by Carlos Luis Delgado
What does a Studio Ghibli classic about a young witch in the big city and an Academy Award-winning film about a sober rock drummer losing his hearing have in common? More than you’d think.
Kiki’s Delivery Service and Sound of Metal both use the Japanese 4-Act structure—also known as Kishōtenketsu—to tell their stories. In this post, I’ll break down this structure and how it’s used by both films.
Thank you to my friend and talented comedian/podcaster Anna Valenzuela for pointing out this connection to me (check her out at @Annavisfun on Twitter).
Grab a broom and turn up your speakers to eleven. We’re going for a Metal AF ride.
But first, what is Kishōtenketsu?
KISHŌTENKETSU: THE FOUR-ACT NARRATIVE (OR, WHERE’S THE BEEF?)
Kishōtenketsu is a four-act narrative structure developed from Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditions, originating in Chinese poetry. Beyond poetry and storytelling, this structure is used in arguments, articles, and music. It’s also known as the plot without conflict.
The word Kishōtenketsu itself comprises the names of the four different acts within the structure. Let’s break it down:
Ki, or Introduction: Like most plot structures, this act introduces the story’s characters and settings.
Shō, or Development: This act builds upon the characters and settings introduced in the first act. The goal isn’t to drive the plot forward but to flesh out our understanding of the world and the story’s themes.
Ten, or Twist/Change: This ain’t your M. Night Shyamalan money maker. Instead of a shocking twist, the Ten is closer to a change or shift in the story. It’s often unexpected (including POV shifts and time-skips) and is usually unrelated to the elements introduced in the first two acts.
Ketsu, or Conclusion: Get ready to go Fullmetal because this is where we do a little alchemy. Ketsu takes everything in the first three acts and synthesizes them into a conclusion. Note, the goal of this act is to successfully combine the various elements from the different acts of the story into a finale. So it’s not necessarily a resolution, but it is a conclusion.
Here’s a quick example attributed to Japanese poet, Sanyō Rai:
Ki – Daughters of Itoya, in the Honmachi of Osaka.
Shō – The elder daughter is sixteen, and the younger one is fourteen.
Ten – Throughout history, daimyōs killed the enemy with bows and arrows.
Ketsu – The daughters of Itoya kill with their eyes.
In the Ki, we’re introduced to the Itoya sisters and where they live—Osaka. In the Shō, we learn a little more about them. One’s sixteen and the other’s fourteen. Ten twists or shifts the narrative by delivering a quick history lesson. Daimyōs killed their enemies with bows and arrows. Sick. The Ketsu pulls some alchemy and synthesizes a finale. These sisters kill with their eyes. What does that even mean? Do they shoot arrows from their eyes? Or are they just really good at staring people down with icy glares? I prefer the former.
This ends our introduction. Now, let’s shift.
WHO ARE KIKI AND RUBEN? (SPOILER WARNING)
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a 1989 Studio Ghibli film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The IMDB synopsis reads:
A young witch, on her mandatory year of independent life, finds fitting into a new community difficult while she supports herself by running an air courier service.
There’s not much more to the story than that. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. On to the breakdown:
Ki – In the first act, we’re introduced to the Kiki-verse. Kiki is from a small village and flies off on her broomstick to a big coastal city for her witch training. She meets a friendly woman who runs a bakery. The woman lets Kiki stay in a spare room.
Kiki feels homesick. She’s definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Shō – To make a living, Kiki starts a delivery service. Through her service, she meets lots of new people. Some of them are chill, some of them not very chill. One of them is flyboy Tombo. He crushes on Kiki as hard as he crushes on all things aviation.
Kiki starts to doubt whether a witch can make it in a big city.
Ten – Tombo gets tickets to ride a giant dirigible that’s visiting their city. He’s essentially the Kiki-verse’s Wright brother (or maybe Da Vinci). He loves flying so much, he’s even building his own bike-powered airplane. Unfortunately, when he finally gets to the event, the dirigible ends up accidentally drifting across town with Tombo dangling underneath for dear life. But help is on the way.
Tombo’s in trouble, and Kiki comes to the rescue.
