Even Bleach Has an Expiration Date: The Fall of a Big 3 Manga

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If you ask a manga reader from the mid-2000s what the big 3 manga were, chances are you’d hear the following responses: Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece.

It’s now a decade later. Naruto has ended. One Piece is still going strong. And Bleach… Well, Bleach is still going.

If you talk to those same 2005 manga readers about Bleach, you’re likely going to hear similar responses. “Oh, it’s still running? It hasn’t ended yet?” or “Wow, those ship wars really ruined the fandom for me.” But a couple replies usually pop up again and again. “I stopped reading after the Soul Society arc.” Or perhaps: “Bleach should have ended after the Soul Society arc.”

Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach. Story & art by Kubo Tite. VIZ Media/Shueisha.

Meet Ichigo Kurosaki in his Shinigami form.

Let me back up a bit. For those who aren’t familiar with Bleach, it’s a shounen manga series about a high school student named Ichigo Kurosaki, who has the ability to see ghosts. One day, he meets a Shinigami, or death god, named Rukia Kuchiki. Her Shinigami abilities accidentally transfer to Ichigo and as a result, he ends up taking over her duties. For various reasons, this is a crime and it eventually catches up to them. Rukia is taken back to Soul Society, the spirit world home of the  Shinigami and the ghosts under their care, to be executed. The Soul Society story arc spans the chapters where Ichigo and his friends break into Soul Society to save her.

But here’s the thing: Saying you stopped reading after this story arc, or that the comic series should have ended there, implies that the narrative would have been complete. Would it?

Let me tell you something. I reread all of Bleach after reminiscing about anime redhead Renji Abarai. Ending Bleach after Soul Society would have been a terrible idea. Why? Because it’s not an actual ending. It’s not even a narrative breather. It is in fact the opening salvo to a bigger story arc in which we learn that Sousuke Aizen is the biggest bad to ever bad.

The cover of Bleach volume 48. Story & art by Kubo Tite. VIZ Media/Shueisha.

That’s right. 48 volumes to defeat Aizen!

This isn’t to say Bleach is narratively good after the Soul Society arc. That’s the problem with Bleach. There are no highs or lows. There are no soaring victories for us to celebrate or emotional lows for us to scream about. It’s surprisingly one note, and it all goes back to Aizen.

See, we know Aizen’s the big bad. But he’s introduced so early, encountered in a climactic fight so early in the series that we get no build-up to a final boss battle. Instead, we get a drawn out series of fights and encounters as various henchmen and underlings try to stop Ichigo and his friends. But it’s hard to get emotionally invested in these fights—no matter how cool those characters may look—when we know they’re just filling space until Aizen finally decides to take the stage.

We discover Aizen’s nefarious plans in Chapter 178 of the manga. Ichigo and his pals finally defeat him in Chapter 423. That’s almost 250 chapters to defeat a bad guy! Are you even serious?

By contrast, at 400 chapters in, Naruto has already fought Sasuke, lost Sasuke, had a time skip, and is well on his way to fighting in a world war. One Piece is in the middle of its majestic Enies Lobby story arc and the Strawhat Crew has declared war on the World Government.

Make no mistake. Kubo Tite draws some stylish characters, and those characters can be pretty cool. But because so many of them are simply filler, they lack depth. They’re introduced, defeated, and forgotten. Some popular ones may come back later, but their reappearance brings no nuance or dimension. Good characters can make up for a flagging narrative (see: Naruto), but alas, Bleach has neither.

Sadly, Bleach continued its serialization after Aizen was finally defeated. Which was strange because, unlike the conclusion of the Soul Society arc, that would have been the perfect place to end the series. Everything was tied up. There were no loose threads.

But no. It kept going. Ichigo loses his supernatural abilities after defeating Aizen, right? He becomes completely a normal high school student. A fitting ending to a series about a boy tired of his ability to see ghosts. It doesn’t last. We soon launch into a new story arc in which Ichigo is forced to regain his supernatural abilities for convoluted reasons that involve people wanting to steal them. Yes, people want to steal abilities he doesn’t actually have so they have to help him get them first! That’s a lot of effort, isn’t it?

Worse still? The manga is still going—even though Weekly Shounen Jump made a clear announcement a couple years back that the series was ending. Naruto has ended in the time between that announcement and now. What gives?

