An Arrancar fan was complaining to me the other day about how boring Bleach is lately and how she reads every week in futile hope for the return of Grimmjow or maybe maybe MAYBE Ulquiorra. I did a double-take. Wasn’t it obvious from the current plot that no Arrancar would be showing up for a while? It occurred to me that Kubo’s tease of Grimmjow fans—showing pieces of the character’s body and giving fans a bubble of his voice and then withholding his appearance for dozens of chapters—is exactly what Kubo pulled with Rukia fans in the Fullbringer arc. I thought the stunt was cruel and childish then too; surely, there are better ways to cook up suspense in a narrative.
Then I thought of Kubo’s recent color spread—the unintelligible one, the one with the familiar use of too much white space, a cryptic poem, the coffins with the red crosses that were obviously a shout-out to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video. Kubo does what Kubo does. His readers are caught in a bad romance with him; it’s been a long, sadomasochistic dance for over a decade with this manga. The moon, like many a resolution in Kubo’s plots, is near but oh so far.
Bleach has been losing its audience. That comes as no surprise to no one. Even the die-hards who’ve stuck with the story are disgruntled and irritated. Well, not me. I get disgruntled over stale pie and unfair medical insurances schemes in my country but I muchly enjoy Bleach.
These past weeks I was enjoying the Komamura backstory to the hilt, but not only am I a very tolerant fan of Kubo-sensei’s narrative quirks, I’m a huge fan of the doggie-captain. Anyone who reads Bleach for this or that character or group of characters only is bound to be frustrated to tears. Not only does Kubo have a huge cast of characters he doesn’t juggle very well, he’s fond of inventing new ones and creating stories for them. The little Fullbringer parables for Giriko, Jackie, and Yukio may have stood alone as stellar short stories but very few fans wanted to read them when they had been waiting for years and years for answers to unresolved stories about their beloved favorites and major cast members.
Will a good backstory involving Rukia or will Ulquiorra’s return bring back Bleach’s lost audience? I doubt it. Although I’ve always believe that both events are bound to happen. I was recently chatting on Tumblr with So-Unrequieted (she hates Orihime and for So-U, Orihime’s grace period for redemption is over). I wrote: Grace period for Orihime? Bleach’s grace period may be over for plenty people, but I believe Kubo works in another time frame from most humans. He’s slow but not retarded in the sense people use that word as an epithet. He resolves his stories. He’s too much of an architect not to be obsessive about balance and parallels and symmetry. He closes plot holes; he builds on the past. He takes a random face in the clouds at the end of the SS arc and gives it a name and presents it as a pet to Wonderweiss; he answers why Ishida was scratching his chin about Ichigo’s substitute shinigami badge…. a few hundred chapters later, in another arc. Kubo finishes what he starts. But only after many of his readers have left the room and gone for snacks or started families or forgotten what manga is already.
So yeah, I’ve always believed that the hougyoku story needs to be answered with Rukia, that Ulquiorra needs to throw Chekov’s Lanza, and that Orihime needs to find her inner resolve (as in all coming-of-age stories) and fire Tsubaki successfully (probably in symmetry with the denouement of her tedious romance story). Kubo has already said that we’ll find out about Matsumoto’s background, Yoruichi and Urahara’s, that Ukitake will be cured of his disease—and look, we got the reason why Koma-chan is a doggie in a gorgeous fairy tale, so why not satisfactory resolution of our favorite main characters’ stories? I waited four years for Isshin’s backstory—ever since San Diego Comic Con 2008 when Kubo promised it, and the Memories in The Rain arc 2 went beyond my expectations.
