Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho. I found that the pilot was composed very well, and at this time the show has only just started, so you can perhaps think about what we’ve talked about today as you follow the show and see if it holds up.
You should definitely watch Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho before we start, not only because I’ll be referencing it a lot but also because it’s a really solid episode of anime that’s worth your time. In summary, though, we have a bunch of girls who want to go to Antarctica for various reasons. It’s simple, it’s clean. If we were to divide such a story into three acts, it will, in the most skeletal fashion, go something like this:
Act I – Set-up: this is basically the orientation, where we introduce characters, relationships, and any pertinent world details. Exposition, exposition, exposition. The other things that need to be introduced is the plot itself, what the protagonist is going to set out to do and why they do it. If the protagonist is doing the whole hero’s journey thing they will receive a call to action, which will be initially refused, until an upheaval pushes the hero onto their journey. In Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho, the first act establishes the protagonists, establishes that they want to go to Antarctica, and establish some motivations for doing so (e.g. to find their mother who disappeared on an expedition). In doing so we get a sense of the overarching plot, framed as the ‘dramatic question’: will our protagonists make it to the South Pole?
Act II – Confrontation: In the second act, our protagonists face various obstacles and things generally go badly for them. After all, if things were so easy easy we wouldn’t have much of a story. Our protagonists, lacking the capabilities to overcome those obstacles at first, will need to acquire resources, or develop certain skills, or come to terms with some internal defect within themselves. In A Place Further Than the Universe, we already know that getting to the South Pole will be fraught with difficulties, and that the protagonists are only young girls, and in Act II they will have to tackle those obstacles as well as any personal weakness or inexperience.
Act III – Resolution: The third act generally comes with the climax of the story, and from there the story ramps down and eventually resolved. The dramatic question is answered, and we come away with a new understanding of the characters, transformed by their journey. In Around Antarctica in Eighty Days, the answer to ‘Will our protagonists make it to the South Pole?’ will probably be ‘yes’ and they will have gone through a cycle of development to do so.
Bear with me here.
That’s all fairly straightforward, no? But anime is divided into more than just acts; they are divided into episodes, and each episode (or episode arc) can also follow the three-act structure as well. Did you find the first episode of Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho oddly satisfying? I did, and that’s because it goes through all three acts and is, in itself, complete. Like this:
Act I: Tamaki Mari is an average high school girl. She receives a call to action through a past resolution in her diary, but she refuses it because she is very insecure. However, a chance meeting with Kobuchizawa Shirase and her million yen incites Mari to leave her comfort zone. A dramatic question is asked: will Mari help this mysterious girl?
Act II: Mari faces obstacles both in finding Shirase and her own innate cowardice. These are overcome one by one until we approach the climax of the story when Shirase invites Mari to check out a ship with her as a way of testing Mari’s resolve.
Act III: Mari steels herself to go to Antarctica with Shirase, goes to check out a ship with Shirase, the dramatic question is answered in the positive, and the episode wraps up.
See? That’s a complete story right there. It makes for a satisfying episode. You’ll find that the three-act structure, or something resembling it, is used almost everywhere, because what the three-act structure does, in its most general terms, is describe the rise and fall of tension. Throughout a story, tension starts low in the first act, builds to a crescendo in the second act, then peaks in the third act and rapidly drops again. That’s just a natural way to do it; high tension cannot be sustained all the time lest the audience get burnt out and numb, and so instead we settle lulls punctuated by occasional spikes to maintain interest. And when we look closely at our anime and start to break it down we’ll this up and down, rollercoaster of tension that is the foundation of the three-act structure — what I personally refer to as ‘set-up’, ‘build-up’ and ‘release’ — is everywhere. We see it in the overall arc of the series. We see it in each episode. We see it in every scene:
Mari needs to return some money.
Uh oh, she seems intimidating. Whats going to happen?
Phew, everything works out.
Digging even deeper, even one shot can be broken up like this:
The Japanese actually have a name for this: jo-ha-kyuu (序破急). When transliterated it means, roughly, ‘beginning-break-rapid’, and describes an artistic aesthetic that’s analogous to the three-part structure we’ve been talking about — begin slowly, ramp to a climax, ending with a swift resolution. That’s their version of their tension curve, and it permeates all Japanese arts, from theatre to poetry and beyond. And of course, as we’ve seen it’s in anime as well. I know I often make a big deal about anime being a uniquely Japanese medium, but it’s fascinating how there’s this universal quality to storytelling as well. So, as you watch Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho, and other shows this season, keep an eye out for the three-act structure. Not all stories will follow it to the letter, but you might also be surprised by how many do, on every level.