Whatever Happened to Bleach?by Nik Freeman,
Roughly ten years ago,Tite Kubo's Bleach was among the most popular manga franchises in the world. Online debates raged constantly, with Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece fans all arguing in favor of their own series being the best or most popular shonen mega-hit. Things are much different now. Naruto maintained a fervent fanbase up to its conclusion and beyond, while One Piece is more popular than ever and could easily go on for another decade. Bleach, on the other hand, is a full-blown has-been, a shell of its former self that subsists on the memory of its glory days. It is well past its expiration date, yet it continues to grind on, sluggishly approaching its conclusion on a seemingly parabolic trajectory. The manga's volume sales have dwindled, the anime was cancelled several years ago, and many former fans have just flat-out given up on it. How did things come to this?
I could just answer that by saying “the series got bad” because, well, it did. Bleach is awful right now in so many different ways. Long-running plot threads end anticlimactically, and new characters are introduced to replace established favorites before they can even be fleshed out. Characters that are fleshed out only get this treatment through last-minute flashbacks, right before they're about to die and never be seen again. The former main cast only ever shows up to provide comic relief. Combat sequences always follow the same repetitive beats. Individual chapters are seldom eventful. If anything does happen, it's predictable, and when it's not predictable, it's ridiculous. But the other major reason that people have dropped the series in droves is because the story actually came to a point where it should have ended...and didn't.
For a lot of fans, the most important character in Bleach was not protagonist Ichigo Kurosaki, but rather antagonist Sousuke Aizen. The first major story arc of Bleach dealt with Ichigo trying to rescue his companion Rukia Kuchiki, the Soul Reaper who had given him her powers in a state of emergency. Rukia was sentenced to execution by the governing body of Soul Society for the crime of granting Soul Reaper powers to a mortal. After experiencing multiple intense battles and a whole lot of power growth, Ichigo finally saved Rukia, and it turned out that her sentencing had all been manipulated by Aizen, who sought to recover a powerful device called the Hougyoku from her body. Aizen's villainous reveal drew a lot of new fans to the series because of how incredibly effective it was. Some fans heralded him as the greatest manga/anime villain in recent memory. He was intelligent, manipulative, confident, cold-hearted, ambitious, and he always had an ace up his sleeve whenever he seemed to be at even the slightest disadvantage. He struck an excellent balance between being cool as hell and incredibly detestable. Making him the driving force behind the preceding story arc and the antagonist moving forward in one fell swoop brought a sense of direction to the overall plot, and a lot of people were excited to see where it would go.
So Bleach continued on with a new long-term antagonist and a new determined direction. In an echo of the previous story arc, Aizen abducted Ichigo's friend and love interest Orihime Inoue this time. To save her, Ichigo and his friends traveled to Hueco Mundo, the world inhabited by Aizen's followers, the Hollows. The main strength of this story arc was the long-term build-up of its villains, producing two of the most popular characters in the series: Grimmjow and Ulquiorra. However, Bleach started to suffer from pacing problems around this time. Once the heroes entered Aizen's stronghold, the series became a long, unbroken string of fight sequences. These fights were so protracted that when it came time for the anime to run filler episodes, there was no appropriate place to fit them in naturally. Instead, the characters would simply break the fourth wall mid-battle to acknowledge that the main plot was taking a break while an unrelated story ran in its place.
This arc also completely dropped the ball on one of its core plot threads. Aizen discovered that one of Orihime's powers, previously thought to be a basic healing ability, worked by manipulating time in an isolated space. This discovery made Orihime out to be potentially the single most powerful character in the series, allowing her to literally bring a character back from the dead later. Her power was limited only by her determination, which worked as a tremendous handicap because she had been shy and uncertain of herself throughout the series. You'd think the natural conclusion to this would be Orihime growing as a character and using her powers to help save the day, but instead she stood hopelessly on the sidelines, waiting for Ichigo to save her to the very end. After this, she never brought anyone else back from the dead, and even her flawless healing abilities were never fully utilized once the fighting had ended. Ultimately, all of the focus on Orihime's powers went absolutely nowhere.
