Yes, You Guys, Bleach Was Actually Good
When I make fun of Bleach, know that I do this from a place of love. It’s a love I’ve carefully fostered over the years I spent with the series, and if you ever did the same, then you’ll know I’m not making this stuff up. I’ll always be the first guy to shit on Bleach, but I’ll also be the first to tell people it wasn’t always as bad as I’m making it out to be.
With Bleach, there were real reasons to believe it was something truly special and that it had the potential to be a great long-running series. Before Kubo Tite and Shonen Jump publishers screwed everything up, it really wasn't that big of a stretch to think Bleach would go down in history as one of the better series of the shonen genre.
Strong sales figures backed it up too, and while the numbers would eventually dip over the years, it’s still worth noting Bleach was able to reach the mountaintop at some point and dominate the competition from there. The series is mostly a joke now, but it still pains me to hear people actively diss it when they weren't around to see it in its glory years.
What you’ll find here is a cheat guide of sorts, where I've outlined the major things Bleach got right when it was at its strongest. Maybe when you hear me taking the piss out of Bleach again, you’ll understand me when I say I mean every word of that filthy diss. Or, I don’t know, maybe you can start dissing it right along with me. You see, even in an article that’s supposed to celebrate Bleach’s great beginnings and potential, I still can’t help myself from taking all kinds of pot shots at it. And yet, there isn't a love out there that gets realer than this. Isn't that sad?
The Emergence of a Punk Protagonist in Ichigo Kurosaki
Ichigo was a different kind of shonen protagonist – the mean kind you believed could actually kick your ass in a fight and not feel sorry about it afterwards. But this was only if you violated his strict moral code and were actively being a jerk to people, because otherwise, Ichigo was really just a big softie. He was the sort of guy who felt like he had to protect friggin' everyone, and even if this was a trait that would make him boring later on, it was something worth admiring early on in the series.
He looked like a thug with the orange-dyed hair and perma-stink eyes, but Ichigo was no uneducated goon. He was a self-serious kid who didn’t have many of the traits you’d expect from someone with the same brightly-colored hair as him.
But he was charismatic, in his own way. More importantly, he was believable. The only thing driving him was his desire to keep his loved ones safe, and if he was going to have to go through hell to do so, then you could bet he’d be on the first ride down. Most of our opinions of Ichigo are first shaped by the way he’s viewed by his friends. Ichigo was mostly aloof and really liked to keep to himself, but there were reasons why other kids his age were flocking to him and admiring everything he did or said.
Ichigo was also the rare type of hero to stay in school, get good grades, and uh… whack some of his classmates on the head sometimes.
Why was this such a big deal?
It was probably the age factor.
Unlike your typical shonen protagonist, Ichigo wasn't a big eater. He wasn't noisy or obnoxious, and didn't go out of his way to tell you how strong he was, or how he was going to achieve some dream he’s held onto since he was four. He wasn't a smiley sort of guy, either. Ichigo may have only been a high schooler, but compared to other main characters, he might as well have been a sage. His maturity would be a trait that would go on to infect the series’ other aspects, and because of this, the show became a lot more different compared to its younger contemporaries.
Even then, you never really forgot he was still a kid. It’s obvious in his early run-ins with the shinigami, all of whom had the whole list of advantages stacked against him when they first showed up. Ichigo had underdog written all over him, and if there’s something everybody wants in their man, it’s that gritty, punk-like attitude. At the same time, it was clear he couldn't win fights on pure grit alone. Compared to the rest of the Gotei 13, Ichigo was small fry. So, when he started training and clawing his way to wins, you knew these were victories he had to shed blood for.
For real, the amount of blood people shed in this series was downright concerning.
Okay, so what do you actually mean by that?
You got invested in his character and motivations, in other words. Once this happened, it became hard to root against him in fights. And because Ichigo had none of the typical shonen hero traits, he was a guy you could really cheer for without getting annoyed. You wanted Ichigo to win, you really did. In the end, all the guy wanted to do was protect his friends, and you know that’s always going to be a legitimate reason to do anything, even if it takes throwing yourself into suicide death matches against seasoned devil slayers.
Later on in the series, we find out that Ichigo also gets his own personal demons to slay. By this, I don’t mean intangible emotions like guilt, loss, or whatever – I mean Ichigo had a literal devil within his own psyche, because Kubo decided he wasn’t damaged enough to qualify as a Real Shonen Protagonist.
Thanks to his Hollow side, Ichigo now had an emergency power source he could tap into mid-fight. At the same time, there was also a chance the evil side could take over and corrupt him completely. With this, Ichigo became a walking time bomb, and because of this added burden, he had to train harder so he’d no longer have to rely on Hollow Ichigo to get the job done.
Of course, Hollow Ichigo was just a meaner-looking version of Actual Ichigo.
With more odds stacking up against him, Ichigo’s journey started to get more stakes attached to it. He wasn’t the first hero to go through these plot pit stops – taking on unknown opponents, getting cursed with terrible powers, etc. – but because Ichigo was already a good, different protagonist to begin with, even this standard storyline got more engaging and became a bigger stand-out.
