Warning: This editorial contains major spoilers for Bleach.
I’ve been following Bleach for a long time. I first picked it up back when the anime was airing on Toonami and I’ve followed both the anime and the manga ever since. With the manga having just ended, I’d like to look at how it went from one of the most popular shonen franchises of it’s time to having the anime get cancelled and the manga rushed to an ending. I won’t give much of a plot summary since I’m assuming everyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar with Bleach (it would also take way too long), but I will go through each arc and look at what worked, what didn’t and how it changed over time.
Early Bleach was radically different from what it became later on. It started out as a pretty straightforward monster of the week action series. There were a few longer arcs that introduced the supporting cast, but most of it was just Ichigo fighting the newest Hollow to appear. It wasn’t anything amazing, but the fights were good, the supporting cast had potential and there were plenty of interesting abilities. It’s easy to see why Jump picked it up.
The second major arc, the Soul Society arc, was where Bleach hit its peak. Basically everything that was good at the start improved: the fights were better, the new characters had a lot of cool abilities and Ichigo’s friends got more chances to shine. The plot itself also maintained tension, momentum and focus in a way that Kubo hasn’t been able to do since. The best part of the arc was Aizen’s introduction at the end, where he came off as an unbeatable villain who had been manipulating everyone involved from the start. Most of the new Shinigami, who later became main supporting characters, were also memorable and had plenty of new abilities that were sometimes cooler than the main cast’s powers. None of characters, new or returning, were particularly complex, but the arc made up for that with frequent fight scenes and a fast moving plot. The Soul Society arc was as good as Bleach ever was and still holds up as good shonen action story.
Unfortunately, the next several arcs (which I’ll be lumping together since they were pretty heavily connected) weren’t quite able to emulate that success. There were still a lot of good fights and the Arrancar and Aizen generally worked as villains, but cracks started to show. The first half of the Hueco Mundo arc was fairly entertaining, but felt like a rehash of the Soul Society arc since most of the plot points were the same. The second half of the arc and most of the Fake Karakura Town arc was when Kubo’s biggest weakness as a writer started to show up: he has good ideas, but can’t integrate all of them. He started to give almost every character he’d introduced during the Soul Society arc their own extended fight, which really hurt the pacing. The fights were good and some of the new abilities were cool to see, but they tended to go on too long and long stretches went by where Ichigo didn’t even show up (his friends had largely become irrelevant by this time). The characters it focused on weren’t bad by any means (usually) but there were just too many of them. It’s hard to keep a story moving when there are so many characters and so many fights happening at once.
The biggest standout of the arc was still Aizen. Even when his plans got too far-fetched, he still worked as a villain because of how unbeatable he seemed. He wasn’t a particularly complex character, but he didn’t need to be; he just needed to be powerful and intimidating. Ichigo’s final battle against him was also a high point and, with a few minor tweaks, would have worked as an ending. All the main plot points had been tied up, the big villain was beaten, and there was a big battle to end on. Ichigo and Rukia even had a touching farewell at the end. All told, this would have made for a solid ending if a few of the unresolved subplots had been removed. The Arrancar saga on the whole was good, even if it wasn’t as good as the Soul Society arc. Kubo really should have stopped there instead of writing two more arcs.
The Fullbring arc was where sales started to drop and was also the last arc of the anime. The story wasn’t bad at all, even if it moved somewhat slowly, and was an improvement over the Hueco Mundo arc. The problem a lot of people had was that it moved slower and didn’t have anywhere near as much action as the previous arcs. There were still a fair number of fight scenes, but they were shorter and never as impressive as the ones from the previous arc. The fights were always the best part of Bleach, and switching two a more plot focused arc wasn’t what people were expecting. This highlights another of Kubo’s flaws as a writer: outside of the Soul Society arc, he’s never been able to completely integrate plot and action. He always focuses on one over the other, which can be frustrating if you’re watching it for both.
The final arc, the Thousand Year Blood War arc, had several problems, although most of them were just exacerbated versions of previous issues. The setup was strong, especially since it expanded on Quincies, which hadn’t gotten much attention since the start of the manga. Yhwach was also a strong villain at first, even if he was never as memorable as Aizen. The biggest problem with the arc was how many secondary characters there were. In addition to Ichigo and his friends, there were all of the Shinigami, the returning Arrancar, the Quincies, the Fullbringers and the Vizards. The manga’s abrupt ending means that a lot of the returning characters didn’t actually do anything, even when their involvement was heavily foreshadowed. The ones that did get addressed ended up spending too much time in the spotlight. A lot of the fights against secondary villains took too long, especially because there were so many of them. Kubo has said before that his way of dealing with writer’s block is to introduce more characters, and that really bogged down the arc. Like before, most of the individual fights were good, but there were so many going on back to back with little plot progression that everything just started to run together. Things stayed like that until the last few chapters suddenly rushed to an ending, disregarding a lot of secondary characters, which leads me to believe that there was some editorial interference going on. I don’t have any concrete evidence for that, but it’s pretty obvious that Kubo intended to go on for a while longer.
What ultimately killed Bleach were Kubo’s own bad habits. The Thousand Year Blood War arc had its problems, but they were all problems that had been there for a while: too many characters, too many subplots, not enough plot momentum and not enough focus on the main cast. The only thing that changed was the extent of those flaws compared to previous arcs. I’ve been pretty negative about Bleach here, but I actually do like it. Even the weaker arcs are still at least somewhat enjoyable and the action was always fun. I just wish the later arcs had been able to match the quality of the Soul Society arc.