Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Response to Josh Parker

A couple of weeks ago, a certain Josh Parker (who blogs here) posted a number of interesting comments to which I'd like to reply.  However, there was simply too much there for me to respond to in the comments section.  Therefore, I'm collecting all of his comments and my responses into a single post.

Before you read this, you may want to jump up to speed by reading these previous posts:

The State of Fantasy in 1977
Fantasy: 1977 to 1989
Fantasy: 1990 to 2000.  The Age of Doorstops and Gimmicks.
Fantasy: 1999 to 2011.  Disillusionment and Nihilism.
Fantasy: 1977 to 2011.  Wrapping it All Up.
"Realism" and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy
On Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara

So, I'm going to jump directly in, here.
I know I'm quite late to the game here, but I must comment on a couple of things: 
First of all, the attitude expressed by Lagomorph Rex is, in my opinion, exactly why fantasy refused to grow for so many years and why brilliant authors like David Gemmell and Glen Cook weren't really celebrated until their definitive works were several years old. 
Throughout the 80's, we were subjected to a number of standard-issue fantasy fiction which, while few were the abject rip-offs that The Sword of Shannara was, nonetheless followed a certain mold and refused to break out of it. This is what gained fantasy much of its poor reputation. 
Rex seems to want more of this; for the genre to stay as it was when he was a boy and never grow beyond that. Assuming that's true, it is an attitude that I as a fantasy reader and hopeful some day fantasy author, simply cannot stomach.
I like Lagomorph Rex but I will agree with you entirely here.  Yet let's not pretend, here, fantasy has always been full of pastiche.  Ron Edwards' discussion on Narrativism as a role-playing method discusses pastiche pretty well:

What happens when you want a story but don't want to play with Story Now? Then the story becomes a feature of Exploration with the process of play being devoted to how to make it happen as expected. The participation of more than one person in the process is usually a matter of providing improvisational additions to be filtered through the primary story-person's judgment, or of providing extensive Color to the story. Under these circumstances, the typical result is pastiche: a story which recapitulates an already-existing story's theme, with many explicit references to that story. 
Is pastiche necessarily bad and evil? No. Is non-pastiche necessarily incredibly good? No. 
Here's a little dialogue between me and one of the first-draft readers of this essay: 
Jesse: Now we come to a point of personal confusion. Pastiche. I still don't get it, in any medium. If the Situation involves "...class conflict, people being trapped by their social position, repressed romance..." and the GM lets the players resolve it anyway they like, then how is that not Narrativist? 
Me: It is Narrativist. What you're describing is not pastiche, or more clearly, it typically does not produce pastiche. The key is the "resolve it any way they like" part. 
Jesse: Similarly if I'm writing a story and I make a check-list of items I feel like I "need" to include to tell the "kind of" story I want to tell, and I have a character experience and resolve those things, then how have I not written a new story? 
Me: You have. What you're missing is that pastiche does not do this at all - instead, it references existing works in order to re-invoke what they, originally, provided for the reader/viewer, rather than doing it on its own. Die Hard is an outstanding movie. Passenger 57 stinks on ice. Why? Because Passenger 57 is only enjoyable if it reminds you, successfully, of Die Hard. Same goes for Broken Arrow, Con Air, and a slew of similar films. [Disclosure: I do enjoy many of these films, on the basis of the "reminder" alone. - RE] 
And it's not a matter of "who does it first." Die Hard works because it nails its Premise, with the explosions and one-liners all being supportive of that goal. The other movies fail to provide Premise of their own, merely using the explosions and one-liners to remind you of Die Hard, and by (putative) extension, tapping into Die Hard's Premise through association alone.
If you can see past the discussion of role-playing, it is actually quite a good, if indirect, explanation of what pastiche is by explaining what pastiche does.  It is imitation, ultimately referential to a previous work, and it ultimately fails when it is all reference and imitation without any of the real exploration of theme and premise.

Why does The Lord of the Rings succeed so well?  It nails that sense of lacrimae rerum--tears for things that exist no more, a sentiment similar to Japanese mono no aware.  Though Sauron is defeated, the world loses its mystery and magic, the Elves leave for the Undying Lands to the West, and Middle-Earth is less unique and special.  Frodo is traumatized by his experiences--especially (and this is something everybody seems to miss) having failed to surrender and destroy the Ring.  He returns home to the Shire but at the same time he cannot ever return to who he was and how he was because, like Gollum, the Ring was forcibly taken from him.  (Samwise doesn't suffer so because he willingly parted with the Ring.)  Even the Shire experienced the trauma of the War of the Ring under Saruman's occupation.  Victory had a terrible price but the price was better than defeat.  Nevertheless, the world will never be the same.

