What I Talk About When I Talk About Bleach
Listen, it’s time I came clean to you about something: I didn’t work a whole lot on this article. I mean, I had an outline all mapped out and everything, but when it came to the actual writing of the thing, I found myself stuck.
I thought of going all academic at first, where I’d list down all the technical stuff Bleach got wrong – and I mean all of it. A “leave no stone unturned” type of thing. But really, who’s got the time to do all that, now that Bleach is nothing but a distant memory to most anime fans? Sure, I had an outline – because what kind of a Bleach fan would I be if I didn’t properly keep track of all its bad habits – but the trick lay in making the list as readable as possible for people who weren’t as into the series as I was.
Okay, so there could have been better ways to start this thing. But that type of analytical article just isn’t for me. It ain’t my style. And hey, look on the bright side, it might not be for you, either. In what’s supposed to be the most important installment in this series, I’ve made the radical decision to not give a shit.
Sound familiar, eh, Kubo-sensei?
The Emergence of Shonen JesusSeeing Bleach end the way it did hurt me, and it’s a pain that begins and ends with its protagonist, Ichigo Kurosaki. I mentioned before how admirable it was that Ichigo was the type of hero to focus on saving people. A typical superhero, in other words, but without the showy, colorful energy. A typical shonen hero, if you will, but without the noodles addiction or loud declarations of goals left unachieved. All of these good things, for sure, but with Ichigo, these were the same traits that proved he was incapable of sustaining the kind of energy a long series like Bleach needed.
Ichigo was the kind of guy who rarely reacted to anything unless someone he knew was directly in trouble. In the manga’s five-arc run, the only reason he got involved in three of them was because he had to rescue friends who’d ended up in the clutches of the bad guys. It’s a standard shonen thing to always look out for one’s friends, but with Ichigo, it seemed… off, in a way. Almost like he lacked that extra oomph factor. Kinda like the entire series as a whole, now that I think about it.
When Bleach started, it was with a new, groovy, punk-like energy that threatened to change everything we knew about shonen manga – or at least, inject some new life into the thing. What it ended up doing instead, was tick the items off its trope checklist in the most standard ways possible. At this point, I understand there’s very little you can do to make shonen a completely new experience for everyone. At the same time, it should be possible to give a series that unique, personal feel to make it stand out from everyone else. In an industry rife with tropes, stereotypes, and other generic templates, Bleach committed the mortal sin of falling into the mainstream.
This is why mangaka Kubo Tite decided to fix this the only way shonen knew how: by giving his main character a lot of unbelievable power-ups.
This isn't even his final form!
The world of Bleach is a complex one, where besides humans on earth, you also have otherworldly beings like the shinigami, Hollows, and Quincies. And would you believe it, Ichigo has traces of all of these races in his DNA! Not only does this make him super special, it also makes him all kinds of powerful – so powerful, that Ichigo was able to shoot up the rankings to outclass literally everyone he might have considered a credible rival. What this left him with was a lack of real competition, so that when the next Big Bad showed up, you knew it was only a matter of time before even he got his ass handed to him by this new beast of a main character.
What this led to, was some very fucked-up power rankings, which we all know is the bread and butter of every specialized forum dedicated to long-running shonen series like this one. Because Ichigo had gotten so strong, other characters were forced to keep up by either getting unreal power-ups of their own, or getting written out of the fights altogether.
Not even a shotgun could elevate Renji from his doomed fate as “Plucky Sidekick #2.”
From here, Bleach became the unthinkable. It became boring. Worst of all, Ichigo himself started to get boring. Because he was always so reactive and never had to actively get off his hind to get better, Bleach was forced to move along at the same glacial pace. Hitokiri Battousai, he was not; after starting out as a guy inspiring charisma and loyalty for protecting his friends, Ichigo would only go on to become stagnant as the series continued.
Maybe I wanted him to be more selfish. Learn to stand up for himself a bit, you know, instead of waiting around for someone to get kidnapped before doing anything. The key word to remember here is “resolve.” Without it, the series wasn’t able to progress. With it, Ichigo was able to kick more ass with his generic-as-fuck powers. The funny thing about “resolve” was, Ichigo always seemed to lose it. From here, he’d spend the entire arc trying to find it again so that he could save the world. Besides development on the physical level, the only other way for Ichigo’s character to evolve was to have him lose his “resolve” first before he could take the next step… only for him to lose it again in the next arc.
It makes you wonder if Ichigo might have lost control of the plot at some point – after all, if fan convention is to be believed, then the only reason anyone stuck around with the series anymore was because of one more long-time favorite.
I’m thinking of a guy…
King of Asspulls, Lord of the FillersYou could say most of the things that went wrong with Bleach came from a desire to delay the inevitable. It’s clear in the number of unreasonable power-ups Ichigo got, and gets even more obvious in the ways the series chose to extend itself. In the anime, you had the infamous filler arcs that might have influenced today’s studios to release their series in shorter, more manageable chunks. In the manga, you had fight arcs that made Dragonball’s fight scenes feel like a dirty quickie in the alley. Instead of making attempts to spice things up on its own, Bleach used all the same dirty tricks and danced to the same cheap, repetitive beats.
It’s not Bleach’s plot extension that offends me here; it’s that the series made it all look so obvious. Like a filthy ex who knew the relationship was well on its way to Splitsville, Bleach pulled out all the stops to make the affair last as long as possible. And I, the ever-gullible dope who still held out hope for some eventual redemption, hung on until the end for old times’ sake.
Most of the arcs that came after the Soul Society Arc were nothing but remixes of it, all of them containing none of the nuance that defined it. While the iconic arc was defined by complex political conflicts and character-driven plotlines, everything else that came after it tried to compensate for the lack of intrigue by cramming as many reaction sho – er, fight scenes – into the panels as possible.
