Filler is usually a dirty word in anime. Manga readers deride it as not canon to the manga. Anime viewers deride it as a wasteful distraction from the real story. It has been both the bane of the faithful and broken the spirit of even the most dedicated fans, looking at you Naruto. Most would rather their series go on hiatus than suffer through poorly written filler. Imagine if instead of a 4 year hiatus with Attack on Titan we got four years of filler? Pretty scary right?
Well not all filler is created equal. Every once in a while those corporate beaten writers of the anime studios actually produce very good filler that not only compliments the series but either adds to the lore or is just enjoyable. Take the famous Cars episode of DBZ easily one of the best fillers ever made. Or look at the famous Three Year Training episode in DBZ. It gave the famous and iconic moment of Bulma cradling a wounded Vegeta that set all Vegeta Bulma fans’ hearts aflutter.
Unfortunately for Bleach most of its filler is distracting and wasteful. There is one shining exception however, The Zanpukto Tales. This is easily the best filler arc I’ve ever seen and should be an example of filler done right. It had very interesting multiple episode story and added more scope and depth to the secondary and little used characters of Bleach. It may be derided as filler but I challenge anyone who has seen it to call it the same hot garbage most filler is.
At the heart of the story is the rebellion of the Zanpukto. They fall under the spell of Muramasa and rebel against their Soul Reapers. It might have devolved into a predictable fetch quest from here but it did not. Since each Zanpukto is a reflection of their Soul Reaper’s true selves, each one is also able use their attacks to their greatest form with no limits. This forces some to admit their faults and others to face ugly truths about themselves. It’s amazing just see what everyone’s Zanpukto besides Ichigo’s really looks like.
Byakuya and Senbonzakura
A surprising focus on the story is with Byakuya and Senbonzakura. It’s refreshing to see how Senbonzakura is Byakuya without his noble façade. In many ways it is a reflection of how he truly feels despite his training to act otherwise. Their bond over the arc is great to see especially in Byakuya’s ultimate showdown with his greatest enemy.
Equally great is the arc’s focus on the Kuchiki Clan. While Byakuya is the current head we get to learn about his teacher and grandfather. We even see a fantastic flashback of him as a not quite ready Soul Reaper. It is great to say the least and really fascinating.
Also this arc has easily the best Byakuya fight in the series against Kouga. I know people will point to the his fight with Ichigo. It was hyped up and at the time pretty awesome. However I think a lot of people’s memories of it were of the hype. This fight stuck out at me more because it came out of nowhere. We had no idea how powerful Kouga actually was and for being filler it was amazing. Watch it and try not to be blown away in comparison to the Ichigo fight. It’s a thrilling use of skill, grit and legacy all in one fight. His fight with Ichigo really just had hype looking back.
Hitsugaya and Hyorinmaru
This was actually one of my favorite parts of the story. Hitsugaya has always been praised as a prodigy of great power. Here is one of the first times we actually get to see the true depths of his powers. He may one day eclipse even Captain Yamamoto himself. Though his body is immature his Zanpukto Hyorinmaru is not. We get too see more of Histugaya’s past and the conflict of him not even being recognized by his Zanpukto. It was truly great from the moment it was hinted at that it would occur.
Ichigo barely plays a role
One of Bleach’s big criticisms is that Ichigo can do anything. As the main character he rarely faces a challenge he can’t overcome. More so after the Soul Society arc than before admittedly. Ichigo is so special he is part everything the writer can think of. He wins by virtue of predestined genetics and a little training. Which was fine at first in the Soul Reaper arc since it was mysterious, but as he got further along it became ridiculous.
One of the Zanpukto Tales’ great strength is that it doesn’t rely on him for everything. Sure he ends up in the final episode fighting the big bad. But let’s be real if Kubo isn’t creative enough to not have Ichigo kill every final enemy, the filler won’t stray far from his example.
If you’ve never seen it, I recommend you find a way to watch it. You don’t need a huge knowledge of Bleach to watch it. I’d say if you finished the Soul Society arc you can watch it just fine. It’s a shame we had to suffer through the Bount arc. It would have been much better to have this arc instead right after the Soul Society arc.
Also other anime studios could learn from this. The basic lesson is if we have to suffer through filler and lord knows we do, at least do something unique. Expand our knowledge of side characters or do something the manga doesn’t do. Try to at least press against the edge of the box if you can’t step outside of it. We need more filler that is actually enjoyable and worth watching that isn’t just a beach/swimming pool/ beauty contest episode. Not that those aren’t fun, but in comparison to the Zanpukto Tales they just don’t measure up.