The Sword of Shannara doesn't really capture any of these things.  Shea and Flick Ohmsford return to a Shady Vale that is no wiser about the wider world or the tragic events that shook kingdoms to the North.  Nothing really changes--the Dwarves and Elves continue on as before.  As an adventure, the story still works--it is definitely readable and enjoyable but not sublime.  It is pastiche that succeeds because it addresses the very basic concepts and premises of what an adventure is and what a hero needs.  Terry Brooks doesn't really go any further than that, though.

Brooks is not alone.  Pulp fantasy is full of slavish imitations of Robert E. Howard.  A lot of Michael Moorcock's early Elric stuff is Conan with the career path reversed and angst added.  Indeed, a lot of Michael Moorcock's stuff is great but also a lot of it is drivel (the Runestaff series, for example).  How much of L. Sprague de Camp's Conan stories are failures as Howard imitation?  (How many of them are shameless rewrites of Howard stories to shoehorn Conan into the lead role?)  Is R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt just an Elric with a different skin-color and a somewhat more tragic backstory?

Regardless, I am really digressing here.  I wanted to describe pastiche and establish how pulpy Appendix N stuff often falls into the pastiche pile to give some degree of perspective.  Fantasy has always had a rather poor reputation, especially when compared to the grand futurism and thought-experiments being written by the likes of Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and Ellison.  The pulps did a lot to create this reputation, I think, but the post-1977 surge of Tolkien pastiche didn't help.  In fact, all that Tolkien pastiche made it worse and the massive outpouring of TSR Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels largely sealed

The problem with people in general is that when they run into something they really like, they don't want it to ever end.  I used to be just like this--when I first read The Lord of the Rings in third grade, I cried when it was over.  When I found Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan, I was overjoyed that I could dive into adventure and fantasy again.  I was too young to really understand what was wrong or what was missing.  Now, I have problems with the never-ending story that doesn't resolve.  It is why I have lost interest in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  It is also why I have serious reservations about Tad Williams' announced return to writing about Osten Ard with a sequel to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  Television shows like Lost demonstrate perfectly the tremendous flaw in having a story that doesn't resolve.

Let's point out what Simon said about recommending Tolkien's readers to Circle of Light. What he meant about that being a "portent of worse things to come", he was referring to the maddening tendency by fantasy publicists to place somewhere on the cover of their latest epic fantasy some quote that seems to suggest the novel can be compared to The Lord of the Rings. Every WOT novel once had the inane quote "Jordan has begun to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal" plastered on the cover. Authors as diverse as David Gemmell, George RR Martin and Scott Lynch have all been compared to Tolkien, usually by way of praise. "The greatest epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings!" "(Author) has the same sort of epic storytelling capability of Tolkien", etc.
You know what, I can see that.  It is something I certainly missed and it actually accentuates how bad the problem we're discussing here is.  It reflects the appeal that a return to Middle-Earth represents and I will be honest, these taglines worked on me.  From a marketing standpoint, it was brilliant of the Del Reys.  However, they're business-people.  They're not critics and haven't demonstrated much appreciation for art.  This is an interesting problem because it brings in the overall struggle between art-as-a-business and art-for-the-sake-of-art, a struggle that is as old as artists have sought patronage.

