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Bleach’s Last-Minute Power-Ups Are Shonen at Its Worst

Bleach features many exciting battle scenes, but too many of them are won at the last minute with a previously unknown power.

Tite Kubo’s hit manga series Bleach, once part of shonen’s “big three,” stars the hero Ichigo Kurosaki as he battles stronger and stronger foes. Naturally, Bleach’s combat system evolves and expands over time for the benefit of all parties, but sometimes, these power-ups feel unearned.

Most action series have at least one or two inorganic or contrived moments when a character receives an ability or attribute out of nowhere to turn the tide of battle, bordering on deus ex machina territory. Jotaro Kujo’s Star Platinum Stand in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has a few “asspull” moments to its name, for example. For the most part, Bleach’s combat system works well, but a few fights too many are decided by last-minute abilities that takes everyone by surprise — in all the wrong ways.

When Ichigo Kurosaki Gets A Helping Hand

The hero, Ichigo, receives his Soul Reaper powers in a believable manner when Rukia Kuchiki stabs him with her Zanpakuto to lend him her powers, and Ichigo trains hard with Kisuke Urahara to prepare for the Soul Society arc. However, during this story arc and beyond, Ichigo begins powering up in suspect ways. He loses fairly to Captain Kenpachi Zaraki until he meets the spirit of Zangetsu and confirms that they are close allies and trusting partners. This powers up Ichigo enough to triumph over Kenpachi despite the massive gap in their power levels, and this is the only time such a thing happens; “the power of friendship” in a niche case is a convenient way to allow Ichigo to win without Bankai.

Ichigo gets another boost when Lady Yoruichi expedites the Bankai training process, slashing it from ten years to just three days. Yoruichi launches the process with a unique training dummy designed exclusively for speeding up Bankai training, even though such a thing is never seen before or since in Bleach’s story. Ichigo is shown struggling with this training, yet when he is next seen, he has miraculously completed it.

Ichigo is also the host of a dark “inner monster,” a trope common in shonen titles and a quick way to bail the hero out of trouble. Naruto Uzumaki often does this with his fox chakra, and Ichigo does the same when his inner Hollow emerges to help him fight Byakuya Kuchiki to a draw. It’s true that his Hollow mask appears earlier in the story, but it still feels somewhat cheap for Ichigo to win the fight with a power that isn’t truly his own at the time. This is exactly how Ichigo himself feels when he defeats Ulquiorra in his Vasto Lorde form in a later arc.

Other Bleach Characters Getting Convenient Powers

Many of the fights in Bleach are won fair and square, with no need for “asspull” powers or sudden twists, but too many fights still rely on these convenient tools to reach a conclusion. A major example of this is the last-minute introduction of the power limiters that lieutenant and captain Soul Reapers use when visiting the world of the living. This limiter is introduced — and immediately lifted — when Renji, Toshiro and the rest are losing to Grimmjow’s Fracciones. Once the power limiter is lifted, the heroes easily crush the Arrancars with their true power.

Several other characters likewise win their fights with last-minute powers. Yumichika Ayasegawa’s Shikai appears earlier in the series, but in his fight against Charlotte, he reveals that his true Shikai is totally different, and he releases it in time to win this hopeless fight. Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi defeats Szayelaporro Grantz with a conveniently-placed drug that he is never seen using, and Sajin Komamura defeats Bambietta Basterbine with a power-up based on sacrificing his heart in a previously unknown ritual. His victory against Bambietta thus feels unearned, and in the long run, his victory doesn’t even make much difference.

Bleach Sabotages Its Narrative With Sudden Power-Ups Like These

It’s understandable in shonen fiction for the hero to have their back to the wall and find victory at the last moment; that’s how battle scenes create tension. However, when Bleach is at its worst, this is taken to a negative extreme. The victories don’t feel earned, since the characters aren’t shown using their own ingenuity, grit or resourcefulness. They simply seize the sudden power that the narrative hands to them, which practically invalidates everything that happened in the fight up until then, since the playing field is completely changed. Nothing the hero did before receiving the power-up made any difference, and that weakens the reader’s investment in the action sequences.

All these examples and more even suggest that Tite Kubo wrote himself into a corner more than once, quickly inserting a contrived solution for problems such as “how will Ichigo defeat Byakuya without time to train his Bankai?” Alternatively, he attempted to create false tension by knowing beforehand how the heroes will win, such as the power limiter’s removal or a true Shikai, but held it back until the last second, giving no hint of what was to come. His characters sometimes, therefore, don’t win with guts, ingenuity or creative uses of their existing skills, but rather with powers and abilities that simply fall into their laps when needed.

In contrast, the shonen demographic is all about allowing the hero to make the most of what they have, setting a great example for readers and viewers. There are no real-life deus ex machinas, after all.

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