The era of the Shonen “Big 3” was a golden age for the genre and the anime world in general. Three massively popular series that were running side by side for well over a decade. They were the shows that influenced an entire generation of anime fans. Anyone who grew up in the fan-sub era knows those three shows, and their legacy is marrow deep.
Yet out of those three, there was a clear hierarchy when it came to their strengths and weaknesses. For Bleach, it was always and forever the bronze medal, the distance third to the titanic One Piece and the beloved Naruto. Yet it was also the one most damaged by the era it was made and whose cancellation left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. However a second chance has come with a new anime adaptation of the final arc. Will it serve as a rebirth for this beloved series, or would things have better been left in the past? After the cut let’s take a dive into the first cour of Bleach: Thousand Year Blood War and find out.
To start off, it is important to know what Bleach was in contrast to the other two titans of shonen at the time. Those blessed to have been around in the fandom during this time know that each of the three shonen series had something that set them apart. For Naruto, it was a coming of age story that balanced a strong main cast (sans Sakura) with interesting powers, a good secondary group of characters and themes of legacy, revenge, generational conflict, hatred and forgiveness. For One Piece, we saw author Eiichiro Oda’s genius in almost every page, building a vast and expansive world with levels of foreshadowing that takes years to pay off. A main character who has charmed the hearts of millions and whose story may very well be Shonen Jump’s magnum opus. Not the most important instalment (an honor that goes to Dragon Ball), but likely its greatest. And Bleach?
Bleach was always the ‘cool one.’
There is no better way to say it. For all of the criticism, valid and hyperbolic thrown at the series, it was the cool one. Despite having a second cast that is vastly more compelling than the main (which I’ve coined ‘The Bleach Problem’.) The minimalist presentation, the absolutely horrendous pacing in the anime, or rushed feeling in the last arc, Bleach was always the ‘cool one.’
Cause fuck, it was just so damn cool.
The music, the designs, the entire Zanpakuto system. The edge of your seat battles. All of it was catnip to a teenager who might have been turned off by One Piece’s sometimes goofy nature, or Naruto’s eventual genre breaking power-creep. Bleach had an ability to reach right into the veins of a teenager boy or girl and show you exactly what it wanted. And it was helped greatly by having one of the best supporting casts in a shonen manga. The Gotei 13 with it’s range of characters with their unique designs and powers has something for everyone and author Tite Kubo’s ability to give (most) a chance in the spotlight means that you were never neglected. Furthermore a fun cast of disposable lackeys always kept things interesting and made fights never the same thing twice. You can write a college thesis on how Bleach falls apart, but you can never deny that it’s all Just. So. Damn. Cool.
Which brings us to TYBW, the adaptation of the final arc of the manga and a chance for Bleach to prove to fans both old and new that it deserves its place in the big three. And thankfully TYBW has benefitted from all the lessons learned from the last generation. The change from ‘always on’ long running series where every dollar had to be stretched and filler was rampant. Instead we have mean and lean 12 episodes that are beautifully animated and exceptionally paced. Bleach has never looked this good, nor has the action flowed as briskly and as well as this first cour. Gone is the sense of fights being dragged out, or the criminal feeling of having an arc stop halfway to have a filler arc. Instead this first third of the series is laser focused on presenting its story and does it with aplomb.
That story itself will run hot or cold for people. Bleach always had trouble trying to do something after the Aizen plot, but thankfully Yhwach and his Quincy army prove to be a dangerous and compelling threat, wrecking havoc throughout soul society and giving many of the characters pause. No one gets out of that first battle without scars and there are masterful performances from some of the cast. Yamamoto, the grouchy old man, stands out the most, with one of the most breathtaking battles I’ve seen in ages. Unohana finally steps out of the shadows and her scenes with Kenpachi are stuff fans dreamed of. Byakuya Kuchiki is another stand out, having a moment of honesty and weakness that endears him greatly to the viewer. Even Ichigo is shown in a great light here, going through a self-discovery that helps put some of the biggest questions in the show to bed. Those final few episodes remain some of the series best and really help bring the entire show into a better focus.
I have always enjoyed Naruto, and I will never deny the impact of One Piece. But Bleach I have loved so deeply. And thankfully the first cour of Bleach: Thousand Year Blood War is an absolute triumph for a series that so desperately needed a win. No series has benefited more from the change of attitudes and the new seasonal formula than this one. This is the show at its absolute best, taking everything that makes it great and putting the best team behind it. Yes, I am aware that some of it is no doubt fondness and nostalgia for the series, but you cannot deny that this anime has been given so much love and care. We can only hope that this continues into the next few cours and that Tite Kubo’s promise to expand on things he never got a chance to will be realized. I am keeping those expectations firmly in check, but you can be sure that I’ll be first in line to see the next instalment. If you grew up in this era, you need to check this series out, and if you are one of the new people, then prepare yourself for a real treat. Shonen’s bronze medal has never looked so shiny.