I don't want to read the new Tolkien. I don't want to read another Eddings. I don't want to read the spiritual successor to Donaldson. I want to read the next (name of author). Just as I don't want musicians I enjoy constantly compared to the Beatles (and they never are), I don't want to read Abercrombie or Lawrence or Brett and feel like they've got to be conforming to some mold set down by an author before them.
No disagreements here.  I grok you.  Given you're punctuation (quotation marks inside the period/full stop instead of outside, for example), I imagine you are not an American and probably haven't spoken to as many Americans about their fantasy consumption as I have.  Actually, I'm not noticing a wide proliferation of "u" in words like "favorite" vs. "favourite" so I could be 100% completely and absolutely wrong and I hope I don't offend with my assumption.  Anyway, I've spoken to tons of fantasy readers (granted, mostly concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cultural regions of the United States, so my sample-size is not a really good cultural cross-section of U.S. culture, admittedly).  What I have discovered is that many of the readers of Jordan, Goodkind, Eddings, and Brooks were, if not consciously looking for a successor to Tolkien and a continuation of Middle-Earth epic adventure against dark lords and monolithic evil, were so subconsciously influenced by Tolkien that they assumed that such perilous quests and evil overlords were necessary tropes of the genre as a whole.
I also can't agree that fantasy, now or in 2011, was stuck in a "perilous and shabby condition", but instead it seemed then, and seems now, to be thriving, and finally throwing off the impression that it's for kids, or too silly for mature readers, or "it's all the same".
I've honestly been out of it.  I wouldn't know about the developments of the past four years.  I've had my attention firmly placed elsewhere.  I will admit, I am waiting for R. Scott Bakker's third novel of The Aspect-Emperor series but that is about it.  I've not stepped into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in about three or four years except on my campus to order books for my courses.  Therefore, I am really in no place to comment or argue and have to concede to you on this point.
Fantasy has had really three main "booms", in my opinion. The first, and most obvious, was the late 70's boom that Simon talks about. The second I think happened in the early 90's, when Robert Jordan's WOT books really took off and helped draw attention to other "fat fantasy" epics and finally the third boom (so far) was in the mid 2000's when ASOIAF became the new standard by which new fantasy authors were judged and a new era of low-fantasy, magic-lite, character-driven, gritty-and-grim novels began. Many hated these novels and loathed their success. I firmly believe that they are the future, or at least will prepare the way for the next boom that keeps fantasy alive, and to discount their impact is foolhardy.
Looking back on the post, I don't think it was my intention to discount their impact and if I gave that impression, it was unintentional.  I definitely agree that A Song of Ice and Fire has really put fantasy on the map so successfully that it is incredible.  Even my father admitted that he has HBO exclusively for A Game of Thrones now that Boardwalk Empire is over.  The question is simply this--is Martin a game-changer?  And if so, how, exactly, has he changed the game?  I'm not exactly certain that I like where the fantasy genre may be going from here because I've lost interest in A Song of Ice and Fire and I'd rather not see future fantasy imitate its soap-opera structure.
Ah, Randy, Randy. Look up "ad hoc argument" some time. 
Not one of the books "trashed" here even approaches greatness. I would argue that even some that are (lightly) praised don't even come close. 
I have a soft spot for the WOT series but I know it's deeply, deeply flawed. What can I say, it charmed me.
I usually delete comments that troll like this after I had a nasty run-in with a certain internet celebrity from The Escapist who dismissed my position and sicced his fanboys on me. I try to keep things professional here and ended up having to delete entire posts because I like potential employers to take a look at this blog.  Before that happened, I used to let posts like Randy's stay up and simply not respond because I figured anyone who had read the post and possessed half-a-brain and an ounce of logic and reason would know that Randy had made an utter fool of himself with his comment.

Thank you for demonstrating that I figured correctly.

