Let's Read Bleach aka is it really past its prime?

wehrmacht

Introduction

Bleach is a manga series by Tite Kubo that began serialization in Weekly Shounen Jump in 2001. It stars Ichigo Kurosaki, a grouchy but good-hearted 15 year old japanese boy with an unusual orange hair color (which is the series' namesake) with the even more unusual ability to see the spirits of the dead. A chance meeting with the Shinigami ("Soul Reaper") Rukia Kuchiki ends up changing his life forever; he ends up having to absorb Rukia's powers to save his family from a spiritual monster called a "Hollow". With Rukia left powerless, Ichigo has to take up her role as the resident Shinigami. The series would eventually become a battle shounen in the Dragon Ball tradition. The series bears more than a few similarities to another Jump series: Yu Yu Hakusho. In fact, Bleach was initially rejected by Jump, and I recall reading that it was this very similarity to YYH that prompted Jump to initially reject it, but since then I haven't been able to find a source to verify this. The comparisons certain people have made to DBZ are also amusing, as Akira Toriyama himself wrote a letter of encouragement to Kubo after he was bummed out at being rejected. But that's enough about that.

If you were a fan of anime and manga in the mid-to-late 2000's, it was pretty much impossible NOT to discover Bleach. At the time, it was considered one of the "Big Three" along with Naruto and One Piece; all of them were series serialized in WSJ that began around the same time period and skyrocketed in popularity, becoming huge best-sellers and the most popular and well-known manga and anime franchises in general.

...however, the key word here is "was". Sometime around the beginning of the 2010's, Bleach began to decline rapidly in popularity and its critical opinion in the anime and manga community turned very sour.

This is not merely a subjective evaluation; it is a fact that volume sales for Bleach are only a fraction of what they used to be. According to figures from Oricon, Bleach volume 36 sold 970,000 copies in half a year in 2008. Bleach volume 61 has only sold 607,000 copies in the same timeframe. It's also been tanking in popularity polls for some time, being in the bottom 3 of the magazine pretty consistently. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Bleach's decline is the cancellation of its anime to make room for a Naruto spin-off about a minor character. For a while, Ichigo's prominent spot on jump covers was taken over by Toriko. Toriko's suffered from hyper backlash since, but Bleach has remained decadent.

On the other hand, Naruto sales have held very steady in the last few years, and One Piece has only become more and more popular, eventually becoming the #1 selling manga of all time. Even disregarding the fact that Naruto ended recently, the "big three" haven't really been that for years.

Now, it's easy to say that Bleach's sales are still good even now, but that's not the point. Comparing it now to its prime position as a popular and best-selling media franchise, Bleach is only a shadow of its former self in terms of critical acclaim and overall presence in anime and manga culture.

I suppose now it might be a good time to talk about my experiences with Bleach, and how I've perceived the franchise over the course of its run.

Bleach was actually the first manga I read online. It was around 2006, and it was recommended to me by one of my friends on deviantART. At the time I was still not a proper part of the online manga and anime community, so Bleach was something special to me. I was still young and at exactly the age where a shounen series like Bleach is most appreciable, and best of all, I could consume it rapidly and without hassle. As a result I became a pretty big fan...and promptly stopped reading the manga around the time Uryuu was fighting Szayel Aporro Granz. I don't remember why, and honestly it doesn't matter.

As the years passed, two important things happened that ensured I stopped reading the series and changed the way I viewed it:

The first is the aforementioned decline of public opinion on Bleach's quality. Everywhere I went, everyone was frustrated, cynical, and derisive of Bleach's current state, which made me think I had the made right decision to stop reading it anyway.

Secondly, my tastes just changed as I got older and read more and different manga. I saw that there was much more to the industry besides the big three, and begun to become more critical of shounen and shoujo manga as I noticed their recurring narrative and cultural issues. As of now, I primarily read seinen and josei manga, as in my opinion most of the truly great, well-written and well-illustrated manga are found in those demographics.

This does not, however, stop me from enjoying battle shounen from time to time. I am a big fan of series like Hunterx Hunter, Fullmetal Alchemist, Rurouni Kenshin, and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, so battle shounen are still good entertainment to me provided they don't suck outright.

It was recently as I was looking for a battle shounen based on swordplay that I was reminded by someone of Bleach's existence again. I had just finished reading pre-shippuden Naruto out of curiosity and found it pretty serviceable entertainment. I decided that it would feel appropriate to go re-visit Bleach, get caught up to where it is presently, and re-evaluate it with my new perspective.

I will be dividing this liveblog into critical evaluations on an arc by arc basis. I will give my overall thoughts on art quality, characterization, plot pacing, and will make an effort to try and dig up interviews and statements by Kubo around specific times to complement my overviews and provide some context as to what dictated Bleach's overall direction.

It should go without saying that I'm going to be concerned with the manga exclusively. I have never watched the Bleach anime, and have no plans to, so I will be evaluating the plot and characters based entirely on what happens in the manga.

Overall I would like to think I'm a pretty forgiving individual. I enjoyed reading part 1 of Naruto even as I recognized it was just a typical shounen manga and found a number of miscellaneous issues, and without spoiling too much, I have enjoyed re-reading everything up to and including Soul Society. The main purpose of this liveblog, besides quenching my thirst for a battle shounen, is to see just what happened that made Bleach decline in popularity, and if it really deserves its bad reputation. let's go and find out.

Comments

Interestingly enough, the approximate point at which you stopped was around the time I got started in Bleach, hearing about it in Shonen Jump and seeing some of the dubbed episodes (at the time, they'd dubbed through Renji's fight with Byakuya, before taking a hiatus).

I agree with your analysis, and acknowledge that Bleach is past its prime, but I'm still interested in seeing how it ends, partly since it doesn't take that long to read each chapter (someone claimed to be able to do so in about 30 seconds when discussing how little content was in each one).
Valiona 8th Dec 14
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