Well, it was an unpopular arc to be sure--if WSJ reader polls and forum posts in both the East and West are anything to go by.
I'm in a distinct minority of being one of those who thoroughly enjoyed the arc--I believe Kubo-sensei's story-telling skills improved, but he wasn't telling the story people wanted him to tell and he was neglecting the characters people wanted to see. Fans never took to the Fullbringers, and even though Sensei's pacing and clues and story-elements were all carefully placed as far as I can tell (on three re-readings), the strengths of the arc could never overcome its weaknesses: in a chapter like "Spotlight Brocken" where Kubo makes doorknobs and phases of the moon and shadows of figures in alleyways allude to passages of time and a creepy distortion of perspective that occurs during the brocken spectre, the elaborate poetry got befuddled with the dissonance readers felt when Ichigo's character suddenly distrusted his longtime mentor Urahara and his own dad--when that was exactly the point of the chapter. Some people were frustrated with an Ichigo this dumb.
As were others with the nakama showing hints of their powers or character development only to be nerfed later in the arc.
Characterization--Kubo's famous strength--was clearly in evidence in the lyrical parables of the Fullbringer backstories--each of which, even Ginriko's, could have stood alone as a short story. But not many fans seemed to care that much. There were huge pay-offs in the arc for Ichigo's character eventually, and Kubo had picked up a stitch here and there from months past (Rukia's voice from the shinigami badge) and from many years past (Ishida's noticing something off with the shinigami badge just after the SS arc) but he had strewn too many other clues and dropped too many other stitches in the meantime.
warning: lots of images (not neatly organized bc I value my time) under cut
Kubo's propensity for teasing was taken to great lengths with the whole MYSTERYGAMI tease. Fandom blew a gasket. Rukia-starved, they obsessed over this clue rather than caring about any of Ginjou's doublespeak or Ichigo's matches. To this day, some people still insist the mysterygami wasn't Rukia, lol--even when the anime revealed her face this week.
I don't get Kubo's teasing sometimes--it's too hardcore. Some people like being tickled, but enough is enough. At some point it becomes more about the tease then furthering the plot. I'll spare you many examples of Sensei's ship teasing, but Kubo doesn't only ship-tease--he teases regarding character weapons. Ever since Kenpachi referred to his zan as "him" in his fight with Nnoitra only to pull out the kendo instead of the reveal that Ken-chan had finally learned to communicate with his sword, I've come to understand Sensei's sense of humor a little more. He teases re character development --Orihime swears she'll heal it all; she gives a lovely speech about how how she and Chad trained to fight by Ichigo's side then BAM, the two friends are knocked out for the remainder of the arc.
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Let's just go over the whole arc again. I thumbed through the pages looking for favorite moments because I wanted to remember the good times. I'm a Bleach fan after all. A HUGE BLEACH FAN.
"The Six Fullbringers" began the year with the introduction of Chad--long anticipated since the beginning of the arc. He was sexy, he had a beard and mezzo_marinaio was offline but she would've been really happy had she seen him that January.
Thank you, Sensei. You gave us more Chad this arc.
At this month's Jump Festa stage, Sensei thanked readers for sticking with the Lost Agent arc (aka "the Lost Readers" arc according to 2ch) even though it was "dark." I thought it was odd that Sensei called the arc dark. It was characterized by over-the-top snot and donut and hot dog humor from beginning to end. I liked some of it--some of it was too much for me and I'm usually a 13 yr old shounen fanboi deep inside. I laughed when ShiShi wondered if Tsukishima was taking a dump, but most of Ichigo having to fight a plushie in chapter 434 was a little ... well... yeah. I guess it's just part of life--sometimes you fight an Aizen; sometimes you fight a bear-pig plushie.
This sign made me smile. I'll always love Kubo's humor.
I loved the cardigan Ichigo wore that showed the shape of a violin symbol. It was sexy, tied into the music punnery that Kubo had started in earlier chapters, and plainly told us that Ginjou was playing Ichigo like a fiddle. XD
And yes, I loved Riruka from the start. She had Fullbringer star quality and was lavished with Kubo attention and color pages. She fangirled the hero and was a cliche, yes, in her tsundere ways, but Kubo has THIS WAY in which he tweaks a stereotype. She was adorable to me.
