On Pacing: Filler

It is not a secret that I was not fond of Kimetsu no Yaiba. I criticised a lot of aspects of it: from the largely uninspired score, to the inconsistent 3d animation, but the thing that most turned me off of the series was the thing that, ironically, brought in viewers. You see, a rather profoundly spoken fan once argued that, and I roughly quote: ‘Kimetsu no Yaiba started after Boku no Hero Academia, got its protagonist up to his final level and finished its story before Deku and his school buddies could even get through their first school year.’

And the hordes of fans agree that this is somehow a good thing. Brevity and concision are the in thing.

In my opening paragraph to my Galaxy 999 review, I confess that I am fearful of long running anime. There’s a multitude of reasons: real life issues cropping up and driving me away, the series gradually losing its shimmer, the series quality going down et cetera. Padding is a concern, but it’s not a primary concern, and not for the reason you might think. Put simply, I’m far more afraid of a show rushing than taking its time.

I implore creators to take their time. Time is, indeed, a luxury that is difficult to afford, but that’s where skill comes in. Plot urgency is one thing that can convince viewers to carry on watching until the next episode – to go back to my Kimetsu no Yaiba example, Tanjirou’s quest to turn his sister back from demon to human is the ongoing goal that draws you back in… but this is also extremely hazy with a barely defined pathway and it’s even unclear if the goal is obtainable. Doh. Let’s try again: on a smaller scale, we could say that Kimetsu no Yaiba never used the ‘episodic’, and always brought a cliffhanger or a ‘hook’ into the next arc to end its 20 minute runs, thus always enticing you to the next episode to see what would happen to our heroes next. Kimetsu no Yaiba relied upon plot urgency to keep you going to the next episode, and never let that aspect dwindle. If it slowed down, what would bring us back? Hint: it’s certainly not the dreadful comedy.

I first sensed Kimetsu no Yaiba’s inability to take its time during the Final Selection arc, whereby the exam itself was montaged aside from a boss battle. There was a lot of potential to develop Tanjirou here and it was missed, and it set the trend as such for the rest of the series.

Excuse me for sounding neanderthal for a sec’, ’cause there’s a far more profound way to bring viewers back: quality. It sounds simple, but simply being entertaining is the way to draw viewers back in. The ideal example of this is Jigoku Shoujo Futakomori, which doesn’t define an endgame goal until the final few episodes, but rather the drip-drip-drips of changing characterisation setup its exciting climatic sequence – and it does all this within bitesize chunks of, largely, standalone episodes. What brings you back isn’t to see where the story goes next with cliffhangers and making you feel like you’ve got to see more because you’ve not seen a full picture yet… it’s merely trust. Trust that the next episode will be good.

Now this sounds like a basal insult to Kimetsu no Yaiba. Not (completely) intended (promise). I’m trying to make the point that ‘filler’ – not the term used by manga-to-anime-adaption critics calling out ‘anime original’ sequences, but the ‘not important’ variety of filler – shouldn’t be measured by what it is, but by how good it is on its own.

Even if something is, ultimately, not that important in the story, it should still be worth digesting. The moe genre is built entirely on irrelevance, yet it’s so beloved because of charm and relaxing times; the tradeoff is that, since moe series like Gochuumon wa Usagi desu ka? and Yuru Yuri have so little cumulative characterisation or developed stories, they rarely access the highest ratings amongst fans. I digress: the grand importance of filler becomes clearest to see when we discuss the more plot-heavy types of shows. Or, for circularity, let’s callback to Boku no Hero Academia.

Boku no Hero Academia does indeed have filler. Even outside of anime original content like Momo leading her group to success in the Provisional License Exam arc – which does not further the story of Deku/Bakugo inheriting the Symbol of Peace moniker or All for One/The League of Villains – there is stuff like the School Festival arc. This unimportant ‘filler’ is actually really crucial to see the characters and world existing outside of the plots, and it is where writing can easily add another dimension. Boku no Hero Academia actually has built a lot of rapport between its extraneous cast and even has ‘cliques’ such as Momo and Jirou becoming unlikely pals (shipshipship) or Kaminari and Kirishima becoming Bakugo’s friends and staunchest allies (that also try to keep him from doing anything too villainous). The show gets a chance to strut its characters more broadly, since the lowered level of urgency opens up chances for less relevant characterisation, hobbies or dreams, and can even focus on the less important characters.

The Boku no Hero Academia anime has done wonders for secondary cast members – Momo in particular, who’s accumulated more developments than some of the major players at this point.

Tone can open up too, as there’s less whiplashing moments for comedy and drama can potentially be foreshadowed and setup more elegantly than in focused arcs – see Jigoku Shoujo Futakomori’s rather ironic sense of humour there, or how Princess Principal’s rather focused style managed to find an extremely funny bone to endear you to Chise outside of the missions. World-building is also something that filler will take advantage of – compare Made in Abyss’ dire world-building attempts to Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou’s, and you can see the difference is one giving the characters a chance to smell the flowers, feel the breeze and really taking in and exploring that scenery rather than speed-running through it to the next plot point at the expense of all else.

This isn’t, of course, to say that filler is perfect. I’ve discussed that moe shows have a lack of urgency and story and that can reduce their punchiness or long-term resonance with viewers and the same is true for filler episodes/arcs more generally – it can all feel a bit meaningless. It’s possible to take your time and not achieve anything worthwhile with that time. But the same is true for plot-heavy too, no? Irregardless of plot importance, we should be asking ourselves the same question as entertainment critics: am I entertained? And I, personally, am far more excited by the prospect of something developing its ideas broadly than it getting to the point shallowly. So, by all means, take your time. Just, as with anything, earn my attention, and I will be more than happy to pay.

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