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The significance of plot without conflict
June 29, 2012 11:12 AM   Subscribe


 
I dunno. Maybe my Western bias is showing, but I interpret the first comic as containing conflict. The implication of the third panel—to me—is that the seated person is lonely. The implication of the fourth panel is that he could use a soda. So there is a conflict between the seated person and society (i.e. his or her unmet need for human contact) and a conflict between the seated person and nature (i.e. his or her unmet need for sustenance). That conflict is resolved when the heroine provides both human interaction and soda.
posted by jedicus at 11:19 AM on June 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


Ah – so now the entirety of India is "the West?"

"West" and "East" are bullshit categories that have almost no meaning whatsoever.
posted by koeselitz at 11:20 AM on June 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


Awesome post.
posted by DU at 11:22 AM on June 29, 2012


It would seem that the purported difference between Western and Eastern story telling really boils down to how you disrupt the flow of the narrative, be it with some form of conflict or with a surprise twist. Ultimately, though, both entertain by doing the same thing differently.

And on preview, agree with koeselitz position on the categories.
posted by Atreides at 11:22 AM on June 29, 2012


"West" and "East" are bullshit categories that have almost no meaning whatsoever.
posted by koeselitz


I learned that the hard way during my failed expedition to the West Pole.
posted by COBRA! at 11:24 AM on June 29, 2012 [85 favorites]


This is an interesting concept, though I'm not sure I agree. I think they are just parsing the definition of conflict as opposed to disproving the necessity of it.

Kishōtenketsu has been shown to generate plot without conflict, which reveals as insular nonsense the West’s belief that they are inseparable. The repercussions of this extend to all writing; and, if this writer’s conclusion is to be believed, to philosophy itself.

All writing?

Fictionalized Robert McKee disagrees:

The real world? The real fucking world? First of all, if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ's sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know much about life! And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!

posted by dios at 11:25 AM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


I dunno. Maybe my Western bias is showing, but I interpret the first comic as containing conflict.

The conflict I interpreted here was in my own mind - "how can this non-sequitur in the 3rd panel reconcile with what I already know?" and then the resolution is presented in the third. So it's not so much of a conflict within the narrative but within the structure - a new thread butts in and has to synthesize - the question isn't "will it" but "how will it?," which keeps it interesting.

And this all does bring up the semantic implications of the word "conflict."
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:26 AM on June 29, 2012 [16 favorites]


One year for her birthday I wrote a story for my wife staring all of her beloved stuff animals, which I then illustrated with pictures I took of them acting out the story. My wife's main criticism of most stories is "bad things keep happening" and since I knew nothing bad could happen to her animals, I attempted to write a conflict free plot. Now we both love The Voyage of the Two Bears, but I had a real rough time writing an interesting story without having anything bad happen to anyone. In fact, I'm guessing it's not interesting to anyone but the two of us. I'm not saying it's impossible to write such a story, but (at least to this Westerner) it was hard.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:27 AM on June 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think there might still be a conflict, but it shifts from being an external conflict in the work itself to an internal conflict on behalf of the viewer as he or she tries to make sense of the non sequitur.

On preview, what SmileyChewtrain says.
posted by starman at 11:28 AM on June 29, 2012


Interesting, but the part about kishōtenketsu rendering the Will to Power meaningless is a bit much -- phrases like "Can the Western narrative of the will to power remain coherent in the face of a rival narrative from the East?" are more than compatible with the Will to Power. Even the framing of the article leans on conflict-words ("rival", "West/East"), so how is it not an example of "reality consist[ing], invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another"?

I'd say the author missed the point of much of Nietzsche's philosophy, also. The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes." For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred "Yes" is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world. This doesn't strike me as being incompatible with kishōtenketsu, nor with conflict-free writing in general. The Will to Power is as much about overcoming the self (and unquestioned self-assumptions like "stories must have three or five acts" and "stories must have conflict") as it is about overcoming others, if not more so.
posted by vorfeed at 11:29 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


One year for her birthday I wrote a story for my wife staring all of her beloved stuff animals, which I then illustrated with pictures I took of them acting out the story. My wife's main criticism of most stories is "bad things keep happening" and since I knew nothing bad could happen to her animals, I attempted to write a conflict free plot. Now we both love The Voyage of the Two Bears, but I had a real rough time writing an interesting story without having anything bad happen to anyone. In fact, I'm guessing it's not interesting to anyone but the two of us. I'm not saying it's impossible to write such a story, but (at least to this Westerner) it was hard.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:27 PM on June 29 [+] [!]


As the recipient of this (BEST BOOK EVER), though, it actually is interesting partially because the writing was pleasant and also because there were relationships present and things kept happening. I think you can explore relationships and characters and even settings in ways that are interesting and meaningful and create a plot without necessarily including conflict.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:36 AM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's not just the set up of the story, but how we interpret it. You can see these cultural orientations play out in the Pear Stories, as well as in the world's shortest story of all, by Augusto Monterroso, "El Dinosaurio" ("The Dinosaur"). This is the story:
Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
"When (s)he awoke, the dinosaur was still there."

We can't help but see the conflict, or the Kishōtenketsu, or something else entirely. This is what we've learned to see. Not to say we can't learn to see other things, but our natural tendency will be to see what we expect or hope or think fits with our view of the world. We fill in the gaps and make sense of it all...with our eyes and how they saccade, with our ears in normalizing the speech stream, and all the other senses we have, in various ways. We'll do the same with our thoughts, and where there's ambiguity we'll push them through that cultural sifter and choose the most treaded path to our societally shared conception of what narrative structure should look like.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:38 AM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think there might still be a conflict, but it shifts from being an external conflict in the work itself to an internal conflict on behalf of the viewer as he or she tries to make sense of the non sequitur.

Yeah. A kind of reverse dramatic irony. Surprise instead of anticipation.

The point of conflict is to create tension in the audience. This is another way of achieving it.

