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Monday, August 22, 2016

Reflections: The End of Bleach (God Help Us)

            Oh, Lord. 

            So.  Bleach ended.  About 3 years (3 endless years) after telegraphing that this final arc would be the last of Kubo’s massive, sprawling action series, Bleach has achieved the strange and dubious distinction of having an ending both interminably long and shockingly brief, and I’m honestly not sure which is worse.    

            I confess that I know very little about why it was decided to end Bleach so suddenly this year, but what I think is clear is that the choice was not entirely Kubo’s (if he even had a choice at all).  The clearest victim of this choice ended up being the simple fact that what Kubo clearly intended to be a sprawling epic of a last story, involving returns of nearly every major character from the course of the entire series, was chopped down to a rapid and hazy resolution of only the most pressing issues of the story. 

            Retracing and recreating the vast, endless maze of plot threads, character arcs, and battles that, despite Kubo’s earlier hinting, never actually happened or were clearly abridged is something I will not even begin to attempt here, because it would be a guaranteed, one-way ticket to a fate worse that Jack’s in The Shining.  Suffice it to say that the way the finale of the series actually went down is mind-boggling.  These last few chapters were easily the worst of the entire series, a statement that I do not make lightly. 

            I mean, Naruto had issues.  It had some REALLY big issues.  But at least it stuck to enough of its core storylines, adequately fulfilling and resolving them in the final chapter, to make it worth seeing through to the end, and to give its last moments a fitting sense of finality and emotional weight.  For a series so big and long-running, it’s stupendously hard, and I once would have said near-impossible, to create an ending with absolutely no sense of importance to it, or at least a bit of nostalgic sadness. 

            Yet, somehow, Bleach pulled it off.  There’s just no way to put it nicely- this ending was an absolute dumpster-fire, in every sense of the word.  Of all the long-running issues with the franchise I flagged earlier, none of them changed or were improved upon down the stretch in the slightest.  This is a series that decided to end with the literal death of God and the possible annihilation of all matter and being in the universe, which even Naruto didn’t try to do.  And yet, we somehow managed to reach the absolute nadir of the series by resolving this stupendously ambitious plot concept with a “fight” that barely qualified as such, with everything boiling down to a handful of hastily-explained plot twists with no buildup or forshadowing.  Every bit of it felt perfunctory, as if Kubo simply decided to passively dot the I’s and cross the T’s he had to, but had resolved to do no more than that, so that he could just get this mess over with.  And nothing is more devastating to the resolution of a story than when it’s pervaded by the sense that even the story’s creator doesn’t give a damn. 

            Perhaps this ending could have been salvaged if Ichigo had at least gotten some strong moments as a character, to reflect on where he was at the beginning of the series and how much he’d gone through and changed over the years.  But nope. 

            Perhaps if Chad and Orihime had gotten some form of redemption for being shat on in earlier arcs by being part of the fight to defeat Juha Bach, with maybe Rukia and Renji thrown in, Bleach could have recaptured some of the team camaraderie that made the early chapters such a joy.  But nope. 

            Perhaps if (and I know this one is a shocker) Uryu had actually had something to do in a years-long arc about effing QUINCIES, and the apparent subplot about his playing the part of a double-agent had actually gone anywhere, the story would have not felt like a massive bubble of empty air meant merely to justify Kubo drawing out his penchant for ethnically stereotypical battle fetishes.  But nope. 

            But if I’m honest, even if any of the above had happened, I doubt it would have been enough.  This series was already way too far gone by the end.  Long before this arc was even announced, the rift between the first 170-180 chapters of the series and what it later became had widened into a chasm that no amount of decent writing could bridge.  I tried to think of ways I could sum up just how much about this series has changed (beyond what I’ve written already), and just couldn’t come up with anything, because it really is beyond words at this point.  I don’t know if I can say that Bleach necessarily betrayed its origins (I think there’s a better argument to made that Naruto did that), but it certainly became much more unrecognizable, and the writing substantially more lazy, especially where the fights were concerned. 

            It didn’t help that none of the conclusions or fates given to the remaining characters felt in any way important or fitting.  Really, none of them.  Chad didn’t even get facetime outside of a shot of a TV, for Christ’s sake.  The possible exception was Rukia achieving the rank of Captain, which was definitely a good ending as far as she was concerned, but even that was robbed of a sense of triumph because everything around it felt so empty, like the dead vacuum of outer space. 

            Ugh.  This is all just really, really depressing.  I stand by my past assertion that, in the early days, Bleach was solid enough and had enough potential to surpass both Naruto and One Piece and have the grandest, most interesting story out of all the Shonen Big 3.  And here it is, ending suddenly, in dishonor, at a level of quality lower than anything I had imagined possible.  Like with all cases of a good or even great story idea going sour, the most fitting word I can find is sad, because if there’s one thing we can never have enough of in the world, it’s good stories. 

            So ends the tale of Ichigo and co., I suppose.  But thankfully, hope in the world of manga is not gone.  After this ending I need to detox for a bit, and once that’s over with I will have the time expound on one of my favorite topics- why One Piece has not only avoided the decline suffered by Naruto and Bleach, but has even managed to get better over the past decade.  Stay tuned. 

-Noah Franc 

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