Like anyone who was, at one point, a reader of Shonen Jump — before they went digital — I used to be a fan of the manga/anime, Bleach. It wasn't my favorite manga of all time, but it was definitely one of my top favorites, due in part to the character designs, the intriguing set-up, and of course, the kickass action scenes.
It had a good balance of humor, action, heartfelt moments, and character development, and when combined with a cast of fun, interesting, cool characters, it was definitely an anime that exceeded my expectations and set a higher bar for what I wanted for future anime.
And yet, just like I mentioned in my article defending Mass Effect: Andromeda, there's a problem when you begin to set a bar and gain high expectations from something, regardless if that something is a video game or an anime/manga: the chance of that something letting you down or ruining your experience, especially when it goes on for a long time, can do a lot more damage than good.
If you haven't already guessed by now, Bleach did just that for me.
Bleach is a manga centered around Ichigo Kurosaki, a high schooler with orange hair that possesses the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. When we first meet him, Ichigo is using this ability to try and help spirits, while also attending high school and trying to prove that, despite looking like a delinquent, he's more than just a tough guy.
He lives with his two younger sisters and goofy father, and everything is relatively normal, until one night, a Soul Reaper named Rukia enters his room. From there, he winds up gaining her Soul Reaper powers and sets off to do what Soul Reapers do: fight corrupt or evil spirits called Hollows, and purify the good spirits so they can pass on.
This is the center of the first arc of the manga, titled (for me, at least, it may have another official name) the Substitute Soul Reaper Arc, which centers around Ichigo gaining and learning to utilize his newly gained powers while Rukia, despite being in a weakened state, helps guide him.
He also has to deal with the usual problems a high school deals with, like school, friends, annoying (but funny) father, and a rival with a hatred for Soul Reapers. The arc itself isn't too long, and it never overstays its welcome. It's got a good balance of different elements to it, and all the while, it actually develops Ichigo as he gets a handle on what he's capable of and learns more about the world he didn't know existed.
This segues nicely into the second arc of the manga, which occurs when Rukia is captured by two other Soul Reapers, who take her back to Soul Society — the place where the Soul Reapers live and work — in order to be executed for crimes she actually didn't commit.
Ichigo and a few of his friends set off to rescue her, getting sent to the Soul Society and having to clash with powerful Soul Reapers, and the world and lore just get bigger and more intriguing as it goes on.
The ending of this arc, with Ichigo having saved Rukia and the Soul Society deciding not to kill him and his friends — they found out they had a much bigger enemy to deal with that was hiding in plain sight the whole time — and with Ichigo and his friends returning home, the promise of more adventures on the horizon.
Unfortunately, that next adventure, the next arc, would wind up being the last quality arc within Bleach, because by the end of that arc and the start of the fourth official arc, Bleach was already going downhill.
If you've never read or watched Bleach, you may be wondering why (or, well, I would assume you would be wondering it, since that is the whole point of this article, after all). And the answer, for me, can be summed up with a single phrase: it got boring.
Now, on the surface, that's the real reason for why I lost interest in Bleach. But the deeper reason, and of course the meat of my belief, is obviously a bit bigger and a little more complex (or convoluted, either one works when it's me writing).
My first big issue is that the fourth arc is essentially a rehash of the Soul Society Arc. The focus of the Soul Society Arc was Ichigo and his friends gaining new powers and entering a new world, being forced to confront a group of super powerful beings that stood in their way of rescuing someone who was captured for what they thought was the reason, only for the real reason to be something else entirely.
In that, the person they had to save was Rukia. In this arc, that person is a different character, Ichigo's close friend Orihime. She was one of the friends who went with him to the Soul Society — though she had little to do then — and for me, her abduction made even less sense, especially when we find out that it was ultimately pretty meaningless besides getting Ichigo and co. to come after her. More than that, it was another "let's go save the damsel in distress" plot, and I hate those with a burning passion. Orihime was never a strong character in that sense, but she had potential for growth that just wound up wasted when she got captured. She became utterly passive and couldn't lift a finger to do anything for herself, even though her powers would've given her a lot of opportunity to do things besides stand around and mope. Rukia had no powers at the time. Orihime still did. So it was essentially a more irritating rehash, which made it harder to take it seriously.