February brought a huge treat for IchiRuki shippers. On the release date of Valentine's in Japan, Ichigo--with Riruka's "heart" emblazoned on his jacked--has a memory of Rukia and his fullbring power is summoned from his shinigami badge. It's just overt enough but not explicit enough, so of course, fandom freaks out. XD I love the page. It still makes me happy to look at it. Rukia is drawn so beautifully--Ichigo, on the other hand, looks fairly miserable--or in the throes of masturbation.
We got lots of Orihime soon after and as a Orihime fan, I was happy as could be. Orihime caught shit because Kubo devoted pages and panels to her beauty attack knocking out ShiShi but I, for one, thought it was funny, and ShiShi was right away a favorite character.
And even if Orihime didn't get to outright fight later, I don't care. This next page was character development for me. This next page was cool, right here. I loved Orihime here. We got a goofy ass Hime first and ShiShi wondering if she was even human because she was acting so fruity then all of a sudden she gets serious--ha, I LOVE ShiShi's reaction face:
There was a whole lot of teasing for that fight. We thought Orihime would get to show her stuff. Call me naive but I think she did show a hint---and in Kubo time, she will eventually fight for her nakama like she promised. Kubo's teased for years--YEARS. But the pay-off will be tremendous.
Tsukishima? Oh man, don't get me started. I fell in love with him when he first showed up, even though I thought he hurt my Ishida. Then he said this--
And then he chided ShiShi and showed us how looong his sword was. XD
Like I've said over and over everywhere, "Spotlight Brocken" is one of my favorite Bleach chapters everywhere. Yes, I know Kubo can be annoying with his close-ups of mouths and teacups and I agree he's been overusing the BIG PANEL lately but his eye for graphic design and the artsy stuff was so on track here. I remember audiences being excited when the chapter debuted simply because of the appearance of Isshin and Urahara and there being a lot of excited talk about the ending--it seemed to me that even if you weren't looking for the poetic allusions, the creepy effect worked. It was a disquieting, beautiful chapter.
Ichigo all alone ... or is he?
These crazy guys. I love them. But even some parts of fandom wanted to make them the final villains during this arc!
ICHIGO? WHO ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU DOING? WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!!!! ARRGH, you look exactly like the cover of an obscure German heavy metal album referring to Mount Brocken and evil goings on there on some witches' festival!
Maybe I'm too trusting. Maybe my eternal faith in Kubo-sensei (which has yet to be disappointed, by the way--I've been let down a little here and there but by and large I've always been entertained by BLEACH for over 7 years now) and in characters like Urahara and Isshin and UKITAKE is Polly-anna-ish, but the fandom doubt cast over longtime good guys boggled me. But if they weren't supposed to confuzzle fandom, then why did Kubo cast aspersions on these characters in the first place? XD He's a terrible tease.
I never doubted that the mysterygami wasn't Rukia, but I guess it was supposed to be fun to guess? I thnk it was more annoying to people than fun. Sensei, your teases are too much, really.
I think the wackiest speculation I heard was that the little waist above belonged to Gin.
I get sad when people complain about Orihime in this arc. Yeah, the nakama didn't get to do all that much in the end, but Orihime did have one other great moment. She got to reveal a new power and she had THIS moment of pure badassery.
She protected herself, something she'd always vowed to do. This was significant and picked up from the last arc. She turned to Ichigo and said, in a way that fulfilled her vow:
Sure, it was only in training and maybe it felt like a dress rehearsal for the Real Thing but I'll take it. It showed growth for me for Orihime. It showed GROWTH. It showed her willingness to fight. The reasons she didn't fight later in the arc were far beyond her control. We'll see her (and Ishida's new bow and Chad's powers) in the next arc I'm sure.
I'm not getting into the whole donuts scandal. I didn't like those pages. I didn't like Orihime with a hot dog in her mouth while she was wearing Mario pajamas. Donuts, donuts, donuts. Enough talking about donuts. I'll let Riruka have the final word:
And the less said about this outfit, the better:
We now know, from a blurb in Jump, that Kubo meant for this outfit to give readers an uneasy feeling just so Ichigo's return to wearing his shinigami robes would be all that more triumphant. The teasing again. I have to say--a fine troll. A horrible tease. That panel made an impact. I'll never forget it. I ... okay, I said the less said the better.
