Miyazaki's Hybrid Worlds and Their Riddle-Stories: Western Tropes and Kishōtenketsu


  • Francesca Arnavas Institute of Cultural Research Research group on Narrative, Culture, and Cognition University of Tartu
  • Mattia Bellini Institute of Cultural Research Research group on Narrative, Culture, and Cognition University of Tartu


“Fairy tales begin with conflict because we all begin our lives with conflict,” famously states Jack Zipes. And yet, this statement does not always seem to apply to non-Western story structures. An example of this is the East Asian Kishōtenketsu, which implies a story development that does not necessarily revolve around conflicts, but that interprets potential clashes more as contrasts that can be somehow harmonized. In many of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (e.g., My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, The Secret World of Arietty), it is possible to detect, on the one hand, the widespread presence of Western fairy-tale tropes, and, on the other hand, a plot strongly influenced by the Kishōtenketsu model. This article argues that: 1.) The way in which Miyazaki’s stories represent conflictual situations is less dichotomous than in the Western tradition, and conflicts in his movies are depicted in the forms of open riddles, implying an interrogative attitude, a playful and flexible state of mind; and 2.) The employment of unusual narrative patterns in Miyazaki’s movies, mixing up together Eastern and Western frames of reference, gives rise to stories that puzzle the mind of spectators, working as complex narrative riddles.


Bellini, Mattia. ‘Formal Organization and Complex Responses to Video Games Narratives’. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, vol. 5, no. CHI PLAY, Oct. 2021, p. 275:1-275:17. September 2021, https://doi.org/10.1145/3474702.

Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Animation: A World History. CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Bird, Paul. “A Review of Dramatic Structure in Natsume Soseki’s Botchan and Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days”. 長崎県立大学,vol. 7, 2022, pp. 1-7.

Butler, Catherine. “Arrietty Comes Home: Studio Ghibli’s The Borrower Arrietty and Its English-Language Dubs”. Annals of The Institute for Comparative Studies of Culture 80, pp. 57-71.

Cahill, David. “The Myth of the “Turn” in Contrastive Rhetoric”. Written Communication, vol. 20, no. 2, 2003, pp. 170-194. DOI: 10.1177/0741088303255353

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd Ed. Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2008, pp. xiii, 418.

Carroll, Lewis. [1865]. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited by Martin Gardner, Penguin Books, 2001.

Cole, Michael, & Packer, Martin “Culture and cognition”. Cross-cultural psychology: Contemporary themes and perspectives, edited by Kenneth D. Keith, Wiely-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 131–159.

Egri, Lajos.The art of dramatic writing: Its basis in the creative interpretation of human motives (New rev. ed). Simon and Schuster, 1960.

Greenberg, Raz. “Giri and Ninjo: The Roots of Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ in Animated Adaptations of Classic Children’s Literature.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, pp. 96–108.

Grishakova, Marina, and Maria Poulaki, editors. Narrative Complexity: Cognition, Embodiment, Evolution. University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Hamnett, I. (1967). “Ambiguity, Classification and Change: The Function of Riddles”. Man, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 379–392. https://doi.org/10.2307/2798727

Hinds, John. “Linguistics and written discourse in English and Japanese: A contrastive study (1978-1982)”. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, vol. 3, 1983, pp. 78-84.

Hofstede, G. H., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind: intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival (3rd ed). McGraw-Hill. 2010.

Jones, Steven Swann. The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. Routledge, 2002.

Kiss, Miklós, and Steven Willemsen. Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Kiss, Miklós, and Steven Willemsen. ‘Wallowing in Dissonance: The Attractiveness of Impossible Puzzle Films’. Stories, edited by Ian Christie and Annie van den Oever, Amsterdam University Press, 2018, pp. 55–84. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv5rf6vf.8"https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv5rf6vf.8.

Koenitz, Hartmut, et al. “The Myth of ‘Universal’ Narrative Models: Expanding the Design Space of Narrative Structures for Interactive Digital Narratives”. Interactive Storytelling. ICIDS 2018. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 11318, pp. 2-15. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04028-4_8

Krutiakova, Anastasiia. “The Impact of Cultural Code on Communication Promotion of Japanese Animation in the USA”. IAFOR Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no.1, 2023, pp. 47-63. https://doi.org/10.22492/ijcs.8.1.03

Lamarre, Thomas. The anime machine: A media theory of animation. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Mitchell, Melanie. Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford University Press, 2009.

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1988.

Nakamura, A. Bunshoryoku o tsukeru [Developing the power to write]. Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1997.

Napier, Susan. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. Palgrave, 2001.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 1984.

Nisbett, Richard E. The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think. The Free Press, 2003.

Nisbett, Richard E., et al. “Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition”. Psychological Review, vol. 108, 2001, pp. 291–310. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.108.2.291.

Novielli, Maria Roberta. Floating Worlds: A Short History of Japanese Animation. CRC Press, 2018.

Odell, Colin and Michelle Le Blanc. Studio Ghibli: The films of Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata. Oldcastle Books 2009.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. 1st and 2nd eds., translated by Laurence Scott and Louis A. Wagner, University of Texas Press, 2003.

Richings, A. Vicky. “Japanese Folktales: Story Grammar in the English Classroom”. Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, vol. 11, no.1, 2022, pp. 3-15.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, 2001.

Takahashi, Gorou. Ii ikikata ii bunsho [Good living, good writing]. Dobun Shoin, 1993.

Takemata, Kazuo. Genkoo shippitsu nyuumon [An introduction to writing manuscripts]. Natsumesha, 1976.

Teverson, Andrew. Fairy Tale. Routledge, 2003.

The Secret World of Arrietty (Karigurashi no Arietty). Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Studio Ghibli, 2010.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd edition, Michael Wiese Productions, 2007.

Wells, Paul. “Hayao Miyazaki: Floating Worlds, Floating Signifiers”. Art and Design, Vol. 12, No. 53, 1997: p. 23.

Yang Feng and Jiwoo Park. “Bad Seed or Good Seed? A Content Analysis of the Main Antagonists in Walt Disney- and Studio Ghibli-Animated Films”. Journal of Children and Media, vol. 9, no. 3, 2015, pp. 368-385. DOI: 10.1080/17482798.2015.1058279

Zipes, Jack. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. Routledge, 1982.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Routledge, 1991.

Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. Routledge, 2011.




How to Cite

Arnavas, F., & Bellini, M. (2023). Miyazaki’s Hybrid Worlds and Their Riddle-Stories: Western Tropes and Kishōtenketsu. Narrative Works, 12. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NW/article/view/33773