And even without Ichigo’s contributions to the plot, you could say Bleach’s storyline was already interesting on its own.
A Plot Political Enough to Run for Office
Bleach had humble beginnings, and when I say this, it’s not just its early art I’m talking about. The set-up was supposed to be familiar enough: boy meets girl, boy gets supernatural powers, boy becomes some sort of night-time superhero. After that, he realizes he’s got powers that are way older and more complex than he expected. From there, he meets stronger characters who have the same powers and have obviously been able to master them completely, compared to his lowly part-timing self.
Nothing about this is instantly unique from the average shonen plot, so you had to look a little deeper to find the things Bleach did differently. For example, instead of the bad guys coming into Ichigo’s world, it’s Ichigo who has to take the fight to them on their own turf. Then, there's the matter of motivation. He doesn't do this because he wants to become number one at anything or whatever. Instead, he does this to rescue the girl who gave him those powers – because according to spiritual laws older than the dawn of time, her late-night act of generosity is considered illegal, and according to those same laws, she must be executed for the offense.
For reference, they're the same ancient laws that demand she gets death by gigantic firebird.
That’s where the Soul Society Arc kicks off, where Ichigo and his friends must go to Soul Society to save Rukia from the evil shinigami who want to kill her. Intense, huh?
Except the shinigami aren't all evil – at least, not exactly. What they don’t realize is, Soul Society also has problems of its own – only when the arc starts, nobody’s aware of the fact just yet. Ichigo and his friends are successful in infiltrating Shinigami HQ and pulling a fast one on the Gotei 13, but the longer they stay there, the more they get caught up in the bureaucratic mess Soul Society would become known for over time.
It’s at this point the story starts to get more complicated. While you’re worrying about the morality of Ichigo’s actions – you know he’s doing a good thing, but the friend he’s rescuing did break the law after all – there’s talk of a traitor within the Gotei 13 ranks with real plans in the making for a coup.
All of a sudden, Bleach became a shonen story splashed with all this political intrigue and drama, all of which came on top of the difficult nature of Ichigo’s rescue mission. The earlier maturity I was talking about with Ichigo has now made its way to the plot, and if any Bleach fan you know talks about this arc and this arc only, then you’ll realize it’s no coincidence. The Hueco Mundo and Fake Karakura Town Arcs were okay too for a while, until even those got dragged out to high oblivion.
Oh come on, we all already know I’m talking about this guy.
Why was this such a big deal?
Things didn't really start cooking until the series shifted its focus and setting to Soul Society. As soon as this iconic arc kicked off, you got the real sense Ichigo and his friends landed in a world way bigger than their rescue mission. The series never lets you forget Ichigo’s its main character, but the minute he lands in Soul Society, his status as invading outsider makes you understand why the shinigami would be so hostile.
Bleach got a lot more interesting when Kubo Tite opened the gates to Soul Society. Not only did we get a whole new setting to play around in, we also got a large group of other characters to go with it. With this came a lot of conflicts and a bunch of character relationships that made the series more complex than the simple story it originally set out to be. By choosing to tell the story from the point of view of characters who would later go on to be protagonists themselves, Kubo enriched a world that was already so interesting from the onset. Ichigo wasn't pushed to the side while all this was happening, but the added points of view and extra conflicts made you appreciate the story – or stories – Kubo was trying to tell.
You might even say this was the beta version of Attack on Titan.
Okay, so what do you actually mean by that?
Not knowing a lot about Soul Society worked out well for Bleach – because of the set hierarchy and characters’ power levels, you never got the feeling Ichigo and his friends were really safe. The military structure of the Gotei 13 went a long way in driving this point home too. When the other shinigami started to show up, you knew they were all legit, from the Seated Officers, to their Vice-Captains and Captains.
So when Ichigo fought his way through the ranks, you could believe in his wins and his strength. You knew he was just in the dark as you were in this strange place, so when you saw him grit his teeth and barrel through the unknown enemy to save his friend, you knew this was a hero’s journey you could get behind.
You could make the argument that the beginning of the Soul Society Arc was the moment Bleach went from its nuanced grief-centered plot, to a standard shonen arc with fights aplenty. It's true, but there is a reason many fans remember this arc as the series' prime. Thanks to the Gotei 13 coup, what would have become a typical shonen action plot got a lot more layers and depth that helped paint the series in new shades of gray. The ending was something few could have predicted either; although Ichigo and his friends were successful in rescuing Rukia, the rest of Soul Society had to deal with the main bad guy's escape. Once the shinigami realized the invaders weren't to blame for everything after all, they forged an unlikely alliance with Ichigo and the rest of his merry band of outsiders. This was a bond that would come up time and again in future arcs.
Characters Who Didn't Just Watch from the SideBleach wouldn't have been able to enjoy a long run without its rich cast of characters. The beauty of going to Soul Society lay in the way you became free to focus on other characters if you got tired of Ichigo. The Gotei 13 had a grand total of – who woulda guessed – 13 divisions, and in each office, you were assured of at least two new characters. The Captains and their Vice-Captains were really the more important parts of each squad, but if a division had the good fortune to ooze with specific personalities, then even the Seated Officers could get some shine of their own.