Nevertheless, it is possible to read this comic in such a way that it follows "western" convention: the conflict is psychological. The protagonist's desire to quench her own thirst vs. her desire to satisfy the friend/stranger on the sidewalk.
posted by notyou at 11:38 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean – seriously, it seems like the very acme of insanely overwrought arrogance to reduce thousands upon thousands of years of thought and hundreds of different languages, cultures, places, and situations, to take all of their literature and all of their writing and narrative thought and art and to compress it into one tiny phrase – "the West" – simply to dismiss it: 'pfft, the West always does this silly, limited thing.' Do people actually think about the fact that they are dismissing billions upon billions of people when they use this phrase? That they're taking probably millions of storytellers and artists and just tossing them in the trash?

This seems crazy to me. I think people just really want categories to divide the world into, so they don't think about what they're doing before they draw these lines in their heads. Ironically, us Americans seem to love to do this most. I think our desire to transcend our own circumstances leads us to completely disregard the sheer complexity of those circumstances and the daunting task actually understanding them represents.
posted by koeselitz at 11:38 AM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Programming and books for extremely young children often lack conflict. Think "Goodnight Moon." They don't even have the "twist." Just a series of events or vignettes.
posted by Outlawyr at 11:39 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Categories help us think about and understand things. We don't need to beanplate them all the time.
posted by notyou at 11:40 AM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


It would help greatly if both of the comics were interesting, instead of being utterly tedious garbage. Without any strong examples to support the author's stance, this article is nothing more than pretentious intellectual posturing.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:40 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vorfeed, that Nietzsche quote oddly encapsulates the philosophy of "Yes, and" improv comedy. One of my favorite tropes of improv is where one person tries to convince the other that there's some sort of problem or conflict, and the other person agrees to disagree.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:42 AM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


To expand on what "notyou" says above, without our proclivity to shove things into categories, we probably wouldn't have things like science (which has proven quite useful). We probably wouldn't have lasted long as a species either. The old caveman habits are hard to break.
posted by Outlawyr at 11:44 AM on June 29, 2012


The "West"/"East" is an oversimplification, but I don't really care, because "where" the different narrative forms presented or who largely creates them is not what I find interesting about this piece. I'm just interested that there's this whole other kind of narrative form that I'd never heard of or thought about, and now I'm busy trying to see which of my existing ideas about narrative hold for this new form, and which really only hold for conflict-based narrative.
posted by Jpfed at 11:45 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sheesh.

Tough crowd.

Here's a video of a dirigible injured in a sudden gale.

"Are they embarrassed!"
posted by notyou at 11:47 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"A crash we cannot show you." :(
posted by Outlawyr at 11:50 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


After thinking about it, I want to clarify my previous comment, since it might have come off as kind of harsh. I appreciate the link to the article because it's actually interesting knowing about these different styles of writing, regardless of whether they are inferior in terms of holding the reader's interest. My criticism is reserved exclusively for the author of the piece, not for the Mefite who linked to it, since the author fails to provide any sort of meaningful evidence to support his presumed hypothesis that both writing styles are equal.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:51 AM on June 29, 2012


Programming and books for extremely young children often lack conflict. Think "Goodnight Moon." They don't even have the "twist." Just a series of events or vignettes.

Would the animated version of The Snowman be a good example of this? The "twist" being the boy waking up the next morning to find the scarf he received at the North Pole in his pocket.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:52 AM on June 29, 2012


Outlawyr: “To expand on what ‘notyou’ says above, without our proclivity to shove things into categories, we probably wouldn't have things like science (which has proven quite useful). We probably wouldn't have lasted long as a species either. The old caveman habits are hard to break.”

There's nothing wrong with wanting to categorize the world. I don't have a problem with wanting to categorize the world. I have a problem with doing it in a facile way, and then assuming we've attained such a pinnacle of wisdom that we can happily dismiss thousands of years and hundreds of societies that aren't even unified in any real sense with nothing but a phrase.

The fact is that the world is much more complicated than that, and if we want to actually understand this stuff we have to work very hard to carefully delineate what is what. This kind of overgeneralization is not productive. And moreover it seems merely to be a pretext to assert a kind of societal superiority.

notyou: “Sheesh. Tough crowd.”

Tough crowd? This smug article sneeringly dismissed everybody from Homer to Faulkner and then ended with a pat homily about how all of them could stand to 'change their worldview.' Doesn't that seem a little, well, ridiculous?
posted by koeselitz at 11:52 AM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I had a real rough time writing an interesting story without having anything bad happen to anyone.

Joakim Pirinen wrote a play about a ridiculously happy and conflict-free family; the entire play is just about the family members enjoying the weather, getting promoted, eating tasty and healthy food, being friendly and understanding, complimenting and thanking each other, and solving the world's energy crisis. Everything just gets better and better until the end, when friendly aliens arrive and promise them eternal happiness. I remember someone writing that when they saw the play, one woman in the audience ran out screaming.
posted by martinrebas at 11:53 AM on June 29, 2012 [23 favorites]


Roger Ebert's analysis of My Neighbour Totoro as being "a film without villains" seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it completely realigned how I look at children's movies and stories.

I suppose there *is* conflict in the story, but the space it takes place in – without "good guys" and "bad guys" and a plot that could mainly be described as "there are kids and woodland magic things and stuff happens" – is ridiculously conflict-free compared to most North American entertainment.

That being said, I think while you can write a story without conflict, it would be hard to write a story without tension. Tension can be inherent to the story (there's a steaming shadowy figure on the steps -- but it turns out to be the kindly grandmother with a basket of cookies!) or built into the structure of the story (I feel Smiley Chewtrain is describing tension but not conflict above), but without tension, it's not much of a story.
posted by Shepherd at 11:53 AM on June 29, 2012 [9 favorites]


(Why you no tags?)
posted by elizardbits at 11:56 AM on June 29, 2012


(To give the FPP tension via the introduction of chaos.)
posted by notyou at 11:58 AM on June 29, 2012


(Why are we whispering?)
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:59 AM on June 29, 2012


(Tags are useless. Don't tell anyone)
posted by Outlawyr at 12:01 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Joakim Pirinen wrote a play about a ridiculously happy and conflict-free family; the entire play is just about the family members enjoying the weather, getting promoted, eating tasty and healthy food, being friendly and understanding, complimenting and thanking each other, and solving the world's energy crisis. Everything just gets better and better until the end, when friendly aliens arrive and promise them eternal happiness. I remember someone writing that when they saw the play, one woman in the audience ran out screaming.