As for The Wheel of Time... dude, it's a guilty pleasure.  There are a number of deeply, deeply flawed films, anime, and novels that charm me as well.  However, you recognize that it is flawed.  That sets you apart from the uncritical, unthinking consumers.
The SOT books did the opposite. I didn't notice its flaws at first but after a while I couldn't handle it anymore and it repelled me. I can't stand those books today and can't fathom why anyone likes them. I've got a whole list of reasons why they're terrible but that's a blog post (hell, that's a whole BLOG) on its own.
I read the first book and it seemed pretty solid for a pastiche.  It also seemed like it was a complete, self-contained story that had resolved.  I didn't see anywhere it could go.  I can't comprehend how he's milked this series without tremendously contrived plots.
I should point out that Robert Jordan always seemed like a nice man who was thankful to his fans for providing him with a career.
Oh, yeah, no doubt.  My criticisms of his writing are not personal criticisms of the man, whatsoever.  Not in the slightest.  Both the critic and the author have to detach the work being critiqued from the person who produced the work.
Terry Goodkind seems like a total jerk who hates the genre that made him a success and is angry with any fan who reads his books for the wrong reasons. "No, you don't understand. It's not fantasy. QUIT READING IT FOR THE FANTASY ELEMENTS! IT'S DEEP, DAMMIT!"
From what I've read and heard, the entire series is Randian Objectivism set in a fantasy world.  Having read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and learned about who and what sort of person she was, I can't say I'm all that surprised by Goodkind's attitude.
I'm gonna have to take issue with your lumping Abercrombie in with Nicholls and Morgan. From your comments equating all three writers as essentially the same in content and motivation, I'm going to assume you haven't actually read any of Abercrombie's stuff and are instead writing based solely on his reputation.
You redress this later so I'm not going to respond to this yet.
I have read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and I find that it is essentially a leaner, meaner take on George RR Martin's approach to fantasy writing. His focus is on visceral character development and he crafts some of the most in-depth characterizations I've ever read. In lesser hands, a man like Glokta would be thoroughly unlikeable, a stereotypical boo-hiss villain incapable of drawing an iota of sympathy from the reader. In Abercrombie's hands, he comes off as more sympathetic than anyone else in the book.
If you're being objective (and I will assume you are), then Abercrombie is definitely talented.  As an historian, I often deal with humans that are quite often less than what we today imagine as heroes.  Especially characters like Achilles in Homer's Iliad.  However, I can't help but lament the demise of heroic fantasy and Abercrombie's fantasy is most certainly not heroic if all that I've heard and read about him is true.  I'm not bashing Abercrombie, here, or gritty, dark fantasy.  I'm simply saying that I wish there was more heroic fantasy out there.
Also, reading comments from the author's blog, Abercrombie is definitely NOT trying to just be an "anti-Tolkien". He respects Tolkien, rightly reveres him as the father of the genre he writes in. But he correctly states that Tolkien has already mapped out one corner of the fantasy genre, so it would be wrong of Abercrombie to stick solely to those paths. As far as I'm concerned, Abercrombie is head and shoulders above the likes of Morgan and Nicholls and deserves to be thought of as Martin's successor.
I don't know if Martin needs or should have a successor.  Nevertheless, you (and Abercrombie) are right--if that corner of fantasy is already mapped out, there's nothing wrong with trying to push in new directions.  I'd also like to see people do great stuff with older material.  That's why I love Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  His is most certainly epic and heroic fantasy with all the trappings.  However, he doesn't tread over what Tolkien did but instead draws from the same well of inspiration as Tolkien had and does some interesting and new (indeed, deconstructive) things with heroic fantasy.  I'd like to see some of that, too.
I have said before that writers who employ a healthy dose of cynicism, grit and realism in their fantasy writing have helped broaden the genre and help people understand that it's not just all fanciful swill designed to entertain children. Writers like Martin, Erikson, KJ Parker, Bakker, Matthew Stover, China Meiville and yes, Abercrombie, are not just "rebelling against Tolkien" but are instead rising beyond the formulaic approach of Brooks, Eddings, Salvatore, et al. They are the modern Glen Cooks or Mervyn Peakes, showing what more the genre can be.
One must be careful regarding what is considered "mature" and what is considered "kid's stuff" because when sometimes what is passed off as "mature" is really just adolescent and sophomoric.  I put this in here as a word of caution, really.  Again, I can't speak for certain but

Fantasy is not the only genre and books the only medium to be inundated with gore and violence in an attempt to be "mature" or "edgy."  Anime has been having this issue since the decline of the OVA and the loosening of television restrictions in Japan and the "shock factor" isn't making anime better.

As I wrote in "'Realism' and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy:"
So, in order to avoid just another umpteenth retelling of The Lord of the Rings, modern fantasy requires foul language, scatology, immoral anti-heroes, graphic sex, sickening and upsetting violence, and rape. In other words, it needs to realistically depict the graphic realities of medieval life, warfare, and death because Tolkien didn't do that (although Howard approached it). 
As I go through earlier 20th century works of fantasy fiction, I find them chock-full of sex and violence. It's just not graphic. I have to ask why George R.R. Martin finds it necessary to describe, in detail, one character's sexual experience in A Feast of Crows, where Poul Anderson simply ended a chapter of Three Hearts and Three Lions as Holger carries an elf princess off to bed. What was the rationale behind it? Sex is a part of life and shouldn't be avoided in literature, but I don't need a pornographic description of what happens. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's warriors would wade through buckets of blood, but it was always described with a certain panache that is most definitely lacking in a lot of contemporary fantasy. They seemed less like men and more like forces of nature in combat, and the violence of the scene was woven into the tale like thread. This is different from reading about some young maiden trying to hold her intestines inside herself after a mercenary decided to gut her. I'm trying read an adventure tale, not watching a Rob Zombie flick.
Violence and sex are vehicles for telling a story.  They are not the objective.  Ask yourself this: is the violence and sex necessary?  If the answer is "no," then ask, "Why is it in here?"  If the answer is "yes," then ask, "Why is it necessary?"  The answer may be in how it is used and what the point is.  The idea is to separate whether or not it is violence for the sake of edginess or to get a point across.

