How Japanese Storytelling is Different

A while back I watched a video on the Silent Manga Audition Community channel where they talked about role pairs (dramatic pairings of characters, like cop-criminal, or teacher-student, etc) and their importance in manga. And since then, I’ve been pondering why the manga creator in the video thought they were so important.

Now I finally understand.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is what defines Japanese storytelling, and what the underlying philosophy behind it is. I’ve known it was different from “western” (Euro-American) storytelling, and had a rough idea for some time, but I’ve never been able to put it into words in a way which felt satisfying and concrete.

Until now.

Today, I finally managed to put it together and achieve enlightenment. And as you might expect, the answer was super simple, and there all along.

Western storytelling is based on conflict.

Japanese storytelling is based on interaction.

It was so simple, yet the difference in perspective is profound.

Let me explain.

Aristotle once said that all stories are based on conflict:

  • Man versus Man
  • Man versus Self
  • Man versus Nature
  • Man versus Society

These are the central dramatic conflicts that dominate western drama (people would add more later) and which are the simplest ways to look at the core of western stories. This is a natural framework based on the Euro-centric outlook which sees the relationship that people have with themselves and their world as an adversarial one. People struggle against the world to survive. They struggle against each other for resources like food. They struggle against the selfish and animalistic sides of themselves to be civilized.

This is the western worldview, and it permeates everything in western culture, including their approach to storytelling.

On the other hand, the Japanese (I say Japanese specifically because the Chinese and Koreans are slightly different) worldview is a co-operative one. They don’t see the world as an adversarial place like westerners do, they see the world as a co-operative system where different parts have a role to play and everything interacts. This is true from their religion (animistic Shinto) to their view of how society works.

With their group-centric culture, they see man’s place in the world as being part of a greater system. People are not individuals- they’re members of society, members of families, citizens of the state, part of the natural cycle/world, the servants of the gods, etc.

Thus, to the Japanese, stories aren’t about conflict.

They’re about interaction.

To a Japanese storyteller, it’s…

  • Man meets Man
  • Man meets Self
  • Man meets Nature
  • Man meets Society

The central point of drama in a Japanese story is the interesting interaction between two or more things- what interesting thing happens when these two things come together? Instead of two things fighting each other, it’s two things negotiating their place in the world with each other and understanding how they can (or can’t) co-exist with each other.

American story- Man conquers outer space.

Japanese story – Man finds his place in outer space.

Most Japanese stories in any media are extensions of this philosophy, and ultimately the characters are people who are engaged in an existential game of give and take with each other. It isn’t about confrontation, but compromise, and their ability to do so (or not do so) in the world they live in.

For example, western fans of the manga/anime Naruto often complain about something called “talk-no-jutsu,” which is a term referring to the fact that the main character in Naruto usually defeats his opponents by talking to them. He might fight them in huge duels using ninja superpowers, but at the same time he’s arguing with them, and in the end of the fight his opponents often give up or withdraw because he basically talked them out of their reason to fight him.

Western Naruto fans laugh at this and find it annoying and silly when this happens in Naruto and other anime. (It happens a lot, in many manga and anime.) The term “talk-no-jutsu” is making fun of the fact that most ninja-magic superpowered techniques in Naruto’s world are called “something-no-jutsu.”

However, from a Japanese perspective what Naruto is doing is perfectly reasonable.

To Japanese audiences, everything in the story is about the interaction between Naruto and his opponent, and is all ultimately a negotiation of their positions and places in the world. They first argue their positions, and then unleash their attacks against each other through the form of cool ninja superpowers, but then ultimately that doesn’t work and they have to find a way to co-exist. Or, in the case of the truly evil, that they can’t co-exist and the hero is forced to kill them to bring balance to the world.

American story – Man conquers a mountain and climbs to the top.

Japanese story – Man learns how to work with the mountain’s terrain and nature and reaches the top.

Yes, there is conflict, but the underlying story philosophy is about negotiation, and the only way the battle can end is by figuring out a solution to their conflicts. This reflects Japanese society, where large numbers of people live in close proximity to people they may or may not like, but who they need to find a way to live and work with regardless. At the same time, man in Japan has always had to learn to work with nature, especially because in any conflict nature generally wins, so the focus is on co-existence and not on conquest.

And, going back to the role-pairs in manga at the start, the reason the manga creator focused so much on them was because that’s where the heart of the stories are from his perspective. The story comes from two (or more) characters interacting with each other who might not naturally fit together, and how this relationship generates dramatic, entertaining, or interesting situations.

The Japanese story structure, the ki-sho-ten-ketsu is built to naturally focus on this, with its conflict-optional approach to storytelling, but the truth is that this philosophy isn’t linked to any one story structure. In fact, Hollywood already uses this storytelling philosophy from time to time even though they don’t use the ki-sho-ten-ketsu story structure- many of the best American sitcoms have used it as their base. Although even then, they tend to focus on the conflict aspects rather than the softer situations that rise up due to natural differences.

Story interest and drama comes from interaction, and that might be due to the conflict, or it might just be due to different ways of living. In either case, the heart of Japanese dramatic philosophy is watching them try to find balance, and the challenges, humor, and surprises that come with those unbalanced situations.

Viewing things this way has changed my way of seeing anime and manga, and we’ll have to see how that develops. It also has the side-benefit of highlighting the western style of storytelling by making the difference between the two clearer. I’ll have to see how it develops over time.

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