The arc's final stretch consisted of even more ceaseless fighting, but this time it was mostly between characters who had only rarely appeared in the series before. Over fifty characters got involved in the final confrontation with Aizen. Some of these characters were just now appearing for the first time, simply written in to provide the tenth- through fifteenth-most important Soul Reapers with individual opponents. Kubo's efforts to make the battle a grand spectacle backfired by favoring quantity over quality. By the end of things, I was feeling very sore about Bleach, because it seemed to be putting off the final Ichigo vs. Aizen fight for as long as possible while offering nothing decent in the meantime. On top of that, after being built up for years as tremendous threats, the three highest-ranking members of Aizen's army were defeated in a remarkably anticlimactic way. Aizen even dispatched one himself just to pull off the cliché evil overlord stunt of showing how ruthless he was.
Unfortunately, this was just the first example of Aizen losing his luster. As he grew more powerful through the use of the Hougyoku, he stopped bothering to devise clever schemes and instead relied purely on his own immense strength to get the job done. In other words, Aizen lost all the qualities that captivated fans when he first revealed himself as the villain. Over the course of several years, Bleach had stopped focusing on its most popular heroes and ruined its most popular villain.
Eventually, Ichigo unleashed his ultimate technique, giving him the strength to defeat Aizen at the cost of losing his Soul Reaper powers. It wasn't the perfect ending, owing mostly to all the problems leading up to it, but there was a great note of finality to the whole thing. After over nine years of publication, the series' antagonist had been defeated, and the hero had left his fighting days behind him. By all accounts, Bleach should have ended there. What point would there be to introduce a new antagonist when there had only been one for nearly a decade? When Aizen was defeated, the story felt finished. A ton of people stopped reading at that point, even though it was widely known that the series would be continuing anyway. Interest in Bleach had already lowered thanks to its drop in quality, but people's sense of completionism kept them wanting to know how the battle against Aizen would end. Even for those who enjoyed the entire war against Aizen, his defeat had been the perceived endpoint of the series for years. Once fans finally got that closure, they were done.
While his audience's interest in Bleach may have waned, Tite Kubo's had not. There was still one major story arc left that he wanted to write, but to get to that point, Ichigo had to regain his powers first. So the series skipped ahead to a point 1.5 years after the final battle with Aizen. Apparently, within this time, nobody from Soul Society had bothered to check in on the guy who won a war for them, but then again, nothing at all seemed to have happened during this timeskip, except that everybody got new haircuts. This time, a character named Kuugo Ginjou became the new villain in a baffling new plot. He earned Ichigo's trust, taught him how to gain an entirely new set of powers, then stole those powers from him, prompting a bunch of Soul Reapers to give Ichigo his original Soul Reaper powers back, whereupon Ichigo defeated Ginjou immediately. On the surface, this may sound like a complete waste of time, but digging deeper makes it even worse.
To its credit, the Lost Substitute Shinigami arc did finally let up on the relentless pace that had defined Bleach for the past several years. Characters would occasionally sit down and talk about things, instead of being limited to explaining how their powers worked in the middle of a fight. However, the arc introduced even more bland and uninteresting characters, while relegating every established character barring Ichigo to the sidelines. Somehow even Chad, who was actually part of Ginjou's organization, became practically forgotten and a complete non-factor in the climax. On top of that, Ginjou's heel turn "twist" seemed obvious from the beginning, making it a less effective retread of the Aizen reveal from years before.
His complex schemes were a pale shade of his predecessor's too. Ginjou's plan made no sense whatsoever. To earn Ichigo's trust, he had to pretend that one of his allies, Tsukishima, was actually his enemy, so that Ichigo would be convinced to unite with him against a common foe. To pull this off, Ginjou had Tsukishima use his ability to alter memories on him, causing Ginjou to temporarily believe that they were enemies. Putting aside the gamble he made in hoping that he would act as predicted once his mind had been altered, he ignored the painfully obvious option of altering Ichigo's mind instead. The only explanation Ginjou offered for not using Tsukishima's powers in the simplest way was: "The game won't be any fun if it's fixed so we can't lose." His rationale for not choosing the best plan available was that he didn't want to definitely succeed.
