Disclaimer: This is a review of the Bleach anime only (and yes, I have watched all 366 episodes). It does not discuss any other material related to the property, such as the manga, video games, movies, crossovers, fanfiction, or household cleaning products.
Ah, yes, Bleach. A long-running shounen show, reaching a staggering 366 episodes total. How did I find myself doing this? I mean, I generally like shorter shows, and after burning myself out by watching all 90+ episodes of Rurouni Kenshin over the course of two months, I promised myself never again to attempt another show with more than two seasons worth of material.
Yet here I am, completely done with the Bleach anime, ready to give my dissertation about it. It was a long, process, taking over a year and a half with to get to the end, including several lengthy hiatuses in order to regain the desire to actually watch anime again, not to mention watching the full run of several smaller shows in the interim. I guess now that I've conquered the massive beast, I should share my thoughts.
[Characters and Setting]
So then, Bleach. The main character of the show is Ichigo Kurosaki. Ichigo is a somewhat ordinary highschooler - standard fare for a teen-targeted anime. Unlike some other anime protagonists, he's not some soft, wimpy loser, nor is he a faceless body to throw the plot onto. He's instead a bit of delinquent. He goes to school and attends his classes, but he tends to get himself mixed up with the local gangs and isn't particularly respectful to those around him. Still, all of this is believable for a teenager. His one abnormality is his ability to see ghosts and communicate with them, through whom we learn one of the core components of Ichigo's character: despite his flippant attitude and nasty temper, he really is a good person who cares about those who can't care for themselves.
"I think Kurosaki has a funny face!" - Orihime Inoue
His life is turned right upside-down one evening when a malevolent being attacks his home, where he lives with his father and two younger sisters (his mother having been thrown under the obligatory 'teenage anime protagonist parental detachment' bus). A young woman dressed in a black kimono and wielding a katana shows up and attempts to fight the beast, but fails. The woman says that Ichigo can protect his family by transferring part of her power to him. He agrees, and sets in motion... well, pretty much everything else for the rest of the series, whether directly or indirectly.
The woman introduces herself as Rukia Kuchiki, a shinigami (literal translation is 'death god', though the English dubs translate it as 'soul reaper'). The beast that attacked Ichigo's house is known as a Hollow, which is the tortured souls of humans, twisted by misery in undeath. These Hollows hunt and consume the souls of other humans, and it is the job of the shinigami to both defeat the Hollows and guide the innocent souls to the afterlife (known as 'Soul Society') in the Bleach universe). The shinigami fight the Hollows with their katanas, called zanpakutos, which are personalized to the individual shinigami and possess many awesome powers, which can be unleashed depending on the reiatsu ('spiritual pressure' in the English dub) of the wielder. These concepts of shinigami, Hollows, zanpakutos, and reiatsu form the basis of pretty much every bit of supporting lore and background fluff for the entire series.
Getting back to the story, Rukia had intended to only transfer half of her reiatsu to Ichigo, but he ended up taking almost all of it. Rukia is therefore stuck in a human body while she regains her reiatsu, while Ichigo has to take up the job of protecting the town from Hollows and sending the dead to the afterlife. While acting as a shinigami, he must leave his body behind and work as a projection of his own reiatsu (or something like that - just know that he can't use his shinigami powers when in human form), and only ghosts or people with a strong reiatsu themselves can see him while he is in his shinigami form.
Most episodes at this stage focus on Ichigo trying to fight off a threat from a Hollow while trying to balance his 'real' life, now made more complicated by the presence of Rukia. Ichigo is already a fairly seasoned fighter as a human from his scuff-ups with the gangs, but he's a rookie when it comes to dealing with Hollows. Ichigo's primary advantage at these early stages is his sheer bloody-minded determinedness. He seems to have an unusually large capacity for sustaining injury, and the more injured he becomes, the more determined he gets. As he discovers new powers, he becomes a more potent fighter, and this allows him to take on bigger challenges.
Over the course of the first season, some of Ichigo's classmates awaken or reveal powers of their own. There's Orihime Inoue, who at first appears to be playing the role of the big-breasted bimbo, but is actually quite serious and lonely. There's also Yasutora 'Chad' Sado, a Mexican immigrant who is constantly threatened because he's an outsider, yet for whatever reason refuses to fight back. Finally, there's Uryu Ishida, a member of an ancient group of humans called Quincies who use their own special brand of powers to fight Hollows as humans and who has a grudge against shinigami.
Your guess is as good as mine...
