As a more-or-less fledgling anime-watcher, I haven’t watched through very many series in their entirety yet. However, I’ve watched enough to encounter that prevalent (and rather controversial) beast we anime enthusiasts know as the filler episode. Dun dun dunnnn! If you’re just starting your anime-watching journey and haven’t come across any yet, don’t worry; you will.
So what exactly are filler episodes?
Fillers take many forms, but they all have a few similarities. They can take place at fairly random points within an anime series, though they often show up after a big plot point has been revealed and the series is in between one story arc and the next. They’re usually pretty silly and random, may introduce characters you’ll never see again and who are otherwise unrelated to the series, are vaguely amusing at best and really annoying and/or tedious at worst, and — most importantly — virtually never advance the plot in any appreciable way.
Most anime series will have a filler episode or three along the way, though very short series may not have any. Longer, super-popular series like Naruto and Bleach are the biggest offenders when it comes to fillers — not only do they have filler episodes, they have entire filler arcs.
If they don’t add to the story, what’s the point of them? Why include them at all?
There are a few reasons, but as with many seemingly unexplainable things that happen with TV shows and anime, it basically comes down to money. It will always be weird to me that outside, real-world influences can affect what happens inside a fictional tale, in which anything ought to be possible, but there it is.
A series might have a few fillers throughout a season because the creators are trying to meet contractual demands — say they’ve planned for a 26-episode season, but there’s only enough story material in the original manga to make up 20 of them. That’s where filler comes in — they can keep the show running without jumping ahead in the story or deviating from the storyline they want to stick with.
Another reason might be that the anime in question is being produced more quickly than the manga it’s based on. Rather than ending up with a Game of Thrones-like situation and letting the show get way ahead of the source material and either having to end the show (and lose money) or change the story (and risk losing some fans, thereby losing money), the producers opt to add some filler to give the manga a chance to catch up. This is primarily why the super-long-running animes often include whole arcs of filler; when the story’s so long to begin with, it’s easier for the anime to repeatedly catch up to the manga storyline too quickly. It’s also due to the fact that Japanese shows typically don’t take season breaks or play reruns, the way Western shows do, which means they catch up even faster.
It sounds like fillers aren’t worth watching. Should I just avoid them altogether?
You may think the answer to this question is a simple “yes,” but really, it’s…not necessarily. The defining feature of filler is that it doesn’t contain information that’s important to the plot or character development, so naturally, you generally won’t miss anything by skipping them (unless you’re an incurable completionist, in which case…lord help you). But honestly, sometimes it’s not worth the trouble. My advice is that, if it’s a short series, don’t worry about scouting for filler. Anything under 100 episodes or so will likely have so few that it won’t be worth risking the possibility of spoiling the plot for yourself in the process of researching them to avoid them.
However, for longer series, I would definitely suggest taking the trouble to find out where the fillers are hiding, so you can decide for yourself whether they’re worth watching or not. For example, Naruto, with well over 500 episodes and counting (when you include the sequel, Naruto Shippuden, that is), is such a time commitment already that there’s really no reason to sit through the swaths of filler episodes the series contains; you’re much better off finding out where these sections start and end so you can avoid them altogether if you choose to.
To further complicate matters, there’s the fact that, while fillers are often lame and/or boring and/or just plain confusing (and always, ALWAYS weird), some of them are actually a lot of fun to watch, and would actually be kind of a shame to avoid just because of the hilarity (or in rare cases, actual depth) you’d be missing out on.
So as you can see, the realm of fillers is a little fraught, but it’s navigable, and sometimes even enjoyable. Like most things, there’s a lot more that could be said about them, but this should hopefully get you off to a good start. Now that you’re armed with this information, you’ll be more prepared to make your way through the tricky landscape of filler episodes!
If you’ve slogged through filler episodes you wish you’d avoided, tell us about it in the comments — forewarned is forearmed!
Or if you’re starting a new series and want to know if there are any sections in it that are better skipped, ask away below! We’d be happy to tell you, or help you research if the series is a new one for us too.
A couple of other sources on what filler episodes are and why they happen (and where I got some of my info):
TVTropes.org (a great overview; gives more detail on the different types/variations of fillers)
Anime.stackexchange.com (reiterates some things, and touches on why there are sometimes different versions of an anime that’s based on a single manga story)
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