For example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan most certainly needed to be as violent as it was for various reasons.  Spielberg wanted to show what no previous film about the Second World War had done up until then--show what the weapons actually did to the soldiers they wounded or killed.  It also established how desperate and terrifying the war was so that we could comprehend the sort of mental and physical trauma the characters were enduring throughout the course of the film.  It intensified the risk.  Death wasn't a melodramatic scene where the mortally wounded character whispered, "It's getting dark."  Instead, he bled.  Everywhere.  On his letters home.  On his girlfriend's picture.  He died crying "mama, mama" because he wasn't yet twenty years of age.  The horror actually raised the stakes and intensified the drama.  It instilled an appreciation in us for what our grandparents and great-grandparents endured.  The violence was necessary to drive the very premise of the film home to the viewer.

I won't compare this to a lot of horror because the violence in many of those films is part of what is enjoyable.  I watch Rob Zombie movies to see the spectacle of the horror but I don't come out with any sort of feeling that Rob Zombie had something meaningful to say about the human condition.  The Saw films fail because the premise is actually tremendously flimsy and the violence descends into pointless torture-porn, so perhaps they're a good counter-example.  Yet the best counter-example I can think of to Saving Private Ryan is the anime entitled Elfen Lied.  If you remove the violence the entire show collapses in on itself because without the edginess the entire narrative premise cannot stand.  It lives and dies on how adolescent and edgy it is.

I can't get into Mieville.  He's far too political for me and I've read where he says he's deliberately anti-Tolkien.  I can't find the article where I read that, so I admit my assertion here is shaky.  Martin's problem is, I think, he's lost control of his story to a degree.  I'll probably have to write a very long and very detailed post about Martin.  This doesn't mean I dislike A Song of Ice and Fire but rather that I'm fatigued by its length and will probably return to it once it has been completed.  Erikson and Bakker, I really enjoy, for vastly different reasons.

Given a few years of perspective, I think that the "rebelling against Tolkien" is something the pundits have decided upon, for the most part.  With the exception of Mieville and Moorcock, who both criticize Tolkien for being "politically incorrect," "politically conservative," and writing "narratives of oppression" and all that other university-professor mumbo-jumbo, I think a lot of these writers do, indeed, admit that they owe a debt to Tolkien.
I somehow missed this section, and missed that you admitted you've not read Abercrombie.
Yup.  No worries.  That's why I soft-pedaled my assessment and put a lot of qualifiers in my argument regarding him because it is intrinsically flawed.
You need to. The descriptions of others' critique of his work goes from "missed the point" (The title of The Heroes was meant to be ironic) to "skimmed it instead of read it". 
Abercrombie may be the finest writer of fantasy of the new millenium, with Sanderson a half-step behind. Please, before you judge him, read him. And read him with an open mind.
If I get the opportunity, I may.  I'll probably start with The First Law series.  I don't know about Sanderson.  I don't want to admit it but his association with Robert Jordan has kind of put me off.

I've got a lot of reading to do and I spend much of my reading time on some pretty heavy stuff.  I have to look at is opportunity cost.  I've got to read more of a lot of philosophers, historians, and classic canon literature, too.  Therefore, I have to cut some stuff and just accept that I may never get the opportunity to read it before I die.  There are simply too many books out there and not enough hours in a day, days in a year, or years in a lifetime, unfortunately.

Thanks for writing, Josh.  You've given me something to think about and a reason to return to some very old posts about which I've not thought in a long time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Trigun and Japanese Narrative Structure: A Response to ThatAnimeSnob

This post is mostly in response to ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun in his review in specific and his remarks on it that surface in his studio evaluation (Madhouse), and his annual evaluation for 1998.