I think everyone I know started to get interested in Bleach again when it started to read like a horror manga and Tsukishima's Book of the End effects started to take over Karakura. The scary ppl were SCARY. Kubo does horror-humor SO WELL. The pacing was nifty and cinematic in these chapters. Ichigo's breakdown was chilling to watch; whereas before the psychological drama had been lowkey and up for IN-TER-PRE-TA-TION--now it was as plain as all those @@ eyes the boy kept making as his friends came at him like zombies.
First his family and dear ones he wanted to protect:
Then his fighting comrades who had recently sworn to fight by his side:
That last panel was killer. Even though we knew it was coming--Kubo had teased us about it for weeks. We knew that Orihime and Chad had succumbed to the bookmarking. Still, he delivers these emotional pay-offs. Like, oooouch. I felt so bad for everyone. These poor fictional people. In real life they'd need so much therapy.
Ginjou's betrayal may have come as a surprise to Ichigo but we all saw it coming, right? RIGHT? I was surprised that some parts of fandom were surprised but hey ... Still, it was a cool betrayal scene.
I'm glossing over Ishida getting stabbed because honestly, even though he's my favorite character, he really didn't do shit in this arc. He showed up as the last nakama standing but he had zero character development and only a cute scene with Orihime here and there. But you know what? I really didn't mind. I can't believe I'm saying that, but honest--I was distracted enough by the rest of the story, and I can wait for Ishida goodness to come.
The highest point in the arc was Ichigo's lowest point. Seriously, when have we ever, even in that dark dark arc that was the Arrancar arc where Ichigo was drawn drowning in a cover page and in which he stabbed a nakama, sent another bouncing on her face, killed a surrendered opponent and screamed THIS ISN'T HOW I WANTED TO WIN!!! have we EVER seen such an angsty angsty boy?
I mean, Ichigo dropped to his knees and wept.
I'll forgive Kubo using Ishida as "reaction face.jpg" here too because just look at the horror and emotion there. Even Ishida couldn't watch.
Tsukishima's reaction was golden. He was all--I feel so bad--NOT.
I find it amusing that Rukia's return here is scorned as a deus ex machina in some parts of fandom. Of course it is. It's magical. Just like the whole amazing "girl from other world appears and gives human boy the power to protect that he's always wanted and changes the course of his life forever" of chapter one. Magical ex machina shit plops into the center of the world and adventures ensue. The fact that Rukia's return occurred on the 10th anniversary of Bleach and re-enacted her stabbity of Ichigo, her restoring of his powers in this case, was a nod to Bleach's beginning and to that whole magical mystery flibbity yay that charges ur-quests and shounen fighting manga and your own dreams.
And after all Ichigo's bonds were broken, Rukia was the one reflected in Ichigo's eye. Isshin told Ichigo to look. He looked.
The emotional pay-off was huge. Especially for Rukia fans who had been slamming their bloodied foreheads against walls for months. I remember being happy but still a little wary--like, where is Kubo going from here? I was a little afraid he was going to pull the rug out from audiences again. I remember thinking Rukia's smile was like the Mona Lisa's--beautiful and knowing and too mysterious.
The IchiRuki reunion played out--some people delighting over the detail of Ichigo putting down his sword to put his hand over his heart to talk to Rukia and others complaining that it was the same old "kick face and give pep talk" dynamic the pair had always shared and no progress. I loved it-- but it was soon time for FIGHTAN and...
The Shinigami vs Fullbringer fights were, thankfully, brief and to the point.
G-d bless Ken-chan. His fight was the biggest crowd-pleaser.
Ikkaku was SO manry as well.
I'll remember the visual of Ikkaku popping his arm like that more than I'll remember his moral lecture to ShiShi, that's for sure.
Renji's fight was hugely controversial in fandom for reasons I don't even want to bring up again but I'll remember it because OMG, he finally got the attention of a female! And Jackie looked so damn beautiful when she looked at him too. Shit. There was mad chemistry there. MAD CHEMISTRY.
