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Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Problems with Bleach

**spoiler warning- this post assumes full up-to-date knowledge of the Bleach manga.  If you are not caught up now, come back when you are**

            Some of you might recall that, way back in 2014, during the series’ big final-arc wrap-up, I took to this page to vent about the long-running degeneration of Naruto from what started out as a genuinely great story with immense potential into just another pulpyDBZ-knockoff.  Well…much to my dismay…here we are again- another of the Big Shonen Three, Bleach (Naruto and One Piece being the other two), is in the middle of its own concluding arc, and in a frightening parallel to what I experienced two years ago, I can’t help but reflect back on how great the series started out, what high hopes I had, and how far things have fallen in the interim.  And this one is much more painful; Naruto, at least, had a few really good parts towards the end to soften the blow of its collapse.  Bleach has just gotten terrible.  Really, straight-up, head-scratchingly terrible. 

            The funny thing is, if you had asked me for my thoughts after I had first read the Soul Society Arc (“officially” ending with Chapter 182), I would have earnestly argued that Bleach was BETTER than Naruto and One Piece; it had the same amount of endless possibilities inherent in the design of the world and its powers, but was ALSO the only one with a main character who was actually a smart, interesting, and capable story figure with real depth to him beyond “Imma be the best because DURNIT, I want to!”  Or at least, it started out that way….come gather ‘round, people, wherever ye roam….

Ichigo has become completely bland and forgettable, and it’s beyond sad.

            When Bleach started out, Ichigo made for a really intriguing main character.  Or at least, he had the potential of being one.  In complete contrast to Naruto and Luffy, both of whom had “phenomenally stupid” written in as core character traits, Ichigo was a top student, considered a weirdo and outsider for actually caring about his studies (and was also a bit of an outcast for deliberately bleaching his hair, which is where the series got its name from).  Plus, and again, entirely unlike the early days of Naruto, while he obviously needed training at the appropriate moments to prepare for the level of fighters he would face, even at the beginning he was by no means a slouch in battle, and could always handle himself. 

            Yeah, he had the same basic personality (headstrong and stubborn as a bull), fiercely determined to stand by his friends and do the right thing, carried an overwhelming inherent fighting power, and by virtue of his parentage (although like with Luffy and Naruto, we didn’t learn the details until much later) was more or less “destined for greatness,” but that’s all pretty rote for a Shonen series.  All the extra stuff- the bleaching of his hair as a way to defy social norms, his mature bearing, and his sharp intelligence, plus the fact that his journey was set up to be one of having to balance the nature and needs of different worlds, offered a lot of possibilities to create a really great personal and emotional arc to accompany the cool hackey-slashey fighting bits. 

            Which makes it especially disappointing that all that potential, which the early arcs mined pretty effectively, all but disappeared once the Espada showed up and have never returned since then.  It’s rather ironic, in a way.  Even in the midst of its decline, Naruto still partially redeemed itself by satisfyingly completing Naruto’s arc from bratty, weak, idiotic child into a powerful and mature (though not necessarily more intelligent) Hokage.  Ichigo, meanwhile, has become a cardboard cutout of his former self, simply allowing himself to be moved from Point A to Point B by more colorful and interesting characters so that he can instantly learn each new rote superpower needed to defeat the next bad guy (I’ll come back to this point shortly), all the while never once cracking a smile and grimly promising to handle everything, rinse, wash, repeat.  At this point he’s barely a factor in the closing arc of his own series, which gives me the impression Kubo just stopped caring about his own main character.  And if the author can’t be bothered, why should I? 

Anyone remember Chad, or Orihime, or Rukia?  Because Kubo doesn’t.

            Remember when Bleach was just as much as much about the relationships between Ichigo and his 3 best friends as it was about swinging massive swords and wrecking spirit demons’ shit?  Yeah, those days are long gone now.  Rukia has had a few interesting moments where her powers have advanced, but she and Ichigo barely see each other, and Chad and Orihime’s utter lack of narrative relevance has been a running joke for years now.  The friendships and relationships that bound together those four, plus Ichida, were the heart and soul of the series, and its absence is painfully noticeable. 

The stereotypes.  Oh God, the stereotypes. 

            Let’s be honest here- Japan is not exactly known for well-balanced, reasonable takes on foreigners and cultures outside of Japan.  I mean, only someone completely removed from any direct experience with Western Christianity could come up with shit like this, even as kids we all knew there was something really messed up aboutMr. Popo’s existence, and let’s not forget which character in Yu-Gi-Oh was intended to be an American stand-in.  

            That being said, Bleach seems to have deliberately gone the extra mile to stuff in as many bizarre cultural and/or racial stereotypes as it can in its final arc.  The Espada, with they’re ridiculously flamboyant half-Spanish names and phrases were bad enough; I mean, is there any particular reason Kubo made Spanish the default setting for an army of actual hellspawn?  Did he just have a really bad experience that one time he holidayed in Barcelona? 

