As much as I love finding a great new anime to watch, there’s nothing like rediscovering a series I used to love. If it’s one I truly enjoyed when I first saw it, watching it the second time around is somehow both comforting and exhilarating, and it often brings back all kinds of great memories I forgot were in my brain. Most recently, I’ve had the chance to experience this with Bleach, one of my favorite series from when I first started getting into anime.
I watched a chunk of the series right around the time it first started airing in the US, but after a while I slowly let it fall by the wayside, for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a bit. Regardless, the main thought in my mind while rewatching it was, “I forgot how good this was!” The nostalgia’s so intense it’s almost painful—and I love every second of it.
Bleach is straight-up classic mid-2000s anime. If you’re even a casual anime fan, you’ve almost definitely heard of it, and you’ve probably watched at least a little of it even if you didn’t get invested. It first aired in the US in 2006 on Adult Swim and quickly became popular among anime fans both old and new. The story primarily follows Ichigo Kurosaki, a 15-year-old high-school kid who can see ghosts. In the first episode, he has a run-in with a Soul Reaper, or shinigami, named Rukia Kuchiki; at the time the two meet, Rukia has been having difficulty tracking down a Hollow, a type of evil spirit that is formed when a human soul doesn’t properly cross over to the other side. When Rukia is injured by the Hollow, she transfers her power to Ichigo, who defeats the Hollow and discovers his own dormant shinigami powers in the process. Shortly thereafter, through a series of strange and supernatural circumstances, Ichigo and several of his good friends are swept up into the world of the Soul Society, the spirit world where the Soul Reapers live and work. They receive both the training and the on-the-ground experience (by way of impromptu battles) that they’ll need to both fight off Hollows and navigate the new reality they’ve found themselves in.
There’s a lot that I like about Bleach—it has one of the more unique premises and one of the best, most compelling soundtracks I’ve run across among the anime I’ve seen. It starts out with some really great story arcs that are high stakes and full of good character development, and it’s packed full of complex characters whom you’ll either love or love to hate. It also has the distinction of being one of my first experiences with a long-running anime series, and it features in a lot of my memories of summer afternoons watching random stuff with my brother when we were in high school. Even if it weren’t such an engaging series (at least for the first couple of arcs), I’d still have a special place for it in my heart because of this. But at least some of the series is strong enough to stand on its own without the nostalgia boost.
Though Bleach started out well, however, the longer the 366-episode series ran, the more controversial the it became. It’s always had some less-than-savory quirks, like its tendency to draw out a story line ’til kingdom come (we’re talking Dragonball Z levels of bloated storytelling), a number of plot- and character-related inconsistencies, and the fact that characters are constantly surviving things that should have been way more than enough to kill them, to the point that the suspense falls off eventually because you know the characters will always make it out of a jam—it’s just a matter of how. But after two or three solid primary story arcs, each progressive arc got worse and more watered down, leaving fans wondering what on earth was going on. The series started having more filler episodes than manga-based content, to the point that Bleach is high on the list of anime notorious for it. The total filler episode count comes to a whopping 166, fully 45 percent of the series’ total episodes. One of the first things you’ll find when googling Bleach are lists of the episodes to skip in order to avoid slogging through all the filler content.
These days, you don’t have to look far to find online debates or articles about just why, when, and how Bleach went wrong. So what did happen? There are a number of theories out there, and even more opinions about the details, but from my perspective, it seems to boil down to the series falling prey to the lethal combination of the rigorous TV schedule for anime in Japan, a hopelessly mismatched timeline for the manga and the anime, and the series’ overworked and creatively overstretched manga-ka (manga author/artist), Tite Kubo.
Perhaps more than the other factors, the Japanese TV schedule played a big role in this particular toxic trifecta. For most anime series, a new episode comes out every week without exception and there are no midseries breaks like the ones that usually occur for American series, so anime producers have to come up with a lot of content. On top of this, new anime series frequently air while the manga version is still incomplete, and since anime can be produced more quickly than manga, TV series almost always outstrip their manga counterparts in short order. This means the anime has to either diverge from canon or feature filler episodes that don’t impact the overarching plot to give the manga story time to catch up. This is especially rampant among long-running anime series, as there’s just so much anime content that the manga doesn’t have a prayer of keeping pace. Before long, you end up with a ridiculously bloated series, frustrated fans, and quickly deteriorating content.
Bleach was already struggling to keep viewers’ interest by about halfway through its run, but the death knell seems to have been a couple of particularly bad filler arcs that hit at really inopportune times in terms of the rest of the plot. Fans started feeling insulted that they were expected to find such content worth their time, and with no concrete end in sight for the spates of pointless filler, along with a increasingly repetitive, meandering plot and overlarge cast of principal characters, a lot of viewers fell off the wagon. I was one of them—with the absurd amounts of filler, the dwindling focus on the characters I cared most about, and my having less spare time in general to devote to anime watching due to heading off to college, I slowly started investing less and less in the series until I stopped altogether.
During my recent rewatch of some casually chosen sections of the series, I found I had enough distance from the story that I’d forgotten what went wrong and could just enjoy rediscovering the great feelings I’d gotten from watching the series for the first time. I could reimmerse myself in the story and remember what I liked about it while still having a good enough sense of the story to know that I could pick and choose the parts I wanted to watch and or skip without becoming utterly confused by the story line as a whole. Though the missteps of the series are still there, threatening to color my rewatching experience, it’s still possible to just enjoy the series for what it has to offer me and push aside anything that might blind me to the value the series does have. Though Bleach will always have baggage for most anime fans, there’s no denying that it was once a compelling series that had a lot to offer its viewers. Still, it’ll always be a little sad to think about what it could have been, as compared to what it became.