Of course, it would be completely unfair to decry Ginjou's nonsensical plan without talking about Soul Society's bizarre behavior. Why in the world had they waited so long to give Ichigo's powers back if they could just do it whenever they wanted? Apparently, Soul Society had known about Ginjou's plan for a long time because he used to be a Substitute Soul Reaper, just like Ichigo. Believing that Ginjou would seek out Ichigo eventually because of this shared connection, the Soul Reaper captains planned to use the powerless Ichigo as bait to lure Ginjou out of hiding. (But for some reason, nobody stuck around to actually check on their bait, so somebody in the human world had to go to Soul Society and tell them about it after the fact.) So on top of proving so unpopular with fans that the anime adaptation was cancelled as soon as it was finished, the Lost Substitute Shinigami arc made the members of Soul Society out to be tremendous jerks who manipulated Ichigo to achieve their own ends. This was an especially big problem because the plot was clearly meant to demonstrate a strengthening of bonds between Ichigo and Soul Society, so that readers would feel more sympathy when Soul Society was invaded in the final major story arc. After this pointless new adventure was over, many fans who had given Bleach one final chance to prove itself finally quit.
Bleach is very gradually coming to a close in the Thousand-Year Blood War arc, which is focused on an all-out war between the Soul Society and a race known as the Quincy. It's not as bad as the previous arc, but it suffers greatly from a lack of strong characters. Because of its nature as Bleach's last storyline, pretty much every Soul Reaper character has been engaged in a life-threatening fight at some point in the war, with many being killed off. Unfortunately, only about half of these twenty-five-plus characters had been fleshed out enough for anyone to care about their fates. The first victim of the war was a character with literally two lines of dialogue prior to this arc, but his death was treated as a game-changing, “anyone can die” moment. Nearly half a dozen times now, characters on the verge of death have had their backstories revealed in a last-second flashback to evoke sympathy from the audience, which would be completely unnecessary if some of them had any development before that point.
While its uninteresting heroes crippled the arc, it truly suffered most from a lack of compelling villains. Some of the Quincies had outlandish designs even by Bleach standards: a cyborg, a Thor lookalike, a guy with two tongues, a mustachioed wrestler in a pink luchador mask, a hairy man in a diaper, a giant sentient hand, and a literal brain in a jar. Despite this, hardly any of the more than thirty villains introduced were very interesting, and for the first time, none of the villains were framed as an important rival of Ichigo's or anyone else's for that matter. Most baddies were defeated within their first major battle, with no chance to establish themselves as a threat or garner interest in their personalities. Even Uryuu Ishida, a Quincy and longtime main cast member who betrayed Ichigo's group to ally himself with his own people, has failed to garner intrigue. You'd think that would be impossible given his dramatic potential, but Ishida has done absolutely nothing significant for the entire 3.5 span of the arc after changing sides. The manga is now overcrowded with characters who have no chance to stand out as any more important than the rest.
So that's how Bleach has been for the past several years: characters fight, characters die, and none of it matters. It's disheartening to look at the state of the series and remember how much better it once was. Not only has Bleach been consistently poor for a long period of time, but there seems to be no reason for Tite Kubo to change his formula now that it's nearing the end. In a way, it's admirable to see an artist with so much agency to do whatever he wanted—nothing but fight scenes and new characters—for years, but it's also disappointing to see him squander the storytelling chops he demonstrated early on. Bleach's former strengths are extinct in its current form: a cluttered mess. In the end, it's probably better to remember Bleach fondly for its past, rather than constantly struggle with its current reality. If you're one of the many people who dropped Bleach, rest assured that you made the right decision.
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