(I was hoping like crazy Jackie wasn't dead in this arc and was glad she wasn't and now when people say she won't return ever again, I don't wonder if Kubo wasn't teasing us about her and Renji from the start. I wouldn't put that past him. When Renji was asked if Jackie was dead and he said yes, paused, and added "... probably," that felt like such a Kubo tease. All my shipper alarms went off. XD But hey, my business, my new little ship--*throws it on the pile*)
Rukia's fight wasn't anything at all to speak of, but the current WSJ rankings are showing it pulling Bleach out of the bottom five. I thought Deviko was cute and funny, particularly because she referenced Rukia's devil costume in that Halloween spread.
Nii-sama's fight was actually GLORIOUS. It was fun in terms of strategy and character-GROWTH and all that good stuff. Who would've ever guess Byakuya would learn from Kenpachi?
I know that Sensei was in love with Ginjou and gave him the most detailed color pages and panel time, and yes, I was intrigued with the character while trying to figure out his motives and prove to other fans that yes indeed Ginjou WAS playing Ichigo and was NOT a good guy, but at some point Ginjou became a generic villain to me. Join me on the Dark Side, Ichigo. His backstory with SS and betrayal by them is yet to be told--I suppose that's another Kubo tease and we'll get it in Isshin's backstory maybe?
I had been dreading another endless deicide series of power-ups and transformations so when the Ginjou/Ichigo showdown proved to be short, I was pretty relieved. No, I don't feel slighted.
I got this:
ISHIDA GOT A NEW BOW! ISHIDA GOT A NEW BOW! ISHIDA GOT A NEW BOW! Okay, it wasn't much but it was on the week of Ishida's birthday and it made me happy, and okay Ishida didn't fight but he got some snarky panel time in with Ichigo and Ichigo kicked him in the butt and all was right with the world for a little while. It was fun. <3 I'll wait to see what that bow does.... it'll be when I'm a grandma that I find out maybe but I've learned to be patient with Kubo-sensei.
And I got hero-Ichigo back after SO SO SO MANY YEARS. I've called it his shinigami bar mitzvah speech elsewhere but yeah, it really moved me. This:
Ginjou didn't get it. He really expected Ichigo to follow him. Ichigo wasn't going to change Ginjou--this was a heart he wasn't going to move. Ichigo was going to kill Ginjou. Right now there is some debate as to whether this was an Ichigo-like thing to do or whether there will be reprecussions. There have discussions about Isshin's part in Ichigo's culpability, about SS's moral weight, about what Ichigo's friends can be held accountable for. In the end, I don't think that all these bonds don't matter--this arc, after all, proved the very significance of those bonds--human and shinigami--to Ichigo, but it was Ichigo who made his own decision.
Earlier today I wrote a response to someone in the Ichigo FC on BA:
Ichigo made his choice: he chose to say goodbye to his normal life of safety and his childish oblivion. He chose the blade and the uniform, along with the possibility of having to kill a human life, because he wants to protect. He'll have to take full responsibility of his own choice, and IMO, not shielding him from taking it is true respect, not the other way around.
I've wanted to join in the convo for a while, but this basically sums up what I want to say. This arc was a coming-of-age for Ichigo. He grew up and accepted his mantle and responsibility as a shinigami. There are moral grays in the story; there are sympathetic villains and changes of heart among the villains as always; Ichigo emerges as a hero, with a clear purpose and no more identity crisis--at least not of the kind that was wearing and tearing on audiences' nerves for the entirety of the Arrancar arc.
So, if I had to pick one favorite scene in all the Fullbringer arc, it would be Ichigo giving that speech. It would be Ichigo reclaiming his shounen hero status. I've never really been an Ichigo fangirl, but I've missed that boy for years now--the one who knew what and who he was fighting for. I know now why I was uneasy when Rukia restored Ichigo's powers in the anniversary chapter--the high of the reunion and then the thrill of seeing Renji with his new pretteh long hair wasn't enough. I'd seen Ichigo with super powers before--both as the mad creature on the dome and in his deicide form and both were short of hero!Ichigo. The former being a killer on autopilot and the latter being a one-performance-and-die phenomenon. The Ichigo I see now? He's a career man; he's a commitment. He's a shinigami and he's himself.
Okay, wow. That's enough. I have to eat lunch. That took me an hour to write. So, what are your favorite parts of Bleach 2011 and what will you remember most?