The Importance of Filler in Anime

I occasionally get asked where I get my post inspiration from. So let me give you an example:

I was in line to get my convention tickets when my trusted friend abandoned me out of boredom. Trusted may not be the right word. As a result, I ended up spending 45 minutes alone in line, mindlessly scrolling through my phone and eavesdropping on the conversation of the two guys behind me. At one point, one of the guys said: “I don’t mind filler, actually it can be a good thing. I find that the latest **insert hyper popular shonen show here** moves way too fast. There isn’t enough filler.” With all the grace and subtlety of a reality TV star that thinks they’re about to strike it big, I reached into my bag, demonstratively whipped out a notebook and frantically scribbled “what purpose does filler serve?”. Of course, I was standing up and holding a phone at the same time, so it ended up more like “wnor plusions d fuuur serve&” I don’t know why the word serve came out so well….

anime girl confused

cause that’s what’s important here

After staring at my note for 20 minutes, I remembered what it was supposed to mean and here we are! Inspiration!

I really thought this was a great topic. Filler has a pretty bad reputation among certain fans and is even used as an insult or a quick way to dismiss an episode. I think to properly appreciate this topic, first I need to define what filler is to me.

I think most people use the term to describe one (and in some instances several) episode that has absolutely no bearing on the greater story line. Essentially if an episode can be removed without it having any bearing on the plot, it’s filler.

But then again, Slice of Life or highly episodic shows could arguably be mostly filler. Pretty much 90% of all Natsume’s Book of Friends episodes could be taken out without the viewer loosing track of the plot but it’s the way all these episodes add up and layer on top of each other to create delicate characters and deep sorrowful worlds that make the story magic.

natsume_yuujinchou_by_pearsfears_d61hfb6-fullview

look an excuse to post Natsume fan art By pearsfears

On the other hand, you can have an episode with important plot relevant elements (i.e. introducing a prominent character or setting up a future conflict) that is still presented in such a way that most of it is superfluous.

So where did I land here? Let’s see, to me a filler episode or filler parts of an episode are events that either don’t tie into the rest of the plot or don’t teach us anything new about the universe or characters. And I often really enjoy them.

Assuming that a filler episode is actual filler and not a bit of laid-back subtle character development, then it can be a chance for writers to stretch their creative muscle. Almost like canon fanfiction. You know, a way to leave the constraints of a carefully plotted out narrative for just a bit and explore the greater universe. Follow a secondary character around as they do irrelevant and occasionally unimportant deeds.

If the writing team is good, then filler episodes can be a chance for them to flex their creative muscles and show off what else they have to offer.

It’s also a good way for me to connect with the story. I’m the sort of person who hordes useless random facts about the universe around me. Having a collection of useless random facts about the lore of a specific show just brings it to life. But this sounds like a me issue rather than something that can be applied at large.

So now that I have told you what filler is to me, what role can it play for fans at large, in the construction of a series?

screen-shot-2015-10-04-at-22-48-12

it’s a play on the word construction…

Like the helpful young man in line behind me pointed out, it’s all about pacing. (He pointed this out to his friend, I was just creepily spying). The way and rhythm at which relevant information is doled out in a narrative is extremely important to its effectiveness, clarity and eventual enjoyment of the audience. I think it’s a very underestimated aspect of narrative crafting and I’m a little perplexed at why my fellow bloggers don’t mention it more often.

In order for most people to form a proper emotional attachment to both the characters and events of a story, they need to have a bit of time to properly assimilate them. If everything is always in action, people’s minds flutter over from one event to the next which can be exciting but is not as effective for forming lasting impressions.

As such, having a way to slow down the narrative flow at certain points, keep the audience engaged in the universe but not crowd their minds with new information, instead forcing them to just exist alongside the characters for a bit, can be extremely useful for a writer. I like to think of it as the anime equivalent of just shooting the breeze with a friend or spending a quiet afternoon with your partner where you’re just reading books independently or something but you’re still together.

It’s those quiet irrelevant moments that allow you to just slowly share your universe with someone else to help form those invisible bonds. When you take those moments completely away, events start stepping over each other and you don’t have time to breath.

Like everything else there’s degrees of success in filler. Some is fantastic and manages to add to the atmosphere and realism of the show even if it’s unrelated to the rest of the events, while other is annoying and feels like a waste of time. However, reducing fiction only to the bare necessity (i.e. rigorously sticking to the principle of Chekhov’s gun) in my opinion strips it of a bit of substance and charm.

I like the little random things that make a person unique and I enjoy the small disparate elements that add spice to a story. I would miss them if they weren’t there. To me filler is a lot like that. How about you? Do you think filler is mostly a waste of time or do you enjoy it? Do you think it’s actually an important part of anime?

