Three Naruto Filler Arcs You Shouldn't Skipby Amy McNulty,
If there's one thing that unites the Naruto fanbase, it's a shared distaste for anime-original episodes, more commonly known as “fillers.” Even viewers who gave the series a chance—perhaps watching over a hundred episodes—seem to lose interest in the face of lengthy chunks of filler. To many fans, Masashi Kishimoto is the only writer capable of producing compelling Naruto stories, so they skip the fillers on principle.
However, I would argue that the fault doesn't lie so much with the quality of the fillers—although the stories aren't always A-material—but the frequency with which the producers churn them out. As of episode 417, Naruto Shippūden has aired 165 filler episodes. (It's not a straightforward count, mind you, since some episodes only partially qualify as filler.) Combine that with the original series’ 89, and that translates to 254 episodes unrelated to the source material. With few exceptions, a new episode of the Naruto anime has aired every week for nearly 13 years, and until last fall, the show was produced concurrently with the manga. Since the typical episode adapts anywhere from two to three manga chapters, it was only a matter of time before anime-original stories sprung up.
To be fair, the fillers aren't always placed in the most logical narrative spots, especially as of late. That disturbs the pacing of the main storyline, so it's easy to dismiss the fillers as nothing more than annoying distractions. Still, if you make a point of skipping every non-manga-inspired story, you'll miss out on some quality anime.
The producers need anime-original stories, and the world of Naruto is ripe for more exploration. For example, only in the fillers do certain secondary players get time in the spotlight. (The anime screenwriters really seem to like Tenten.) Additionally, these original stories give viewers a chance to explore other countries and shinobi villages not featured in the original manga. It's easy to forget that the majority of this world's inhabitants aren't ninja since the manga-based storyline is so heavily focused on the Village of the Hidden Leaf. Skilled writers can play around with a world and characters from another creator; it's simply a matter of making the excursion feel as believable as possible. The following three filler arcs manage to do just that:
Naruto 152-157: The Kurosuki Family Removal Mission
When the cloak-clad Kurosuki Family wrests control of the Katabami Goldmine from the Land of River's magistrate, the miners are initially elated. After all, their former boss claimed a disproportionate share of the spoils, leaving very little gold for the people who actually mined it. Unfortunately, the Kurosuki Family isn't a much better employer. Not only are the miners turned into slaves, anyone who voices discontent is buried alive in a crude makeshift cemetery. Family head Raiga—easily one of the most unstable villains the series has ever featured—revels in holding elaborate funerals for his victims at which he sheds genuine tears and delivers heartfelt eulogies. As he puts it, “When people are alive, they speak ill of, hate and betray each other. But at a funeral, they forget all their hatred and remember the good times.”
When an intrepid group of miners manages to escape the Kurosukis’ clutches, they make their way to the Hidden Leaf and plead their case to the Fifth. Tsunade promptly tasks Team Guy with traveling to the Land of River to resolve the issue. Much to Neji's chagrin, she also orders Naruto to tag along because, well, his name is in the title. Also, she's tired of him moping around the village in light of Sasuke's disappearance. Initially disinterested, Naruto soon changes his tune after learning that Raiga may be one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. If true, this would mean he's acquainted with Kisame, who's acquainted with Itachi, whom Sasuke is determined to kill. A tenuous connection, but the screenwriters had to get the titular character onboard somehow.
En route to the Katabami Goldmine, perpetually gung-ho Rock Lee insists that the group make a pit stop at a roadside curry restaurant. As it turns out, “Bushy Brows” has a history with the eatery's owner. While engaged in a rigorous three-day marathon with Might Guy, sleep-deprived Lee collapsed in front of the restaurant. In order to revive him, proprietress Sansho and her demure son Karashi force-fed the poor boy a curry concoction teeming with salamanders, live turtles and a plethora of other revolting ingredients. Soon after sampling this culinary witch's brew, Lee awakened and dubbed the dish “the Curry of Life.” Sadly, in the interim, weak-willed Karashi joined the Kurosuki Family in an effort to get stronger. Now, in addition to deposing the Kurosukis, our heroes must bring home Sansho's wayward brood.
While many filler excursions veer off in overly-silly directions or take themselves too seriously, the “Kurosuki Family Removal Mission” arc does a commendable job of balancing action and comedy with a little bit of drama. Throughout the ensuing conflict, Tenten, Lee, Neji and, of course, Naruto are given ample opportunities to show off their signature moves. Even guest characters like Karashi and Ranmaru make welcome additions to the anime canon and manage to elicit feelings of empathy. Although Raiga and his Kurosuki cohorts are a little too over-the-top to be taken seriously, their unique fighting styles are able to give the Hidden Leaf shinobi a run for their money, thus making for some compelling battles.
For the most part, the artwork and animation found throughout this arc are solidly middle-of-the-road. The sole exception is episode 155, which showcases some of the choppiest movement and most off-model character designs the series has ever featured. Even so, this ambitious arc's abundance of genuinely funny gags, top-tier brawls and touching character moments make it more than deserving of a spot on this list.
