Kishoutenketsu – Thoughts on “Ten”& Examples

(This post will continually be updated as I come across more examples and deepen my understanding – feel free to leave a comment if you have examples to share as well!)

Since reviewing the resources I have thus far on kishoutenketsu (起承転結) in my previous post, I’ve been pondering further what has made it so tricky to understand.

I think part of it comes from being so steeped in the Western structure, where conflict plays a key role. For example, even as I’m studying kishoutenketsu, I’m conscious of the fact that I keep placing it in conflict with Western structure (i.e. the 3-act, hero’s journey structure), comparing and contrasting, framing arguments in terms of one being “better” or “worse.” I never realized that the idea of conflict was already so deep in my subconscious. To understand different narrative structures, it seems that a complete rewiring of not only the brain but the way of viewing the world is required, which is part of the difficulty in understanding different narrative structures to begin with.

Western structure and Kishoutenketsu differences

In any case, this is where I’ve landed thus far:

  • In a story written using a Western structure, the reader follows a character who changes from A to B through overcoming conflict at point C (typically the climax).
  • In a story written using kishoutenketsu, the reader’s understanding of the character and/or their world becomes more complete (particularly through “ten”).

The major difference, it seems, lies between “ten-ketsu” in kishoutenketsu and the climax and ending in Western structure.

In kishoutenketsu, the “ten” typically involves the introduction of something new and unexpected. In Western structure, this new thing would be pitted against what came before, typically in a literal face-off that then leads to one character (or no one, depending on the genre I suppose) becoming the victor. The ending thus shows the result of this face-off, the last stop in a chain of events that have built off of each other.

But in kishoutenketsu, the “ten,” through its *creation of ma, serves as an additive that makes the story whole (*see the SMAC videos noted in my resources post). Rather than building up towards the ending, “ketsu” is the sum of everything that has happened in the story, a sort of stepping back and seeing a puzzle that was being put together piece by piece, and now is whole.

The unexpectedness of “ten”

In Western structure, the climax features often two characters, representing two viewpoints, facing off against each other (where the reader wonders who will win). In kishoutenketsu, however (at least in my current understanding) “ten” is more about disrupting the reader’s experience of the story.

The following are some methods I’ve noted in manga:

  • Perspective change
  • Introduction of a new definition of a certain concept
  • Interruption of time
  • Disrupting the expected flow
  • Revealing new information

Examples of “ten”

Perspective change

Switching from the perspective of one character/set of characters to another character/set of characters

  • Haikyu, Chapter 263: The perspective changes other players’ thoughts about Tanaka to Tanaka’s inner thoughts

Change of one character’s perspective on a certain thing

  • Haikyu, Chapter 232: Shimizu’s perspective changes about losing/things ending (as well as her importance as team manager)

Introduction of a new definition of a certain concept

Instead of pitting two different definitions against each other, more of a reveal or layering of alternate definitions or meanings

  • Aria, Chapter 41: A new definition or meaning for palina is introduced
  • Haikyu, Chapter 283: Daichi presents his definition of what it means to be captain / his “creed” as a team member (remember that for kishoutenketsu, the focus is less on the conflict inherent in a volleyball match and more on the effect of this revelation on the reader)

Interruption of time

Slowing down time to focus on a specific moment

  • Haikyu, Chapter 281: Pausing on Hinata’s wonderful receive (also could count as a perspective change as well)

Flashback to a completely different time

  • Haikyu, Chapter 278: Nishinoya has multiple flashbacks, from childhood and from practicing the overhand receive

Disrupting the expected flow

After seemingly establishing the flow of the story, “ten” turns the expectation on its head

  • Collectors, Chapter 2: Easily seen in 4-koma, the 3rd panel of each strip takes an unexpected turn (the structure of the whole chapter also does this)
  • Aria, Chapter 46: It seems like Akira and Athena won’t be able to meet up with Alicia until…

Revealing new information

Often without warning, information is shared in the moment (often paired with an interruption of time, like a flashback).

Last notes

There is certainly more that could be said with regards to kishoutenketsu and it being a reflection of Japanese culture (for example, the concept of wa or “harmony”), the function of art (perhaps an argument could be made that through kishoutenketsu, art functions as a method for reflection or enlightenment, rather than entertainment?), or even further examples. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

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