What does “filler” mean in anime?

© Anime Tide

Completing a TV show with hundreds of episodes is not an easy task.

You can’t expect animators to come up with new material every week without tiring out the viewer, especially if they are watching more than one show at once. Thus, anime companies have begun producing filler episodes, which are essentially non-canonical episodes that either flesh out one or more characters or showcase events that never actually happened.

The function in most shows is simple: prolong its run without having it become stale. Whether they are good filler episodes is entirely different, though some series have gotten creative with them and turned their hiccups into home runs. If you’re wondering just what filler episodes are, then this article is for you.

As mentioned above, filler episodes are non-canonical; they never actually happened. The term is usually applied to abridged series. However, some shows like Nichijou don’t even bother with filler material but still have plenty of canonically unimportant skits that give the characters more personality than what’s expected of them. This anime uses just enough humor and animation to get its point across without overstaying its welcome; no easy feat considering how most comedy anime aren’t masters of storytelling.

What about the more common “filleranime?

Filler episodes tend to be so-called because they often pad out an episode of a show for whatever reason doesn’t allow more material to stretch it out until the subsequent contests, tournaments, or fateful encounter. They’re prevalent in Shonen anime, partially as most manga doesn’t have arcs shorter than ten or twenty episodes long. Many main characters die or regularly lose for tension’s sake.

A series like Fairy Tail, for example, had a ton of its episodes be dedicated to this filler material, which was frustrating because the majority of them were relatively uneventful and slowed the pace down significantly. They weren’t good episodes as they didn’t contribute much to the overarching plot aside from character development. That isn’t to say filler episodes can never be any good; some are fantastic and even important to the overall story.

If you ever watched Naruto, then you know just how lousy filler episodes can get. For a show about ninjas, it sure had a lot of episodes where the main characters were doing something other than fighting or training, and a lot of them weren’t even funny. Some were downright egregious due to how they didn’t even try to fit in with the rest of the canon material; they were pointless jokes that probably took up space so that the animators wouldn’t have anything else to animate. One episode revolved around giant frogs for no discernible reason, while another showed an older Kakashi Gaiden storyline than what was depicted in its respective movie.

This is not unique to Naruto, though. Code Geass two filler arcs that served only to show off more of its world instead of contributing to the main story or change up the formula in any way, which was good because everything that happened in them was pretty lame. One involved allying with a former enemy soldier who once fought off invaders. At the same time, another took place on an island inhabited by people who emulate famous battles from history for amusement, and neither episode added anything to either character’s development.

Of course, there are much worse filler arcs out there than these two. The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime had one where Tea became Queen of Serpents due to losing a duel despite being one of the most useless characters in the series. In contrast, Bleach had several filler episodes where Ichigo met his mother and grandfather because said mother decided to reenter his life out of the blue after a few years.

They’re not all bad, though. Fairy Tail had its fair share of filler episodes, but thankfully, they were usually entertaining and even contributed to character development instead of taking time away from major plot points. One episode was devoted to Natsu learning how to swim, while another took place in a town where a festival takes place every hundred thousand days since people are immortal there. If the events don’t necessarily move the story along, they’re different enough that fans don’t mind watching them.

Series like Bleach and Naruto with seemingly endless arcs might have you believing that filler is always useless. Still, it’s hardly true – sometimes the filler contributes to characterization or has other redeeming value. Those two series tend to have filler that does nothing but wastes your time; you can almost always expect them to be relatively uneventful and unnecessary. It’s the kind of material that probably should not have been made in the first place because it doesn’t do anything for the plot, even though they’re usually still watchable if there aren’t any other anime out at the moment. They don’t contribute much, but they’re not exactly bad either.

The filler material is typically an author’s way of prolonging a manga’s or show’s run without going through the hassle of creating brand new arcs (which makes sense because why would you want to create more work for yourself?). It’s a way to keep a series going without worrying too much about writing, they have to come up with some acceptable filler content, and then everything’s fine. These usually aren’t great, but it does happen.

At the same time, though, there exist fillers that positively contribute to the series in its entirety. Filler can be integral for character development. If you watch enough anime or read enough manga, then you’ll notice that a lot of experimentation happens when it comes to filling out time before a significant arc starts again; some ideas work while others don’t, and sometimes this results in something pretty meaningful if it’s handled well or terribly if it isn’t.

The best fillers are the ones that don’t feel like fillers at all because they have a purpose. They aren’t just there to pad out time and nothing else, and they have become a significant part of a character or world’s development.

Fortunately, the anime industry isn’t exactly ignorant of this fact. There are tons of great examples where fillers become an integral part of a show. Bleach is perhaps one of the best examples, considering how many filler episodes there were, and yet not a single episode felt like filler as they were made well. Not only were they entertaining due to their variety in content, but they helped develop several characters in some way or another.