Naruto Shippūden 170-171: The Quest for the Fourth Hokage's Legacy
Since the Naruto cast loans itself well to comedy, the humor-focused fillers make for some of the best anime-original fare. An “arc” in the loosest sense of the word, the two-episode “The Quest for the Fourth Hokage's Legacy” is actually set during the original Naruto anime—specifically, on the day before the final round of the chunin exam. It pits Naruto against Shikamaru in a race through a perilous obstacle course to discover a secret technique the Fourth Hokage is rumored to have left behind. Sakura is there to assist Naruto, while Team Asuma does their best to track down the technique before the remaining two thirds of Team Seven. (Since Choji is actually supposed to be sick at this point in the story, his seemingly healthy presence is a plot hole.) These episodes also offer viewers a peek into Gaara's solemn preparations for his attack on the Hidden Leaf the next day.
Tightly-plotted and lots of fun, this short arc is a prime example of good pacing. Although there's little dramatic tension, the bickering between the characters as they face such challenges as a giant spider and rafting down a raging river is consistently amusing. It's part action, part brain teaser as Shikamaru does what he does best and helps the ninja think their way out of ingenious puzzles. Of course, since none of this story's featured players roll out a super-secret hidden technique in the final round of exams, it's no surprise the story ends in a comical fashion.
The bright color scheme, playful banter and top-shelf gags keep this arc's tone light. “The Quest for the Fourth Hokage's Legacy” is as close as Naruto has come to being a full-on gag anime. While there are better humor-centric shows out there, this represents a solid effort for a series that usually focuses more on action and character.
Naruto Shippūden 290-295: Power
To celebrate over 500 episodes of the Naruto anime, the producers crafted “Power,” an original tale set shortly before the start of the Fourth Shinobi World War. (Although it aired well after the war was underway.) Since the mechanics of getting “Power”’s key players together in the same place at this point in time are dubious at best, the arc works well as a standalone story with some ties to the concurrent manga-based storyline. Fortunately, it does a much better job of tying itself into the overarching plot than other filler excursions that have attempted to do the same.
Tonika Village is home to “The Hole,” a sacred site at the edge of the Land of Fire. The villagers are there to protect this site and the treasures therein. Most tempting and secret of these is the special spring waters, which “overflow with life” by increasing the rate of cell division. It's these waters that attract the attention of Kabuto, who, admittedly, should be busy orchestrating the countless corpse-puppets needed to fight the war. He wants to use the water, along with his white snake healing factor and cells of fallen ninja, to produce actual reincarnated clones of the shinobi, not just walking corpses.
Team Seven (the Sai-instead-of-Sasuke and Yamato-instead-of-Kakashi iteration) responds to a call to investigate why most of the Tonika villagers had been brutally slaughtered in a horrific night raid. The arc reminds viewers that there's a whole world outside of the various ninja villages. Most of the Tonika villagers are helpless, and while their Imperial Guards are skilled swordfighters, none of them know ninjutsu. The hero of the story is a middle-aged, awkward and portly schoolteacher, Dokku, who protects a group of children he rescued from the village. Like many of the prominent guest characters in the Naruto feature films, he learns to believe in his own strength thanks to Naruto's optimism and guidance. However, unlike those characters, he's well into adulthood, sports a receding hairline and doesn't possess any measure of shinobi prowess. Dokku's relationships with those he loves, both past and present, are compellingly flawed and follow a poignant arc.
While the story features some of the series’ finest attempts at human drama, it's really the art and animation that make “Power” stand out. This arc looks and feels like a feature film. Granted, the characters, particularly Kabuto, look different—which, strangely, is often an indication that a Naruto episode will feature above-average animation. The fights are more fluidly animated than usual and the stellar artwork remains consistent throughout the entire arc. Effects like fire, explosions and a hydra-tailed Kurama clone are dazzling and give the battles a dark, somber mood. Watched back-to-back, the episodes essentially constitute a film split into in six parts—and the storyline and pacing are similar to what you'd find in most of the Naruto movies.
Out of such an extensive body of material, even the most jaded fan is likely to find something that aligns with his or her tastes. Many Shonen Jump-inspired anime make an active effort to avoid catching up to their respective parent manga. For example, the prematurely-concluded Bleach anime produced filler arcs of varying lengths, One Piece occasionally dabbles in filler but often elects to draw out manga chapters, and Gintama takes periodic one-to-two-year hiatuses. While the Gintama approach works well for manga purists, audience interest is likely to wane whenever a popular show takes a lengthy breather. There's also no guarantee Naruto's enviable timeslot would remain available if the program were to bow out for a year or two. In order for a series like Naruto to continue at a perpetual pace without making alterations to the manga's plotline, filler episodes become necessary—and they're really not all that bad.
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