How would you adjust the western "hero's journey" story framework to make it fit the Japanese "kishotenketsu" story framework?

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    Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 23:25
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2 Answers 2


To be strict, it's difficult to answer this question. Both the hero's journey and kishotenketsu are different frameworks, each with a set number of stages to follow.

I think the spirit of your question is perhaps better expressed as How would you take a story that is typical for the Hero's journey narrative, and re-tell that story in the kishotenketsu form?

I'm not intimately familiar with kishōtenketsu, but I think I understand it well enough to give it a shot.

Let's start with a well-fitting example: the story of Bilbo in the The Hobbit. Without going through all 17 stages of the Hero's Journey, the main ingredients are there: call to action, crossing the threshold, facing the big evil, returning home, etc.

For Kishōtenketsu, we need to tell this story in four stages. Introduction, development, twist and resolution. The twist (Ten) is the key to the story, so it's probably easiest to work backward from there.

I think it's important to note that the twist we're looking for is not necessarily a Shyamalan/Twilight Zone "reveal". It can be a change of setting or perspective, or even a reference to a different story. The key is that it's surprising, and we look at the original setting with different eyes.

Here's one approach:

  • Ki: We begin with the journey already in progress. Bilbo feels out of his depth. He looks up to the dwarves, and doesn't know what he's supposed to contribute. Gandalf is there to put his mind at ease.
  • Shō: The journey gets more difficult and the surroundings more menacing. Bilbo keeps screwing things up for the company. Bilbo's feelings of inadequacy increase and Thorin gets increasingly frustrated with him. Then Gandalf, his emotional support, abandons him. They get to the mountain, the one place where Bilbo is supposed to have something to do, and he can't do it.
  • Ten: Thorin's backstory is revealed. It becomes clear to Bilbo that he does not feel himself a capable leader. Compared to his ancestors, who were true leaders, he feels as much as an impostor as Bilbo does.
  • Ketsu: Bilbo now understands that the people he looks up to feels the same way he does, and Thorin understands that the pressure he puts on Bilbo is causing him to screw up. Moreover, he understands that he feels the same pressure from his ancestors, causing him to fail. Without that pressure, they can work together to figure out the way into the mountain.

You can either end the story with them going into the mountain, and leave the confrontation with Smaug unresolved, or you can show them expertly stealing all the gold, with little conflict with Smaug. The key is that the confrontation with Smaug is not the climax of the story, so the focus should be different. If it's shown at all, it should be as a logical consequence of the perspective gained in the Ten step.

This is not the only way to do it. You could take the whole journey and compress it into the Ten step. That would give you an automatic contrast between settings for your twist. The Ki and Shō steps would take place in the Shire, building up Bilbo's agonizing over whether to join or not, and the Ketsu step would be the return, showing Bilbo different perspective on his old life.

This approach is more generally applicable to any Hero's Journey narrative, but note how much it shifts the focus. The whole journey is compressed to a single step. Perhaps we can think of the Hero's Journey as a Kishotenketsu story with a very long and elaborate Ten stage. If you write your story that way, you might be able to integrate the two methods. If so you'd just have to keep the following in mind:

  • Don't put the focus on the showdown with the Big Villain. Focus on the contrast between the pre-journey setting and the setting of the journey. Emphasize the fish-out-of-water aspects of the story.
    • Feel free to eliminate the Big Villain altogether, or subvert the trope by showing that they're not so bad after all.
  • Spend more time before the threshold, and use that time to set a key situation which may be reinterpreted during the journey.
  • The journey is not there to get to the final confrontation and shape the hero step by step. It the setting of the journey itself, and its contrast with the original setting that leads to insight.
  • Put the main resolution in the return, not during the journey. In the monomyth, the return is a kind secondary of payoff for conquering the main conflict. Here, it's the main payoff of the story.

Similar to Profane tmesis, I am not familiar with the kishotenketsu beyond a a quick look up on Wikipedia, but it seems like kishotenketsu is a four part story structure (like a 3 act play) while the heroes journey is a monomyth or archetypical story that has key story beats shared among stories (Joseph Campbell, who is probably most associated with outlining the concept, list 17 beats but more modern scholars have reduced this to 8-12 beats). Almost all scholars typically ascribe an order these beats occur, grouped in the Western 3-Act story structure, which follows the idea of Beginning, Middle, End phases in a story or the Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action (in the hero's journey monomyth, these three acts are Departure, Initiation, Return).

