Ichigo Kurosaki’s Last Stand: On The End of Tite Kubo’s ‘Bleach’
This past Monday, August 22nd, saw the end of one of the Big Three shonen manga of the 2000s (alongside One Piece and Naruto), and what was at one time one of the most popular shonen titles in the world. Tite Kubo's Bleach published its 686th and final chapter, "Death and Strawberry," in the latest issue of Viz's Weekly Shonen Jump.
In anime and manga circles the reaction has been celebratory, but also somewhat muted. Given that Bleach ran for over a decade, and spawned a highly successful anime, four feature films and many stage musicals, and is still a merchandising and cosplay bonanza, why is that?
The truth is, to most Western fans at least, Bleach overstayed its welcome.
For the unfamiliar, Bleach tells the tale of Ichigo Kurosaki, a surly 15 year-old (though he'd age to 17 after a timeskip) who acted as Soul Reaper for his town, cleaning up corrupted souls, saving the world, and learning more about himself and the world around him in the process.
If there's anything Bleach can be compared to in its scope and staggering ambition, it's probably the X-Men franchise. Like that franchise at its various peaks, Bleach was full of ridiculous superpowers, a love of friendship, a ridiculously convoluted internal mythology, a huge cast of characters, and a variety of amazing outfits. Seriously, if Kubo announced tomorrow that he was partnering with a fashion house to sell clothes like these, I'd smash the preorder button on Amazon.jp so fast.
But I digress. To many, Bleach hit its logical conclusion several years ago. After Aizen --- a high-ranking Soul Reaper who betrayed the organization in order to rule over life and death itself --- was defeated, with Ichigo losing all his considerable powers as a result, many thought that would be the end of it. Indeed, when I got into the Bleach anime a few years ago as part of an old blogging project, that's the first thing any otaku I talked to would say to me. "It's just been kinda coasting since then," "It repeats itself," and so on.
Last November, Anime News Network published a long and spoiler-filled editorial examining "Whatever Happened to Bleach?" Making the same core argument that Aizen's defeat was the natural endpoint to the series, author Nik Freeman contends that every story arc since then --- which, due to Bleach's weekly nature, have run for several years --- have either been pale imitations of the Aizen vs. Ichigo arc or an endless string of character introductions and fight scenes that didn't leave much of a mark.
I confess I've yet to catch up on all 686 chapters of Bleach, or even to watch all of the anime, but I've watched and read enough to see Freeman's point. There are so many characters --- Kubo's admitted in interviews that character creation is how he gets through writer's block --- that one really does need the Bleach fan wiki open to keep track of them all.
But I've been a Weekly Shonen Jump subscriber since 2015, and Bleach has always been one of the first things I read every issue. Why is that the case, if majority opinion is so against it? Well, I just plain like Kubo's work.
As I said above, I adore his fashion sense. The way he draws fight scenes and makes each character, even the ones I don't know, instantly visually identifiable is compelling, and those fight scenes are always entertaining. In one of the final chapters, a guy with ice powers and a guy who can summon pointy flower blades exploded a giant. And it didn't take the giant down.
Plus, Kubo is primarily telling a visual story, and it shows: heavy black inks, a smooth sense of motion and a story structure that is always moving, while always providing at least one knock-out moment every few chapters. (Former CA contributor David Brothers has a great Tumblr post exploring what he calls this "micro" level of storytelling.)
In that regard, it reminds me a lot of what I like about Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, or old Jonah Hex comics. It's a familiar story, but one entertainingly told, with a lot of fist-pumping moments and striking images along the way. It's a big dive to make, yes --- Bleach in the end has more installments than even the first volume of Amazing Spider-Man --- but with Viz handily collecting the series in three-in-one editions, it can be read in huge, satisfying chunks.
A final note: I actually owe Bleach big time. That blogging project about the anime I mentioned earlier? That got noticed by the editor of a now-defunct website that I wound up becoming a core member of not too long after. Fast forward a year later and, having left that site, I had the experience and confidence to start writing, here at ComicsAlliance. And for a few months now, I've been writing Screen & Page, something I'm very proud of.
None of that would have been possible without Bleach; I even have an Ichigo poster above me as I write this. So let me echo the praises of his Shonen Jump colleagues and say: thanks, Kubo-sama! Rest a while before wowing us again; you've certainly earned it.