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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.
One hundred percent agreed. All these years defending the “filler” present in the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation have left me sick of the term’s inherent connotations as well. Those tiny arcs build a convincing world, and they help us understand the characters better. Even if Edward Elric is not a fundamentally different character after deposing the military leader in charge of a coal mining town, seeing the way he acts in that scenario helps us appreciate what kind of character he is all the more. Adaptation is an art, and in trying to claim that the source material is always better than whatever the anime staff came up with, we miss the value that a truly inspired adaptation can bring to otherwise lackluster source material.
Another term that suffers from the same problem as “filler” is “fanservice.” When I’m trying to defend a show like Monogatari, which uses sexual content to serve its narrative and character relations, having to call those scenes or moments “fanservice” is retrograde to my point. However the term is loosely defined, saying something is “fanservice” inherently implies that it was created specifically with audience gratification in mind. While this may be additionally true of many great scenes in anime, I feel it’s doing some shows a disservice to suggest that their themes of sexuality primarily exist to cynically grab an audience of sex-starved otaku.
Good job on this article. All your tweets and writing actually make me want to start watching Dragonball Z again, which is no small undertaking.
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Thanks so much for reading!
The beginning of FMA is a great example of this phenomenon, you’re totally right. And, while this article isn’t about divergent/original endings of adaptations, that series sticks out in my mind as having a really great one of those that gets dismissed simply for not being faithful to the source material.
Fan service is…whew, boy. So many things to untangle with that term. With filler, at least there’s a common (inaccurate) usage to point to; people mean so many different things when they say “fan service.” The problem you bring up is such a difficult one because it first requires a disambiguation of the word.
And finally: YESSSSSSS! Join me in this time-sucking vortex of life-affirming shounen battle content!
“Even if Edward Elric is not a fundamentally different character after deposing the military leader in charge of a coal mining town, seeing the way he acts in that scenario helps us appreciate what kind of character he is all the more. ”
Are you refering to Yoki’s episode? I am pretty sure I read this in the manga, I even remember how baffling I found the way Hagaren 2009 introduces Yoki only through a little portrait of him visible a few seconds in ep1 when he was to play a role in a later segment, coming out of nowhere.
About fan-service, it isn’t supposed to mean something “sexual”. The example you use seems to have things to say in the sex department so it is only logical to show certain things, I guess. While, on the contrary, certain series will implement a picture/scene/episode who will not add anything besides giving an opportunity for the viewer to get an eyeful of a character’s curves.
If I may add, implementing anything just for the sake of pleasing the “fan” is supposed to be fan-service. Be it mechanical things/shiny robots, known characters having no role but being there (ex: the colonel, his “girlfriend” and the hero’s girlfriend in the movie for Hagaren 2009), etc.
PS: about the article, nice one. If only most animation-only stories added to the overall in Dragon Ball/Z, it would have been great.
Mea culpa on the Yoki thing. I genuinely forgot he showed up later in the series. Kindly apply my point to an actual example of filler in the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist and it will work just as well.
Regarding fanservice, you missed my point. Like the article doesn’t state that there is no “filler” worthy of the label, I never say that every scene or shot or character labeled “fanservice” is actually what I described in my comment. In both cases – with “filler” and “fanservice – the problem is that genuinely fulfilling content with a lot of artistic value gets diminished by being lumped in with all the dross. What the author described is a far cry from some of the utterly meaningless bullshit that bogs down Naruto Shippuden, for example, so why give it the same label? You are right to say that “fanservice” is a label applied to many more things than I described, but I meant to say that those kinds of scenes don’t deserve to be called fanservice in the first place.
If we wanted to be cheeky with acronyms, maybe Supplementary Anime Material would be better than filler. But the word, supplementary, also has this connotation of being extraneous or not mandatory, so this phrase is not perfect, either.
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Fulfilling Intentional Laudable Legitimately Entertaining Records
…oh wait hang on second!
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This could be applied to so much of Hunter X Hunter 1999. So called filler is why it’s my favorite anime ever.
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I’ve seen the entire 90s anime and 60 odd episodes of the 2011 one…remarkably little of that feels like it’s just there to take up space.
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Which is why they are my 2 favorite anime series (damn I forgot how beautiful this site is)
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You make good points, but you also made the crux of the argument an anime original episode in the pre-2000s era in the middle of a training arc. The game has changed to one where narratively dense plots are the norm and anything more than a few minutes dedication to a single supporting character training arc is a sin punishable by abysmal viewership. It is far more effective today to skip the training, make the viewer assume they went through some manner of change, and then play that card at a later time when the /results/ also make it apparent. We all know that while Gohan may be invigorated at the time of returning, it takes a pummelling from the Saibamen/Nappa and Ciaotzu, Tien, Yamcha, and followed by Piccolo’s deaths to actually make him effective against the Saiyan onslaught, making the “resolute” Gohan the audience invested in not just a lie, but a total waste of time. This may well be why Toriyama never touched on this topic to begin with.
That said, you can’t say anime original content is good while ignoring the growing graveyard of peoples’ attempts to finish the likes of Inuyasha, Naruto or One Piece. The Bount arc in Bleach has a similar lack in justification. It would be better if other periods and applications were looked at, like Naruto.jpeg(Boku no Hero Academia)’s recent anime original training episode, which essentially did the same thing but for more characters who haven’t had as much limelight. There’s also Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, which incorporated more anime original content than any other in recent memory and still managed to be highly enjoyable (that doesn’t mean that the original content holds a candle to the source material, however). Sound Euphonium, while originally a light novel that you once covered, experienced similar treatment (K-On also fits this formula).
Thanks for your feedback!
The thesis I was attempting to drive at was not a bold claim like “anime original content is always good and well done” but, rather, a comparatively milder claim ” anime original content shouldn’t always and forever be dismissed out of hand as inferior, lacking, or not worth someone’s time.” A person might have this negative impression of “filler” whether they are watching currently airing anime, on the bleeding edge of what’s popular, or if they typically watch older shows or are taking a detour into anime’s past.
Fair. I do believe in original anime content when it is applied properly, like in 2004 FMA. And it’s no stretch of imagination to say that the hours of anime people were inspired by in their youth may well have been mostly or all anime original content that might not have always been the best they could have been due to budgetary restrictions, internal politics, the need to catch up to the source material, etcetera. The issue stems from adaptive anime’s (usually, if they’re big enough) inherent role as but one part of a Japanese multimedia franchise, where if there is a little too much “creative freedom” in the anime department, it results in a domino effect that lowers enjoyment of the transition. Japan relies on a person to person recommendation system for multimedia (e.g. “The ending of *C***more you saw wasn’t in the manga. Don’t worry, it makes more sense once you read it.”), which has no presence in Western otaku culture. As a result, there is no buffer against the backlash from experiencing a bad anime original episode, and with enough of them we see them all somewhat reasonable painted negatively with the same stroke. I do not condone this practice, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to defend it either.
Doc, you’ve evidently seen a lot of anime. Do you have any other examples of anime original episodes that fit well into the source narrative while remaining enjoyable? I’m curious about other places your thesis applies.