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."


Viredae said...

Excellent explanation of the narrative structure, you'd be surprised at the lack of clear explanations of Jo-Ha-Kyu on the internet, even less than Kishoutenketsu (though that one is a bit more familiar for many).

dodger bullet said...

Great stuff,thank you for this!