However, the first season is really all just testing the waters for what to come. If anything else, it felt like the sort of show (or manga, which this was based on) that was originally only planning on a single season, but became so wildly popular that they had to take it somewhere. So, the show kicks up the stakes when some other shinigami show up to take away Ichigo's shinigami powers and force Rukia to come back to Soul Society. I'm not going to say anything more than that due to spoiler concerns, but this event springboards the rest of the show into its main arc, which involves several trips to Soul Society for Ichigo and his friends, the first of which reveals the main villain for the series (who will not be spoiled here for those who don't know) and a plot that threatens not only Soul Society, but the entire living universe as well. Through all that, Ichigo and his friends will gain new powers and face increasingly powerful foes. However, a fairly large portion of the episodes are filler arcs, aka side stories done by the studios that have nothing to do with the main plot but are there because they needed to continue making episodes.
Ignoring artwork and voices for a second, the strongest part of Bleach's technical design is its music. In my honest opinion, the music in Bleach fits it almost too perfectly. Being a show for aimed at teenagers, many of the opening themes have a very 'youthful' feel. The best way to describe it like this: remember when you were in high school? Remember the music you (or people you knew) listened to then, how melodramatic yet catchy it was, full of powerful anthems and angsty ballads about love and friendship and emotions and two-bit philosophy? Yeah, that pretty much describes the entirety of the Bleach soundtrack. I don't think there could be a better fitting musical selection than that.
The artwork is a grab bag of quality. Sometimes it looks extraordinarily lazy and boring; sometimes it is phenomenally creative and eye-popping. The design of the characters can be a bit bland - a very large percentage of the characters are shinigami, and they all dress in variations of black kimonos - but that is probably to be expected in a series this big.
I was not a fan of the dub, to be honest. Certain Japanese terms were translated into English (i.e. shinigami became Soul Reaper, reiatsu became spiritual pressure), but a very large portion of them weren't - specifically, the names given to special attacks performed by the characters. I personally found it to be a bit jarring to hear the English dubbed Ichigo shout out, "Getsuga tensho!" though this is still likely better than him shouting out the literal translation ('heaven-slicing lunar fang'). Regardless, my preferred method of consumption was a sub that used the Japanese term for these special moves in the text with the English translation in parentheses.
Note: I mention characters in this section that I didn't mention in the above paragraphs. This is because trying to explain who they all are would take too much time and space. Just take it at my word that you don't need to know who they are to understand my opinions here
Now that all the perfunctory stuff is out of the way, we can get to the part that you've all been waiting for: my actual subjective thoughts on Bleach.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if a vast majority of the people who entered this topic did so because they had a desire to see me neatly (or messily, as it were) eviscerate Bleach for all its flaws (and trust me, it has flaws). In my browsing of the anime topics here over the years, I've often seen Bleach thrown out there as a show that is 'terrible' and that it's 'ruining anime' and 'eating all the Two-Bite Brownies'. Well, you have to give the people what they want, so let's get our knives and dig into this beast.
Approximately 20% of all characters in Bleach
I think the number one problem that people have with Bleach is its filler. As I mentioned in the characters/plot/setting/boring section, Bleach is rife with filler. Now, I personally think that filler is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, I'd say that it can be a welcome change and can actually be better than the main story if enough work is put into them. Some of the most venerable anime serials of all time are 90% filler, and there are very few complaints about them. The problem with filler is if it is handled poorly, and more often than not, the filler in Bleach is as such. While I can understand the reasoning for including filler (i.e. give the source material time pump out more of the story before continuing), it's quite obvious to me that the people writing the majority of the filler just weren't on the same page and weren't of the same caliber as the writers doing the source material.
I'll reiterate again: filler isn't always bad, and can actually breathe new life into a series. The Zanpakuto Unknown arc (season 12) of Bleach started out really good, despite being plunked right in the middle of a climactic battle in the main series. The visual design of the new characters in this arc was a welcome change to the same-old, same-old black robe vs. white armour schtick the show had been running for more than 200 episodes at that point. It's just really unfortunate that the arc fell apart towards the end, somehow managing to simultaneously wear out its welcome and cut itself short at the same time - it dropped a bunch of important details down plot holes while at the same time extending itself to mug more screentime for certain characters, essentially creating 'filler for the filler'.
The characters in Bleach are also a big game of hit-or-miss. I at least found Ichigo to be a fine character. He actually does have an arc - albeit a very, very protracted one - and matures as the series progresses - something that the show actually points out. The 'main' supporting characters - Rukia, Chad, Ishida, Inoue, and a previously unmentioned shinigami named Renji Abarai - were all pretty good as well. And, a lot of the minor characters really brought the show to life in their brief moments. The characters all have their own personalities and quirks, and for the most part they all fit nicely together to balance the action, story, development, and maybe most surprisingly, the comedy.
It is unfortunate, then, that Bleach also sees fit to shove needless comedic relief characters in. Once again, I'm not completely opposed to characters that exist solely for comic relief, if the story and setting can accommodate them. Bleach, most of the time, is not such a story., andt he main characters have themselves enough quirks and idiosyncrasies to make for great comedic events. I personally thought that the funniest moments in the show were whenever Captain Unohana had to 'politely' ask for something a second time, and Unohana is otherwise not a funny character. Meanwhile, I found most of the 'comedy' involving actual comic relief characters, such as Kon, to be unbearable and grating. Occasionally a character who was implemented entirely for laughs works - Yachiru would be the best example - but most of the time it is just awful.
