There hasn’t been an update here in a while, so I figured maybe it was my turn to soapbox a bit. I want to explore a little bit of the history and mechanics of “filler” in anime. If you’re interested, read on …
Now, I daresay that most of us here know (all too well) what filler is, but for the uninformed, the term refers to non-canonical material introduced to fill space and keep viewers watching, while waiting for the manga artist to get enough plot advanced to continue the canonical plot at a good pace. With very few exceptions, you don’t see filler in shorter series.
But how did this practice come about, you may be wondering to yourself as you slog through yet another “country of tea” or “country of rice” arc of Naruto, waiting for them to get back to the manga story and return to decent production values and reasonably well-crafted and well-told stories instead of the putrid effluent you’ve gotten tired of watching over the last two years. Even worse, how did it get so acceptable as to infect not one but two high-rated shounen action series?
Consider back to the days of Dragon Ball Z. Now, Toriyama had been producing Dragon Ball manga since the mid-1980’s, and the original Dragon Ball TV series is largely free of filler, but Dragon Ball Z resorted to it. Look at the Frieza saga, and you see this horrible pacing (several episodes of screaming and powering up, and very little else) which happened when the series caught up with the manga. That arc singlehandedly destroyed the good name of the series. Anime producers learned that nobody really likes that crap, and generally abandoned the practice of artificially slowing down the series by tying a 22-minute episode to a single 20-page chapter of manga.
So then they came up with a clever idea: introduce non-canonical action, stuff that doesn’t really matter or count, but buys the mangaka some time. And the Garlic Jr. saga (also horrible) came about. You’re really damned if you do, damned if you don’t… but a bit less so for inserting filler instead of slowing the series down.
But sometimes that idea backfires, especially if the filler is particularly bad. Rurouni Kenshin is the classic example of this: The first episode up through about episode 63 (the end of the Kyoto arc) is canonical, manga-sourced material. Then, at the end of that sequence, the cast takes a slow stroll back home, visits some hot springs, and then gets embroiled in these really incredibly stupid Geomancer and Christians arcs. Now, the Christians arc is … tolerable. It’s not great, but it’s tolerable. But the Geomancer arc is arguably the worst thing to happen to a reasonably good series since … well, ever. Faced with the declining popularity of the show, the tv stations cancelled it before it could pull itself out of the ratings nosedive that the poorly-constructed filler brought about.
The lesson here: if you’re going to have to use filler, you need to at least make it entertaining and well-crafted. Doing things that are clearly outside of the scope of how the universe should behave (geomancers, bounto, meteorite-chakra) are bad ideas, they make viewers forget to suspend their disbelief, and really snap them out of the show, and then they get tired of it and go watch something else.
But there’s another way you could go: the Hunter x Hunter route. Togashi was drawing HxH as the show aired, and after 62 episodes, the series caught up with the manga, and left the story in a place where you couldn’t really just transplant the characters into non-canonical story. And you also couldn’t jump ahead of the manga, because of possible story conflicts that would occur. So they just stopped doing the TV show, and released a couple of OVA series to finish out the pending parts of the plot (up through the end of the Greed Island arc). Good thing, too, ’cause Togashi’s been pretty slow about drawing the rest of the series, spending large amounts of time on sick leave for some unspecified reason. It’s best, if a series isn’t going to see itself through to completion in an animated for, just to engage in the Fremen “Philosophy of the Knife” — that is, if it doesn’t look like it’s going to end, cut it off, then you can say “there, it ends here.” Or, to put it another way, choose how to end it before the fans and the studio lose interest and force it down on a bad note.
But with Naruto and Bleach, there’s hope. The fillers will eventually end. Hopefully sooner rather than later. The upcoming manga is already comfortably ahead of the anime in both cases. Naruto bought nearly 2 more years for Kishimoto to finish more storyline, and he’s made regular, consistent, somewhat exciting progress. Manga-readers can’t wait to see that stuff animated. Similarly, Kubo’s got some interesting stuff going on in Bleach, and again manga-readers can’t wait to see it come to life.
Naruto and Bleach can get away with it, because they’ve been extremely well-received in general. But their ratings are still suffering, and filler isn’t sustainable forever. Both series have learned from past mistakes though, and while it’s generally crappy (ie: Bleach spending a full episode having the crew frantically running away from water), it’s still better than destroying good material by catching up to the manga and wrecking the pacing of the show.