In his annual evaluation, ThatAnimeSnob describes Trigun as follows:
It is quite good in terms of action and characterization but it keeps jumping from comedy to tragedy way too fast and kills the mood.  Not bad overall but it surely lacks focus on what it wants to be.
His review over at AniDB is much more descriptive of what his issues are:

-The first part is episodes 1 to 11.  These are mostly aimless comedy, where the lead character is goofing around and saves random people in random areas.  It is very light and makes you think that the entire show is nothing but silly storyless adventure.
-The second part is episodes 12 to 16, where the story is now entering an on-going and more serious phase.  You are given some insight to the hero's past and he faces far more fearful and inhuman opponents.  Now you think the show ill be hereon an average to good action/comedy/drama.
-The third part is the rest of the show (17 to 26), where the comedy portion almost disappears, violence, death and tragedy are increased tenfold.  This part reveals the hero's tragic past and how he tries to make up for all the damage he and his brother caused to the world.  The catch is, unlike the beginning of the show where nothing seems hard to accomplish when he is fighting seriously, over here he hardly manages to achieve half of what he intends to do.
The mood of the show changes almost 180 degrees from beginning to end, turning from a silly comedy to some serious tragedy.  That is perceived as a bold and well received element that makes the whole deal far more memorable and interesting.  If it was tragic or comedy all the way, the effect on you would be halved
That is still not enough for me to give a 10 to the story.  As much as I liked the mood swings, I found many scenes where the storyboard was messy and chaotic.  The plot seems to move any way the animators felt like it and the action scenes lack realism almost entirely, which in effect ruins a big part of its attempt to be serious.  The major showdowns are also a major problem as they all seem to end fast and almost effortless or way too simplistic.  The conclusion is like that as well so it may feel lukewarm in comparison to what was building up along the way so far.

Many of these are absolutely legitimate criticisms and I will not dispute that there are issues with tone and pacing.  Some of this can simply boiled down to aesthetics--Japanese audiences tend to find American (in particular) and Western (in general) stories to either be all comedy or all drama and they find that approach dry and less interesting as a heavy mixture complete with stark jumps between mood.  While that explains why a great deal of anime characteristically employs the jarring tonal transitions from tragic drama to comic relief, this is entirely a matter of taste and as a Westerner myself I admit that I find these shifts in tone to damage the overall dramatic tension in a story.

However, there are a few aspects of ThatAnimeSnob's review that I feel must be addressed because they are reflective of common East Asian storytelling techniques that are virtually unknown or misunderstood in the West.  Trigun, in particular, is a prime example of how Japanese narratives often follow a jo-ha-kyu (序破急), a technique whose roots are employed in Noh theater and discussed at length by the 14th/15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo much as Aristotle discussed ancient Greek dramatic structure.

NOTE:  This post will focus on jo-ha-kyu as a pacing structure for Japanese narratives.  It will not concern kishotenketsu (起承転結) although it deserves some mention because, as will be discussed below, it is overlaid upon jo-ha-kyu much like Freytag's pyramid can be superimposed upon the three-act model.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  This response is not a rebuttal or a criticism of ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun.  While I do think Trigun scored a bit lower than I feel it deserved, de gustibus non est disputandem.  The purpose of this post is to point out how Trigun exemplifies a narrative structure and dramatic pattern that is endemic to Japanese storytelling and how that structure is both unfamiliar and aesthetically difficult to process for many Western (especially North American) audiences.

The average reader may be aware that Western drama has its roots in classical Athenian theater, much of which survives in the preserved tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschuylus and the comedies of Aristophanes (mostly dating from the 4th century B.C.) and (as mentioned above) the analysis and critique of drama preserved by Aristotle's Poetics (unfortunately, only the portion on tragedy survives--his analysis on comedy is lost).

These roots are then filtered through Shakespeare in the Anglophonic world.  Shakespeare reshaped drama in the English milieu and is the most immediate foundation for theater and film that exists in North America, the United Kingdom, and the British Commonwealth.  In the 19th century, much of Western dramatic structure was systematically analyzed by Gustav Freytag as is demonstrated by the pyramid structure of Western storytelling.

Most American schoolchildren are taught the basic components of storytelling and elementary critical theory in Language Arts classes in elementary school.  Therefore, Freytag's pyramid, with it's exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution elements, should be familiar to any North American (at least).  Most Anglophonic stories utilize this method and further refine it, through Shakespeare's influence, into a discernible three-act structure as seen below:

The three-act structure is extremely apparent in basic Anglophonic storytelling, from Beowulf to The Matrix.  Indeed, it is a nigh-universal base structure as well.  An easy example of the three-act structure in action is the original Star Wars film.  The first act generally establishes the characters, their motivations, and the conflict.  The second act introduces complications, providing minor victories and setbacks to further motivate the protagonist or to increase dramatic tension and intensify conflict (both internally and externally).  The final act sees the protagonist complete a transformation that enables him to overcome whatever challenges are set before him or (in the case of tragedy) to succumb to misfortune through the presence of some sort of tragic flaw.

