Filler. Just the word is enough to spark horror in anime fans. And yet (with apologies to Shakespeare), I come to praise filler, not to bury it. As a fan who has seen all 892 current episodes of One Piece (many of those more than once) and who lived through the great filler gap between Naruto and Naruto: Shippuden, I feel more than qualified to comment.
Fair warning: I am about to sound rather ancient (for an anime fan). Please kids, do be careful when playing on my lawn. I don't want to have to yell at you to get off.
Online commenters these days (aka the people I see on Crunchyroll and Reddit) seem to think that any episode or even scene that doesn't push forward the main plot is "filler." These episodes, however, are often actually very important for pacing, character development, or, well, just having fun. Who among us was not amused when Team 7 tried to guess what was underneath Kakashi's mask? (Naruto)
Let's back up a bit, though. What is filler? When talking about anime, the standard definition is "an episode that wasn't in the source material." I would add a second qualification to that definition: "...and which was added specifically to pad out the series." Well, what's so bad about that? Most people don't complain about getting more than they asked for in other contexts. The rebuttal is that filler is usually of substandard quality, but a) you don't have to watch it and b) #notallfiller.
Would Cardcaptor Sakura have been nearly as big a hit had it kept to just the manga stories? I contend it would not. How about Sailor Moon? Shugo Chara? (Look, I love magical girl shows and make no apology for it.) Sometimes a story really lends itself to expansion, and when a talented director picks it up and runs with it you get more stories and more fun. Yay!
Lately I see "filler" applied as an epithet even to scenes that were in the manga/light novel or to series that are original works, and thus by the old definition can't have filler. Sometimes even manga chapters themselves are considered filler! In these cases, filler has come to mean "scenes that aren't part of the main plot." Okay, hold up. If all you want is a tightly paced drama that never gives you any time to breathe, there are shows out there for you. (Continuing my inadvertent magical girl theme, Puella Magi Madoka Magica.) The rest of us need some time to breathe now and then.
Beach episodes aren't particularly necessary when preparing for war, but it's a lot of fun to watch Azula dominate a game of beach volleyball (Avatar: The Last Airbender). I really enjoyed Ledo coming to appreciate the simple joys of a barbeque and bathing suits in Gargantia. Neither episode was key to the plot, but they gave the characters (and by extension the audience) a chance to take a break, see/wear some skimpy clothes, and splash around. It's emotionally draining to constantly be dramatic. Breather episodes like Fullmetal Alchemist's attempt to find a girlfriend for Havoc exist for a reason. You're about to get slammed with a lot of heavy stuff; why not have a laugh first?
"But what about all these flashbacks?!" I hear certain One Piece fans cry. "That's not new content or a breather episode! How can we be expected to tolerate such a lack of content?" Look, I've been watching this show since 2002. The only reason I can name half the participants in the Paramount War is because I play the Treasure Cruise gacha game and have pulled more copies of Namur and
He-Man Kingdew than I will ever need. (That number, by the way, is 0.) The current Reverie arc has been the best integration of flashbacks with new content I've ever seen, and the material they're flashing back to is all from at least two years ago if not much, much longer. One Piece is a marathon. If you're not prepared to settle in and wait for the good stuff, well, the manga's right there. Come back to me when it's Wolf's Rain putting out 4 episodes of recaps in a 26-episode series because Studio Bones had to shift around animation resources. /soapbox
So yeah, some filler is terrible, but most of it is just fine and very rarely does it detract from the show you're watching. The worst effect is that you have to wait just a little longer to get to that exciting scene you're looking forward to. But for every bland and awkward filler arc (looking at you, season three of Rurouni Kenshin) there's a gem like Saint Seiya's trip to Asgard. You can't be mad at excellent new content like that.
Think I've become too forgiving in my advanced fandom age? Got an example you can't believe I left out? Give Right Stuf a shout on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. If there's one great thing about filler I haven't mentioned yet, it's getting everyone arguing about something delightfully inconsequential instead of, well, everything else that's going on in the world. (Twitter could definitely use a beach episode, is what I'm saying.) I'd love to hear from you!
-Lisa Marie Cooper
Lisa admits that she did, in fact, fast-forward through One Piece's Apis arc, but has watched the G8 episodes three times over. Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.