Oddly enough, it was right after that very tight and well-told mini-arc that some of fandom bailed. Bleach’s ratings had been flagging in Japan for a long time, and the Everything But the Rain arc did nothing to revive them. The Quincy arc wasn’t popular, and Ichigo’s having Quincy powers infuriated some fans. Not me or my Ishida-fan friends for we were all excited about ALL THINGS QUINCY, and I took note that power-level fanbois actually liked more than disliked the reveal about old man Zangetsu being Quincy in nature. IchiRuki fans were the ones who acted as if their grandmothers had been illusions perpetrated by Aizen all along; I was pretty perplexed and still am at the phenomenon. At first I thought it was as simple of a matter as Ichigo and Rukia clearly not being the focus of Bleach’s last arc the way they were in the Soul Society arc, and I was reminded of the exodus of UlquiHime fans from Bleach during the Fullbringer arc when it was plain that Orihime had not revived and would not be remembering Ulquiorra. Then I realized that my very perceptive IchiRuki friends had other issues with Bleach that went beyond shipping. I asked a very thoughtful someone who had dropped Bleach a little before this time and who wasn’t an IR fan what was going on, and she said it was Kubo fulfilling all the standard shounen tropes (Ichigo being the universe’s shiny unicorn messiah being only one of the tired tropes) instead of subverting them as we’d been led to believe he could. I didn’t understand this either. I’d never expected Kubo to subvert any genre; what I had seen sometimes was audiences expecting a fighting manga to become a slice-of-life manga or a serious novel-length fanfiction or worse, a romance-based cutting-edge super-text that went from junior high to post-graduate studies as its readers grew up.
*Big shrug* Sometimes I think Kubo is writing for me alone. I find all sorts of Proustian deliciousness in his close-ups of door-knobs. Then I remember that if he were truly writing for me, the female Quincy wouldn’t be so cloyingly sexualized and there would be more Kon.
Although the following vids came out in April 2012 at Thatguywiththeglasses.com, I didn’t watch them until a couple months ago when they were posted at Deathberry, my main Bleach forum hang-out:
My response: I think the guy hit all the reasons why Bleach's popularity has fallen so much--too many characters, terrible pacing, the disappointing Deicide conclusion, Orihime's inability to carry an arc-- but I did disagree with him here and there. How could he dislike the “Turn Back the Pendulu” arc? It was the best ever. And while I can see why people didn't give two shits for the Fullbringer arc, it was paced better and told a good story.
It was funny how the reviewer didn't understand Aizen's whole "but I planned you this way" business with Ichigo back in Deicide. Funny how Kubo was planning the final arc even back then. Not so funny how Kubo's story is sooooo sloooooow that he takes so long to follow through on little foreshadowings like these. It's like the man lives in molasses time and his audience is in a completely different dimension. I imagine that when the manga is done, readers who can fly through volumes will have a different view of his pacing for not having had to suffer YEARS of it.
The indictment of Orihime in this video was really damning. It just reassures me, though, that Orihime's character is still "unfinished" by Kubo terms. She got zero resolution in her own arc. And it was funny when the reviewer was going through the SS and Arrancar arc parallels as if they were cliche dumb things--I was like, ok, Kubo does a lot of that shit on purpose and imbues it with top-heavy poetic meaning. But whatever. There are way too many big panels, yeah.
So-Unrequited joked the other day (she’s no fan of Kubo’s) that two things Kubo likes are boobs and parallels. There you have it. It’s almost as if Soul Society was the champion arc of Bleach’s glory days, then the “I don’t want to win this way!” Arrancar arc that befuddled, bored, and disgusted so many Bleach fans was its intentional antithesis. The Arrancar arc ended in so many failures, the least of all being a hero stripped of his powers, and it even had its Emo Prince in Ulquiorra—who, arguably, for all his sins, became the heart of the story when he died and took on the hero’s role and even stole all the heroine’s attention.