It's important to know that while the Story Structure of the Hero's Journey follows the 3 act format, there is nothing saying it cannot be a kishotenketsu because the Hero's Journey isn't a "story structure". Like kishotenketsu or 3 act structure, story structure is the chronological arrangement of events in a story for the purposes of building up the story. Hero's Journey is a memetic story or monomyth story archetype. This can be seen in the title of Campbell's work, which is considered the definitive exploration of The Hero's Journey, The Hero of 1,000 Faces. In 1000 Faces, Campbell is demonstrating that the Hero's Journey story is so deeply ingrained in humans, that stories with similar elements can be found in cultures separated by both history and geography the world over. For example, one work expanding on Campbell's gives the key story beats names that are evocative of the story of Jesus Christ. And while 1000 Faces was a huge influence on George Lucas and the writing of Star Wars, it didn't enter modern mainstream until Campbell talked discussed the Hero's Journey with relation to Star Wars in the 1988 PBS documentary series "The Making of Myth" (which for understanding Campbell's ideas, is probably the best work to look into as much of the discussion has Campbell outlining where in Star Wars certain story beats occur and then relates to other myth stories to show that the beat need not literally happen, in a different myth, but how that myth contains the same metaphoric example.). For one example I recall, Campbell identifies several different points in the original Trilogy which can qualify as "The Land of Trials", the prison break of Leia in "Hope", Luke's Training at Dagobah, and Freeing Han Solo from Jabba as examples that meet the role, but also how all three are different despite existing in the same works as the goals are changed. Additionally, all three feature "Dragons that must be slain" is metaphorical and done differently (In Empire, the dragon is the most metaphorical, with the cave segment which reveals that Luke's struggle is internal. If he's not careful, he too will fall to the Dark Side. In Hope, Campbell sees the Dragon as the Death Star's storm troopers and Vader, who try to prevent their escape. In Jedi, Campbell Identifies the Dragon as Jabba the Hutt, but points out while he's the most obvious (his den is dark, he's a greedy SOB, and he even takes a princess as his prisoner), it's well played because the heroes handle the Dragon in a different manner (Luke, the sword wielding hero, never gets close to Jabba... and the Princess who slays the Dragon for herself. Luke's contribution was more of a chess master in making sure all his pieces were on the board).).

It's also noted that the story structure need not follow closely to the structures outlined and may not be feasible for the medium the story is written for. For example, most hour long television programing in the U.S. is structured to follow a 5 act structure to follow with the way traditional network TV's will arrange commercial breaks. Typically, this will be "Teaser" which begins at Status Quo state and sets up some elements that will be the start of the rising action, followed by the Title Credits sequence. Then there will be a 3 act structure with acts 1 and 2 escalating the conflict of the story, while act 3 will end as soon as the climax is reached, the final act is the coda and typically is short enough to wrap up and return to some status quo.

Typically, since the story structure dictates the story's progress from beginning to end, the Hero's Journey can easily be fitted to a kishotenketsu as the kishotenketsu can combine two elements to make it into a three act structure (either the Ki and Sho phases or the Sho and Ten phases, depending on how important the twist is to the conflict. The ketsu phase should always parallel the falling action as you are returning to a normalcy in your story. To think about the basic story elements, Ki would be "Here is the world of my story on any given day", Sho would be "Here is the situation that builds conflict", Ten would be "Here is the final piece of the puzzle that enables the Climax" and Ketsu is "here is the state of the world once the conflict has been resolved"

One film that I think works this well AND conforms to a Hero's Journey is "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse", especially because the film is building to a very obvious point, but it's not the fight between the hero (Miles) and the villain (Kingpin). Instead, the film makers admit the first scene they ever made and the one which every event prior to and every point after is enabled by, is the "What's up Danger" sequence (Specifically Mile's Leap of Faith fall, which is shot inverted so that the audience actually sees Miles "Ascending" to New York. If we assume this is "The Twist", then it's easy to break the previous events into Ki and Show (the death of Peter Parker and Miles meeting Middle-Age Peter from another universe as the separation of the two and Ketsu would be the final Fight with Kingpin as well as the conclusion of the film and the happy ending.) At the same time, this can easily track with Miles' role in The Hero's Journey (If you've seen the film and I ask you to think of the scene where Miles refuses the call to adventure and you do not chuckle, I'll know you're lying to me.).

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