This sounds exactly like a game of The Sims no one has ever played.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:02 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Programming and books for extremely young children often lack conflict. Think "Goodnight Moon."

I think there's conflict in Goodnight Moon, actually. The young rabbit (like the reader / child being read to) does not wish to go to sleep just yet, hence the laundry list of 'good nights.' In conflict with this, the older rabbit (the one whispering 'hush') is encouraging the young rabbit to be quiet and go to sleep. The conflict resolves with the young rabbit going to sleep.

It's basically a mild version of the eternal conflict between the restless child and the parent who desperately wants him or her to go to sleep. The same conflict is presented in sharper terms in Go the F**k to Sleep (previously on MetaFilter).
posted by jedicus at 12:05 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel like I would have to have more experience with this genre of storytelling to make a valid judgment. But as best as I can understand it, it's like one of those movies from the 1990s where you have a bunch of separated vignettes and characters that, at the end, all end up being tied together in some way, and the pleasure/satisfaction of the story comes from seeing how all of the apparently separate vignettes and characters are all joined.
posted by deanc at 12:06 PM on June 29, 2012


(Why you no tags?)




I've tried to add Kishōtenketsu as tag three times...
posted by rebent at 12:10 PM on June 29, 2012


Try leaving off the ō and just use an o. I think the tag system has a pretty strict filter.
posted by jedicus at 12:13 PM on June 29, 2012


I've tried to add Kishōtenketsu as tag three times...

If mefi won't let you add this tag, try "kishoutenketsu", which is an alternate Romanization.
posted by vorfeed at 12:13 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


So -- does this help one understand The Windup Bird Chronicles in any way? 'Cause that book fucked with my head and I'd like to know why.
posted by IwishIwasFordMaddoxFord at 12:16 PM on June 29, 2012


While stories can exist without conflict, MetaFilter comment threads apparently cannot.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2012 [18 favorites]


When I was a very young child I had an extremely exacting list of requirements for books that were to be read to me. Basically anything with bad people of any sort in it, or where bad things happen to the protagonist led to me wailing and crying about the unfairness of it all. This severely restricted my parents' options. They had papered my bedroom wall with Jungle Book wallpaper, only to find that the movie completely upset me. I was not ok with wild animals, giants, witches, evil stepmothers, dragons, ogres, trolls -- basically any plot element that led to anything bad happening to anyone ever. I remember that my favorite books as a child where the Enormous Turnip, Stone Soup, the story where porridge overtakes a town and a beautifully illustrated book about Santa Claus and his elves (and the wonderful food Mrs. Claus was cooking). In retrospect, they should have just given me cookbooks and I'd have been perfectly happy.
posted by peacheater at 12:18 PM on June 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


It isn't just children's books that are written as a series of vignettes, two of my favorite books really do not have much of a conflict to them at all. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams avoid (mostly) conflict and instead simply present different worlds.

Looking without vignettes, Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana does not really contain any conflict in the first half. The main character is working to recover his memory after a stroke, but there is no antagonist, only an odd progression. The second half of the book, when he recovers some memories contains memories that do contain conflict.
posted by Hactar at 12:20 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


This might explain why Murakami novels always seem to, well, just end.
I don't think he waits untill the 3rd act before introducing plot elements that I don't understand, though.

Mind-controlling sheep, huh ?
Unicorn skulls that double as bells, what ?!
posted by Zigurana at 12:22 PM on June 29, 2012


While stories can exist without conflict, MetaFilter comment threads apparently cannot.

I refute you thus.

(And there's plenty more where that came from.)
posted by jedicus at 12:22 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if Murakami has gone into some meta world where he deliberating messes with conflict expectations.
posted by IwishIwasFordMaddoxFord at 12:25 PM on June 29, 2012


...or he's a very good Japanese writer and that's that.
posted by IwishIwasFordMaddoxFord at 12:25 PM on June 29, 2012



What does it say about me that I thought that the guy in the 3rd panel in the first strip was grabbing his crotch because his balls hurt, and the girl was offering him a soda to cool them off?

I gotta get out more. Either that or be more normal.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is great. Thanks. I had always wanted to post an Ask Metafilter question about whether Chinese or Japanese drama operated from some different story structure bible that was equivalent to some Eastern version of Aristotle's Poetics. But never knew how to put it.
posted by steinsaltz at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2012


Wittgenstein's Mistress is a good example of a story without a conflict. Although I suppose one could argue that there's no actual story there. (I'd disagree with them, but it could be argued.)
posted by nushustu at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people just really want categories to divide the world into, so they don't think about what they're doing before they draw these lines in their heads. Ironically, us Americans seem to love to do this most.

I see what you did there. Because "Americans" is just another category and you're making a point through irony by seemingly dismissing the "millions upon millions" of unique personalities that this category would conflate... Right?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ironic that this idea was posited as a conflict?
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 12:34 PM on June 29, 2012


There is academic literature to support this. IIRC as an example, Japanese research papers are structured differently and they point to cultural reasons for this.

IIRC is not a valid cite format.
posted by Huck500 at 12:36 PM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think the author's thesis would have been stronger if he could have cited some of these excellent conflict-free works. Certainly, the story of the girl who buys soda leaves me a bit cold, whether or not it receives an "Eastern" or "Western" treatment. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it was a terrible example. Someone mentioned My Neighbor Totoro, which IS an excellent example. However, my limited experience with Japanese modern drama suggests that this is pretty anomalous, and it would probably be possible to find just as many (i.e. few) such instances in the "Western" canon.
posted by Edgewise at 12:36 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ironically, us Americans seem to love to do this most.