Still, this stuff is there for a reason, and that reason is that the TV production began “too early” on both shows, to capitalize on the popularity of the manga. But that’s really not a fair evaluation: if Naruto had been started in 2004 instead of 2002, there would have been no need for filler at this point, but there would also have been no huge groundswell of anime fandom that resulted from it, the market as a whole would be smaller and the world would be a different place.
Was it the right decision to walk the filler-littered path? Probably, in the case of Naruto and Bleach. But it’s certainly a dangerous one.
Good stories take time to put together, and it’s hard to tell an epic over a decade when you’re publishing a chapter a week… a lot of planning and preparation has to go into it, to decide exactly where the series is going and how it’s getting there. Authors like Stephen King can pull it off (with his Dark Tower series spanning 1982-2004), and Rowling’s story of the 6-ish years of planning and writing she put into the first book in the Harry Potter series are a bit telling of how that can be done too. But both King and Rowling only have to publish a total of 7 times, they can sit on their storylines and ruminate for months, revising the story, weaving later hints at the story into earlier parts. By publishing as they go, manga authors have a lot less of that flexibility — they can’t go back after chapter 20, and insert pages into chapter 2.
Moreover, good storytellers deserve our support, whether they be bomb-droppers like King and Rowling or incremental builders like Kishimoto and Kubo. So, while it’s disheartening to watch the things we enjoy slide downhill, have faith that the stuff that’s coming up is going to be worth the wait.
Update to address some of the things that have been commented on:
Yes, you’re right, a year and a half is not 2 years (unless you’re rounding pretty coarsely :p). However, any guesses as to the end of the Naruto filler are also pure speculation at this point. It’s not over yet. Maybe it’ll be over this week, maybe it’ll be over this season, maybe it won’t. They very well COULD make another season worth of filler and get away with it.
Dragon Ball Z’s poor pacing in the Frieza saga indeed did not kill the series, but it DID wreck its reputation among anyone turning even the mildest critical eye at the show. Drooling fanboys will be happy as long as there’s pretty colors and some semblance of fighting, and if that’s the only market you’re able to keep happy, at least it’s a lucrative enough one in Japan (and the US, I might add) to keep the show on the air. The thing is, if you mention DBZ to anyone, ANYONE in the US who hasn’t really given it more of a chance than it probably deserved in the first place, the first thing they’ll think of isn’t the series’ profuse “redemption” and “karmic atonement” themes, but the screaming and powering up. The show lived, but the reputation of the show died.
Stopping the airing of the show is likewise a bad idea. When you do that, you automatically lose an embedded, habitual viewer base. Yes, the TV studios are out to make money, and as long as the show is profitable, they’ll make their money. But more than that, when a show stops airing, it’s extremely unlikely that the show will ever air again. The ONLY examples I can think of are Family Guy and Futurama — american shows largely killed by Fox’s poor scheduling practices, and largely revived by their extremely vigorous DVD sales pointing to an eager marketplace. However, the other canonical example would again be Ruroni Kenshin, which ended up with another substantial story arc that never got animated and never will. Further, HxH has another several volumes worth of manga drawn, but there haven’t even been credible rumors of another series in production to address those.
But the only things that have successfully done that have been episodic in nature. The Hunter X Hunter experiment, while it sold some dvds and tapes, is largely a failure — even with a successful OVA, nobody in the production chain is going to make nearly the revenues that a successful TV show (with all the trappings: merchandizing, accessorizing, advertising, movie spinoffs) would make. When it was airing, the TV show generalized to virtually all of East Asia (at least, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore), and on into several arab nations too. The OVAs simply aren’t going to get that level of penetration, no matter what they do, because of all the new licenses that would have to be hammered out for every locale.
Even though the Naruto fillers are decidedly causing some people to lose interest in the series, they’re still making substantial amounts of money, keeping up the feeling of continuity for the viewers, and generally working out for everyone involved. While the latest movie didn’t stay in the top couple of movies in Japan very long, it did make it into the top 5 (if I remember correctly, I haven’t found a source for that) — not a bad achievement, but a complete failure compared to the stellar performance of the first two movies.