Warning: This article on how the Big Three of anime gave us heart, style, and adventure contains spoilers for Bleach, Naruto, Naruto: Shippuden, and One Piece.
The Big Three, in anime circles, are considered the three most popular anime in the golden age of Shōnen Jump. They were the children of Dragon Ball Z and they became icons for so many anime fans. I count myself as one of them and this is because of the period they all came out and what they mean to me.
One Piece was released in 1999 and was followed by Naruto in 2002, quickly followed by Bleach in 2004. Within the space of 5 years, these shows cemented themselves quickly as the best of the best, and if you’ll indulge me I’ll tell you why I believe they became The Big Three. You see, Naruto, One Piece and Bleach represent the best of anime, heart, adventure and style respectively.
The Big Three Had Heart
For me, my first brush with these legends began with Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto in 2002. I was in secondary school (high school for all you Americans) and I was slowly being introduced to anime. Naruto was one of the first anime I ever watched and it became something incredibly special to me. I empathized with Naruto.
He was the outcast, the fool and had unobtainable dreams, mainly getting the girl he fancied at the time. The best way to describe my relationship with Naruto is that he was my anime Harry Potter. We grew up together and now we’ve always been around the same age.
One of these key moments regarding Naruto is when he defeats Pain and saves Konoha. He’s walking back and just as he reaches the edge of the village he collapses. Instead of landing on the ground in a comedic fashion, he finds himself on Kakashi’s back, his mentor having arrived to support him. Kakashi carries him back to the village where Naruto is welcomed by the entire village.
He’s lifted into the air as the whole village is cheering him on. His teacher is proud of him, his teammates watch on smiling and his father figure Iruka comes to the emotional realisation that the village has finally accepted Naruto. It’s a moment that has stuck with me for literal decades. Even now writing about this incredibly heartfelt moment I’m tearing up.
I remember rewatching Naruto with my girlfriend and her crying absolute buckets of tears, proud of the young man he had become. No longer would he be by on that swing by himself. There’s a reason he has been given the affectionate ability of “Talk No Justsu.” He is a rare character who can talk his opponents around to his way of thinking and it’s the heart of the story of Naruto that makes it so adored.
Bleach Is Pure Style
On the other side of the spectrum of The Big Three is Bleach. Though Bleach is an impressive anime, with excellent fights and interesting characters, what it excels in is its style. It is rare to find an anime as visually stylish as Bleach and it’s because of the designs from Tite Kubo. The evolution of Kubo over the years has been remarkable. You could start a fashion line with any member of the cast of Bleach.
All you have to look at is every single opening and ending within Bleach. The artistic choices, the choices made for the narratives of each opening and ending. It’s not just about the story with Bleach Kubo and Pierrot wanting to give almost every character an iconic look. Not only that fans have noticed over the years, that no other mangaka gives their characters resting bitch face better than Kubo.
Since its return as Bleach: Thousand Year Blood War, the style of Bleach has skyrocketed. Episode 6 of Cour 1 saw the long-awaited reveal of Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto’s Bankai. This episode was not only a blockbuster-level brawl it was one of the most stylish fights in the entirety of Bleach. Cour 2 upped the ante by having episode 6 reveal Rukia’s Bankai and it was absolutely breathtaking. Kubo himself has gone above and beyond with Bleach’s return.
Whenever an episode airs he releases special art in memorial of the characters who have died in the episode. It’s touching, it’s engaging, it’s stylish. These are just a couple of examples of the stylistic wonder of Kubo and what he brought to the medium with Bleach.
One Piece Is True Adventure
To complete the pyramid of power that is The Big Three I come to Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. One Piece is unique with regards to the other members of The Big Three as I only came to One Piece during COVID. As people know from my previous articles on One Piece, I came late to the party and I regret it. I was one of those people. I was intimidated by the size of this adventure and that’s what One Piece brings to The Big Three, adventure.
As the series began, seeing this young lad head out onto the Grand Line to become the King of the Pirates, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. Now 3 years on and 900+ episodes later, for me, I can say that I want this adventure to go on forever. Every story has an end. However, with One Piece I want the adventure to go on until the heat death of the universe.
Related: Ranking One Piece Arcs
I actually miss the days when the Straw Hats would just happen across an island, fall in with the inhabitants and have insular adventures. One of my favourite little adventures of theirs involved Foxy and his Foxy Pirates. The Davy Back Fight is one of the most fascinating elements of the One Piece world, that I absolutely want more of in One Piece. There’s also the moment when Luffy and the gang meet Gaimon (Oda’s favourite) which perfectly encapsulates the wildness and absurdity of this adventure.
I actually have a slight nitpick regarding One Piece. Since the time jump I feel that the adventurous nature has diminished. The gang are focused more on saving the world in their own unique way, rather than just travelling it. One Piece is still above and beyond the most adventurous anime out there. Even if it has diminished over the years.
The adventurous spirit of One Piece is so infectious that the Western adaptation on Netflix has actually captured it. And now mainstream audiences have fallen in love with this motley crew of scallywags.
As I look back at my experiences with The Big Three I can’t help but smile. These three anime have meant so much to so many people and to me. Many anime have come before them, and many have come after, but I believe there will never be another Big Three like them. What I’d love to know now is this: What does The Big Three mean to you?