The anime adaptation of Mieruko-chan has been quite popular among anime fans. It tells the story of a high school girl, Miko Yotsuya, who can see ghosts. Because of that, the ghosts want to interact with her. However, Miko is too scared, so every time she sees a ghost, she keeps a poker face so the ghost won’t realize that she can see them. However, keeping a poker face while seeing scary ghosts isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Fans praise Mieruko-chan for its ability to frame a horror situation as a comedy routine, and I can understand that. Seeing Miko tries to escape horror situations by not reacting is genuinely funny. Like a standup comedian who thrives in deadpan comedy, the laugh comes from the fact that something outrageous has happened while a certain subject stays emotionless. Here, Miko has to keep her face straight while the scary ghost appears in front of her face.
But how does Mieruko-chan combine horror and comedy? To answer this question, we need to turn to one of the most common narrative structures that can be found in Japanese stories, kishōtenketsu, and compare it with how comedians write their jokes. By understanding them, we could reveal a new perspective and enrich our understanding of how both genres work in the first place.
What is Kishōtenketsu
Kishōtenketsu is a narrative structure derived from Chinese four-line poems. If Western narrative structure is driven by the character’s goal, kishōtenketsu narrative focuses more on the causality. The character’s motivation is not really elaborated here, while the story moves based on the action-reaction to a certain situation. Utako Matsuyama (1983) argues that this is informed by Buddhist culture, which has a significant influence in East Asia, including to storytelling method, which eliminates the worldly desire of the characters.
Normally, kishōtenketsu can be broken down into four acts:
Ki (起): Introduction. This act introduces information like the topic, setting, character, etc.
Sho (承): Development. This act elaborates the information.
Ten (転): Twist. This act presents a major twist that changes the way all the information is perceived.
Ketsu (結): Resolution. This act concludes the story by connecting the first two acts with the third act.
We can see the example of kishōtenketsu at play in Makoto Shinkai’s film your name. Adit Sulistyo (2016) divides the film’s story into the following structure:
Ki (起) – Introduction: We are introduced to Mitsuha and her life in Itomori and her anxiety.
Sho (承) – Development: The body-switching section between Taki and Mitsuha and Taki’s life in Tokyo.
Ten (転) – Twist: Taki discovers the truth about Mitsuha and Itomori.
Ketsu (結) – Resolution: The story rounds up the hints and twists that occur throughout the film.
While this structure is relatively little known in the West, the application is more common than people might initially thought. It can be found in Makoto Shinkai’s works, in Japanese four-panel manga, or even in Nintendo game level design. Even fan favourites like Attack on Titan incorporates this structure to its story. In his video, Pause and Select (2021) explaines that the author Hajime Isayama consciously applied this structure and used the “twist” to move the plot.
Another genre that often uses kishōtenketsu is horror. According to Barrett (2014), kishōtenketsu is the backbone of Japanese horror. Japanese horror stories are often inspired by folklore, and most Japanese folklore is told in the kishōtenketsu structure. Barrett also argues that kishōtenketsu makes the Japanese horror scarier. That’s because the “twist” act can change the dynamic of the story (in the twist, the characters suddenly can find themselves in an uneasy situation), while the resolution gives another implication (often scary implication) to the previous act.
Kishōtenketsu in Mieruko-chan
We already mentioned that Japanese horror often uses kishōtenketsu. But what about Mieruko-chan? If we use the kishōtenketsu model, Miko’s first encounter with the ghost can be structured like this:
Ki (起) – Introduction: Miko takes shelter at a bus stop because of rain.
Sho (承) – Development: She gets a message from her friend Hana. Miko replies to her with a photo.
Ten (転) – Twist: The photo changes into something scary. Miko is startled and she drops her phone.
Ketsu (結) – Resolution: Miko picks the phone. The scary photo is gone, but a ghost suddenly appears in front of her.
That’s how most of Mieruko-chan‘s story is structured. Miko started the story in a normal situation before a “twist” happened. She has to react accordingly to the situation, before finishing the story with a “resolution”. As a horror, it works, because every time the “twist” happens, Miko suddenly finds herself in an uneasy situation. For her, it’s not easy to act normal. The ghosts are genuinely scary and we know that deep inside, Miko really wants to scream.
We’ve discussed that Mieruko-chan uses kishōtenketsu to build its horror moment. However, Mieruko-chan is not only a horror show. It’s also a comedy show. But how could a horror show also become a comedy show at the same time?
The Similarities of Japanese Horror and Comedy
To answer that question, Let’s look closer at the structure of a comedy. In a YouTube video titled “The Theory of Comedy” (Can be seen in the video above with English subtitle), Indonesian comedian Raditya Dika (2019) explained that a simple comedy can be structured like this:
- Setup: when the expectation is built. Here, the comedian will tell something to create a certain expectation in the audience’s mind.
- Punchline: when that expectation is broken by something unexpected.
According to Raditya, all comedy bits are pretty much the repetition of them: setup, then punchline. The comedian creates an expectation, then destroys it with something unexpected. When the audience can connect the unexpected with the expectation, they’ll laugh.
From his explanation, we can see there are similarities between Japanese horror and comedy. Both of them rely on an unexpected thing that will change the story dynamic. After the audience connects the dot, they’ll realize the relationship between the unexpected and the previous event. That’s when the audience makes a reaction (scared/laugh). When we think about it, horror and comedy are actually quite similar and rely on the same technique.
We can see this in Mieruko-chan. Both comedy and horror happen when Miko reacts to the ghost with a straight face. As a horror, the ghost is the unexpected element that creates fright. But as a comedy, Miko’s deadpan face is the unexpected element that creates laugh. The source of fright and laugh and different, but they are working in the same way: both of them change the story dynamic with unexpected things. By using both of them in the same story beat, Mieruko-Chan creates something unique and are rarely seen in other works.
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