Monday, 29 August 2011

Shounen Filler - The Good, The Bad, and the "Oh Dear God, No!"

One of the main problems with being a shounen anime fan (aside from the massive episode count slowly ebbing away at your existence) is suffering through the filler episodes. It's standard fare and pretty much every long-running series in this genre pads the story out with non-canon - and often pointless - filler. Having spent a lot of time watching various mainstream shounen shows, this is a subject that somewhat fascinates me, and I tend to feel quite strongly about. As such I have decided to write a mini-series of posts about filler, the purposes it serves, and how different shows approach it. In this first installment, I'll be giving a brief introduction to what filler is, as well as the pros and cons of its presence in your favourite action-packed anime.

What is "Filler"?

Simply put, "Filler" is a term to describe content that is only in the anime. This doesn't extend to the absolute tiniest of details such as a character making a joke in the TV series that wasn't in the manga, as by the sheer nature of translating from one medium to another, additions will have to be made. However, filler does have several different forms:

  1. Standalone "Comedy" Episodes:
    Many series throw in odd episodic scenarios, which place the cast in a humorous situation, in an unfamiliar role, or even an alternate reality. It could be that your favourite characters act out a well-known fairy tale, take up a sport, or simply take a break and get up to some mischief. While many of these may well raise a smile or two, they generally aren't of great quality and feel more like a waste of time than anything else. It should also be noted that there are several standalone filler episodes which are not comic in nature - several of the more recent Naruto Shippuuden "Tales of Days Past" episodes fall into this category.
  2. Filler Story Arcs:
    More often than not filler takes the form of a self-contained arc slotted into the show's central narrative. The length of these arcs varies and can range from two or three episodes up to thirty to forty. These plotlines generally have no implications upon the main story and any characters introduced will neither appear again nor ever be mentioned in the main plot.
  3. Extending Canon Content:
    There are many times when an anime will drag out certain parts of an arc to fill up episodes. This could be in the form of extending a character's journey by depicting them travelling, or simply dragging out a battle for longer than it needs to be.

The Pros:

While filler may generally be something that fans dislike or would opt out of if possible, filler can have its advantages.

  • Pacing:
    Sometimes having the odd short filler arc after the conclusion of a canon storyline can provide a short breather for the audience. Instead of jumping from one epic arc to another, a short gap can help make the events of the previous plotline sink in a bit before launchig into the next.
  • Widening the Gap with the Source Material:
    This is most likely the min reason for including filler in any anime series. With both anime and manga being released on a weekly basis, the TV series would need to work on one chapter per episode, but in many cases the content of a single chapter may not be enough to fill a full 24 minutes of anime - and that's not including double episode specials. With that and the manga taking the odd break during the course of a year (I know WSJ at the very least takes a week off for Obon), the anime will inevitably begin to catch up on the source material. As such it becomes necessary for the anime to take a break from the main plotline in order to let the manga get further ahead again.
  • Money:
    Now this one basically has nothing to do with the fans, but links in with the previous point. As filler allows time to gather up a backlog of the source material without having to put the series on hiatus, it doesn't run the risk of the anime's popularity dwindling. All the time the series airs on TV it's generating attention and therefore earning money, so you can hardly blame the non-creative business types for wanting to make the most of their investment. That being said, as fans, watching an endless sea of filler can get frustrating - especially when you want to get back to the kick-ass action!

The Cons:

  • Interrupting/Holding Up the Main Storyline:
    This is the big one. Imagine that you're watching your favourite series and the plot is getting really good. A variety of plot threads are beginning to intertwine, mysteries are unravelling, and the action is kicking off. You crave each new episode more desperately than the last until one day all that awesomeness gets tossed aside in order to show one of the secondary cast playing football. What. The. F**k?! Who honestly cares about a game of five-a-side when there's damn good storytelling to be had? This is the main downfall of filler. So often it breaks up the momentum that the series had been gathering and leaves fans frustrated with what they're given to watch instead. Not really a good idea to piss off your audience.
  • Naff Plotlines:
    No matter how hard they try, filler arcs never manage to reach the same level of storytelling as the main narrative. Some of the longer arcs may take a reasonable stab at it, but instead they often come across as boring. Meanwhile the short arcs and standalone episodes end up more like your typical male lead in a harem show - lacking in substance and wouldn't really be missed if he weren't around.
  • Poor Quality Animation:
    This isn't always the case but many times, when an anime enters a filler arc, there's a noticeable drop in animation quality - especially if the studio happens to be in the middle of producing a feature film of the same franchise. Sure, filler may not be as important as the central story, but that's still no reason to abuse the audience's eyes as well as their minds.

In the next post, I will start looking at individual anime series and how they approach and use filler.

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