Anime filler can be amazing. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case. That’s because studios generally don’t put much time and energy into constructing a solid premise. The characters, story, and interactions appear flimsy at best and so the writing comes off as lazy.
Adapting a manga into an anime is generally an uphill battle from the start. There are always going to be fans of the original work that will never be satisfied with the small screen production. They’ll probably enjoy seeing their favorite scenes animated, but the show will never live up to the expectations they have built up in their mind.
Injecting an anime with filler helps those particular fans feel justified in their preconceptions. The show strays away from the material that brought in its fans from the beginning. At best, the series creates some memorable episodes that people look back on fondly. At worst, it creates a string of episodes that are continually searched on wikis. Not because people want to re-watch them, but because they are avoided like a plague. People want to skip material that is not relevant and get back to episodes that provide some exposition to the overall narrative.
Bear with my negativity for a moment longer. It serves a purpose. I’ll answer the question posted by the title of this article. But before I do that let me give you some examples of famous fillers.
Blue Exorcist - Second Half of Anime
I bring this specific show up because it is a relatively recent example of filler completely destroying a good anime. The first half of the show was great and built a strong foundation for the rest of the story. However, the series had to deviate from the manga and it rushed the ending. So many subplots were (rushed) or completely forgotten.
I don’t want to completely ruin the ending of the series for you. But, basically the show wrapped up the story in the quickest way possible. Characters were introduced, like Ernst Frederick Egin (Rin and Yukio’s grandfather) just to speed up exposition and to setup a lackluster final confrontation. Overall, the studio did what it could to tie up the story’s loose ends, but it fell drastically short of what it could have been had it been given more time.
If you are unfamiliar with Blue Exorcist or want to see some more details about the ending you can read our review here.
Bleach - The Bount Arc
The Bount arc is viewed as easily the worst arc of the Bleach anime. The pacing wasn’t up to par with the cannon arcs and it wasn’t as interesting as the other filler arcs. It was actually a decent premise: explore some dark history within Soul Society and provide a unique take on this universe’s equivalent of vampires.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the Bount Invasion: this subplot detailed the conflict between Soul Society and the last remaining members of the Bount. The Bounts were a special breed of humans (mistakenly created by a Shinigami scientist) who were able to consume the souls of other humans and Shinigami. They try to take revenge on Soul Society because their kind were massacred and those that survived were forced into hiding. The story reaches its climax when the leader of the Bount, Kariya, faces off against Ichigo in Soul Society.
The new characters in this arc were not particularly intriguing and the pacing was off. The only thing the Bount arc had going for it was its sense of mystery. This air of (intrigue) was something prevalent in the pre-soul Society Arcs of the series. It was present again in this filler, but it fell short of delivering on its potential. So, though the feeling was similar to early parts of the cannon, the characters and events had no effect on future storylines. So, it almost feels like a waste of about 40 episodes.
One Piece - The G8 Arc
Alright, let’s move on to the positives of what filler can bring to the table. Filler arcs can be amazing when they carry the same rhythm and feel as regular arcs. At times, viewers won’t realize they’re watching filler until it is pointed out to them later on. A perfect example of this is the G-8 arc from One Piece.
A quick recap of G-8: after blasting off of Skypiea, the Going Merry and Straw Hat pirates land in the middle of a marine base (G-8) where they have to separate and disguise themselves in order to escape. After 11 episodes of comedic interactions and narrow escapes, the crew reunites, escapes from the base, and continues their decent back to the open sea.
This filler was interesting enough (and short enough) to provide a brief break from the cannon storyline. It provided an entertaining (break) and tied up its loose ends nearly. It concluded with an escape similar to the one from Skypiea. Then, the ship landed back on the open sea and integrated itself back into the original material from the manga. The transition was flawless.
There didn’t need to be any over the top battles because the Skypiea arc had just concluded an epic adventure in the sky culminating in an (exciting) fight between Luffy and Eniel.
Commander Jonathan continues to make small cameos throughout the series. He and his marines even make a small appearance in the 4th One Piece film [Dead End Adventure].
Samurai Champloo - Entire Series
One series that was basically all “filler” was Samurai Champloo. Yet, the series is looked upon fondly by the anime community. The characters and interactions were so likeable that people didn’t care that 20 (some odd) episodes did nothing to push the story forward. I put “filler” in quotes because there is technically no filler for this show. It is not based off of any source material. The anime IS the cannon and therefore no episodes could technically be considered filler.
The ENTIRE structure of Samurai Champloo is episodic in nature. What I mean by that is that there isn’t exactly an arc that takes you from the beginning of a story to its conclusion. The basic premise only exists to bring the three central characters together. In fact, only episodes 1 and (20) showcased the search for the “samurai that smells like sunflowers”. You could skip everything else and just watch those two in order to understand the “central story”. Though if you did that, it would be a shame. You’d miss out on some great comedy and exciting sword fights.
The only thing the show chooses to truly explore is character development. It does this by putting the characters in interesting situations, exploring parts of their past, and testing their personal ideologies. This is only possible if your characters are well-rounded and (intriguing), which is exactly the type of cast Samurai Champloo had.
The Answer is…
Terrible filler is present everywhere. I won’t even go into detail about how Dragon Ball Kai is basically a version of Dragon Ball Z where all the (bad) filler is removed. Kai basically equals better pacing and less episodes filled with characters screaming and conversing during their power ups. On the flip side, Dragon Ball Z has one of the most iconic fillers ever: Goku and Piccolo learning how to drive.
As you can see, filler is definitely a double edged sword. If done right, people won’t say much but continue enjoying the series. You’ll have to search through dedicated forums to find people praising the non-cannon episodes. However, if the filler is anything less than perfect… fans will flame and the show will drop in popularity rather quickly. If you’re an anime studio, you may even have to release an updated version of your show to please the fans. (This could be a business decision to simply make more money, but we’ll have to go into that in another article.)
OK. So, back to the question of this article’s title: Are filler productive to the series? My definitive answer is: Yes. With the caveat that the filler has to be done right. If filler is introduced in a series, it can have just as much impact as any other plot element. Besides the negative examples mentioned it above, we can all name some filler episodes that we were less than pleased with. Bad press follows those arcs around indefinitely.
But when done correctly, it can enhance a show such as in One Piece, Dragon Ball Z, Gintama, Naruto (some fillers), or several other anime. It can even be the underlying structure, such as in Samurai Champloo. Filler is the best opportunity a show has to develop central characters, spotlight secondary characters, create a refreshing break from an intense story, or implement a crossover with another show for an entertaining holiday. The second best opportunity would probably be releasing an OVA.
I mentioned before that adapting a manga into anime is generally an uphill battle from the start. So, not taking filler seriously is the easiest way for a studio to start falling down that hill and lose fans. Whatever the studio decides to do with their allotted filler episodes, they have to put in an earnest effort and set aside the same amount of talent that they would for the cannon episodes. If they do that, then those episodes become productive to the series and those episodes become cult favorites.
I’ll leave you with this picture of your favorite super hero learning to drive ☺