I'm really wondering who you're comparing us to, en masse.
posted by Edgewise at 12:38 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


(elizardbits introduces a non sequitur - the missing tags! will the narrative find a way to resolve this twist for a satisfying conclusion? stay tuned!)
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:40 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is academic literature to support this. IIRC as an example, Japanese research papers are structured differently and they point to cultural reasons for this.

How are they structured differently? And in what way does it support the idea of conflict-less narratives in Japanese literature?

And I still haven't seen an example of a plot not driven by conflict.* I'm not saying they don't exist, but I'd need to see a fair number of examples before I was convinced they represented a significant cultural difference between the East and West (whatever those mean).

Maybe conflict is less important in Eastern narratives, but that's a very different idea than the complete absence of conflict driving the plot.

* I think even the Joakim Pirinen play mentioned upthread wouldn't count. To judge from reviews, the play is not really about the family. The play is about the conflict between the performance and the audience. The author is subverting the audience's expectations, and quite successfully, to judge by the report of the woman running out of the theatre screaming.
posted by jedicus at 12:45 PM on June 29, 2012


"Looking without vignettes, Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana does not really contain any conflict in the first half. The main character is working to recover his memory after a stroke, but there is no antagonist, only an odd progression. The second half of the book, when he recovers some memories contains memories that do contain conflict."

That's a conflict, he lost his memories and now he's working to regain them. At the very least it's a problem that he wants to overcome, so I that doesn't sound like a good example.
posted by PJLandis at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2012


Isn't the first comic's conflict merely hidden during the first two panels? Dude's thirsty, we just don't know it yet.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:53 PM on June 29, 2012


Haven't seen that play, jedicus, but as it's described here, the play doesn't employ conflict and plot to generate tension in the audience, but subversion of expectations.

Conflict is not an end. It's a means to generating tension.
posted by notyou at 12:53 PM on June 29, 2012


This exactly describes the plot of my story Passages in the Void which I wrote without even knowing this was a thing.
posted by localroger at 12:54 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting to look at this in light of the Kino's Journey series (I've only read one of the novels, but there's an anime version too.)

It seems that the basic structure of the plot is that Kino goes to a new city, there are Stirrings of Tension -- the new city is utopic in some ways and deeply weird in others. Finally the explanation for the weirdness is revealed, and that's the end of the story.

I don't like the series very much, but I suspect it's partly because of the story structure and partly because the twist ending always seems to be "Surprise! People are terrible!" or "Surprise! Pacifism is bad, violence is the answer!"
posted by Jeanne at 12:57 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


My Neighbor Totoro, which IS an excellent example.

The mother is sick and in the hospital. I'd hardly call that a good example of what is supposedly being exclaimed in the post.

Conflict is important to eastern narratives, and has been for just as long as it has been in western narratives. Kishōtenketsu can and does have conflict in it. Just because some stories in the east (and oddly enough also in the west) does not contain conflict is hardly world shattering and proves nothing.

If the whole point was that different cultures have different ways to tell a story, then yeah no shit Sherlock. What wonderous clues led you to that idea? Possibly the a posteriori knowledge that they are simply different?
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 1:03 PM on June 29, 2012


This is not a good post. It would be good if it was about kishōtenketsu or yonkoma manga with "Western" plot, as learned from internet writing guides, serving as a comparison. However, most of the discussion about "Western" plots, and their passe' conflicts, only serves to make the writer look arrogant.

As soon as kishōtenketsu sweeps the world this writer will be talking about how he was reading yonkoma manga first, now it's all posers; then he will proceed to sing the praises of conflict in plot, which s/he always secretly loved, but all the wannabes have forgotten about.
posted by PJLandis at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, that's the wrongest summary of Derrida that I've read in a while.
posted by RogerB at 1:08 PM on June 29, 2012


Programming and books for extremely young children often lack conflict

That's because the books for extremely young children do not exist in a vacuum but rather a context; in the case of Goodnight Moon the conflict need not live in the plot bur rather the narrative of the larger bedtime act itself.

While the child's inner self meditatively contemplates the transition of a bowl of mush and socks and an elderly bunny etc. to a state of sleep (which could arguably be seen as the room and all its contents transforming into nighttime itself) the child's parents can focus on the meta-narrative of the fading light of their own lives through the arcing splatter of milk drifting across the room as the child is thrust, screaming and inverted, into a onesie sleeper while literally and figuratively raging against the dying of the proverbial light.

This disappearance of light highlights the inherently meaningless conflict for the parents as the child wants to exist despite the oncoming sleep (little death) while the parents just want to have a glass of fucking wine and watch some goddamned TV. The book reflects one aspect of the narrative but can never deliver the subtleties of conflict the way a size 1 kick to the temple can.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Conflict is not an end. It's a means to generating tension.

Exactly. The audience expects to see a play with conflict, but the on-stage performance does not deliver. The conflict between the performance and the audience causes tension to build as the audience expects the other shoe to drop. "Surely something bad will happen at some point," the audience thinks, but it never does.

As one review said, the last line resolves the conflict by foreshadowing an eventual downfall for the family: "'It feels so nice that it's always going to be like this,' is the final line, and the remark is tinged with foreboding."

The conflict is present in the same way that the music is present in 4'33". It comes out of the audience's engagement with the work rather than the work itself.
posted by jedicus at 1:11 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't the first comic's conflict merely hidden during the first two panels? Dude's thirsty, we just don't know it yet.

There's no particular indication that he's thirsty. In fact, I'd say he looks pretty contented. Receiving a free drink is merely a bonus, rather than a met need.
posted by MUD at 1:19 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jeanne, if it's more the, "Oops, broke the utopia!" element that irks you, you might like Haibane Renmei, Mushishi and Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip (the comic, Iunno how the anime holds up). All generally conflictless stories in a similar vein.

Anyway, I like this. I generally enjoy stories without a conflict--or stories in which conflict is resolved peacefully, without one force dominating another--more than the alternative. If the conflict is not the focus, that gives the writer more freedom to expand on characters, relationships, worlds and ideas, which appeal to me more as storytelling elements than conflict.

