I’m going to make a real, conceited effort to be less self-conscious about what I decide is appropriate or “good enough” to bother posting here, because for the last year or so, I’ve found myself turning down almost every idea I have for entries. And yeah, a lot of those ideas were crap, but the rest aren’t nearly as bad as I first thought and are worth exploring. The only way to find out for sure is to go ahead and take a crack at one, which I’ll do now. So here’s my attempt at an episode review, with possibly more to come. These will probably come quite sporadically and probably won’t be sequential or even current. I’m not gonna gussy it up here; these are just thoughts I have about what’ll probably look like a really random selection of episodes from a few different series.
For instance, here’s an episode of Naruto Shippuden that aired almost six months ago. Oh yeah, it’s also filler. Perhaps no series has employed quite as many filler episodes as both incarnations of Naruto, much to the chagrin of the series fans and ex-fans who finally lost patience with the franchise after several seasons’ worth of filler episodes — the exact chronology of which I’m not going to research at this time — consisting of one insultingly bad episode after another after another. Naruto Shippuden has provided little relief for filler-weary fans, although it’s upped the quality of said filler enough to please what few fervent viewers are still tuning in (for what they usually know ahead of time isn’t going to be an episode of any consequence). Much of Shippuden‘s filler consists of flashbacks to the original series’ timeline, revisiting conflicts from new perspectives and focusing on character development that past filler never explored or acknowledged.
The trouble with filler, for me at least, has never been the fact that it breaks from the continuity of the story, but that it’s almost always a wasted opportunity for writers to actually do something of interest and meaning with the characters. Of course, none of this can defy the current or future plot of the series, but I don’t think this is as big of a limitation as it’s made out to be. I realize that most fanfiction tends to take ridiculous liberties with both the source plot and characters of a series, enough of it’s been written to prove that meaningful, fascinating and high-quality stories can be told from within the boundaries set by the original source. There seems to be a great divide between the mindset of the kind of fans who pen these fics and the anime writers who put together the often-absurd filler that everyone loves to hate. I don’t understand why this should be or why it’s just accepted by everyone as an unfortunate but inevitable part of the anime business.
This brings me to one episode of Shippuden that, for once, defies the series’ tendency to churn out the sort of episodes that give filler a bad name. I do have to wonder how much my opinion in this matter has to do with the fact that I’ve always been one of those fans who’s been drawn to the supporting cast of the series, as “Friends You Can Count On” focuses solely on said supporting characters, namely Team 8 (Kiba, Shino and Hinata). In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Hinata has long been my favorite character of the whole series, so the fact that the episode prominently features her has surely informed my opinion. But regardless of who’s on deck for this week’s flashback-filler, the episode is notable for the fact that it’s not built around the inconsequential villain-of-the-week conflict or the ostensibly-funny “wacky mission” template that’s so often a fallback for writers saddled with writing filler. Rather, this is a rare character-driven episode, and one that develops said characters beyond the simple, one-dimensional traits that writers seem so often content to paint them with.
Quick summary: the episode is a flashback to the past in which the characters (still young genin in training) are searching for a rogue ninja from a neighboring village. Shino (whose insect-style makes him a specialist in long-distance attacks) is separated from his teammates, faces the enemy in close combat and is soundly defeated. Filled with doubt and despair over his humiliating loss, he rejects his teammates and retreats into solitary training. Kurenai orders both Kiba and Hinata to pull him out of his funk by any means necessary. The two of them do so by taking him to a hot springs for a short retreat, in which they work to sharpen his skills and boost his morale. After two days of rigorous training, Shino’s hand-to-hand fighting techniques improve drastically, but his confidence in his ultimate ability to protect his teammates remains unchanged, leading him to resign from squad 8. The sudden arrival of news that their enemy is near spurs the team into action, but will Shino join his friends in their pursuit of him? I think you all can guess the answer to that, but that doesn’t make the episode trite or unenjoyable. Rather, it’s one of the more satisfying Naruto episodes I’ve seen, full stop. Even if it is filler.
Since team 7 blew up after Sasuke’s departure, we haven’t seen much emphasis on teamwork or interpersonal relationships in any of the ninja squads. Nor has either incarnation of Naruto done much to truly develop any of the supporting characters of the series beyond the early chunin exam episodes. Critics may point out that the occurrence of these themes in this episode “don’t count,” since they’ll likely never be referenced again in the future. Still, for the viewer who actually watches filler and absorbs it as an essential part of taking in the overall experience of the series, it does contribute to the depth of the characters and will probably make their future appearances all the more meaningful.
Developing supporting characters has never been one of Naruto‘s strengths — exactly how it could or “should” do this, or how it compares to other shonen series is another matter worthy of consideration, but it’s one I don’t exactly feel qualified to dive into at this time — but that hasn’t stopped fans from flocking to the supporting cast, anyway. Heck, it could even be said that the supporting characters receive more attention and “support” from fans, proportionately speaking, than the main protagonist does (at least here in Western fandom, no idea what goes on in Japan). And yet, rather little of that has gone to Shino, whose aloofness from the other characters and rare appearances has probably drawn him the smallest fanclub of Naruto characters out there (it’s also important to note that I’ve never observed a single instance of any hate-filled fans, of which Naruto has legions, expressing any ire whatsoever towards him either, making him both the least popular and likely least-hated character in the series). The conflict he faces in this episode is believable and, with the help of his teammates, is dealt with in a realistic manner. I don’t know if a single episode like this will win him the masses of fans that some of his fellow ninja have, but it’s at least a start.
As for my favorite character, I’ve always enjoyed Hinata-focused episodes, although the actual payoff from them tends to be less than we’d hope. I mean, look no further than the episode we’d all been waiting for, in which one of the series’ longest-running subplots seemed to reach its climax only to be dismissed and seemingly forgotten in the episodes and seasons that followed like so much… filler. Despite this anticlimatic letdown, Hinata has seen a good deal of character development over the years, growing from a meek girl with little confidence in herself to a strong-willed, capable young woman at peace with her future role in her family’s clan, whatever it may be. In between our glimpse of her as a helpless child in her days before attending the ninja academy (flashbacks in episode #166) and her assignment to fight on the front line of the impending ninja war (episode #256), we view her in this episode, showing another side of herself that fans may have suspected but rarely got to see. Her empathy and feelings for her teammates not only helps her defuse conflicts between them — considering Shino’s often offensive reticentness and Kiba’s headstrong lack of tact, this is no small feat — but her patience and willingness to help them makes her a naturally effective teacher. The intensity she displays during her sparring with Shino shows her keen understanding of her teammate and betrays her desire for him to grow stronger (to say nothing of her own will to win), and her insights on “visualization” during combat (a topic that she should know more about than any other character) also reveal her as particularly insightful bearer of useful truths. Compared to all the other rookies, it’s hard to imagine any others taking on the job she had in this episode and doing it half as well. Is this enough to make her a legitimately “strong character?” I don’t know. But it reveals her to be exponentially more adapt at handling crises than before (or if you prefer the curt expression, she’s “more useful” than we thought).
Perhaps none of these developments matter in the grand scheme of the story, but even if they’re thrown by the wayside in next week’s episode (Hinata gets kidnapped! Kiba gets upset! Shino gets ignored!), this episode contributes to the series as a whole by not just developing its characters, but by reinforcing its greater themes of teamwork, respect and perseverance. It stands as proof that filler doesn’t have to suck and can even make for rewarding and memorable episodes when treated with the care that it deserves.