Having caught up to the current ongoings in the manga, I can tell it’s proceeding toward a final, culminating battle. Slowly. In the most meandering fashion ever. Which is a pity. Like Rurouni Kenshin and Fullmetal Alchemist, shounen manga series should end with a bang.

But Bleach appears to be heading toward a gasping, choked whimper.

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About Author

Writer. Manga and webtoon aficionado. I hail from Washington D.C. where I consume too much media and cause only a little trouble. Tweet me @incitata.

16 Comments

  1. I totally agree with this. Bleach was fine in the beginning then it just became battle after battle, power-up after power-up, with no sense of direction. In the Hueco Mundo Arc, Aizen had plans for Inoue which was suddenly waived off for introducing a bunch of new characters. I suspect plot development is not Kubo Tite’s strongest suit so he relies on one that is– designing cool characters. Before I stopped following Bleach the last I caught was a new revelation on Ichigo’s origin, but I couldn’t bring myself to care anymore what happens next.

  2. Are you just following the animes dude? Cause in the One Piece manga, were way past Enies Lobby. In fact, as of this writing, were finally finishing up a big arc called Dressrosa and about to move on. Granted the Japan broadcast of the anime is still in the middle of Dressrosa but it’s starting to catch up to the finale.

    That said I do agree with your assessment of Bleach. This series was better when it was just small story arcs focusing on dangerous Hollows and what not. I didn’t mind Soul Society too much and Aizen added some intrigue and I liked the idea of Arrancars. But I was kinda hoping it would’ve been a small ride to the battle with him. Instead it felt like it was stalling out over time that it was so easy to get bored with the story. So many pointless fights that really amounted to nothing other then the sake of battle. And indeed, the story should’ve just ended after Aizen was beaten, the Fullbringer arc was pointless and the final one, which were currently on, feels rather tacked on (though a bit interesting). It’s a shame really, I do love the premise of Bleach, but it’s obvious Kubo still needs work in the pacing of his stories because most of the time it feels like he’s just making this up as he goes along and getting many major writer’s block because of it.

    • I’m well-aware that One Piece is currently concluding the Dressrosa saga. But if you reread that paragraph again, you’ll realize I’m comparing what’s happening in the three different manga at 400 chapters in. One Piece was in the middle of the Enies Lobby arc then.

  3. I just finished watching Bleach yesterday, I tried reading the Manga Chapter that would of been the next episode and I just couldn’t do it. I loved Bleach, just hated how 165 out of 366 episodes were filler, that’s almost 50% of the show… That’s just ridiculous. The show probably should of ended after Ichigo beat Aizen, but the Fullbringer Arc wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t necessary tho. I know that in the Manga it’s on an Arc called the Thousand Year War Arc or whatever and it is against the Quincy’s, I think that’s kinda interesting and I hope that it gets animated. I’d love to see Bleach Anime make a comeback. Especially since Naruto is almost over.

  4. I think that Tite Kubo was a genious for the characters and the Plot. When ichigo fought Aizen , Aizen didn’t use his bankai did you notice that , Aizen’s shikai was the ability to use absolute hypnosis so hypothetically Aizen could have escaped when ichigo tried to finish him off. Ichigo’s evolution as a character became better over time . We were left with a clif hanger in bleach , that left us asking so many questions . Which could only be solved by reading the manga . Bleach is a unique manga and I really hope they make the future arcs in anime . 😊

    • It’s weird but when originally watching the animated series, I kind of always thought he was already in bankai mode and just lied about being in shikai mode. After all, what would be the increased version when his ability already enveloped the entire 5 senses of the person. The magnitude would be indescribable.

  5. You guys have nothing better to do other than bash an extremely creative narative that none of you including myself were, never in our wildest dreams, creative enough to come up with ourselves? This article and responses are all really corny in my opinion, like you really didn’t have anything better to do than attack something more intelligent than yourselves. What’s bleach, in the top 10 Manga of all time out of 100’s of mangas? Idk just seems pathetic to me posting something like this. Give credit when credit is do. Don’t try to hate on something more successful than yourself that millions of others including Shonen jump believe to be one of the greatest ever. And I know you will try to talk shit and jump down my throat for this comment but the truth hurts. You’re corny hating on other peoples genius just because you lack the creativity yourself and need the insignificant, tiny amount of people to agree with you to make yourself feel remotely intelligent. Just enjoy the series for what it is and leave the actual to the real critics who by the look of it disagree with everything this article represents. Have a nice day and let the pathetic hate comments come in. I’m sure there’s a few keyboard warriors out there that need a good argument to make there life meaningfull.