Have Pie Rini

taste great – less filling

 

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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38 Responses

  1. Anime that are using a source that is well on its way to completion are less vulnerable to needing hastily produced filler.

    As an anime producer, one would think they would know exactly how much original material they were going to need over the course of an anime. You know the rate of manga production. You know how much manga is needed for an episode. It is just math to say how much filler your going to need

  2. Filler is alright when used sparingly. Heck there are some shows were the filler installments were the best, as they were funny. My problem with filler is when a show that has a good story suddenly turns into seasons worth of “one-off monster of the week” episodes. The characters don’t develop and there are no consequences because the show is stalling for time (usually waiting for more source material). Shows like that are putting profit before entertainment.

    • Irina says:

      I see what you mean. Although I understand the studio’s urge to keep a title relevant in the public’s mind. I can’t fault them that much considering how the industry is struggling

  3. Dominic says:

    Maybe instead of ‘filler’, we should all start referring to it as ‘filling’ because, as you say, there’s often a lot of great stuff in there. It also offers the chance for more nuanced character studies that might not be prudent to the plant but make for fulfilling viewing all the same.

  4. ManInBlack says:

    For me personally, I have found some filer arcs in show to well done but they are only a problem when they interrupt a major storyline because the anime has got too close to the ongoing source manga. For example, the Fourth Ninja War arc in Naruto Shippuden took FIVE YEARS to play out for this reason, having to constantly stop to let the manga get ahead, leaving a slew of filler arcs (not just single episodes) to keep the show moving.

    Had they been able to tell it straight up without a pause, it would have been over in a quarter of that time. Granted, it is unfortunate (and/or poor planning) when this happens and it is a regular occurance with long running shows, but looking at it from that perspective, it is easy to see why people aren’t fond of fillers.

    Individual episodes here and there are fine, but I think people would agree they would be more tolerant towards filler arcs if they didn’t disrupt the main story, and appeared between the adapted arcs.

  5. To me, “filler” is anything done to just pad out the time or the episode count. We gotta fill 22 minutes here but we only have 15 minutes worth of material. So we pack in extra punches in the fight, spout extra dialog, maybe hold the shots slightly longer. To me, that is insidious filler. Or to slap together a whole episode of nothing because you have slots to fill and advertising to show. That’s usually obnoxious filler.

    An *entertaining* episode about the hijinks of a secondary character doesn’t fit my definition. If it fits and doesn’t disturb the flow of the plot, it adds to the entirety of a show. It might be a great way to break the tension of an overwrought plot. As if you were on a tour of Dublin but happened to stumble into an intriguing pub with odd characters along the way that wasn’t part of the schedule.

    OTOH, if they drove you in circles thru a drab area and talking joyfully about it because they had to wait for another bus to get there, that’s filler. Especially if there is something better you could have been doing (like stumbling into odd pubs) but the tour company decided it was too much of a hassle to drop you off and pick you up again.

    I like a good cheese filling in a pastry or maybe apple. Cherry and raspberry rarely actually taste like the fruit that are supposed to represent but enough people like it to buy it. But a true “filler” is sawdust. You often don’t even know it is there. It exists to bulk out the product and fill your tummy. Maybe it waters down the taste a bit, but costs little to produce and really offers no benefit.

    The problem with filler (to me) isn’t just that it doesn’t advance the plot. Too many times
    “filler” is an excuse for artists and writers to take a break. It’s only filler after all. save your energy for when it is important.

    I am probably so far out of the mainstream of thought that I seem strange on this.

    • Irina says:

      I don’t think so. Your comments seem pretty in line with other readers.

      What if you think the joyful conversation as you drive in circles is both interesting and entertaining? You still could definetly be doing something more productive but it’s fun?

      • It would take thought and effort – or maybe great improve talent – to drive around in circles and keep most people entertained. That would be great.

        The filler that bothers me is when it is pretty clear no effort was put into creating a quality product. Here’s a formula, plug in the characters, no need to waste budget on creating good art or putting effort into a script. Nothing we do here matters, next week we get back to the plot.

        The only way to be 100% sure something is filler is to read the directors mind and look at the budget for the episode. There are whole episodes and scenes within episodes and 3rd rate art and pacing issues that scream of filler. When you see multiple episodes with a nearly identical plot and nothing has changed at the end, that is filler. I don’t mind cheese or berries as my filler, it is the sawdust that irritates me.

        The most obvious intra-episode filler is spending excessive time reviewing the previous ep. and previewing the next. That’s time they didn’t have to spend much budget on. Another one is drawing out the op and ed longer than the music and credits deserve. They get cycled over and over so that cost becomes low per minute. “Omake” segments may be entertaining but are often just filler. Ditto recap episodes.

