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There may be no term more misapplied in anime discourse than “filler.”
According to TVTropes, “[f]iller episodes are entries in a generally continuous serial that are unrelated to the main plot, don’t significantly alter the relations between the characters, and generally serve only to take up space.” Generally (read: in the circles I run in), people use the term when referring to episodes of this type in anime adaptations of manga. However, too often the word is used to mean “not in the source material.” Any anime episode whose content isn’t depicted in its manga counterpart is deemed filler. You might be asking, aren’t these two uses equivalent? Anything that isn’t in the source material just exists to fill time until the anime creators are ready to return to the canonical, meaningful storyline, right? This is exactly the claim I’m going to be arguing against here.
Here’s a version of the argument that all anime original episodes taking place between main story arcs are filler: No anime original arc can fundamentally change the story* or any of the major relationships in it and stay faithful to the source material. It would be tantamount to narrative suicide to introduce new character developments only to have them be poof-ed away once the anime starts adapting its source material once again. Thus, anime original arcs will only be skippable fluff. These episode are just taking up time and space with content that isn’t meaningful to the story or its characters. In short, they’re filler.
The argument presented here makes two universal claims, and its conclusion, that all anime-original arcs are filler, depends on the universal truth of these claims. To demonstrate that the argument is not sound, I will need to construct a counterexample. For the non-mathematical purposes of this article, a counterexample is just me outlining a certain case in which the universal claims presented in the filler argument should hold but, in fact, do not. If I show that the premises of the filler argument are false, this will entail that the argument is unsound. Going forward, demonstrating this will be my aim.
Dragon Ball Z episode sixteen fits the bill for a suitable counterexample. Its content is entirely anime-original. A summary for the uninitiated: Son Gohan is a young boy with a tremendous amount of latent power. In order to prepare for a looming alien threat, Gohan is basically kidnapped and forced to attempt to unlock his hidden powers by training in the wilderness. For the first six months, his regimen consists of a single item: survival. Gohan wanders through grasslands and wastelands, into caverns and forests, across oceans and mountains. Eventually, to the boy’s delight, his travels lead him back home.
Relief spreads across his face as he emerges from a familiar bamboo wood into his own backyard, laying teary eyes on his house for the first time in half a year. Then, Gohan stops. On the precipice of returning to everything he holds dear, his expression abruptly changes from one of joy to one of deep sadness and longing. The boy slowly backs away from the home he grew up in, his actions resembling those of one who is afraid of something. And then, he quickly turns on his heel and runs back into the bamboo wood from whence he came.
In the final scene of episode sixteen, Gohan faces his teacher, Piccolo Daimao, with a resolve that he has not yet shown in the series. Prior to this moment, his goal was to escape the watch of his abductor/master and return to his peaceful life (like any five-year-old would want to do). But it seems that something has changed. Piccolo asks, “What is your mission?” Gohan, his heart brimming with determination, replies “To defeat the Saiyans, and to save the Earth!” Clearly, something has changed.
This sequence gives us a fascinating look into Gohan’s psychology. Being away from home and family for six months has made him realize that he cannot take either for granted. Rather than being givens in his life, these things are fragile and can be taken away, as his own abduction has proven to him. The idea of Saiyan invaders might seem fantastical in some respects, but the associated consequences of what these invaders want to steal from him have a real and concrete analogue for Gohan. He knows that this current separation from family is temporary. If the Saiyans have their way, it will be permanent.
Not only does returning home force Gohan to mentally acknowledge how fragile the good things in his life really are, it also leads him to take responsibility for protecting them. That quiet stillness of his home contrasts sharply with the overwhelming menace represented by the Saiyans, and Gohan realizes that he cannot let the dread of the latter intrude upon the tranquility of the former. Throughout his six-month journey, the boy has become more acutely aware of his preternatural abilities. This awareness coupled with knowledge of the doomsday that draws near germinates the seeds of bravery and duty in Gohan’s young heart. Even though the planet’s strongest heroes will be fighting the invaders, he must also fight because the purpose of having such power as he does is to protect his home and his family.
I will reiterate that none of what I have described above appears in the manga. We see a “before”–scenes depicting Gohan as more or less a defenseless crybaby–and an “after”–scenes of a resolute Gohan, fully trained, standing at the ready. Yet, readers don’t see anything of Gohan’s journey going from one to the other. In the anime, however, viewers observe not only that Gohan changes but how he changes. This makes a massive difference in how the audience empathizes with and responds to the character.
While the anime original content in episode sixteen may not contradict or alter any of the facts of the original story, I believe it has an additive quality to bring to the narrative nonetheless. If fictional characters are the sum total of information about them that creators reveal to us, then you could make an argument that the Gohan that encounters the Saiyans in the manga and the Gohan that encounters the Saiyans in the anime are different characters. The latter has some depth and a well-written psychological arc. And, the audience is invested in him as a player in this universe. Episode sixteen, as well as the adjacent anime-original episodes, may not have changed the facts of the Dragon Ball Z narrative, but they have fundamentally altered the audience’s relationship to part of the story. In my view, such a change is too important to simply be dismissed as “filler,” as fluff that adds nothing and just takes up space.
Here’s the part where I get accused of being a pedant. Some folks might think that as long as we distinguish between the part of an adaptation that is faithfully presenting the original’s story and the part that is not, then it doesn’t actually matter too much what term we use. “It’s easy enough to just call all of it filler. Everyone knows what we’re talking about anyway.” Whether we like it or not, though, words have connotations. Rather than being a neutral term, filler brings some baggage into its anime/manga/etc community usage. Filler denotes something that is inherently lesser than non-filler or canon; filler is a thing to be dismissed at worst, amused by at best. But, as I have shown above, adaptations can break from their original’s story and still be meaningful. The sixteenth episode of Dragon Ball Z is special, and it would be a disservice to the series to disregard or undervalue it.
For the sake of clarity, I will make one final point before concluding. I am not denying that filler exists. My argument isn’t nearly so ambitious! In fact, my argument doesn’t make any positive claims at all; it’s just about denying the universal claim that all anime original content is filler. This denial leaves plenty of room for the existence of anime original fluff, and, indeed, I would be arguing against crystal clear facts if my claims didn’t leave such room. Plenty of anime original episodes and arcs are just there to take up space until the creators want to proceed with adapting the original story. All I’m arguing for is the rather modest assertion that not all of this sort of content is filler and, thus, requires a different designating term.
I’ll say again that I believe that filler is the most misapplied term in discussions within the anime community. Not all (adaptation) anime episodes that break with the manga’s story are just filler. In fact, some of them can add such meaning and depth to a story that they can fundamentally change the audience’s relationship with it, without also altering that original story’s facts. This being the case, the community needs a new term to refer to the non-filler anime original episodes/arcs of manga adaptations. As to what such a term might be…that’s ultimately for the community to decide, I think.
*In this piece I’m going to specifically refer to anime original episode or arcs that take place between faithfully adapted episodes or arcs i.e. what most folks refer to as “filler.” I won’t be discussing anime original endings because I think these are a rather different kettle of fish.