            Apparently that was just the tip of the iceberg, because then along came the Quincy Sternritter, resurrecting a supposedly extinct group of in-universe magic users as the final bad-guy group and making them one of the more outlandish examples of Nazi wannabis I’ve ever encountered, using hilariously perverted forms of German words for their ranks, attacks, and forms (typing the word “Sternritter” alone is probably shaving years off my life). 

            And yet even creating another Nazi group stand-in wasn’t enough, because even within the Sternritter some characters have been so bizarre as to be impossible to place, including an absurdly homoerotic Luchadore, a zombie-creating lesbian necrophile, and a sad rehash of the weakest Espada of them all.  For all the stakes Kubo is trying to build up with the final arc about the possible end of existence itself (the main villain has already literally killed God), the cast of baddies he’s set up for the final fights are so outlandishly cartoonish, EVEN for a Jump series, that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously at this point. 

The sexism.

            I considered lumping this in with the category above, but Bleach’s terrible treatment of anyone missing a Y chromosome is so legendarily ubiquitous, it deserves its own special mention.  For all the shit I gave Naruto about dropping the ball with Sakura, at least they never gave her several boob transplants and made flimsy excuses to stick her in vastly underequipped battle armor. 

            Kubo has gone the opposite direction, seemingly determined to up his own anti every arc by finding new ways to strip away whatever dignity the women in the Shinigami world have left- I would call Yoruichi’s most recent transformation into a half-human, half-cat sex slave (and no, I’m really not exaggerating there) the absolute bottom of the barrel, but I will refrain from doing so for fear Kubo will read this and get it in his head to prove me wrong out of spite. 

            The worst, though, isn’t that nearly every woman fighter in the Gotei 13 is guaranteed an early death-by-lower-back-shattering; it’s how insidiously he’s brought Orihime, who like Ichigo started off as a decently interesting character, down to the same objectified level.  All the other gals had massive, front-and-center tits from the start, so there wasn’t much salvation to be found there to begin with.  Orihima, however, started out looking like an actual, normally-curved human female.  And somehow, ever so slowly, her boobs have gotten bigger and bigger with each progressive arc, and her bizarre clothes more and more revealing, and by now she might have the biggest, most obvious set of knockers in the entire series.  It’s happened so gradually I couldn’t even begin to trace when it started, but the difference between the end of the Soul Society arc and now is staggering, and especially offensive, since her relevance in every other aspect of the story has been reduced to Absolute Zero. 

The artwork is no longer that good, or even cohesive.

            This was one of the issues I had with Naruto, and sadly, the exact same problem eventually started cropping up in Bleach- whereas the first few hundred chapters had a rough-hewn quality to them that made the world feel real and the action gritty, engaging, and pretty damn cool to look at, somewhere within the Espada arc the style changed completely.  It’s all solid straight lines and big bubbles surrounding everything, with none of the shading or rough edges that made the early arcs distinctive.  Like with Naruto, it’s a change that has taken away the ability of the series to be both series and comic when needed- everything looks so straight and serious that the few stabs at whacky comedy that come in every now and then feel horrible out of place.  Worse than Naruto, Kubo’s waste of precious page space has become nigh-on unbearable; I’ve lost count of the number of chapters so filled with big, blank, black blocks that weeks would often go by without the slightest advancement in the story. 

The fights are all about hopelessly bullshit powers that make no sense.

            Continuing the topic of issues in Naruto proving presciently relevant to Bleach….

            Much like with the rules of chakra and eye- and bloodline-techniques in Naruto, Bleach started out by hinting at a pretty interesting variety of powers and possibilities for fights; the idea of each sword having its own soul and power uniquely suited to the personality and style of the wielder was particularly inspired.  And because there were many different ways to handle a fight, there was no need to automatically use the great sword powers, especially for the higher level of fighters.  This allowed there to be a sense of mystery about the nature of many of the Ban Kais of the upper echelon of the Gotei 13, which I always found particularly appealing. 

            And like any respect left to the series’ women, all that has gone out the window, with Kubo clearly having decided to reveal each and every remaining Ban Kai by the end of the series, and in most cases, has gone to bizarrely twisted storytelling lengths to do so.  About 400 chapters ago, I would have been all for getting to see each of the Captain’s full powers.  Now, I just don’t care enough, especially their use has replaced the use of any other strategy in a fight.  The Ban Kai has gone from a carefully regulated last resort to the Super Saiyan transformation of DBZ- a thing of legend and mythos reduced to an Insta-Cure for all your villainous ills. 

Kubo has started to break his own in-world rules.

            This might be the greatest sin Kubo has committed over the course of writing Bleach.  Obviously, the creator of a story has the Power of God when it comes to the worlds they create.  We can whine all we like, but they are the ultimate arbiters of the products of their imagination, and as such can ignore or listen to others all they like. 