But even then, it's possible to just not connect with the characters. Now, I know that I'm not in the target age group for this show - it is obviously aimed at teenagers, and I am in my mid-twenties. Because Bleach is meant for teenagers, the characters that get the most screentime are also teenagers - i.e. Ichigo, Rukia, et al. This meant that my old-fogey self couldn't really identify as much with them very well - at least, not in my present state. Meanwhile, I found some of the more ostensibly adult characters, such as Kisuke Urahara or Captains Unohana and Kyoraku, to be more intriguing. I'm not going to outright say this is a flaw of the show, but it can (and does) limit the enjoyment one can have with it.
Bleach finally suffers from very broken background story. Under even the most rudimentary inspection, much of the lore the show throws up at the viewer contradicts itself, or leaves gaping plot holes. If you like your imaginary worlds to have completely consistent internal mythologies, then you are going to find Bleach to be absolutely infuriating. If I had to guess, this comes back to the, "we weren't expecting to get this far with this franchise," bit I mentioned above. Essentially, the lore doesn't make sense and is riddled with holes because things were added to it without proper consideration or maintenance. The phrase, "they started building and never stopped to look down," would the best way to describe it.
One day, though, I was pondering why I continued to watch Bleach, and how it had come to be so popular. I was pretty much stumped for a good long while. After all, it's rife with annoying characters, poor-quality filler, ridiculous melodrama, juvenile shouty-superpowers, and nonsensical plot points. And then, it hit me: Bleach is popular for the same reason all those songs played on Top 40 radio stations are, or why The Fast and the Furious series is, or why The Sword of Truth series is. Bleach is popular because its accessible and catchy and is designed in such a way that you don't even realize that you've been continually starting up the next episode until you're at 160ish and you realize you've been watching nothing else for the past few months. This is exactly what happened to me. One day I looked at which episode I was on, and realized I had blown past my previous record for 'most episodes watched from a single franchise', and I was stunned. It's the same thing with junkfood: you always reach for another chip out of the bag because you don't feel yourself consuming it at the time, and the product is designed to subconsciously hook you and keep you coming for more.
God have mercy on your soul if she has to ask a third time
Now, is this a bad thing, really? I would argue that it is not. It's a bit nefarious, but it is a commercial product as well. And to be quite honest, Bleach is actually a whole lot of fun when it really gets going. There are countless kickass, "hell yeah!" moments throughout the series that made the waiting worthwhile for me. Yes, the series is long, childish, and not always of the best quality, and yes, it isn't particularly thought provoking most of the time and I doubt I got a much out of it other than some superficial satisfaction, but damnit I had fun, and that's really all that matters. In fact, as I'm writing this, I'm getting the urge to go back and watch some of the earlier episodes to relive some of the series' greatest moments, and I still find myself humming pieces of that eminently catchy sountrack.
And really, I don't think the junkfood comparison is completely fair. Junkfood is known to have detrimental health effects if you consume too much of it. The worst side effect of simply watching Bleach is that you're not watching anything else during that time, and over-consumption of Bleach will have the same effects as over-consumption of any other anime. But I dare say that if you have as much fun watching Bleach as you would watching whatever else, then you really haven't lost anything at all.
Finally do you want to know what one of the best part about the series is? You can completely avoid a very large portion of the really bad episodes and not miss a single important plot point. You can see all the great fights and fist-pumping moments of awesome without having to slog through much of the dross that is a lot of the seasons. A simple glance at an episode guide will tell you what episodes to skip. That, at the very least, adds even more accessibility to a show that is already easy to pick up.
So there you have it. I liked Bleach. Do with me as you please.
So, maybe that wasn't what you wanted to hear, but I can't deny the truth: when Bleach was firing on all cylinders, it was a real blast. The slogging was bad at some points, but it was an overall positive experience. I don't really know if I have it in me to tackle another big shounen show like Dragonball or One Piece any time soon, but at the very least I'm not daunted by their size anymore, because if they are anything like Bleach, I probably won't notice the episodes flying by.
Do I recommend Bleach to everyone? No. I would say it's good for teenagers (duh), and for adults who have the capacity to turn off a lot of their grown up instincts and just watch a big silly show about Japanese highschoolers blasting monsters with superpowers. If nothing else, the first 64ish episodes are worth a look if you're interested in just getting a familiarity with the series.
Bonus: Some of my favourite moments.
Spoiler: Kurosaki, care to let me run in front of you?
Spoiler: You are still misjudging the differences in our strengths.
Spoiler: I thought I told you... all of your opinions are rejected
Spoiler: I will fight Nnoitora. It is my turn to protect you.
Spoiler: Those mountains exploding... that was my power, not yours.