    • “like you really didn’t have anything better to do than attack something more intelligent than yourselves”

      “You’re corny hating on other peoples genius just because you lack the creativity yourself”

      Okay so I really felt the need to reply to your comment, because the way you’re going at this is representative of a lot of people thinking this is it, this is the way you should defend things, because like this people will be embarrassed of themselves and rethink their opinion. But no. Let’s look at this from another perspective: say, you go to a top class restaurant many, many praised and order an amazing dish – that turns out to taste average at best. Will you be like “It’s not that good, but since I can’t cook that dish myself and many already praised this restaurant, I have no place to criticize it” ? No, you won’t. We live in a free world where you can criticize every and anything that doesn’t meet your standards, and in this case, it’s the chef’s job to cook you a great meal, so you can expect one, can’t you? Coming back to Bleach, it’s the artist’s job and the way he earns his money, and it’s a lot of money, to give his fans and everyone that is reading the manga a great experience. And lately, he fails to meet the standards people have. There’s no way to say Bleach is a bad manga in general now, nor is the current arc complete rubbish. But still – if we accept the current Bleach as great, don’t dare to criticize it and praise it till no ends, we disregard everything amazing Bleach was in former arcs, since, apparently, the current Bleach is just as good, as well as disregard great mangas in general. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to give constructive criticism? Why should we enjoy the manga just as it is? Like this, all we can expect from future mangas is average-ish at best, while there could be so much more. Shouldn’t the manga artists strive to make their work even better, instead of being all “well, my fans like it so far, let’s just roll on this wave”? This isn’t about making one’s own life more “meaningful”, in your words, but making everyone’s reading experience better by motivating the manga artists to continue giving their best in not only creating great characters and introductive story arcs, but keeping the plot constantly at high level and also, knowing how to end a story the right way. Manga readers don’t, and shouldn’t, accept everything there comes just because there’s “Shonen jump believe to be one of the greatest ever” or “leave the actual to the real critics who by the look of it disagree with everything this article represents”. Who cares what real critics say? We, the fans, are what carries the series, and if we aren’t pleased, doesn’t matter how many or little we are, we are free to express our opinion in every (though preferably very polite and constructive) way.

      Sorry for this extensive rant. This is by no ways meant as hate (though you were unecessarily rude, if not insulting, at times), I just don’t get the way you view things, and I hope I managed to show you a different point of view on this whole matter! 🙂

      • Is this some essay writing competition? Its the comments section not the lecture section. And yes like the author has full right to criticize the manga, so do we have to criticize this article. From your own point of view, imagine you opened a restraunt and people came and praised the food a lot cause its good. But someone doesnt like it and says its average at best. Here the other people who praised the food must be thinking ‘this guy has no taste!’ That is just how we are speaking our views.

  6. I think you should research more about the original stories before you say some things like thos ones. The final arc, The 1000 years blood war, has a lot of incredible twists in Bleachs plot, that not only show that Aizen wasnt the final boss, but also comes up with new details about the story that give many contrasts during the chapters. I dont understand why you said that Bleach has no highs or lows, because it is full of them, taking into account, for example, Ichigos feelings towards his friends being hurt, Rukia comforting him, his will to train and gain power to protect. There are quite a lot of ups and duwns.
    I am a Naruto fan, but the ending was so bad and got me so sad… Well the point is that I know Naruto a lot so dont come here and compare both mangas with things like Naruto did a lot of things in less chapters, so Bleach goes nowhere and blablabla. That has no point. I think each series has its own development and focuses on differents things, Naruto is more about dreams and conexions with people, while Bleach is about protecting and “whats worth fighting for”. Both are incredible in their own way.
    My list of great mangas of all times are: Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Fairy Tail and Dragon Ball. Even if there are other good stories or you dislike any of them, they are surely BIG stories in this manga world, and believe me, they are there because of a reason 😉
    I dont want to insult you or anything like that, in the end, each one has his own likes and dislikes, but I think you dont have clear nor solid reasons to bash Bleach in that way.
    Sorry if I have writtwn something incoherent, I’m from Colombia so English is not my mother language.

  7. I enjoy bleach like how I enjoy marvel movies. Handsome faces, funny banter and mad action.

    Throw plot holes and universe logic out of window. That’s not Kubo’s strongest point.

    And read them in a bunch. don’t torture your self by following one chapter per week.