The poetry of this is just lost on fans who were annoyed with the arc’s over-reaching dreariness-- from Szayel’s perversions (even I as an Ishida fan thought Szayel’s fight went on too long and skirted the lines of what was acceptable for audiences of a tender age—Szayel, Szayel, so cute flirting with Renji, so nauseating impregnating Nemu) to Aizen’s tiresome transformations (The man had illusion powers so why did he need to go through all those standard shounen hulk growth spurts—why not fight with his mind?) But I had good times; Bleach always brings me good times. The goofiness of Aizen chasing kids through Karakura will always be one of the arc’s highlights; Mizuiro’s Molotov cocktail hurled at the series’ most invincible villain will always fill me with joy—one of those “Yes! Try you must” moments like when Hanatarou faced off Byakuya in SS. I was still very much in love with Bleach—even though I felt I’d survived some horrible ordeal and still, STILL Orihime had not shot Tsubaki and still, STILL we did not know Ishida’s reason to protect or how Isshin had become a doctor or…. so many other hinted at plot pieces. Ulquiorra’s death scene gave me all kinds of reasons to love Kubo, though—even as I cried for three days straight. The stingingly tender “just fuck already” looks Ichigo and Rukia gave one another at the very conclusion of the arc along with the flirty looks they gave one another in the “honeymoon” spread that came out for the Bleach calendar that year were like a promise ring from Kubo-sensei….
Then came the Fullbringer arc with its cast no one wanted to see and after that came the arc after with its introduction of two new shinigami (Yuki and I already forgot her name) and fans were heading for the hills.
But we got the story of White who shows up only when it rains and we got a fierce Masaki protecting Isshin with all her Quincy pride and … and … we got Ryuuken weeping while carrying Masaki’s Hollow-corrupted body and then a dark-eyed maido Quincy confessing to the emotionally-destroyed young Quincy heir in the pouring rain.
“If I were rain, That joins sky and earth that otherwise never touch, Could I join two hearts as well?” ― Tite Kubo, Bleach, Vol. 01: The Death and The Strawberry.
I have such a good time pouring over Kubo-sensei’s poems. I like how he refers to himself, spins his own allusions like shiny quarters on a table, complicates his own story beyond easy recognition, turned Aizen from a dork to suave godhead back to a dork again, made Zangetsu a Quincy and Ichigo an Arabian prince, made the Royal Guards funny and malevolent and Shutara the spitting image of Nemu, and has now fooled a lot of his audience into thinking that instead of taking molasses-time to finish his series he is NOW RUSHING IT because Jump is forcing him to end it due to miserable popularity.
Bleach is still popular. It is not dead. There is no death in Bleach, remember?
I was glad to hear the plot pieces falling into place when Koma-chan’s story was told. It was like hearing the ping ping of silverware when just desserts are served. The parallel with Tousen’s story was just extra Kubo crème icing. There was cruelty and pathos and the HEART to feast upon. There was a ridiculously obtuse color page the week Koma-chan met his fate—it had comical details like Gaga coffins and curly hairs on Renji’s bare legs and yet there was an ominous beauty in the composition, the expanse of pink and white and the mention of Kubo’s recurrent moon.
That week there was the announcement of Bleach merchandise! A book of postcards to go on sale in time for the holidays! It was almost like old times again when some of my friends looked up from other manga to gush over how stunning Kubo had drawn Rukia and how badly he had drawn other characters. I felt that twinge of interest again—no, Bleach is not dead. There’s no calendar for it for sale this year—an embarrassment---but Bleach isn’t dead.
