acquired on the journey), and further subdivided into seventeen stages that may or may not be included in the entire journey. Combined, these stages serve as the basis for the three-act structure (setup-confrontation-resolution) used by many storytellers, especially filmmakers, today. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, a chosen one is set off on a quest, given a guide and aid, and then confronted by challenges and monsters on the journey, only overcoming them at the end in a moment of physical and mental self-realisation. These examples can also be found in more quotidian stories such as Drive, The Graduate, and almost any romantic comedy today (yes, even Love Actually).
The three-act structure has been a useful and consistent guide in the construction of active plot. But the important question surrounding the three-act structure is not how the structure works, or even what the specific functions of each segment are; instead, the central question about the three-act structure is why does it have such a powerful effect on us? Why, as storytellers, do we need to tell ourselves essentially the same story over and over again in almost every combination and fashion? Why, in our ordinary lives, do we believe we must be able to fight demons and monsters, and against them, victoriously win?
To put it bluntly, why must we believe in the destruction of everything else but our own journey and success?
As I continued down the narrow road, I began to think of the following anecdote:
Not long ago, for some respite, I entered a Zen Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, New York. Inside, the gleaming pine wood floors were calming, and the soberly dressed monks serene. Over the course of several weeks I would return to the temple, each time shaking off the bustle of the street, each time sitting for a little bit longer in silence. Every session I would sit, until finally, my mind was filled with nothing.
Afterwards, I would pick up my things and head off to do whatever I had planned for that day. But that moment of oblivion would always stay with me. Later, I stopped going to the temple, and instead sat within the silence of my own mind, turning over empty thoughts. For in those moments, I was neither the protagonist in my own life, nor the obstacle, but an emptiness that repeated itself, in different forms, over and over again.
It has been several months since I began this essay. In that period, seasons, countries, and even continents have changed. But one thing has remained, as I’ve searched for some kind of answer to the enduring question: that to live life itself is to be without defeat.