Ketsu – Kiki has been accepted as a part of the city. She’s good friends with Tombo. Her delivery service is giving Fedex a run for its money, and she’s found a sense of fulfillment in her life.
All is well in the Kiki-verse.
If you’ve seen the movie, you may have noticed that I left something out. At the end of Act II (Shō), Kiki becomes depressed and discovers she has lost her powers (ability to fly). This carries us into Act III (Ten), where Kiki’s arc focuses on her journey of self-discovery with Ursula, the artist. Kiki leaves Ursula with an understanding that her powers will probably return when she finds a reason for them to return. That reason comes in the form of rescuing Tombo.
Okay. Now grab your drum sticks. It’s time to get Metal AF.
Sound of Metal is a 2019 film directed by Darius Marder. The IMDB synopsis reads:
A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, this synopsis encompasses most of the movie’s content. Let’s jump into the breakdown.
Ki – In the first act, we’re introduced to Ruben. He performs in an experimental metal duo with his singer-girlfriend Lou. They live in an RV and tour the United States performing gigs. Suddenly, Ruben begins to lose his hearing. While cochlear implants may help, Ruben can’t afford them.
Ruben feels distraught over his hearing loss but continues to perform.
Shō – To stay sober and learn how to live with his disability, Ruben joins a rural shelter for Deaf recovering addicts run by a sobriety Jedi named Joe. Joe tries to teach Ruben the ways of stillness (serenity). While at the shelter, Ruben meets lots of new people, all of them super chill (seriously, there’s no “villain” in this story). Having settled into his new life, Joe invites Ruben to stay on as an employee of the shelter.
Ruben starts to doubt whether he can get his old life back.
Ten – Lou is living her best life in Paris. She’s got a new hairdo, is playing shows as a solo project, and has even reconnected with her (unconfirmed emotionally abusive but definitely gives emotionally abusive vibes) father. Things seem to look bright for Lou. But here comes Ruben.
Lou’s settling into her new life. Ruben shows up unexpectedly.
Ketsu – Ruben has accepted that his relationship with Lou is over. While Ruben was desperately trying to get back to his past, Lou has moved on to her future. Sitting alone in a park, Ruben removes his cochlear processors and sits in silence. He’s finally found a moment of stillness.
A bittersweet symphony for Ruben.
As with Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s also a part I left out of this breakdown. That being Ruben’s cochlear implant surgery, which comes during Act III (Ten). Thematically, it feels like a reversal of Kiki’s loss of flight. Ruben regains his hearing but is disappointed by the distorted, metallic quality of the sound. Ruben’s surgery leads to his expulsion from the shelter—since it’s founded on the belief that Deafness is not a handicap—and this sets him on his journey to reunite with Lou in Paris.
BROOMS AND DRUMSTICKS
In Western media, plot commonly revolves around conflict. Two characters/ideologies enter the story—only one leaves. Yet, Kishōtenketsu shows us that plot doesn’t necessarily hinge on conflict.
That’s not to say there isn’t conflict in either film. On the contrary, conflict exists at the scene level for both. In Kiki’s case, she faces off against crows, a prickly artist in the woods, and a runaway dirigible. For Ruben, he has to negotiate with buyers for his RV, navigate the world of medical billing, and face off against his girlfriend’s terminally-French father.
But neither of the film’s plots are built around conflict. There’s no wicked witch out to ruin Kiki’s life in the big city. No bitter delivery man set on bringing Kiki down because he’s worried about the competition. There’s no rival band looking to take advantage of Ruben’s sudden hearing loss. The only person stopping Ruben from moving forward in his life is Ruben.
The three-act plot is inherently confrontational. It relies on one thing winning out over another; this isn’t a judgment. Some of the best stories are built on this structure (shoutout to the epic fantasies). But Kishōtenketsu tells different stories. These are stories that focus on understanding as opposed to victory.
That’s why Kiki’s Delivery Service and Sound of Metal are, at their core, trying to tell the same story. Kiki needs to slow down to find her purpose. Ruben needs to embrace the silence to find stillness. And they find it.
I’m willing to bet director Darius Marder is a fan of Miyazaki. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:
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