Bleach started out as a very promising character-driven manga with several great arcs. It’s a massive shame it didn’t keep up. The story starts with a bang, builds and builds, wraps up the first few arcs in a satisfying manner and then trips over itself, rolls down a hill, into the ocean and sinks into the abyss. I can say I was thoroughly disappointed with the way it ended after the potential it showed at first.
I've been reading this manga since I was 13. The story was never really anything special, but it was fun. Initially, the characters were interesting and dynamic, they felt important and the threats felt like something they needed to overcome, to grow and to protect each other and their family. I loved seeing the way everything was depicted - supernatural or not - and the absolute creativity of some of the designs hypnotized me.
The plot, simple at first, evolves and escalates, jumping through several arcs and then begins to degrade after a specific point rather rapidly. More characters ended up introduced than it felt was needed, and often there was so much focus on the new characters that there was no room for anyone else. Ichigo (our main character) in particular was a black hole for focus, and the side characters may as well have not existed. Their motivations were paper thin, felt reused or just plain didn’t go anywhere. After a while it felt like I'd seen the same characters come along several times and not really add anything, and just questioned why they were even included in the story.
Boring, throwaway villains, silly misunderstandings, pointless trips, unclear motivations. The last arc has been particularly shameless with making the final big bad just… the worst the manga has ever seen even amongst the minor henchmen. He had little to no personality, nothing relatable, charming or fascinating about him and more or less just felt like a silly plot device to try to prove how strong Ichigo was and /try/ to reinforce that he has an amazing relationship with the people he's met on his journey.
Sadly, the message of friendship and being together as humans is undermined constantly and almost the entirety of the manga makes it a pointless aesop. Ichigo is impossibly strong and unfailingly virtuous, with just enough flaws to add a bit of depth to his character, but he is the main character who rises so far above his friends that he doesn't ever truly seem to connect with them. His friends who began as interesting become quickly underpowered compared to him and to the enemies he faces.
Having a character who is miles above the rest in terms of power can be pulled off successfully, provided that he shares a deep enough emotional connection with at least some of the cast and that doesn’t lower the stakes of the story. Unfortunately, Bleach does not succeed in this and most of the initial friends Ichigo made get the same treatment as much of the side characters from Dragon Ball Z, becoming completely unable to compete on any level, or even keep up, with our main character.
It was a true shame to once again have a shounen series fall victim to this. It left a terrible aftertaste.
For anyone willing to read things before the downfall, up to chapter 182 was a great exciting adventure with plenty of characters to enjoy (but not too many), and a fairly well balanced character driven story. Or up to chapter 423 where it was still...complicated and interesting but beginning to feel a little bit samey.
For those willing to continue reading past that point, I would advise that you prepare yourselves for disappointment. I don't know what Kubo was thinking with the majority of the later plot, but much of it felt flat or just plain not impactful. A common and well-deserved complaint was how cheap many of the plot devices were and how little things seemed to actually matter in the long run. Another complaint was the over build up for many a lacklustre reveal.
As for the art - it was clean and fairly well executed. Later on a lot of the scenes become hard to follow, with too many effects and cluttered panels, but the character designs and environments were overall of an acceptable level. You could however argue that, barring a few, Kubo falls into same face syndrome much like many manga authors, reusing the same general faces for specific types of characters with marginal alterations. It wasn’t the most amazing art ever but it was definitely above average.
In summary, Bleach started its run as a pleasant experience with more ambition than it knew what to do with, and it eventually caved in under the weight of its enormous but underdeveloped cast, disproportionate focus on a single character whose importance was poorly justified with increasingly contrived plot twists, and an overabundance of questionable creative decisions.
Sorry if this is kind of all over the place, it's my first review and I wanted people to know this manga started well, but still ended terribly. I mostly want to save anyone else from reading the next 200-300 chapters because it isn't worth it.