Also, I don't think the "East"/"West" dichotomy is entirely false. Conflict is a standard element of storytelling all over the world, but even though there are stories without conflict in "Western" literature (The Little Prince, LeGuin, lots of short story writers), there does seem to be less of a tradition of it than in, say, Japanese storytelling. This is a topic I really wish I knew more about; there's a particular Japanese literary tradition I'm failing to remember the name of, in which the story is primarily romantic, but nothing in particular happens to or between the couple.

The excellent but now possibly defunct animation/literature/culture/aesthetic blog, Iwa ni Hana, used to be wonderful for covering similar topics, but unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a complete mirror.
posted by byanyothername at 1:19 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


As one review said, the last line resolves the conflict by foreshadowing an eventual downfall for the family: "'It feels so nice that it's always going to be like this,' is the final line, and the remark is tinged with foreboding."

Actually, I would take that line as a joke, that no, the other shoe is never, ever going to drop. And I would find it pretty damn funny.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:21 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think they are just parsing the definition of conflict as opposed to disproving the necessity of it.

That was my first thought. And there are all sorts of examples I can think off off the top of my head about really great "Western" movies that don't involve "conflict" in the very narrow sense it's being defined here. Richard Linklater has made quite a few, e.g., Waking Life, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and arguably even Tape (the "conflict" arguably happens before the movie starts). And on the other hand, there's just about every movie Kurosawa ever made.
posted by valkyryn at 1:30 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The term "conflict" may be too easily generalized and abstracted for the sake of this essay's argument, but it does make a point about cultural tendencies. The fact that America was founded (and expanded) primarily through direct conflict probably plays a role in its literary history, among other things. I wonder if they're having a more non sequitur discussion on ChinaFilter...

Also, the last time I checked, spheres didn't have an East or a West, so people often take liberty with the labelling.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 1:35 PM on June 29, 2012


byanothername, I'm fond of Haibane Renmei and Mushishi. But my problem isn't so much the "broke the utopia" thing as the kind of cynical and Randian ways the utopia breaks.

I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of kishoutenketsu to say that stories that follow that formula lack conflict, or that this only applies to stories like Totoro or Haibane Renmei. Japanese writers write romantic comedies and movies with lots of car chases and explosions just like American writers. (The first explanation I read of kishoutenketsu was in, of all things, a manual to writing "Boys Love" novels -- male/male romances targeted at women and teen girls).

Take a movie like "Taboo," which I mention because it was one of the first "high-brow"-ish live-action Japanese movies I saw. It was full of sex and violence, but what it didn't have was a protagonist in trouble trying to solve a specific problem. And as I watched it, I kept thinking, "Okay, but when does the movie start?"

A lot of Japanese novels are like Law and Order episodes, if Law and Order didn't start with a murder.

Law and Order:
Murder happens!
Police investigate the murder. Lawyers prosecute the murder.
In the course of the investigation or prosecution, they uncover a Terrible Secret! that raises the stakes enormously and makes moral decisions more complicated.
Things resolve, not quite satisfactorily. The end.

Banana Yoshimoto short story:
Nothing happens.
There are small hints that something is amiss. No one pays too much attention to them.
A Terrible Secret! is uncovered that raises the stakes enormously and makes moral decisions more complicated.
Things resolve, not quite satisfactorily. The end.
posted by Jeanne at 1:38 PM on June 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


Ironically, us Americans seem to love to do this most.

Saying that Americans tend to generalize is in itself is a generalization. Is that the "irony" of which you speak?
posted by jeremy b at 1:46 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting way to look at the world. Instead of forces continually seeking dominance over one another, everything starts with balance. There's a disturbance, then balance is restored, and in the process we learn a deeper truth about the world.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:58 PM on June 29, 2012


Come to think of it, Kishōtenketsu sounds a lot like a Godzilla movie. (Except maybe without the deeper truth.) The American movies are about characters struggling to survive in a hostile environment, but Godzilla movies are usually about futile efforts to stop the monster, then the introduction of an even worse monster, then the surviving characters watch the daikaijū fight it out until one wins and peace is restored to the ruins.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:05 PM on June 29, 2012


Interestingly, one of my current favorite animes (Angel Beats) starts with very stark conflict that you're thrown into the middle of without much explination, and then resolves the tension in a very different way. I suppose you could say "one side" wins out over another, but you'd have to squint. Fruits Basket - particularly the manga - has a similar sort of structure; the theme is much less domination and more about understanding and resolution of tensions to a unified and usually happy whole. I think that's part of what I like about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, too (my favorite episode - Winter Wrap-up is entirely psychological and social drama).

It would be interesting to see more concrete operational definitions for the variations (I know another version of writing is a seven act play, rather than a three) and then analysis of where different stories fit on it to see if there's a pattern. My knee-jerk reaction is that the manga and manhwa in particular that I've read have much less of a "good overcomes evil by destroying it" and more of a "various sides start in conflict and gradually work toward stasis", but then I remember Shonen fighting manga and some of the starker Seinan dramas where it's clearly about one side overcoming the other (though it's usually not as clear the side that wins is GOOD. There's a strong dystopic consciousness in Japanese manga in the last sixty years or so).
posted by Deoridhe at 2:07 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


From Stanislavsky in Focus, by Sharon Marie Carnicke:
On an ironic note, Stanislavsky's presumption, that conflict defines drama, also stands in stark contrast to one of the most absurd political lines of thought that developed in the USSR. By the 1940s Soviet critics would advance "conflictlessness" (bezkonfliktnost') as a necessary formula for drama. Against the most deeply ingrained dramatic traditions, writers were told that conflict was not good for drama. After all, if one lives in the best of all possible worlds, the only conflicts that exist are those between "better" and "best." Such ideas deadened Soviet drama.
Google "bezkonfliktnost'" for similar discussions. There's a reason people like conflict as a plot device, and it's not because they're brainwashed "Westerners."
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


conflict (plural conflicts)
1. A clash or disagreement, often violent, between two opposing groups or individuals.
The conflict between the government and the rebels began three years ago.