        Insidious filler is when they extend every cut by a fractional second or start adding extra dialog or extra punch to a fight. Again you have to read the directors mind to know for sure. But I think one can get a feel for it.

        There’s always going to be fans who will watch every second of the show and love it because they are fans and the show can do no wrong. Some people don’t mind seeing cellulose (wood fiber) as the main ingredient of their bread. That’s ok but it isn’t me.

  6. Krystallina says:

    I like fillers. Of course, like you and others said, too much is bad, or if the series has too much nonsense and then suddenly tries to rush in things for an ending. But it can add characterization or just be a nice break from the usual.

  7. Dawnstorm says:

    The timing of this post is interesting. Earlier today I was reading your review of the latest Granbelm episode and replying re filler status of a certain scene. Then I read your reply to my reply and wondered whether I should reply, and if so straight away or later. In the end I went to bed without a decision. Then I wake up and get to read this post. What I’d have to say fits a lot better here, since it’s really more about “filler” than about that Granbelm episode (on which I don’t think we have too different a take).

    I said in my reply in the other thread that “to me filler is stuff that you can cut without any loss to the over-all story”. Well, that’s very, very vague, and on top of that the “without any loss” part depends on subjective evaluation. The vagueness comes in a huge part from the concept of what makes a “story”. To clarify the term “filler” I need to backtrack (and repeat what others have already said, but I need to say it again or I can’t develop my thoughts).

    The first time I heard the term filler with regards to anime was with respect to long-running shounen (I think specifically Naruto, but I could be wrong about that). It was a term about manga adaptions: when the anime catches up with the manga, or there’s not enough material to plan out an arc, you’d get original arcs, but once that arc is done, the story would go back to following the manga, so it’s imperative that you have something that while being entertaining also adds little substance to characterisation or plot, because that might contradict future developments. As such, those arcs tend to feel out of place: not written by the original author and deliberatly retreading old ground and repeating character beats.

    Eventually, the term got used for any moment in the show where people felt something like “get on with the story already!” And it’s that usage that gives me the “cut without loss” definition, not the original usage of filler as fluff-material to pad out the story while waiting for the manga to catch up.

    Now, in the early 2000s I used to hang out on creative writing boards a lot, and there’s a related “rule” that comes up a lot: When editing, cut anything that’s not neccesary to the story. In practise, this often boiled down to “cut it if it doesn’t propel the plot forward,” and this is, IMO, problematic – mostly because plot doesn’t have the same importance for every story. If plot was all that was important to the story, then we might just read a plot summary. A plot summary contains everything that drives the plot forward and no more: it’s the epitome of that rule.

    To what extent is a plot summary already a story, though? “How much does the reader of a plot summary supply with imagination?” vs. “How much does the reader of a fully fleshed-out story supply with imagination?” And what does it mean to flesh out a plot-summary so that it feels like a story? And can you even say what’s necessary? And can you have stories that are not – in essence – fleshed-out plot summaries? Example: Virginia Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens” contains snippets of conversations of people who walk by a flower bed, intercut with the exciting plot of a snail faced with the earth-shattering decision of whether to crawl over or under a leaf. Is this a story? Or is this a text that contains many story fragments? Is it a mood-piece? All I can say is that it shows up in “short story” collections, so that the question is whether a “short story” – the prose form – needs to actually be a “story” (the narrative concept).

    The way you see questions like this will determine how you use your terms to talk about this. In your Granbelm post you refer to a scene in the latest episode as “filler”, while I said it’s at the “emotional core of the show’s theme”. Then, in your reply you say you still think it’s “emotional fanserivce”. And that’s when I stopped short, because I realised I had to think through terminology and familiar problems, ones that I associate more with creative writing boards and criticism essays than with the anime community. So in this post you basically say you like filler (and it was clear in your review that didn’t want the scene in question to go away).

    And that in turn leads me to the question: what’s the relationship between plot and story? What’s narrative necessity? To me, the latest Granbelm episode felt actually pretty tightly written. Nothing felt out of place, and everything felt “necessary” – though to the “story” and not to the “plot”. And as I say this, I also have to say that me making this distinction means that I have a very loose sense of what makes a story: A story is not just a felshed-out plot. All a story needs to be a story is some sort of unity; some core point of interest – and everything revolves around this. This could be plot, characters, setting, concept, theme, mood… anything, even a complex bundle of any of that.

    I thought about using an analogy about stories being organisms and then comparing the plot to the skeleton, and then pointing to insects (who have an “exo-skeleton”) and mollusks (who have none), and then I got lost in wondering what actually makes a skeleton, and ptotozoa (who… uh… are really primitive?) and my mind went totally off the rails as things got even more complicated and I had no idea how to make ends meet here, so I abandoned the idea.

