It’s been nearly 10 years since the Bleach anime ended with the Fullbringer arc. At the time, fans had incredibly mixed reactions to the anime’s conclusion. Because the series effectively faced cancellation prior to its natural end, the story didn’t line up with the manga. As many have now likely heard, there is a whole additional arc beyond the end of the Bleach anime. Now that the anime is set to adapt that arc and return in 2022, I think it’s worth dissecting the anime’s previous finale.
Fans found this arc generally poor and anticlimactic. The arc prior featured a universe-defining battle between the strongest form of Ichigo to grace the series and Aizen in a warped, villainous, powerful state. In all respects, it felt a lot more like the prototypical Shonen anime ending. The main character trains to defeat the big bag and then does. He faces a great sacrifice in doing so, but ultimately saves the day so it’s all okay. He greets his comrades, friends, and family before heading home as credits roll to the series theme.
Personally, I agree that the act was anti-climactic. But why shouldn’t it be? Tite Kubo and Bleach staff ran into incredibly tight deadlines. Moreover, they were forced to conclude a story just escalating into its true climax. Expecting perfection is like expecting a climber to stage a photo on Everest’s peak before they leave base camp. I think the focus on that component of the Fullbringer arc underscores some incredible components of it. This is one of the only arcs in mainstream anime to confront the mental state of a character who sacrifices for victory. In doing so, it accomplishes a ton of character development in a way very few other shows even come close to managing.
The True Cost of Power
Ichigo’s loss is different than most. In general, when anime characters lose powers, they don’t lose all that came with it. When Naruto lost Kurama he retained his other strength and position as Hokage. Gon, after sacrificing his nen to defeat Pitou, was still a Hunter with all the permissions attached to it. Ichigo, by contrast, lost not only lost all of his Soul Reaper abilities, but also the ability to perceive supernatural events at all.
Ichigo returns to a world in which he is once again a normal kid. Unlike the opening chapters, he can’t see ghosts. All he has to tie himself to what is now the core of his identity is his memory and his Soul Reaper badge. Given the Fullbringer arc’s focus on modifying the memories of Ichigo’s friends to turn them against him, this is an important pillar for him. Ichigo in this arc is depressed and despondent. He wears a fragile veneer of calm and complacency. But, every time he has an attempt to get back into the world he remembers he takes it.
I respected Bleach an incredible amount for showing their main character like this. Even when characters contend with lost power it’s rarely as cerebral as it was in Bleach. And while the manga showed this well, the anime added additional layers of vocal and musical detail that truly reinforced Ichigo’s flitting between quiet suffering and frantic desperation. Subtle details like Ichigo letting out long sighs, Bleach’s trademark melancholy concerto; these things all ran alongside a fresh narrative to grant it increased depth and emotional contrast.
Why the Fullbringer Arc Matters
This is incredibly important and noteworthy because it modified the stakes of the conflict. In general, conflict in Bleach happens because some force threatens to destroy the world. Ichigo in this arc is fighting for his right to live his truth and protect those around him. He knows and explicitly notes that there are others capable of fighting the good fight. Even when the arc’s antagonist is at his most powerful, it didn’t have to be Ichigo who dealt the final blow. This added another level to the story in terms of what characters stand to lose.
Bleach as a series is all about knowing yourself, and your soul, as a source of power. From the beginning, knowing the name of one’s sword gave Soul Reapers power and formed a central part of Ichigo’s arc. In order to defeat his enemies, he had to know and acknowledge himself. Truly, in order to defeat Aizen in the previous arc, he had to accept his sword’s emotions into himself. The Fullbringer arc followed this same pattern as Ichigo drew power from his now-defunct Shinigami badge. Rather than learning about himself, Ichigo has to channel the strength of his desire and memory.
This means that Ichigo is only able to approach his prior abilities by wanting them. Ironically, the more he does this the more he became a target for Ginjo’s stealing his powers. But, this is also what makes Ichigo understand Ginjo by the arcs completion. To me, this was one of the more natural moments of protagonist empathy in the series, as Ichigo understands the devastation Ginjo lived with for a lifetime. He understood the depth of Ginjo’s experiences and made continued efforts to do so as they fought. And despite understanding him, Ichigo rejected everything Ginjo was.
Growth in Character
For Ichigo, the Fullbringer arc and a second loss of power forced him to rely on others to lift him up. In a literal sense, Ichigo required the spiritual pressure of his friends and comrades to get his powers back. But in a more vague, literary sense, Ichigo was fighting for the preservation of memory. He began to realize how much the memory of him in others kept his identity alive and why Soul Society and his mere knowledge of it were so important to him. When he understands Ginjo in the very end it isn’t any sort of typical anime bull. Instead, it felt like a genuine acknowledgment of what he could have become without friends to pull him back.
I know many longtime fans of Bleach are reticent to give this arc credit and I understand. It lacks the intensity and world-destroying energy of the Aizen arc or the arc to come. But, ask yourself, would Ichigo as a character really feel complete without us seeing him at his lowest? Would Ichigo’s continued pursuit of the truth to his origin work without this explorational arc as a pretext? And would a war that dredged up the dark past of Soul Society hit the same without a narrative introduction to how the things people want to protect in Bleach are not always unambiguously good or evil? The prior arc showed Ichigo as a transcendent individual. The Fullbringer arc enhanced that.
This arc wasn’t a home run, sure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful and valuable addition to the series. I think the final arc would not be as meaningful without it and, more importantly, it provided a look into the mental state of the main character in ways very few action anime could ever hope to.
Images courtesy of VRV.
© TITE KUBO / SHUEISHA, TV TOKYO, dentsu, Pierrot