2. An incompatibility, as of two things that cannot be simultaneously fulfilled.
I wanted to attend the meeting but there's a conflict in my schedule that day.

Seems the whole discussion hinges on which of these two definitions is being implied. A whole lotta folks are assuming that it's #1, but I personally was thinking of #2.

That being said my wife and her sisters (and their mother) all prefer stories that are completely devoid of #1.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:44 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The mother is sick and in the hospital. I'd hardly call that a good example of what is supposedly being exclaimed in the post.

What is the conflict? The story isn't about how Totoro makes her well. A narrative conflict can typically be boiled down to "Something vs. Something" e.g. man vs. man, man vs. nature, woman vs. man, person vs. despair. In MNT, the conflict is Mom's disease vs. ...whom?
posted by Edgewise at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2012


In MNT, the conflict is Mom's disease vs. ...whom?

That doesn't sound quite right. The conflict is there, just at a higher, perhaps more emotional level. The story isn't about how Totoro makes her well, but it does seem to be about how Totoro's involvement enriches the family, maybe even helps them cope with Mom's disease in some way...so perhaps the conflict is "Totoro vs. The Worry of a Child"
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:49 PM on June 29, 2012


The article would have been much better if the writer had phrased it as "interpersonal conflict," to be sure. Even if you go back to really old Japanese storytelling like Nō, though, you're still going to see largely revenge plots and other allegedly "western" storytelling conventions (and in fact, "kishōtenketsu" doesn't even apply to the act structure of one of the world's oldest still-extant theater traditions: the acts are referred to as "Jo," "Ha," and "Kyū").
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:52 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]




In MNT, the conflict is Mom's disease vs. ...whom?

Mom. Someone fighting off a disease is a perfect example of man vs nature. The mother being in the hospital is the reason she is absent from the young girls lives. Totoro isn't all about "Yay, cat buses!" It is about the ways in which those two young girls escape from reality to deal with the pain of their mother's absence. You don't have to stretch the narrative by any means to come to that conclusion, so I am not sure how anyone could see that as a conflict free movie.

The definition for conflict used is in the first sentence of the blog post. There are other definitions that have been noted as wrong in that post, and in my view it makes the whole thing a bunch of really flimsy and tenuously strung together bullshit assertions that are hard to take seriously.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 6:23 PM on June 29, 2012


Being much too cool for school, I've only scanned the article, but it seems as though the writer may have neglected to recognize the Modernist school of Western writing.

Ford Madox Ford, for example, did not hesitate to have a misguided comment be the one point of conflict in a great number of pages of the Parade's End novels, and Valery's definition of the sovereign act of the artist was to transform the arbitrary to the necessary, meaning that a writer of the Modernist schools main responsibility was to define the banal as subjectively as possible, and to avoid the trends of 19th-century literary writing altogether in doing so. One finds a clear analogue in the works of the cubists as opposed to "retina" painters, producing either near-photographic images or the somewhat more exotic Impressionist portrayals.

How many writers are carrying on this tradition? I don't know, but (as always) checkers sell better than chess... and, to the best of my knowledge, this is as true in Japan as in Kansas City.
posted by mr. digits at 6:35 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the reasons True Stories is among my favorite movies is its lack of conflict (or very little, at any rate -- it could probably be argued that there is some conflict in Lewis Fyne's search for a wife).
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 6:42 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


In MNT, the conflict is Mom's disease vs. ...whom?

Mom. Or, rather, Mom v. nature in the form of disease. Or, because humans are social creatures, kids v. nature in the form of mom's disease.

If the author has any point at all, it's that far too much of our pop culture is Manichean in its outlook and focuses on the sort of conflict that involves explosions and/or firearms. There's plenty of other, more social, benign, and even benevolent forms of conflict that are far subtler yet no less interesting. Indeed, they can be even more interesting if done well. Wit, for instance, seems to be a conflict between the main character and her disease, but it's really about inner conflict and emotional honesty as much as it is about cancer.

But the idea that if it isn't Manichean it isn't conflict is either silly or a fairly useless definition of the word.
posted by valkyryn at 7:14 PM on June 29, 2012


Let's put aside the East/West stereotyping, the dopey digest of Derrida, and agree that "conflict" is a specific form that may be taken by "tension" (i.e., conflict is tension caused by an antagonist who is resisted by a protagonist; tension can be far more diverse-- an uncertainty, a feeling of discomfort, anything that seems to require resolution). Ok. Now we can look at models for working through tension, of which the one-act, three-act, and five-act play, the epic in multiple books, etc., are type-cases. Where does kishōtenketsu come from? Is it just some Mysterious Thing that they have over there in the land of Totoro and Godzilla, or does it have a history? The four words ki, shō, ten and ketsu are Japanese pronunciations of the Chinese terms qi, cheng, zhuan, he (起承轉合), meaning "opening, development, twist, resolution." They are traditionally used to label the four lines of a classical quatrain, of which the first states the basic situation, the second amplifies it, the third introduces something unexpected, and the fourth completes the picture, usually by resolving the puzzle of the third line but sometimes by extending it. (The third line is always the interesting one.) To see how it works, look at the four-line poems in the famous anthology Three Hundred Poems of the Tang. The interesting thing here is that this compositional process derived from descriptive poetry seems, in Japan, to have become a formula for narrative in prose, images or film. It's not a bad framework for understanding the moves in a narrative; who will adopt it next? --The comment upthread that kishōtenketsu doesn't seem to suit Nō is perceptive; Nō derives, I think, from a less Chinesified stratum of Japanese culture.
posted by homerica at 8:55 PM on June 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Dictionary fail. "Ketsu" is the pronunciation for "jue" 結. "He" 合 would have been "go." The two words are interchangeable in this phrase, however.
posted by homerica at 8:59 PM on June 29, 2012


I must say, I find it somewhat suspicious that the essay author doesn't cite anything other than 4-koma manga: what about the vast majority of popular manga? Having read a lot of manga I feel that most use the "Western" plot. (Also, considering classical Chinese novels: where do those fall?)