    Basically, if you see plot as the founding principle of a story (and maybe for other reasons, too), you’ll see a lot more filler than I do, and you’ll ask yourself this question a lot more. Is filler good? In most cases, I’d probably say “well, it’s not filler.” But in the end might not feel all that different about story.

    Is “filler” the buffer material we add to the hyper-efficient plot machine so it’s jagged components don’t cut through the casing? I’m likely pro-filler, most of the time.

    • Irina says:

      It does fit in better with this post (the timing being purely coincidental) and it is most likely semantics. Without going into the Granbelm episode specifically, I tend to fill in blanks a lot. I enjoy vague and open ended storylines more than most people so I’m o.k. with relationships being inferred. A few small gestures or subtle mentions throughout a season and I will happily build up the entire emotional context from that. This may be a reason I don’t find reaffirming bonds as necessary as some other viewers might. This said, I don’t dislike those types of episodes at all, for me they don’t really change or add anything to my viewing experience unless they are repeated often enough to create a pattern, but I find them pleasant to watch. I often think there should be more. I guess if filler may not be the right word maybe build-up episodes or breather episodes? But it is a matter of perspective. I know that in the later episodes of Kenshin I liked the filler episodes more than the rest so to me they ended up being the show while the main storyline is what I wanted to get over with…

  8. Lumi says:

    Fillers are like complementary breadsticks to me. I like em a lot, but I will get tired of them before long if the “main course” doesn’t arrive soon.

    • Irina says:

      For me it depends on the show. There are some where I enjoyed the “filler” more than the rest. Like if your main course is kind of yucky and oversalted or something, then it’s like yay yummy bread!

      • Lumi says:

        This only happens to me when the anime has done the “side cast is infinitely better than the main story” recipe.

        Lots of romcoms do this, and some of my favorite stuff in the MHA manga is from “filler” arcs.

  9. alsmangablog says:

    I enjoy filler episodes in small doses. They can be funny, put the spotlight on some of the more minor characters and help with the pacing of the show by providing a break in-between more action focused episodes. I think it’s when you get whole seasons of filler that it starts to become a problem, at least when it comes to more plot focused shows.

    • Irina says:

      You know I dont think I’ve ever experienced that. I haven’t followed that many long running shows. It does sound a bit tedious.

  10. Scott says:

    I’m definitely in that filler camp. I like knowing deeper aspects of the characters that the official story won’t allow usually or just seeing alternative sides of them too. 😁

  11. I feel like anime filler mostly gets its bad reputation from shonen series, back when they industry had them releasing a new episode every week, all year round.

    Filler can be really hard to get write, but if you have a good writer who knows the characters and the world you can get a lot of fun stuff.

    Unfortunately a lot of the old shonen filler was there purely to fill space and stop them catching up to the source material and, as such, not much effort was put in, which has given all filler a bad reputation from then on.

    • Irina says:

      That’s true too. Keeping up a weekly narrative for years is actually incredably difficult no matter what and if you run out of source material and can’t add anything in that would risk contradicting later events that you don’t even know about yet, it must be exponentialy more so.

  12. Jenn says:

    When people talk about filler episodes in anime, it makes me think about the X-Files. that’s a looooong show that’s made up of monster of the week episodes (essentially filler) and then the Mythology episodes that actually get into the nitty-gritty about The Smoking Man and different overarching plot points. At the end of the day, it ends up being those monster of the week type episodes that I remember the most, because different directors get to come on and throw Scully and Mulder into unique situations and play with their relationships.

    I feel like with non-anime shows like that, people don’t diss filler as much. So it’s odd that anime fans end up using it in such a negative way so often. You make a lotta good points!

    • Irina says:

      Maybe it’s due to 12 episode seasons. They remember them more when the arcs are shorter? I also liked the MotW episodes of X Files. A lot of them were joyful.

  13. Artemis says:

    I adore filler in slice-of-life shows because, as you pointed out, these basically add layers to character development in shows where the plot is often of secondary importance anyway. I hate filler in comedy anime though, as this typically means the dreaded hot spring/beach/generic bikini episode.

  14. Tiger says:

    I feel strongly about this. I think people confuse slice of life shows as being the same as other typical anime. But slice of life is rarely ever plot focused, its instead made up of the character developments and interactions that some mistakenly classify as “filler”. Plot? Plot rarely ever means anything in the slice of life genre. The slice of life genre simply focuses on the characters instead of a plot.

  15. ashleycapes says:

    I’m in the ‘pro-filler’ camp, so important to pacing, yeah!

    They’re good for that Action/Reaction structure where characters might be given the chance to reflect on the big things that happened previously. I also really enjoy seeing the characters relax/interact/stir each other up in such seemingly ‘low-key’ episodes

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