I have a lot of nostalgia for Bleach. It was my first venture into the world of both shounen anime and manga, and was what got me started on a journey that – even today – has me devouring whatever I can get my hands on. As such, it pains me to repress my inner fangirl and actually look at this series critically. At the time of writing this review, four hundred and twenty-three chapters have been released, the story thus far has reached a definite conclusion, and mangaka Tite Kubo has announced that a further two arcs spanning the best part of another four years will follow. It doesn’t bode well that I will openly admit that I wish he’d instead sat back, realised that he’s had a good eight-year run and called it quits while he was still ahead.
Bleach follows typical teenager, Ichigo Kurosaki, and his not-so-typical ability to see spiritual beings. One day, the high-schooler finds his family under attack by a giant creature known as a Hollow, and while attempting to protect them, he meets a shinigami (soul reaper in the English translation) named Rukia. She then ends up transforming him into a shinigami and now Ichigo is adjusting to his new life of protecting spirits from Hollows before finding himself thrust into a series of events that puts both his and the spirit world at stake.
Without a doubt, the Soul Society Arc is Bleach’s strongest. With Ichigo et al barging into the spirit world and raiding the very heart of the shinigami government, this section of the narrative has far more direction than anything else that follows, demonstrating clear goals, twists, intrigue, and a good progression in the protagonist’s power and prowess. This arc shows what shounen manga is all about; grippingly awesome fights, engaging new characters, fun comedy, and a kick-ass plot. However, no matter how well a formula works, Bleach suffers from one fatal flaw: Tite Kubo has a nasty habit of taking all the good points of his manga and beating them within an inch of their lives.
While the Soul Society plotline triumphed, simply re-hashing the entire thing in a new setting just ain’t gonna cut it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens with the Hueco Mundo (land of the hollows) arc that follows, but instead Kubo replaces the Seireitei with Las Noches, slaps a few Espada in place of the Gotei Thirteen, and cuts out any of those quieter moments of plot development in favour of producing a string of progressively more difficult battles. Focusing on a sequence of action-packed fights isn’t dissimilar to basically any other shounen manga and the plot does continue to develop a little – albeit in the fine tradition of characters stopping dead in their tracks mid-combat to have an in-depth conversation about death and power; however, the recycled storyline and Kubo’s over-reliance on awe-inspiring conflicts means that, as a self-contained arc, there isn’t really all that much fresh content. The whole plotline feels kind of like a pair of hand-me-down jeans that you’ve always wanted; they may look all new and sparkly on the outside (ooo look fun new land, funky new enemies, Ichigo kicking ass), but then you get them out into the cold light of day and that’s when the problems begin. Under the glaring sun you quickly realise that actually, they look a bit grubby (what happened to all the intrigue of the Soul Society arc…), there’s a gaping hole in the pocket (convenient power ups pulled out from nowhere/the mangaka’s ass), and… wait… what the hell is with that suspicious looking stain in the crotch area?! (oh look, they’re off to rescue someone trapped in a strange world with pretty much zero chance of success AGAIN)
Unlike the likes of Kishimoto and Oda who have embarked on their behemoth series with what seems like a clear game-plan and a full understanding of their worlds, Kubo appears to just make it all up as he goes along, changing rules to suit his every whim. Often this leads him to abuse the ongoing mystery behind Ichigo’s powers to the point where watching his “development” as a fighter throughout the series feels like playing Monopoly with a blatant cheater. Every time the carrot-haired shinigami finds himself in a tough situation and winds up in the slammer, Kubo either miraculously powers the teen up using the stash of “Get out of jail free” cards hidden up his sleeve, or completely ignores all restrictions placed on Ichigo’s abilities and continues to traverse the board while collecting triple his two hundred pound share each time he passes “Go”.
As the strongest aspect of this manga, Kubo makes great use of varied mark-making from precise angular lines for detail and atmosphere, to freer and thicker calligraphic inking to emphasise atmosphere or grandeur. He also makes good use of different shaped panels and full-page spreads to express the gravity or sheer awe of the situation at hand or the intense determination through smaller more concentrated imagery.
When it comes to his character designs, mangaka Tite Kubo demonstrates solid technique, though not quite at full on pagegasm level. At times it seems that many individuals’ faces could be interchanged and no one would actually notice. Granted, this isn’t particularly out of the ordinary – all artists have their own facial vocabulary – but in comparison to other long running shounen franchises, a fair portion of Bleach’s cast feels re-used. Oda’s wacky designs for One Piece all look different; likewise Kishimoto’s subtler, more muted visuals in Naruto show distinct variations between all of the primary, secondary, and even tertiary players. The similar facial designs scattered throughout, affect not only the likes of Grimmjow and Hisagi – who essentially appear to be Ichigo clones with different hair colours and added accessories – but also makes less prominent personalities in the Bleach universe, such as many of the female Fraccions from Hueco Mundo, meld into one big Kubo-drawn blob.
This isn’t to say that the characters in Bleach are completely unimaginative in their appearance, as that’s far from the truth. Kenpachi’s craggy facial features, Kurotsuchi’s increasingly twisted appearance, and Chad’s shaggy-haired, large-lipped façade that only a mother could love all stick out for their bold designs. On top of that, Kubo also ideally matches a character’s visage to their personality, such as the harsh and pointed features of Byakuya that mirrors his icy and proud mannerisms, or the doe-eyed and curvaceous figure of the irritatingly “nice”, caring, and fluffy Orihime.
It would be impossible to say that Kubo’s creations are dull, as there are plenty of characters that grab attention for their bold personalities. When it comes to varied individuals Kubo shines and their various differences not only means that there’s something for everyone, but their interactions also contribute to the majority of the humorous content. However, for every deranged Kurotsuchi and glacial Byakuya, there’s at least one lacklustre Orihime, and for each time a cheeky Urahara and flirtatious Matsumoto take centre stage, a vapid Hinamori waits in the wings to bore or irritate the reader to sleep. As for Ichigo himself, he sinks into the role of standard shounen hero like it were a comfortable armchair, though at the same time he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
When it comes to development, Bleach is a bit of a mixed bag. Some protagonists evolve nicely and receive an admirable amount of exploration, allowing the reader to become invested in the individual. Others make for more compelling reading by remaining fairly mysterious all the way through with mere hints at their personality or intentions gradually bubbling their way to the surface. Then there’s the murkier end of it all where there are those whose entire evolution falls completely by the wayside reside, or those whose development is either rushed, half-formed, or completely bungled (Kubo’s recent attempt to make Gin more than just a creepy slimeball springs to mind here) – I like to call it the land of those the mangaka forgot. With such a huge cast it would be silly to expect every last minor character to have a fully fleshed-out personality, but in certain cases – more noticeably in the series’ antagonists – any kind of development happens so quickly, that it appears to have come out of nowhere. At times it seems like the individuals in question have done a complete one-eighty with little to no explanation, which makes it difficult to relate to their actions or even care about what happens to them.
I want to genuinely like Bleach, I really do, but that simply isn’t to be. Instead I have a weird love/hate relationship, in that I hate loving it. While sheepishly admitting that I enjoy reading it, every cell in my body screams out that I shouldn’t because – while it can be thoroughly entertaining if you immerse yourself in its world – it just really isn’t that great, especially in comparison to what else is out there. When it comes to the “Big Three” of shounen manga, Bleach is more like the retarded cousin to the two shining idols of Naruto and One Piece – or more appropriately, the Wonderweiss to their Ulquiorra and Grimmjow.