This structure can be combined with the pyramid to illustrate the manner in which Anglo-American stories are constructed in a general sense.

This combination of Freytag's pyramid with the three-act structure illustrates how the elements of the first two acts combine to create the rising action that climaxes and resolves in act three.  The key to understand the difference between Western structure and jo-ha-kyu lies in understanding when the conflict is introduced.  The basic structure of the first act in a Noh play and in Western drama (be it tragedy or comedy) is the beginning of the divergence between storytelling technique.

Jo-ha-kyu is commonly translated as "beginning, break, rapid."  It traditionally consists of a five-movement structure (as opposed to three acts) and is based on a very different pacing aesthetic from the Western three-act model.  The essence of jo-ha-kyu is establishing a slow, peaceful pace broken by the jarring and sudden surge in dramatic tension that climaxes extremely rapidly before resolving even more abruptly.  The first movement establishes the protagonist and his overall situation, which is usually somewhat favorable to the protagonist.  This movement takes up a great deal of time and establishes a very light tone that is often optimistic and reflective of a certain status quo.  The break occurs during the second movement, in which the conflict is usually introduced--at this point, the pacing of the story increases suddenly and surges towards the climax in the third movement (the break), where the story pivots and begins to resolve equally as rapidly.  The overall effect is to see how the conflict disrupts and destroys the status-quo before it resolves and a new status-quo is established at the end.  The drama is enhanced by the sense of absolute disruption.

A good literary example of this is in Natsume Soseki's novel Sorekara.  The beginning establishes Daisuke as the protagonist, who generally floats through life on a stipend from his wealthy family.  Complications arise when they urge him to marry and his close friend, Hiraoka, returns home with a wife (Michiyo) and a mountain of debt.  Despite these complications, however, the dramatic tension does not increase for much of the book, establishing Daisuke's life as a somewhat carefree existence in which these complications have very little real effect on him.  The story accelerates once Daisuke falls in love with Michiyo and the real conflict is introduced.  The status quo is completely destroyed by Daisuke's love affair with Michiyo.  From that point on, the book resolves extremely rapidly.

Final Fantasy VI also displays jo-ha-kyu as a narrative method.  The climactic pivot of the game's story occurs not at the end but when Kefka moves the goddess statues out of alignment on the floating continent and creates the World of Ruin--from this point on the status quo is destroyed and the conflict must be resolved in a new context.

Trigun also demonstrates jo-ha-kyu in application as a Japanese literary technique.  What ThatAnimeSnob does naturally is to observe that there is a definite structure to the show's composition.  He identifies Episodes 1 through 11 as effectively stable, episodic, and comedic.  Episodes 12 through 16 introduces an actual conflict that supersedes the previous structure and results in the transition of tone from lighthearted to intensely serious.  Episodes 17 through 26 resolve the conflict but not in as dramatic or climactic a fashion as ThatAnimeSnob would have preferred.

What is interesting is that he unintentionally delineates the pacing consistency that jo-ha-kyu exemplifies.  It is unintentional (I assume) because I do not expect ThatAnimeSnob to be aware of jo-ha-kyu as a Japanese aesthetic concept because in the West it is particularly obscure.  It is a testament to ThatAnimeSnob's skill as a critical thinker that he unintentionally and indirectly explained jo-ha-kyu in his review of Trigun.

The first episodes introduce the viewer to the base elements of the story--the characters Milly, Meryl, and Vash, as well as their motivations; the planet of Gunsmoke is established primarily through visual cues; the general comedic tone of the status quo is firmly founded.  The premise is laid forth--It is preferable to run away than commit acts of violence; nonlethal violence should only be applied as a last resort.  This is translated into the theme--love and peace can conquer all.

There are overarching conflicts through these episodes but they are low-key compared to the later conflicts.  First, there is the conflict that Meryl Strife & Milly Thompson have with Vash.  Milly and Meryl want Vash to stop destroying stuff because it is costing their insurance company a fortune but Vash is not actually responsible for any of the destruction we witness on screen.  The destruction is mostly generated by the other conflicts in the story--criminals Vash will usually foil or bounty hunters trying to capture him.