Everything else is more or less the same, the only difference is that instead of going to the Soul Society and fighting against Soul Reapers, Ichigo and his friends have entered the bleak Hueco Mundo, the world of the Hollows, a dark realm of endless desert where the main villain for this and the following arcs lives with a group of elite former-Hollows called Arrancar. These elites, called the Espada — as the Arrancar had a Spanish motif going on, something I did find cool — were pretty much less interesting and more villainous versions of the Soul Reapers Ichigo had previously fought against. You had your twisted mad scientist, your arrogant speedster, your bloodthirsty fightaholic, your emotionless badass, etc., the only differences being they looked different and their powers worked a little differently. That, really, was it; they were the same characters with a different coat of paint on them and some slight tweaks to make their personalities more extreme than their Soul Reaper counterparts.
What follows is more of the same from the Soul Society Arc, with Ichigo gaining new power-ups and fighting off against the same number of threats before succeeding in defeating the strongest, and his friends doing sort of well before getting downed relatively quickly and proving to be ultimately useless in the long run. The location was different, yes, and the circumstances were somewhat different, but it was still basically the exact same story. And that really ruined my reading experience, because if I had wanted to read that, I would've just re-read the earlier part of the story.
And then the fifth arc occurs, wherein the main villain goes to the human world with the strongest Arrancar, and we get to a very big, bland, convoluted series of one-on-one battles with side characters. If it sounds like I'm trying to be boring on purpose, I'm afraid that isn't the case; I just happen to be bored while writing it, which is actually fairly depressing when I think about how much I used to enjoy Bleach.
The big issue for me is that during the first two arcs, where Ichigo gains his powers and has to cope with them, followed by the exciting entrance to the Soul Society to rescue Rukia, were fresh and exciting and tense. We got a number of interesting and fun characters, a lot of great action scenes, and while Ichigo certainly shined way more than his friends, they all served more or less a purpose and got a good amount of screen time. That, and Ichigo's increase in strength was shown to us and made some sense.
Even the third arc, a brief interlude between the second and fourth — called the Arrancar Arc, since this is when they are first introduced — was fun and interesting, since by then, Rukia had regained her Soul Reaper powers and the Soul Society and Ichigo had a common enemy to deal with. Unfortunately, what good favor had been amassed began to fall apart for me as the story continued, because besides rehashing the entire plot of the second big portion of the plot, things just seemed to spiral out of control. Characters who I had hoped to see get some actual awesome moments got trounced with relative ease after finally doing something, Ichigo gained more random powerups without any rhyme or reason, and the action scenes — probably my favorite thing about the series besides the lore and the characters — started to become slower, duller, clunkier.
We got more focus on random one-on-one fights that often wound up playing the same way, with Character B getting the advantage over Character A, no wait, Character A had a special technique or ability we haven't heard of, but wait again, Character B can transform to get stronger, but wait again, Character A had one ultra special move and now the fight is done and Character B is dead. Now imagine that, only for basically every fight that wasn't done in a single strike. It gets tedious, to say the least, and even when you like the character(s) or you're interested, it becomes hard to care much when the end result is always the same.
Add onto this the fact that story took so, so, so long to get through all these random battles. When Ichigo and his friends were in Hueco Mundo trying to rescue their other friend, it dragged on and on, yes, but things got even worse when the focus shifted to the human world and we got to witness the other Soul Reapers fighting — and did it ever take the longest time. Then we had to go through the motions of Ichigo getting there, getting yet another power-up so he could fight the main villain, Aizen, and then the fight with said villain, which wasn't really much of a fight since by then, Ichigo was so powerful, he trounced the guy. That wasn't even the end of the series, though, because it continued past this point for two whole arcs, one of which was even longer than the one I just mentioned. But by then — and in fact, long before the big fight between Ichigo and that villain I mentioned — I had already given up and thrown in the towel for the series.
