It’s interesting to note that I didn’t get into any of the Big Three on a first attempt. One Piece’s Alvida episode seemed frivolous and unfunny and Naruto seemed like its main character was going to be too hard to like, let alone root for. But by the Haku/Zabuza arc, Naruto was a firm favourite and One Piece hooked me in as soon as Zoro was set free – though took another few months to rise up to my favourite Jump title besides Hikaru no Go. Bleach, on the other hand, was a long, long slog before it picked up and became not only watchable but compulsive viewing.
But – unlike the authors of The Anime Encyclopaedia, whose entry is clearly based on a cursory viewing of the first few episodes – I stuck with it, curious as to what all the fuss was about, and I ended up glad I did. For while the first forty or so episodes are rather dull and emotionally distant, once Ichigo travels to Soul Society and its major figures are introduced, a far more interesting world, with far more interesting characters, comes to the fore.
Bleach is about a teenager who can see ghosts. He has a reputation as something of a delinquent, especially because people jump to conclusions based on his hair colour – which supposedly is natural and not a result of bleach. This was for some time put forward as a wrangled reason for the series’ title, until mangaka Tite Kubo came up with a better one about wanting to refer obliquely to white. One day, he sees a female shinigami in battle with a ‘hollow’, a monstrous and predatory spirit looking to feed on the souls of the recently deceased. The shinigami, Rukia, ends up injured, and lends Ichigo some of her power to defeat the creature. However, he absorbs far more than expected, not only becoming powerful enough to defeat the hollow but rendering Rukia almost useless for a while. Thus, he has to take on her responsibilities and do battle with the creatures from the spirit world, who seem to have taken an interest in him and those around him.
As I mentioned, the story doesn’t really pick up until Ichigo travels to the Shinigami world of Soul Society to rescue Rukia, which means taking on warriors far more powerful and more experienced than he is – and becomes mixed up in a coup that just happens to erupt as he is there. This section has some irritating power-up moments for Ichigo, but introduces the shinigami captains, antagonists who later become sympathetic and even the best things about the series in a similar way to HunterXHunter’s genei ryodan. My favourite is the straightforward battle-freak Kenpachi, but the likes of the aloof Byakuya, the gruffly childlike Toushirou and the unhinged mad scientist character Kurotsuchi have great designs and dynamics.
Bleach was also quite innovative with its filler, original episodes not based on the manga aired in order to prevent anime catching up to Jump chapters. Initially, Studio Pierrot fell back on their Naruto filler tricks with inconsequential single episodes – including one about a ghost baker shamelessly ripped off from Kekkaishi – but later began to do long, extended story arcs, even introducing characters that come back for cameos in later non-filler episodes. These usually outstay their welcome and fall apart even if their original ideas were remarkably good, but they generally offer far more to keep an audience than long seasons of bitty, inconsequential single-episode stories.
In the end, Bleach is in a state of uncertainty. Many seem to think it would have been the ideal time for Bleach to end when the time-skip happened, and everything beyond that has been sub-par. And even before its timeskip, I wouldn’t call Bleach the best series. It’s often frustrating, its central character is remarkably uncharismatic for a Jump protagonist and there’s often an air of desperation about how its loose ends get tied up. But there are some battles here that ought to be a fix for any lover of shounen, and really, if you’re watching a long-runner from Jump, that oughtta be what you’re looking for.
Movie 3: link
Movie 4: link