Man vs. Duty – The Eastern Conflict

In 335 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book Poetics wrote that drama was based around four central conflicts:

  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Society

He believed that using these four conflicts, playwrights crafted tales which revealed the true nature of the human condition. And, that the hero of a play should be facing one of these central narrative conflicts as the central point of the story if the story was to be one which would stir audiences.

Unsurprisingly, this idea has continued up to this day, with these central narrative conflicts being taught to each new generation of writers. And, some have even added to this list, coming up with new conflicts like Man vs. God, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. The Supernatural, and so on.

However, I would argue that due to his more Western way of thinking, there is a central conflict that Aristotle overlooked which doesn’t quite fit into any of those categories – Man vs. Duty. This being a conflict where the character is torn between their loyalty to a belief or social obligations and their feelings as a human being who often finds what they want to do in conflict with what they are obligated to do.

The Japanese call this the “giri-ninjo” conflict. With giri-ninjo being a Japanese term that refers to the complex and often conflicting emotions and social obligations that can exist in human relationships. “Giri” refers to the sense of duty or obligation that one feels towards others, while “ninjo” refers to the feelings of compassion or empathy that one may have towards others. The term giri-ninjo is often used to describe the tension that can exist between fulfilling one’s obligations to others and following one’s own feelings and desires.

Here are some examples of giri-ninjo (Man vs Duty) plots:

  • A samurai must choose between his duty to serve his lord and his love for a commoner.
  • A young woman must decide between an arranged marriage and her true love.
  • A student must balance his desire to pursue his passion for art with his family’s expectations for him to become a doctor.
  • A businessman must choose between his duty to his company and his loyalty to a friend.
  • A soldier must decide between following orders and protecting innocent civilians.
  • A mother must choose between her duty to her family and her desire to pursue her own career.
  • A young prince must choose between his duty to his country and his love for a commoner.
  • A teacher must balance his duty to educate his students and his own personal beliefs.
  • A doctor must choose between following medical ethics and saving the life of a loved one.
  • A lawyer must balance his duty to his client and his own moral code.
  • A police officer must choose between following the law and protecting a loved one.
  • A CEO must decide between maximizing profits and protecting the environment.
  • A religious leader must balance their duty to their faith and the well-being of their congregation.
  • A journalist must choose between revealing the truth and protecting a source’s anonymity.
  • A scientist must decide between advancing their research and the potential negative consequences.
  • An athlete must choose between fulfilling their duty to their team and protecting their own health.
  • A nurse must decide between following protocol and providing individualized care for a patient.
  • A politician must balance their duty to their constituents and their own personal beliefs and ambitions.
  • A soldier must choose between following orders and disobeying illegal commands
  • A judge must balance their duty to the law and their own moral compass when making decisions in court.

As you can see, in each of these examples, a very human character is torn between two poles, and must then decide which one to choose or how to find a balance between these conflicting forces. And, through facing this conflict, the character exemplifies the human condition, especially the human condition as it exists in collective Eastern societies like Japan where the good of the many is prioritized over the good of the few. This is probably why the Japanese especially love Man vs. Duty stories, because they live them everyday, and see a reflection of these stories in their very real daily lives.

As a result, you will see Man vs. Duty stories pop up in manga all the time, and they may even be the central conflicts the story is based around. For example, in One Piece, it is very common for the Troubled Soul the heroes need to inspire in each story arc to be stuck in a Man vs. Duty situation where they can’t make a decision. Then, after meeting the heroes and seeing their examples of the right way to live, the Troubled Soul gains the courage to make a decision and move forward in their lives. In the case of One Piece, the conclusion they reach is usually following their heart over following their sense of duty.

Of course, Man vs. Duty conflicts aren’t just limited to Japan or even Asia. While they become less common as we move west, they can still be found everywhere, from Indian Tollywood movies like RRR and Bahubali, to hard-boiled detective movies like Chinatown, and medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy.  It’s just that for people living the global “western world” Man vs. Duty conflicts are less a daily reality than they are in more collective societies, and perhaps because of this don’t end up being as central to western storytelling.

Now, some people might argue that Man vs. Duty is what Aristotle intended for Man vs. Society, and it is definitely true that many Man vs. Duty stories could fall under that category. In fact, you might even consider Man vs. Duty as a subcategory of Man vs. Society. However, I would argue that this type of narrative conflict is different enough to warrant it’s own category. Sometimes yes it’s Man vs. Society, but sometimes these stories are more Man vs. Self than they are about society, and that this category often falls halfway between the two. Thus, I’ve chosen to make it its own unique category, because it doesn’t truly fit into either of the other two.

In any case, next time you are thinking of writing a story and looking to give it some emotional conflict for the characters to chew on, consider adding some Man vs. Duty conflict into your story. Like the Japanese, you might find it a fertile ground to explore the human condition, and that it doesn’t just apply to stories about loyal samurai, but characters in all kinds of situations and circumstances.


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