But for me, it wasn't just the fact that the story became dull and the fights got more monotonous than anything. I feel like the heart just wasn't there. Reading it, looking at the character's expressions — or lack thereof — made me feel as though everyone had suddenly lost their personalities, and instead, they were just... dry, drab cut-outs of the characters they used to be. The image above, of Ichigo after a power boost, best demonstrates that, since he hardly shows any emotion when he's fighting Aizen. He literally maintains the same bored-looking face the entire time, which really didn't keep me invested — as I had decided to give it a shot after staying away for a while. I was immediately turned off by the dullness and lack of emotion and investment on the pages. By that point, paint drying would've been more interesting, at least for me. And while I am aware that there was emotion in later parts of the story, by then I just didn't see a point, because I knew that the old tropes would come back no matter what.
Why should I stick around to read characters look uninterested as they talk, talk, and talk, when I know they'll fall into the same problems they have for the entirety of the manga? That was my line of thinking, and I'm kind of glad I stuck to it. I read other reader's and fan's opinions; so many of them felt the same way I did. They criticized the weaker storylines, the lack of character development, the pandering for specific fan favorites, the re-use of tropes and fight mechanics, and so on. The list went on, and it felt good knowing I wasn't the only one who believed these things, since it meant I wasn't on a high horse or biased against what I was reading.
Bleach was, at first, a good manga/anime. It had a good story, fascinating lore, and fun characters. It had a lot to like about it, and I would've happily recommended it to anyone I knew who liked anime or manga, but hadn't given it a shot. By the halfway point, I would've done the opposite and warned off people who hadn't seen or read it yet. It wasn't that I hated the series or anything, it was just, by then, I had grown disappointed by how things had gone downhill so much, and how a once really good, perhaps even great, manga/anime was now hardly worth the time or energy.
I want to make one thing clear, though. I do not hold a lot of this against the creator, Tite Kubo.
It would be easy to blame him for the quality of the art and the story since he's the one drawing it all, but, I have seen videos detailing interviews he gave and took part of, and I've read up a bit online, both of which have given me the perspective that Tite Kubo wasn't entirely at fault for a lot of what wound up happening. Some of it was just strain from the life a mangaka or writer of manga has to deal with. They get very little time to themselves and basically have to live and breathe drawing. I cannot fault him for wanting to cut corners, even if it did more harm than good for the story and the characters. But more than that, I feel a lot of blame has to be placed on the executive people who, for lack of a better term, meddled with his work. That kind of thing tends to happen a lot in every medium; you get a creator who has their own ideas, their own story to tell, and while they may have freedom at first, once money starts coming in, the people in charge of them start demanding and wanting things their way, because they think it'll make more money in the end.
It's an unfortunate reality, and I feel strongly that this is really what happened to Bleach. It was super popular for a while, but then when you get an artist-slash-author who has very little break time and may be getting tired, along with higher ups who demand and demand and demand, it's hard not to see why the manga went downhill. Maybe some more blame can be placed on Tite Kubo, but I can't say, nor would I, since I don't know him, nor do I know the situation for what it is like to be a creator of manga.
Bleach is over now. It wound up getting cancelled and Tite Kubo had to rush to close everything up despite wanting to continue on with the story. I didn't read the ending, but I did read up on what happened throughout the remainder of the final arc. I can't honestly say that I'll miss it outright, but I will miss a lot of what I liked about it.
By the end of Bleach — or rather, by the time that I stopped reading — I had grown detached from Ichigo and a lot of the major characters outside of Rukia, who stayed one of my constant favorites and still is to this day. Most of the characters I liked besides her were side characters who got little to no focus for the most part, but when they did, I enjoyed them a lot. I suppose, with the series over with, the most I can do is retain the memories of Bleach when I was a big fan of the series, along with the characters I liked. The lore is still intriguing, and in its own way, inspiring for me as someone who likes to write.
I only hope that this kind of thing stops happening eventually to good shows/anime/manga/what have you. It's truly saddening when something you grow to love or truly enjoy ends up getting worse for one reason or another. I felt that way with Spongebob Squarepants, and I feel that way with Bleach.
I think that Bleach still holds a place in my heart for when I felt it was a good story, a good manga-slash-anime. And in the end, for me, what matters most is that it made an impact on me, and I can honestly say that it has inspired me, both the good — the characters I liked most, the designs, the world of the Soul Reapers, and even the Arrancar — and the bad — mostly in that it has made me want more than ever to self-publish so that I can be my own boss instead of having to worry about higher-up people shoving their views down my throat and focusing more on money and profit than they do the story itself.
And for that, I am thankful.