What Matters in Storytelling: Plot Holes and Other Nonsense
I thought this issue would be something I could make fun of on Twitter and then forget about, but it continues to show up online and offline. At this point, I just want some selfish catharsis. More than ever, I see people focus their criticism on parts of stories (read: anime and movies) that simply do not matter or, at least, matter so little as to be inconsequential. This has always been an issue and probably always will, but I say “more than ever” because I think the kinds of anime and movies that are getting the most attention lately have set themselves up for these kinds of vapid criticisms.
I divided these criticisms that “don’t matter” into two types for the sake of organizational ease. They could (and should) be broken down even further, but since I’m not trying to wage intellectual war or anything, I left them as broad categories. I will be mentioning certain creators by name in this post, but that’s mostly for the sake of example. I’m more concerned with the arguments than the people making them.
I’m presenting the following list of “what doesn’t matter” as factual because I believe it is factual. That doesn’t mean that people are “wrong” for pointing out things that fall under these categories, but that–however true what they’re saying is–it ultimately doesn’t matter for the function of a story. If you want to deny what I’m presenting as fact, that’s fine too. I’m just expressing the rules I follow, not decreeing law. Although it would be cool if I could make it law…
Karen Bee is Nadeko Snake’s longer and more bearable cousin. The arc is of an overall higher quality than Nadeko Snake, but that quality is stretched across an absurdly indulgent seven episodes. By the time the arc finishes, you’ll have trouble remembering which moments were part of it and–more importantly–which even mattered. Most of the arc is a collection of decent (or even great) standalone scenes mashed together with a bit too much narrative freedom.
Although there’s no way to prove a claim like this, and though proving it would accomplish nothing, I feel that Nisio Isin wrote many of Karen Bee’s scenes without any intention of ever making a single story out of them. The narrative structure of the arc reflects this with its unmotivated flashbacks and checklist of fanservice cameos. The arc opens on a scene of a bound Araragi, rolls the opening theme, then flashes back to the day before without any trigger. Nonlinear storytelling is useful as a narrative hook–we do wind up wondering how/why Araragi was captured by Senjougahara–but feels cheap when most of what we see in the flashback is irrelevant to the story.Read More »
Spoilers for Your Name, Toradora!, Kuzu no Honkai, Mashiroiro Symphony.
International record-breaker Your Name features plenty of destruction, including the exploding of an electric substation towards the end of the film. This moment stands out not only for the fact that it is the first instance of heightened action in the movie, but also for how it represents the communicative struggles of the movie’s characters. The scenes that involve Mitsuha’s father and bookend the comet sequence provide an interesting glimpse into a major motif of the melodramatic mode.
Before the comet strikes, Taki–through the life of Mitsuha–attempts to explain Itomori’s peril to Mitsuha’s father. Of course, he doesn’t believe Taki and says all this “nonsense” about the comet is just “madness” his daughter inherited from the Miyamizu family. There’s a lot packed into this scene, but the key point is that what Taki tries to express to Mitsuha’s father is rejected. He is unable to communicate his fears, desires, and knowledge to the mayor. As a result of this, he, Tessie, and Sayaka have no choice but to proceed with their plan to blow up the substation. Because verbal communication is not an option, an explosive physical expression seems like the only way to save the town.Read More »
Moderate spoilers for the beginning Black Butler’s first season.
While easily dismissible as an edgy or pandering manga adaptation at first glance, Black Butler is surprisingly polished and well-realized. The show’s most striking feature is perhaps its atmosphere. Upon a sturdy Victorian gothic foundation, Black Butler builds upwards to great heights of conspiratory urban fantasy with embellishments of black comedy, Western witchcraft, German horror, and more. Although some of these macabre elements are more derivative than they are inventive, the show manages to piece together its own unique brand of horror. It’s a show I have to recommend for Halloween.
As that opening description suggests, Black Butler plays off the horrific elements of much of Western art and history—a fitting catalog for a story set in London. The first episode of the series takes the grim (and often redacted) moments of classic fairytales and pre-Renaissance folklore and sets them in the Phantomhive Manor. A haunted house, essentially. A hive for phantoms.Read More »
In Gigguk’s recent video on Your Name, he expresses a viewpoint I’ve heard too often to continue sitting on my heels about it. To quote the video: “…even though Your Name has a natural disaster in it, I don’t feel like it’s a film about disasters.” He goes on to suggest the comet strike’s “real purpose” is to provide “spectacle” and explosive set pieces. I don’t mean to call Gigguk out here, as he explicitly states his video is just an explanation of why he enjoys the film, and his video style isn’t suited for the kind of discussion I want to have anyway. His video just works as a solid starting point, as it represents a disappointing lack of discussion on two large concerns of the film: the conservation of culture and the preservation of human connections.
The film consists of three natural disasters, two of which we do not witness directly, but all of which we see the effects of. The first of these is the first comet impact 1,200 years ago that shaped the landscape of Itomori. Both the great lake at the edge of town and possibly the crater surrounding the shrine god’s body (this might be a caldera, which could imply a fourth disaster) are results of the first comet impact and have a profound effect on the town’s development moving forward—more on this later. Although we can’t be sure if a large written/architectural/artistic history was destroyed by that impact, we can trace the cultural development of Itomori following the disaster.Read More »
So far, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about overarching and sometimes abstract concepts of style and narratology. That’s all important and interesting, but I don’t think we can fully appreciate Monogatari without digging our nails into some specific scenes and conversations. The series isn’t just a bunch of a random moments arranged according to some grand scheme, after all. The tiny details are designed for their own purposes.
Like any Monogatari fan, I adore Episode 12’s starry sky scene. All it represents about the Gahararagi couple’s journey so far, and all its beauty in retrospect, make it a timeless scene. However, what I’ll be focusing on today is the build-up to that scene. Perhaps the less important sequence thematically—yet the more interesting one in some ways—is Senjougahara’s verbal assault on Araragi in her father’s car. While we can write this off as her pushing Araragi’s buttons as usual, there’s actually a subtext of Senjougahara explaining to her father why she loves Araragi and why they’re a good match.Read More »
Nadeko Snake is Bakemonogatari’s lowest point and perhaps the lowest point of the Monogatari series as a whole. I don’t dislike it for any banal reason like the amount of fanservice, but simply the failures in the narrative. Nadeko Snake has the misfortune of following three diverse and top-notch arcs and the burden of scaffolding numerous future developments in the series, but I don’t think either of these are excuses for its failures. Rather, I don’t think we should need to make excuses for a story in the first place.
However, this provides an opportunity to learn something vital about larger narrative structures. Monogatari’s arc-by-arc format tells numerous small stories that act as stepping stones in a larger narrative path. Nisio Isin finds brilliant uses of this structure (which I hope to discuss soon in another essay), but Nadeko Snake is a bit of a failed experiment. Isin overexerts the arc or demands too much of it. The arc isn’t filled with too much, nor is it taking too long of a narrative step. The failure isn’t an active one, but a passive one. Nadeko Snake bets too many chips on the intrigue of a single arc’s capsule story.Read More »