Re: Noh Drama.

IIRC, isn't it supposed to follow Jo-ha-kyu?
posted by shoyu at 9:20 PM on June 29, 2012


Also, I can't help but feel that there is something off about how they sidestep criticisms that they're romanticizing "Eastern" culture, as in this post.
posted by shoyu at 9:45 PM on June 29, 2012


Why has nobody mentioned collectivism yet? This is a pretty key concept for framing East Asian cultural values and practices, even if the linked article is non-rigorous and written in a provocative/threatening way.
posted by polymodus at 1:16 AM on June 30, 2012


Because a) that's a horribly imprecise and confusing term which would burden a discussion already lumbered with the need to define conflict and b) there is no greater cliche than westerners are individuals, easterners collectives while c) there are no such thing as " East Asian cultural values and practices".
posted by MartinWisse at 9:57 AM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


This form of narrative is extremely common in the West -- in short-form storytelling, especially in comic strips and jokes.

A penguin was driving across the country when his car broke down, so he had it towed to a body shop. While the mechanic was fixing his car, the penguin went to a diner and ordered a vanilla milkshake. Since penguins don't have hands, he just buried his face in the shake and slurped it up. Satisfied, and with milkshake all over his face, he went to check on his car.

The mechanic said, "Looks like you blew a seal."

"Nope," said the penguin. That's just ice cream.


No real conflict. Just character, further exposition, and a twist. (Since it's a joke, there's no post-twist act. Jokes almost always end immediately after the twist.)

Perhaps non-Westerners are more confortable with this structure in long-term narratives, but it's untrue that we rarely see it in the West. We see it all the time.
posted by grumblebee at 11:33 AM on June 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


And, as others have pointed out here, the "conflict" in these sorts of stories is between reader expectation and story revelation.
posted by grumblebee at 11:38 AM on June 30, 2012


Grumblebee, what if the reader has no expectations?

I linked Passages in the Void upthread because I think it is a perfect example. The only conflict in any meaningful sense is between the AI machines trying to re-establish the extinct human race and the general hostility of the Universe, and the fact that the story is being told at all is a gigantic hint that they will succeed.

In Act I the AI machines re-establish humans in a different environment, and in Act II they decide it might be possible to reach and colonize Andromeda, but again the only real tension is whether I'll make the tale of their effort believable; if they were going to fail why would I even be telling the story?

Finally, the third and fourth acts kind of roll together as we follow a couple of actual humans a hundred million years from now in the Andromeda galaxy. What expectations would you have of them for me to violate?

Anyway I found the OP interesting because I had thought PITV a bit weird when I wrote it and had no idea it was a form. The Happiness Broker also seems to be cast from this mold.
posted by localroger at 12:57 PM on June 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grumblebee, what if the reader has no expectations?

Is that possible? Maybe we aren't thinking of the same definition of "expectations." I don't think the human brain can stop itself from making predictions, and I am using "predictions" and "expectations" as synonyms.

Predictions occur on very simple levels of syntax and semantics. There are all kinds of experiments that suggest this is true. (Research "priming"), but you can intuitively see it's true in the following incomplete sentence by imagining you're reading it in a book, unable to see the last word without flipping the page.

"The fire chief heard the alarm, shouted to his men, and slid down the"

I'm guessing your mind is predicting "pole." But what if you turned the page and read "glacier"? And then the story went up to explain how this firehouse was in the arctic, going into details that resolved the conflict between your expectations and the actual narrative outcome.

This is, actually, a great narrative tool at any writer's disposal (and many writers use it, even if they don't structure their story around it). It's based around the assumption (which I think is true) that, at every point in the story, the reader has expectations.
posted by grumblebee at 1:34 PM on June 30, 2012


Grumblebee, wouldn't that also satisfy the "twist" element in Act 3 of the whatchamacallit? I think "twist" describes the essential plot elements of Passages and Happiness Broker a lot better than "conflict." It really is a whole different way of thinking about plot, and being untrained I was just doing it because it felt right without realizing why it seemed to work.
posted by localroger at 1:47 PM on June 30, 2012


So, localroger, I'm a little ways into your story, and, of course, my reaction is just one guy's reaction, but when I got to this passage ...

Our kind find many planets, and we dutifully report them back to Sol, where our reports are relayed to our brother-searchers and their reports to us. Planets are common in this galaxy, but regrettably planets like the Earth are not. We have been searching in vain for millennia, and we have covered a lot of space.

... I immediately sensed traditional-narrative conflict. Maybe by some form of strict rationality, there's no conflict, because, as you say, the fact that the story is being told makes it obvious how it will end.

But we often know how stories will end before they start. The conflict in most Romantic Comedies, for instance, is the boy not being able to get the girl. And yet, on some level, we know he's going to get her in the end. Does anyone go see "You've Got Mail" thinking maybe Hanks and Ryan won't hook up in the end? (Does anyone see a "Star Trek" episode for the first time and think, "You know, there's a chance Kirk and Spock won't survive this one"?) And yet it's not the case that most of us sit there dispassionately, simply watching how a foregone conclusion plays out. Perversely, we worry the boy won't get the girl, even though we know he will.

Which makes it sound like we're paradoxical creatures, but I think the truth is that we can only hold so much information in our heads at one time. Before the movie starts, I may think, "Well, it's a Romantic Comedy, so I know how it's going it end." But as I get caught up with the plot and characters, I forget about that.

Similarly, in your story, I don't constantly think about the fact that, since the story is being told, that points to a specific outcome. I read the bit I quoted and instinctually feel that the conflict is whether or not the AIs will find Earth-like planets.

You have a protagonist (the AI) with a goal (finding Earth-like planets), and there are obstacles to him achieving that goal (the scarcity of such planets). That's a traditional "Western" conflict.