Live Journal barely registers a pulse these days, but I’ll probably still be posting Bleach stuffs on here until the end. I have an account on Tumblr where fandoms have migrated but I don’t have the hang of the place—it’s too noisy and young and gif-y for me. I love So-Unrequited’s Tumblr blog, mostly because it’s clever and funny and merciless at exposing Bleach fandom’s underbelly and taking shots at the manga and mangaka but I don’t always agree with So-U. I love Kubo as much as So-U dislikes him, but her journal is a string rhapsody among fart jokes. The most popular Bleach blog on Tumblr is Bleach Lists, and I’m very fond of it, although it avoids shipping controversy like the plague and with good reason—one mention of who you favor among Bleach ships and any innocent remark can send the loonies out to cook your rabbit in a pot or accuse you of anything short of murder (or even murder—I wish I were kidding). Bleach Lists Girl, or BLG, may even be a bigger Bleach fan than I am—she posts twice a day and knows whole filler arcs of the anime that I never bothered with (like the princess arc and the purple-haired captain arc). She’s smart enough to make comparisons between Unohana and Celtic queen Boudica, arrange cross-over skits between Bleach and several books and movies, and be funny more often than she is not funny—something that is not easy to do unless one is really smart. Some of my friends are picky and it bugs them when she puts Byakuya in a setting where he’s chopping onions because Byakuya would have servants chop his onions if not senbonzakura his own onions but I say they’re not suspending their disbelief enough. BLG doesn’t really try to keep her characters in character—she sends arranacar on camping trips, for example. The whole premise of her blog is silliness. I like silliness. Sometimes she gets little things wrong—like she has Yoruichi call Kisuke “Urahara” or she says that both Ichigo and Orihime have “orange” hair but maybe that’s her anime fan side.
Another place where Bleach isn’t dead is Bleach Asylum, the forum that was started by Spacecat in June 2007 and quickly became the primo place in Western fandom. I hate to even lurk there because of a horrible falling out with Space and the administration a couple years ago and any hits only give money to the owner, but the forum has survived a mega-sabotage of its database and many, many members leaving in huffs. It rebuilt itself from scratch not long ago, and last I’ve seen, there are tons of fanbois posting rapturous posts about fights and techniques and there’s a whole thread dedicated to Kubo’s four levels of secrets. One doesn’t see that dedicated sort of Cliff and Norm from Cheers analyses anywhere else on the Net except maybe at 4chan where, surprisingly, there seem to be more Bleach threads than ever on /a/. The fans on /a/ are trollish (and subsequently more banal as well as more entertaining in turn) than the Bleach fanbois at BA, who compete with earnest gumption for Post of the Month. I like reading what the bois have to write, but it pisses me off that the bois succeeded in running off the girls from the stomping grounds. There are NO more shippers on BA—the IchiRuki fans having formed Deathberry in 2011, and the IchiHime shippers having had FLOL (Five Lifetimes, One Love) since I don’t know when---when they felt persecuted by all the IRs and felt the need to have their own safe haven. (A haven that is so safe that no one can find it now…. I reminded of when the Harmonians went underground in their final days). In any event, there are no more poemgates at BA; the shipping drama is on other forums and on Tumblr.
I wonder myself how some people can sustain shipping drama for so many years and years; I’m bored of ships sometimes and want to see guys beating each other up. I think a fight between Haschwalth, whose power has been revealed to be hax and mythical and all about BALANCE, and Shunsui, whose power is hax and mythical and all about GAMES, could be a wonderfully thrilling cerebral show-down. I want to see Renji’s new power-up (why do I think Sensei is going to make me laugh?) and this arc only means ban kais all over the place—Shinji, Ukitake, maybe Hisagi and Rukia, I mean DAMN, how can that NOT be fun? Something about Yoruichi and Urahara will be revealed? What more can we possibly know about them? Will we see Yoruichi’s zan at last? Will we see those two in bed together? And what about all those Arrancar gathering in Hueco Mundo? Who exactly is among them besides the obvious Grimmjow? Will Kukaku adopt the Fullbringer guys into the Shiba tribe?
Bleach is far from dead for me. I’m not reading it just to see Ishida’s clothes blow off in battle or to see my fave ships happen …. although the day those ships DO happen, this journal will pop corks and the sparkles will be visible to aliens in outer space…..
Next up, a post about Ishida Uryuu I meant to write for his birthday but a ton of freshman composition papers and a bad cold got in the way. If I get another hour at the comp over Thanksgiving break, I’ll do it but I need a little more time than just writing time because I need to track down some manga panels too…..