The first eleven episodes establish how Vash is never really challenged.  If he cannot escape he can draw upon his superhuman skills as a gunslinger to resolve conflicts through nonlethal force.  The result is usually Vash looking sublimely awesome and utterly defeating his opponents.  Love and peace are reinforced as theme: if everybody would just stop fighting and get along, none of these problems would happen.  This is the status quo.

Things start to shift between episodes 11 and 12.  This is when the status quo begins to break down and the antagonists begin to seriously challenge Vash's adherence to his principles.  Suddenly, "Love & Peace" may not be enough.  In Episode 12, Vash almost murders Monev the Gale to avenge the dead and stop Monev.  This is the first time that simply running away or using nonlethal force are not enough--if he had killed Monev at the outset, innocent lives would not have been lost.

The narrative is now turning in a new direction with this introduction of Legato and his followers.  Vash's scars are revealed and the tone of the story shifts as the pacing increases and the stakes gradually become clear.  Vash's own inner conflicts gradually surface during this period of the narrative.  The premise and theme are called into question and Vash has to not only face his past but also decide at what point the price of his principles is too great.

This peaks with the break section, the highest climactic point of the story in the third movement.  Episode 16 is possibly Vash's lowest point and the key moment in the jo-ha-kyu pattern.  It is here in Episode 16, specifically the moment Vash loses control and blows a hole in the Fifth Moon, that the ha (break) takes place.  The auspicious and optimistic tone of the first ten episodes is eradicated entirely as the new mood and atmosphere takes over.

What he have seen, then, is how the introduction of the core, real, actual conflict has utterly annihilated the tone and pace of the beginning portion.  Jo-ha-kyu often generates drama by showing how the conflict can destroy stability and introduce chaos.  Considering that Japanese society has been heavily influenced by Confucianism, it should be apparent that this is a characteristically East Asian approach to conflict in general.

Typical to the Japanese narrative structure, there's a brief pause (Episode 17) before the fourth and fifth movements accelerate toward a conclusion.  The old status quo is gone.  Vash is now working through his internal conflicts regarding his pacifistic principles and the reality that conflict with Knives will result in lethal force.  The fact that the conclusion of the story is not as climactic as would be typical of a Western narrative is due to the nature of jo-ha-kyu, wherein the climax is usually the breaking-point of the tale, where the narrative decisively pivots from one tone to another and the status quo is utterly disrupted.  The fourth and fifth movements of the tale are where the protagonist takes steps to resolve the disruption caused by the break in the third movement.  While there are still peaks in dramatic tension, they are not as strong or as pronounced as those in the third movement where the break takes place.  Thus, the climax, where the dramatic tension of the tale is at its highest, is not in the latter two movements but in the third.  What carries the audience through the story is the acceleration toward the conclusion--the feeling of rapid, organic movement with spikes of dramatic tension that act as a rapid succession of aftershocks on the heels of the main earthquake.

If viewed and analyzed from the standpoint of jo-ha-kyu, Trigun holds up aesthetically well.  However, jo-ha-kyu is culturally specific to the Japanese.  For those raised in the Japanese context, their familiarity with it as a narrative model will not feel quite so jarring as it may to Westerners.  Numerous texts throughout Japanese literature and popular culture (such as video games, anime, novels, and manga) illustrate the application of jo-ha-kyu.  Final Fantasy VI and Natsume's Sorekara are provided as examples above of this model in media other than anime.

De gustibus non est disputandem.  It is entirely possible and acceptable for ThatAnimeSnob to find jo-ha-kyu tedious and uninteresting a narrative model.  I'm not going to fault him for his assessment of Trigun--this post's purpose was not to correct ThatAnimeSnob or to defend Trigun's flaws but instead to provide perspective that can shed light on why Trigun's plot structure seems so disjointed.  If this perspective alters opinions so that viewers can appreciate Trigun's narrative, I feel that I will have accomplished something.  If viewers such as ThatAnimeSnob do not alter their opinions in the slightest in spite of this post, then at least I would have spent a few hours relaxing with a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, thinking about stuff I enjoy and putting it to print.

It should also be pointed out that an understanding of jo-ha-kyu should not lead to an automatic perception of all anime (or manga) as literary masterpieces.  Neither a thorough grasp and appreciation for jo-ha-kyu or kishotenketsu can redeem such trainwrecks as Mirai Nikki or Clannad, despite the tremendous amount of praise and hype heaped upon them by what ThatAnimeSnob deems to be "tasteless casuals."