Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Your Name. and Fullmetal Alchemist.
A couple of weeks ago I came upon an interesting thread while I was browsing r/anime. The thread in question was people listing/discussing plot holes in anime. The existence of plot holes isn’t anything noteworthy-any story-driven medium is going to have stories with plot holes (for clarity’s sake, I’m defining plot holes as elements of a story that don’t make sense or aren’t explained enough for the viewer to understand or figure out) at some point-but what struck me was one that someone mentioned from the film Your Name.
The plot hole in question comes in the second half of the film. When Taki is looking through his diary entries to find the ones Mitsuha wrote, they all suddenly disappear. No explanation is given or hinted at, and it’s never referenced again. It’s a plot hole by any definition. Now I’ve written about Your Name. on several occasions and I’ve regularly talked about how much I love that movie, and yet the plot hole is something I noticed the first time I watched it. I noticed it, but it’s never bothered me or made me think any less of the film.
On the other hand, there’s a plot hole from the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist that’s bothered me ever since I first watched it. In a scene near the end, the leader of the Homunculi (the main villains) does something to make the tattoo on Gluttony’s (a Homunculus) tongue disappear, driving him insane. No explanation is given or hinted at as to how or why that could happen (nothing similar had ever been brought up before in the show), and it’s never referenced again. Sound familiar? On the surface it’s no different from the plot hole in Your Name, and yet it bothered me so much more.
So here’s my question: what makes some plot holes matter while others don’t? To answer that we need to look at what makes plot holes bad in the first place and the larger question of what makes a work of fiction bad.
The way I look at it, a work of fiction can be bad for two general reasons: it fails to achieve its goals or its goals aren’t worth achieving. The former question is more relevant here (the latter is far less common anyway).
In the most general of terms, most works of dramatic fiction (comedies are a different story) are meant to draw the audience in, to make them care about these events that never happened and these people who never existed. Put that way, making a successful story is kind of an amazing accomplishment, and it’s not easy to do. It takes a careful hand to do properly, and immersion is easy to break. Plot holes are a problem for this because they remind us that the story we’re viewing is just that: a story. They remind us that we’re not watching anything real and bring us out of what’s being shown.
This is the problem that FMA runs into. Having something happen that doesn’t make any sense with what the audience has been told is distracting. It takes us out of the story, and is especially damaging for a story that’s previously had such a strong plot. Having a sudden plot hole like the aforementioned scene with Gluttony is so incongruent with what we’ve previously seen that it jars us out of the story, even if the event itself is so brief.
But what if the plot isn’t the point of the work in the first place?
Like most Makoto Shinkai films, Your Name. isn’t a plot focused narrative. The first half barely has any overarching plot beyond Taki and Mitsuha switching bodies and the shenanigans that occur from that. More happens in the second half, but even that isn’t the main point of the film.
The film’s focus isn’t on the events themselves as much as on how they affect the characters. The shock and grief we feel when it’s revealed that Itomori was destroyed by the comet doesn’t come from the idea that a town was destroyed; these emotions are caused by the loss of all the characters we’ve grown attached to and the empathy we feel towards Taki when he discovers it. The plot hole there doesn’t detract much from the film as a whole because that’s not what the film draws our attention to. Your Name. is about characters and emotions, so having a slightly imperfect plot doesn’t break the audience’s immersion. We’re so focused on the emotions involved that we’re not thinking as much about plot mechanics. To put it simply, who these things are happening to matters more than what’s happening.
The key difference between the two is their goals. FMA always had a plot-heavy narrative, so any flaws there would get in the way of the work accomplishing its goals. In contrast, Your Name. had different priorities, so a flaw in the plot doesn’t get in the way of its goals.
For all that people criticize plot holes, they’re not always fatal flaws in a story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better to not have plot holes, and they can be pretty damaging in some cases, but that’s not always how it is. Depending on the work in question, they could be as annoying as the one in FMA, or as insignificant as the one in Your Name. As is often the case, it depends on what the story is trying to accomplish.