If most of your co-workers looked like this, it probably wasn't so difficult to stand out in the first place.
For a series the size of Bleach, you’d need more than just a charismatic main character and a good plot to keep the audience interested. What any long series needs to ensure a successful run is a solid cast of side characters. Without a lively bunch of other characters, any series would have a lot of trouble sustaining the story and keeping the show running for a long time.
You had to have a healthy mix of people here: guys who could push your protagonist to get better, guys who could lose fights in the first round to make a new bad guy look legit, guys who could stand on their own and didn't need the main character to define their existence, guys who were absolutely incapable of being relevant if your main character decided to call in sick for an episode or two...
I'm thinking of a guy...
All kinds of guys. Get this last essential thing right, and your series is practically guaranteed a good, long lifespan until the next filler arc comes in to ruin everything.
Why was this such a big deal?
The thing about the Gotei 13 was that each squad had their own personalities and set traits, all of which were mostly influenced by their respective Captains. For example, because the Eleventh Division had Zaraki for a Captain, all the soldiers here were fight-hungry goons. Because the Seventh Division had Komamura for a Captain, all the soldiers here were buff as hell and swole to the greatest levels. Because the Sixth Division had Byakuya for a Captain, all the soldiers here had a stick up their asses. Because the Fourth Division had super doctor Unohana for a Captain, all the soldiers here weren't really soldiers and were actually wimpy medics who got abused on the regular.
Just don’t say all that to Unohana’s face unless you don’t like living anymore.
And so on.
An even better thing was the special, unique relationships each Captain shared with their immediate subordinates. I already mentioned the Vice-Captains were among the lucky few who had the privilege of getting their own identities and backstories. Put them next to Captains who were also unique personalities on their own, and there was immediately a lot of stuff to play with.
For example, the Tenth Division had prodigy Captain Hitsugaya and irresponsible Vice-Captain Matsumoto for officers. They didn't always get along – Hitsugaya was a stickler for the rules, while Matsumoto preferred hitting the booze instead of the paperwork – but it was clear they had one of the strongest bonds in the force. On the other hand, you had the Second Division’s officers, Soifon and Omaeda. Because the squad specialized in training ninjas and speedy assassins, you already knew Soifon’s relationship with her fat slob of a Vice-Captain was anything but peachy.
And then you had Robot Girl and her weird-ass psycho scientist of a father in the Twelfth Division.
Okay, so what do you actually mean by that?
No two characters were exactly alike in Bleach – at least, not back then. The beauty of having such a large, diverse cast of side characters was that you had a lot of small things to focus on to gain a better understanding of Soul Society. While Ichigo’s status as main character guaranteed a large bulk of the series was going to be about him, you could always take a break to have fun with these little side character arcs and relationships.
Another cool factor Bleach had going for it was its cast of female characters. The ladies here were some of the better ones to show up in a shonen series, mainly because they were legitimate soldiers who could hold their own in a fight. Of course, Bleach wasn't the first show to have a large number of female warriors, nor was it the only one to do it at the time. But it has to get some special mention for having someone like Rukia Kuchiki as one of its main characters.
She didn't get introduced as the series’ built-in fanservice material and like her other colleagues in the Gotei 13, she was just as good a fighter as the next guy. Damsels in distress were rare in Bleach, and even when she was the one in need of rescuing, Rukia turned the damsel trope on its head by learning to accept her fate without having to wait or cry for anyone to save her. I mean, that's sort of a crappy lesson to teach the young ones, but trust me, she gets better over time and eventually proves herself as a competent soldier who didn't need any saving.
Even if, you know, she did get rescued by Ichigo in the end.
Finally, the large cast of characters also meant you could get interesting fight scenes. With the Gotei’s coup d'etat and resulting conflicts, you had characters who’d known each other for years going up against each other for various reasons. What this did was establish some side characters right away – you’d know who was a strict rule-follower, for example, and who was okay with going against the law if it meant doing the right thing. In fact, the reason the Soul Society Arc lasted for so long was because the clashing viewpoints and war philosophies were there to sustain your interest. It’s also the reason why the Hueco Mundo and Fake Karakura Town Arcs were interesting to a point – without Aizen the Mastermind and his Espada goons to liven things, I doubt people would have stuck with the series for so long.
I do love the smell of anarchy and chaos in the morning.
Many of the things that made Bleach good back then aren't exactly new things today. But you have to remember Bleach made its debut in the early 2000’s, where shonen series weren't always expected or encouraged to innovate things and break from the set formula. This, among other things, is why it isn't so impossible to believe Bleach was, once upon a time, Shonen Jump’s sweet rebel child with the potential to go far.
Too bad Bleach had to go fuck up on its own and cause all that sweet potential to come crashing to the ground.
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 time, you read about the unlikely things that made you a Bleach fan. Next month is when the fun can really start and we can talk about all the things that made the series go completely, utterly bad.
Bunch of thanks to @Shannon Apple and @Narilka for the extra eyes and feedback.