            However, it is also a truth that, if a storyteller wants people other than him/herself to like what they do, and if they want to be able to create something that will have an enduring effect outside of themselves, this Power of God must be used sparingly and responsibly.  And one of the cardinal rules of this is that, if you decide to create a world for your story with specific guidelines for how it works, with explicit limitations and conditions for things like superpowers, you need to stick with them.  Otherwise, there are no consequences for what happens to the heroes, and when there are no consequences, there aren’t any stakes.  And when there are no stakes or no tangible risk at play, your story will have no tension and will be less affecting and less memorable as a result. 

            There are a lot of examples to pick from here, from minor characters clearly dying yet somehow reappearing a short while later with no explanation, to the awful retconning of why some characters are still alive, to the nonsensical laws of how the Shinigami world regulates souls changing seemingly at random, to previously established limits on certain powers suddenly not being relevant anymore, but one of the worst ones is probably the convoluted twists and turns Kubo has taken to literally redefine and re-explain the sources and natures of Ichigo’s powers, changing its form and nature seemingly anew with each new arc (for a comprehensive look at this particular bit of bullshit, I highly recommend this episode of Weekly Manga Recap- skip just after the 30-minute mark).  It’s stupid, it’s exhausting, and more than anything else it shows us that Kubo just doesn’t care enough about the internal integrity of his own story world to make sure it holds up from start to finish.  

SO MUCH time has been wasted on unimportant side characters.

            Good Lord, am I sick of how interminably long this last arc has been.  And what’s been the biggest culprit of this?  All the time we’ve seen wasted on the Goddamn Sternritter battles, half of which have involved some sort of wholly unneeded backstory or flashback of said Sternritter, even though it’s been long-established that exactly zero of them will have any relevance whatsoever to the outcome of the war and the resolution of the story.  None of them are interesting (and some of them are direct rip-offs of previous, equally uninteresting characters from earlier arcs), the fights have served no purpose other than to reveal the few unknown Ban Kais remaining in the series, and above all else, they take SO LONG.  Some of them, including the awful Luchadore fight, took several months alone to resolve, during which advancement of every others part of the story, including the more important bits, were halted entirely (or even worse, were resolved off-screen). 

There’s now so much artificial construction and coincidence in each fight and story twist that it’s no longer possible to stay emotionally invested.

            All of the above has now combined to form a perfect storm of shitty idiocy, and the upshot of all this is that, even with the stakes in the final coming confrontation encompassing all of existence, the end of years of storytelling in the Shinigami world, there is so much blatant artificial construction in everything that happens that it’s no longer possible to stay emotionally invested in the outcome.  I don’t feel anxious, or worried, or excited about what’s going to happen.  The anticipation is gone. 

            And how can it not be, when Bleach has started to follow the exact same formula for every single final battle?  Each chapter is the same- one character pulls out a new power and gets the upper hand, only to be immediately countered at the start of the next chapter with the other character revealing another new power that, amazingly, is the exact perfect counterpart to the other dude’s newly revealed power, and thus this matchup was the best one that could have happened, BUT WAIT, the other guy has ANOTHER power-up that counters the counter to their first power, but thankfully in the chapter after that we learn the good guy has ANOTHER counter to the counter to the first counter to the first power, and on and on and on over several months until Kubo finally gets bored and ends it with the bad guy dying, because of course.  And ever since the Shinigami-Quincy war got underway, Kubo has followed this exact pattern for every.  Single.  Fight. 

            The only variations to this are when a handful of the fights have come with further “plot twists” and “character reveals,” but most of these either come out of the blue with zero build-up or previous foreshadowing (and thus carry no emotional weight), or (see above) directly contradict previous twists or story developments, or just make them wholly irrelevant from that point on.  They are twists for twists’ sake, or flashbacks because, hell, One Piece does it, so I will to! 

            The result is that, much like with Naruto, so much of what I once loved about Bleach has disappeared, or has been drowned out by an endless deluge of Stupid, and the result is that I view the coming end of something that has been a part of me for years not with sadness, or with excitement, but rather with exhausted resignation. 

            I will keep reading to the end- I’ve stuck around this long and might as well, since I am nothing if not a stubborn ass (plus, keeping up with Bleach just to be able to fully enjoy the Weekly Manga Recap gang tear it to pieces every week is its own reward), but the downfall of a once-promising story is always something to be lamented.  We can never have enough good stories in the world, but unfortunately most of Bleach will fall by the wayside once it’s finally been laid to rest.  Oh well.  We’ll always have the Soul Society arc at least. 

            Unless Kubo retcons it and bans further printings of the original tankobons.  Oh God, I’ve just given him an idea, haven’t I????

-Noah Franc 

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