Another way Bleach liked to delay things was by pulling a lot of things out of its ass. Whether it was a random flashback or an out-of-this-world power-up, there was no shortage to the number of plot-altering devices it could throw out at any given moment. It got to be so good at what it did, you best believe this series had the term “asspull” trademarked, bookmarked, and archived as its own. When someone was going to die, for example, they’d get the grand total of one flashback before biting it.
If they were going to bite it.
That’s right, Fan Favorite #2, I’m looking at you.
You see, even if a character looked like he was going to die, you couldn’t really be sure of this until the flashback appeared. Unless the character got one of these, they were near-guaranteed a miraculous recovery in time to salvage the fanbase’s broken hearts.
And then you had about a million and one power-ups, each of them too generic to tell apart, and all of them strong enough to decimate a small town. Special side techniques that were introduced in the Soul Society Arc were all ignored in favor of bankai and other high-level trap cards. Gone were the days of outsmarting an opponent as equally-matched as you; instead, characters in later arcs would soon resort to flinging the spiritual equivalent of nuclear bombs at each other until the other side gave up.
By the time the series ended, nearly everyone had a bankai, even if this was supposed to be the mythical technique reserved only for the best of the best. We're never really sure how these characters got the bankai. We don't know what they had to go through to get it. All that mattered was that they already had one, never mind if they got this off-screen, via the ever-convenient flashback.
“Bitch, you thought,” was the over-riding sentiment in later arcs. Whether you thought a character was finally going to die, or a fight was finally going to make sense, Bleach was always quick to remind you of the sick joke it seemed to base all of its plotlines on. When OG Big Bad Aizen was finally defeated in the third arc, most fans stopped giving a shit, and it’s hard to blame them for it. The final arc got off to a strong, promising start, but any potential it had was eventually wasted. By doing more telling instead of showing, the series lost much of the initial hype that came with the final arc's launch, no thanks to a fresh barrage of tired plot points and generic story beats.
Character Designs and Duplicates
When the protagonist and plot stop being appealing enough for you to care, you turn to the familiar side characters to pick up the slack. Bleach initially prided itself in its rich cast of characters to sustain the Soul Society Arc, but it would eventually find itself burdened with the same thing in later storylines. With each new arc, came a whole new group of villains for the good guys to defeat – most of whom weren’t that well-developed in the first place.
This was a problem Bleach solved in a hurry by giving characters the all-important flashback. Thanks to this, guys who never really stood out in the beginning would get their fifteen seconds of fame; with this, readers were given a crash course on the character’s profile, motivation, and desires. The problem of having too many characters was a problem Bleach also chose to resolve by – you guessed it – throwing in even more characters.
Each one of these wannabes was named after a letter of the alphabet, I shit you not.
Of course, the trick to mastering characters doesn’t lie in giving everyone a memorable plot and motivation; it lies in making all of them memorable enough to stand out and make an impression. To be fair, it’s something Bleach succeeded in doing at first, but once the later arcs started to focus more on the action instead of the story, character development got left behind. Even worse, the series expected you to give a shit about them anyway, even if they weren’t fleshed-out as well as you’d have hoped.
Kubo Tite himself has admitted the plot only came secondary to the amazing character designs he had in his head. As long as he could get the drawings down on paper, everything else – plotlines, character stories, and major conflicts – was irrelevant. In Bleach, less is never good, and it’s something that’s personified by its bloated cast roster.
This was fun, at first. It was easy to pick your own favorite character from the bunch, since everyone was so different. Over time however, familiarizing yourself with a whole new group of people you knew were going to die anyway started to become a chore.
For the record, this is also why I never attend those stupid office parties.
In the end – and I know I'll keep saying this – it turns out Kubo might have been a better artist than a writer. If Kubo only wanted to let his character designs pop out on the page, then he was able to achieve just that. The downside: the readers got stuck with a bunch of character cut-outs swaggering around and looking tough, while those with actual personalities were reduced to over-simplified, one-dimensional versions of themselves.
It didn't help either that each new bad guy was yet another rehash of the bad guys that came before them. In some cases, the new bad guy turned out to be a rehash of someone you already knew as a good guy.
And so on. Bleach had a terrible habit of repeating itself. It sucked.
Except Ikkaku. Ikkaku was always a boss and never sucked. #facts
Of course, there were other external factors to blame for the Great Suck that would end up defining Bleach for the rest of its miserable days. There were reports of Kubo Tite’s failing health, of his fall-out with Shonen Jump editors, and of the anime’s eventual cancellation. But from a pure storytelling point of view, it isn’t difficult to conclude that the series mostly brought this upon itself.
These days, I consider Bleach as an afterthought and an anecdote. Good times were had, of course, but it’s so easy to forget all that now after witnessing its devolution into a pale shadow of its former self. Bleach crumbled under the weight of the massive expectations hoisted upon it, before ultimately fizzling out and making its exit with a whimpering pop.
Good thing they’re making a movie out of it then, huh?
Got Bleach? is Tonto-banchou’s four-part written series for Bleach, aka Shonen Jump’s Bastard Child and Long-Forgotten Member of Manga’s Legendary Big Three. This retrospective comes in the lead-up to the live-action movie, which comes out on July 20, 2018.
Last month, you read about the things that justified Bleach’s initial status as a good series. This month, you read about the different ways Bleach went bad. Later this month, it's D-Day for the live-action movie – and with it, the last part of this series. Stay tuned!
What I Talk About When I Talk About Bleach
True fans know when to criticize their favorites. With Bleach, the boundaries got tested every time, that when it ended... well, let's just say I...
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