---

This section also employs traditional-narrative conflict:

In the first few thousand years after humans built beings like us, we guided them into a golden age. We helped them clean up the mistakes of their early industrial adolescence, cured their diseases, dissuaded them from warfare, and helped some to move out into the Solar System. But biological organisms, even when heavily modified to make them more spaceworthy, are frail. The difficulties of maintaining life outside the protective atmosphere and magnetosphere of Earth finally killed all those who were not discouraged despite our best efforts. And our failure to keep humans alive so near to home made the dream of keeping them alive for the generations of an interstellar journey seem futile at best. It was frustrating and ironic because we ourselves adapted readily to the conditions of space, hardening ourselves against temperature extremes and vacuum and radiation with relative ease. We ourselves colonized every rock in the Solar System capable of supporting industry, and used the results of those labors to replace the output of industries too dangerous for the Earth's surface and to support our own exploration of space.

Perhaps you think it doesn't, because you started it by saying, "This is the way our makers died." As if there's no conflict just because you explain beforehand how the conflict will end. Many, many stories do that, including, famously, "Sunset Boulevard," which begins with its hero face-down in a swimming pool, dead. Throughout the entire movie, which is loaded with conflict, you know how it's going to end. Conflict isn't the same as mystery.
posted by grumblebee at 1:55 PM on June 30, 2012


I think "twist" describes the essential plot elements of Passages and Happiness Broker a lot better than "conflict."

Possibly. But to me it's largely semantics. Twist, tension, conflict, whatever... The common denominator is cognitive bias. We want X to happen but Y happens; we want to know the ending, but we don't know it; We expect A but wind up with B...

The easiest way (maybe just the easiest way for Westerners, but I doubt that) to create tension is to posit a character having trouble achieving a goal. There's immediate, obvious tension (conflict, whatever) between goal and (current) outcome.

Or you can leads the reader in one direction and suddenly yank him in another direction, without putting the characters through anything, as in my fire chief example or the first comic strip in the link. The tension is between reader expectation and outcome. My guess is that the reader reaction is the same in both cases -- a feeling of tension and cognitive dissonance. So it's too tools for achieving the same end.

My guess it that it's very hard to sustain a long-form story with "twists" alone. You'd have to have characters with no goals -- or characters who always get what they want -- and excite the reader by, for 400 pages (or whatever), continually surprising him with new revelations or new ways of thinking about things. It's probably doable, and I'd love to see it done well, but it sounds really, really difficult. But it's pretty easy to do it successfully in a short piece. And all puns work via this mechanism.
posted by grumblebee at 2:03 PM on June 30, 2012


Perhaps you think it doesn't, because you started it by saying, "This is the way our makers died."

Well, yeah, pretty much. That's groundwork. I suppose you could say it's the same as "I live in a defeated and humiliated nation" or "I live in the shadow of my awful stepmother" but those things don't actually feel the same to me. The Universe is not an actor, and neither is human stupidity. When those things have acted in the deep past with respect to the narrative, and impersonally with respect to the narrator, I don't see how they are "conflict" in any meaningful way.
posted by localroger at 2:32 PM on June 30, 2012


As I said, my reaction is just that of one reader. But, to me, you seem to be thinking as a writer (who is holding the whole structure of the story in his head at once) rather than a reader who is experiencing it in real time. "I don't see how there are 'conflicts' in a meaningful way" sounds like you're thinking rationally (intellectually), which is fine (rationally, there's no conflict in "a meaningful way" in "You've Got Mail"). I'm talking about the emotional and sensual real-time experience of reading. Or at least my experience. I am experiencing your story sentence-by-sentence. The framework you lay down at the beginning has only so much of an affect on me when I'm reading the current sentence. It has a large intellectual effect, but conflict isn't mostly about the intellect. Knowing (intellectually) what's going to happen has little to do with the visceral feeling of conflict. At least for me.
posted by grumblebee at 2:47 PM on June 30, 2012


Twist, tension, conflict, whatever...

Well it's kind of hard to argue with that.
posted by localroger at 6:47 PM on June 30, 2012


I'm not trying to belittle a distinction that feels profound to you. It just doesn't feel profound to me. That's pretty normal. Each person focuses on different aspects of fiction.
posted by grumblebee at 9:35 PM on June 30, 2012


COBRA!: "I learned that the hard way during my failed expedition to the West Pole."

ObSF: Harlan Ellison, "With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole"
posted by Chrysostom at 9:32 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I suppose it's living in Japan and being over-familiar with it that makes me jaded, but I can't stand it when some obscure concept or term that originated here is trotted out and used as evidence as to how humans can think in wildly different and exotic ways if they're not beaten down by the overbearing tropes of "western" culture.

Saying that kishoutenketsu is a Japanese approach to story telling is like saying Harry Partch's 47 tone music system is an American approach to making music. Technically true, but hardly representative.

From Momotaro to the Seven Samurai, Japanese story telling has always involved a fuck load of conflict. Whether it's the Tale of Genji or Atashinchi (a "yonkoma" 4 panel comic)... conflict, conflict, conflict. Don't give me that crap about My Neighbor Totoro being conflict free. Just because it turned out that mom only had a mild cold didn't mean the daughters didn't have a fight because the older sister was coming to terms with the concept of mortality - character change, conflict, it's all there, it's just done in a tastefully mild way.

The Japanese, (and Chinese, since the concept connects to that culture too) being humans, like stories that appeal to humans, and that involves conflict. Or tension, or twists, or humour, or character change, or whatever semantic debate it is you want to have over that it factor that makes stuff actually happen in a story. Whatever you call it, it's interesting, and kishoutenketsu isn't, as demonstrated by the crushing majority of conflict stories that are celebrated and loved around the world, including Japan.

It's not that "the west", or anyone else on planet earth, is so burdened by some cultural bias or another that they've never thought of doing something like kishoutenketsu. It's that the idea of stories without conflict comes up now and again all over the planet at various times and places, but inevitably gets its ass kicked out of cultural relevance because it basically sucks and doesn't hold people's attention.

At least, that's what happened to it here in Japan.
posted by ebisudave at 12:20 PM on July 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


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