Ask John: Why Does Anime Use Filler Episodes?

Why is it that when long-running anime series end up catching-up to the story told in the manga, they almost always start to go downhill at an incredible rate, sometimes to the point where it gets old fans to speak against the show?

I’ve noticed this now in Ruroni Kenshin and the “filler” episodes of One Piece among others. Do you have any idea why this phenomenon happens so often?

Although less expensive to produce than American animation, anime still requires a significant financial investment to produce. For that reason, most anime is adapted from established manga that has proven successful and popular. It’s less risky to produce anime based on an already successful formula than create a totally original anime work.

But there are fundamental differences between manga and animation. The illustration of time and motion are different in manga than they are in animation. In a manga, an entire day can pass by in a single printed page while animation may spend several seconds, minutes, or even full episodes illustrating that same amount of time. And the reverse is also true. Time may progress much slower in manga than in an anime counterpart. Furthermore, many manga are serialized in monthly magazines while anime TV series episodes are broadcast once a week. So if there are four times as many installments of an anime as there are of its manga within a single month, it should come as no surprise that the anime storyline may quickly catch up to the story development of its manga source.

When an anime adaptation catches up to its source manga, the animation staff is usually faced with two options: quit making the anime until there’s more manga story to animate, or take the anime storyline into a new, original direction. It makes logical sense. If you drive on a paved road until the road ends, you can either sit and wait until more road is paved in front of you, or you can go off-road and make your own path. (The rare exception is when the original manga creator writes story specifically for the animation staff to produce, as creator Kazuya Minekura did when the Saiyuki Reload Gunlock anime caught up with the manga.) When the Hunter x Hunter anime television series story caught up to the manga, the anime production staff made the bold decision to simply end the anime right at that point, which caused outrage within the Japanese fan community. Likewise, when the Twelve Kingdoms and Candidate for Goddess anime reached the end of their respective source material, the anime series just ended. In the case of massively successful shows like One Piece, Dragonball, Rurouni Kenshin, and Naruto, show sponsors and producers don’t want to see a highly profitable show suddenly end during its peak of popularity, so the shows are extended or continued with original stories. While the anime relate new stories, the manga artist has time to create new more manga for the animation staff to adapt.

The original content that conjoins direct adaptations from the source manga is often referred to as “filler” because it fills in the gaps between points of direct manga adaptation. Filler is also often narratively inferior to segments of the anime that are based directly on the source manga because the filler content isn’t written or created by the original author. But before criticizing filler story arcs and episodes too harshly, fans should remember that without filler episodes they wouldn’t get any of their favorite anime at all. Filler episodes are a necessary evil, a bridge between the high points in an anime adaptation. It’s virtually inevitable that anime screenwriters and directors won’t be able to create original storylines that are as good as those created by the series’ original creator. After all, manga creators specialize in creating manga and animators specialize in creating anime, and the two rarely take over each others’ roles, and even less frequently take on each others’ duties seamlessly.

Especially foreign fans tend to criticize filler episodes in anime because they don’t comprehend filler content in the proper context. American fans who are unhappy with noticeably inferior story arcs in their favorite anime only notice and comment on the lulls; they don’t consider why the filler content exists or what its purpose is. It’s natural to be disappointed when the narrative of a show like One Piece or Naruto suddenly moves in a tangential or unsatisfying direction, but fans should always be mindful of the vehemence of their criticism, keeping in mind that the alternative to filler episodes is no One Piece or Naruto anime at all.

Thanks to Dessa for providing the Kazuya Minekura exception example.


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