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Monday, 29 August 2016

Editorial: Thoughts on Bleach's Ending.

Editorial: Thoughts on Bleach's Ending.

With fifteen year shounen manga Bleach having ended about a week and a half ago now, it seems like I should probably talk about that in some capacity -- and since doing a review of the entire fifteen year run seems like it wouldn't be very entertaining, let's talk about the ending, instead. In this instance, I'm defining 'ending' not just as the final chapter, but the final battle onwards to the end, but we're going to be focusing mostly on those last two chapters.

Specifically, in these last few chapters, we have a timeskip of ten years, to Rukia becoming a captain and going with Renji - with whom she now has a child - to visit Ichigo, who is married to Orihime with a child of their own. As Yhwach very briefly attempts to escape into this future, he is forced back by Ichigo and Orihime's son, Kazui, who then meets Ichika, Rukia and Renji's daughter.

Full disclosure, I kind of hate 'and then there was a timeskip and everyone was married with kids,' and I think it was actually even more poorly handled than usual here. I've seen people suggest that Kubo Tite deliberately sabotaged the ending to spite Shonen Jump, and while I think that's an absurd idea (no writer in the world would sabotage the ending to fifteen years of their life's work, no matter how annoyed they were at their editor), I do think there's a degree of editorial fiat at play here.

Not necessarily so much with pairings (although, we'll touch on those briefly), but more in respect to the fact that a truly grotesque number of Shonen Jump's comics (and especially its long-running, big name works) have ended in this way. Bleach, Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin, Shaman King, Nisekoi, and multiple different iterations of Dragonball have all ended in this fashion, and those are just the ones I remember. 

It's no secret that Shonen Jump's target demographic, teenage boys, get weirdly angry and vitriolic if the stories they read don't end with marriage (don't -- don't ask me why, but by all means pick apart the motivations behind that at your leisure), nor is it any secret that editors and publishers exert a degree of creative control over the works they edit or publish. That's part of the point of being an editor and a publisher, and publishers especially have their own agenda that revolves entirely around shifting more issues.

Man, twenty-something Ichigo really resembles his dad at that age.

But regardless, it's the ending we got, and that's something of a problem. There are three reasons for this: Firstly, a good ending to a story should, ideally, reflect the story, and in some fashion encapsulate or see the culmination of its themes. This is why a 'and then the future happened and they were all married' ending worked for Fullmetal Alchemist, since that was a series whose overarching theme was family -- but Bleach's themes, insofar as it really has themes since it is essentially just a 'beat 'em up with swords' manga, are the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, between stagnation and change, and those aren't effectively served with a random timeskip.

Instead, any ending to the series should have focused on the rehaul of existing systems, and their replacement with kinder, gentler, more enlightened systems, because believe as not, that's always been the running theme of the story. It's the theme at play when a noble from a feudal-esque society teams up with a modern teenager; the theme at play when Rukia is sentenced to a barbaric, vicious punishment for a relatively minor crime, and pushed towards execution by her own brother for the sake of tradition; the theme at play when the arrancar, presented as forces of modernity under the direction of a scientist who is motivated by intense moral revulsion at an esteemed religio-political authority figure, clash against that figure's samurai-themed defenders; the theme at play when Urahara has to flee his home because eight loyal soldiers are to be slaughtered for being victims of someone else's experiments; and the theme at play when the entirety of that traditional society collectively decides to break their own laws because it's the moral thing to do.

Families factor into Bleach, but they've never been among its main themes, so a family-focused ending falls kind of flat.

This goes doubly when that random timeskip puts some of the characters in frankly baffling life situations. I speak, of course, of Chad being a boxer (when a large part of his character was vowing only to use his fists to protect others), Orihime not being a giant robot rampaging through the streets of Tokyo, and Ishida being a workaholic doctor after his entire arc was about learning to understand but also not wanting to be like his father.

Possibly Yhwach would have been a better villain if he didn't look like a sad pirate.

(I'm actually broadly okay with Ichigo becoming a doctor. I know a lot of people aren't, and in all honesty I think I'd prefer it if he was a member of the Fourth Division or something, but I like the idea that he's become a healer rather than a fighter.)

The second reason: A timeskip also robs us with a chance to get a satisfying ending to -- well, to any romance subplot. 

Touching briefly on pairings, I'm not tremendously keen on Ichigo and Orihime as a couple: I don't actively hate it, but I find it a little boring, and I think it tickles up against some pretty uncomfortable tropes in manga. More importantly, though, by suddenly darting into the future, the audience is denied any chance to actually see a romance blossom between them.

While we've seen that Orihime has feelings for Ichigo, and we've certainly seen suggestions that Ichigo has feelings for Orihime, a mutual crush does not a romance subplot make, and by timeskipping to the future, Kubo is not so much showing us a romance as he is telling us that it happened.

Wouldn't it have been better, instead, to have foregone a timeskip entirely and have the last few chapters involve Orihime asking Ichigo out, and him agreeing? That would still be a clear cut romantic end, but it would have been a lot more natural and a lot less hamfisted.

Ah, well, we got Older Hitsugaya, at least.

This applies equally to Rukia and Renji, for whom there was certainly the suggestion of a romance, but for whom 'and ten years later they had a child' seems equally jarring.

The third reason is that we'd kind of been set up to expect a completely different ending. Given Kyoraku's ominous grumblings about how Ichigo might not be able to return to the human world, we'd been given a pretty clear Chekhov's Gun, setting us up for a bittersweet ending where Ichigo couldn't return home. Instead, that's a plot thread that ends up completely dropped.

In an ending with slightly more bombast, this might have been forgivable -- an ill-thought out coda to an otherwise strong ending -- but it comes at the end of the one of the most lackluster battles in an already lackluster final arc. 

While the basic concept of 'Ichigo and Aizen team up against Yhwach' is a pretty good one, what it amounts to is about two chapters of very hurried fighting that ends in a moment of confusing symbolism at best. It's a final battle that inexplicably doesn't involve Rukia (who'd been set up as one of Soul Society's last hopes against Yhwach) or Orihime (whose 'powers that trespass on God's territory' plotline never did get tied up, despite this arc being the perfect point for it) or, for that matter, Chad, who doesn't really have any plot relevance here, I just like Chad.

So, they're ghosts, but they're also zombies? They're ... zombosts? Zombhosts?

For that matter, you'd expect Isshin and Ryuken to want to join the fray, but they never do. They just drop off their special delivery of a silver arrowhead (admittedly a nice callback to Ryuken dissecting his wife) and then chill out for a bit.

Later this week, we'll take a look at how that ending could have been improved, but long story short, I am somewhat disappointed. Kazui and Ichika are adorable, though, so there is that. Also, why is Tetsuzaemon Iba a captain? Really?

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