New Directions in Narrative: Week 1 Digital Narrative Analysis

Soul-Patron is an interactive documentary made by Federick Rieckher as part of a masters degree in 2010. The documentary explores Japan and more specifically Mizuko Jizo. Mizuko Jizo is the guardian of children who have died and are thought to have lost their way in the afterlife. Mizuko Jizo rescues the dead children by folding them in his robes. The documentary is a journey through Japan to find the temple of Mizuko Jizo. We are helped in our journey by a cat-like animated guide. In all there are 34 scenes with 60 hours of video content provided in small video clips.

1. Story elements

The story elements for this documentary are essentially the journey through modern-day Japan to find the temple of Mizuko Jizu. There are no actual events that transition the story other than the users decision to choose a scene or to choose a clip within that scene. There are no characters in the documentary, we are not following a person or persons story. In a sense, the viewer is the character as it is our choices that structure the journey to some degree although our choices don’t directly impact on events. The only character is the small animated guide called Tokotoko who pops up occasionally to provide additional information. There is a definite setting or place for this work and that is contemporary Japan. The documentary takes the viewer through a journey which we can to a good degree control through cities and towns of Japan leading to the Jizo Shrine.

2. Narrative elements

There is an arrangement of narrative elements in this work and there is also a sense of progressing along a road in a journey but the journey doesn’t have to be chronological. Our choices along the way let us look in detail at a city and its people but we then continue the journey. We can jump forward to a new destination or review where we’ve been so we can move backwards and forwards within the work without disrupting any narrative spine.

We can choose to travel at our own pace but within the clips themselves there are quite varied senses of pace and time. When we are travelling on the train to Tokyo the music is fast, loud and builds to a sense of movement and arrival. At the end of the documentary, when we finally arrive at the temple, the pace and the music is slow and reflective. This creates a sense of story in itself, creating a feeling that now we are at the temple for the saved children we should slow down and contemplate.

The point-of-view throughout the documentary is structured by the film clips which make up the narrative. The point-of-view is always seen through the lens of the filmmaker. There is a distinctive style to the filming which communicates a sense of the filmmaker taking the camera down small streets, into shops and onto trains. He is showing us what he sees. The journey through Japan is mediated through his eyes even though we can choose which images to look at. The only narrator of sorts is the animated creature Tokotoko that provides additional information. This information does have a tone and point of view. For instance when we find Tokotoko in a Tokyo supermarket she comments sadly that she found whale meat in the store and adds a pointed note that no one seems to be buying it.

Our animated guide Tokotoko:

The text or format of this work is an interactive documentary which is made up of 60 hours of moving image footage structured in a loose journey.

3. Traditional narratives

There is a linear element to this work as we are definitely being led to the final scene at the shrine but there is no sense of conflict that leads to a resolution, no heroes journey. There is no traditional protagonist or antagonist as there are no characters in the documentary. Nor is there a traditional three act structure where the story is set up, the characters introduced, a conflict arises, obstacles are met and overcome and order of some kind is restored. There is a sense of a beginning, middle and end in that the documentary web structure offers a starting point, takes you on a journey through a number of places and leads you to arrive at the Jizo shrine.

Digital narratives

In terms of numeric coding this work uses many devices that would be seen in a linear documentary such as moving image, sound, audio and text however they are presented in a very non-linear manner. Text is used for information (such as information on catching trains or the situation of homeless people in Japan) but it is also used throughout the documentary to guide our choices. Icons are also used to help us choose our journey. The digital nature of this work also allows the introduction of the animated guide Tokotoko.

This work is a good example of the modularity of digital narratives. The work is essentially made up of 60 hours of moving image footage with audio. The footage is cut into many short clips that are structured into 34 scenes. We can choose which scene we visit and which clips we watch. We can go back to visit scenes we have been to. This ability to choose exploits the variability of a digital work in that we can all choose a different way of moving from the start to the end. What we can’t do is re-order the clips by moving them into a different scene. In this sense there is quite a strong structure within the modularity of the work. We can choose to skip scenes and return to previous scenes but we can’t change the essential order of the scenes which are structured to take us on a particular journey.

Soul Patron timeline
Soul-Patron timeline:

This work isn’t a strong example of a digital narrative that uses programmable elements as it is not an interactive game where the programming carries out simple tasks such as changing colours, scaling or rotating an object or complex tasks such as simulating intelligence, awareness or the capacity for human interaction. The animated character doesn’t respond to any prompts or directives from the user. While there are clearly participatory aspects to this work in that the user definitely participates in the journey rather than just consume a fixed narrative. However it is not a highly participatory piece in that the work doesn’t facilitate social engagement.

I enjoyed analysing this work as it feels at this point that it reflects my approach to digital narrative in that at its core it uses content created by the filmmaker, in this case 60 hours of video content. It is also a reflective work driven by the inquisitiveness and creativity of Federick Rieckher.


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